Archive for category Film
MASTER: Is the future going to be all girl?
DOCTOR: We can only hope.
Steve: “This war is a great big mess, and there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. I mean, we can get back to London and try to get to the men who can.”
Diana: “I am the man who can.”
NB What follows contains some spoilers… Caveat lector.
It mattered a great deal that Wonder Woman was, well, wonderful. I can cope with Batman v Superman being a bit meh, or the odd entry in the Avengers cycle being less than stellar. But she needed to kick it out of the damn park.
And she did.
It’s not that she’s the first or the only. She herself has been around since 1941, and there have, of course, been other women superheroes (and supervillains) in the comics and on TV and in the movies. But it’s very rare for the one who carries the whole movie, the centre and focus, the one on whom everything depends, to be a woman.
And as much as I love the current Marvel series, a lot of the time they are really quite blokey. The blokes are great – funny and noble (mostly) and gorgeous, so I’m not complaining, not really. But there’s not enough of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to balance things out. There’s a fine tradition of women heroes – think Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdene – human, but with outstanding courage and strength. And there’s always and forever Buffy.
Wonder Woman is different. First off, she’s a half-god. Not an alien, or an inhuman, not technically enhanced, but a straight-up, bona fide, god-almighty daughter of a god. Second, her upbringing on Themyscira sets her in a context where women are powerful, strong, brave, not exceptionally but as a norm.
The opening sequences of Amazonian women training, and then fighting on the beach made me want to weep and cheer at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a pacifist on the whole, but the simple fact that this small army was comprised of glorious women was somehow very moving.
Of course all these women are beautiful. But they’re beautiful athletes, not beautiful models. They’re magnificent in the way that Serena and Venus Williams are magnificent. Their bodies are toned and lean and powerful and they are in control of them.
Gal Gadot herself is mesmerisingly gorgeous. That Chris Pine spends much of the movie just gazing at her in awe is perfectly understandable – when she is on screen one would need a damn good reason to look elsewhere. (Of course, the men in the movie also spend a lot of time saying variants of ‘just wait here’, ‘leave it to us’ and so on, and Diana doesn’t bother to argue, she just gives them a bit of a look and then does what she has to do. The phrase ‘nevertheless she persisted‘ came inevitably to mind.)
She’s presented, in some ways, as naive. That’s justified by what we know of her origins – what she’s been told, and not told, about the world beyond Themyscira. That doesn’t diminish her – she is rocked by the realisation that things are not as straightforwardly binary as she’d believed, but she recovers from that, regroups her forces and fights on.
“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”
I wrote a while ago about the Marvel universe and why I love it so:
It’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:
“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”
Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.
Diana Prince, like the Doctor, like Captain America and all the other heroes, does what’s right because it’s right.
without hope, without reward, without witness
What we see in the movie is her first encounter with the world beyond Themyscira. It baffles her (to comic effect as she struggles to comprehend why a woman should tolerate clothing that hobbles and constrains her), and it troubles her as she begins to realise that the people she encounters cannot be divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She is not yet weary as Buffy is, so often, saving the world yet again. She has not yet lost battles, has not got centuries, aeons, of attempting to protect humanity from the forces that would destroy it. But nonetheless she would understand the Doctor.
Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
I was surprised at first at the choice to set Diana’s first encounter with the messy, murky world of humans in the first, rather than the second World War. But I think actually that’s right. The second is too simply a confrontation with evil, with the absolute worst that human beings could be. The first portrays more effectively the messiness and murkiness of it all – the moral questions about who started it and why, who joined in when and why are complex and still generate heated debate today (as was seen in the recent centenaries of the start of that war and of the Battle of the Somme). So the great evil that Diana confronts is not the Kaiser’s forces but war itself. Steve refers to ‘the war to end all wars’ but that description acquires layers of ambiguity, as it becomes clear that it is potentially also the war that never ends.
Interestingly, whilst the humans who represent that evil – chemical weapons scientist Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison), and General Ludendorff – are on the German side, the God of War himself is introduced to us as Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who is, it appears, attempting to negotiate an armistice. Murky, messy, or what…
We need Diana’s fierce kindness, her innocent clarity, to cut through all of this. We can’t aspire to her physical perfection, her power and strength. But we can be inspired by her moral strength. That kind of integrity is easy to dismiss as naive or po-faced – Captain America is its embodiment in the Avengers, and of course he is mocked by Iron Man, who himself embodies a more complex and troubled morality (Rick Blaine to Cap’s Victor Laszlo?).
But the simple fact that it is a woman who represents all of this – physical power, moral integrity, compassion – takes us to different places. That those men looking both for direction and guidance and for the power to follow through look to a woman still rocks our world a little bit. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough, not so far that we can see the Amazons fighting on Themyscira, and Diana taking on the patriarchy and the God of War without a thrill, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat.
And whilst we cannot aspire to Amazonian strength, we can still draw strength from the Amazons. From Diana, Buffy, Katniss, Ripley, and all of the women who stand up when it’s right to stand up.
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power … can stand up, will stand up. … Are you ready to be strong?
A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’. As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.
I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies. But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing. And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.
Obviously there are variations on the genre. To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song. In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra). In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.
So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.
Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think. The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic). But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.
From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft. Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time? But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget. The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer. He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.
There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.
There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific. 1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The theme of interracial relationships isn’t handled as it would be now, of course. But it’s handled. And back then, Rodgers and Hammerstein took an enormous risk in including a track which seemed to present a challenge to ‘the American way of life’. There was huge pressure to take the song out when the musical was staged, especially in the southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” And that song, those words, are powerful still.
And then there’s West Side Story .
Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever. Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction. The tunes, the moves, the words.
DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.
If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.
An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide. It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot. Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members. This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.
And so to La La Land.
The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film. But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references). The director has said that he wants to “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”
The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:
A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.
Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works. Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)
What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows? I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage. Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’. The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.
The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power. We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this. Which is why we need it.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus)
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times. But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.
We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear. That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman. What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations. If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too. That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.
It’s not enough, but it’s vital. Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;And I was filled with such delightAs prisoned birds must find in freedom,Winging wildly across the whiteOrchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;And beauty came like the setting sun:My heart was shaken with tears; and horrorDrifted away … O, but EveryoneWas a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)
It’s been a funny old year. But focusing for a moment on the year in film, it’s been pretty damn fine. In fact, there’s so much to say that whereas normally I bundle my films of the year review in with telly and music and theatre and general musings on the previous twelve months, I’m doing a stand alone film blog, to match my books of the year extravaganza.
I’m including some things I saw on DVD which may predate 2016 (some which do so by a whole bunch of decades in fact) but I think I’ve broken my personal record in terms of films seen at the actual cinema. Most at Sheffield’s wonderful Showroom, but several at Cineworld’s IMAX for the full 3-D ginormous screen experience.
Whittling this list down to a top ten, even if I don’t attempt to put them in any kind of ranking, is pretty much impossible. However, a top 3 emerges quite clearly, of which more later…
Two of the IMAX films I enjoyed this year were from the Marvelverse. The awesome Captain America: Civil War, which augurs well for the next batch of films from the franchise – action, spectacle, politics and moral quandaries, what more could you ask? Doctor Strange was visually stunning and Cumberbatch was terrific (definitely channelling Sherlock in the early parts of the film), and I look forward to his integration in the Avengers ensemble, riffing off Thor and Cap and co. The third was Fantastic Beasts, from the Rowlingverse, which was fantastic and lovely even if the plot was stretched a little thin to allow us to gasp in wonder at the beasts (reminiscent of the first HP film and the first Star Trek movie, so perhaps this is a feature of being first in a new franchise).
At the Showroom we saw possibly the most French French film imaginable, Things to Come, with Isabelle Huppert. I imagined (but have not attempted) a lethal drinking game, involving taking a swig every time a philosopher is namechecked… It’s a thoughtful film, that eschews comfy answers and pat resolutions, in which in a sense very little happens and there’s lots of talk, but also lots of pensive silences.
Marguerite was, oddly, one of two films based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins. I haven’t seen the Streep/Grant biopic but this was a lovely and touching fictionalised version, starring Catherine Frot.
I had high hopes of Dheepan, given the director’s track record – he made one of my favourite French films ever, The Beat my Heart Skipped, and A Prophet was also excellent. As was Dheepan, for the first couple of acts. After that it seemed to swerve into, first, a revenge thriller in which previous plot strands were left dangling, and finally into a kind of suburban idyll which surely must have been a fantasy (but why would a Tamil refugee previously living in the banlieue have such a detailed vision of the English suburbs?). Worth re-watching to see if I get a different sense of it, but I ended up baffled.
Anthropoid was a brutal depiction of the assassination of Heydrich and its bloody aftermath. Knowing the outcome increased the tension rather than dissipating it, and aside from a couple of minor Hollywood moments along the way it was gritty and clear sighted in refusing to show the protagonists as unswervingly brave and resolute heroes, but allowing us to see the panic and the doubt.
Childhood of a Leader was another film which seemed to lose its way slightly in the final act. It hadn’t quite earned the coda which was (without giving anything away) several imaginative leaps away from the previous scene – not impossible but a fair old stretch, and I think the whole would have been more persuasive had the finale been played with more subtlety and ambiguity. Having said that, along the way it was excellent, with the building sense of wrongness abetted powerfully by one of the best scores I’ve heard all year, from Scott Walker, no less.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Captain Fantastic were, in their different ways, delightful films about family. The former focuses on a ‘looked after child’ who is not only hunted (by the authorities – ‘no child left behind’ is not a slogan you will ever feel the same about after this film) but also hunting, for family, stability, love. It’s very funny, and very touching. Everyone leaving the cinema was smiling. Captain Fantastic was not a superhero movie at all, but the story of a family living off-grid, of a father trying to bring his children up with different values to those of their grandparents and the wider society, but then coming into conflict with those values. It was genuinely thought-provoking, as well as, like the Wilderpeople, funny and moving.
On DVD I saw two cracking Shakespeares. The first was new – Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender as the Macbeths. For the life of me I cannot comprehend why the early scene showing them at the burial of a child was controversial – the text is very clear that Lady M has given birth, and equally clear that there’s no offspring around now, so I’d always assumed they had a child that died, even if other productions don’t signpost this. This was possibly the best Macbeth I’ve seen – the two leads were totally compelling and chilling, and there was another terrific score, from Jed Kurzel. Then there was a wolfish Ian McKellen in Richard III, the 1995 film, also featuring Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr and Dominic West amongst other members of a terrific cast. This is the War of the Roses transposed to the 1930s, with fascism looming and the final battle taking place at a ruined Battersea Power Station rather than Bosworth Field. It takes some liberties with the text, combining a number of characters, for example, but it’s a tremendous production of a play I know well as a text but I think I have only seen on stage once. (That was at Nottingham Playhouse in 1971, with Leonard Rossiter in the lead, and the fact that I can remember the production and especially the final battle scene so vividly after 45 years is a tribute to the performance and the staging.)
The Martian was splendid, I loved Damon’s performance and the scripting of his monologues (the phrase ‘to science the shit out of’ something is one I yearn to use), but also Sean Bean (I had a moment of anxiety that he was going to adopt a transatlantic drawl, but no, he were proper Yorkshire) and Danny Glover. Still out there in the big wide cosmos, Star Trek Beyond was fairly daft but thoroughly enjoyable, and I wish, oh I wish, that I believed we could defeat fascism by playing the Beastie Boys on max volume…
Slow West built slowly and subtly to its bloody conclusion, subverting many of the classic western tropes along the way.
Sing Street was a funny and touching evocation of the early 80s through the classic boy meets girl, wants to impress girl, so forms a band storyline. Quite possibly the storyline behind the majority of bands ever formed. The music is pastiche, but openly and appropriately so, as the motley band of musicians change their style and appearance according to whatever they’ve just heard, or whatever they’ve just been told is cool. Lovely stuff.
I was far from convinced about the worth of a live-action Jungle Book but it was very well done and technically stunning, and the peril seemed more perilous than in the cartoon version. Zootopia was contemporary Disney at its most engaging with a female lead who’s definitely not a princess. She’s a rabbit, but she’s not a princess rabbit, OK? And Finding Dory was as touching and funny as I expected, with the motif of short-term memory loss being particularly poignant as we observe it in a close family member these days. We also liked the otters.
All of which brings me to my top three. I cannot bring myself to rank them, so here they are, in alphabetical order.
Arrival was science fiction at its most philosophical and thoughtful. The theme of language is one that has always fascinated me, and I thought during this of my favourite ever Star Trek Next Gen episode, Darmok, where the crew encounter a people who communicate only through allegory, so their translations are useless because they do not know the stories that are being referred to. ‘Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel’. Amy Adams is magnificent, and the narrative has an emotional heft that I cannot explain without spoilers, only to say that I was still weeping after the credits rolled.*
I, Daniel Blake I have written about elsewhere at length so will not reprise those comments here. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a tremendously powerful one, and aside from its political importance, the central performances are excellent.
Room is intense. It has to be, claustrophobically intense. In the novel we see everything through the eyes of the child, and of course the film can’t do that. We identify with Ma, who is so beautifully played by Brie Larson, a performance totally without vanity or showing off, where one of the most devastating moments is wordless and it’s hard even to describe how she says as much as she says. Jacob Tremblay is also outstanding and the rapport and intimacy between the two of them carries the film.
My three top films have women centre stage. Amy Adams, Brie Larson and Hayley Squires all deliver performances of great subtlety and depth. Squires is second billed but she gets almost as much screen time as Dave Johns and her side of the narrative is vital in showing the full impact of the benefit system. Each of the three is tightly focused on two key characters – Arrival on Adams’ character and Jeremy Renner’s physicist, IDB on Daniel and Katie, and Room on Ma and Jack – and so they only scrape through Bechdel. But Bechdel is not the only way of looking at women on screen and these three win as far as I am concerned by asking complicated, nuanced female characters to carry the story.
*OK, I almost always cry at the movies. Most of those mentioned above triggered a bit of a sob at some stage, but I only mention it when I have been especially overwhelmed.
This was the year we threw off the shackles of paid employment. Martyn first, in March, and me at the very close of 2015. It feels terrifying and liberating all at once.
For me, this new freedom will give me more time to do the things I care most about. My PhD, which I hope I will now be able to do justice to. And Inspiration for Life, in particular the 24 Hour Inspire. Of all the things I’ve done over the years, this is what I’m proudest of.
And I hope of course to have more time to do the other things I love, more time to read, write, listen to music, go to gigs, go to the cinema/theatre, meet up with friends, travel, watch some of the box sets which are gathering dust by our DVD player…
Below are some of the cultural highlights of 2015. I’ve been lucky to have access to Ensemble 360, Opera North, Tramlines, Sheffield Jazz etc, and to have wonderful friends and family to share these experiences with.
The best of the year, without a doubt, was Timbuktu. Abderrahmane Sissako’s film is both beautiful and harrowing, a passionate cry from the heart about the threat posed by fundamentalist jihadists to the people, the culture and the music of Mali.
I won’t rank my other favourites, but they are:
Inside Out – Pixar at its very, very best. Clever, imaginative, daring, funny and moving. As the Guardian review said, ‘In the film’s wildest moment, the wanderers enter a zone of abstract thought, where they are zapped into a series of increasingly simplified geometric shapes, as they – and the film itself – dizzyingly self-deconstruct (“Oh no, we’re non-figurative!”)’.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Ana Lily Amirpour’s film has been tagged as ‘the first Iranian vampire Western’. Atmospheric and full of unexpected touches (including a skateboarding vampire), and a powerful feminist narrative. Sheila Vand has a fascinating face that can look very young and somehow ageless at different moments.
Love and Mercy – biopic of Brian Wilson, portrayed both in the Beach Boy years and in later life, by Paul Dano and John Cusack respectively. Cusack’s portrayal is fascinating – seeing the clip of the real Brian Wilson at the end of the movie, I realised just how perfectly he had captured him, despite the lack of obvious physical resemblance.
I Believe in Miracles – the story of Nottingham Forest’s astonishing European Cup success. A joy from beginning to end. And featuring a couple of brief glimpses of my kid brother who was a ball boy at one of those games, as well as glorious clips of my all-time footballing hero John Robertson at his best. And funny and poignant anecdotes from the players, and clips of Clough running rings around interviewers.
Mad Max: Fury Road – just a blast, possibly the best action movie I’ve seen, with a powerful female lead in Charlize Theron’s Furiosa (an action movie that passes the Bechdel test!), visually almost overwhelming and with an awesome soundtrack. And the Doof Warrior.
Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’ve written previously about how much I love the Marvel films. This was a joy, thanks in large part to Joss Whedon’s crackling dialogue (the script is often where costs are cut in big budget movies, but thankfully not here).
Lots of Marvel here too, with Agent Carter, Daredevil and Agents of Shield all delivering in spades. Daredevil was the darkest of the three, but the others had their moments and all had humour, well-drawn characters and moments of poignancy as well as action. In other sci-fi/fantasy telly, Tatiana Maslany continued to be astonishing in Orphan Black, The Walking Dead continued to ramp up the tension till it was almost unbearable, and left us at mid-season break with everyone we care about in mortal peril – again. The latter also spawned a prequel (Fear the Walking Dead) which showed the start of the crisis – the bit we missed as Rick Grimes was in a coma in hospital whilst society crumbled in the face of the undead onslaught. And Humans was a thought-provoking and engaging take on issues around AI and what makes us human.
As always we watched a lot of detectives. Two French series – old favourite Spiral was back (we missed you, Laure, Gilou, Tintin et al), and a new drama, Witnesses, was complex and compelling with an intriguing female lead (Marie Dompnier). River was something else – Stellan Skarsgaard’s broody Nordic cop haunted by ‘manifests’ of his dead partner amongst others. Nicola Walker was stunning in this, as was Adeel Akhtar as River’s actual living partner. Walker also caused considerable potential confusion by simultaneously leading in Unforgotten, which made one forget the implausibility of an entire police team investigating a very cold case (and nothing else, apparently) by the subtle and compassionate portrayal of the various suspects as their past actions resurfaced to disturb the lives and relationships they had built. No Offence was refreshing too (though we felt uneasy with some particular plot developments in the later part of the series) with Joanna Scanlan’s DI being startlingly rude, but also funny, forceful and warm, and a fab supporting cast.
This is England 1990
This is England deserves a much more in-depth consideration than I can give it here – one would need to re-view the whole series from the film to this final (if it is indeed that) instalment. But there’s no denying – they can be a tough watch, as brilliantly funny as they often are. It’s not just the moments of horrifying violence, I think the hardest thing would be to have to go through again with Lol her descent into despair in TiE 88. Vicky McClure’s performance was intense without any histrionics and all the more devastating for that. This final part had moments too, relating to Kelly, and to Combo, which stay in the mind. And whilst the ending was upbeat, with that long-postponed wedding and Kelly’s return to the fold, Milky’s separation from the group and the reasons for it, and the likelihood that Kelly’s recovery will not be as straightforward as all that, mean that the darkness is not far away. It’s been a hell of a series, with superb writing and direction and equally superb performances.
Raised by Wolves
When it comes to comedy I can be a hard woman to please. Not that I don’t like a laugh, GSOH, that’s me. But I’ve given up on so many sitcoms because they’ve made me cringe more than they’ve made me chuckle. However, despite feeling slightly neutral about the pilot, I did get into Raised by Wolves, and fell rather in love with the magnificent Della (Rebekah Staton) as well as with the writing, which as expected from Caitlin Moran (and sister Caroline) was rude and exuberantly funny.
We watched this back in the day (88-97) and rewatching it now is punctuated by cries of ‘OMG that’s George Clooney’, or spotting Big Bang Theory cast members (Sheldon’s mum and Lesley Winkle, with Leonard still to show). But what we also realised was how much of our approach to parenting came from this show, where family life is chaotic, temperamental, combative but always loving. And ‘our’ tradition of summoning family members to the meal table with a loud cry of ‘FOOOD’ appears to have been inspired by the Conners as well. As I recall, things went seriously off kilter in later series, but so far, so funny. Joss Whedon had a hand (probably just a fingertip in some eps) in the early series, which can’t ever be a bad thing.
French drama focusing on the activities of various Resistance groups in Occupied France – this was obviously a must-watch for me. I hadn’t expected it to be as close to real events as it was, which was a mixed blessing, as I quickly realised who was doomed and who might survive… The central female character, Lili, was a fictional construct, which seems to have annoyed some viewers, but I felt it was a valid way of providing a thread to link the early activity of the Musée de l’Homme group with the Maison de la Chimie and the Combat and Manouchian groups, taking us all the way through to the Liberation. It was a powerful, well constructed drama. And the renditions of the Marseillaise, ringing out in prison cells and in the face of firing squads, came back to us so intensely in November when that spirit of defiance was called upon once again.
If the idea of series 1 seemed in principle a bit odd, a second series was all the more so. But if anything, series 2 is even better, even madder, even wittier than the first. The film had Frances McDormand, who is always a very good thing, and series 1 had Allison Tolman, who filled those shoes admirably. In series 2 we root for her dad, Lou (we’ve gone back in time) and grandad Hank (played by Ted Danson), and her mother Betsy (I would like some time to see Cristin Milioti NOT dying of cancer, if that’s OK). And we do kind of root for Peggy too, with her passion for self-actualisation and ‘being the best me I can be’, even if it proves somewhat dangerous for those around her.
Honourable mentions to Homeland, Doctor Foster (Suranne Jones magnificent as a woman scorned), and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
And of course there was Doctor Who. This year’s Who was top notch. Capaldi really found his voice, the plots were rich and complex without being merely baffling, and the climactic episodes were powerful and moving. I will be writing more about Who in due course.
On the Crucible main stage, we saw Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time, with a stunning performance from Sian Phillips, and Romeo & Juliet, with Freddie Fox and Morfydd Clark as the lovers. The Miller play seemed stagey at times (an odd criticism, in a way, for a stage play) but the performances carried it and I reflected afterwards on the way in which the Nazi death machine was itself stagey, whether the intention was to terrify and subjugate, or to deceive. Romeo & Juliet was terrific, but reminded me of how bloody annoying those two are, and it’s no disrespect to the actors that I wanted to give them both a good slap.
Operatic outings this year included a fabulous Kiss me Kate, a powerful Jenufa, and a magnificent Flying Dutchman, all from Opera North.
I’ve written previously about the splendid Bassekou Kouyate gig at the University’s Firth Hall.
At the Crucible Studio, Ensemble 360 treated us to performances of Mendelssohn, Ives, Janacek, Watkins, Brahms, Berg, Boulez, Kurtag, Mozart and Bartok, amongst others. Such fantastic musicians, and particularly delighted to have had the chance to hear so much 20th century music this year. Same venue, different ensemble – Chris Biscoe’s Profiles of Mingus feat. Tony Kofi on sax (we’d heard him playing Mingus last year, with Arnie Somogyi’s Profiles of Mingus). More jazz, courtesy of Leeds Jazz Orchestra (feat. one Aidan Hallett) in Leeds Golden Acre Park.
And then there was Tramlines. Nothing much to add to what I said at the time, except that I can’t wait for the 2016 festival.
So, thanks to those who shared these highlights with me. I look forward to lots more in 2016.
I hope to blog more in 2016, of course. I managed a post most months in 2015, and the overall total looks more impressive thanks to eight in Refugee Week and a few reblogs from That’s How the Light Gets In and Nowt Much to Say. I blogged for Holocaust Memorial Day, wrote about the Hillsborough inquests, the 24 Hour Inspire, Marvel films, Tramlines, the phenomenon of the ‘fugueur’, the music of Mali, the ‘refugee crisis’, and the murderous attacks by Daesh in Paris and elsewhere. I also blogged for Inspiration for Life, and on the aftermath of the May General Election. Thanks to all who have read, liked, reblogged, commented, etc.
And for 2016, which may seem to hold so much threat and so little hope, I cannot do better than to quote this poem, by Sheenagh Pugh. Apparently she doesn’t rate it – scribbled it in a hurry on a card for a friend going through a tough time. I beg to differ.
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
May it happen for you, may it happen for all of us.
One of the glorious by-products of the movements of peoples around the world, however grim the reasons, is the music. Music can cross any barriers, transcend any divisions, no translation required. People driven from their homes make take very little with them, but the songs they grew up with, the music they danced to or played, those weigh nothing. And they enrich the communities in which those people find new homes – music that moves our hearts, our hips, our feet, that comes from places we’ve never seen, with lyrics in languages we don’t speak. Music is vital.
That’s one of the reasons why watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest film, Timbuktu, is so intense and so harrowing. The ISIL/Taliban group who have taken over Timbuktu spend their evenings listening out for any sounds of music and silencing it. You could say that there are worse things – this regime does those too, stoning to death a couple accused of adultery. But killing music is a way of killing the soul.
The young musicians who make up Songhoy Blues fled their homes in the north of Mali and since then have been taking their desert blues around the world. They’re doing Glasto next week, but last July at Sheffield’s Tramlines festival I saw them play live and they made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.
Grainy, blurry black and white footage, shot by soldiers newly equipped with cameras and told to record everything they see. Long, panning shots, taking in the corpses, barely recognisable as human, in the ditch, and the dignitaries on the bank, impassive. Negative footage from Dachau turning the unimaginable into something even further beyond our reach. All of this went into the documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, made by Sidney Bernstein in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the camps by Allied troops (and using some of the footage from Russian units at Majdanek and Auschwitz). The title tells us a great deal about why this film was made, its purpose to give us irrefutable evidence of what happened, anticipating both the denials of the German population, including the camps’ near neighbours, and the denials of subsequent generations.
Night will Fall is a film about this film. Sections of the original are interspersed with interviews with those who made it – Bernstein, Hitchcock, some of the soldiers – and with survivors who found their own faces amongst the images of the gaunt, desperate yet joyous throng. The survivors speak more easily than the soldiers of the scenes that were recorded there. Their experience of horror was complete, the moment of filming for them was a moment of almost unbelievable hope, of life when all that they had expected was death. As for the soldiers, their experience of war did not prepare them, not in the least. These men try to tell their story, but again and again, words fail. Sorry, sorry, they say, I just can’t…
The original film has languished in the archives since it was completed. The mood changed so quickly – if Bernstein had completed his work just a little earlier, then maybe it would have had the audiences it was intended for, and deserved. But by the time this huge task was done the need to confront the German people with the actions of their leaders, the need to tell the world what could happen when a civilised nation abandoned civilisation, were seen not only as less pressing, but as potentially counter-productive. Not only did we need the Germans as our allies against the strength of the Soviet Union, but we did not want public sympathy for the Jews to force our hand in terms of giving sanctuary to large numbers of refugees.
Bernstein and his collaborators wanted to take a stand against those who would deny or minimise the genocide. What they had recorded was almost impossible to comprehend, and so easy to disbelieve. There had been reports of the process of extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe, as early as 1942. Szmul Zygielbojm, Jan Karski and others risked so much to tell the Allies what was happening. But somehow, even when published in the Daily Telegraph (25 June 1942), people seemed not to grasp it.
Was this failure to respond down to prejudice, or simply that the facts were unbelievable and so people chose not to believe? To look away and hope that when they looked back, the nightmare vision would have vanished? At the end of the war, again, the news from the Russian troops who were liberating the extermination camps in the East was treated with scepticism, until the Allied troops entered the German concentration camps themselves and knew.
If it was only human to baulk at that reality, to not want to accept that other humans could do this, not just a handful of monsters but many, many people, the revisionists who came later were of a different stripe, and unperturbed by personal testimony, documentary footage or other evidence. Somehow they manage to say both that Hitler did not plan and order genocide of the Jews and that the Jews deserved their treatment, brought it, indeed, upon themselves. They both immerse themselves in technical details to ‘prove’ that what was described and shown could not have happened, and dismiss or treat as mendacious all evidence that it did. Bernstein’s film would probably not have changed the minds of any of those – nothing else has.
The documentary, a unique record not only of the scenes from hell that the liberating troops encountered, but of the efforts thereafter to help and to heal, will only ever be seen by small numbers. The Imperial War Museum believes that its images, without the contextual commentary and interviews provided by Night will Fall, are too stark in their portrayal of the dehumanised state not only of the dead but of the (barely) living. This baffles me, particularly because the film does also show the liberated prisoners talking animatedly to their saviours, being treated for disease, trying on clothes and shoes. It shows them, in other words, taking on their humanity again. As if it had never been stolen from them entirely, merely put to one side as hindrance rather than help in that brutal world. And of course, it is not as if we cannot see, if we choose, such images on YouTube or in other documentaries, often using this very footage.
As Jean Cayrol wrote, in the script used by Alain Resnais for his film Night and Fog:
There are those reluctant to believe
Or believing from time to time.
There are those who look at these ruins today
As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.
Those who take hope again as the image fades
As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.
Those who pretend all this happened only once,
At a certain time and in a certain place.
Those who refuse to look around them,
Deaf to the endless cry.
Bernstein’s documentary ends with the words: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” We haven’t. And night has fallen for so many. It’s to be hoped that the film will have the wider audience it deserved and still deserves today. The lesson still needs to be taught and we have to hope it’s not too late to learn.
Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (Mille et une nuit, 1997)
Some of the cultural highlights of my year – a year of working at home, long train journeys to long meetings which gave me more time to read, less time to go to the cinema or the theatre. However, I did manage a few outings…
- Twelfth Night at the Crucible – a real delight. I’d been disappointed that we weren’t getting a tragedy or one of the problem plays, rather than a comedy that I’d seen on stage before, but that feeling evaporated very quickly indeed. The performances were excellent, the staging imaginative and suggestive of darker undercurrents (the cast appearing at windows almost like the undead, the showers of rose petals – see also Poppeia).
- Brilliant opera at Leeds Grand – La Boheme, and The Coronation of Poppeia. And another Boheme, this time in Graves Gallery, from Opera on Location.
- Music in the Round – I’d pick out the Schubert octet, Tim Horton’s bravura performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata no. 7 (described by the Guardian as ‘ferocious’), Charlie Piper‘s WWI suite, The Dark Hour; works by Schulhoff & Haas, and consort of viols, Fretwork.
- Once again we celebrated Tim Richardson’s life and passion for learning and teaching with the 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on a host of topics, from WWI poets to insect sex, from biogeography to Mozart, from underground science to fairground history – ok, you get the picture. Once again a host of people stepped up to help, everything ran smoothly, and we were able to donate to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Young Heroes. We’ll be doing it again on 16-17 April 2015. Tim’s charity, Inspiration for Life, goes from strength to strength.
- I revisited the City Ground after far too many years, for the first home game of the season, and Stuart Pearce’s first game as manager. That was a great game. We’re in a slump at the moment, and that early euphoria has dissipated. If it was anyone but Psycho in charge I suspect the calls to sack the manager would be ringing out right now, but few Forest fans would want to deny him the chance to turn things around. I hope he can. I really, really, hope he can.
Top TV of 2014
No attempt at ranking. How could one decide on the relative merits of a gritty cop drama and a comic book fantasy? So, what do all of these shows have in common? First, excellent writing, and great performances. Essential to have both. So many big budget dramas skimp on the former and blow the budget on the latter, but even the best actors can only do so much with a script that clunks. Second, great female characters. All of these programmes basically kick the Bechdel test out of the park. It’s not just about having ‘strong’ women. Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time. It’s about having women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems. Some of these women do indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. So, to Nazanin Boniadi, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Amelia Bullmore, Lauren Cohan, Clare Danes, Siobhan Finneran, Danai Gurira, Keeley Hawes, Elizabeth Henstridge, Gillian Jacobs, Suranne Jones, Nimrat Kaur, Sarah Lancashire, Melissa McBride, Vicky McClure, Tatiana Maslany, Lesley Sharp, Allison Tolmin, Ming-Na Wen and the rest – cheers, and thanks for giving us images of women that are as diverse and complicated as actual real live women are.
- Fargo – I was decidedly unconvinced beforehand, but it turned out to be funny, gruesome, and touching, with one of my favourite women cops in Allison Tolmin’s Molly (not just a re-run of Frances McDormand’s marvellous Marge from the film, but a character in her own right), Billy Bob Thornton as a grimly hilarious killer and Martin Freeman as a weaselly one, and a wealth of other characters, some of whom we came to care about so much that at tense moments there was much yelling at the screen as we thought they might be in danger.
- Line of Duty – I wasn’t convinced about this one either, mainly because the first series had been superb, and I wondered if they could match it. They did, and it was Keeley Hawes’ performance that clinched it. Whilst I’d watch Vicky McClure in anything, Keeley wasn’t in that category for me, despite Ashes to Ashes. But in this she was riveting, absolutely mesmerising. The rest of the cast was superb too.
- Happy Valley was perhaps the most ironically titled programme of the year. This valley was pretty damned grim. But Sarah Lancashire as cop Catherine Cawood was wonderful, and the story was compelling and moving.
- Scott & Bailey maintained its form in series 4. The three central women (count them! three central women!) are all convincingly real, sometimes infuriatingly so.
- The Walking Dead opened series 5 with an episode so gripping that I really could neither breathe normally nor speak for quite some time. It’s maintained that tension (more or less) whilst varying the format, to focus on different subsets of the characters, and different locations. Carol has been central to this season’s episodes so far, and her character is one of those that has been allowed to develop and deepen throughout. There’s no shortage of other interesting characters, and the plot allows for philosophical, political and ethical speculation as well as for gory shocks and suspense.
- Agents of Shield got past a slightly wobbly first series and got its pace and tone just right. It fits right into the Marvelverse, but stands alone perfectly well. And it features girl-geek Simmons, a Sheffield lass, and there’s just a hint of South Yorkshire in her accent from time to time.
- Community made me laugh more than anything else this year. Just when you think it is as bonkers as it could be, it ups its game, to be even more meta, and even more daft.
- Doctor Who I have spoken of elsewhere. I have a deep love for this programme, and whilst this regeneration has been unsettling at times, uncertain in tone perhaps, I have great hopes for Capaldi and Coleman in series 9 next year.
- Homeland redeemed itself. Gripping stuff, with Clare Danes acting her socks off and getting us deeper into what makes Carrie tick.
- Orphan Black is one of the most criminally underrated programmes of this (and last) year. Tatiana Maslany inhabits each of the characters she plays so well that I forget – disbelieve almost – that there is just the one actress involved. And when she’s playing one of them pretending to be one of the others…. Cracking plot too.
Films of the year – I leave the in-depth cinematic reviews to Arthur Annabel who promises an extensive blog on this topic soon. I simply note these as films which have delighted and/or moved me, in no particular order. Worth noting that whilst the programmes on my TV list get A* on the Bechdel test, the films are considerably weaker on that front. Nonetheless, some fine performances, and Nicole Perlman was the first woman with a writing credit on a Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy).
Women of the year:
Jack Monroe – for enlivening my repertoire of meals to feed the family, and campaigning about food poverty
Professor Monica Grady – for being emotionally, exuberantly passionate about science
Laura Bates – her Everyday Sexism project helped to give women a voice, to tell their stories, to shout back.
In 2014 I’ve blogged about refugees, genocide, football, W G Sebald and Michel Butor, Kazuo Ishiguro, everyday sexism, Tramlines, Josephine Butler and Doctor Who. I got a bit personal on the subject of depression, and was inspired by Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to present my manifesto – a plea to just be kind. And my blog about reading the last of the Resnick series of detective stories won the approval of the author, John Harvey, who linked to it on his own blog, and republished my jazz playlist!
Amongst the blogs I’ve followed, or at least tried to keep up with, I would particularly note Searching for Albion. This is the record of Dan Taylor’s four month cycling trip across the British Isles, talking to people he meets, by plan or by chance. A fascinating project, beautifully documented.
To all of those who’ve shared some of the above events, obsessions and enthusiasms with me, who’ve given me support when I’ve needed it, who I’ve learned from and with, thank you. I don’t know what to expect from 2015 – but see you there!