02 December 2021

Baby don't you know it makes me blow my mind

Thursday music corner: Los Angeles band Fenwyck recorded this Keith and Linda Colley-penned, genially psychedelic pop gem for the Challenge label. Fenwyck’s recording failed to trouble the charts when it was released in the northern summer of 1967, but the song did attain greater prominence when it was covered on the B-side of The American Breed’s hit, Bend Me, Shape Me, which reached number 5 in the US charts in early 1968, and topped the Listener's pop chart in New Zealand.

Challenge Records was most famous for The Champs' 1958 hit Tequila. One of Challenge's two co-founders in 1957 was cowboy singer Gene Autry, although he sold his share the following year.

Fenwyck – Mindrocker (1967)

26 November 2021

The Traills of Stewart Island

On the island of Rousay [in the Orkneys] there were interpretation boards about the Traill family: unjust Victorian lairds, imperial military adventurers, emigrants. Among the family's many destinations was New Zealand. In 1900 one of the furthest travelled of the Traills, Charles, finished up in Stewart Island/Rakiura, at the opposite extremity of the British imperial world, after trying his luck in the Californian gold fields and in Australia. He must have been another isle-o-phile, having travelled the span of the globe to make his home on another island, off an island, off a continent.

His half-brother Walter, who grew up on the Fife coast, retired to join him there after a life at sea catching seals. Another Orkney islander, Arthur Traill, was the local schoolteacher and Justice of the Peace.

Some years later E. and I made it together to Stewart Island, following an eighteen-month journey, by motor cycle, that began in Orkney. The resonances in the landscape between the northern and southern extremities of our journey were profound. As we sailed south from the ferry port of Bluff, albatrosses swooped over the waves around the ferry. There was a park there named for the Traills, in the settlement called Oban.

Like that albatross in Unst, it felt as if the Traills were in search not just of an island to call home, but an island climate brutal enough for their comfort; the names of the settlements reflected not only Orcadian influence, but that of Shetlanders. 

- Gavin Francis, Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession, Edinburgh, 2020

See also:

25 November 2021

In walked the village idiot and his face was all aglow

Thursday Music Corner: Eleven-time Grammy winner Linda Ronstadt emerged from the folk music scene to broad appeal in the 1970s across the country, rock and pop genres with hits like Blue Bayou and the chart-topper You’re No Good. Here she performs one of her Warren Zevon covers, Mohammad’s Radio, live in Texas. The song, which is about the redemptive power of music, appeared on Ronstadt’s ninth studio album, Living in the USA. Released in 1978, it was the third of her run of three albums in a row that topped the Billboard album charts. Now aged 75, due to a degenerative condition Ronstadt has been unable to sing since around 2011.

The much-loved Warren Zevon died of cancer in 2003, having never achieved breakthrough success as a solo artist, but having long impressed with his inventive, wry rock writing. His one legitimate hit was the witty Werewolves of London, but other well-known tracks included Poor Poor Pitiful Me (also covered by Ronstadt), Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner and Excitable Boy.

Linda Ronstadt – Mohammed’s Radio (Live in Houston, 1978)

23 November 2021

Film Festival 2021 roundup

A second Film Festival affected by Covid-19, but it's been a relief to be able to enjoy seeing the cinematic offerings in the cinema here in Wellington, rather than at home on-demand. Social distancing may have meant the Embassy Grand wasn't as full as in a normal year, but at least it has meant a reasonable number of people were able to see the festival in the way it was meant to be enjoyed. 

As with last year, I didn't aim to match my usual target of seeing 20 films in the fest; instead, we selected a highlights package of eight films. By accident rather than design, four were by women directors. With the recent resignation of the festival director, it will be interesting to see what changes if any emerge in the 2022 festival; perhaps there won't be many, as a year of consolidation will be needed to recover from the financial losses brought on by unavoidable disruption and a dearth of headline titles to screen. My only wishlist item is that the new director should consider bringing back the much-loved tradition of the festival programme cover art, which was a highlight of each year's programme release. 


Miss Marx (dir. Susanna Nicchiarelli, Italy, 2020)

Romola Garai is on good form as always in the lead role as Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, a lifelong socialist and feminist activist in the second half of the 19th century. Susanna Nicchiarelli's European co-production is an excellent companion-piece to Raoul Peck's 2017 The Young Marx, in that it adeptly depicts both the political and the personal trials of a 19th century socialist, agitating for social change against a backdrop of severe social strictures, and as Eleanor discovers, the stifling hand of patriarchal hypocrisy that meant nearly all women without independent means were beholden to their husbands for their place in life, or in Eleanor's case, her 'husband', because the unfaithful and untrustworthy Edward Aveling never married her. With flashes of intentionally anachronistic punk energy, and carefully-chosen yet pointed monologues to camera, the director avoids the pitfalls of strict faithfulness to a simple recounting of life events, and offers an informative depiction of a trailblazing, and sadly too-short, life.

Bergman Island (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Sweden, 2021)

A rumination on the experience of film (and filmed) tourism with an engaging cast and beautifully shot in Ingmar Bergman territory near the Swedish island of Gotland. It's not a criticism to say that there's a certain lack of resolution to the narrative, but writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve retains the viewer's interest offers some appealing glimpses into the frustrations of the creative process, particularly when presented with the pressure of an ostensibly 'inspiring environment' in which to work, in the shadow of a genius. I suppose for me the main limitation of the film is it's not clear if Chris' film-within-a-film is actually a good idea. We presume so because we like Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska; but is this giving the idea too much credit? And the age difference between Krieps & Tim Roth is 22 years; she's only one year older than his Hefner Age. I accept though that this indicates I'm totally missing the point.

Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo, USA, 2020)

This is a film that makes all the Florida jokes in The Good Place feel like documentary reportage. A raucous burst of rude energy and a deft blend of mounting peril offset with genuine hilarity, Zola is a too-good-to-be-(mostly)-true recounting of a Florida long-weekend gone wrong, replete with unreliable narrators and wry asides. Aside from the performances of the central cast, cinematography by Australian Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth, The Power of the Dog, True History of the Kelly Gang) and music by Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie, Monos) are particular highlights of this giddy ride through the sleepless nights of sultry, sleazy Tampa.

The Hand of God (dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2021)

A rambling, amiable slice of 1980s nostalgia set amongst a Neapolitan family, focusing in particular on the youthful Fabio and his attempts to find a purpose in life and deal with unimaginable loss. Lensed with a real sense of affection for the city, and framed with a metaphysical device (the visitation of a saint manifested to do cryptic good deeds) and the real-life historical earthquake in which Diego Maradona was famously bought by Napoli from Barcelona for an enormous sum, thereby revitalising the team. This divine intervention theme isn't developed thoroughly, and some of the film feels baggy in places, as if the writer-director is loath to discard any remnants of his autobiographical memories. But the ride is still thoroughly enjoyable with its clan of bickering relations, warring neighbours, and amidst it all, a teenager trying to find his place in the world.

My Salinger Year (dir. Philippe Falardeau, Canada, 2020)

A pleasant if occasionally predictable autobiographical tale of a young woman's entry into the New York literary publishing scene in the mid-1990s, intersecting with JD Salinger's plans to release long-awaited material after years of seclusion. Margaret Qualley does well in the lead role without much to work with, and the script's interludes with her character's entertainingly self-centred boyfriend offer some rueful comedic diversion. It's also nice to see Seána Kerslake, who gave such a strong performance in the title role of 2016's A Date For Mad Mary, and Douglas Booth (Percy Bysshe Shelley in Mary Shelley) in this Canadian-Irish co-production.

Snakeskin (dir. Gillian Ashurst, New Zealand, 2001

Great to see this again after two decades and to enjoy writer-director Gillian Ashurst's cross-cultural road movie, in which the ever-engaging Melanie Lynskey's adventure-hungry Alice, who is bored rigid by New Zealand's peace and security, finds mysterious (and broadly cliched) American traveller Seth (Boyd Kestner) offers thrills and danger in spades. Along for the ride are a likeable supporting cast including Dean O'Gorman as Alice's clean-cut would-be boyfriend, the never knowingly under-acting Oliver Driver as a frankly histrionic skinhead with a mile-wide grudge, and a crew of somewhat amateurish pot dealers including Taika Waititi (then Taika Cohen). It all gets a bit silly in the end, but given how hard it was to get local films made around the turn of the century, this is a credible and entertaining addition to the canon; file alongside Topless Women Talk About Their Lives (1997), The Price of Milk (2000) and Stickmen (2001) as titles worthy of greater profile.

Written on the Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk, USA, 1956)

A spectacular visual feast on the big screen, and a hefty shot of wardrobe porn for the frustrated housewives of mid-1950s America, Written on the Wind is a genuinely entertaining slice of melodrama, and an object lesson that in 1956, the consequences of a woman who shags around is obviously a mini death-wave sweeping across Texas as everyone expires from sheer disgust. Also, when you make a short trip to the cigarette shop, make sure to come back with at least a few hours' worth of ciggies, so at least four packs. Aside from the glamourous, dead-serious cast (Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, and the Oscar-winning Dorothy Malone), who are all doing good work with the frothy material, I'd like to put in special mention for two simply amazing sportscars that signify the uber-wealth of the film's Hadley oil clan: Stack's bright yellow 1953 Allard J2X deathtrap coupe, and Malone's fire-engine red 1955 Woodill Wildfire convertible, which is obviously ideal for picking up dodgy toyboys in.

Hit the Road (dir. Panah Panahi, Iran, 2021)

A charmingly bittersweet Iranian family roadtrip whose consistently expert cast, including the services of a remarkably irrepressible yet naturalistic little boy, excel with both the wry, low-level bickering of a long cooped-up car journey, and pathos once it becomes clear to the viewer what the journey is actually for. Think a Middle Eastern Little Miss Sunshine, with an even greater dramatic heft alongside the genuine delights of familial quibbles and niggles. Even the family dog looks like it's having a wonderful time. The film is also replete with a Kiarostami-like reverence for the beautiful Iranian countryside, pleasing touches of well-judged whimsy and a painterly command of framing and composition.

See also:
Blog: Film festival roundup 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 part 1 / part 2, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009

20 November 2021

The Royal Pavilion at Brighton

The Pavilion, which had been built for the Prince Regent by Mr Henry Holland, occupied a frontage of four hundred and eighty feet, and stood in ten acres of ground. It had been designed in accordance with a vague idea conceived by the Prince upon being sent a present of some Chinese wallpaper, and startling and original was the result. At first glance the sight seeing visitor might well imagine himself to have strayed into some land of make-believe, so gorgeous and unconventional was the palace. The Greek, the Moorish, and the Russian styles predominated. It was fronted by an Ionic colonnade and entablature; a succession of green-roofed domes and minarets rose above a running battlement that surmounted the upper line of the whole building; and two cones, equal in height to the central and largest dome, crowned each wing. The pinnacles and the minarets, which were placed at every angle of the structure, were made of Bath stone, the rest of the palace of stuccoed brick. In front of each of the wings was an open arcade composed of arches, separated by octagonal columns, and ornamented by trellis-work. The entrance was upon the western side, but the principal front, which Mrs Scattergood and Miss Taverner were gazing at, was to the east, and opened on to a lawn, which was separated from the parade by a low wall, and a dwarf enclosure. A captious critic had once remarked, on first seeing the palace, that it was as though St Paul's had littered, and brought forth a brood of cupolas, but no such profane thought crossed Miss Taverner's mind. If the Pavilion had not been conceived with quite that simplicity of taste which was proper, it was not for her to cavil; she was not to be setting up her judgment in opposition to Mr Holland's.

- Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck, 1935

18 November 2021

You're kissing cousins, there's no smoke, no flame

Thursday music corner: British musician Joan Armatrading has released 20 albums in her musical career, and has had three mercurial UK top 40 singles, spanning soul, new wave and pop-rock genres: Love And Affection (1976), Me Myself I (1980) and Drop The Pilot (1983). The joyous, ebullient pop nonsense of Drop The Pilot reached number 11 in the UK charts, and was an even bigger hit in Australia and New Zealand, reaching number 6 in both countries. It also made the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 78. In 2003 the song was covered by Mandy Moore, which will have done wonders for Armatrading's mortgage.

The indefatigable Armatrading, now aged 70, has been nominated for three Grammy Awards, and twice been nominated as Best Female Artist at the BRIT Awards. She was awarded an MBE in 2001 and was appointed as a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2020 for services to music, charity and equal rights.

Dropping the Pilot’ is a famous British political cartoon, well-known in both Britain and Germany, published in the satiric magazine Punch in 1890. It depicts Chancellor Otto von Bismarck departing the German ’ship of state’, with the young Kaiser Wilhelm II remaining aboard, looking decidedly unconcerned. The Kaiser had requested the veteran statesman’s resignation 10 days earlier.

Joan Armatrading – Drop The Pilot (w/ the BBC Concert Orchestra, 2021)