Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Tom Ewing runs the Popular blog on the site FreakyTrigger, which is dedicated to writing about every UK number 1 in history. He is currently up to The Housemartin's Caravan of Love from 1986, but I wanted to highlight the piece he wrote about Dancing Queen from a while back. This is one of the very few disco pop war-horses which seems to unite everybody in admiration, no matter how grudging. Tom's take, on why the song is so special, really gets to the heart of it;
It’s not envious, or regretful, or bittersweet – it’s a more generous ache, the recognition that “having the time of your life” is literal, that this moment might be as good as it gets, but still being warmed by the moment’s incandescence. “Dancing Queen”, like “Teenage Kicks”, is one of those songs that captures the feeling that being young, dancing, loving is also to be living more intensely and wonderfully than anything else
His blog is defintely worth spending a while flicking through.
I have read a couple of reports spinning this as good news. After all, 39% said that homosexuality was never wrong. And the number has fallen from 62% since 1983. So, I guess there is room here for a qualified Whoop-de-doo.
Yet I still think that is a very troubling figure, purely because I am not quite sure what more gay people can do to convince that hardline 36% that we are not out to convert children, ruin marriage or destroy society. I realise that this all a matter of time, that eventually those numbers will drop further. But I think there is something pathetic and weak about those who still cling on to those views - a group of self-satisfied, arrogant toss pots who think they have the right to sit in moral judgment on me because of who I love.
I have become addicted to the daily round-ups of the Perry v Schwarzenegger case that is playing out in California at the moment. Briefly, this is the federal challenge to the gay marriage ban that passed in Caliufornia in November 2008. But the case has much larger aspirations, as the plaintiffs, who allege that the ban should be removed because it was based it is discriminatory and irrational, seek to put the entire rationale for homophobia on trial.
Seriously, if you have some spare time, you should peruse the various goings on. Not only does it highlight the vacuity and prejudice of those who funded the campaign to ban gay marriage, it shows precisely how they played on the irrational fears of the general public to enshrine their bigotry. It puts out on display how morally and intellectually bankrupt their opinions are, and it does so in the harsh light of a federal courtroom. If there are people who can read these transcripts, and still believe that there is something inimically wrong with homosexuality and gay marriage, then frankly these are people who simply do not deserve the vote.
However, I don't have the visceral hatred that so many of my friends have towards the Torys. There are several reasons for this. Labour is really the only government I have known (apart from the appalling laissez faire shit sandwich that is Fianna Fail in Ireland). My first real political memory is the death of John Smith, the former Labour leader that led to Tony Blaire's ascendancy to the leadership of Labour. I have a very vivid recollection of the day Labour had their landslide and though I think they have made severe errors in the last five years, I still believe they have done a lot of good. I never had to deal with the Conservative dominance of the 80s - the drastic cuts in public services, the constant attacks on minorities, the crass elevation of "loadsamoney" culture (aided and abetted by the hysterically rightwing tabloid press) and the depressing incoherence of the Labour opposition.
But deeper then these issues was the toxic homophobic environment created by the Thatcher government, once more cheered on by the Murdoch and Mail aixs of evil. The criminal neglect suffered by early AIDS victims, the constant hounding of politicians and celebrities about their orientation, and finally the bullying, sickening Section 28 understandably turned an entire generation of gay people firmly against the Torys. Cameron should never be allowed to forget that he voted for Section 28 - there are thousands of gay people who will certainly never forgive it.
Cameron and the Conservative party have been working hard to over-turn this image. I know from experience that there are a huge amount of gay people who are economically conservative. The only reason they haven't voted Conservative in the past is because it was clear they were unwelcome. Now the Conservatives have started saying all the right things about welcoming gay people openly into their coalition (such as extending proposed tax breaks to gay civil partnerships and saying that children should be taught about gay relationships) there will be a sizeable number of gays who will happily vote for the Torys because of their fiscal plans.
I am not a knee-jerk anti-Tory. I believe the Party has made some genuine strides in the last decade, and instead of sneering at that, it should be welcomed by everybody. Its a big step forward, and anything which increases the diversity of the political landscape is to be applauded. But I suspect that the Torys are probably acting a lot more disciplined then they actually are. You get a sense that the various factions (the social conservatives, the anti-EU crowd etc) are biding their time, realising that they have a golden opportunity to finally end 13 years of opposition if they can just keep the crazy from leaking out too much.
I also really don't trust Cameron and Osbourne's economic plans either. Their reaction to the downturn (ie massive cuts) would have been disastrous, and the more Cameron is forced to offer concrete plans, rather then running as the anti-Labour choice, the weaker and less ready to govern they appear. And as somebody who works in the voluntary sector, I shudder when I think of the problems that a Tory Government could create - a perfect shitstorm between demanding that more is done, and refusing the fund adequately.
As I said earlier, I think the best possible realistic outcome would be a hung Parliament, or one with a miniscule Conservative majority which would force them to ameliroate some of their more extreme plans to win over some of the Opposition. We'll see how it pans out - but either way, I think gay people have come too far down the road to be too badly affected by a Tory win.
Tuesday, 26 January 2010
The closer we get to the election, the closer the gap between Labour and Conservatives will become. I don’t doubt that Cameron’s Cronys are going to win, but I think they will end up with a fairly small majority which will make doing anything too controversial quite difficult.
The latest poll form the Guardian shows that while the Conservatives are holding steady, they are still seen by a significant number of people (38%) as being the Party of the rich. This is likely to grow, the closer we come to the election. Labour are failing to capitalise – it’s the Lib Dems who are starting to see their poll numbers creep up. This doesn’t surprise me in the least – the big question is whether or not the Lib Dems can actually make anything of this situation. In a hung Parliament (or one with a very slim majority), they will get an unprecedented opportunity to punch w4ell above their weight and lay the groundwork to become a true alternative to either party.
And yet I feel like we have been here before with the Lib Dems. The party seems to be in an odd position whereby they are constantly for serious discontent with Labour and the Conservatives to provide them with the space to be able to make the positive case for choosing them as an alternative. There was a moment, right around the outbreak of the Iraq war, when popular discontent could have provided the fuel for a genuine populist run by the Lib Dems. But they squandered the opportunity and have been floundering ever since. The elevation of Menzie Campbell to head of the party was a spectacular own-goal that almost drove the party into complete irrelevancy.
Things are once again moving in their direction. Almost everybody wants Labour out, whether for good reasons (“They have run out of steam!”) or bad (“I’m sick of the sight of Gordon Brown”). And while the Conservatives are riding high in the polls at the moment I get the impression that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about them. Cameron and Co have been able to get away with gauzy, I feel your pain rhetoric and vague spending plans for a long time but they are going to have get much more specific in the next couple of months and that will inevitably make people more uncomfortable.
Cuts are going to have to come, we all know this. The party in power, and the size of their majority, will crucially determine the character of those cuts and how deep they go. Cameron’s disdainful and alarming attitude towards fiscal stimulus and his bone-headed faffing about ‘Broken Britain’ feel depressingly familiar. The Lib Dems could exploit this, positioning themselves as a true moderate alternat9ive between the hopelessly compromised Labour and the frightening Conservative dogma.
Vince Cable is one of the most respected politicians in the country. Nick Clegg hasn’t made any major impression, but has room to grow. The series of Party Leader debates could be Clegg’s moment to really sell himself to the country (Cameron’s poor recent performances in the Commons should give Conservatives pause if they think their boy will blow the competition away).
Ideally I guess I would like a hung parliament,. With Lib Dems holding the balance of power. It would be an interesting experiment to see how changed the Conservatives actually are. I also can't help feeling how different the election prospects would be if we had some kind of Proportional Representation, which would show the real diversity of the country and its viewpoints.
Sunday, 24 January 2010
I'm going to say something a little controversial, but I actually prefer Florence and the Machine's version of You've Got the Love. The song has only really exploded in the last month or so, and a lot of my fellow members of the Gay Mafia has sniffly dismissed it as 'not as good as the original'. I disagree. I do really like the Candi Staton original, but I have been bewitched by Florence's version since the first time I heard it a couple of months ago.
A major reason why is just the difference in the vocal styles of Candi and Florence. Florence's voice has a grandeur to it, and it gives the song a dissolute yearning quality which changes the emotional texture of the original song.
I also think the song can very obviously work as a metaphor for addiction; not the amped up hankering you get form coke or speed, but the blissed out nothingness of heroin. Think of the following lyrics;
Sometimes it seems that the going is just too rough
And things go wrong no matter what I do
Now and then it seems that life is just too much
But you've got the love I need to see me through
When food is gone you are my daily meal
When friends are gone I know my savior's love is real
Your love is real
This sounds like a very obvious parallel for somebody who is looking for their next fix as a release from the toil and difficulty of their daily life. In this case, love = a drug, something which gives release from having to care or face anything. It was Florence's delivery of the lyric which made me think of this, that distinctive ache that resonates throughout the song gives it a different colour. To me, the love she seeks is not necessarily a healthy thing. It complicates the song and makes it more resonant.
It really is a text book case of making a song feel fresh and vibrant without fundamentally changing the melody. Beautiful stuff.
Wednesday, 20 January 2010
So Tim Burton, once he is finished his version of Alice in Wonderland, is going to film Sleeping Beauty. His twist ('cause everybody needs a twist nowadays) is that it will be from the evil fairy Malficent's perspective.
Ahem... Wicked much?
Look, I know Wicked isn't the first piece of pop culture to take a 'What If?' approach to a beloved fairy tale. Nor is is the best. The book suffers from a having a second half that is virtually un-readable, while the show has a similar problem by being incredibly front-loaded with its best songs.
I don't reflexively hate this idea. I have always thought Maleficent is a fantastic villainess. But I don't really care why she is evil, and she certainly doesn't have the impact on pop culture that the Wicked Witch of the West does.
But Wicked is still insanely popular. It has a huge amount of potential to be re-fashioned for the screen in a leaner, funnier and more intense way. Crikey, Glee spent almost an entire episode promoting Lea Michelle as the perfect Elphaba (I have no complaints - she is the right age, has lungs of steel and has a keen intensity to her emoting. With a strong director she could be ace). Just find the right Glinda (a much more difficult prospect) and get it ready for release in the next 2 years or so and it should be about as close to a done deal as possible.
I actually think this is a bit of a spoiler move by Disney - trying to piggy back off the scary legions of Wicked devotees (who I believe could easily rival Twilight's fanbase, notwithstanding the huge cross-over between the two). Universal have been sitting on the rights to Wicked for ages.
At one point Baz Luhrman was due to direct, which could have been awesome. Wicked needs a strong personality, who knows musicals, to give a distinct vision to the film which would be different but complimentary to The Wizard of Oz. The stage show was somewhat successful at this, but the film would need to be much cleverer. I can't think who to suggest, but in my minds eye I would love to see Julie Taymour being given a shot (after she gets done doing her version of Sunday in the Park with George, of course).
The capper to the Chud article linked above is actually worth quoting, since it made me giggle;
The big question is: what role will Johnny Depp play? I honestly wouldn't put it past him to play Maleficent, although he'd probably have to duel Helena Bonham Carter to the death for the right. How can Burton choose between his muses like this?
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
And, lets face it, there aren't that many opportunities to learn about this history after school. You start college, trying to figure out where you are in life. Perhaps you get afraid, disgusted about who you are. Perhaps you find you have more important things, or that it just never seems the right time. Perhaps it embarrasses you, makes you seem to radical and flaky and most of us just want to fit in.
I am sure there are elements of all those behind the reason I never really wanted to know about my gay historical heritage. Its was enough to know for years that there were struggles, there are struggles but things are better.
That has changed in the last few years. Joining Switchboard as a volunteer has given me a keen sense of the horror, abuse, disgust and bewilderment that people of all ages still feel when they start to realise they might be gay or bisexual. They feel lost, alone and abandoned in a world which never really aims to reflect who they are. For me, the stuff I have read has given me a surer sense of myself and where I fit into history. It has given me a stronger sense of my own identity, both as an individual and as a member of a community and has given me a sense of responsibility towards that community.
Kids growing up are still largely denied gay role models, a sense of their place within a continuum that stretched back as far as human history. This matters because by being invisible we continue to keep the closet functioning and alive and allow others to patrol its doors, preventing millions from feeling free, easy and loved.
It is changing now, and rapidly. Gareth Thomas, Donal Og O hAailpin is another of men who have tired of living a lie. They are giving a whole generation of gay children a new perspective on what it means to be gay. It may also nudge them into looking at past heros and heroines who, in some cases, have given their lives to ensure that equality is advanced and the stifiling, stunting nature of the closet is broken down.
This is a long... a very long... preamble into this article – The Day I Decided to Stop Being Gay.
I don't even know where to begin here. This is like Jan Moir's article on speed. Its like the writer took the assumptions of Jan Moir's article and the hooked it up to a nuclear power, zapped it in the balls and then stood back as it mutated into some horrifying monstrous creature.
Lets see what exactly we learn from the article:
Gays can have children (they are sometimes even more that 'lifestyle accessories) but its still a bit icky and definitely not the same as the loving, decent, honorable, caring heterosexuals. He calls it “shooting for the net without running for the ball”. Charming.
Homosexuality is “natural but abnormal”. This is a bit of a strange combination of phrases. It sounds like what he wants to say is that its natural and rare, but rare would imply a level of acceptable and normality while the phrase abnormal allows him to lay the foundation for the idea of gay people as superficial deviants.
Lets look at the following statement;
“Loving your own sex occurs in nature, without artificial triggers. But it is still not average behaviour. Homosexuality is an aberration; a natural aberration. Gays are a minority and minorities, though sometimes vocal, do not hold sway.”
How confused and muddled is this? Homosexuality is once again classed as normal. But its not average. Like red hair perhaps? Or being able to dance well? Or having colour blindness? Its true that gays are a minority. I am confused however about in what way we hold sway? In what way are we oppressing the dominant majority? Because we are looking for equal rights and treatment and refuse to have our lives called sick and monstrous?
Now we start getting to the meat and potatoes of why exactly the writer has decided to stop being gay;
“But two decades of cavorting with my own sex has delivered little that is memorable, except one super-sized sexless friendship with the aforementioned ex-boyf, with whom I spent a decade of my life; numerous hours of internet dating; a dizzying number of casual couplings and a few trips to genitourinary medicine clinics.”
So after 20 years, he has had a few flings and one failed relationship. And some venereal disease. Because of this (which I am sure more than a few straight people could identify with) he has decided that being gay is not for him. Because the sum total of gay life is failed relationships and STIs. Right. And how is this different from what Jan Moir wrote?
Luckily for all of us delicate flowers, he is going to spare us the details of the 'gloaming world' of gay life because we 'simply would not believe what (he has) seen and done'. Aww bless. That doesn't stop him from getting a cheap, nasty shot in at Peter Tatchell however.
Next we have the idea of civil partnerships not being like marriage. No, instead they are elaborate shams for gay men (he rarely if ever mentions lesbians, probably because they wouldn't fit in to his odious stereotyping) to dress up and play house. For a gay man to describe his partner as husband is apparently an insult to the institution of marriage which is there only to rear children. Quick, lets institute a fertility test before all straight marriage and ensure that they are rearing a child within one year or face compulsory divorce!
This isn't even getting in to how utterly fucked up his view on gay life is. Its nothing but sexy, baking, fashion, Barbara Streisand, pink meteors, glitter and cabaret. Now I'm not going to deny that my life often contains main of those things. But that doesn't define who I am. Mr Muirhead seems to define himself by exactly those things. He never seems to have achieved any kind of personal growth or maturity, and instead of looking at himself and why he has allowed this to happen, he blames the gay community.
In the final section, Muirhead talks about how he wants a wife and child to own, and feel dependent on him (now who is desiring a lifestyle accessory Mr Muirhead?). If Muirhead feels so personally inadequate at how his life has turned out, that's one thing. If he has decided to explore another part of his sexuality, then that should be encouraged. But how dare he, how FUCKING dare he pretend like this is anything but his own personal decision. How dare he call into question the relationships I have had, and those of the people I love just so he can make himself feel better.
I won't even go into the creepy paragraph where he talks about needing an 'understanding' wife (I'm sure she'll understand all those late nights at the local cottage - just make sure she can't read your browser's history!).
One of the central points about the struggle for sexual equality is the freedom from the sorts of labels, expectations and stereotypes that Muirhead gleefully, bitterly and shamefully indulges in. His view of gay men as abnormal, superficial deviants is one which would fit right in with The Daily Mail. Yet I fail, completely, to see why this has been featured in The Times.
As I mentioned above, if this was a piece about Muirhead deciding after a long period that he wanted to fully explore his bisexuality, then that could potentially be interesting. As a Switchboard volunteer I often council men and women to think of their sexuality as a continuum. People shouldn't have to feel like they are one label or another, but to go where their heart and/or their loins take them. That is the foundation of the struggle for gay rights, to give people the space to think and feel and realise their full potential. Its a mark of Muirhead's shallowness that he never understood that.
I did something I have never done before - I wrote a letter to the editor to The Times about the article above. I am not sure why this seems to have incensed me so much - a micture of the writer's self-loathing, his bitter tirade against all gay people and his blinkered view that there is a binary choice between them and us.
Anyway, here is the text of the letter;
I am writing to you about the January 18th article "The Day I Decided
to Stop Being Gay".
On the surface, this article seems innocuous. A gay man looks at what
(he presumes) is a straight father and son, and wishes that he could
experience the same. He acknowledges that he has always had feelings
for women, but never had the chance to explore it, which he now wishes
to do. There is nothing controversial in this. Bisexual people will
often movie between a preference for one sex or another at different
parts of their life. This is normal, and could provide the
opportunity for some genuine insight into people's shifting patterns
But that is not what Mr Muirhead wrote. Mr Muirhead wrote an article
where he blamed his own failure at finding a fulfilling relationship
on the entire gay community. He claims that gay parents are less than
their straight equivalents ("Shooting for the net without the chore of
running with the ball") and use children as lifestyle accessories,
ignoring the fact that gay parents are proportionally more likely to
foster or adopt troubled young people. He winces when he hears men
who have a civil partnership refer to each other as 'husband' because
this demeans an institution which is based on raising children. This
may be news to the millions of straight people who have married and
who either choose not to or are unable to have children. He calls these
civil partnerships "theatrical shams involving men making a point in
matching wedding cravats, of embarrassed grandparents and monstrously
camp multi-tier cakes", ignoring the countless examples of fulfilling
partnerships with supportive families.
Worse than these sweeping generalisations however is Mr Muirhead's
reduction of the gay male community to a bunch of superficial,
abnormal, glitter and Barabara Streisand obsessed deviants. I'm not
even exaggerating for comic effect. Mr Muirhead even dredges up a
quote from 12th Century England to argue that British people have just
become used to the loathsome nature of homosexuality and therefore
don't treat it with the opprobrium it deserves.
He also entirely mischaracterises the point of the gay rights movement
- which is not about 'special rights' or holding sway or any other
kind of overly-conservative frame. It is about giving people the
space to achieve their fullest potential and love the person they
choose without judgement. Just because Mr Muirhead's own
understanding of this is shallow and nonsensical does not mean that
The Times should tacitly endorse it.
Last year, Jan Moir wrote an article on Stephen Gately's death which
caused the largest number of complaints in the PCC's history. Mr
Muirhead's article is worse, in that he seeks to use a personal sexual
epiphany as an excuse to cast doubt on the viability of gay
relationships and families.
Why then was he given space in The Times to tar an entire community
with his bitter tirade?
Monday, 18 January 2010
This is the first year that I have participated in Stinky Lulu's Supporting Actress Blogathon. I am a bit late to the game, and only decided to jump in because nobody seemed to be giving any love to the ladies of Nine.
I can understand it in a way. There is something a little overwhelming about the actresses in Nine. It's Kidman! Cruz! Dench! Cotillard! La Loren! Hudson ( she doesn't get an exclamation point because apart from her amazing work in Almost Famous she has done anything lately to deserve it). Where do you start?
Nine is an odd beast – a film which is intermittently wonderful but never really coheres to be the mighty dramatic musical that it wants to be. In a film filled with problems (the majority of which can be attributed directly to Rob Marshall), the complete hollow center that is Day-Lewis' character and performance is ultimately the biggest hurdle. Everything is geared towards his grand dramatic solo at the end of this film, but it fails utterly to resonate.
But there are two actresses that are practically perfect – two examples of titanic supporting work that could be frozen and preserved in the Smithsonian as specimens for future generations. Both Penelope Cruz and Marion Cotillard end up shouldering the real emotional weight of the film, and do so with such grace and skill that they pierce through Marshall's over-designed set and frantic editing to give substance and weight to the entire film.
Cruz has a role which on paper is nothing but stereotype. She's a fiery Latina! She's sexy! She's emotionally unstable! She is given some appalling lines (the vagina line just made me cringe). But in a similar vein to her work on Vicky Christina Barcelona, Cruz takes these elements and imbues them with an earthy sensuality, a kittenish flair for comedy and ultimately, a bruised sense of abandonment that elevate the character into something palpable and heart-breaking. If you had told me fie years ago that Cruz would become one of my favourite actors, I would have laughed. I thought she was terrible in most of her American films. But starting around the time of Volver, she seemed to finally figure out precisely how to use her gifts as a performer and Nine is like a mini-culmination of this – a greatest hits package of what she is capable of. To go from the insanely sexy romp of A Call to the Vatican, to the single desolate shot of her stumbling from the hotel after being humiliated by Guido is to see an actress working at the height of her powers.
In a similar vein, Cotillard is playing a 'type' – the wronged, long-suffering wife. It's tough to imagine how much there is left to be mined in this particular trope and yet she makes it seem fresh and vibrant What Cotillard has going for her is that she is one of the strongest technical singers in the cast. She has such a beautiful, pure voice, and obviously knows precisely how to use it so her two songs come off as master-classes in how an entire scene, and a whole history of pain, can be contained in just three or four minutes of screentime. The only moment where Marshall manages to balance his conceit of singing in a conceptual limbo and cross-cutting to a dramatic scene is in Cotillard's final number Take it All. The switching between her brilliant, impassioned singing and the quieter, but no-less potent fury in her scene with Day-Lewis is an excellent example of what the film could have been if Marshall had been more adventurous with the material. Cotillard isn't in much of the movie – she has a handful of scenes in total. Though she has been promoted as lead, its actually a prime example of superb actressing at the edges. Like Cruz, the film works brilliantly whenever she is on screen.
To read other entries in the blogathon, including the overlooked ladies of An Education (Olivia Williams and Rosamund Pike), and my personal favourite Anna Kendrick from Up in the Air, visit StinkyLulu's site
Friday, 15 January 2010
What to say about Nine…
Actually, there is a lot to say about Nine, so buckle in.
This is one of the most singularly frustrating movie experiences I have had in the last few years. By rights, this should have been the crowning achievement of a decade when musicals swept back into the mainstream, which has been one of the best things about the last 10 years of cinema. The source material is a well-respected musical (one which I haven’t seen on stage myself). It has a sensational cast of actresses and one of the greatest actors of his generation. The behind the scenes tech staff is incredible. And Rob Marshall, after the Oscar-winning Chicago, seemed like a safe pair of hands to guide this towards ritzy glory.
Yet the film ultimately fails, and it is the type of heart-breaking, infuriating failure that still produces a film worth talking about and seeing. For every misstep that the film takes (and there are a lot of them) there are moments that work perfectly, and provide some of the keenest, most emotionally devastating work in a musical yet.
The easiest way to describe Nine is as a musical re-interpretation of Fellini’s 8 ½ . An emotionally manipulative Italian director (Daniel Day Lewis) has a moment of personal and artistic crisis and slowly goes off the rails as he tries to mount a massive come-back picture. Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judie Dench, Sophia Loren and Fergie play various women in his life and each one has a number which (should) tie directly into Guido.
What we have here is a concept musical. The plot of Nine is simplistic but that’s not really the point. The show was about dramatising this moment of collapse, showing how Guido got to this point and the damage he has caused to the women around him. As such, I don’t have a problem with the slightly aimless and episodic nature of the screenplay. It fits in with the nature of what the film is trying to show. Unfortunately, when you decide to make a concept musical, you have a whole new set of rules which are important to help still give shape and substance to your piece.
Stephen Sondheim is the master of the concept musical. Think about something like Company, a show which has some similarities to Nine. Company also demonstrates a crisis of faith in its central male figure – Robert doesn’t know if he can ever find a woman and marry, which he feels pressurised to do by all those around him. Company examines modern relationships, marriage and neuroses. It has a ‘plot’ but it is really more a series of thematically and emotionally connected sketches. Yet it works as a cohesive piece because each of the songs plays in to the theme, while also being funny (I’m Not Getting Married Today), sad (The Ladies Who Luch), romantic (Marry me a Little), passionate (Another Hundred People) and melancholy (Sorry/Grateful).
Nine’s score isn’t quite at that level (few musicals are). But it does have some wonderful songs, the type that may not be instantly catchy in the modern pop-Hairpsray mould, but are suffused with feeling, some great lyrics and beautiful melodies. They require a little bit of extra engagement from the audience, and on that level I applaud the producers for taking a musical that doesn’t have any easy emotional or melodic hook and running with it.
But not all the songs work and after the first half hour it becomes clear that the film is floundering by utterly failing to provide a compelling reason for the concept to be explored. I don’t think the filmmakers (and I include the scriptwriter, director and leading man in that category) ever figure out what to do with the character of Guido. He just sort of sits there, providing a vague focus for a lot of busy scenes and spectacular emoting
To go back to Company for a second, Robert also displays a lack of focus as a main character. But this fuzziness is built into the story – he becomes a sort of avatar for the audience to experience the rest of the show. Though Company suffers in ultimately failing to truly resolve Robert (even in the short-term context of what we see on stage), he works perfectly for most of the show.
Guido is too specific a character to work as an effective avatar for the audience. Basically, he is an unsympathetic cock-hound who runs roughshod over the men and women in his life who are drawn to him because of his artistic sensibility. Because we never see any of his works (and have to take his abilities on faith), and have no connection to Guido outside of what is shown in the film, we cannot share in these people’s fascination with him. This problem is exacerbated by the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis who is completely wrong for the role.
Over the years Day-lewis has changed a lot as an actor. He has lost the passionate intensity that he used to bring to roles such in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Last of the Mohicans and instead begun to specialise in complex grotesques – think Bill the Butcher or Daniel Plainview. He is still doing marvellous work but it is light years away from the romantic dash and sensuality that Guido should be displaying. Javier Bardem, who had been originally cast in the role, could very well have squared the circle and given viewers a reason to care for Guido or believe that these amazing women would flock around him.
Then we have Rob Marshall. Marshall did a good job on Chicago. He and genius writer Bill Condon found a way to honour the vaudevillian structure of the original stage show and still make it cinematic. It was short, snappy, cynical and fun. But this is much closer to the bloated, misogynistic shit-fest of Memoirs of a Geisha than Chicago. Marshall simply cannot create a narrative out of this film and it is his decision to stage every musical number in a conceptual limbo of Guido’s empty film set that is the primary mistake in the film. It’s the same conceit he used in Chicago, where it made sense. None of the songs in that musical were really meant to carry the same emotional weight as the ones in Nine, so doing them at a sort of Brechtian remove was a smart decision.
In Nine, it destroys the emotional flow of the scene. Take Luisa’s number My Husband Makes Movies. Luisa sings this to a frozen tableau at a restaurant, which is placed on the empty soundstage. There is no real reason for this, and it takes it out of the immediate heart-breaking moment where she realises Guido’s lie about Carla. Cotillard’s moving performance saves it, but this is a problem which dogs most numbers. It does a similar disservice to Nicole Kidman’s number, which is given the perfect set-up by Marshall to occur in real-time only to cut away once again. The only song where that conceit really works is for A Call from the Vatican, Penelope Cruz’s insanely sexy early number. It’s believable that this routine would be performed in Guido’s imagination as he listens to what is basically a sex call.
And that’s before we even get to the songs which Marshall fails to provide a narrative or emotional context for their existence. What, exactly, is the point of Judi Dench’s number Folie Bergere? Or Sophia Loren’s lullaby? Or Kate Hudsons’s Cinema Italiano? They don’t actually reflect on Guido or his predicament. They just sort of exist to spice up the plot, which may work if they had been memorable or well staged. You could remove each one of those numbers from the film and miss nothing.
OK, there are a lot of negatives here. But that is just because these elements ruin so much of what is really impressive. Nicole Kidman nails Claudia’s elusive allusiveness. As poor as her song is, Judi Dench gives just the right amount of peppery warmth as Lili and she brings out the best in Day-lewis in particular in their scenes together. The photography by Dionne Bebe is astonishing at times. And Fergie tears the screen up in her performance of Be Italian – bringing surprising vocal power and a go-for-broke, crude sexuality that really works (it’s a shame Marshall rips off his own work form the Cell Block Tango, which is itself a bit of a Fosse rip off).
Penelope Cruz is an actress who seems to have hit her stride in a major way in the last five years. A Call From the Vatican manages the difficult task of being sultry and quite explicit without once being skanky. She brings out Claudia’s playfulness and has killer comic timing. And despite the predictable trajectory of her story, she’s able to suggest a world of wounded pain and in her later scenes.
The one element that unquestionably works however is Marion Cotillard. I am not kidding when I say this is one of the greatest film musical performances of the last 10 years. Cotillard has two songs and just a handful of scenes. She plays a rather traditional wronged wife role. And yet, she is magical, alive and heart-breaking at every moment. She has such a good voice, that she is one of the few cast members who can really act through her song. My Husband Makes Movies, despite being poorly staged, is magical; you feel all the compromises and rejection that Luisa has endured, yet she doesn’t once seem to be asking for pity.
The new song she is given, Take it All, is a brilliant capper. It’s the other number which sort of benefits form being split between the sound-stage and a dialogue scene and is beautifully edited. As Luisa sings in a what appears to be a strip club, and is manhandled and cat-called by those around her, she sings bitterly about how Guido has used her emotionally. It then cross-cuts to her break-up scene with Guido, each scene raising the intensity of the song that follows. It is a fantastic moment, and if the rest of the film had hit this level of emotional and visceral thrill, it would have been something special.
OK, I am nearly done. I will own this on DVD. There are scenes and entire sequences that I can’t wait to see again. Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz should certainly be in the hunt for awards. It shows that the musical form can do ambitious emotional landscapes. It just needs a visionary in the helm. Its time for Marshall to fuck off and let somebody else play (why hasn’t anybody given Julie Taymor a decent budget to make a musical? Surely her version of Sunday in the Park would be incredible! Or how about Spike Lee’s Company?)
Update: I went again last night to see the film and it crystallised once more the faults and successes of the film. Rob Marshall is the very definition of a one trick pony. Cruz and Cotillard are sensational. The script is a mess (though some of the dialogue is great). But two things stood out on second view. The first is that the Folie Bergererererrrer number is a disaster - the real low point of the film; not only for its lazy, boring staging but also for having absolutely nothing to do with the plot. The second is the I don't think I gave Kidman enough credit in the film. She has an incredibly tricky role - and even if her voice doesn't have the power to really sell her song, you can see it all in her eyes. A small reminder of what a formidable actress she really is (and she looks sensational)
Monday, 11 January 2010
This is something which I feel quite passionately about. Personally, I work best in the morning and worst in the early to mid afternoon. If I could start my workday at, say 7.30 and finish at 3 I guarantee I would work much more effectively. From 2 to 4 I am pretty useless and listless and I find it really difficult to concentrate. Similarly, I would be more than happy to work from 7 to 5 four days a week as Friday afternoons are a notorious dead zone. I have never worked in an office which displayed much vigour in the final hours before the weekend break.
When I worked in a book store, I quite enjoyed working weekend days and having week days off – it was much more fun to go out and do stuff away from the weekend madness.
The notion of a nine to five job is disappearing. Smart phones, netbooks and other communications technology are already eroding the boundaries between people's work life and home life. I know most of my friends will now regularly check their work emails and messages at night when they should be relaxing or during their days off. This is just an accepted part of many jobs now. As our work hours become ever more fluid, it seems like there is very little give on the side of organisations but an increasing amount of take.
I agree with Hari in that there is a huge scope for more imagination and flexibility about how we work. But the opportunities being offered by technology at the moment seem largely to be a way for companies to gouge more time out of their workers without any corresponding benefits flowing the other way.
The reason that this leapt out at me was after watching Daybreakers on Friday. My love of trashy vampire films continues unabated. The film is a perfect example of some intriguing ideas that are wedded to an irritating and generic main plot. I like how vampirism is used as a metaphor for corporatism run amok It may not be hugely original, but at least it makes a change from using them as a vehicle for frustrated sexual urges. The design work is well done and the devolved vampire/bat hybrids are nicely ooky. And though Ethan Hawke does his usual humourless, irritating, charisma-free performance, Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe give plenty of vim and vigour in support and really help sell the material.
But I came out of the film royally pissed off. For the first half of the film, it sets up a pretty intriguing female character – a human survivor of the virus who has remained on the run from being captured by vampires. This is a woman who has displayed intelligence and bravery and seems like a natural to lead the action in the final act. But instead, she is gradually sidelined until she becomes a weak and bland damsel in distress. Remove her from the last act and it would change nothing about the plot.
This has become such a usual way for action and genre films to treat women that I shouldn't be surprised. I shouldn't be surprised that this character is also practically the only woman in the film (Sam Neill does have a daughter who has a small and potentially fascinating plotline but it is rudely truncated and its denouement, which the filmmakers desperately want to freight with emotional resonance is laughably bad). But I am starting to get tired of it. Think of any action film that has a group as its central focus – the group will generally have a token female, who is usually the love interest and that's it. It represents nothing so much as a depressing lack of imagination.
That's why I give Cameron props. He likes strong women and he doesn't feel like they should come at the expense of strong men. The roles he gives to women are more than the romantic love interest – they are some of the prime movers of his plots.
Going back to Daybreakers – it wouldn't have meant much to have changed some of those roles to make them female. Sam Neill's character doesn't need to be a man. In fact, neither does Willem Dafoe. Ethan Hawke's brother could easily be his sister. I am not advocating any kind of quota system, just wishing writers would display a bit more imagination when they are actually writng.
Sunday, 10 January 2010
I always wondered if it would be possible to write a musical without a single memorable song, but that still kind of worked.
Well... Legally Blonde is the answer.
Seriously, I sat through the entire show on Wednesday night and even during the intermission, I would have been hard pushed to hum a single bar from the score. Things did not improve in the second act. The show seemed stuffed with inspirational power pop anthems and “You Go Girl!” moments, and yet not a single one had the energy or charm of Defying Gravity or Popular (Legally Blonde totally wants to be Wicked – it has the same shiny pop sheen). The worst song is a trite pity party of a ballad in the second act which made me thankful that it was the only one in the show. This is easily one of the most generic, uninteresting scores I have heard in years.
The lyrics are better – some of them are pretty funny. There was rather too much 'reaching for my dreams' style emoting but they were serviceable. In two songs in particular, they worked a treat. Paulette's number Ireland and the Gay Or European? courtroom song are really funny and both come at just the right moments in the show when the energy levels are starting to drop. The book has some good lines (most of them from the film) but the show only really works intermittently as a piece of entertainment. And its relentless triviality became grating after a while.
There is a first act song which I think is emblematic of the problems of the show. Called Chip on Your Shoulder, its a number where Emmett talks about how anger and resentment have played a role in driving him towards his success. He appeals to Elle to give in to some of those 'negative' emotions to help inspire her. This is an intriguing idea, sort of a Dark Side of the Force temptation for Elle. I liked how Emmett got to voice a little of his own class-based anger and how he was able to channel that into positive goals. But the song the very definition of mid-tempo generic and it is barely alluded to after that moment.
At least they got the leading lady right though. Sheridan Smith as Elle is smashing. She has a decent, if unexceptional voice and can just about hold her own in the choreography (most of which is very good) but she is a fantastic comedian and completely sells even the most ridiculous scenes. Her performance isn't much more than a Reese Witherspoon impersonation, but she does it with style and manages to keep the entire thing afloat on her dainty shoulders. The rest of the cast range from the good (the hard-working, very funny chorus) to the poor (both male leads who are drippy and bland). You begin to realise how smart the original film was in many ways, and especially how skilled actors such as Luke Wilson, Selma Blair and Jennifer Coolidge were in their performances.
Smith is gold and as long as she is in the show, I think people will have a good time. For my part, I couldn't imagine wanting to sit through the whole thing again, but after her other great performance as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, I would definitely look forward to seeing Smith do something else.
Friday, 8 January 2010
The film is everything that I hoped it would be, and quite a bit more. This is one I am going to have to go away and think about and see at least once more before it leaves cinemas. I also think that this is one of those films that I will wear out when it comes on to DVD. I think that Spike Jones and David Eggers have made the greatest literary adaptation of the year. They have teased out all of the weird emotional undercurrents of Maurice Sendak's original book and made it deeper and more resonant.
I could go on and on about how incredibly well realised the Wild Things are, about the beautiful, nuanced work of Max Boot and James Gandolfini and the other actors and the amazing cinematography from Lance Accord. If the Oscars were tomorrow, I would hand the best picture Oscar to Where the Wild Things Are, and the screenplay Oscar to Jonze and Eggers. This is a work which you are going to hear college students dissect and enthuse over in 10 years time. It is a brilliant slice of pop art and the world is a better place for it.
A Serious Man is yet another Coen Bros film where I feel like an outsider looking in at the party everybody else is having. Its not that I don't like their films. I have a lot of love for The Big Lebowski, Fargo and Oh Brother. Its just I don't really get the fawning over them that a lot of critics engage in. I often find their films cold and mechanical, beautiful machinery without anything that I connect with going on underneath. A Serious Man is one of those films that I know, intellectually, is funny. I just didn't laugh. It's filled with good performances, smart dialogue and you can sense the fun the Coens are having in finding new ways to torture their main character further. But by the end of the film, it all felt a bit 'meh'. I'd like to give myself a pass and say you probably have to be Jewish to really 'get' it, but this is a problem I have with a lot of their stuff. Help - there must be other Coen Bros agnostics out there?!?!?
Lastly, Sherlock Holmes. I originally meant to go into some depth about the film. but then what would be the point? The film has charms - Downey Jnr is good, if slightly lacking as Holmes. He suffers from having extraordinary expectations on his shoulders as an actor - I liked his portrayal, I just didn't think there was anything particularly interesting in it. Jude Law is much better as Watson, as is Kelly Reilly as his fiancee. Rachel McAdams is utterly and moronically wasted in the role of Irene Adler (and reading just how good a character Adler is makes me irritated that the writers couldn't find a better way to integrate her into the plot). The central plot is utter nonsense, and the action scenes are poorly conceived. The one element however that I did love unreservedly is Hans Zimmer's wonderful score. I hope they remember to bring a script for the sequel.
In Being Human Uncovered, the hour long documentary on the show, lead writer Toby Whitehouse described Annie's spectral status as a metaphor for having a lack of self-confidence. This isn't the most original of metaphors. Buffy had a first season episode where a young Clea Duvall became invisible because she couldn't assert herself. But I actually think Whitehouse is selling himself in short. While a lack of confidence is certainly a major part of Annie's arc, her plot as a whole is actually a pointed and subtle look at the power dynamics in an abusive relationship.
Annie's view of her relationship in the first episodes is all warm and fuzzies. She believes that Owen is a good man who loved her deeply. Despite his over bearing and dominant personality, she persists in the idea that any wrongdoing is somehow her fault. This isn't a woman who just lacks confidence. It is one who is thoroughly dominated and cowed, who selectively edits her own life to ensure it fits within the framework allowed by Owen.
The key moment for Annie comes not when she discovered that Owen actually murdered her, but in the fifth episode when she attempts to turn the tables on him and scare him into a public confession. Just at her moment of victory, when Owen finally seems to be the one dominated and cowed, and Annie marches off in triumph, the tables are turned.
Owen: Hey Annie, is that the best you've got... I should have known that even death wouldn't be a match for one of your sulks.
For the rest of the episode, Owen shows that when t comes to mind games, he still knows exactly how to bully Annie. Even though, for once, Annie is holding all the cards. As a ghost, she can no longer be physically hurt. Her mates now include a vampire and a werewolf. Yet in a brilliant moment of writerly inspiration, Whitehouse shows just how toxic and potent Owen's hold is over her. I say inspiration as this seems exactly what has happened. In that same documentary, Whitehouse talks about how he had written the Annie storyline leading to the point where she finally confronts and scares Owen and then couldn't think about what would come next. The line he gives to Owen is not only a wonderful dramatic reversal but takes Annie's storyline from a rather one dimensional empowerment plotline into something far more complex and interesting.
Like a large proportion of those who have been victims of abuse or violence, finding a release from he power of the abuser is often far more difficult than simply removing themselves physically from the threat of harm. The psychological damage can be both more acute and longer-lasting that the physical harm. In that reversal, Owen reduces Annie to a quivering wreck. The advantage she holds over him means nothing in that instance because he still knows exactly what buttons to push to destroy her. Far from being intimidated into a confession, Owen seems inspired to even grander levels of sadism. It is a chilling, brilliant scene (replicated later in the episode where Annie tries to speak to warn his current partner).
Its probably also worth noting here that Gregg Chillin makes a fantastically nasty shit. Even more than the Big Bad of Herrick, you want to see Owen taken down in the most hideous and gruesome fashion but it is a testament to his skills that Owen feels utterly real.
Annie does prevail up to a point. After getting the better of a best of vampires to save Mitchell, she does gain the strength and confidence to finally face down Owen, The secret that she whispers to Owen,which sends him mad, gives the viewer the kick they have been looking for, But once more, Whitehouse refuses to give you the easy resolution and twists it once more. By looking for personal revenge against Owen, by arguably morally compromising herself in a desire to see Owen suffer, Annie may have set in motion a sequence of events which put her, Mitchell and George in even great danger,. It is this final reversal which shows that Being Human is on the same level of shows such as Buffy and Battlestar Galactica in examining and over-turning our comfortable moral precepts.
Lastly, I should say a word about Lenora Crichlow who plays Annie. In the first two of three episodes, I was convinced she was the weak link of the trio. But I was wrong. Not only is she the funniest actors of the bunch but she can summon a searing intensity when called for. Of all the characters, Annie is the one with the least obvious dramatic bridge into the next season. But she is also the one I am most intrigued by.
Monday, 4 January 2010
As communications technology has given my generation unrivaled avenues for staying in contact, it has also emphasised how transitory much of our communication can be. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook offers us the illusion of being in contact with vast numbers of people. But its also really easy to erase those people from your life. Refuse a friend request. Delete an email. Block a phone number. It has become a simple deed to act if people you were once connected to never existed.
This may seem itself a tenuous connection, but it increasingly looks like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the movie which best caught the ways that people of my generation interact with one another. This strange, dreamy, surreal yet heartbreaking and poignant film is the best, most relevant romantic film to have been released since When Harry Met Sally.
Think of the central idea of Eternal Sunshine - that people would be happier if the memories of the people they loved and lost were removed wholesale. Like all great sci-fi conceits, it is both simple and profound and Charlie Kaumann's exploration of it through the story of Joel and Clementine is the type of death-defying high wire artistic act that only somebody of his genius level talent could pull off. Reaching deeper than any of his other justly celebrated screenplays, Eternal Sunshine acknowledges the harsh damage that people who truly connect can wreck on each other. It concedes that by opening ourselves up to vulnerability and intimacy with another person, we run the risk of having that trust used as an emotional and psychological shiv.
Yet despite this difficult truth, the film is, ultimately, hopeful. It also recognises that those moments of intimacy make up much of the core emotional framework of each person. Remove the memory of it, and you remove a vital part of yourself. The film brilliantly shows the narrowing of Joel's experiences as one by one his treasured memories are stolen along with the painful ones. He begins to realise that the ying and yang of his experience with Clementine, the challenge she represents to him is part of what makes being with her so rewarding. By acknowledging the complexity of his feelings for her, he also realises their depth and ultimately rebels against losing that part of himself.
In a similar, real-world way, the people on social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, who are only too quick to delete friends and scrub references to past relationships are playing out a version of Joel's experience. Like hyperlinked readers flipping through websites, we can often find ourselves flipping through relationships, obsessed with the idea that our perfect mate is another click away. By both largely anticipating this trend and then literalising it in his screenplay, Kaufmann proves his prescience and his humanity.
When you add the depth of this story to Michel Gondry's marvellous, trippy direction, it achieves a type of delirious perfection that virtually no other film in the noughties achieved. Just think of how the B-plot of Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood both compliments and comments on the main relationship. Think of the hilarious visual gags which litter the film, providing unexpected delights in some of the darker scenes. Think of the precise, delicate work of Dunst, who quietly devastates in the films final scenes.
But mostly, think of Joel and Clementine, Carrey and Winslet, in the crumbling house by the sea. Winslet has never been better, playing both the real Clementine, and Joel's experience of Clementine and still managing to break your heart and drive you nuts. Yet in a film filled with memorable actors, it is ultimately Carrey who drives the film forward. He is astonishing in this film in ways he has never been before or since.
Anyway, I have decided that I am going to settle down and focus on one drama and one comedy at a time (am going with Mad Men and Arrested Development to begin with) as a sort of New Years resolution. I have a new found faith in those things since I actually stuck to my join-a-gym-and-actually-use-it one from 2009.
So, round-a-bout way to say that I spent the weekend re-watching all six episodes of the really quite brilliant Being Human. I saw the first season a couple of months ago and liked it a lot but it kind of slipped from my mind in a rush of life stuff getting in the way. Watching the six hours in such a compressed space of time allowed me to properly sink in to the show. And it is brilliant. I have some minor quibbles with some of the plotting and a few places where I think the actors go a little over the top (Russell Tovey walks a delicate balance in his performance and it doesn't always come off), but I can forgive all that because it gets everything else right. This feels like the first new British show in a while to attempt the type of TV which has become so acclaimed from the States. Being Human is dense, layered, dramatic stuff, turning on a dime between genres but with a powerful connective thread to each episode which demands patience and intelligence from viewers.
Of all the things to admire in the show (the very shaggable Aidan Turner and Russell Tovey being prime reasons), I think how it looks at the concept of family is what gives it special resonance for me. Mitchell, George and Annie may constitute one of the weirder families on tv right now, but there is no doubting that a family is precisely what they are. One of the key themes of many of my favourite fantasy and sci-fi stories is the idea of found or created families and communities. X-Men, Buffy, Angel, and Firefly all examine how groups of outcasts come to find support, love and friendship with one another. For whatever reason, each of the characters in these stories find themselves rejected or isolated from their normal or 'blood' relations and have to forge new connections. In each of these stories, these connections are the key to the success of each individual in coming to full realise their own power.
Being Human is no different. For a variety of reasons, our intrepid threesome find themselves alone in the world, isolated from the people they thought would love them and slowly fading into insignificance. But as they begin to live together, to get to know one another's strengths and weaknesses and as they grow to rely on each other, they find a personal strength which changes each of their destinies. They give each other a reason to exist, a deep connection to the world that gives them the power to face their internal and external threats.
It is telling that Herrick, the magnificently hissable main villain, is utterly unable to comprehend Mitchell's connection to his friends. In their confrontation in the final episode, he says to Mitchell;
Herrick: What is this hold they have over you?
Mitchell: You wouldn't understand. In fact you could say that's what this whole thing comes down to
As dialogue, that may be slightly too on the nose, but just as Buffy had to learn that a major part of her strength and the reason for her longevity as Slayer was down to her connections to the Scoobies, so too do Mitchell, George and Annie find out exactly how strong they can be when they have others to help them. It is an infinitely better, and I would argue, more moral view then the traditional lone hero model.
Being Human complicates this vision by giving us a mirror image of this family in the vampire clan headed by the patriarchal Herrick. In many ways, they represent Mitchell's traditional 'blood relations' (in both the literal and metaphorical sense as Herrick is the vampire who sired Mitchell during WW1). It is clear that Mitchell would be welcomed back in to the fold, as long as he was willing to suppress just the part of himself which makes him noble and unique amongst his kind. But there is no space for him to be different. With George and Annie, he finds himself in a group in which their differences are celebrated, explored and ultimately integrated.
I think this will have a lot of resonance for gay people, who have historically found themselves moving to urban centers to escape discrimination and oppression at home and finding a new nurturing unit. This isn't quite my story. I am incredibly lucky in life to have two families I love - my family in Ireland, and the one I have created for myself in London. I find Being Human's exploration of the bonds of family and friendship to be rich, inspiring and quite beautiful.
I am going to have a lot more to talk about in the next week or so about Being Human - how it contains potent metaphors for living in the closet, for addiction and mostly for abuse.