American Pastoral – Review

Published November 15, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

apTwo images stand out more than most in my memories of watching television as a child. The first is the summary execution of a civilian on a Vietnamese street, and the second the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk protesting against that war. Even now, I can see the charred skin and the upright body toppling sideways, a human being disintegrating. As a child, it both horrified and fascinated me. What kind of will was required for such a fate to be embraced? How could this be happening in what looked like an ordinary public space? How did the “victim” retain such preternatural calm? There were no trigger warnings back then and, since these pictures were “real”, they were almost certainly not subject to the 9.00pm watershed, before which “private parts” and patently fake violence could not be shown, but the unspeakable consequences of war were fair game.

Meredith Levov, a pre-teen, sees what I saw on television and reacts with the same horror – but decides to do something about it, eventually hooking up with an terrorist cell based in New York at the peak of the late 60s urban riots. She “brings the war home” by bombing the post office in her sleepy middle class Newark suburb and goes on the run, to be pursued by her father as her mother’s mental health spirals out of control.

That is the central storyline of Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, American Pastoral, based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name. Though I have read a few Roth novels, I have not read this one and, in consequence, the simplifications, the telescoping of plot and the awkward shoe-horning in of an unnecessary framing device, did not concern me as it did others (reviews, largely negative, continually refer back to the source material).

Ewan McGregor is a little monochromatic as “Swede” Levov, high school football hero and successful businessman – everybody loves him, but the charisma seems secondary to the square jaw and seeming immunity to ageing, physical gifts trumping emotional intelligence too easily. Jennifer Connelly does the crazy-beautiful turn (with which we have become familiar) as Swede’s shiksa goddess wife, Dawn, at her best when facing down old man Levov (Peter Riegert in midseason form) when brokering her marriage conditions across the Gentile – Jew divide. She gets the therapy and “moves on” but it’s all a little predictable.

Dakota Fanning’s work stands out as the troubled Merry, full of the burning certainty of youth and the solipsism of teenagers. She never loses touch with the child she once was, even dead-eyed and broken in an inner city squat. Fanning ensures that Swede’s obsessive pursuit of his daughter is genuinely grounded in rational hope, because Merry is forever only just out of reach – she isn’t totally brainwashed and she’s not that far away.

There’s much that is wrong with the film – themes such as the Merry’s precocious Oedipal rivalry with her mother, morphing into vehement hate and the racial dimension of the riots, are treated with an almost flippant haste, dropped and disregarded. Instead of the film broadening its perspective as the narrative moves forward, it narrows to the kind of “Parent vs Cult” trope that we have seen many times before. A sprinkling of visual cliches to mark the passage of time doesn’t help lift the sense that the desire to make Roth’s always complex work more accessible, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

And yet this is a thought-provoking movie, especially for parents of bright teenage kids. It’s barely worth stating that teenage lives are a closed book to their families – and there’s a strong argument for saying that they should be – but we know the lure of cults, the pull of the easy solutions offered by radical politics or religions, the understandable dissatisfaction of finding an identity in a world full of unacceptable elements yet demanding that they “fit in”. What do we do to “protect” our kids? The film shows that a carapace built on orthodox family love allied to a kid’s bright and inquisitive nature, may not be enough to repel the call of something different – the “Whaddya you got?” reply given by Marlon Brando in The Wild One when asked what he was rebelling against.

Reviewers have been too harsh on this movie – there’s a distinct feeling that McGregor’s hubris in starting out as director (and star) with the notoriously difficult Roth needs calling out – but there’s something universal and something particular in this work that bubbles up through the film’s flaws. I need to read the book I suppose – and I expect that I will.

Rio 2016 – The stars you may have missed

Published August 19, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

M.T.C. Ting waiting to take to the sand

1. Snottey Greenpool – American swimmer who picked up a silver medal behind Michael Phelps in five events and is still waiting to be interviewed by American TV in the mixed zone.

2. Konstantli Fallinova – Ukrainian distance runner who paused to help Mo Farah back to his feet in the 10000m only to be lapped by the British athlete ten minutes later.

3. Malaria Shok – Romanian sailor whom organisers did their best to keep off-shore.

4. Jung-al-Kanopi – Out of favour Qatari athlete hardly seen in Brazil having been a major presence there for many years.

5. M.T.C. Ting – Thai Beach Volleyballer who has attracted little attention despite being a regular on our screens.

6. Guus Pairinoff – Dutch cyclist specialising in tandem events and much sought after by the Daily Mail.

7. Braak Keerfu – Sent home for the South African synchronised arm-wrestling team for unspecified reasons.

8. Britt Goldeggen – Danish reporter seconded to the BBC, famous for her only question, “How does it feel?”

9. Viagra – Exciting Brazilian footballer now an iconic veteran.

10. Lord Teflon – IOC member.

Rio Olympics – Ten To Watch

Published June 28, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
So I can go back to Spain now?

So I can go back to Spain now?

Zika Panikova – Will team up with fellow Ukrainian Ivana Jabnow in the women’s doubles, where they intend to cause havoc in the tennis.

Ray N. Forest – American golfer ranked 370 in the world. Favourite for the gold medal.

E.P.O. Putin – Russian 50km walker whose recent world record bettered the marathon world best by ten minutes.

Skinnilatte Venti – Italian long jumper said by some to have his name on a medal.

Favela Kerfu – Unpopular local, but likely to challenge in the shooting events.

Charlie Coker – As usual, he’s likely to feature strongly in the Closing Ceremony.

P.K. Nelson – Rio taxi driver who guarantees the shortest time from city centre to Olympic Stadium, and, maybe, back.

Anna Konda – Big hope in the wrestling, with her famous strangle hold likely to kill off opponents.

Cameron Brexit – Pole vaulter who sensationally cleared a high bar last week, but now looks likely to spend months on the sidelines as his coaches squabble over what comes next for him.

Robin Hoodie – Teenage Brit who aims to take gold in the Archery (and if not, silver – or just cash).

A route out of Brexit

Published June 25, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
Let's help him back down to Earth

Let’s help him back down to Earth

The problem with pressure group politics, referenda and suspension of cabinet collective responsibility is that two can play at that game.

The British people have voted Leave and already its implications (real ones this time, not “Project Fear” or whatever soundbite was last doing the rounds the last time the bickering was underway) have begun to sunk in, not just to horrified Remainers but to quite a few Leavers, who never really expected their vote to be on the winning side, but wanted to give David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn a bloody nose. There’s a petition collecting signatures to re-run the Referendum, but that’s not going to happen – not as the result of a petition anyway. But there might just be a route back for the UK, a way of carving out a kind of “cooling off” period that applies to big financial decisions and subsequent reconsideration. Fire must, after all, be fought with Fire.

A new political party should be formed which defines itself as a kind of reverse Ukip (say “Ukeu”), a single issue party with the sole objective of putting MPs in Parliament who will move a Referendum motion immediately after the next General Election, therefore long before the mechanism to divorce the UK from the EU has run its course. The Labour Party, the SNP and other parties committed to EU membership should allow their members to join and campaign for the Ukeu alongside their usual party work and commit to voting for the motion. Ukeu would, in return, only stand against candidates who refuse to back their Referendum Now position.

The beauty of this proposal is that it would bring lots of political outsiders into the electoral arena (they would commit to resign any seats they won immediately after the Referendum is secured). Eddie Izzard might be the figurehead / leader but many more well known, non-politicians may wish to take up the chance to stand as prospective Ukeu MPs. The party would be a magnet for the protest vote against the political machines, something that surely motivated plenty of Leavers on June 23.  Ukeu need not win any seats  – how many has Ukip won – its mere presence in marginal Tory seats being enough to jeopardise chances of a Tory majority and, in consequence, Boris’s grip on Number 10. And, having fought so hard and sacrificed so much to get there, he’s not going to let go easily is he? An EU associate membership, a five year suspension in the leaving process, a new treaty might all look attractive to Remain Tories if the alternative is a Corbyn – Sturgeon coalition. Compromise, presented sensitively, might stick with all but the Farageist Right.

This is why referenda are such dangerous and unpredictable political beasts to unleash – it’s a reason why they are so rare, why so many governments of such differing political hues did not reach for the option. If the plebiscite worked to get us out, can we not use it to get us back? There’s millions of Scots thinking the same thing now about their referendum for independence and it’ll take a lot of denying if the UK moves quickly to Brexit. A broken UK (with rumblings in Ireland) is a prospect that many natural Tories will do all they can to avoid.

In the febrile political climate in which we find ourselves some 48 hours into thinking the unthinkable, it might just take a leap of Machiavellian boldness to show the way forward. If there’s a Ukeu for me to join on the terms above, I would and I suspect I would not be alone.

 

 

 

Andrei Rublev – Review

Published June 24, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
Iconic

Iconic

We’re there. Right there. Somewhere. Near a ruined castle, as a man fills a rudimentary balloon with hot air and clings on as it climbs and pitches and yaws. And we’re still there. With him, as he looks down on a desolate landscape of swamps and broken woods, like Passchendaele centuries later. He, like the country on which he gazes, is not destined for a soft landing.

So begins Andrei Tarkovsky’s uber-arthouse masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (part of this summer’s retrospective), its opening sequence an extraordinary inspiration for much of the best work in The Revenant and a signal for what Tarkovsky will do later in Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. The film continues, in episodes that sometimes work chronologically and sometimes don’t, the images building into a tapestry depicting Russia, past, present and future, in all its appalling glory. Fleeting through one’s mind as images pile on top of each other never less than visually gorgeous, come thoughts of spirituality, artistic endeavour, friendship, honour, compassion, joy, sex, war, cruelty and, ultimately, love. They crowd the mind, the film demanding that the viewer meets it half way in its work.

An immense bell is cast in an sensational imagining of the sheer effort and elemental complexity of that task as undertaken in the Middle Ages. The works are led by a boy thrust into the role through his chutzpah and desire to save his skin and by his father’s sudden death. On the bell is etched the familiar scene of St George slaying the dragon – is the boy the Georgian Stalin and the bell Russia itself, being called upon, deep in Soviet times, to find its voice and ring again?

There are plenty of Tarkovskyian long takes, but a relentless pace too – not necessarily of narrative, but of imagery, the landscapes filled with people moving in the foreground and the background, battle scenes suffused with the fog of war, life always vibrantly present, yet always hanging by the sliver of princely favour or warlord’s whim. It’s a frighteningly modern evocation of the fate of ordinary people slain as they are caught in the backwash of alliances forming and fading of which they know nothing, shocking in its visceral impact, random in its dispensing of death and salvation.

It’s also a totalitarian film (reminding us of how the making of Apocalypse Now descended into a kind of dysfunctional fiefdom) with the director’s hand present at all times, his apparatchik cinematographer the instrument of his complete control. It has nothing in common with the Hollywood epics of today, but does trigger memories of the scale and confidence of Birth of a Nation, but without DW Griffith’s neo-fascist ideology polluting every scene. Over and over again, as the film plays back in your mind, you wonder how it ever got made – technically and politically – its authenticity irrefutable. But how?

Ultimately, it’s a extraordinary cinematic experience, made to be witnessed on a big screen, on grainy film, in the company of others with you for the full three hour runtime, still pinned to our seats as the titles roll by, in indecipherable Russian script. It is cinema as an aesthetic, collective assault on the senses – and, in those terms, it’s never been more ruthlessly conceived and executed.

Euro 2016 – Ten to watch

Published June 10, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
The man who puts the bite into the Romanian midfield

The man who puts the bite into the Romanian midfield

Igloo Igloosson – Iceland’s centre-back is built like an ice outhouse and is renowned back home for his cool head (and arms, torso and legs) in one-to-ones. Is rumoured to be a cousin of Bjork – as is the rest of the squad.

Benny Bjornsson – Sweden’s defensive midfielder whose partnership with Bjorn Bennysson has provided a platform for the twin strikers who have caught the eye upfront. First noticed playing in the Belgian Second Division (for Waterloo Chargers) he will be a designated penalty taker if involved in shoot-outs, having successfully pleaded with his boss to “Take a chance on me”.

Vaseline Slidezin – The Czech’s strength is his box to box work, always finding the space he needs to come good with his ball play. A slippery customer, defenders will aim to keep a tight grip on him.

Snappa Bollokov – Uncompromising Albanian full-back whose tackling has attracted the attention of referees (and opposition physios) over the years, with  a career record 25 red cards in his 103 international appearances. Nicknamed “The Castrator” by his fans at ICU Tirana.

Kuck Uklokk – Swiss midfielder who sets the rhythm of his team’s play popping up regularly in the opposition penalty box where he impresses in the air. Temperament suspect however, as he can be wound up by opponents.

Idon Shotalodeov – Russian who comes alive in the box where his explosive skills, particularly with his head, can cause chaos. Does go out of the game for long periods, but can spring to life if balls are stroked through to him.

Nosfer Ratu – Romanian forward who openly admits to basing his game on his idol Luis Suarez. Has notched 10 international goals, all of which were scored in floodlit matches. Good on the wing, and, though very left-footed, prefers to play on the right and cut inside as he claims not to like crosses.

Badi – Widely tipped as successor to Xavi, the Spanish midfielder’s career has been stalled by disciplinary problems, but he is now being mentored by Sergio Ramos. Recently linked to a move to Manchester United (along with the other 22 members of the squad).

Pepe Lepew – French star who can be irresistible when his tail is up. Fans will hope that recent rumours of multiple romantic liaisons (which have caused a stink in France) will not affect his play. Linked with a possible move to Newcastle United or Juventus.

Ryan O’Leary – Irish goalkeeper, known for charging (out of his area) for everything, but also good in the air and usually delivers in Europe. At corners, he can usually find space in a congested six yard box. Like the rest of the squad, it’s his first international tournament, so he brings no baggage with him.

 

Son of Saul – Review

Published May 1, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

_46751064_gateI looked out on a perfect summer’s day, as the fields rolled by outside the window of a rickety train heading from Krakow to Oświęcim. I fell into conversation with a couple of Dutch lads and we speculated on which countries’ athletes would do well in the upcoming Barcelona Olympics if they had to compete in the costumes worn in the Opening Ceremony – I told them I didn’t fancy Holland’s chances in the sprints, you know, with the clogs and all. We bought some beer from the conductor’s stash – as you did then – and the time passed quickly.

There were maybe a dozen more tourists who made their way towards  the gates, the chilling message “Arbeit Macht Frei” crowning them in wrought iron, as they had nearly 50 years earlier. The banter had already left our lips, but we were still talking, though a stillness, even a coldness, had started to slowly drive the air from our lungs. We found a guide, stared at the red brick buildings that went on as far as the eye could see – the word “camp” is really too small for what is more a town than anything else – and braced ourselves for what was to come. We said a few words as we looked at displays of teeth fillings, walking sticks, hair and the endless records that catalogued human beings turned into commodities.

The words stopped. And soon we stopped and looked at one another, pausing outside the low brick structures into which so many thousands were led for the showers that did not cleanse with water, but murdered with Zyklon B. We did not go in – we did not need to see the endgame we knew, the inevitable conclusion to the depravity we had seen over the previous hour or so. We walked back through the gates and the words slowly returned with each step towards the railway station.

The combination of the vast scale of the murders and the tiny details of its administration defeated language and, hence, thought. I had something of that feeling again, years later, when I read Primo Levi’s memoir of the camps, If This Is A Man. That masterpiece also crushes with its accounts of the life or death imperative of finding shoes to the sheer effort required to extinguish industrial volumes of human beings. Opening up a space in language, in imagination, in imagery to tell the story of the camps, is one of the great artistic challenges of the last 70 years.

László Nemes, a first time director, finds his space in the tight frame that gives us Saul’s face and, sometimes, what Saul can see – and nothing more, at least not in focus. The camera never lingers for long on anything other than Saul’s empty eyes, Géza Röhrig  brilliantly, and with great subtlety, showing us disgust, disdain, fear, obsession, hope, selfishness and much, much more, even, eventually, reconciliation. It is an acting performance that deserves the very highest praise delivering a complete realisation of Nemes’s aesthetic decisions.

The film follows Saul’s quest to give a boy (whom he suspects is his son, but whom we suspect is more a symbol for an innocence utterly absent from his world) a funeral that may restore some humanity to a child murdered in the most depraved way imaginable. He seeks a rabbi to say Kaddish, perhaps to place religion in the role of a science that has foresaken its moral compass. He clings to this quest and to the boy as a revolt is plotted and executed pathetically, even the camp’s relatively privileged Sonderkommando, broken in mind and spirit as death suffuses every breath they take.

The director has cited Elem Klimov’s epic Come And See (which left the cinema audience as dumbstruck as Son of Saul when I saw it in the late 80s at the Scala) and that was my reference point too. As is the case with that Soviet masterpiece, there are times when you can’t look, but you can’t not look either. Watching the film becomes, like reading Primo Levi’s book, an act of bearing witness, an act rooted in duty, in honouring those whose stories are told.

I expect to gain a fuller appreciation of the movie on a second viewing, when the mosaic built up at the edges of the frames will complement the expressions of Saul, the film digging deeper into my mind. But I don’t need a repeat to recognise this film as important, as utterly relevant and, at this very moment in politics, critical to an understanding of the ultimate consequence of dehumanising human beings. It will be in my mind when I read newspaper headlines and hear the increasingly shrill demagoguery that passes for political discourse – you cannot blink it away.