Monday, July 31, 2006

"The sanest days are mad..."

I was going to start writing in this blog about some of my favourite albums. One problem, though, is that as soon as you go into why you love a certain album, it's impossible not to sound like Patrick Bateman discussing Genesis/Huey Lewis/Whitney in American Psycho (certainly the grisliest passages in Ellis's novel). Will that stop me? Will it heck.

Yesterday the Sunday Times published a list of the gayest albums ever made. Alongside the usual suspects - Scissor Sisters, Abba, Pet Shop Boys, Frankie etc - the paper showed some originality by putting Morrissey's Vauxhall and I at number 3.

The songs on this 1994 album, easily his most complete and confident solo collection, form a loose narrative - not that it's a concept album, rather that the songs are linked by a prevailing mood. The sweeping opening track, "Now My Heart is Full," which incorporates characters from Brighton Rock ("Dallo, Spicer, Pinkie, Cubitt..."), brings together the themes of criminality, nostalgia, youth, love lost or pined for, and a crumbling England, with breathtaking eloquence. The remaining songs (with the exception of the dreadful "Lazy Sunbathers" - to quote Andy Gill in the Independent, "a song about complacency that is itself complacent") are like details from this expansive canvas, zoomed in on by an inquisitive eye.

And yes, it's a very Queer record. From "Spring-Heeled Jim": "He'll do, he'll never be done to." From "Billy Budd" (that title!): "I took my job application into town/ Did you hear they turned me down?/ Yes and it's all because of us... Say Billy Budd, I would happily lose both of my legs.../ If it meant you could be free." Not to mention that imploring line on "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get": "Take the easy way out and give in/ And let me in."

Then there is the veneer of rough-trade South London toughness evoked by the album's title, not to mention the homoerotic back cover photo by Jake Walters, Morrissey's shaven-headed minder/ companion/ bootboy during those glory years. Musically it is quite delicate and classical, with intricate arrangements giving way only occasionally to experimental touches (the eerie "Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning" or the aggressive revving at the start of "Speedway", and the war drums that bring that song to a pounding halt).

The band were at full pelt on the next album, Southpaw Grammar, which is a big fat screw-you to all but the most patient listener. I prefer Vauxhall and I - the sound of all these unkempt emotions being constrained within a more-or-less pop format is more rewarding than when the gloves are off for Southpaw Grammar. Like the difference between the suspenseful sight of Jack Nicholson boiling and bubbling, or the empty gratification of his eventual tantrum or tirade.

I'll take repression every time.

Do we need a reason to gawp at Cristiano Ronaldo? That's what he's there for.
This exchange, between SH [Sycophantic Hack] and WBPR [Warner Bros PR], overheard in the bar before a preview of Lady in the Water:

SH: "I gave Superman Returns the best review of the summer."
WBPR: [delighted] "That's right, you did!"
SH: "And I said Poseidon was better than X-Men 3."
WBPR: "Yes, you've definitely earned some brownie points around here for that one."
SH: [suddenly revealing unexpected edge] "Of course, that could all change after this."
WBPR: "?!?"

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Yesterday the Guardian asked various critics to choose a review for which they wish to repent - i.e. something they over- or under-rated. No, they didn't ask me, but this is my blog and I'll join in their game if I want to.

The movie I most regret underrating is The Fifth Element, which was so unconventional and quirky that I lost all patience with it at the time, though I've watched it since and been really charmed by its dottiness - the fruity colours, the naive humour, the berserk idea of having Chris Tucker at his most shrill in the sidekick role. Oh, and the fact that roughly 100 minutes pass before Bruce Willis fires a gun. That has to count for something. Also, it's the only decent Luc Besson film since Le Dernier Combat.

I also wish I could rewrite my Rob Roy review. I was way too dismissive of a film that is sharply written, cleverly plotted and overflowing with fascinating, earthy characters.

Overrated? Simon Magus was good but not that good. I should've been harder on Gladiator and 8 Mile. I stand by everything else, M'Lud.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Last night I saw Carol Reed and Graham Greene's The Fallen Idol, from 1948, rescued from its place on afternoon television and mounted on a cinema screen. Up there, the staircase that is so pivotal to the plot looks properly vast, as it would do to the put-upon and sincere young hero Philipe (the stunning, then-9-year-old Bobby Henrey). Up there, the chequered floor in the French Embassy resembles a giant chess board, as it must, with the characters literally shifting this way and that across the squares as the dynamics keep changing.

The images sing. The dialogue can pinch: "It's a good life," says Baines (Ralph Richardson) , "if you don't weaken."

And there are some incidental touches that have an earthy authenticity - the domestics discussing casually the details of how Mrs Baines must have died when she hit the bottom step, whether her neck snapped "like a twig", whether there was any blood. And the prostitute, Rose (Dora Bryan, probably best known for her later role as Rita Tushingham's brassy mother in A Taste of Honey), who upon learning that Philipe is the Ambassador's son, trills: "Oooh, I know your daddy!", leaving us to join the dots.

Even more so than The Third Man, the Reed/Greene collaboration which has overshadowed unfairly The Fallen Idol for so long, there is a resounding sense of hurt and injustice in the film. Philipe is pressured from all sides by adults seeking his silent collusion in their awful secrets, until he literally doesn't know which way to turn when the police are interviewing him about the involvement of his beloved Baines in the death of Mrs Baines. The corpse in the film is by-the-by; this is really about the psychological violence we inflict on children by asking them to participate in our knotted emotional transactions.

When I watched it, I thought again of something my dad said to me when I was about 10 or 11. He said that when he was driving home from work, he sometimes debated making a left turn instead of a right, and just driving and driving and not coming home. And this from someone who would describe himself as a family man. Then I think of all the things that children hear, overhear or are forced to process with their limited capabilities, and I feel sick.

This is a masterful film: suspenseful, but always sad and wise. I guess Philipe had to toughen up as he grew older, and this was the start of that. As he descends the staircase to meet his mother in the final shot, his playful prance has been replaced by a kind of stately bob. He's changed.

Forget Jack Black, at least for now. It was good while it lasted, but we've seen his box of tricks. The real star of Nacho Libre is Hector Jimenez (above right), the gangly, ungainly, scuzzy-toothed Mexican thief who screams like a girl and flails around the wrestling ring like a daddy-longlegs. My kind of hero.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Karen Young was 25 when she made her debut as a rape victim whose first step toward revenge is to learn to shoot. The movie was Handgun, from 1983, and you'd be forgiven for thinking this was some salacious exploitation flick. But the writer-director Tony Garnett is no sensationalist; he started out producing some abrasive British TV and film work, including Ken Loach's Kes and The Big Flame (both 1969) and Family Life (1971), and Mike Leigh's Hard Labour (1973; the one in which Ben Kingsley has a bit-part as a cabbie who arranges abortions).

I don't know much about his career, apart from that he was later executive producer on the superb mid-1990s BBC2 series This Life, about which I will not hear a disparaging word said. (This may be due to guilt. I had to review the opening episode for a national newspaper, and found it all rather irritating and mannered. Which I suppose it was. But it picked up momentum pretty quickly, and I still find myself wondering what Warren, Anna, Miles, Ferdy etc are up to. But not Egg. Oh, no. I could never stand Egg.)

Aaaaanyway. Garnett. He made Handgun, which is an exceptional, tough little picture that invests a B-movie format with the kind of reasoning, passion and detailed characterisation that you would expect from someone who was there stoking the furnace of British drama at its peak.

And that's when I fell for Karen Young. There was something a bit impish and (tom)boyish about her; more importantly, she was delicate but very cerebral - she seemed alive to every possible choice and interpretation open to her. You can still see that in her recent work. She didn't go on to get great film offers. Look, she has Jaws - The Revenge on her CV, which no one deserves. Though she did appear in The Boy Who Cried Bitch, which has now overtaken A Town Called Bastard (a 1971 western aka A Town Called Hell) as my all-time favourite film title. There really isn't enough cussing in titles. It was nice that Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was going to be called The Fuck, but for maximum points that title needed to make it onto cinema marquees.

Recently there's been a bit of a Karen Young revival. She's back in paid employment, which is good news for all of us. The first sign was when she played FBI agent Robyn Sanseverino, assigned to Adriana in The Sopranos a few seasons back. Originally the character was played by Fairuza Balk (who started out brilliantly as Dorothy in the twisted Return To Oz in 1983, but has since become a rent-a-kook).

Young stepped in after, I think, one episode. What a character she played. Robyn was petite but hard as nails in that grey suit, hair scraped back, everything about her clipped and crisp and classy - a younger sister, perhaps, to Lilith Crane, ex-wife of Frasier.

Robyn would just appear out of nowhere and jab at Adriana with her threats and insinuations, always delivered in the slightly wheedling voice of someone who's on at you to keep up your car repayments. The turning point for me was when we saw her in that brief FBI pow-wow during which she mimicked mercilessly Adriana's whiny self-deluding excuses. That's when you saw her sharp little claws spring into action. It was the shortest of scenes, but long enough for Young/Robyn to draw blood. I'm praying that she'll turn up somewhere in the new season, even though [SPOILER] her previous responsibilities have now come to an end.

Young was also outstanding recently in Laurent Cantet's Heading South, as a divorcee who has come to Haiti to find the teenage gigolo with whom she had sex three years earlier. She has some crackling scenes with Charlotte Rampling, who is also smitten with the same lad; they keep the film alive whenever it sinks too far into its own gloominess. Watch Young in the scene where she dances with a child - who will, inevitably, become a gigolo himself in five or six years' time - and then realises what she's doing, and jolts out of the embrace as though waking herself from a terrible dream.

David Cronenberg's Crash is on TV as I write. I love Howard Shore's score - so spare and flinty, but with something bittersweet about it too. Exactly ten years ago I was sent to Paris to see the film (it was out there in July 1996, but wouldn't be screened in Britain until a year later) in preparation for an interview with Cronenberg.

Crash is bound up with my memories of that trip. Hitting the hotel in the afternoon (the cheap one right opposite Gare du Nord, where everyone goes who hasn't booked in advance), having incredible sex with my new girlfriend, then drifting off into the evening to see the movie, followed by collapsing in a drunken heap on a patch of grass at the end of the Champs Elysees before being dragged into a cab. Then, the next morning, more sex, after which I bounded out of bed like a young gazelle and promptly cut my head open on the window's metal handle. Cue sniggering ambulancemen crowding into our sperm-and-sweat-smelling room, embarrassing trip to the hospital and eight staples in my head. It could almost have been a scene from Crash, if only I'd garnered some carnal pleasure from the accident itself.

As soon as I reached Waterloo, I took some photo booth pictures of my injuries. And you know that if I can possibly upload those snaps onto this blog, I will.

Friday, July 21, 2006

It's 1.30am but I just can't go to bed without expressing my amazement at how incredible Mad Max looks, nearly 30 years after it was made. I just finished watching it on TV, and far from taking me back to the days when I was a teenage Mad Max obsessive, this viewing shed a whole new light on what's great about the movie. Like most teenage boys in the mid-1980s, I came to this and the 1982 sequel because of the car chases, the violence, the leather, the freaky characters, the futuristic setting, the leather (did I mention the leather?) My first ever visit to London's legendary Scala Cinema in King's Cross was to see a Mad Max triple-bill when I was 15. But now I see the film has virtues I wasn't equipped to understand as I gazed lovingly at the screen back then, probably forgetting about my acne and imagining I was Mel Gibson. (Certainly I remember walking back from a friend's house to my home in the same sleepy village, and actually imagining I was Mad Max as I strode down the centre of the deserted road.)

Ok, coherent thought can only be minutes away from deserting me, so I'd better cut to the chase (how appropriate) and tell you what's so good about this crude, cheapo B-movie-style exploitationanza. Well, for starters, the fact that it's a crude, cheapo B-movie-style exploitationanza has insulated it pretty sturdily against the cinematic fads and phases that have since come and gone. The stark, low-budget, make-do look of the film increases the grittiness - it's like those early David Cronenberg gorefests (Shivers, Rabid) where it really did seem like anything could happen because it was all clearly operating outside conventional movie etiquette. In Mad Max, that is combined with the very eerie, desolate mood that permeated the most interesting Australian New Wave films of the 1970s - think of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Cars That Ate Paris, or the underrated Fred Schepisi's The Devil's Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (one of the most scalding, upsetting films ever made).

All those films seem to take place in a land that time not only forgot, but tried to bury alive. This works to the benefit of Mad Max, which is billed as happening a few years ahead of whenever the viewer happens to be watching it (I love that device - doesn't Splash, after the flashback prologue, use the title 'Cape Cod, yesterday'?). So the sense of isolation that was presumably imposed by the budget - they seem to be shooting on back roads, backwaters, the back of beyond generally - creates this dislocated atmosphere that makes the film look far better now than it would do if they'd had the money to build futuristic sets. (Look at two Paul Verhoeven films, RoboCop and Total Recall, to see how poorly time sometimes favours big budgets. Or compare Star Wars, which looks so cheesy, with THX-1138, where, again, frugality has equalled longevity).

Other things I love about Mad Max: Mel Gibson before the mannerisms had kicked in; the fact that Max's big 'turning point' scene (when he decides to go vigilante after the murder of his family) is conducted while he is wearing pyjamas - isn't that fab? If only more action heroes would wear pyjamas...

(Reminds me of one of my fave jokes: How do you know when there's a monster in your bed? Cos he's got a big 'M' on his pyjamas.)

Also, the director George Miller's beautiful, expressive, almost Cocteau-esque way with film language: the wipes, the endless dissolves-within-dissolves (there's a breathtaking one that is used when Max visits his horribly burnt friend Goose in hospital - Miller uses the dissolve between Max looking anxious and Max looking horrified to avoid showing us Goose's face, though Gibson's expression is equally chilling). And that great 1970s thing, often found in Nicolas Roeg (especially Performance) or Robert Altman (especially McCabe and Mrs Miller) where the zoom magnifies the film stock to such an extent that the image actually becomes coarse-grained. I also loved the spare, no-nonsense editing - there's no fat on this movie - and the way Miller throws in a virtually subliminal shot of bulging, bloodshot eyeballs (whose eyeballs? I dunno) during moments of horror.

The movie gets the job done, quickly and without undue histrionics (the emphatic score only underlines how lean the action is). And it leaves a rare chill in the air, as much due to what it doesn't show (the economic way Miller shoots the murder of Max's wife and son, so that all we see is a baby's shoe and a coloured ball in the road) as to what it does. Tim Burns, as the deranged Johnny the Boy, is frighteningly good in that final scene, where he's laughing maniacally and pleading with Max. The end-note of cultivated sadism is hard to dispel.

Accidental plus-points include the villain's resemblance to Gary Glitter, and the appearance in the cast list of one David Cameron, playing 'Underground Mechanic'. So now we know where he gets his hoodie-love from. I loved also seeing the late Sheila Florance, so great as the prune-faced Lizzie in the official Worst Ever (and therefore Best Ever) prison drama, Prisoner Cell Block H, turning up here in calipers, wielding a double-barrel shotgun. Dandy Nichols couldn't have done it better. Viva Australia!

So here's Jamie Harding, 27 year-old British actor, back when he was in the mini-series Band of Brothers. I've got a big crush on him right now - unfortunately this came to light while I was watching him in United 93, in which he plays - there's no good way to say this - one of the 9/11 hijackers. It's like falling for the guy who had the lead in Bundy, or - heaven forbid - Richard Attenborough as Christie in 10 Rillington Place (though you have to admit he had a petulant swagger about him in Brighton Rock). Perhaps I shouldn't have noticed in that context how handsome Jamie Harding is. Ok, so there's nothing morally wrong with it - it's not like he hijacked the plane for real. Don't give me a hard time about this, yeah? Just look at that adorable face - wouldn't you have felt the same?

I wouldn't want my crush on him to obscure the fact that I thought United 93 was a brilliant piece of film-making. One of the strokes of genius in the film is that the director, Paul Greengrass, properly frames the narrative in thriller conventions, when he could so easily have been pious about it (one of the temptations surely open to Oliver Stone in his forthcoming World Trade Center). Which is not to say that Greengrass isn't respectful of the material he is handling - he is - but rather that he never forgets he's making a film, not signing a Book of Condolence. If United 93 hadn't worked as a thriller, it wouldn't have worked at all.

It's a little like the approach that Gordon Burn took in his book Happy Like Murderers, about Fred and Rosemary West - the tone moved gracefully between true crime reportage, pastiches almost of 'penny dreadful' or pulp hack-work, and anthropological study. Burn recognised that the story he was writing spilled over into all those areas, and he wasn't too pompous to deny that a big part of our interest in an unimaginable nightmare like the Wests' squalid reign is blunt fascination.

So Greengrass was absolutely correct in playing the whole film out without any traces of hindsight or foreboding - apart from in the early scenes with the terrorists, obviously, as they try to pluck up the initial courage. And it's typical of Greengrass's democratic manner that he presents it as such - these men on a 'mission' are shown squirming in their business class seats, struggling to find the necessary courage, balls, guts, whatever, to make that first move in the hijacking. Of course, it was to be expected that our empathy would be with the passengers. We want them to defy the outcome that we know is awaiting them, and the fictionalisation of the material makes it seem, momentarily, that this will be possible; at one point, I actually thought to myself: They're going to do it, they're going to land the plane. I got a tinge of hope when one of the passengers said he's a pilot. Greengrass places us so comprehensively in the moment that he effectively evokes the kind of desperation to survive that must have been prevalent in that cabin. We believe, as some of the passengers will have done, that this can be resolved.

More surprising is the level of empathy he creates for the hijackers, who are shown not to be 'monsters' or 'evil' or any of those other terms that locate those we do not comprehend as 'the other', thereby forcing us not to have to think about how they got that way - instead, they are presented, far more constructively, as human beings. Fallible, jittery, scared, everything that you would be if you were psyching yourself up for such a colossal undertaking.

Even as I'm writing this, I want to see the picture again. I don't think there was anything about it that didn't work. The killing of two of the terrorists has been criticised by some as wish-fulfilment, i.e. we don't know what happened on board, so why don't we invent something that makes us feel even better about the passengers, the 'flight that fought back' (to use TV-movie parlance)?

But even that doesn't rankle. I guess by then the movie has you so tightly in its grasp, this seems like an acceptable piece of speculation, the plausibility of which doesn't affect adversely the rest of the film. If you haven't seen United 93, track it down, preferably at the cinema. I was dreading seeing it, but the more I think about it, the more nourished I feel by the experience.

Other films that have impressed me so far this year, alongside United 93, are, in no particular order:

Brokeback Mountain, The New World, Junebug, The Squid and the Whale, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Forty Shades of Blue, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Offside, The Proposition, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada... and others that have slipped my mind right now. The performances I've enjoyed most have included Karen Young and Charlotte Rampling in Heading South, Hector Jimenez in Nacho Libre, Amy Adams in Junebug.

Who have I left out? Let me know...

All the talk in previous posts of "I met N" and "S said this to me" has reminded me of a great gag in Without Feathers, a book of Woody Allen's collected writings. I've revisited that book every few months since I read it on holiday in Gambia age 14. In one of the mock-diary pieces, Allen writes:

"Should I marry W.? Not if she won't tell me the other letters in her name..."

You either think it's funny or you don't. Ditto this brilliant exchange heard last week in Max & Paddy's Road to Nowhere (a guilty TV pleasure of mine). Max is talking about the love of his life, but doesn't want to let on to Paddy that she's a person of restricted height.

Max: [struggling] "She's... well, she's... a kind of midget."

Paddy: "Isn't that a Queen song?"

Well, the party last night was good fun. A sprinkling of minor celebrities and politicians in attendance, but more interesting were the people who came and introduced themselves to me - especially S, who had some interesting theories about Stephen Fry, whose repeated suicide attempts were reported in yesterday's Standard - he confessed to them at the launch of the BBC's autumn season, in which he will present a series about depression, which was bally good timing. If only we could all schedule our big confessions to coincide with a series we're promoting. "Mum, I'm gay - and you can hear about it in greater depth in my forthcoming South Bank Show special."

Anyway, the crux of what S was saying was that it will always gnaw away at Fry that, despite being intelligent and funny and personable, and famous for it, he clearly does not have anything approaching the talent to be a novelist - all his novels to date have concerned the same subject (having sex with public school boys) and been strictly at the Ben Elton level. He must hate that, whereas Elton is perfectly willing to take the wheelbarrow overflowing with money and run.

It all sounded perfectly plausible to me, and I nodded along, feeling no shame about never having read any of Fry's novels, but not admitting it either.

In the middle of a conversation, someone said to me: "I feel a cheese straw moment coming on."

On the walk back to the tube, I gazed across the Thames at the MI5 building glowing in the night, and remembered being kissed right in front of it all those years ago by A, beneath the CCTV cameras. He wanted to know it was being captured on film, I think, which could either be harmless displaced/inverted voyeurism (in this case the thrill of knowing that someone else is watching you without you knowing who they are) or a political plot-twist that will pay off years hence a la Defence of the Realm/A Very British Coup etc. Other people look at the building and think of secrecy, espionage, menace. I see it and I think of that kiss. Which might be sweetly sensual, or another example of how insular my world is.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

This is Ariel Pink, a musical genius, who gives this blog its name. My good pal Tim gave me Ariel's album Worn Copy when we went for lunch at Black's in Soho last November, and it changed my life (the album, I mean, not the lunch - though the lunch was fine). I'll write more about Ariel another time, but until then, check him out. His music is a bargain-basement, lo-fi, home-taped trip that repackages the past through the gauze of our nostalgia for it. There are delicate melodies and catchy choruses buried just beneath the surface of the fuzzy, flawed production; I think the reason his music is so involving is that it requires that element of excavation on the part of the listener. Stumbling upon an especially fragile song, like "Let's Build a Campfire There" (from The Doldrums), is like finding buried treasure. When I heard Worn Copy, I felt like those songs had existed somewhere in my head all my life, only I'd never had access to them before. I feel so passionately about his music, I just can't "get" anyone who doesn't "get" it.

I think now is the proper time to share with you my current top 6 favourite smells:
1. Tomato vines
2. Creosote
3. Guys on their way to a hot date
4. School
5. Cut grass
6. Petrol

Today's advice for anyone planning to do Pick Your Own Fruit is: Don't be over-ambitious. Last weekend I filled a basket with loganberries (my all-time favourite fruit), raspberries and blackberries. It cost £15. By the time I got it home, it was sludge, the juice had soaked through the bottom of the basket, and I salvaged one, maybe two, small bowls of fruit out of the gloop. So today's advice, in summary, is: Don't be freakin' greedy.
Fifteen years ago today, to the hour, I was outside Wembley Arena, asking the flat-topped lesbian singer-songwriter Phranc to sign my highway code.

Just wanted to share that with you.

I'm off to make myself gorgeous for a party I'm going to tonight. This could take some time...