Movies aren't reality, though they are real in themselves. Though the crowd scenes in Eisenstein's film October were for years used as newsreel footage in historical documentaries, that film, like every other movie ever made, only reflects a view of reality. Acting is pretending.
Matt Damon and Michael Douglas do a pretty good job pretending to be, respectively, teenage doll boy Scott Thorson and his ageing sugar daddy Liberace. The film Hollywood reportedly worried about being too risque for American cinema-goers isn't remotely as explicit as Jack Hazan's 1974 biopic of David Hockney and his West London friends, A Bigger Splash.
The first man-on-man cinematic snog that I remember seeing was Peter Finch and Murray Head in John Schlesinger's maligned 1971 film about middle-class London, Sunday, Bloody Sunday. Even though Finch had played Oscar Wilde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde, the pleasurable passion with which he kissed Head startled me.
Behind the Candelabra has neither the cock and balls reality of A Bigger Splash, in which Peter Schlesinger's betrayal of Hockney is graphically portrayed in an altogether more raunchy man-on-man scene, nor the poignancy of Sunday, Bloody Sunday, in which Head's bisexual character toys with the affections of Glenda Jackson and Finch and then insouciantly sods off to the States to promote his garden water sculptures.
Both films disturbed me to greater or lesser degrees. Fascinated me too in the portrayal of a lifestyle of a time and place that I recognised - Swinging London going to druggy seed before the Winter of Discontent. Performance goes down the same road, only the action is supposed to be set in Notting Hill. Behind the Candelabra, which starts out almost as a camp comedy - all done in Kenny Everett's best possible taste darling - didn't disturb me at all.
Much as I enjoyed the acting, the way Michael Douglas played up to the notion that nothing succeeds like excess, my inner George Orwell moralising voice kept asking why Steven Soderbergh made the film at all. It told me little or nothing about the America in which Liberace rose from rags to excessive riches, reportedly earning $5m a year for more than 30 years. Not once in the film did the young and impressionable Thorson ask Lee just how rich he was, for example.
Lesley said the emphasis on conspicuous consumption and self-indulgence reminded her of the Paul Raymond biopic, The Look of Love, which bored both of us. I thought Soderbergh's film endeavoured to go a bit deeper than that, suggesting that for a while at least Thorson, the product of a broken home, and mother-dominated Liberace found a measure of love and happiness inspite of Liberace's self-obsession and control freakery, down to having his partner's face reorganised to look like his own.
The scene where Liberace takes his young buck out to the shops to dress him and deck him in gold just has to be a reference to the self-same scene in Sunset Boulevard in which Gloria Swanson drapes her toy boy, played by William Holden, with expensive raiment from Rodeo Drive or some other godless Babylon. In that film her emotional stranglehold on him, demanding that he writes her Salome movie instead of getting on with his own work, is felt cumulatively. But in Behind the Candelabra we are led to believe that the rot set in because bi-sexual Thorson refused ot take it up the arse from the louche ivory tinkler who had had implants to keep himself stiff.
I didn't care. I needed to feel some empathy with either or both of them - their back history, their struggle, their public striving, their personal failings. If Liberace had decided to depart from his comfort zone just once and perform Beethoven piano sonatas all the way through, that would have been dramatically interesting. I'm not talking about the real man, who liked to play classical excerpts with the "boring bits" taken out. He was a camp Victor Borge bent on entertaining and nothing else.
Nor did I care that Liberace (in the film) thought he needed to keep his real sexuality from the public. He didn't do it because he was afraid of a homophobic backlash, but because they might not pay to see him swan up and down in clothes the cost of which would have fed Winsconcin.
The real Liberace, whom I remember seeing on television when I was a kid, was the Jackie Pallo of the piano, a showman who made no apology for showing off, being more glamorous than real life. Though I don't care for glamour, if his act made millions feel better, more cheerful, for a while, then he added to the sum of temporary human happiness. Behind the Candelabra didn't quite do that for me.
Go and see The Reluctant Fundamentalist or acquire the dvd of The Lives of Others or Grand Canyon. And when the world really pisses you off you could do worse than watch Michael Douglas in Falling Down - the very counter to the substanceless style of his latest.
Friday, 14 June 2013
Movies aren't reality, though they are real in themselves. Though the crowd scenes in Eisenstein's film October were for years used as newsreel footage in historical documentaries, that film, like every other movie ever made, only reflects a view of reality. Acting is pretending.
Saturday, 8 June 2013
Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh's biopic about Liberace and his paramour/servant Scott Thorson, has started a two-week run at Bradford's National Media Museum, which is where I shall be going to see it.
If this was the United States I wouldn't be visiting a cinema to watch Michael Douglas and Matt Damon enjoying themselves in the two lead parts; instead I'd be watching it on television. The explanation offered was that the film-makers or the money-men behind them decided that mainstream American picture-goers weren't ready for a film about two homosexuals.
Either that's a crafty piece of marketing designed to give the film the added attraction of notoriety or it's a wind-up. Without too much effort I can recall at least three films with homosexual themes that have done rather well: My Own Private Idaho (1991), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Milk (2008). Long before any of them Dirk Bogarde starred in Basil Dearden's 1961 film Victim, about London homosexuals being blackmailed at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. The film didn't do the admirable Mr Bogarde's career any harm.
My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, reportedly made more than $6m at the box office in the United States - more than double what was hoped for. Brokeback Mountain, which I saw and enjoyed the other week, was nominated for seven or eight Oscars and won three; reportedly it is among the ten highest grossing movies of all time. Milk, which I saw at the National Media Museum, based on the life and times of San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk, won two Oscars including Best actor for Sean Penn.
So I don't understand the reason given for Behind the Candelabra not being screened in movieland America.
Meanwhile, here in the home of the UNESCO's first World City of Film, a bit of a hoohah has blown up over the future of the National Media Museum. There was a demonstration of support/defiance in the sunshine this morning, which a couple of hundred people went to.
It's clear to me that divergent narratives are emerging. In one, Bradford Council was warned of the consequences of national spending cuts to the Science Museum's budget two years ago. They were asked to help with the funding of the NMM. In spite of accruing cash reserves in excess of £129m, the council made no financial commitment. Hence the current crisis.
This narrative looks plausible, is politically comforting, distracts criticism from in-house incompetence, and blames somebody else for the city's plight. History shows that this is usually Bradford's preferred option.
I am inclined to think the first narrative is closer to the truth. Why? Because an MP told me that the museums in Manchester and York were never under threat of closure. So what have Manchester and York to gain by attaching their wheels to Bradford's creaky old wagon? Zero.
The campaign to save the NMM - a decision, we are being told will be made at the end of June - is valiant and necessary. Anyone interested can call up the Telegraph & Argus website and sign the online petition. The idea of the NMM shutting, and with it three major annual film festivals, in a World City of Film, is ridiculous.
But for nearly ten years the forces of authority in Bradford tried hard to run down and then demolish the historic Odeon cinema. For exactly the same period the same forces have backed the Westfield shopping mall development in what used to be historic Forster Square, destroyed to make way for it. Although we are halfway through the year there is neither sign nor word from Westfield about when they will make a start. The Odeon, by the way, was saved by the Government, to be precise Eric Pickles's Homes and Communities Agency. So that's one fat cat Bradford should thank, but it won't.
In spite of the City Park and its illuminated fountains, which would have pleased J B Priestley, central Bradford cannot afford to bugger up yet another asset. The Central Library, one of the many 1960s improvements, has been shut for more than a year and will never open again for the purpose for which it was built; it has too many structural flaws. It cost £800,000 in 1967. The Council has said it is prepared to fork out £8m in capital to convert the library into council offices and a conference centre for officers.
Meanwhile, nine miles to the east, Leeds is looking forward to the arrival of Elton John and Leonard Cohen for the inaugural concert in the city's new concert arena.
Times change but not the excuses. This morning I overheard a man declare that Bradford had had a bad press over the years. Ah, so the Fourth Estate was responsible for the Ripper killings, the Bradford City Fire Disaster, the 1995 Muslim riot and the 2001 Muslim riot. It was the media who announced in Crown Court that Bradford was the "heroin capital of the North".
It's all my fault. Mea culpa.
Thursday, 30 May 2013
After re-visiting the film about the 1986 Challenger shuttle investigation, called The Challenger, I started reading about Professor Richard Feynman, the American theoretical physicist who sat on the investigating committee and who was played in the film by William Hurt.
I watched as many short YouTube films as I could find which showed Feynman talking about understanding things. Took me a while to realise that the real-life Feynman had evidently drawn something out of the actor so that I was watching William Hurt play an aspect of himself inspired by the script and his Feynman researches.
And then today, while reading an online article in Forbes magazine about the electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, the man credited with developing A/C current, I came across the following quote by Mark Twain:-
It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing - and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite - that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.
I thought I better write that down in the hope of not repeating that mistake too many times myself. Between hubris and sanctimony falls the shadow. Albert Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
And if you can't understand anything well enough to explain it simply you simply don't love it. I can't think of a better embodiment of this truth than William Tyndale (1494-1536), a Bible scholar whom Melvyn Bragg rates as having done as much for the English language as Shakespeare:-
Tyndale was burned alive in a small town in Belgium in 1536. His crime was to have translated the Bible into English. He was effectively martyred after fighting against cruel and overwhelming forces, which tried for more than a dozen years to prevent him from putting the Word of God into his native language. He succeeded but he was murdered before he could complete his self-set task of translating the whole of the Old Testament as he had translated the whole of the New Testament.
Teaching himself Greek and Hebrew in the process, for Greek is the language of the New Testament and Hebrew the language of the Old Testament. Not Latin.
More than any other man he laid the foundation of our modern langauge which became by degrees and world language. "He was very frugal and spare of body," according to a messenger of Thomas Cromwell, but with an unbreakable will. Tyndale, one of the greatest scholars of his age, had a gift for mastering languages, ancient and modern, and a genius for translation. His legacy matches that other pillar of our language - Shakespeare, whose genius was in imagination.
Tyndale, like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman after him, valued directness and simplicity. As he roundly told a pompous and wrong-headed doctor of divinity: "If God spares me...I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Bible than thou doest."
The image of the ploughboy was brilliant - because the ploughboy was illiterate. Tyndale deliberately set out to write a Bible which would be accessible to everyone. To make this completely clear he used monosyllables, frequently, and in such a dynamic way that they became the drumbeat of English prose. "The Word was with God and the Word was God", "In him was life and life was the light of men", and many of his idioms were monosyllabic. The effect of this was immeasurable, not only in England but across the world.
As you can find out for yourself by reading Melvyn Bragg's The Book of Books, the story of the compiling and writing of the King James Bible of 1611. It inspired and influenced Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army and the slaves of the Southern states of America. William Tyndale gave them the words to shape and express their thoughts, feelings and ideas. "The first shall be last and the last shall be first", among them.
Thank you Mr Tyndale. I wish John Berryman had written a Dream Song for you.
Wednesday, 29 May 2013
Occasional skimmers of this blogger-rhythm may be aware of my strong weakness for cultural tourism. At the slightest opportunity I'll go into Paul Morley overdrive, not because I'm out to impress anybody: it's just the way I respond to things.
Only the other night, for example, while watching a film on YouTube about the extraordinary life and times of Albert Einstein, the notion occurred to me that T S Eliot's view of time in Burnt Norton, the opening poem of Four Quartets, might owe as much to Einstein's ideas about space-time as to any of the religious Indian philosophy Eliot read.
Time present, time past and time future are forever acting on one other, each shaping the other through history, through the sequences of man-made time. The only salvation, for Eliot, lies in finding God's time, the timeless moment at the still point of the turning world.
I also realised with something akin to excitement that Eliot's poem The Waste Land was published in 1922, the very year that Einstein's claim that space is curved was verified in Australia - 15 years after it was published in his General Theory of Relativity.
That set my inner cultural tourist off. Wasn't 1907 also the year that Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d' Avignon, the first major painting of Cubism? And didn't Cubism coincide with Stravinsky's great ballet scores, especially The Rite of Spring, first performed in Paris in 1913 to a scandalised audience. Wasn't Ezra Pound present, irately jabbing at protestors with his stick?
Knowing well enough my propensity for cultural tourism after all these years of futile febrile excitement, I was content to leave the matter alone until today, when I saw the front page of The Guardian. There was a facsimile of the front page of Stravinsky's seemingly impossible score above a photograph of the composer, presumably taken 100 years ago, wearing a soppy Man Ray-style beret and sitting astride a chair a la Christine Keeler. He looks like a young Wilfred Bramble or Charles Hawtry.
But the accompanying article by composer George Benjamin set off a chain reaction of memories:-
This, in a way, is Cubist music - where musical materials slice into one another, interacts and superimpose with the most brutal edges, thus challenging the musical perspective and logic that had dominated European ears for centuries. Stravinsky's greatest weapon in this assault was a fundamental musical resource, low on the list of priorities for most post-Wagnerian composers: rhythm.
When I first heard The Rite of Spring as a schoolboy I felt the great rhythmic parts in pictures. There was the slow churning in the cellos and double basses that sounds like a great black steam train ploughing through wild snowy terrain, uphill. I loved that, absolutely loved it. I described this image to a musical friend, who was given to conducting Beethoven masterpieces standing in the front room of his Fulham flat using only his hands, like Leopold Stokowski, though his preference was Otto Klemperer who conducted sitting down in the latter part of his life.
He gave me a quizzical look. Evidently I was misunderstanding music. I was somewhat downcast after that, feeling estranged from the great rhythms I was attracted by but was unable to understand musically - Bartok's jagging String Quartet Number 6 and Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony. Oh to be able to write like that, bringing together disparate ideas and images in pulses of lines.
You shouldn't infer from that that I disdain the classical beauty of Bach, Haydn and Mozart for flashy Modernism. The one composer's work I would to a desert island would be Beethoven's String Quartets. They contain all the mood music anyone could want. Like the best passages of Four Quartets, like Einstein's life and death equation E=mc2, those string quartets are the ultimate answer to the prattle of cultural tourism. Energy, mass and the speed of light squared are beyond my comprehension; but the mind that conceived that beautiful and deadly formula in unpropitious Swiss circumstances, continues to amaze.
As for The Rite of Spring, which I played on Saturday afteroon along with Petrushka, I think I now prefer the latter. I admire the former, with its abrupt changes of pace and collision of violent climaxes; but Petrushka evokes a warmer, somewhat friendlier feeling, reminiscent of Anselm Hollo's poem about 1960s London, Going On, and the weekends my friend conducted Beethoven in the front room of his pleasent ground-floor flat in Fulham.
Wednesday, 22 May 2013
The two men who hacked the soldier to death near Woolwich barracks today may have thought they were Islamist jihadists, bringing the war back home to the streets of London.
By their actions - waiting for the police to come to catch them literally red-handed, then, reportedly attacking them only to be shot - did they hope to be embraced as martyrs for the cause, like the London bombers nearly eight years ago? The obnvious difference being, of course, that those Muslim young men died in the blasts they detonated. Or were they agent provocateurs, hoping their atrocity would provoke a backlash against Muslims by the likes of the English Defence League which in turn would incite young Muslims to follow their example?
Or were they just a couple of deluded nutters, mind fucked by ideological narratives that sounded more plausible to their ears than anything else they were hearing?
My inclination is to think they were, though I am mindful of the capital that groups of people antagonistic to one another are likely to make out of this killing; the Government too has something to gain. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary have already adopted the look of steely determination not to be bloodied or bowed by what they have called an act of terrorism. Clearly, the implication is, this is a time for the nation to stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, as we traditionally have done when bombed by the Luftwaffe in the 1940s, the Provisional IRA in the 1980s and Al Qaida in 2005. Evidently this is not a time for embarrassing questions or giving the Government a hard time over gay marriage, the European Union and the IMF.
After the much more serious events of July 7, 2005, a friend voiced his apprehension to me that the consequence would be a crackdown on civil rights. At the time I thought the bombings demonstrated that there probably should be a crackdown of some sort aimed at individuals who had voiced the desire to do this country harm.
But judging by what I have seen and heard on the news I am not inclined to rank the killing of the soldier with the premediated slaughter and maiming of all those people in 2005. The obvious difference is that the bombers blew themselves to what they hoped would be paradise, complete with 72 virgins for each of them. The two hackers who killed the soldier hung around afterwards, justifying themselves to people in the vicinity, evidently waiting for the police to turn up. The sight was bizarre and appalling, like television news footage from a South African township or Nigerian oilfield. And while one of them was spouting like Brutus, the huddled heap of the man we were told he had killed, presumably with the blood-stained knife and cleaver in his left hand, lay in the road.
On reflection I was surprised that none of the reporters or commentators mentioned the hacking to death of PC Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm Estate, Tottenham, in October 1985. He was sent there on riot duty and when he stumbled and fell a mob reportedly surrounded him, like Custer at the Little Big Horn. When they ran away he was left dead with multiple stab or hack wounds and a six inch blade sticking out of his neck.
As I recollect the country didn't fall apart then, just as it didn't after the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in London. The old fabric of society even withstood the wildfire rioting of August 2011, sparked off in Tottenham following the police shooting of black man Mark Duggan. Much of the copycat looting and burning was spurred on by displays of bravado transmitted by social messaging.
So how should we react to the terrible bit of televised theatre visited upon us by the news from London? I have a bad reaction to the expectation of reaction. Virtually every day I hear reporters being instructed to "get reaction" to this event and that happening; rarely, if ever, do I hear them being to told to weigh up, understand and explain.
So you'll have to excuse me if I decline to react in the expected way. I have my feelings, fears and apprehensions, like anyone else. But right now I'll keep my attack dog on a short chain, lest it drags me off to bark up the wrong tree.
Monday, 13 May 2013
"Don't fill your mind with science. Fill your heart with love." These words, or words very much like them, are attributed to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, subject of the recent BBC2 film The Challenger starring William Hurt in probably his best-ever character part. I watched it twice.
There was a profile on BBC4 recently. The man who died in Los Angeles in 1988 is reportedly returning to acclaim and popularity; a little film on YouTube, in which he talks about the beauty of understanding how something works, in this case a flower, has been receiving thousands of hits.
I have seen it and have also read chunks of the book he did with Ralph Leighton, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, including the section on his experiences at Los Alamos during World War II, helping the US military to invent, on behalf of the Allies, the atomic bomb before the Nazis got there first.
Feynman said in the TV profile how much he enjoyed the intensity of the work and how he had watched through a vehicle windscreen the first test explosion in Nevada - "it's only Ultra Violet light that blinds you and Ultra Violet light cannot penetrate glass". He didn't, however, enjoy the consequences when the Little Boy bomb was exploded above Hiroshima in August, 1945.
Perhaps it was that which prompted the thought that there was more to life than the power of death encaspulated in scientific equations. Like the British philosopher Alan Watts, like the American poet John Berryman, Richard Feynman was a serious man unafraid to to strike out on his own against current orthodoxies. William Hurt conveyed this brilliantly in The Challenger.
Until this film I had never heard of Feynman; consequently I had no idea of the part he played in determining and exposing the technical fault that caused hot gases to leak from defective seals on the one of the two liquid hydrogen towers rocketing the Challenger shuttle spacecraft away from earth on the cold morning of January 28, 1986. The subsequent explosion 75 seconds after lift-off killed all seven astronauts on board.
The man from the California Institute of Technology only agreed to take part in the investigation in Washington because he allowed himself to be convinced that there was a problem that only he could resolve. Solving technical problems was one of his lifelong joys. As a kid he gained a reputation for mending faulty radios by thinking - asking himself practical questions and arriving at the probable answer.
So why would a prize-winning man of science say: "Don't fill your mind with science. Fill your heart with love."? It sounds so Haight Ashbury, so Summer of Love. Little of the very little I know about Richard Feynman, however, suggests that he was an adherent of the flower power politics of San Francisco, or any particular philosophy. In fact he seems to have have been mistrustful of the value of philosophy.
In Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! there is a section called Is Electricity Fire in which Feynman recounts his experience of trying to understand the language of a possee of professors, invited to meet and discuss the ethics of equality. A stenotypist asked him if he was a professor. Feynman told him he was a professor of physics. "Oh! That must be the reason," he replied. Asked to explain further, the stenotypist said he didn't understand a word when the "other fellas talk. But every time you stand up to say something, I understand exactly what you mean - what the question is, and what you're saying - so I thought you can't be a professor!"
So I'm inclined to think that Richard Feynman believed that you could only truly teach anything, only truly learn anything, if you loved it.
A few years ago in a moment of serendipity I wrote a short poem the third and final verse of which goes:-
I cannot share
what I do not have.
I cannot teach
what I do not love.
That's a proposition I'd stand by.
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that," Feynman said. This sums up, I think, what he was as a scientist and tried to be as a man.
The finale of Richard Feynman's short appendix to the official Challenger Report in 1986 reads:-
Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them.
They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects.
Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
I quote this to remind myself once again that the human capacity to learn from mistakes is only outstripped by its readiness to repeat those mistakes with greater expertise. This is especially so of large organisations in which money, power and prestige outweigh any other consideration.
In February 2003 the space shuttle Columbia exploded on re-entering earth's atmosphere. Part of the spacecraft had been damaged by a chunk of protective foam that had ripped away from the underbelly of the fuel tank during flight. Like Challenger, all seven astronauts aboard were killed.
In subsequent years other shuttle flights were damaged by flaws in either design or engineering. Richard Feynman's report and his final adjuration were forgotten.
Thursday, 9 May 2013
To paraphrase the poet Andrei Voznesensky, worms come through holes, but bold men on parables. He actually said “parabolas”.