18 August 2018

The presidential art of handshaking

On rare occasions [President James K.] Polk essayed the light touch. Once, for instance, he explained to some people how he handled the problem of handshaking. 'I told them,' he confided to his diary, 'that I had found that there was great art in shaking hands, and that I could shake hands during the whole day without suffering any bad effects from it. They were curious to know what this art was. I told them that if a man surrendered his arm to be shaken, by some horizontally, by others perpendicularly, and by others again with a strong grip, he could not fail to suffer severely from it, but that if he would shake and not be shaken, grip and not be gripped, taking care always to squeeze the hand of his adversary as hard as he squeezed him, that he suffered no inconvenience from it. I told them also that I could generally anticipate when I was to have a strong grip, and that when I observed a strong man approaching I generally took advantage of him by being a little quicker than he was and seizing him by the tip of his fingers, giving him a hearty shake, and thus preventing him from getting a full grip upon me'. Polk's auditors were much amused by his exposition, but Polk ended up being deadly serious about it. There was 'much philosophy,' he decided, in what he had said: 'though I gave my account of the operation playfully, it is all true'.

- James K. Polk (US President 1845-49), quoted in P.F. Boller, Presidential Anecdotes, 1981, p.101.

See also:
Music: They Might Be Giants - James K Polk
BlogWould Limbaugh be a better president than SpongeBob?, 25 February 2016
TV: American Idol - Reagan, 26 March 2011

14 August 2018

Film Festival roundup 2018

Now the 2018 festival's over, it's time to reacquaint ourselves with our homes and sofas, having been long neglected as we've lived our lives in the Embassy and Reading cinemas. It's been a solid year for the New Zealand International Film Festival, with some undoubted classics to savour. Here's the 20 films that I managed to see in Wellington:

In the Aisles (dir. Thomas Stuber, Germany, 2018)
In den Gängen
Gentle, generous observations of life and slowly-budding romance among the supermarket shelves in this German tale featuring an appealing lead performance from the quiet, brooding Franz Rogowski and talented support from Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann, NZIFF16), who is fast becoming a must-see German star. Features adroit cinematography and a pleasing array of forklift-based humour for those familiar with the shelf-stacker's creed.

Monterey Pop (dir. D.A. Pennebaker, USA, 1968)
The wonderful thing about Monterey Pop, aside from the fact that it helped launch Janis Joplin's solo career and was an amazing document of the raw star power of Otis Redding shortly before his untimely death, is the irony that of its stellar performance roster, arguably the 'pop' material is the least interesting. John Phillips organised the festival so the Mamas and the Papas get two songs intended to bookend the performances - a strong California Dreamin' and a passable Got A Feelin' - but it's the knockout performance by sitarist Ravi Shankar that instead closes the film. Shankar's bravura set is just one of the riveting performances on offer, but the impact on the California crowd is the most completely documented, and suffice it to say the crowd's mind is officially blown, leading to a rapturous standing ovation. This is also the festival at which The Who and Jimi Hendrix struggled to outdo each other with brilliant and hilarious rock excess, with The Who trashing their instruments at the end of their set and Hendrix famously setting his guitar alight. (You can see what's left of it in a Seattle museum). There are fun insights into the performers' reaction to their fellow artists, like Mama Cass' obvious admiration for the huge energy Joplin brought to the stage. And I'd never noticed the sly dig before the Jefferson Airplane set, with a hippie chick decrying 'rock bullshit' immediately beforehand, filmed during another part of the day entirely.

Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable (dir. Sasha Waters Freyer, USA, 2018)
A commendable photography biopic, which performs the usual key service of displaying and discussing some of the photographer's best-known work, but also delves into the interesting dilemmas of his ill-judged and much-criticised Women Are Beautiful book in 1975 (Winogrand could hardly have been described as a feminist) and his work in the years leading up to his untimely death in 1984, when he was shooting pictures at his traditional fearsome pace but not actually printing and editing them. Art critics are still uncertain if the latter archive represents a late-career decline in talent or if it's just that others fail to understand how the photographer would have curated his own work, if he'd ever seen it.

Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik, USA, 2018)
A very fine depiction of a close father-daughter relationship, which benefits from accomplished and naturalistic lead performances from Ben Foster and the teenaged Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie who flew half-way across the world from little old Wellington to the Pacific Northwest. The off-the-grid wilderness life the two live out is largely driven by the father's PTSD, but when they are involuntarily returned to life within the bounds of conventional society it becomes increasingly clear that despite their love, father and daughter may not want precisely the same way of life. There are no bad guys here, and it's so pleasing to see an American film that avoids the easy route of establishing an antagonist as a villain to unite against; the social services and random strangers the pair encounter all display the unfailing generosity of spirit that Americans often exhibit. The acting never descends into melodrama or milks what could easily turn into histrionics - rather, the quiet struggle of these very real characters is allowed to evolve organically without showboating. It was a real treat to have director Debra Granik (Winter's Bone) and hometown co-star McKenzie at the Embassy for a film festival Q&A session, in which both offered generous explanations of their film-making process and the spirit of the film. Like recent films Captain Fantastic and Walking Out, Leave No Trace portrays family bonds purified by nature, but while the former two films are solid and appealing portrayals, Leave No Trace is an even more enduring artistic achievement.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (dir. Alexandra Dean, USA, 2017)
The multiple lives of cinema sex symbol and gifted inventor Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000). Bombshell is a compelling examination of the life of one of Hollywood's greatest screen beauties, whose main contribution to the world was actually her remarkable gift for technological invention. Her 1942 frequency-hopping patent designed with a colleague with the intention of creating unjammable radio-guided torpedoes eventually formed the basis of much of modern telecommunications technology, including wi-fi and Bluetooth. Throughout, you're impressed by the pluck and drive of the glamorous Austrian, who seems to have had to constantly reinvent herself, at great personal risk, to secure her position in life. Unlucky in love, Lamarr chalked up six husbands; perhaps there's an interesting documentary to be made about the lives of Hollywood celebrity mothers because it all sounded impossibly difficult to balance (see also Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words).

And Breathe Normally (dir. Isold Uggadottir, Iceland, 2018)
Andið eðlilega
Like Aki Kaurismaki's The Other Side of Hope, this Icelandic film illustrates the intersection between western society and asylum seekers and migrants, putting a face and a name behind the statistics. While the relationship between the Icelandic solo mum who takes a job as an airport border guard and West African migrant seeking a better life for her family is somewhat far-fetched, the film does a good job of illustrating the plight of would-be migrants (and in this film Babetida Sadjo's character is only passing through Iceland en route to Canada - she's not intending to stay in the country at all). The child actor who plays the border guard's son is very good, particularly his wistful longing to visit a country where people can actually wear shorts.

Three Identical Strangers (dir. Tim Wardle, USA, 2018)
The difficulty in reviewing Three Identical Strangers, which appears to be the breakout star of NZIFF 2018, is that providing a description of the documentary flirts with revealing the premise. And it's a delicate balance to tell a story like this, which - no spoilers - commences with a tremendous fairytale story that soon becomes tainted with dark secrets. It's both chilling and fascinating to watch elderly interviewees tell a decades-old story with a chuckle, as a detective story unfolds. Recommended viewing, particularly for people with twins in the family, but if at all possible avoid trailers or reading the backstory.

Beirut (dir. Brad Anderson, USA, 2018)
Harking back to the '70s espionage genre, this solid and watchable thriller offers few surprises but holds the viewer's attention, particularly thanks to the strong leads of John Hamm as the hard-bitten negotiator and Rosamund Pike as a CIA operative. The film has been fairly criticised for featuring no Lebanese actors, although this may be a function of being filmed in Morocco. Would've been a constructive gesture to cast some, I'd've thought. And as Hollywood revisits the dramatic newsreel of an earlier generation, what are the odds on Grenada: The Movie next?

The King (dir. Eugene Jarecki, USA, 2017)
It's an appealing idea, driving around America in Elvis Presley's old Rolls-Royce Phantom and asking people what the man's music meant to them. Recording musicians playing in the back, charting his cultural impact as the limo crosses the land. Another appealing idea is using Elvis as a metaphor for the American dream, in a modern age in which that concept is increasingly discredited or at least questioned. While The King is an engaging viewing experience, it feels stretched too thin trying to cover both angles and fails to address either comprehensively. The end credits feature intriguing musical performances that cried out for space in the movie itself; talking heads dissect Elvis' career but it's left to archival footage of John Lennon and a few others to try to measure the huge impact he had on 20th century music. It's commendable that eloquent dissenting voices like Chuck D ("Elvis never meant shit to me") are able to dispel the myth of universal adulation, and co-producer Ethan Hawke paints a picture that indie music fans will all be familiar with - that after an incendiary rise to stardom it all started to go horribly wrong, musically speaking.

Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2018)
Manbiki kazoku

Another classic modern drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda, charting a year in the life of an atypical family unit living on the semi-legal fringe of Japanese society - a society that takes great exception to grifters who don't pull their weight. Encountering a charming five-year-old girl, Yuri, who is living with abusive parents, the father Osamu 'adopts' her, taking her into the initially wary but ultimately loving and caring ramshackle household. Yuri's new 'older brother' Shota takes her under his wing and finds an able accomplice in his regular shoplifting forays; these scenes are superbly handled, being both poignant and charming. As Yuri encounters love and affection for the first time she brings the family closer together, but ultimately and invariably, the real world intrudes. Shoplifters bears all the traditional hallmarks of Kore-eda's productions - absolutely winning performances from child actors, a genuinely powerful evocation of familial affection and the power of companionship and kindness, and a wry humour for the challenges of modern life. But in its conclusion Shoplifters takes the examination of family bonds further than in any of his films. With a bravura plot twist he pulls the rug out from what was already a compelling and warm family drama and turns it into a searching and even haunting moral quandary. Like his other films, Shoplifters asks 'what is family?', but this film also asks some troubling questions about society's expectations, surviving modern poverty and the nature of parenthood itself.

Stray (dir. Dustin Feneley, NZ, 2018)
Certainly well-shot in the beautiful wintry South Island, and the lead performances from Kieran Charnock and Arta Dobroshi are commendable, particularly given the minimalist dialogue they have to work with. While Stray is a solid technical achievement, it falls into the well-rehearsed New Zealand film genre of Tortured Miserablism, so there's sadly little fun to be had watching it. Overlong shots amble to their drawn-out conclusion, a wildly implausible sex scene is thrown in, and there's a desperate need for a satisfying ending.

Arctic (dir. Joe Penna, Iceland, 2018)
Go Mads! The wilds of Iceland offer plenty of challenges for this far northern survival-against-the-odds tale, and lead actor Mads Mikkelsen gives a splendid performance as plane-crash survivor Overgard, who is the human embodiment of indefatigability. The script throws every obstacle in the book at the craggy Dane, and the brisk 90 minute runtime fairly races along as everything under the Arctic sun that can go wrong, does. Pity this probably won't be seen by many American viewers, because if there's a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, both in terms of the quality of the performance and the sheer endurance it must've taken to make the film, Mikkelsen surely deserves it.

First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader, USA, 2017)
Despite First Reformed's wildly implausible premise, Ethan Hawke delivers a strong and highly watchable performance as a troubled priest whose environmental consciousness becomes awakened by an encounter with an eco-warrior parishioner. Amanda Seyfried provides commendably unshowy support as the eco-warrior's pregnant wife.

Woman at War (dir. Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland, 2018)
Kona fer í stríð

Benedikt Erlingsson's deft comedy-drama shows his growing skill and confidence as a director, and offers a superb central performance from the very game Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as unstoppable environmental saboteur Halla and her yoga instructor twin sister Asa. The film benefits from the playful inventiveness of its director, with plenty of tricks to keep the audience guessing, particularly in a masterful Icelandic wilderness chase scene in which the 49-year-old Halla evades her would-be captors using her splendid ingenuity. While I didn't relish it as much as the rest of the audience, Erlingsson's choice to have incidental music provided by an on-screen trio of Icelandic musicians and three Ukrainians folk-singers is suitably quirky. Also featuring the return of the Spanish cycle tourist from Of Horses & Men to provide light comic relief, Woman At War is both a great deal of fun and a successful exemplar of how to depict environmental activism both sympathetically and persuasively.

The Third Murder (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2017)
Sandome no satsujin
Bringing his talent for characterisation and dialogue to a courtroom drama, Kore-eda starts with a murder and a perpetrator that confesses his guilt, wrong-footing his defence team and the audience from the outset. The truth is hard to pin down though, and his experienced defence lawyer happens to be the son of the judge who sentenced the same man to decades in jail for two killings in the 1980s, which he also confessed to. Playing with the notion of unreliable narrators and a legal mind trained to target success over justice, The Third Murder is strong work and always watchable, if not quite as engrossing as the director's family dramas.

Filmworker (dir. Tony Zierra, USA, 2017)
While the natural curiosity for an insider's tale into the work of film genius Kubrick is what you're signing up for by watching the Leon Vitali biopic Filmworker, what you emerge with after viewing it is a real admiration and sympathy for the dedication and selflessness of the film's actual subject. Vitali was so trusted and giving that he could work for the endlessly demanding and perfectionist Kubrick for decades. It's telling that the film never asks Vitali, 'why didn't you take what you'd learned from Kubrick and make your own films?', presumably the idea would be ludicrous. Why, after all, would you give up the opportunity to work with one of the 20th century's greatest film minds? It's just a pity that Vitali never gained the riches so many other film professionals accrued; perhaps this film will help rectify that in some small way.

Wings of Desire (dir. Wim Wenders, West Germany, 1987)
Der Himmel über Berlin
For many years my favourite film ever made, presented in a sumptuously beautiful 4K restoration. Here's what I wrote about it back in 2012.

Juliet, Naked (dir. Jesse Peretz, USA, 2018)
This enjoyable romantic comedy isn't really a festival film per se but I presume it wouldn't get a New Zealand release outside the festival. Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke have a nice, relaxed chemistry, with reliably amusing support from Chris O'Dowd as the music obsessive loser boyfriend. It naturally has the traditional artfully-chosen soundtrack that all Nick Hornby features must by law possess, and plaudits also to Byrne for her English accent. The only downside for me was that while Ethan Hawke is very watchable in it, it's a bit distracting how much he resembles Bill Oddie.

Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2018)
It's a delight to see a film devoted to allowing its narrative to develop in such an unhurried yet purposeful way as this Korean drama. I'm so glad I managed to avoid trailers and preview articles because I'm guessing they'd reveal elements of the plot that are better left discovered on the big screen. The investment of time makes the film's conclusion exponentially more powerful and memorable. With skilled direction, unshowy performances, a top score and restrained yet beautiful cinematography, Burning is a subtle gem.

Cold War (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, 2018)
Zimna wojna
The musical heart of this Polish drama spanning the late '40s to the mid-60s is as vibrant and engrossing as any cinematic musical, and its depictions of Polish folk music, Parisian jazz in the 1950s and the electric shock of rock 'n' roll are fascinating to watch and a delight to listen to. The Parisian night-club scene featuring Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock is pure joy to watch. The two Polish leads command the screen and the sumptuous black-and-white cinematography is a stunning achievement. Have a care and cut back on those ciggies though, Wiktor!

See also:
Movies: Film festival roundup 2017
Movies: Film festival roundup 2016 part 1part 2
Movies: Film festival roundup 201520142013201220112009

01 August 2018

Flights of fancy

He ducked his head down inside the cockpit. The phosphorescent needles had begun to glow. One after the other he checked the figures and was happy. He felt himself solidly ensconced in this evening sky. He ran a finger along a steel rib and felt the life coursing through it; the metal was not vibrant but alive. The engine's five hundred horse-power had charged the matter with a gentle current, changing its icy deadness into velvet flesh. Once again the pilot in flight experienced neither giddiness not intoxicating thrill, but only the mysterious travail of living flesh.

He had made a world for himself once more. He moved his arms to feel even more at home, then ran his thumb over the electric circuit diagram. He fingered the various switches, shifted his weight, settled back, and sought to find the position best suited for feeling the oscillations of these five tons of metal which a moving night had shouldered. Groping with his fingers, he pushed the emergency lamp into position, let it go, seized hold of it again after making sure it wouldn't slip, then let go to touch each throttle lever and to assure himself that he could reach them without looking - thus training his fingers for a blind man's world. His fingers having taken stock of everything, he switched on a lamp, decking out his cockpit with precision instruments. Attentive to the dial readings, he could now enter the night, like a submarine starting on its dive. There was no trembling, no shaking, no undue vibration; and as his gyroscope, altimeter, and r.p.m. rate remained constant, he stretched his limbs, leaned his head back against the leather seat, and fell into an airborne meditation rich with unfathomable hopes.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight, 1931 (trans. Curtis Cate, 1971)

26 July 2018

The peculiar wretchedness one can feel while the wind blows

As a writer, Katherine Mansfield absorbed the Wellington wind as deeply as the Romantics, making it something like her literary accomplice, even if its vehemence often tested the relationship. She wrote, '[I]t moves with an emotion I don't ever understand'. The wind stirs beneath her words, snuffling, as she puts it, around the corners of the page. In 'The Wind Blows' she asks: 'Hasn't anyone written poems to the wind?'...

Wind adds a feather-ruffling frisson to many of her stories. She often uses weather - especially the wind - as a conventional literary device to evoke mood, setting and narrative jumps. In 'Psychology', 'a cold snatch of hateful wind' underlines the anguish of the parting. In 'The Wind Blows' the gale is centre stage, the noisy, lurching main actor. The story 'Revelations' ships the tempest to France where 'un vent insupportable' roils the protagonist: 'the wild wind caught her and floated her across the pavement'. 'The New Baby' gives the breeze a calmer quality, with 'the soft moist breath of the large wind breathing so gently from the boundless sea'.

In her hands, her hometown wind also gains omnipotent powers, sometimes for better, mostly for worse. 'A Birthday' illustrates its impact on the civic mood. A doctor reassures a patient: "'You're jagged by the weather," he said wryly, "nothing else"'. And like most Wellingtonians, Katherine Mansfield was highly sensitised to the breeze: 'To remember the sound of the wind - the peculiar wretchedness one can feel while the wind blows'. 'The Wrong House' evokes the same mood: 'It was a bitter autumn day; the wind ran in the street like a thin dog'. In 'Juliet', she says of the protagonist: 'the wind always hurt her, unsettled her'.

Wellington's is no ordinary wind. 'A Birthday' outs its gales as pitiless, dominating, even bullying: 'A tremendous gust of wind sprang upon the house, seized it, shook it, dropped, only to grip it more tightly'.

- Redmer Yska, A Strange Beautiful Excitement. Katherine Mansfield's Wellington 1888-1903, Dunedin, 2017, p.72-3.

16 July 2018

The grooviest place on the planet

A pal sent me this tremendous clip of Soho in July or August '67, which looks fantastic in HD. It looks like the rough footage for a film-magazine piece. The first part is in Carnaby St (above-knee hemlines mandatory), which was probably the trendiest place on the planet at the time, and it goes on to Portobello Rd markets.

10 July 2018

Getting Welly (and Auckland) moving

I enjoyed listening to a talk by Vancouver's city transport manager Dale Bracewell at the Sustainability Trust here in Wellington last week, and this 9-minute interview by RNZ's Jesse Mulligan is a good summary of the optimistic appraisal Bracewell has of the prospects for expanded transportation options for cycling, walking and public transport in Auckland and Wellington. (And elsewhere, but those were the two New Zealand cities he visited on his Australia-New Zealand tour). I can vouch for the Vancouver Skytrain, having used it last month, but I promise I'm not (yet) advocating building a monorail here, if only because of the Lyle Langley jokes it would spawn.

Interview: 'Transport solutions: Advice from Vancouver's Dale Bracewell', Jesse Mulligan 1-4pm, Radio New Zealand, 9 July 2018

03 July 2018

Film Festival 2018 lineup

Another year, another 20 films to savour in this highly promising 2018 Film Festival programme, which begins screening in Wellington on 27 July. Of this brief selection I'm most excited about the two Kore-eda dramas from Japan and the three films set in Iceland. It will also be a real treat to see 4K restorations of Monterey Pop and Wings of Desire on the big screen. Now the only thing to do is avoid all spoilers and trailers until the end of July, and gird myself for the inevitable wrangles with the opening-day ticket booking system!

In the Aisles (dir. Thomas Stuber, Germany, 2018)
In den Gängen
Night-stackers in a German supermarket find their own place and even a little love in an uncaring world.

Monterey Pop (dir. D.A. Pennebaker, USA, 1968)
4K restored pop gorgeousness, including astonishing performances from The Who, Jimi Hendrix and the soul colossus Otis Redding.

Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable (dir. Sasha Waters Freyer, USA, 2018)
Biography of the self-destructive genius photographer who died in 1984 and helped to define the photographic style of a generation.

Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik, USA, 2018)
Compelling drama depicting a father and daughter whose off-grid life is disrupted by authorities, and how they face the challenges of conventional society; featuring a breakthrough performance by young NZ actor Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (dir. Alexandra Dean, USA, 2017)
The multiple lives of cinema sex symbol and brilliant mechanical inventor Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000).

And Breathe Normally (dir. Isold Uggadottir, Iceland, 2018)
Andið eðlilega
A single mum retrains as a border guard and crosses paths with a refugee from Guinea-Bissau.

Three Identical Strangers (dir. Tim Wardle, USA, 2018)
Identical triplets separated and raised by different families discover more than they bargained about their heritage. (This is one I'm definitely not watching the trailer for or reading anything about in advance!)

Beirut (dir. Brad Anderson, USA, 2018)
Jon Hamm stars as a jaded ex-diplomat who returns to Beirut in 1982 to negotiate the release of a friend taken hostage.

The King (dir. Eugene Jarecki, USA, 2017)
Driving the backroads of America in Elvis' old '63 Rolls-Royce Phantom V, listening to musicians describe in words and song what Elvis and America means to them.

Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2018)
Manbiki kazoku
Always a thrill to see another of Kore-eda's lovingly crafted, profoundly humanist family Japanese dramas. This one's about the struggling Shibata family, who adopt and care for an abused child. Won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Stray (dir. Dustin Feneley, NZ, 2018)
A loner in self-imposed exile in Central Otago encounters a mysterious woman in a dramatic, sumptuously-shot landscape.

Arctic (dir. Joe Penna, Iceland, 2018)
Mads Mikkelsen's plane crashes in Iceland. 'Nuff said.

First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader, USA, 2017)
Ethan Hawke as a small-town minister whose ebbing faith is tested by his circumstances and the spiralling decline of America (I think).

Woman at War (dir. Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland, 2018)
Kona fer í stríð
Middle-aged environmental activist Halla makes her own rules in this Icelandic drama.

The Third Murder (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2017)
Sandome no satsujin
Another Kore-eda film! This one's a steely courtroom drama uses a murder trial as a vehicle for examining Japanese society.

Filmworker (dir. Tony Zierra, USA, 2017)
Biopic of English actor and Stanley Kubrick's personal assistant, Leon Vitali (b.1948).

Wings of Desire (dir. Wim Wenders, West Germany, 1987)
Der Himmel über Berlin
For many years my favourite film ever made. Here's what I wrote about it back in 2012.

Juliet, Naked (dir. Jesse Peretz, USA, 2018)
A woman's frustration with her partner's musical obsession, the lost rocker Tucker Crowe, comes to a head in this adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel.

Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2018)
A mysterious love triangle based on a Haruki Murakami short story, which wowed the critics at Cannes. 

Cold War (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, 2018)
Zimna wojna
A doomed Eastern Bloc Cold War romance tells the musical and political story of the times.

24 June 2018

A Latin lesson with Plum

'Nothing is more curious than the myriad ways in which reaction from an unfortunate love-affair manifests itself in various men. No two males behave in the same way under the spur of female fickleness. Archilochum, for instance, according to the Roman writer, proprio rabies armavit iambo. It is no good pretending out of politeness that you know what that means, so I will translate. Rabies -- his grouch -- armavit -- armed -- Archilochum -- Archilochus -- iambo -- with the iambic -- proprio -- his own invention. In other words, when the poet Archilochus was handed his hat by the lady of his affections, he consoled himself by going off and writing satirical verse about her in a new metre which he had thought up immediately after leaving the house. That was the way the thing affected him'.

- P.G. Wodehouse, The Girl on the Boat, 1922

[The phrase more precisely means something like 'Rage armed Archilochus with his own iambic' [i.e. the poetic device, iambic pentameter]

18 May 2018

Brugha's bulwark

On the Irish side Cathal Brugha passed into folklore as the contemporary embodiment of the legendary hero Cuchulain who tied himself to a tree stump during battle so that he would not fall from his wounds. Cuchulain's enemies only approached him when a raven perched on his shoulder, indicating that he was dead. Brugha, a Vice-Commandant whom a former colleague later described as being as brave and as stupid as a bull, received twenty-five wounds. He was defending a barricade erected to guard the Nurses' Home where the Volunteers' leader Eamonn Kent along with William Cosgrave, who later became an Irish Prime Minister, and a small group of rebels were located. He gave his watch to a subordinate to be given to his wife - if the Volunteer ever got out alive.

Then, his own life apparently forfeit, he turned to defend the barricade alone for as long as he could. Inside the Nurses' Home the Volunteers were dispirited and weary. It appeared that the end had come and while waiting for a final attack that they did not expect to survive, they joined Kent in saying a decade of the Rosary. Then from outside the Home they heard Brugha singing God Save Ireland. He had dragged himself into a position with his back to a wall where he could command the barricade and was challenging the British to come over it. Reinvigorated, the rebels shook off their depression, remanned the barricade and kept the British at bay. Incredibly, Brugha survived the Rising - to die six years later in a civil war at the hands of forces commanded by a government which included William Cosgrave.

- Tim Pat Coogan, 1916: The Easter Rising, London, 2001, p.117-8.

See also:
ComedyThe Irish police force, 30 November 2014
ComedyEvery Irish wedding ever, 26 March 2014
Blog: Ireland, 5 June 2010

06 May 2018

02 May 2018

How to cope with bullies

In David Mitchell's charming 2006 coming-of-age novel, Black Swan Green, 13-year-old protagonist Jason Taylor is growing up in rural Worcestershire in Falklands-mad 1982. Flirting with clandestine poetry-writing, dogged by a ruthless stutter and beset by school bullies, his lot is not always a happy one. 

In one class, music teacher Mr Kempsey sends Jason on an errand to fetch a school whistle for the teachers' post-class bus duty. (Jason seeks directions to Kempsey's office from another teacher who is reading a notoriously perverse French intellectual novella, L'histoire de l'oeil (The Story of the Eye), but he tells none-the-wiser Jason it's a history of optometrists). 

On Mr Kempsey's desk, underneath the whistle and obviously meant to be discovered, Jason finds a stack of Xeroxed pages, each with the same short note - an epistle to the bullied:

Contrary to popular wisdom, bullies are rarely cowards. 
Bullies come in various shapes and sizes. Observe yours. Gather intelligence. 
Shunning one hopeless battle is not an act of cowardice. 
Hankering for security or popularity makes you weak and vulnerable. 
Which is worse: Scorn earned by informers? Misery endured by victims? 
The brutal may have been molded by a brutality you cannot exceed. 
Let guile be your ally. 
Respect earned by integrity cannot be lost without your consent. 
Don't laugh at what you don't find funny. 
Don't support an opinion you don't hold. 
The independent befriend the independent. 
Adolescence dies in its fourth year. You live to be eighty.

30 April 2018

Technicolor fragments from the 1920s

I absolutely love this collection of 'two-strip' Technicolor film snippets from the 1920s, which were discovered recently by the BFI as scrag-ends spliced into other films when they were surplus to requirements. While they're generally very short glimpses, they're also amongst the earliest 'proper' colour film footage ever made, and it's intriguing to see the 1920s in this way when we're used to only viewing it in black and white. The Louise Brooks screen test for the 1926 Famous Players-Lasky film The American Venus, which is otherwise almost completely lost, is a priceless example of this important work.

28 April 2018

Pickin' out a mess of blues

I've always been deeply suspicious of the arch-conservative tendencies of country music, but like Whispering Bob Harris always says, it is the Home of the Song, and you often find incredible musicianship there. Witness here the flying fingers of 74-year-old English guitarist Albert Lee, who has performed with everyone under the sun and was in his prime in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band in the late '70s, on this classic, Country Boy. Recorded earlier this year for the Old Grey Whistle Test reunion TV special, which is great viewing.

05 April 2018

The 'suicide club' of the early US Air Mail Service

In August 1918, the [US] post took over airmail operations from the military, and the department's own civilian pilots began to fly its own biplanes, which were either custom-built or remodeled for postal service. (De Havilland's DH-4, which had a more powerful 400-horsepower engine, superseded the Jenny as the fleet's workhorse). Much like the Pony [Express] riders, the aviators were expected to satisfy their employers' obsessions with speed and sticking to the schedule regardless of conditions. They raced their finicky, flimsy, unreliable aircraft through dense fogs, blizzards, and towering mountain ranges, protected mostly by the small planes' responsiveness and slow speeds. Of the 200 pilots who belonged to the service's "suicide club" between 1918 and 1926, 35 died on duty, but many more emerged bloody and battered from crashes.

Somehow, the Air Mail Service managed to complete 90 percent of its flights, although emergency landings were common. Pilot Dean Smith telegraphed a cryptic explanation to headquarters after his engine quit in midair, causing an unusual disaster: "Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me. Smith." While carrying the mail from Elko, Nevada, to Boise, Idaho, Paul Scott was forced to land by a broken oil line; then, followed by a pack of wolves, he walked 27 miles for help. When Henry Boonstra's carburetor froze during a snowstorm, he set the plane down on a 9400-foot-high Utah mountain, grabbed the mail, and stumbled through heavy drifts for 33 hours before reaching a ranch house. The resident shepherd lent him a horse, and the pilot finally reached the nearest village and phone three days later. The aviators accepted such hair-raising risks less for the salary than from the desire to hold one of the few jobs in the world that allowed them to fly. As Smith put it, "Alone in an empty cockpit, there is nothing and everything to see. It was so alive and rich a life that any other conceivable choice seemed dull, prosaic and humdrum".

Thrill-seeking behaviour has a strong genetic component, and the right stuff clearly ran in the family of Katherine Stinson, the first woman authorised to fly the US mail. Her parents operated a flight school in Texas, her sister Marjorie trained combat pilots in World War I, and her brother Eddie founded the Stinson Aircraft Company. The "Flying Schoolgirl" took America by storm with her loop-the-loops and skywriting, to say nothing of her leather garb and trousers, then still a rarity for women. In 1913, she amazed the crowd at the Montana State Fair by dropping mailbags from her sketchy wood-and-fabric plane, then went on to enthrall fans abroad before volunteering to be a combat pilot in 1917. She was rejected because of her sex but helped the cause by flying for pledges that brought $2 million to the Red Cross. In 1918, Stinson signed on as a regular Air Mail Service pilot and, despite a crash landing en route from Chicago to New York, managed to break a record for covering 783 miles in 11 hours. (Around 1920, tuberculosis forced her back to earth; she moved to New Mexico for her health, became a successful architect, and lived to the age of 86).

- Winifred Gallagher, How the Post Office Created America, New York, 2016, p224-5.

See also:
Blog: From London to Amsterdam, 1922, 20 February 2017
Blog: Seattle Museum of Flight, 25 April 2013
Blog: Le Bourget Air & Space Museum, 18 March 2011

03 April 2018

Marlene Dietrich's 1929 screentest for The Blue Angel

Last night's viewing was Emil Jannings & Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel). The 1930 film produced in both German and English-language versions made Dietrich a trans-Atlantic star and landed her a hefty Hollywood contract with Paramount, which desperately needed some European glamour to rival MGM's Swedish star, Greta Garbo. And when this is your screen-test - replete with its feisty, unconcealed disdain for the risible material - why wouldn't you get the gig? The 1929 screentest was thought lost for decades until it turned up in Austria in 1992, just before Dietrich died. Unfortunately I can't find a version that will permit embedding, but just follow the link below.
Marlene Dietrich's Screen Test for Josef Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel from Justin Bozung on Vimeo.

23 March 2018

Pilate's role in the crucifixion and its use for anti-Semitic purposes

Author Ann Wroe discusses the depiction of Pontius Pilate's role in the crucifixion and how the early church writers turned it to the service of anti-Semitism:

'...[F]antasies [of far-fetched miraculous cures by Jesus] would be laughable if they did not carry a dark undercurrent: the determination of early Christian writers in every branch of the church, whether Greek, Coptic or western, to shift the blame for the crucifixion from Pilate to the Jews. This could reach grotesque levels, as when Origen in his commentaries on Matthew and John simply pronounces Pilate innocent, and ascribes to the Jews all the cruelties that were clearly inflicted on Christ by the Romans. Once the gospel-embroiderers had lost sight of the fact that crucifixion was a uniquely Roman punishment, uniquely in Pilate's power, they could take Jewish 'responsibility' to absurd lengths: even, in the Coptic apocrypha, causing the Jews to crucify Pilate himself as a loathesome 'Egyptian'.

The reason for these inventions, at least at first, was not simply to hurt the Jews. For at least three centuries after Christ's death, as the new religion struggled to establish itself, it was vital to have a Roman official who would say, repeatedly, that Jesus posed no threat to the empire. Pilate had to be Christ's advocate, even his friend, and this made the Jews the villains. As Christianity became accepted and official - starting with the Edict of Milan in 312, when Constantine recognised it as a religio licita throughout the empire - Pilate's fortunes fell into steep decline, and he became a villain in his own right. The Nicene Creed of 381 could state unequivocally that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, with no mention of the Jews.

Nonetheless, medieval anti-Semitism was still based squarely on the notion that the Jews had killed Christ. Pilate - who has always been used as men want to use him - became a witness to their supposed intractability, their emotionalism, their capacity to sow evil in the world. Although there was probably a core of truth in Pilate's reluctance to kill Jesus - for whatever reason - it was expanded and embroidered. Even the most tyrannical Pilate put the Jews in a bad light. In invented story after invented story he complained that they had misled him, made him do what he had never wanted to do. He had tried every subterfuge to save Jesus, but they had insisted on his death'

- Ann Wroe, Pilate, London, 1999, p.315-6.

15 March 2018

Highlander vs Ladyhawke

This past weekend I was able to compare two mid-80s fantasy films, one of which I'd never seen and one that I'd not viewed since its cinematic release. The former was Russell Mulcahy's 1986 trans-Atlantic immortality shtick Highlander, which was screening in the main theatre at the Embassy, and the latter was Richard Donner's 1985 fantasy romance Ladyhawke, which I bought years ago on DVD in the UK and finally got around to opening and rewatching on Sunday.

Many big films passed me by in the 1980s, and I never caught up with Highlander or its many sequels on TV either. Many Gen-X movie-watchers are still fond of Mulcahy's film, and there was a strong Friday night turnout for the screening. Finally, this was my chance to see what all the fuss was about - after all, the Embassy is known for its canny scheduling of vintage crowd-pleasers, like last year's screening of the bonkers Flash Gordon, which attracted a 'lively' post-work audience bent on whooping at scenes they recognised.

With a suitably hokey premise of immortal warriors duelling throughout the centuries and the striking Scottish scenery as a counterpoint to the opening, grimy New York setting, Highlander is an exercise in high camp dressed up as a blockbuster. In the American scenes it's shot in fast-edited music video style, with the odd flourish of a grandiose crane shot in the opening wrestling match scene and a God's eye-view shot of a hospital ward, aping a famous Taxi Driver shot. There's plenty of fire sprinkler action to facilitate the mandatory 80s neon reflections, and the fast cutting breaks the action scenes into dozens of often nonsensical shots. In Scotland there's some fine set-dressing as the stunning Eilean Donan Castle serves as the hall of Clan MacLeod, and the spectacular vistas of the highland mountains and glens, little known to Hollywood audiences, give the film a rare scenic beauty. This is not matched, sadly, by its script.

While sporadically impressive to look at, Highlander is also hamstrung by its weak lead actor, with Christopher Lambert failing to summon much charisma as the undying Connor. At least his Scottish accent is a fair attempt for a Quebecois. It's far from convincing, certainly, but it's probably not actually offensive to Scots. It's just a pity that the blank performance Lambert offers isn't counterbalanced by any evident physical prowess in the combat scenes (and a lot can be forgiven in such cases: see Tony Jaa and Gina Carano, for example). As a rule, a film like Highlander lives or dies on the quality of its fight scenes, and due to a combination of lacklustre choreography, nakedly overdubbed sound effects, comically late exploding rocks and excessive editing all the fights bar the admittedly visually appealing finale are curiously unexciting.

Of course Highlander also features Sean Connery in Scotland playing a Spanish-Egyptian something-or-other, not sounding a jot different to the way Sean Connery normally sounds. I love the fact that the film credits a Spanish dialogue coach for Connery, when he clearly can't be arsed and is just using the film money to extend his mansion in Marbella. But despite slumming it, Connery at least looks like he's enjoying himself - well, it's certainly no stretch for him, is it? There's also creditable support from the surprisingly age-appropriate female foil, expert metallurgist Brenda (Roxanne Hart) and the unhinged scenery-chewing villain The Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who is afforded his very own definite article.

The one major advantage Highlander has is its rock soundtrack by Queen, and in Freddie Mercury they found possibly the only person over-the-top enough to channel the lunatic excess of the film with sincerity. This musical partnership with Queen afforded some genuinely memorable songs, including Mercury's A Kind of Magic (although in a version with fewer hooks than the single version, or indeed the Live Aid one) and Brian May's genuinely wistful Who Wants to Live Forever.


By rewatching Ladyhawke, on the other hand, I was running a risk of spoiling a fond childhood memory of a film that while perhaps not as gob-smackingly fantastic as Labyrinth or Back to the Future, was certainly untainted by any negative connotations. And it featured that safest of mid-80s bets, a lead performance by Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, WarGames, Biloxi Blues). Watching it a second time as an adult, I can appreciate that it's solid, mid-range fantasy fare, with a few features that enable it to punch above its weight and justify its presence.

First up, director Richard Donner is a sure bet for a well-helmed film project. The man with The Omen, Superman 1 & 2, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, The Lost Boys and Scrooged to his name is not one to be trifled with.

Secondly, the Vittorio Storaro cinematography and locations are superb, with its winter shoot in Italy affording some stunning vistas, with Broderick stumbling through a snowy mountain valley being a particularly memorable scene. The whole sunrise-and-sunset motif also permitted some lovely camerawork at dawn and dusk and creative light effects to demonstrate the whole lycanthropic romance aspect. The tumbledown castles featured apparently belonged to the family of renowned Italian director Luchino Visconti (Il Gattopardo, Death in Venice), and are a thoroughly convincing counterpart to Highlander's polystyrene set for the showdown between The Kurgan and Ramirez. With Storaro in charge Ladyhawke emerges with the dignified visual presence of a much more respectable film. (I caught an excellent photo exhibition of his film work at the Robert Capa Photography Centre in Budapest last year; Storaro's credits include three Oscars, Apocalypse Now, 1900, Reds and The Last Emperor).

Ladyhawke's acting is clearly superior to 'the Scottish film'. Broderick, in a role originally envisaged for Dustin Hoffman or Sean Penn, is engaging in the role of fast-talking pickpocket Philippe the Mouse, and without being particularly showy about it, knits together what could be a difficult story in which the two other protagonists, the knightly Captain Etienne (Rutger Hauer) and the regal beauty Isabeau d'Anjou (the then 26-year-old Michelle Pfeiffer), spend almost no screen time interacting. (He's a wolf during the day; she's a hawk during the night: it's a complicated relationship). Hauer is a treat in a role originally offered to Kurt Russell - imperious and implacable, yet displaying a touching vulnerability as he battles an evil curse. Pfeiffer is stunning as the titular avian, bringing an old-school Hollywood royalty glamour to what could easily have evolved into B-grade schlock in lesser hands. And Leo McKern also adds a dash of English eccentricity as the unruly monk Imperius.

I have to admit though that my favourite performance in this film is always that of English actor John Wood as the tortured, malevolent antagonist, the Bishop of Aquila. His declamation is positively Shakespearean, and he finds pleasing nuances in even the simplest of dialogue. His denouement in Ladyhawke is also the very definition of a grand finale. Wood, of course, had only recently performed in another film with Broderick, when he appeared as the elusive and fatalistic Prof Falken in 1983's WarGames; before Ladyhawke he had just shot Woody Allen's lovely The Purple Rose of Cairo.

The film also contains what I think is the very first film soundtrack that grabbed my attention as a youth. Alan Parsons' synth-pop orchestral score is both stirring and evocative, capturing the heroism of the tale while also being strongly evocative of its mid-80s era. The Philharmonia Orchestra really fills the opening theme out beautifully - seen here with Storario's expert credits sequence:

So overall, while Highlander undeniably offers a certain appeal of kitsch excess, following a second viewing 33 years after the first, in my humble opinion Ladyhawke is still a more enduring slice of film entertainment. 

10 March 2018

Life on the ocean wave

Health Quality & Safety Commission dragon-boating team 'Commission Impossible' (which I named) in race 1 and 2 of today's regatta in Wellington harbour. 

14 February 2018

A profound ideological shift to a radical new sharing economy

I went to see this excellent documentary last night at VUW, and while it's not as glitzy as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, this feature-length illustrated lecture by economist Jeremy Rifkin does explain what the low-carbon Internet-of-things economy and society of the next three generations will actually look like. He's advised national and regional governments that are already well advanced along this route, like Germany, Rotterdam-Den Haag, Luxembourg, and parts of China. While the environmental risks of our current fossil fuel economy are frightening, Rifkin shows how we can secure a sustainable environment while retaining plenty of employment for we foolish humans. 

It's rumoured that we might be seeing Rifkin here in New Zealand later this year, potentially to advise the new government, which would be a tremendous opportunity. Have a look, and do share to your networks, because these sort of ideas travel best by word-of-mouth. (Be warned that it starts with our current grim environmental prospects laid on pretty thick to scare the living shit out of the switched-on Brooklyn millennials in the audience - but it does become a bit more positive after that...)

How to avoid the press gang

Scottish sailor John Nicol (1755-1825), seeking to make his way to Lincoln in around 1792 to enquire after his long-lost beloved Sarah, describes how he eluded the feared military press gangs seeking to forcibly enlist any able seamen they could lay their hands on:

'When we arrived at Gravesend a man-of-war's boat came on board to press any Englishmen there might be on board. William and I did not choose to trust our [legal] protections [letters from the British consul at Lisbon] now that we were in the river. So we stowed ourselves away amongst some bags of cotton where we were almost smothered but could hear every word that was said. The captain told the lieutenant he had no more hands than he saw, and they were all Portuguese. The lieutenant was not very particular, and left the brig without making much search.

When the boat left the vessel we crept from our hiding hole, and not long after a custom-house officer came on board. When we cast anchor, as I had a suit of long clothes in my chest that I had provided, should I have been so fortunate as have found Sarah at Port Jackson, to dash away with her a bit on shore, I put them on immediately and gave the custom-house officer half a guinea for the loan of his cocked hat and powdered wig. The long gilt-headed cane was included in the bargain.

I got a waterman to put me on shore. I am confident my own father, had he been alive, could not have known me with my cane in my hand, cocked hat and bushy wig. I inquired at the waterman the way to the inn where the coach set out from London; I at the same time knew as well as him. I passed for a passenger. At the inn I called for a pint of wine, pens and ink, and was busy writing any nonsense that came in my head until the coach set off. All these precautions were necessary. Had the waterman suspected me to be a sailor he would have informed the press-gang in one minute. The waiters at the inn would have done the same'.

- John Nicol, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, Edinburgh, 1822 (2000 edn.), p152-3.

05 February 2018

A Chickasaw County child

We were talking at work this morning about Bobbie Gentry, having arrived at her name as a contemporary to Dusty Springfield, and one who expertly covered Springfield's famed hit, Son of a Preacher Man, on her 1969 album Touch 'Em with Love. Naturally Gentry's spine-tingling classic Southern gothic track, Ode to Billie Joe, was mentioned, as it's the song that will always be foremost when people remember her. But it also brought to mind another superb Gentry track that harks back to her Mississippi youth - Papa, Woncha Let Me Go to Town With You?, a song from her first album in 1967, the one that was named after Ode to Billie Joe.

While Ode to Billie Joe closes the album as a tour de force of bravura songwriting, Papa... also on the album's Side B is a simpler, playful childhood reminiscence of a young Gentry pleading with her father not to leave her behind when he goes for his weekly journey to town. A girl isolated on her grandparents' Chickasaw County farm 16 miles outside of the shining lights and alluring shops of the nearest town clearly needed to pull out all the stops when it came to wheedling a ride:

There's a blue dress at Dindy's I'd give the world to see again
I need some hand lotion and some powder from the 5 and 10
Buy us some chocolate and I'll make you a pretty pie
If you don't let me go I'll just die...
It's not only the fine, nimble lyrics and the precise, folksy acoustic guitar that helps this track stand out - it's also the money Capitol Records very sensibly invested in employing a studio orchestra to augment it. In particular the horn section acts as a marvelous counterpoint to Gentry's voice, bookending her pleas with a stern paternal voice as she marshals all her best arguments to avoid another seven days trapped on the farm.

I've loved this track ever since hearing it on a fine Under The Influence compilation from 2004 by Beautiful South supremo Paul Heaton - although there the track was mislabeled as Chickasaw County Child, an entirely different track on the same album, which confused me for years. Here's a 24-year-old Gentry performing the song on her own BBC TV series in 1968.

21 January 2018

One Ringo to rule them all

Ringo went home [from Rishikesh in 1968] after two weeks; his stomach, weakened by childhood surgery, couldn't deal with even that mildly-spiced vegetarian food, and Maureen hated the flies. Into their cabin moved two members of the Apple team, Neil Aspinall and Denis O'Dell, who'd arrived from London. O'Dell was there to discuss John's idea for a documentary about the Maharishi and the hard-headed Aspinall to make sure it never got off the ground.

O'Dell brought with him what he considered to be the best idea for the Beatles' next feature film since the Joe Orton script. This was J.R.R. Tolkein's fantastical trilogy The Lord of the Rings, already an enormous hit on American college campuses but still relatively unknown in Britain. Consequently, neither Paul or John had ever encountered Tolkein's world of hobbits, elves and wizards which - so their film 'guru' said - offered plum screen-acting roles for them.

Knowing no Beatle could be expected to plough through a 1000-plus-page trilogy, O'Dell gave the three remaining meditators a volume each, subconsciously maintaining their usual order of precedence: John was to read the first in the sequence, The Fellowship of the Ring; Paul was to read the second, The Two Towers; and George the last, The Return of the King [...]

Nothing came of the film idea Denis O'Dell had brought out to India so excitedly... At the Maharishi's ashram, it had been provisionally agreed that Paul would play the hobbit Frodo Baggins, John the slithery humanoid Gollum, George the wizard Gandalf and Ringo Frodo's sidekick, Sam. 'John told me he could write a double album to go with it,' O'Dell remembers.

- Philip Norman, Paul McCartney: The Biography, London, 2016, pp.306-7 & 324

[This snippet falls into the category of something I probably used to know, but had forgotten. Apparently O'Dell's discussions with United Artists included the idea of David Lean to direct the film]

11 January 2018

This time with a little dedication

I heard Joan Armatrading's Drop The Pilot again on a shop radio yesterday, and its giddy, effervescent pop nonsense always makes me smile. It put me in mind of this wonderful example of her stock and trade - the most artfully constructed soul-folk-pop songs that brightened the charts in her prime. This live version of Love & Affection from '76 also boasts an inextricably archetypal mid-70s sax solo, expertly done and gleaming as if it had just popped in on loan from Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street. It's great to see Glastonbury welcoming her back in recent years to introduce new generations to her talent. 

07 January 2018

London in the Phoney War

The end of September [1939] found Basil in a somewhat fretful mood. The air-raid scare seemed to be over for the time and those who had voluntarily fled from London were beginning to return, pretending that they had only been to the country to see that everything was alright there. The women and children of the poor, too, were flocking home to their evacuated streets. The newspapers said that the Poles were holding out; that their cavalry was penetrating deep into Germany; that the enemy was already short of motor oil; that Saarbrucken would fall to the French within a day or two; air raid wardens roamed the remote hamlets of the kingdom, persecuting yokels who walked home from the inn with glowing pipes. Londoners who were slow to acquire the habit of the domestic hearth, groped their way in darkness from one place of amusement to another, learning their destination by feeling the buttons on the commissionaires' uniforms; revolving, black glass doors gave access to a fairy land; it was as though, when children, they had been led blindfolded into a room with the lighted Christmas tree. The casualty list of street accidents became formidable and there were terrifying tales of footpads who leaped on the shoulders of old gentlemen on the very steps of their clubs, or beat them to jelly on Hay Hill.

- Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags, London, 1942.

06 January 2018

Not the swiftest of creatures

Full-page ad for the Citroen 2CV in Private Eye magazine no.609, published 19 April 1985, with a listed purchase price of £2774. The 2CV was manufactured from 1948 to 1990.

See also:
Motoring: Wellington's British cars, 25 February 2017
Motoring: Mad Lancias of Verona, 19 July 2015
Motoring: Te Awanga British Car Museum, 28 October 2014
Motoring: National Automobile Museum of Tasmania, 7 December 2013

Bronwen & Carmencita

It's always a treat reading the obituaries reprinted from UK newspapers in the local weekend paper; the Telegraph's are usually the best, with the Times a close second. A good obit is a real artform, and with those papers the early file writing was often done decades ago and kept on file for use in this distant 21st century. This morning's DomPost has two good examples for two notable women.

Bronwen, Lady Astor (1930-2017), the society model ('though she was actually middle class') who was from 1960-66 married to the Viscount Astor, heir to the family title and fortune. Cut dead by smart society after her husband was intimately involved in the Profumo affair [of 1963], she was widowed at 36 and spent the rest of her life deeply involved in Christian psychotherapy and spiritualism. On Astor, the Telegraph remarked: 'She spent a vivid old age in London, finally feeling she could return to the capital from self-imposed exile in the countryside after the Profumo scandal. She continued to windsurf and fish for salmon into her eighties...' (although presumably not in London).

And Carmen 'Carmencita' Franco (1926-2017), daughter of the murderous Spanish dictator, who as a 10-year-old was coached into delivering stirring Fascist messages and salutes to the children of Spain, and who at her father's deathbed in 1975 was careful to augment his last words to appoint as monarch Juan Carlos de Borbon - father of the current king, despite Franco omitting to mention his name. The Times reports that in later interviews about her father, Carmen, who was created the 1st Duchess of Franco by the new king, said she 'never saw him angry [and] the thousands of ex-Republicans shot by Franco's firing squads for decades after the civil war's end in 1939 she never referred to'. She enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle as the daughter of a wealthy dictator: 'The miniskirt-wearing Carmencita relished packing suitcases and going abroad, the farther from Spain the better. In the US she danced with John F Kennedy, yet the country she adored was India, although her first visit was no introduction to world poverty: she was the guest of the Maharajah of Jaipur'.

02 January 2018

My top 10 films of 2017

It's been another grand year of film adventures. I watched 182 films in 2017, and here's the best of the crop, including two great films featuring pint-sized lead actors, two top New Zealand documentaries, and capped by a shameless and compellingly charming underdog story straight outta New Jersey.

1. Patti Cake$

I knew I had to see Patti Cake$ the moment I read the festival blurb recording the moment the Cannes crowd heard the film's lead actor Danielle Macdonald speak at a Q&A they 'gave an audible gasp when she answered her first question because no one had a clue she was Australian let alone not American'.

There's no question that this quest-for-stardom music flick traverses the most hackneyed of cinematic cliches - the embattled outsider with a heart of gold striving to overcome adversity with the help of their plucky, wacky friends and a huge helping of sheer talent. In lesser hands this would be trivial, forgettable material. But with Macdonald director and writer Geremy Jasper has a legitimate, stone-cold star. There's never a moment in Patti Cake$ that leads the viewer to disbelieve her tremendous ability with a mic and a rhyme. Her rapping performances are quite authentically superb, and that's from someone like me who has little knowledge of the musical genre. And whereas a film like Steven Soderbergh's Haywire can coast on a serviceable lead performance by Gina Carano thanks to her eye-watering martial arts talents, Macdonald is the complete package here because in addition to rapping like a boss she also acts with commendable talent.

I won't spoil the audacious climax of the film, but this is that most treasurable of offerings, a true crowd-pleaser in every respect. Don't be surprised if you see Macdonald at the Oscars, or at the very least performing at the Grammys - assuming they can devise something PG-13 for her to rap, that is.

2. Dunkirk

In a masterful display of epic war-movie filmmaking from Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk fills a huge gap in the WW2 canon by telling the hallowed and mythologised tale of the grim months of 1940 in which Britain was dreadfully isolated and facing seemingly certain defeat at the hands of totalitarian foes. With Johnny Yank still an unbearably long 18 months away from getting around to entering the war, Britain and its Commonwealth fought on alongside the doomed French and Belgians, scrambling to save the army that could spell the difference between security and fascist hegemony.

Nolan understands the precariousness of the situation and the sheer implausibility of what became a totemic British act of defiance in the face of incredible odds. His film is unbearably tense yet profoundly exciting, it's intensely patriotic yet eschews all jingoism, and in a theatre of war deluged with 400,000 men it remains recognisably human and character-driven in scale.

In avoiding the lantern-jawed cliches of war movie heroism, Nolan tells one of the most honest and believable war stories I've seen, on the land, on the sea, and in the air. (The film does take the dramatic licence of somewhat overstating the importance of the 'little ships' in the rescue, but that's entirely understandable given the public fascination with that aspect of the story).

Given the horrors of shipwrecks - of which there are plenty in this film - and the sheer unstoppable force that strangled that unforgiving French coast, Dunkirk is a fine example of why so many war survivors could never speak of their experiences. In this celebration of what is, in effect, a famous and bloody retreat from certain capitulation, the only victors are those who survive, whatever the cost.

3. Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web

You don't have to like Kim Dotcom in the slightest to be impressed by the scope of Annie Goldson's stellar documentary. While the biographical aspects of the sorry Dotcom tale are strong, the broader implications for the entire way society consumes intellectual property are particularly intriguing. Particularly telling is the example given of the early rise of Dotcom's Megaupload, when a recent University of Kansas graduate tells a reporter friend that her campus was abuzz with sharing free movies on the site, and that it was her lecturer who first turned her onto it - a clear sign that the social impact of this type of sharing was mammoth and permeating every corner of the world.

Goldson has assembled a formidable collection of international interviewees to augment the expert insights of the Herald's David Fisher, including Jimmy Wales, Moby and Glenn Greenwald. And whether or not you think Dotcom is guilty of the crimes he's been charged with, his case has been handled diabolically by the New Zealand authorities at seemingly every stage. The questionable granting of New Zealand residency (potentially with the ultimate intention of handing him over to the Americans), the ludicrous overkill of the January 2012 raid on the Dotcom mansion (which was conducted using faulty warrants), the police's illegal cloning and sharing of his entire evidence file with the FBI, the illegal surveillance by the New Zealand security services (which was later patched up by highly contentious legislation) and the eventual court ruling that he was eligible for extradition to the US but not for the charges originally laid against him, the five years it's taken to even get this far ('justice delayed is justice denied', after all): these all add up to a picture of a New Zealand justice system seemingly taking its orders from overseas and bending its rules to suit.

Throughout, Dotcom appears as a charismatic chancer punching way above his paygrade - a low-level crook who made millions while Hollywood refused to adapt its business model to reflect changing technology.

4. Summer 1993

An expertly realised evocation of a momentous summer from the director's own past, as orphaned six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) is taken to the Catalan countryside for a new life with her aunt and uncle and her tiny cousin Anna. Wiry, inquisitive and puzzled, Frida struggles to adjust to her new environs and the family struggles to adapt to this newcomer, half insider, half outsider. As a simple depiction of childhood, familial kindness and learning to get along, this is hugely effective, finding particular joy in the small and utterly genuine interactions between Frida and the cherubic, playful little Anna that pepper the film. So many of the episodes depicted have the ring of true memories to them, and as Frida's story and that of her family emerges one can't help but be impressed with the performances of all involved.

5. Baby Driver

A finely-honed heist flick that sees Edgar Wright deploying his directorial verve in the service of a well-worn plot, taking it on interesting new tangents thanks to the lovingly-chosen soundtrack that scores almost every beat of lead character 'Baby's criminal exploits. While the getaway scenes are suitably spectacular thanks to top-flight stunt driving, it's the musical cues that give Baby Driver its soul and spirit, setting it apart from generic car films. And the genuine chemistry between Ansel Elgort's Baby and Lily James' Debora is a pleasure to watch - they will both emerge from this film with greatly burnished acting credentials. There are minor quibbles about the ending and the choice of actor to play the antagonist role, but the film surpasses any minor criticisms in its headlong embrace of sheer fun and its authentic, believable heart.

6. Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve has succeeded in constructing a fine addition to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner canon, in this unhurried, cerebral amalgam of recent sci-fi techno-paranoia such as Spike Jonze's Her and Alex Garland's Ex Machina. The film looks spectacular on the big screen, aiming for and often achieving a Kubrick-style surreality, while the soundscape is every bit as crisply targeted as the original's synth score suggested. Its ensemble cast performs well under Villeneuve's measured, restrained direction, offering the chance for scenes to play out gracefully without resorting to traditional sci-fi action bluster. There's also some commendably creepy robot love thrown in for good measure. If there's more story to be told, here's hoping this isn't the Aliens or Terminator 2 creative zenith of this tale.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

You may have heard of this one. My main take-home message was the potentially game-changing first use of the word 'spunk' in a Star Wars script. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed TLJ a great deal, particularly on the impressive IMAX screen in Auckland. But on second viewing the relative simplicity of the dialogue did become more noticeable. Did Rian Johnson intentionally keep the reading age of the script low, to maximise the potential audience?

8. Pecking Order

I can definitely recommend this New Zealand documentary following a year in the life of the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam & Pigeon Club (est. 1865). My workmate from Christchurch tells me it's populated by 'very Canterbury types', and despite having never lived there I can definitely see what she means.

While the exploration of the intricacies of competitive poultry exhibitions are interesting and well handled, and bring back strong memories of the Christopher Guest mockumentary Best In Show, as with most good documentaries it's the human stories underpinning the chicken preening that give the story its emotional heft. Aside from the lifelong fascination many of the film's subjects find in their birds, all is not well in the Club, with ageing president Les Bain finding insurrection in the ranks and finding himself ill-equipped to deal with dissent. So the lead-up to the national competition in Oamaru is shot through with tension and bitter infighting in committee rooms, which will be very familiar to anyone who's participated in such institutions; sadly, sometimes the people rewarded with office in recognition of many years of participation don't possess the skills to lead a disparate bunch. Equally, the young challenger who seems to possess the right skills to modernise the club is beset with the traditional New Zealand aversion to confrontation and is reluctant to put himself forward if it'll mean a stoush. Throughout, it's the youngest members (in their teens) who are the most sensible, as the old birds scratch and claw each other over seemingly petty disputes.

In this fine, strong local documentary my only niggling point of difference is that the filmmakers signal too strongly that the film is quirky and not to be taken too seriously through their choice of music cues, punning intertitles and graphic design. Viewers can work this out for themselves. But that's a minor complaint: this is very good work and gives townies like me a glimpse into a mysterious rural pursuit that's seemingly changed little since the 1860s.

9. A Date for Mad Mary

An object lesson in how to make a small film with a big heart, A Date For Mad Mary works in every respect - dramatically, comedically, narratively and visually. The tremendous Irish cast led by Seana Kerslake as loose cannon Mary offer believable and memorable performances and the film provides a glimpse into the motivations and challenges of a determined young woman seeking a 'plus one' for her best friend's wedding, with the slight impediment that she's got anger management issues and has only just emerged from a six-month jail term.

10. The Florida Project

Featuring a very fine juvenile performance from little six-year-old Brooklynn Kimberly and a compelling tale of motherhood on the breadline, The Florida Project offers the social realism of Short Term 12 and the naturalistic child acting of Boyhood, mingled with a nuanced depiction of those left behind by the American dream. And it only serves to emphasise the architectural crimes that seem to have been perpetrated on the unsuspecting urban environment of Florida.

See also:
Movies: My top 10 films of 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010