It is one of my favourite movies, with its profound and emotive central performances and bitter sweet ending. Seeing it on the big screen is a rare treat worth savouring.
An unapologetic gay love story – one with a happy ending to boot – was not an easy proposition in the mid-1980s. Made in 1986 – immediately after the Oscar success of A Room with a View – the film is both brave and way ahead of its time; just consider the difficulty Stephen Soderbergh has faced in making Behind the Candelabra even in this (supposedly enlightened) day and age.
As if we needed proof that hacks indulge in wilful misinterpretation, the media is up in arms about Hilary Mantel’s quizzical and actually rather sympathetic piece about royal bodies in the London Review of Books. Metro’s Tariq Tahir roared Anger at machine made Kate! Cue irate pieces in various papers about the worst excesses of the liberal press. The Beeb and the Prime Minister also entered the fray.
I don’t expect subtlety from the press, but it is their obvious cynicism that appals. Anyone who had read Mantel’s piece couldn’t come to such an extreme conclulsion without misquoting out of context and twisting her words beyond recognition. Which suggests to me that yesterday’s headlines were just cynical attacks at a writer who doesn’t pander to the press (and had dared to criticise it). Hadley Freeman’s piecein the Guardian is totally spot on.
I so frequently find an outlet in the Twittosphere these days, that I haven’t written a post in criminal ages. Forgive me, faithful readers – all four point five of you.
There should be plenty to say. Life is eventful, interesting – full of spectacle, loss, dreams and anxiety. And that’s just two weeks! Lots that’s too private to write about (though my notion of privacy is uncommon, I am sure you’ll understand).
This painting says a thing or two about privacy and secrets. You can see the real thing at the Royal Academy right now. I should warn you that while the paintings are amazing, I did not like the way the show was curated. The illustrious curator kept banging on about “bourgeois leisure pursuits”, wheeled out every cultural theory cliche about Paris in the Nineteenth Century, and made the odd intrusive judgement about the canvases, which irritated me. Still the Manet show was far less troubling than the captions I had to suffer at the British Library’s exhibition about Mughal India. The venerable place had some wonderful pieces on display, but I was disappointed by some real Orientalist clangers in the curating.
Last night I found out that my friend, Paolo Zanotti died on December 5th, last year. He had been diagnosed with a tumor in the pancreas six weeks earlier. He was only 41.
I met Paolo in 2002 at the Synapsis School for Comparative Literature in Pontignano near Siena. At first, I was struck by his resemblance to a character from the Commedia dell’Arte: his distinctive eyebrows, his expressive, expansive hand gestures. But the real magic of knowing Paolo lay elsewhere. I didn’t spend huge amounts of time with him, but over the years we met in Pisa, London, Oxford and, finally, in Paris. Every time, Paolo would leave me with an insight, something sharp that others might not have had the courage or wit to see. We had planned to meet in 2010, when I was in Italy. I sent Paolo an email saying that I was visiting. He wrote back that “since we HAVE TO meet, there are two options: either you may make a stop in bologna while on your way to pisa, or I can join you in your visit to Pisa!” We did not manage to meet that time.
Paolo was a distinguished scholar; he had written several books on different literary topics. He had also written two novels and several short stories, which his publisher is planning to reissue in a single volume. Paolo had grown up in a small town called Novara in the middle of Italy; when I once asked him about it, he shrugged and told me it was tiny. He told me that his father made “rubinetti” – taps. I had never asked Paolo about his family before. It is his father and his mother, his girlfriend Georgia, and all the many people whose lives he touched, that I think about now. How very sad.
I remember Paolo, walking along the narrow wall outside my college in Oxford on a sunny afternoon. I remember tramping with him from the Marais to St Germain, all the while discussing our hang-ups and creative blocks. I remember him telling me never to wash a coffee maker and, when I resisted, (I had been trained to wash all dishes with plenty of fairy liquid) his insistance, “Ma viene meglio il caffe! Lo so. Sono Italiano.”* I’ve never washed a coffee machine since.
I wish I had a chance to say goodbye; but maybe every friendship contains a form of leavetaking within its most carefree moments.
*But the coffee turns out better. I know. I’m Italian.
Is Amour really about love? ‘Cause I’m not feeling it. Haneke’s films are secretive, elegant and cold. He is a master of his art, and nothing demonstrates this better than his casting of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant: just watching them is a pleasure and a privilege. Moreover, they bring with them the intertextual connotations and freight of all the roles they have played before. Yet, for me, even they do not deflect the cold touch of the filmmaker’s gaze (excuse the synaesthesia). Critics applaud Haneke’s cool, intellectual detatchment, and his flawless mise en scene, but I remain undecided about whether I wholeheartedly admire his films or not.
On the topic of masters, I enjoyed The Master. Early on in the movie we see the image of a woman, made out of sand.* Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) mimes sexual acts with this woman-made-of-sand (which is metaphorically what he continues to do throughout the movie). Around him, sailors, who could have stepped out of Kenneth Anger’s 1947 homoerotic short film Fireworks, frolic by the sea. Thus, from the outset, the film problematises both femininity and masculinity. It helps that the world of this scene is steeped in South Pacific, another film which is preoccupied with how men imagine women and how the two might co-exist.
It is easy to miss, because there is so much else going on at the same time, but this movie insistently considers different versions of twentieth century womanhood. In a later sequence, pretty young women parade through a department store wearing synthetic gowns. They sport large price tags. Note, the tags are large, the prices small. What’s for sale, the woman or the dress? As much as it is a film centered on a relationship between two men, women loom large and problematic in The Master. I must mention Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), monumentally pregnant for much of the film, she keeps a sharp eye – and hand – on her husband, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Peggy becomes an ambivalent maternal presence as the movie unfolds, at once steely and vulnerable, by turns nurturing and controlling.
Because of a prolonged cold, I haven’t been to the cinema since seeing these two substantial pieces. Maybe it was Amour that gave me the chill.
* This does not bode well; we all know what happened to the house that Jack built.
I’ve been meaning for sometime to write about a wonderful film made by a friend and film school contemporary. We saw it when it was screened at the London Film Festival last month.
Antonio (Mendez Esparza) has made an elegant and humane film called Aqui y Alla, about a Mexican family, living through the reality of immigration and separation. The film contains humour and sadness alongside moments of rare beauty and stillness.
I hope you get a chance to see it. Following a great festival run, some savvy distributor will surely release it soon.
To seeHoly Motorsand Skyfall in the same week is the cinematic equivalent of eating surf and turf.
Holy Motors is preoccupied with cinema, fantasy and representation, how we create images, and how they in turn create us. Every sequence is rich with cinematic tropes: the car, the girl, the gun, the gangster, the impossible love. There is, in fact, a lot of Bond in Holy Motors. And a lot of Holy Motors – its wistfulness and open savagery, perhaps – hidden in the latest installment of Bond.
Indeed, both films present the viewer with images of beauty and ugliness. Skyfall juxtaposes Silva (Javier Bardem), and his ravaged body with the exquisite Sévérine (Berenice Marlohe). Meanwhile, Holy Motorsunwinds a sequence in which Oscar abducts Eva Mendes from a graveyard fashion shoot. He has donned a monstrous disguise for the appointment. As the kidnapping unfolds, a spoofed tennis-white-clad photographer utters the words “beauty” and “weird” like orgasmic mantras. He could be talking about Silva and Sévérine.
On a more trifling note, both films present the viewer with the spectacle of iconic nails. Beatrice Marlohe’s nails have etched themselves into cinema history. Was Sévérine’s doom sealed by their sheer impracticality and length? She is not alone: witness Eva Mendes and Denis Lavant in the aforementioned sequence of Holy Motors.
What does this tell us? I don’t know exactly, but I sense something feral at play. All this surf and turf comes at a price. Is that blood on my claws?
The loopholes in the time travel plot of Looperwere irritating. You can give me all the filmic references you want (they range geekily from North by Northwest to Terminator), and solid performances (we have the usual saga of accomplished actors battling a loose script and poorly paced editing) but if I don’t believe in your world then, sadly, you’ve lost me.
I’m also wondering why the “rain maker” wasn’t set up properly – and sooner. Any thoughts?
The American Cinema has to be one of my favourite books about movies, probably one of my favourites on any subject. It was written by a man who had watched and loved the movies he wrote about, even the ones he didn’t like. Though erudite and authoritative, Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) wore his own expertise lightly. He also had a good sense of humour, which made his seriousness about movies and people all the more readable.
I feel lucky that I could attend some of his lectures at Columbia. I remember his sheer delight at finding a kid in the room who’d watched all the latest releases and all the Maurice Chevalier musicals he was talking about that day: “This guy’s good, he watches everything.”
“If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it.”
These are the closing words of Keith Thomas’s remarkable book Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). As someone who is often made fun of for being gullible or superstitious, I derive consolation from his conclusion.
Am I to take it then that magic can be modern? Does this mean that I am not by definition an anachronism? Maybe reading horoscopes (admittedly a bit too avidly) and flinching – silently, slightly, and on the inside – when crossed by a black cat is not such a throwback after all? (Harry Potter lovers, you already know this).
There are other forms of magic that I find stupifying and problematic, however. The people who practice them would never allow that what they are practicing is indeed just magic. Just Magic. These habits and pieties pretend to have authority. Their advocates have conviction and resist any admission that they’re as much in the dark as the rest of us.
At least I have a sense of humour about the horoscopes I read, the ladders I dodge, and the cats that haunt my steps.
In June 1947, Mountbatten, the British Viceroy of India, likened Pakistan to a tent. *
“What are we doing? Administratively, it is the difference between putting up a permanent building, and a Nissen hut or a tent. As far as Pakistan is concerned we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.”
His words evoke a man whose selfhood depends on his sense of capability. Maybe he had pitched tents in the Lake District or a put up a Nissen hut somewhere in the colonies. I can never think of Nissen huts without thinking of Conrad and Graham Greene.
In talking about tents – the shelter-of-choice for nomads, backpackers and wanderers the world over – Mountbatten was onto something.
If Pakistan is a tent, then I can take her with me, wherever I go. Pitch her on the Alps or at Glastonbury. Put her away for the winter and take her out again if the weather permits. The point I’m making is not just about a convenient identity. Its about coming from a place with no fixed co-ordinates, with a muddy origin and no clear destination. It may not have the grandeur of a royal palace or the provenance of a stately home, but it keeps the rain off your head. What’s more, tents have always served refugees as a shelter away from home.
*I’ve been following Perry Anderson’s provokative pieces about Indian History in the London Review of Books. He quoted Mountbatten in his piece “Why Partition?” on July 19th.
I’ve been watching The Three Stooges lately. I love their fresh, irreverent and truthful comedy. I particularly enjoyed this little short called Disorder in Court. It manages to poke fun at just about everyone involved in the legal process and the belief that order can somehow solve all our problems. Watch Disorder in Court.
Hello! Thanks for visiting my blog, which is primarily a space for me to share aspects of my work as a writer and director. I will also use this space to collate ideas, observations and insights about movies and film making. Of course, these things don’t exist in a vacuum so I will inevitably end up handling a few other subjectstoo…
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