September 2, 2013

Painting light into the canvas.

“Women in the 17th century are allowed to smoke, write, correspond with Descartes, wear spectacles, insult the Pope, and breast-feed babies.” -Titia Uylenburgh

“There is no history there are only historians…” -Peter Greenaway

From 1600-1680 we can put forward a compelling claim that Rembrandt is the greatest painter since the Renaissance and, that in the 1640’s Amsterdam is the center of the world, a city on the make with the foxes in the hen house.

The film Nightwatching is a creative response to Rembrandt's famous painting known as “The Night Watch” in a sense an extension of the painting. It dramatises the idea that this picture is a bristling, encoded denunciation of the grand gentlemen who commissioned it – that it effectively accuses them of being murderers, villains, rapists and thieves, and that Rembrandt's furious patrons vengefully connived at the artist's social and financial ruin.

In the movie someone says to Rembrandt of his painting: "You have made a frozen moment of theatre!" That could stand for a general description of Greenaway's film, but for the genuinely affecting account of Rembrandt and Saskia and the shadow of death that comes between them.

This intriguing and revelatory blend of human drama and art-history detective work deftly combines character study and cultural documentary shaped around a truly expressive performance from Martin Freeman as Rembrandt. What’s surprising (in the context of the filmmaker's often chilly past oeuvre) is the film’s genuine compassion for the sufferings of wives, maids and vulnerable orphans, adding an emotive underpinning to its sharp observations on the purpose of art and the nature of representation. 

June 18, 2013

Guavas and flypaper.

Oh, that heavenly smell of a new book...Why can't they bottle that scent?  Anyway, on my way to… I was talking to a delightful woman in a bookstore and asked her if she had any recommendations.  She led me through the shelves, picked up these books, hugged them to her chest professing her love. Okay, sold.  Books (aka flypaper) that a passionate bookseller hugs are good with me.  

Better Than Fiction by Lonely Planet.  Okay, yes, I'm a bit biased.  But this anthology is great!  Joyce Carole Oates, Isabelle Allende, Tea Obrecht, Alexander McCall Smith...  Top notch fiction writers writing about a favorite subject: travel.  I love anthologies, and this is a great one to read on the road or for giving to the traveller in your life.  Perfect for reading in short spurts or cover to cover.  And pssst...don't overlook the Travel section in the bookstore - there are wonderful treasures to be found, and tons of inspiration to be had!

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Glory be, look at that cover.  It's gorgeous!  Historically inaccurate and wrong for the time in which the book is set, but still.  And if you know me, you know I love Paris and all the ex-pats, and I've always been fascinated with poor Hadley Hemingway, the starter wife of, Ernest (and mother to Bumby. Bumby!)  And I wasn't disappointed.  The book captures the time period…and goodness, look at that cover!
How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.  I have a kind of silly criteria, but one in which I firmly believe:  I tend to judge famous people on whether or not I would like to have dinner with them.  As for Caitlin Moran, I want to sit next to her at a dinner party, talking about ideas, music, books, and sipping something delicious.  After I got past the very British colloquialisms and slang, I plowed through it, loving the ride.  She is so refreshing, and a new voice for feminism which I think is desperately needed.  After seeing many young women in the past few years claim that they aren't feminists, it has been making me (and  friends) think that there needs to be a bit of an overhaul for the movement-we can't have scary, angry women frightening women away.  The anger is good, but it's time for change.  Simply stated: Do you have a brain and do you want to be in charge of it?  If you said yes to both, congratulations! You’re a feminist.  Caitlin Moran is funny and totally herself.  Thank you.

Ohhh Guava. If you have been privileged enough to visit Barbados (or the Caribbean) and have a taste of their homemade guava cheese you know how delicious it is. If you have not, then you must be wondering what the heck Guava cheese is. It is a Caribbean Candy which is no less than divine. This Pomegranate colored sugary treat may just be the sweetest part (literally) of your meal; the tart and bold flavor of the guava is perfectly balanced by the sweetness of the, well, sugar. Guava cheese is the perfect dessert if you just want that little sweet bite after a meal or a sweet something to snack on during the day.

Chance is a good librarian and the encounters she allows don’t follow any preconceived order or method. So it happens that, through my wanderings I remember some encounters and forget others, much as happens when browsing through my library. And the connections between these encounters weave and interweave, and form patterns that I can’t fully see or be conscious of. But they are there. So when a subject comes up in my mind, some of these interweavings, a few of these meetings are brought to mind, and then the subject is illuminated by memory. Unfortunately, as I grow older, the memories are fewer and far between…

May 28, 2013

Summer . . .

. . . 

is a place
the silence
allows you
to hear

~ Wallace Stegner

Even a casual glance at the news could make you think the empire is crumbling fast. If so, should I not urge you to undertake a cultural boot camp this summer that would prepare you for the moment when the walls collapse and -my worst fear -we’re on our own?  The books would all preach self-reliance; the music would be the soundtrack of aerobics. By September, you’d have the bodies of Marines and the mental toughness of Spartans.

Then I thought: Why? What have these people done to deserve to suffer more? They’re the smarties; they know all about the state of our little planet and the hacks in Congress and the garbage media. They can hard-body and tough-mind on their own. Cut them some slack. 

Well then, here’s a list of reads and views that might make you dream, give you comfort, put a smile on your face, or make you reflect and (gasp) think, should you be ‘forced’ to spend time away from it all, anywhere.


Mission to Paris (if you’re not going, here’s the next best thing. But if you have a deadline looming or even a busy week, the absolute last thing you want to do is crack open Mission to Paris and think you’re going to read just a chapter, because you’re not.)

Beautiful Ruins (it’s a stunner. Or, as they say at the library, awesome. Very unique. A real journey of a novel.)

The Queen’s Gambit (I dare you to start it and not finish. On a long plane trip, I started reading The Queen’s Gambit. The author was Walter Tevis, who had also written The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hustler-and who would later write The Color of Money. The woman sitting next to me tried to make conversation; I shushed her. A meal came; I pushed it aside. All I could do was read, straight to the end, weeping and cheering.)

A Field Guide to Getting Lost ("Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction." ~Rebecca Solnit )


Paths of Glory
Dr. Strangelove
2001: A Space Odyssey
A Clockwork Orange
Barry Lyndon
The Shining
Full Metal Jacket
Eyes Wide Shut

‘Cold. Satirical. Sardonic. Ironic. Godless.’- labels used to admonish Kubrick’s movies. 
But life isn't all beautifully arranged.  Spielberg shows us what we wish of ourselves; Kubrick shows us what we are.  We might yearn for Spielberg's human being – we might find it more palatable – but there's no greater truth in six hundred surviving Jews than there is in Kubrick's story of three executed soldiers. Ambiguity, uncertainty, awe, discomfort, excitement, boredom: I experience all of these things when watching Kubrick's films, but I've only inched closer to a logical explanation of my own experience, let alone that of any other.  A truly honest filmmaker, one who adheres to the traditions of this visual art form, holds a mirror up to the world to show us how it is; that is, how it appears through subjective eyes.
‘Parentless and bereft of moral guidance’-more labels.  It is not the purpose of art to provide this guidance, only to reflect upon its absence.
Alexander Walker writes: 'The humanist in Kubrick hopes that man will survive his own irrationality; the intellectual in him doubts it' ~Walker, Alexander. Stanley Kubrick Directs. London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1973.

“. . . I have never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, "don't try to fly too high", or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings’.”
~Stanley Kubrick, 1999

Things come, things go.
Drink the wine; but not in excess.
Enjoy the world; in perspective.
And, above all, guard your mind and use it well.

I wish you all an uneventful summer.  Do spend some part of it revering this place we call home.

May 5, 2013

Left behind.

I opened an old book at a used-book store and a hotel cocktail napkin with a room number printed on it fell out from between its pages. I imagined someone reading a book, being interrupted, and reaching for the nearest thing at hand to mark their place. What story did the napkin tell?  
I purchased the book solely on the basis of this forgotten bookmark.

I began to collect the odd things left behind between the pages of the books I bought. They offer a glimpse into other readers’ lives that they never intended for us to see, while withholding the full stories they tell.

I would describes them as treasures within treasures, like bits of random ephemera left inside books often untouched for decades, which leaves me with a misplaced sense of nostalgia.

I adore finding left-behind mementos in books (even my own).  And to those who have ever left something behind in one; I am indebted.

“If you take a book with you on a journey, an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. … .” ~Cornelia Funke

April 19, 2013

More ghostly recollections.

What a week! Again.

Now it's the weekend. Time for a movie.  In the slogan of the moment, might you want to "lean in" and see a meaty political thriller? If so The Ghost Writer has a cheery topicality; corruption at the highest levels of British government. Intrigue. Perhaps murder.

Gotta be fiction? Not necessarily. As a friend noted, the murder of respectable people by respectable people didn’t end with Shakespeare. But let's not argue: It is fiction, fiction with a point, delivered with great verve by one of the best directors.

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris, it’s the story of a writer who’s never named. That’s appropriate; his skill is writing the memoirs of celebrities. He’s fast. And good: The last book he ghosted, “He Came, He Sawed, He Conquered,” the memoirs of a magician, raced to the top of the best-seller list. Now he’s called in to complete the memoirs of Adam Lang, former British Prime Minister. He has just a month to turn the manuscript in.

Consider how Harris and Polanski launch the story. The book and movie begin on the ferry, crossing to Martha’s Vineyard on a blustery winter’s day. The ferry reaches the dock, empties. Except for one car.  Where is the driver? It’s a mystery. It’s also great movie making.

We quickly learn about that car and its driver. Lang has been holed up in a beach house on the Vineyard. And, coming across on the ferry one night, Michael McAra, Lang's ghostwriter and long-time aide, went overboard and drowned. A suicide? 

Who's who in the cast? The former Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan, is a stand-in for Tony Blair. His attractive, chilly wife is a version of Cherie Blair. And the fresh trouble Adam Lang is in, allegations that he helped the CIA kidnap four Pakistani terrorists, the sort of thing that The Hague might consider a war crime, isn’t unbelievable, at least in England. 

For the ghostwriter, these charges couldn’t come at a worse time. Lang is angry and distracted; instead of working on the book, he races down to Washington for a photo op with the American Secretary of State, a woman who just happens to be African-American. Slowly, painfully, the ghost begins to make connections between Lang’s new problems and McAra’s death. And the tension mounts…

If you are seeing parallels between The Ghost Writer and Polanski’s own situation - a man accused of terrible crimes, living in exile, trying to clear his name-give yourself ten easy points. If you see a connection to Chinatown a less than professional detective, way over his head, stumbles into a conspiracy so corrupt he’s unprepared to recognize it, give yourself ten more. (Extra-point question: The Asian man sweeping the decks at Lang’s beach house what’s his equivalent in Chinatown?)

The film making is confident, organic, and efficient at the highest level. Although Polanski is now 77, the director who made Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist still has his A-game. In an interview, Pierce Brosnan expresses his admiration:

“The lens was never far from his hand. I sat on the back of the camera one day…His viewfinder was burnished with time, the numbers were worn away and they were all penciled in on bits of gaffer tape…He’d be setting the camera up and having a private conversation with himself. You’d be going for the take and he’d be, ‘No, no, stop, no,’ and then, ‘Give me the camera, I want the camera, the fucking camera.’ He could freak some people out. But that was his passion.”

The Ghost Writer is fun and provocative and adult. It reminds us that a thrilling film can be made in a living room, that a sharp conversation can be as deadly as a bullet, that music and cinematography don’t have to assault the ear or poke you in the eye to be thrilling. How old-fashioned. How refreshing.

April 13, 2013

Ode to an Old Tart

It is a well know fact that tarts are easy; a sure thing and none so more than the Bakewell Tart.  The sugary little strumpet has been pleasuring palettes since 1820.  

My somewhat lurid treat is a tribute to The Crimson Petal and The White, Michael Faber's book which reveals the seamy underbelly of Victorian London. Add me to the list of people who appreciate Faber’s vividly-detailed writing! The setting of this story is so well-described that, for a few nights, I actually dreamt that I was in London’s streets in 1875. 

Enjoy but most of all be grateful that you weren't born a woman in Victorian London.

Serve with whatever delights take your fancy.

March 22, 2013

The Way to Calvary.

Every Execution has its history.

Computer generated special effects have come a long way in the last ten years, moving closer and closer to a fantasy-based realism unlike anything so far presented on screen.  This is all well and good, and realist-minded film theorists have argued for a fidelity to life-like artistic representation since the advent of cinema, but I feel a downside also exists. That downside comes in the form of that spectacle’s dwindling ability to awe its audience and the audience loses its ability to imagine, to stretch the limits of belief. Therefore it’s refreshing to see, on occasion, a film utilizing CGI technology in order to trigger an audience’s imagination in a way that allows them to interpret images, to fill in gaps.

Such a film is Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross and my approach to art history will never be the same after this.  It invites the viewer to literally enter the mind of Flemish master Pieter Bruegel and glean the deeper meaning of his 1564 painting “The Way to Calvary.”  A first that we can only hope sets a precedent, Majewski uses Bruegel’s preparatory drawings, computer generated blue-screen compositing, 3D imaging, a huge painted backdrop as well as on location shooting to invite the viewer into the craggy landscape where all the rituals of daily life unfold.  What you’ll learn is that against the backdrop of the brutal Spanish Inquisition, Breugel had to be clever and he imbedded his work with a series of symbols that tell a compelling crucifixion story.  There are more than 500 figures in the panoramic painting, including an array of villagers at different stations in life and the red-caped invading horsemen who butchered and then suspended them on huge wheels for all to see.  Rutger Hauer plays a Breugel who imparts wisdom about life and art that makes us hunger for more.  Charlotte Rampling delivers a Virgin Mary whose suffering is palpable. The film is based on Michael Francis Gibson’s novel bearing the same name.

The film’s plot is thin to the point of being nonexistent; Bruegel, played by Rutger Hauer, sketches out and paints The Way to Calvary while explaining it to his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, played by Michael York. The film’s particular genius lies not in this simple plot, but in how it is visually presented. The painting itself surrounds Bruegel, with the figures he details living and breathing in the space around him, moving beings occupying a CGI constructed background that captures the tones and depth of Bruegel’s brushstrokes. Llech Majewskiallows the viewer to actually live inside Pieter Bruegel’s bustling Flanders landscape as he creates his 1564 masterpiece The Way to Calvary. Bruegel wields the power to freeze his figures, to isolate certain elements while others move on undisturbed, manipulating the fragments of his work to his liking. The result is not, as so many CGI worlds are, a reality dependent on fantasy, but rather a fantasy dependent on reality. Bruegel’s world and his painting are very much real, but Majewski’s film presents them in a way that is more than real, that is surreal.

Now, I will say viewing this film takes a certain amount of patience, and may not be for everyone. In most films, CGI is synonymous with a certain level of action that is not present in The Mill and the Cross. However, for those with an interest in art history, unconventional narrative, or simply something outside standard cinematic fare, The Mill and the Cross not only pays off, but stands up to multiple viewings as well.

March 9, 2013

To be or not to be . . .

. . . was that the question?

Perhaps for L'Empereur it should have been; to go, or not to go.

“It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going to do, except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever”, said Stanley Kubrick in answer to his plans to make a film about Napoleon. Kubrick never made the film, but now Steven Spielberg has optioned Kubrick’s original screenplay and announced his own ideas to make a mini-series.  I suppose we might expect this version to be “the best mini-series ever”?

One recalls Marlon Brando as Napoleon in the 1954 film “Desiree”, with Jean Simmons and Merle Oberon as Empress Josephine, not his best effort.

Not so silly was the epic 1927 French silent film “Napoleon, which ran about five hours! It was directed by Abel Gance. In 1980, restored by film historian Kevin Brownlow, and with a new score composed by Carmine Coppola, Gance’s “Napoleon” had a much acclaimed revival. For some Los Angelitos, it was the in thing to do, going to see this mammoth work. Many were just interested in seeing if they could actually sit through the film without a cocktail, a snack, or a trip to the bathroom. It was an entitled endurance trial.
Of course, true cinema fans were enraptured. They didn’t need snacks. But for a while, what you heard most at gatherings was “Have you seen ‘Napoleon?’ The hours flew like minutes.” 

March 2, 2013

The “art” of resistance.

One would not necessarily look for the second largest collection of Russian Avant-Garde Art in the midst of Uzbekistan. And yet, the Karakalpakstan State Museum - or the ‘Louvres des Steppes’ as the French magazine Telerama named it – houses an enthralling collection of 90,000 items from archaeological objects and antiquities to cutting edge contemporary art.

This incredible story of how a treasure trove of banned Soviet art was stashed should beg the question, and inspire the exploration, of how art survives in times of oppression.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, a small group of artists remain true to their vision despite threats of torture, imprisonment and death. Their plight inspires a young archeologist (and frustrated painter) Igor Vitalyevich Savitsky. Pretending to buy State-approved art, Savisky instead daringly rescues 40,000 forbidden fellow artist's works and creates a museum in the desert of Uzbekistan, far from the watchful eyes of the KGB. Though a penniless artist himself, he cajoles the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who are banning it. He amasses an eclectic mix of Russian Avant-Garde art. But his greatest discovery is an unknown school of artists who settle in Uzbekistan after the Russian revolution of 1917, encountering a unique Islamic culture, as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin. They developed a startlingly original style, fusing European modernism with centuries-old Eastern traditions.

Ben Kingsley, Sally Field and Ed Asner voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and the artists. Intercut with recollections of the artists' children and rare archival footage, the film takes us on a dramatic journey of sacrifice for the sake of creative freedom. Described as “one of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art” by the New York Times and located in one of the world's poorest regions, today these priceless paintings are a lucrative target for Islamic fundamentalists, corrupt bureaucrats and art profiteers. The collection remains as endangered as when Savitsky first created it, posing the question whose responsibility is it to preserve this cultural treasure.

Directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, 2010

February 15, 2013

Great Fireside Evenings.

Three of the most pleasant and comforting words in the language are fireside, book, and wine.  They form a natural ménage à trois.  What follows is not to be taken too solemnly.

Arsene Lupin - you know him not, but to generations of European readers he was the French Sherlock Holmes. Alas, Holmes was on the side of the law, a stodgy enterprise. But Lupin was a burglar.  A gentleman burglar.  A burglar with wit and style. It was a thrill to watch him work.

And, indeed, you could watch him work, for Lupin-like the anarchists in The Four Just Men-liked to announce his crimes in advance, the better to turn theft into sports. In the most famous of the Arsene Lupin stories, he breaks into a house, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: "Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine."

And how about this note, to a person so paranoid that he has had his house sealed, so that no one but staff may enter:

There is, in the gallery in your castle, a picture of Philippe de Champaigne, of exquisite finish, which pleases me beyond measure. Your Rubens are also to my taste, as well as your smallest Watteau. In the salon to the right, I have noticed the Louis XIII cadence-table, the tapestries of Beauvais, the Empire gueridon signed 'Jacob,' and the Renaissance chest.  In the salon to the left, all the cabinet full of jewels and miniatures.

For the present, I will content myself with those articles that can be conveniently removed. I will therefore ask you to pack them carefully and ship them to me, charges prepaid, to the station at Batignolles, within eight days, otherwise I shall be obliged to remove them myself during the night of 27 September; but, under those circumstances, I shall not content myself with the articles above mentioned.

Accept my apologies for any inconvenience I may cause you, and believe me to be your humble servant, “Arsene Lupin.”

P.S. Please do not send the largest Watteau. Although you paid thirty thousand francs for it, it is only a copy, the original having been burned, under the Directoire by Barras, during a night of debauchery. Consult the memoirs of Garat. And I do not care for the Louis XV chatelaine, as I doubt its authenticity.

There's something delicious about a man who commits non-violent crimes with panache - it's almost as if he's liberating the art and furniture, rescuing them from people who take pleasure only in owning them. The French thought so, anyway: Starting in 1906, Maurice LeBlanc pounded out twenty volumes of stories about Lupin, all in the neat, near-non-fiction style of de Maupassant and Flaubert. (Inevitably, Lupin would confront Sherlock Holmes. Guess who won?)  Later, there were plays, movies, even comics. And the character was easy to update-on television, Lupin morphed into “The Saint.”

Lupin is at once a 19th century figure and a modern rogue: “Why should I retain a definite form and feature? Why not avoid the danger of a personality that is ever the same? My actions will serve to identify me.” All he cares about is his art. It gives him pleasure to commit a crime even while locked in a jail cell. And because disguise and indirection are his greatest skills, it thrills him to announce, with all candor, “I shall not be present at my trial - Arsene Lupin remains in prison just as long as it pleases him, and not one minute more.”

It is great fun to try and outguess Lupin. Consider dressing the part while you savor these tales. A smoking jacket or a silk robe. What we need to drink here is something complex that reveals its secrets slowly.  Montrachet maybe? And Chopin?  After a while, Lupin's cracked morality starts to make a great deal of sense, and your mind drifts. By the third or fourth story, you'll be contemplating a jewel theft. And why not? Mrs. X doesn't really appreciate that necklace. And it is insured.

February 5, 2013

The Tube at 150

No, not your old T.V. tube.

From a bomb shelter for families during the Blitz to the lair of a cannibal troglodyte, the London Tube has in its time played many parts. As the London underground celebrates its 150th anniversary, I picked 10 onscreen appearances.

Underground (1928) Director Anthony Asquith
Many feature films have included sequences shot on London’s famous underground railway but this 1928 production by talented young prodigy Anthony Asquith was the first. The tube had been an integral part of London life for well over half a century by this time and the first thing you notice about the film is how incredibly familiar the scenes filmed on the underground feel. All our favorite protocols (giving up seats, reading over people’s shoulders, invasion of body space) and other tube-specific behavior are exhibited here.
The story – told in beautifully spare, elegant film making language with the odd experimental flourish – concerns the convoluted love lives of four young Londoners and culminates in a thrilling chase over the roof of the Lots Road power station.

Bulldog Jack (1935) 
Director Walter Forde
The underground provides the backdrop for the thrilling climax to this fast-paced comedy-thriller variation on Sapper’s thick-ear Bulldog Drummond adventures. Jack Pennington (Jack Hulbert) steps into Drummond’s shoes when the latter is injured in a car accident and crosses swords with master criminal Morelle (Ralph Richardson on maniacally splendid form), who’s intent on stealing some jewels from the British Museum.
Our hero tracks Morelle down to his hide-out in the disused (and fictional) tube station of Bloomsbury (an idea based on Brompton Road Station having been recently closed in 1934), leading to a chase on a runaway tube train.

Christmas under Fire (1941) Director Harry Watt
Few scenes in this Ministry of Information short could be more poignant or better capture the spirit of British fortitude in the face of adversity than those showing the capital’s citizens sheltering overnight in London underground stations during the Blitz. Makeshift coat pegs line the tube tunnel walls as all around families lie on platforms with blankets and battered suitcases, with an occasional Christmas tree, trimmed and bedecked with tinsel, serving as a reminder that this is the traditional season of peace and goodwill.

Passport to Pimlico (1949) 
Director Henry Cornelius
When the residents of Miramont Place, Pimlico discover that they are in fact subjects of the ancient Duchy of Burgundy, they decide to escape the rationing and privation of post-war Britain by declaring themselves foreigners.
In one of the film’s funniest scenes, they flag down and board tube trains to impose document and custom checks on the bemused passengers. While one tourist is delighted  to have his passport stamped ‘Pemberton’s Stores – Received with Thanks’, most of the travellers are hostile to the intrusion, particularly when asked if they are carrying any “muskrats, mealworms, motorcycles, hashish, prepared opium or agricultural machinery.” The scene descends into chaos when a magician, asked if he has any livestock, releases a suitcase full of doves into the already overcrowded carriage.

Under Night Streets (1958) 
Director Ralph Keene
Circa 1958, British Transport Films (BTF) was the classiest industrial film production unit in the world. Among nationalised transport concerns, London Transport (LT) came second, after British Rail, on BTF’s client list. And London Underground sat atop the pyramid of LT’s operations…
Enter Under Night Streets: an elegant middle-of-the-track study of four hours of overnight fluffing, mending and reconditioning of tube lines by over 1000 staff. Skilfully compressed into 20 minutes by documentary veteran Ralph Keene, it’s a mini-masterpiece of transport film making, as stylish but stately, self-respectful and proficient, as LT’s nameless nocturnal employees. 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966) Director Gordon Flemyng
The Dalek invasion has left London a bombed-out shell, not unlike the post-Blitz scenes of the Second World War. The survivors have formed a resistance and set up their headquarters in a secret room in the depths of Embankment underground station, the entrance hidden behind a poster warning of the dangers of drinking rainwater. There they prepare weapons to fight the ‘motorised dustbins’ patrolling the streets.
Although much of the film is studio-bound, there are some evocative shots of London, including the sight of a Dalek emerging from the Thames – the moment when Dr Who realises that he’s facing his greatest nemesis.

Death Line (1972) Director Gary Sherman
The underground, with its labyrinth of tunnels and disused stations, is a prime location for a horror film and Death Line makes great use of the creepy setting. In an abandoned station between Russell Square and Holborn, the descendants of railway tunnellers trapped by a roof collapse in 1892 have lived and bred, feeding on unsuspecting passengers.
Now only one of the troglodytes survives and, diseased and pustulent, he goes in search of a new mate to continue the line. Sickness and interbreeding have reduced him to little more than an inhuman creature; the only phrase he can utter is the one which he has heard echoing through the warren of tunnels over the years: “Mind the doors!”

Hidden City (1987) 
Director Stephen Poliakoff 
In Stephen Poliakoff’s directorial debut, visitors to underground London are taken on a trip to the past as disused stations and bunkers house archives of secret documents and films.
Academic James (Charles Dance) is persuaded by the enigmatic Sharon (Cassie Stuart) to look for clues to a film-related mystery in the Kingsway tram tunnel and in a deep level shelter under Tottenham Court Road which was used by Eisenhower during the Second World War. Hidden City serves as a reminder of the history that is tucked away in the real parts of the underground that are no longer used for transport.

Sliding Doors (1998) Director Peter Howitt
Forget God, it’s the London underground that determines destiny in Peter Howitt’s smart romantic comedy. Two different realities unfold for Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), depending on whether or not she catches her tube (the underground scenes were shot at Waterloo and Fulham Broadway stations). In one alternate universe she returns home to discover her boyfriend’s infidelity, in the other she carries on oblivious.
Like Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Sliding Doors is misremembered as a lightweight date movie, but its themes of relationship breakdown, miscarriage and death add a pleasing counterpoint to the froth, and its nifty gimmick, reminiscent of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, works very well.

Skyfall (2012) Director Sam Mendes
“Welcome to the London rush hour,” the new head of Q Branch teases agent 007 (Daniel Craig) during a tense pursuit on the underground. “Not something you’d know much about.”  It’s true that James Bond is more commonly found in casinos or in exotic locales, but for this 50th anniversary entry in the spy series director Sam Mendes brought Bond home to London for much of the action.
Pursuing escaped cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) from MI6’s subterranean HQ, Bond tunnels out onto the platform at Temple tube, where his progress is thwarted by a swarming metropolitan throng. Seeing Silva board a westward-bound Circle line train, 007 goes one better than the most time-pushed commuter, leaping over the electrified tracks onto the rear of the rapidly departing carriage.

January 28, 2013

Faded glory for a messed-up world.

 I have been asked to comment, but wait, let me first get the lamentations out of the way:

James Bond is misogynist and heteronormative.
Layered with racial and class stereotypes.
Skyfall is neither cleverer nor more sophisticated than its predecessors.

And so on and so forth!

Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.
Bond: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.
Q: Well, I'll hazard, I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.
Bond: Oh, so why do you need me?
Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.
Bond: Or not pulled. It's hard to know which in your pajamas.

I can recommend Roger Ebert's review  “... I don't know what I expected in Bond No. 23, but certainly not an experience this invigorating...”


Skyfall is an exhilarating combination of new and old which remakes the franchise while somehow coming full circle and putting Bond back where he began proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way Bond and M had to battle suggestions of both people and institutions being "too old" and "outdated." M's speech quoting Tennyson is nothing short of genius and it captures exactly the uncertainties of our age. 

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

The movie is unashamedly positive about the necessity of defending and loving Britain. This is a Bond movie you should see if you have the slightest interest in the franchise. And if you do not, perhaps you will enjoy the soundtrack.

January 7, 2013

“The life we live and the life we choose.”

“Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.” -Richard Niebuhr

The Way of Saint James — or, as it is called by the locals, El Camino de Santiago — is a roughly 800-km pilgrimage walk through northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela where, according to pious legend, lie the remains of St. James the Apostle. Pious legend is almost certainly faulty on this point, but nonetheless the Camino has been an important Catholic pilgrimage route for over 1000 years. I myself walked a portion of it — roughly the first 10% — in 2006, and I hope one day to return to complete what I have started.

On the way one finds people with every kind of intention. There are those who are on religious pilgrimage, of course, and in some sense they have pride of place, for they carry on the tradition that is the Camino’s raison d’etre. It is for them that the shrines, churches, prayers, and devotions associated with the Camino make sense. But naturally there are others too: people of other faiths, or none, walking the route for their own reasons.

In the movie, The Way, Martin Sheen plays Tom Avery, an American called to a small town in the Pyrenees to identify the body of his son, Daniel (played by Sheen’s real-life son, Emilio Estevez, who also wrote and directed the film). Daniel had been killed in a sudden storm on (what must have been) the first day of his Camino trek. Tom has never heard of the Camino before, and suspects the walk of being another of his unfocused son’s fruitless enthusiasms, but once finding himself there he decides to walk the Camino himself, scattering his son’s ashes along the route, as a way of honoring his final wishes. Along the way he encounters a number of other pilgrims, has a variety of adventures, and eventually does find his way to the magnificent portals of the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago.  The last act of the film from the arrival in Santiago to the closing credits brings the emotional arc of the film to a satisfying conclusion.

The theme of pilgrimage is a rich one, ripe with possibility. A pilgrimage is, by its nature, a living metaphor for the journey of life itself, and there would seem to be no natural limit to the potential emotional and spiritual scope of a film of this sort.

The Way is content to limit itself to what it is, essentially if unconventionally, a domestic drama of the troubled relationship of a father and a son paired with beautiful scenery and a gallery of minor characters. It is a film of modest ambition, which is fine, and it succeeds, which is even better. I enjoyed it, and I recommend it.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich