John Warner: The Funny Man

Reviewed by Declan Tan

The Funny Man

John Warner’s debut novel, about the rise and fall of an unnamed American comedian known only as “the funny man”, is a mulchy broth of satire, cultural commentary and La-Z-Boy philosophy that simmers away on lukewarm, only ever threatening to come to the boil, though not without ambition, before bubbling back into quiet soup, despite a satisfying crouton rising to the surface now and again.

By switching between courtroom scenes, where the funny man is on trial for murder, and flashbacks, where we learn of said funny man’s trawl through the dehumanising backstages of ‘the comedy world’, Warner, in his quintessential American voice, attempts to blend one too many disparate elements in fashioning an over-elaborate whole, without quite succeeding.

There are, however, moments of literary revving, a story that builds as shearing layers, but ultimately there is too much slippage, and the story’s foundations turn out to be a little uneven and cracked, perhaps even hurriedly laid.

It sounds simple enough: The funny man is happily married; he and his wife share a wry humour that feels warm and true. They also have a young son, of whom they are most proud. And in his work, the funny man is reasonably successful on the stand-up club circuit. But he wants more and more, to be a world-beater, worshipped as one of the greats (Bruce, Carlin and Pryor, in the funny man’s opinion).

After a gig he meets a talent agent who tells him he needs a “gimmick”, a thing recognisably his, to take him to the next level. His son unwittingly provides this gimmick – a most moronic one – yet the funny man becomes a runaway success, earning millions with his act. He is roped into making studio movies, then a sequel, all while having to do “the thing” that of course he comes to hate. Meanwhile, he becomes unassailably detached from reality. When his celebrity reaches unmanageable levels he begins to rely heavily on medication, which in turn leads to the breakdown of his marriage, an incident with his son that is hugely played up (but sags when revealed), and eventually, a secretive long-distance relationship with a female tennis star.

Warner provides some readable if often familiar asides throughout these aspects of the plot; on what happens away from camera; the anatomy of a cynically made Hollywood comedy; and the demands made on a touring comedian. His commentary sends up both the executives that fund the big-budget idiocy, and those people who pay to watch it. Though his message is often delivered with an over-inflated belief in the veracity and humour of his words, it does flow quite smoothly on the whole.

But too often it seems routes that could have been taken, to explore more dangerous or original ideas, were instead avoided. The novel reverts to platitudes (1. Be careful what you wish for, 2. Fame ain’t all that), along with the employ of some dry narrative devices (1. The unreliable narrator, 2. Observational stand-up bits disguised as conversation) which occasionally grind to a halt the reader’s enjoyment.

The social media aspect of the trial for example, is played for a couple of laughs. A theory from his lawyer, Barry, about “not guilty by reason of celebrity” is toyed with. Then there is the other musing, also from Barry, on there being no such thing as ‘emergencies’, only ‘eventualities’, and how the funny man believes this theory to “reconcile both free will and predestination” (an idea perhaps inspired by the later works of St. Augustine). Is it the occasionally patronising tone of some of its delivery that makes it unconvincing? Perhaps, because there is something that dims the message. Making it all sound a little beige. Like a book review based on ill-conceived soup and construction similes. Which brings us back to those courtroom scenes, unfortunately reading like those parts of a novel where one plot strain is indeed a strain to get through. Whole passages you want to skip over to get to the riper elements of the plot.

The second half further mixes in the possibility of the funny man’s delusions, taking the form of a classic reality/fantasy conundrum, as he is mysteriously blinked away to a celebrity retreat (or “advance”, as it is explained); a place recalling Patrick McGoohan’s surreal 1960s TV series The Prisoner, crossed with the titular utopia from Huxley’s parting gift, Island. There the funny man meets the love of his “second life,” Bunny, the tennis star, with Warner attempting to leave some mystery as to the fate of his protagonist.

Yet what Warner really is good at, turns out to be played down. The relationships and interactions between the husband and wife, and their child, are touching, full of feeling and honesty, transcribed as if straight from real-life. But the novel’s efforts to instead excoriate the minor components of a rotten corporate system, rather than explore the possible source of American society’s slide toward post-cultural obsessing, is a choice that eclipses the inherent humanity of this everyman journey.

Warner’s point seems to be that this fame thing happens to once-grounded individuals, but the impact of that message fizzles when the wayward nature of its plot must be elucidated. While doing little to explore the true cause of that delusional state of mind.

This is only Warner’s first novel-length fiction, and a misfiring run-out first time round is by no means disaster (look at HST’s The Rum Diary). There is space to develop, and potential to fulfil, demonstrated fully in this story’s ability to have you hooked, at times, be it not even necessarily the ‘style’ that does it.

And if there is a kind of moral here, in this more nibbling than biting satire, then at least efforts have been made to avoid it becoming a preachy one, which is admirable. (But now I’m the one being condescending.) Nevertheless I’ll still be trying out Warner’s follow-up. There are just enough tasty croutons here to warrant that.

Shame (Dir: Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen Shame

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Steve McQueen’s second feature is a visually arresting, thematically dense piece of cinema, that may, and probably will, prove to be an important film in years to come. That is, if enough people get to see it. Having been cursed with a NC-17 rating in the US and a limited release in the UK, it seems those it may have been intended for will be largely unaware of its arrival.

From the opening frames it becomes clear there is again, after Hunger (2008), a meticulous method at work, both in front and behind the camera; McQueen’s fine arts training fixes every image immaculately, as if leafing through a glossy (yet depraved) coffee table book, a look which works as irony for its subject matter, and the extension of McQueen’s intention to interrogate his audience.

Then there is Fassbender as Brandon, a long-time sex-addicted New Yorker running the hamster wheel of untameable urges and the subsequent self-loathing, his demeanour and quiet menace recalling fellow-pointy-face Christian Bale in American Psycho, only less cartoonish and more sinister.

Brandon’s condition worsens when his younger, ever-vulnerable and needy lounge-singing sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to visit. The pressure of her presence and her constant encroachments on his territory adds to the strain he already feels. Her re-appearance twists him in new ways, not helped by her dalliances with his boss, Dave (James Badge Dale). Brandon gradually crumbles into himself.

And there is much to admire in its telling. Shame is something of an orchestral symphony, all of the components coming together to form a cohesive and remarkable whole, made from the music, and the visuals, and (most of) the acting. One notable sore spot, however, is the mildly irritating dinner scene, in which Sissy performs a heart-wrenching number in front of her brother and Dave. The camera trained on Mulligan’s quivering face, the film’s flow is interrupted. A long long shot of just too much supplicatory ‘acting’. We are made fully aware that what we are witnessing is an actor’s attempt to state her claim as being ‘the brightest young thing’, the scene far too drawn-out to leave any sympathy remaining in this particular instance. That is not to say Mulligan won’t be praised. She surely will be; it is the kind of thing that critics go for, this false attempt at intensity behind a look of painful worldliness.

Despite this, what co-screenwriters McQueen and Abi Morgan have managed is to make real, living, breathing humans of Brandon and Sissy. You may not like them; one is an arrogant bully, the other a needy liberty-taker, but somehow you reach some state of empathy.

Of course, as you may have heard, a lot of the film is sex. That almost goes without saying. (It is like the filmed memoirs of Dan Fante.) But the way McQueen has worked it disconnects the viewer from the sex, even from the sex in other films, this sex for gratification, the cold relief sold as ‘love’. It is the same with Brandon, and we arrive again at empathy. He cannot resist his urges to abominate himself, using hookers, masturbating at work, spending the in-between watching internet pornography, sat with a beer as if looking at a football game, completely on automatic. While, at work, his computer is confiscated as a result of the material found on it.

As he goes on, Brandon has more and more emotionally numbing sex, his pursuit leading him eventually to physical injury and homosexuality (with an odd and subtle implication that homosexuality is rock bottom, if we are to go by the music and intended drama. But it is little trips like these* that make you realise this film was actually ‘made’, that it didn’t just fabricate to teach our society a lesson.)

Shame seems not only about sex addiction as a distancing affliction, but also about alienation in general, though it does too hint at familial problems, sexual or otherwise, as the root cause of the siblings’ troubles. But McQueen is less interested in working the psychological aspects, opting instead to document, not explain: Here is a man who is of no value to himself. He has lost touch with any sense of worthiness, any purpose, other than fleeting and momentary gratification. What is he worth, if he is nothing even to himself? This is why it seems as if this is an “important” film (in quotation marks as how important a film can get has its obvious limitations), and completely of this era of commodified sex. An issue of the times.

Quickly the glossy sex becomes abhorrent to watch, because we are with Brandon, and it’s as equally degrading to the viewer as the participant, made most obvious in the clips of porn flickering on Brandon’s screen. McQueen merely shows this to the audience, does not tell it, by taking us from our awareness of his commercial-like images, which open the story, to the grimy opposite, but filmed in the same style, while simultaneously the world that Brandon inhabits becomes as glossed over and false as the sex and pornography that clouds him.

“These days it is not realistic to limit yourself to one partner”, Brandon says at one point during a date with a girl from work in which he also expresses his pessimistic view of long-term relationships, that one becomes bored with the other. It is clear that he is constantly reaching for the now, the instant gratification. This is what makes this film of our time. It sounds like social commentary, and it probably is. Fassbender’s Brandon is an icon of modern man, a symbol, while the final effect of Shame has some kind of reverb with Tarkovsky’s (disappearing) idea of having a film hopefully make the viewer turn to ‘good’. Shame is the sound and sight of an artist speaking and moving, yet without didacticism or lame solutions. And by the end, we are given a sense of hope, of man resisting himself, gaining control. Shame that a lot of people probably won’t even get a chance to experience it.

[*How many times can the distorted reflection of a protagonist be used as a metaphor in film, without someone piping up and saying something?]

James Sallis: Drive

Reviewed by Declan Tan

James Sallis DriveIf Camus had been at all interested in the crime or noir genre, then you could imagine he might produce something vaguely comparable to James Sallis’ novel Drive. Trotting in at a similar duration to Camus’ classic The Fall, Sallis also plays with the unfolding napkin of time in this narrative, in what he might be hinting is the only time-signature we’ve come to understand, that of film – intercuts and reversals, flashbacks and action sequences. Cinematic, in a word, which seems understandable that it was made into “a major motion picture”, as my copy reminds (yes, I’m five years too late). But that word ‘cinematic’ wouldn’t really give enough of what is due when considering Sallis’ steady metronomic delivery. He is far less erratic than a camera-toting Hollywood director, or his subsequent intercut-loving editor.

The story follows a character known only as Driver. Driver works in the movies. He also works on the occasional heist or robbery, for all of which, it is made clear, he wants only to do that one thing that he is known for. We learn that following some severe familial disturbances, young Driver’s mother has been institutionalised. Then as a teenager, he goes out on his own, leaving his foster parents’ home, taking their car, moving to Los Angeles to find work. The plot opens in medias res, blood running on a bathroom floor, before weaving back and forth through the young man’s troublesome upbringing in Phoenix, then onto his successes amongst the movie crews, and his neighbourly relationship with a Latina and her four year old son, at a point in his life when he does the closest thing to ‘settle’ that he can manage.

In the movies, the stuntman is a stand-in for the actor and the actor is a stand-in for the person. Who the person is a stand-in for seems to be a question unanswerable but posed in Sallis’ Drive (the tenth of his thirteen books), the narrative can be read straight or taken as a mini-handbook for modern alienation. This double-removal from filmed reality, a removal in itself, is the ghostlike angle that Sallis works from when he assembles the body parts of his character, Driver. A kind of fleshy ghost haunting the LA landscape, he can only been seen by a few people. That word that has been attached to his work, “existential”, chimes on every page, possibly for good reason. There seems a kind of two-lane flow of traffic where the prose can be read either quickly as an entertainment or, if it is to be taken more seriously, as a darkly philosophical tract. Then the action takes on a meditative slant, the story of a man chased by time. We’re given a neo-Western gunslinger, just one that never uses a gun. Instead he’s reworked into a driver, a slick operative of that other of man’s modern machines.

Driver does not think, only acts. Always taciturn, he is attempting to reach the state of ‘grace’ where thought or meditation is transcended. In between he drinks, makes deals with presumptuous men, pays them back.

There is that feeling that Driver’s story is fabricating unplanned as it hums along. Intentional or not, this method does give the text a kind of wandering, unpredictable quality that is both intriguing and admirable. The form functions well with his theme; Sallis has a style akin to that of a Cormac McCarthy, or a printed-word Coen Brothers production; the familiar voice of a wizened cowboy sipping bourbon in the darkest recess of a grotty, empty saloon, whispering old-timer wisdom about the nature of existence, the slew of time. But Sallis writes as if in slow bursts of energy, with a feel for narrative and rhythm that stays fresh by returns, intervals and intersections.

And setting much of this in Hollywood, a place Sallis seems to agree is as vacant and empty, even nihilistic, as its fame-hunting inhabitants, a city of life-substitutes, full of avaricious death-ready hollow men, is no mistake. His hero too is suited to the wide-open highways of Los Angeles, the reliability of the streetlights leading irreversibly to an eventide of gunshots, throat-slices and getaways. The sheen that Sallis gives to his world’s reality wraps like aluminium foil over his prose. There seems to be an idea in his head that has formulated into the novel. What the message is, is hidden, but a story emerges.

Driver marvelled at the power of our collective dreams. Everything gone to hell, the two of them become running dogs, and what do they do? They sit there watching a movie.”

His Driver is involved and not involved in life, there and not there. And the sudden violence of Driver’s actions when they happen, often shocking in retrospect, read as if they are not happening at all, or happening too quickly to mean anything in the ‘grand scheme of things’. A blip. Everything is written in unceremonious and unrelenting measures, where one note is equally as important as another. Driver, like Sallis’ other creation, Lew Griffin, creates himself from nothing. He is meticulous and careful. Assembling his life as if assembling a gun. And when the violence is done with, the lessons follow:

Maybe he should turn around. Go back and tell them that’s what life was, a long series of things that didn’t go down the way you thought they would.

Hell with it. Either they’d figure it out or they wouldn’t. Most people never did.”

One short chapter after another, Sallis delivers the occasional asides on the Hollywood system, its producers, writers, and stars, with a cast of recidivist poor people that are the only real ones worth saving. No, it’s not revolutionary, but it is entertaining:

TV’d been turned on but blessedly you couldn’t hear it. Some brainless comedy where actors with perfect white teeth spoke their lines then froze in place to let the laugh track unwind.”

Drive reads as if it was a bit of fast fun in between other projects. Which makes it all the more impressive. This is genre-fiction elevated somewhat by a writer who is clearly familiar with the genre that he is subverting. Sallis doesn’t believe in the long manipulation to wrench out a little emotion from his characters. He achieves it quite smoothly without really showing you how. He dashes off a backstory of a character, and his future, in a single breath. Sallis doesn’t try to con you into believing there is more depth than there is. He lets you decide. And he’ll let you decide again when the sequel, Driven, arrives in 2012.

Jonathan Walker and Dan Hallett: Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Five Wounds

Not every book looks and feels like an artefact when you pick it up. Oftentimes it is just words printed across cheap paper, the literal form of it separated from its content, cased in a merely functional cover with some gluey binding. But with Five Wounds, an “illuminated novel”, the very object itself is part of its mythology and there is a sense of something big, something heavy within it, if you have the time.

It is not very often that a review of a book demands also a review of its physical presence. Crossing genre and classifications, both narratively and visually, and switching tone between allegory and playfulness, the book is clearly a labour of love for its writer, Jonathan Walker, and its illustrator, Dan Hallett, in what is the pair’s second collaboration. It is undeniably a sublime thing to behold. The first time you pick it up and turn it over in your hands is, as Walker and Hallett have intended, like reading the first lines of its mystic story. An impressive hardback almost biblical in feel, its appearance matches, too, its biblical layout of chapters and verses.

The story follows the escapades of five fairytale characters inhabiting a composite Venice made of historical and modern snatches of the city, strikingly illustrated by Hallett based on, among other things, Goya’s etchings. The designs are impressive and densely detailed throughout, with a glossy series of 18 plates in the centre pages occasionally referred to in the text. We are first introduced to Cur, a beast-like man and leader of a pack of dogs, being photographed by Magpie, a thief and daguerrotypist. An interweaving, lattice of a story emerges which involves a devious ‘saviour’, Crow; the hero origins of Cuckoo, a gambling man with a face of wax; as well as a de-winged angel, stolen identities, kidnapping, murder, and some questionable cuisine.

Five Wounds makes the admirable move of not taking itself too seriously, which certainly works in its favour. There is a vein of quaint humour that runs throughout; revisions and asides are scribbled upon the page as if the work was still incomplete; arrows point at things and comment upon them matter-of-factly (“Not a whale”); surreal events transpire through droll, imaginative wording; and it is all set off by a dedication that reads: “To whom it may concern”.

But intermittently there seems inhibited intrigue to a story built as if by Calvino dealing tarot cards at random, that stakes everything on its desire to be deciphered. By so blatantly attempting to lure the reader into interpretation, the result is a story that has a hint of hollowness if insufficient effort is dedicated in reading to create an interpretation. Too often we become aware of Walker’s knowing lack of intention. Events go from one to the other in a sometimes repetitive, staccato rhythm reminiscent of faux parables and, though it reads like a writer having fun, it occasionally ends up giving the story an odd dashed-off feel that is incongruous with the meticulous nature of the book as an artefact. The book is now leering at me accusingly, for being too lazy.

Of course, all of this could work in the book’s favour, to add to its ‘world-building’ design. We know that the story has the purpose of creating multiple meanings, and its style possibly works as a part of that. But as a storytelling experience, something seems missing. This illusiveness makes the story of Five Wounds somehow less exciting to read, somehow less absorbing, as we are too aware of the writer’s and the reader’s roles though perhaps this method, in theory, functions as a comment on the book that it imitates and, conceivably, parodies; the Bible.

But this comes in waves. For the majority of its telling, particularly warming into the second part, the writing alternates between robust allegory and surreal, comical fantasy, with the highlight being Cuckoo’s journey to claim himself a face. His tale is something ghostly, like the daguerrotypes of the long ago buried, with Walker’s words taking on some of the lore the book is torn from, as he deals in his grainy haunted images.

If you have the time to commit to this book, there is surely reward for what you put in. And you know a writer is doing something right when you seek out his previous work, hints of which are revealed in this novel, where the historical accounts are genuinely fascinating and always communicated with gusto. The punk history biography, Pistols! Treason! Murder! also illustrated by Dan Hallett, about the 17th-century Venetian spy, Gerolamo Vano, was the first part of their developing partnership. It is waiting patiently on the shelf.

Further Resources:

  • The design of Five Wounds at Spike Magazine
  • Jonathan Walker’s incredible Five Wounds website
  • Jonathan Walker’s blog (including a free sample chapter of the book) and further fascinating insights

Take Shelter

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Take ShelterFrom Shotgun Stories writer/director comes a second feature on small town America, another portrait of troubled family which despite its flaws, reaffirms Jeff Nichols’ potential to become an independent cinema mainstay.

Michael Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a family man in anytown, Ohio, father to a recently deafened girl, husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and son to an institutionalised mother, Sarah (Kathy Baker). Despite money worries surrounding his daughter’s rising healthcare needs and enrolment in special education, the couple are contented, even happy. The envy of his friends (it is said to his face) and a crew chief for a sand-mining company, everything seems to be under control. Until he starts to have increasingly disturbing visions of an apocalyptic storm coming over the horizon at him, his family and the world as he understands it.

Unsure whether the prophecy in his dreams is coming true, or if his mind is succumbing to inherited mental ills, Curtis begins to build a large underground shelter in his backyard, to the dismay of his family and friends.

By now, we’re already familiar with Shannon’s well-rounded ability to play a man set against society (or vice versa), having seen him play the wild-eyed and obsessive in a number of high- and low-profile roles (Revolutionary Road, Bug, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), but it’s with these independent pictures and through building a fruitful working relationship with Nichols since the director’s debut, that he is carving out a legacy of memorable performances, and surely lasting work. [Editor’s Note: Shannon is also well-known as Nelson, the compulsive, conflicted and compelling federal agent in Boardwalk Empire.]

His is a slow-burn of a breakdown and, though the audience is treated to the usual dream/reality blur of his visions, Nichols largely deals with it in a robust, humane and relatable way. Curtis is an ‘ordinary’ guy, he tries to understand his own illness by taking books out of the library and testing himself. He visits his ‘schizophrenic’ mother and generally does everything he can to understand what is happening to him. And, at first, he does it alone.

Of course, the central reason for Curtis’ breakdown, his prophetic dreams, also works as a metaphor for a wider anxiety that afflicts those who reach a certain point where there are people and things to protect, certain conditions of living that need to be maintained. But it’s hardly an apologist’s account of the seemingly inevitable slide into conservatism, (though it would be tempting to view it that way). Nichols details the general realisation that much too much is beyond any one man’s control, something Curtis comes to realise by eventually confiding in his wife.

Nichols, with his now-emerging trademark of slow-talking midwestern characters, realises his own anxieties through his creations, all plucked right out of real life and scripted with a style that seems to align his future with that of Terence Malick, while, visually at least, somehow recalling the quiet frenzy in the first half of Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.

Take Shelter is, however, far from flawless. One glaring weakness is the unsure pace of its repetitive narrative, culminating in a rushed yet ultimately tantalising finale. The film seems to have a trajectory that frequently turns back on itself and, as much as the nightmares are entertaining to watch, they seem to stifle the story rather than advance it. Nichols uses the already-familiar language of dream/reality confusion to almost clichéd effect and, though there’s fun to be had in the making of it (there are some jarring images of displaced furniture and splattering birds), it feels like a tired, even over-simplified way of exploring these ideas with an audience. These are the moments where Take Shelter feels like a very small film not saying much about anything, apart from playing around with some substantial, ponderous issues.

But this criticism is mostly rescued by its performances. Chastain and Shannon are consistently impressive (save for some odd dry heaving), along with the rest of the supporting cast, most noticeably in the film’s turning point, a dinner scene that ends in confrontation and some over-turned tables.

Another of the film’s failings, and possibly its most noticeable flaw, is the distractingly executed visual effects, from the renowned Strause Brothers’ company, Hydraulx. The CGI is too flimsy, too hollow, and not made of the same grit that the rest of the film is covered in so that when they appear, the images pull the viewer right out of Curtis’ nightmare vortex and drops them back in their seat, left staring at a big screen.

Nichols’ film is absorbing regardless of these shortcomings, and is the work of a man honing his style, finding what works, while dealing with his own concerns. His third feature, Mud, will be the next in the Shannon-Nichols collaboration, making it a rough trilogy of small town America, which will also star Matthew McConaughey and Reece Witherspoon. Look for it in 2013.

Dan Fante: Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Dan Fante

Opening with the familiar visions of snow from the likes of Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Dago Red (‘Bricklayer in the Snow’), Dan Fante kicks off, like Svevo and Arturo of his father’s novels, buried in an image of purest white. But this is a damned and dark tale, swirling in sweat and alcohol, of depression and addiction, with some genuine pain and angst behind it.

And instead of the cold winters of John Fante’s Colorado, we open with Dan’s grandfather, Nicola, struggling to make a living in the Abruzzi mountains where the only way to make it is with one’s hands, mostly laying brick. Nicola’s father escapes to America, where eventually he’s tracked down by his son, discovered in the back of a bar drunk and broke. “Gimme a buck, kid. I need a drink.” These are the first words he hears out of his father’s lips in ten years. So begins a cycle of misery fuelled by alcohol that Nicola Fante visits on his son John, and that John pays forward to his son, Dan, earning the book the subtitle: ‘A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving’.

Dan recounts in his own uncomplicated, straight-talking (occasionally repetitive) language his father John’s rise to literary fame, his encounters and friendships with the literati of his time, exchanging correspondence with H.L. Mencken and William Saroyan, before being dragged down by a lust for the good life becoming a hack screenwriter in Hollywood. This is the source of John Fante’s bitterness, his disgust with himself for ‘selling out’, putting this dedication on his short story collection Dago Red:

From that Hollywood whore, that stinking sell-out artist, that sublime literary pervert, that thwarted lyricist – that stinking scene artist, that Paramount cunt-lapper who gets paid for the sweet scented vomit whispered by Dorothy Lamour – Dedicated with the hope that someday soon he can write some less bitter inscription on the flyleaf of a really great book.

Meanwhile, Dan was growing up. And the opening of this autobiography, which reads a lot livelier, perhaps refreshed with some choice tweaking of events, tells of his dyslexia, his troubles with his older academically gifted brother, Nick, and his first experience with alcohol at the age of four:

Many years later, when I got sober, I would remember the event vividly and mark it as a major transition in my life. Alcohol had become a life-changing elixir.

Finding it difficult under the same roof as his father, Dan begins moving around a lot, leaving LA and getting involved in the New York political scene in the 1960s while paying the rent by driving a cab, before eventually squandering a playwriting deal on the radio that could have seen him become a big name, like his father, a lot earlier on. Depression, insomnia and several suicide attempts follow:

Because sleep was impossible, I began walking again at night to exhaust myself. Forty or fifty blocks. The East River to the Hudson River and back again. Sometimes I would stop to get a blow job from whatever Times Square guy was handy, then return to my hotel and drink myself to the point where I could pass out.

A darkness had come to my life, a despair that only those who have known the unendingness and bottomlessness of their own psyche can understand. No matter what I did or what female hostage I took in a relationship, I knew that sooner or later I would die from suicide. And, as it turned out, I would continue to drink for at least another fifteen years.

It’s anecdotes like these, admittedly even with the disclaimer (“bearing in mind that I suffered from active alcoholism for years”), that make this a mildly enlightening, though often numbing, read. We get a decent insight into the family life of a frequently bitter but always mercurial writer, and the understanding that the father and son come to toward the end of John’s life.

You may find yourself skimming through some of the latter chapters about Dan’s time working as a carnie, or as a limousine driver, or a telemarketing exec, as sections of ‘Fante’ are rehashed from material he’s covered thoroughly in previous books, almost word-for-word.

Nevertheless, his recollections blended in throughout on the rough relationships of the Fantes are always strong, emotive and honestly written which makes it a shame that it tapers off toward the end, though it would be easy to understand. Some of these experiences must have been painful to recall. But catharsis through words has always been Dan’s way. To him, writing is vital. And both John and Dan’s stories are vital ones, certainly worth telling, and certainly worth reading.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Reviewed by Declan Tan

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s deranged adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s equally deranged novel (which Shriver quite garishly lauds on the film’s poster) is a decent stretch of film that concentrates more on the director’s ambition than it does on the novel’s. The result is a sometimes over-stylised but darkly entertaining genre-mix of gallows humour, psychological horror and suspense; likely to resonate more with shit-scared parents out on ‘date night’ than with their demonic kids, who have probably seen it all before, in more detail, and probably with gory special effects.

Tilda Swinton plays Eva, the mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller), a teenager imprisoned after murdering several students during a high school massacre. Switching back and forth in sequence, we’re shifted from post- to pre-rampage and back, as Eva visits Kevin, avoids humanity and generally tries to make sense of what happened, looking for the ‘Why’, and the reason for her continued estrangement from her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) and daughter, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).

Channelling Haneke for thematic matter at alternating moments, with echoes of Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments…, Ramsay manages a visually impressionistic swish every now and then, while intermittently falling flat by overpainting the image elsewhere. And, for all its heavy subject matter, Kevin plays a little light and airy. Which isn’t even a criticism.

It works as a reasonable horror flick of sorts, the kind that isn’t quite dumb enough for you to scoff at, but also not ‘new’ enough for you to still be discussing it by the time that once-a-week ‘date night’ draws to a close. There’s no groundbreaking exploration of ideas here; a re-treading of the line between nature and nurture while arguing for neither (though, perhaps, a mixture of the two), it begs of its audience the book’s dust-jacket praise of “intelligence” and “bravery”, merely by showing that every one of its characters abominates another in their own way, in an ever-developing culture of detachment and familial alienation.

Though Ramsay goes where Haneke didn’t, (i.e. the trite explanations of delusions of grandeur; the checklist of psychopathic behaviour; the roar of the crowd from the boy’s perspective; and Kevin’s commentary on television,) it’s when it tries on the big woolly jumper of social commentary that the film feels a little over-dressed, and at times the visuals match Ramsay’s overblown sense of impact and importance. Everything here but the dialogue seems to work, leading Kevin to overstep on occasion so rather than allowing its audience some interpretation by implication. It all gets a little too obvious. But there are successful moments in between, an example being Franklin’s advice to Eva that she “needs to talk to somebody” and get professional help, but that he is obviously unwilling to be the one to do it, a message that nods to the film’s increasingly ironic title.

Where the book was an example of an author creating an explainable context for their overwriting – Eva is herself a writer, it seems that Ramsay has gone for the same, silver screen style, with gaudy visuals that too frequently call attention to their cleverness. Further hindered by strained attempts at ironic music playing over an otherwise disturbing scene, the artistic and filmic references pile up a little too blatantly. Some other choices of music do, however, work well, and create a haunted idea of past and how it can never reached again fully, or for Eva, even partly. This demands that Swinton spend most of the film near-catatonic staring eyes through everything, while Reilly is wasted in a nothing part, a character without depth, a seeming requisite for a film like this; only one side sees, the other is ignorant/blind to the son’s behaviour (reminiscent of the also-competent Joshua and later Orphan).

In contrast to the cataleptic Eva, Kevin is a part an actor can go anywhere with, which, for the breaking-through Miller, means a heavy touch of the over-acting. So plenty twitching of the lips and shit-eating grins, while looking up menacingly from under your eyebrows, then.

But somewhere in here there is promise, if not intellectually, then at least as something reasonably pleasing to look at, as Ramsay’s certain (though loud) control of the camera looks to make a bigger sound in Hollywood and beyond. Let’s just hope for some meatier, less flowery, source material.

Tequila Tales: An Anthology of Short Fiction

Tequila TalesReviewed by Declan Tan

The Tequila Tales anthology (edited by Millie Johanna Heur and Roy Anthony Shabla) is an eclectic mixture of genre, style and content that unites a well-published group of writers on the single and divisive subject of, yes, tequila. All of the work has in some way been licked by the liquid sting of the Mexican favourite and, like a night on the stuff, there are ups and downs in the success of each tale’s telling. But it has the kind of lively, straight-talking touch of some of the better literary magazines circulating today, the sort that these writers appear in regularly and consistently.

There is little posing here, little in the way of self-conscious and superficial intellectualism. It is lucid writing and, mostly, strong storytelling. This tequila is a kind of unknowing antidote to some of the throwaway posturing that has become fashionable in certain literary circles; the voice of an older generation, of the printed ‘littles’, that still have something they want to say.

There are two stand-out stories that make this book: John Brantingham is the writer of the first, and he has certainly done the rounds. He was fiction editor of the legendary (and borderline-defunct) Chiron Review and has been publishing strong work in the small presses since the ’90s. His short story ‘Even Puppets Must Die’ is simply a disturbingly well-told piece of writing, a booze-soaked memory torn out of a nightmare domesticity.

The other is a kind of mythical “devilish maze”, recalling Lautrémont’s prose poems had he been resurrected as a shaman before downing a bottle of hallucinogenic poison; ‘Naked Existential Woman’ by Hexham-born Philip Daughtry, is another great find.

There are others, though; a playfully experimental Gerald Locklin, a drunken but sharp Mike Muñoz, a brief Gary Keith, and a warped Tim Raab, to name a few more. And each of the tales employs the drink in a different way, be it medicinal or otherwise, though it isn’t always celebratory; there is a lot here about the trough after the peak, the grey guts of alcoholism, which make it more than a disposable collection.

Unfortunately it’s the first and last title to be released through Two Friends Press, owned and edited by Roy Anthony Shabla and Millie Heur. Soon to be released in eBook format, maybe they’ll have a drink and change their minds.

Steve Aylett: Lint The Movie

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Lint The MovieUntil recently, the promise of Steve Aylett’s £750 foray into feature-length film productions had seemingly been wandering desultorily around the Internet for quite some time, indulging in some shallow vanishing since 2009, popping up here and there on blogs, before triumphantly reappearing for its premiere in Brighton earlier this year. Followed closely by a London screening, it has since been saddled up for a couple more dates, in Northampton (October) and Portland at Bizarro Con 2011 (November).

If you’re not already familiar with Jeff Lint or Steve Aylett, then this paragraph is my opportunity to appear smug. Which is off-putting, isn’t it? If you are already a Lint obsessive then a review for this film is pointless, as the mere realisation that there is a Lint film in existence would mean you have now closed this window and opened a new one, searching for the next screening. Which puts this article in an odd place. Anyway…

In a quoted excerpt for Lint, Aylett’s 2005 book, the reviewer calls the creation a “laugh-out-loud funny mock biography of a pulp fiction writer who only exists in the author’s imagination”. But now, it seems, the character occupies also the minds of an array of esteemed Lintian pundits, who, riffing on the endless possibilities of such a character, clearly relish the chance in Aylett’s debut movie project.

Working both as an introduction as well as an extension of the Jeff Lint history, the film mixes in some of the speculation and anecdotes that makes up the original Lint book and its sequel, And Your Point Is? (2006) taking some of these ideas further and giving them worthy airtime. Thankfully they survive the transfer from page to screen and remain full of Aylett’s sly subversions.

Lint was the ultimate non-conformist, to the point of failure. A variable variety of talking faces (the shots are usually that close-up) gladly confirm this. Intercut with archive footage, the faces detail much of the Lint legend: his distrust of waiters, his failed Star Trek and Patton scripts and his ‘magic bullet’ theory. Further highlights include some startlingly demented clips of Lint’s cartoon Catty and the Major and recounted tales from a gravelly Lord Caul Pin, writers Alan Moore, David Harlan Wilson (Codename Prague), Mo Ali and Bill Ectric (Tamper), plus comedians Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Robin Ince, and Aylett himself.

Similarly to its source material, Lint The Movie runs episodically with nugget after golden nugget of supreme absurdity, which often go beyond the simple exposition of Lint’s antics and instead into the realm of something meaningful and satiric (despite Aylett himself noting, “Satire has no effect – a mirror holds no fear for those with no shame”). But exactly what this ‘something’ is is hard to define, making Aylett’s Lint all the less boring and all the more satisfying.

Appropriately disrespectful of power, institution and instruction, Aylett is a writer who makes it look as if he is at play, before cunningly twisting on you with sudden twists of truth which make Lint, in all his forms (man/book/movie), true originals.

Now all we ask for is a full series of Catty and the Major.

Infinite Jest: An Interview with Richard Herring

For comedy aficionados, Richard Herring needs no introduction. So we’re not going to give him one. Declan Tan asks the questions

Richard HerringWhat is it you strive for in your shows?

Mainly to make people laugh, but along with that I suppose my main goal is doing so in an original way and hopefully also producing something that will make people think and maybe challenge their world view. But it’s different for each show.

Is there some kind of ideology behind your routines, something that you’re consciously trying to get across?

Sometimes. Other times not. Each show and routine tries to do different things. But I guess if there is a common theme it is challenging preconceptions and making people think about what they believe. If something is true I think you can question it and it will still hold up. If it’s not true then questioning it can help you realise that. By making people laugh you can get their guard down a little bit and discuss things that you might not be able to do or tackle subjects that might otherwise make people clam up.

What do you think of the whole interview procedure, is it worthwhile to ask someone to discuss his/her work?

It’s good to be questioned about what you do and to think about it yourself. Often interviews and the self-analysis that they entail can help one get to grips with something you’re doing or indeed make you question your own motives.

Would you consider your comedy ‘alternative’?

I don’t think that term really has any meaning in the 21st century. It’s a bit of an 80s term. I am not doing mainstream stuff on the whole, I suppose. But comedy loses some power if it becomes too mainstream anyway. I think my audience will always probably be smallish in comparison to those big TV names, but I would prefer to be creating interesting and original work. Though I am not opposed to doing TV or indeed some more mainstream work – you just have to be careful to get the balance right and I’ve realised from observation and my own experience that “success” can sometimes affect the quality of one’s work in a negative sense. I am lucky in fact to be in the position where I am an acquired taste and I am not the face of BBC prime time or crisps or something as it means I can cover the subjects I want to without being beholden to anyone else.

Does ‘alternative’ comedy have a relationship with truth and honesty?

I think most good comedy is about truth and honesty. But some of it is about lies. There are no rules. For me my honesty about myself allows me to be honest about other subjects. But sometimes I will take a contrary or dishonest approach to a subject in order to explore it thoroughly. There is a freedom in honesty though and it is good to express oneself.

You’re mentioned that you’re a fan of Bukowski. What is it about his work that you enjoy?

I like the fact that he’s not bothered about revealing himself to be an unpleasant or unscrupulous person. There is an honesty there that is endearing. We’re all fuck ups and it’s refreshing to read people who admit it with a sense of perspective. But he’s also a brilliant writer with an interesting life that has some parallels with mine, but is mainly entirely different. It’s good to see the world from another point of view.

Of course I am not saying that you have but what do you think of some literary figures’ move further to the right, in terms of politics, as they got older (i.e. Hamsun, Céline and Pound)? Does the same thing happen to comedians?

The same happens with a sizeable proportion of the population of all backgrounds. Realism and idealism are things that one has to attempt to keep balanced in life and I am not surprised that people become more cynical and selfish as they grow older. But there’s no need for it to happen and in fact, probably amongst comedians most of the older ones have stuck to their guns or get more left wing if anything. Personally i think it’s good to keep an open mind throughout your life and there is no shame in changing your mind as long as you do it for the right reasons. I have always been fairly central left and don’t see myself changing too much. But it’s easier to be left wing when you’re poor and young then when you’re rich and old so I can see why people do change their mind. And don’t forget that a good proportion of people are left wing when they are young out of a pose or because they think that’s what they should do or cos they think it might get them somewhere. Time usually flushes these people out. But life has some difficult choices for us all.

More HerringDo you consciously try to evolve through each of your performances?

I keep working in all aspects of my job, writing, performing and the vagaries of delivery. I want to keep improving and fortunately find the craft so interesting that I can do a show 100 times and not get bored with it, because I am discovering new avenues in the routines or new ways of doing them. It’s more perfecting than evolving in that sense. But I also don’t want to turn into a bitter old man saying things were different and better in my day. I love comedy and exploring the way it changes, but I also want to stay relevant. But these things tend to come organically rather than as the result of planning. By staying original and pushing oneself hopefully one can help to shape the way comedy is going, as well as being shaped by the work of others. You have to stay interested, which so far i have.

Are there any comedians, or styles, that you particularly respect? And any that you don’t?

I like any comedian who can surprise me. Originality is again the key. I tend to like the ones who have thought of something that I haven’t thought of, or expressed it more clearly, than the ones who tell me stuff I already know. But sometimes an observational comedian using the more basic comedic formulas can still be skilful enough to surprise me and in some ways I find that more impressive than some of the more avant garde comics. A comedian has to keep moving and not get too predictable. Not many achieve that over a whole career.

Who would you say your influences are (comedic, literary, political or otherwise)? Or does the idea of listing them seem arbitrary and tedious?

I think you get influenced by everything, good and bad and the list would be too long and complex to have any kind of meaning. As a child I was very impressed with Monty Python and Pete and Dud and The Young Ones. But if the influence was anything it was about the importance of being your own person and creating stuff that was yours. But throughout life you meet people, read books, see shows which shape you as a person.

What do you think of the brand of comedy that usually fills stadiums and sells millions of DVDs?

I am impressed by any comedian who does their job competently, even if it’s not my sense of humour. It’s a tough job and it’s not easy to get that many people to like you. It’s not my cup of tea generally speaking, but it’s only lazy comedians who coast on a wave of success and don’t put the work in that annoy me. And there are plenty of those at all levels. And it is possible to do something that is populist and also worthy. Tim Minchin and Morecambe and Wise spring to mind. I don’t have a problem if an act becomes popular. That is not what they should be judged by and there is no shame in success if achieved on the right terms

Are you at your happiest when on stage, or when writing your material, or neither?

I prefer performing because it’s more of an immediate thrill and just writing can be lonely and hard to cope with, whilst there is nothing that compares with making a crowd of people laugh. But after working very hard and going through pain and tears to write, it is also very satisfying to get something finished that you are proud of. I am lucky to be able to do both. If I had to do just one I think I would be unhappy

Has performing ever felt futile and fruitless? Any moments of despair? If so, What has kept you going?

All the time, at regular intervals. It is quite futile in many ways and as a performer your mood is very much affected by your last gig, or how things are going right now. You just have to push on through it and luckily (and kind of sadly) a good gig can banish the blues immediately. It’s a tough job in many ways and there is little security to it and one is always fearful that there might be better ways to fill one’s time or that one might have lost it. But the same is true of any job and life in general. You just have to keep on pushing on or lie down and die! Nothing we do has any real meaning in the long term and we’re just specks of dust on a rock hurtling through space. What keeps us going?

Has there ever been a moment when you’re felt contempt for your audience? How about hecklers?

Again these moments come along every now and again and sometimes an audience or a member of it deserves contempt. The danger is that you start to hate all audiences and forget that you are there to entertain them, they’re not there to pander to your ego. If a crowd is dull or misses the nuances you sometimes feel like slacking off and not giving them the best show, but there’s a chance that the dullness is something to do with you, or they’re just quiet and don’t show their enjoyment as much, so a big part of the job I think is to have the grace and ability to keep performing as if it’s the best gig ever. You can’t let your head drop – though sometimes it gets hard. Hecklers are generally just a pain in the arse. They’re easier to deal with than people realise and it’s an annoyance usually if they throw you off your stride. But again you have to embrace the changes and the unpredictability of live performance and try to make a positive out of it. If you have too much contempt for your audience or comedy in general then (unless you harness it and make it the act, which is hard, but possible) you’re heading in a bad direction. No one is forcing a comedian to be a comedian. If you hate it all of the time then you can stop.

Do you think a comedian or an artist has any other purpose than expression/creation?

It’s fine to be just entertaining and to give people something to laugh about. Life can be bleak for us all and if a comedian telling a cock joke makes someone forget their problems for half an hour or banish the blues then that is something to be happy about. There’s a danger that comedy can become all about subversion or expression and I think you have to keep the funny in there. I am lucky to be able to use my work to create and express myself, but there is nothing wrong in making people laugh until their sides hurt.

What do you think of the current state of comedy?

I think it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. Lots of good stuff, plenty of bad stuff. Lots of the good stuff doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but some does. The stand up circuit is much more inventive and interesting than when I started out. TV is producing similar amounts of great and terrible stuff, but now with the internet there are a lot more outlets for people to do interesting stuff. The people at the high end doing stadium tours and making loads of money might seem a bit mercenary and weird, but there were always these types of comedian and if anything there is more opportunity for invention and self-expression.

Funny Peculiar: An Interview with Dave Stordy

In the first of a double bill, Declan Tan interviews struggling comic Dave Stordy about Bobby Davro, Sedgways and the bleaker side of stand-up

Dave Stordy is a comedian. So is Richard Herring, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Right now, Stordy is writing a bit revolving around our quite casual and uneventful meeting, as I sit there watching him. He suggests I use it, I tell him: yeah. So I use it:

Stordy: ‘So I was talking to this journalist the other day, right… true story, true story.’

As he types onto his laptop, he tells me that he is trying to be funny because, he says, “there is a massive difference between trying to be funny and actually being it”. As we sit on his faded 80s two-piece sofa suite, over hot teas and pink wafers, he says these words with undue stress, force-feeding non-existent wisdom into the cliché. His wild lisp helps him none.

“The last time I was on stage I had to take out my notes from my inside pocket. I just lost myself. For some performers, being on stage is a sort of transcendence from all the bullshit, you know, losing your ‘self’. But I just simply lost my place.” He has these bullets of eyebrows and shifts them up and down as he speaks, like air quotes that have landed on his head, somehow rendering his very face an irony.

“For some comics that might be an exciting innovation, to do that, you know, pull a small piece of paper from your inside pocket and start reading it, like Stewart Lee or someone. But for me it was kind of a nightmare. I forgot what I wanted to say and just panicked. That was five months ago, the night of Halloween. I’ve performed since, but that night has haunted me.”

Stordy: ‘So this journalist calls me up one day and comes round to my flat a few days later for an interview. He thought it might be a good idea… he saw me do a show at Halloween. Nightmare, it was.’

Stordy was right. I had called him up after tracking him down through an ‘open mic’ night based in Leytonstone, looking for a struggling comic that I might be able to speak with, someone who might help me get to grips with the bleaker side of a stand-up comedy career. And Leytonstone was indeed bleak. Especially for Stordy who, five months previous, had died at the hands of 40-odd fancy-dressed revellers, and unforgiving hecklers, in a pumpkin-lit pub just down the High Road.

I went to meet him at his flat in east London. During our chat his lisp occasionally faltered, making me think he was merely in character. It would be a committed stunt for a minor performer, but perhaps telling of his delusion. It was hard to decide on its authenticity. Anyway, we sat down for a talk during which he would occasionally hand me scraps of paper with his latest routine scribbled upon them, bits that his typing fingers were too slow to document.

Stordy: ‘So this journo comes round, drinking my tea, eating my biscuits, “objectively” documenting the gradual obliteration of modern civilised society whilst simultaneously and unwittingly enabling the rampant, murderous spread of Western imperialism and the eventual enslavement of all creatures via its coded language of even parts propaganda, fear and Public Relations misinformation, before begging me for more pink wafers…”

Dave Stordy embarked on his comedy career, he tells me, after having once been caught impersonating his headmaster behind his back, à la Bobby Davro, a man renowned for starting his career in much the same manner. But he detests the comparison; Davro happens to be his unsuspecting arch-nemesis.

Maybe getting detention wasn’t a good enough reason to go into stand-up comedy, I suggest to him, as he momentarily lowers the voice recorder I have introduced to the table. He looks wistfully out of the window, perhaps imagining Monsieur Davro’s uneasy smile reflected back at him.

“He got six beltings for what he done. Maybe that’s what made him take it further. Now, I don’t condone corporal punishment or even like being compared to Davro. In fact I hate him. Yeah, he’s an easy target. That’s why I hate him. Though I admit to feeling a certain affinity to him just because of our shared profession.”

Profession, I ask. So you’re paid for your work? I ask because we’re in an above-ground hole.

“Well, often not,” Dave tells me, turning away from the spectre of Davro, “I wasn’t paid for my last gig because I left the stage when they started throwing their plastic cups. I always told myself, I’d never leave the stage unless they threw glass. Like Malcolm Tracey said. In fact I’m not sure if they qualified but the cups seemed a close enough representation. Anyway, I have been paid before, I don’t like to discuss money. An artist shouldn’t have to. But yeah I make a bit of money off of it.”

And what of your influences, your inspirations?

Stordy: (Pause)

I had angled a similar question at Richard Herring who I’d contacted after that first call to Stordy, as a relief from the grim failings of East End open mic performers. As a success of the business, Herring requires little introduction to connoisseurs of comedy, especially those lucky enough to have caught the Lee and Herring double act during its TV and radio prime in the 90s. Since then both Lee and Herring have fashioned formidable solo careers, producing original and innovative work alternately achieving cult and mainstream success in the 00s.

With a quietly considered response, Herring says: “I think you get influenced by everything, good and bad, and the list would be too long and complex to have any kind of meaning. As a child I was very impressed with Monty Python and Pete and Dud and The Young Ones. But if the influence was anything it was about the importance of being your own person and creating stuff that was yours. But throughout life you meet people, read books, see shows which shape you as a person.”

How about acts you respect, I asked: “I like any comedian who can surprise me. Originality is again the key. I tend to like the ones who have thought of something that I haven’t thought of, or expressed it more clearly, than the ones who tell me stuff I already know. But sometimes an observational comedian using the more basic comedic formulas can still be skilful enough to surprise me and in some ways I find that more impressive than some of the more avant-garde comics. A comedian has to keep moving and not get too predictable. Not many achieve that over a whole career.”

Not many achieve that at all, I think, as I return to Stordy and ask him the same question. He is still typing. He thinks about it.

Stordy: (Continue) ‘… not realizing as he picks at them from a cracked plate, that his pink wafers are a sickly metaphor for the present condition of his racket, the news media and journalism at large: pretty, yes, but effectively soiled, saturated by artificial flavours and colourings, unsuitable for those with nut allergies, layered meager layer upon meager layer, both wafer and cream being largely devoid of nutrition and unaware of their vain arrogance… yet he sups them up one by one, dipping them into his warm brew… yum yum yum yum yum…’

Stordy stops typing a moment and answers: “I read Michael McIntyre’s autobiography. I thought it was good. How the ghostwriter got his voice into the words and everything. I learnt a lot from that book. Mostly that ghostwriting for Michael McIntyre could hold a future for me. I’ve studied all of the comedian’s autobiographies, marking the comparisons with them and myself, with a blue pen in the margins. But when I’m not reading I’m usually writing. I’m preparing a website at the moment as well. D’ya wanna see?”

As I contain dubious excitement, I ask if he’s ever thought about quitting. As soon as I ask the question I feel as if I shouldn’t have, as if somehow I had accused him of being shit without having seen all the available evidence. The question interrupts his tapping of the laptop keys. He looks back for Davro.

“Yeah I did once or twice. I quit for about a year in 2005. That was a bad year. I felt like a dog with three legs.”

Ah, I say to myself, Herring may have some sonorous advice for you, Dave. I read him the transcript from my conversation with Herring, specifically the question: Has performing ever felt futile and fruitless?

“All the time, at regular intervals. It is quite futile in many ways and as a performer your mood is very much affected by your last gig, or how things are going right now.” Stordy certainly fell into this category.

Herring’s words may offer Dave some hope, I think quietly, so I continue to read them: “You just have to push on through it and luckily (and kind of sadly) a good gig can banish the blues immediately.”
I look at Dave, who looks at Davro. I go on, feeling like Stordy’s personal coach: “It’s a tough job in many ways and there is little security to it and one is always fearful that there might be better ways to fill one’s time or that one might have lost it. But the same is true of any job and life in general. You just have to keep on pushing on or lie down and die! Nothing we do has any real meaning in the long term and we’re just specks of dust on a rock hurtling through space. What keeps us going?”

“Specks of dust,” Dave repeats. “Cheers for that!”

Stordy: ‘…the wafers jettisoning useless pink specks of dried cream and wafery dust to the floor, castoff, useless and forgotten… I know what you’re thinking: a dick with Chomsky jokes…’’

Effectively disregarding the previous five minutes of conversation and enlightened advice, save for that last sentence, Dave swivels his laptop around and gives me a virtual tour of the website he is designing. It is self-consciously rubbish, filled with hand-drawn scribbles that make no sense and lead the visitor through a pointless labyrinth of links, displaying either doodles of oversized heads on jelly-like bodies, with speech bubbles coming out of them saying things like ‘I am a man’s head’, or crudely sketched pieces of toast saying: ‘Someone buttered my crust.’ An unintentional farce?

“Comedians’ websites are usually intolerable and sycophantic in their attempts to make you chuckle or buy their DVDs or go watch their shows or whatever. I try and take the piss out of that. Like making observations about observational comedy, which actually is a trick ‘cause it’s kinda the same deal but makes you feel superior.”

So, what made you go back to comedy after quitting?

“The inner voice. The one telling me that I had no other prospects. Just the idea of getting back on stage, writing, all of it, filled me with hope all over again. And when I got back up there I didn’t feel like that three-legged dog anymore, if anything I felt like a three-legged man. A maverick, an outsider, though perhaps over-equipped and possibly useless.”

What do you mean by over-equipped?

He has been clicking excitedly through the gallery of doodles and copyright images of Dixy chicken burgers. “I mean that most audiences only want to go to a show to laugh and drink and have a good time, to get away from the horrible shit in their lives. I want them to think. To question their values and their morals. To hold up a mirror to them and our decaying society, to analyse its workings. And then maybe during that, to laugh.” He makes one last click: “Have a look at this one.”

He points to a finely detailed drawing of a lone Griffin fighting a flock of Boobries. The caption reads: “Get your paws off my Boobries.”

It was all a little depressing. I felt like Mickey to Stordy’s Rocky. Trying to get to the core of it, if even just to understand Dave and his near masochistic self-sacrificing to his uninterested audience, I’d asked Herring what it was that he strived for in his shows.

“Mainly to make people laugh,” he says, “But along with that I suppose my main goal is doing so in an original way and hopefully also producing something that will make people think and maybe challenge their world view.”

So there’s some kind of ideology behind your routines, something that you’re consciously trying to get across?

“Sometimes. Other times not.  Each show and routine tries to do different things. But I guess if there is a common theme it is challenging preconceptions and making people think about what they believe. If something is true I think you can question it and it will still hold up. If it’s not true then questioning it can help you realise that. By making people laugh you can get their guard down a little bit and discuss things that you might not be able to do or tackle subjects that might otherwise make people clam up.”

Dave had similar reasons, albeit from his cave of delusion where nationwide fame and critical acclaim were just around the corner, adding: “I find it interesting to explore whether the audience are laughing at a joke just because they get it, or because it’s actually funny.”

His principal jokes, he tells me, come to him when he is: a) lowering onto the toilet; or b) smoking a cigarette out of his window. “I get my inspiration mostly during the moments that I am pulling down my trousers to sit on the bog, or when I’ve just started a cigarette and can’t reach a pen, as I smoke by the window, so as not to offend my girlfriend’s health. These seem to be the moments where neither a pen nor a bit of paper are in sight. It is quite annoying. Since the time I hastily ran from the toilet midway through a poo, I have kept a notebook and a pen cellotaped to a piece of string dangling from the bathroom tiles. Since then I haven’t had any good ideas.”

“It’s a tough job and it’s not easy to get that many people to like you,” says Herring, having unquestionably taken the role of sage for the current conversation with Stordy, “It’s only lazy comedians who coast on a wave of success and don’t put the work in that annoy me. And there are plenty of those at all levels. And it is possible to do something that is populist and also worthy. Tim Minchin and Morecambe and Wise spring to mind. I don’t have a problem if an act becomes popular. That is not what they should be judged by and there is no shame in success if achieved on the right terms.” It felt that this was Stordy’s central conflict. He seemed desperate for fame and seemed to merely use comedy as a vehicle on the road to it, without showing any respect for the medium or its followers.

Stordy: (Introduce segue into final bit)

A natural conclusion to any interview, discussion of the future usually seems a befitting end point and possibly one offering hope. So Dave, any plans for the future?

“I’m looking to invest in a Segway to help smooth out my act. The rhythm’s a bit jarring and staccato at the moment. It might be able to help me refine the sudden shifts from one topic to the next. At the end of one bit I’d get the Segway and ride it across the stage, maybe through the audience, venue permitting, and jump off to start the next bit. It’s an expensive joke though. About £4000 expensive. But you can’t put a price on innovation. I am worried about the health and safety repercussions though. You can’t do nuffin’ no more. It’s political correctness gone mad.”

Despite the price, I tell him, it seems like a cheap joke. So if it isn’t elaborate visual gags, what is it that makes good comedy?

Stordy: (Ride Segway in)

“I used to think comedy was like blowing smoke into a long stream of speed-walkers’ faces,” Stordy tells me, “You know, annoying and confrontational. But the more I look at it, it seems more like blowing smoke into the faces of an oncoming pack of cyclists. Pretty futile, if not incidentally mildly amusing.”

Not the strongest point to end our time together. Richard, we’ll leave it to you:

“I think most good comedy is about truth and honesty,” says Herring, “But some of it is about lies. There are no rules.”

Stordy: (Ride Segway out)

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)

A radical new direction for the acceptable face of art house cinema? Hardly, says Declan Tan

“Let’s open with one of those long, audience-testing shots, yeah, yeah, keep him driving around. Make about ten laps then we’ll cut.”

I imagine this is how Sofia Coppola speaks and I imagine this is how she sets up her anchored camera, after watching some ‘70s european art house cinema and listening to some French indie pop, before mumbling instructions to her Ray-Ban-wearing crew. She silently pats herself on the back with a studied expression of seriousness.

Wait. That’s a bit harsh. To be fair she has done some worthwhile work (Lost in Translation) then again, some bordering on disgraceful (Marie Antoinette), with the rest in between (The Virgin Suicides). But it’s this next one, starring Stephen Dorff and Elle (sister-of-Dakota) Fanning, that turns out to be simultaneously intriguing and self-satisfied, dropping in somewhere around the middle of Coppola’s so-far tolerable filmography.

Dorff plays Johnny Marco, an actor whose very name even sounds like a cliché. He has lived in the well-worn fast lane like many of his kind before, blitzing circuits in his Ferrari, habitually bed hopping in the Chateau Marmont, probably chunking his nose but certainly draining exorbitantly priced bottles. But (you guessed it) there is something desperate nagging at him. Do you see now? Miss Coppola wants to poke her golden stick at despair and existential angst again. Joyous day.

Plot? Easy. We have Johnny going from place to place, day to day, not knowing when or what, regularly booking the same blonde twin pole-dancers to perform for his amusement. He parties now and then, breaks an arm, cracks a smile occasionally (but only for the twins), not finding what he’s looking for anywhere, oh but his daughter, Cleo (Fanning), she appears and isn’t she so down-to-earth? Surely, their love for each other can help him find that somewhere. Right, right.

So, familiar territory and safe ground for Coppola, picking apart that theme again, allowing a repeat of those possible interpretations (from her own experience growing up in a similar position to Cleo, or from the perspective of Johnny, a reflection of Coppola in her own career), a subject that allows her to sharpen her already-cut teeth on the fluffily fake glamour of the movie business. Being a bit too repetitive for anyone that saw Lost in Translation, there is nothing said here that wasn’t said last time round. Perhaps this is the only life that Coppola has ever known, or can ever depict. So just as in her Tokyo story, the press and PR incompetents again receive the same treatment as before; they are evermore insincere, moronic and ridiculous. Sometimes laughably so, yet mostly it’s single-chuckle material at best.

Nevertheless, it’s subject matter with plenty of meat for the audience to chew over. We’re presented with the hollow man, a mould (literally, in one scene), who is neatly given purpose and meaning in his on-camera moments, by a script or a director. Outside of that, Johnny is the empty vessel that is filled only during the hours when he embodies someone else. When he is off-set, there is no dictated purpose or meaning or lines to deliver; he is vacated. He realises this, saying: “I’m nothing. I’m not even a real person”. This is where Coppola strikes the right notes. Even a character that has everything is still reduced to nothing, evoking the sympathy of the audience. There are moments when we can ourselves taste the bitter nothing, subdued performances allow these moments to poke through, but often the camera technique is what gets in its way, becoming a film never allowed to realise its considerable potential.

All of this works as a distraction to what could be something real, a message though heard before, still worth listening to. But instead we’re faced with the smugness that seems to underline it all. It’s hard to ignore the self-aware camera work that draws attention to itself with every static shot, every long take, topped with the conspicuously drawn symbolism. It also doesn’t help that the ending is a lazy one.

Route Irish (Ken Loach)

Often something of a cinematic conscience, Ken Loach turns the camera to the Iraq war. Declan Tan reviews

Ken Loach’s take on Iraq was always going to be one to look out for. After In Our Name, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and a slurry of others sent hot and steaming down the pipe of supposedly cantankerous cinema, Route Irish is a welcome return to veracity that has undoubtedly been amiss in previous war-film efforts. This isn’t to say that those other films aren’t sincere. Surely their respective producers think and believe the things they project up onto the screen, supposed wisdom in a blindfold, it’s just that no one as qualified or well-informed as Loach has bothered to make a mystery/thrillerama like this, until now.

It’s immediately obvious. Loach’s is the film that Green Zone never could be; brash, confrontational, and with more than a Wikipedia source of research. Coming from the pen of Loach’s oft partner-in-crime, Paul Laverty, the script takes on adversaries others have shied away from in the past, as it reaches upward to the source of profit and other reasons for invasion, rather than lazily kicking stones into the faces of those at the bottom of the pile, the soldiers. While other films are looking over their shoulders to see whose jackboot toes they just farted on, Loach’s rolls dead ahead not even casting a look back to see all the faces he’s left in the methane smog. And there are plenty coughing up the guff.

The plot follows ex-sas Fergus (Womack) as he investigates the death of his childhood friend and fellow mercenary, Frankie (Bishop), killed on the deadly stretch of road, “Route Irish”, that joins the Green Zone and Baghdad Airport. Fergus slowly pieces together the reasons for Frankie’s untimely demise, through a furied investigation of private security contractors and big business, putting Skype and mobile phone videos to use like never before. (These technologies even become central to the plot.)

That the story is so routinely executed leads one to realise that this film is simply an excuse for an essay, on modern warfare, on moral ambiguity, concerning the Middle Eastern invasions. Not only satisfied to unglove corporate hands fiddling for profit, it works to question the audience’s complicit involvement in the subsequent revenge Fergus takes out on those culpable, questioning whether we too would succumb, becoming either a victim or hero of circumstance in the ensuing vengeance. Through this, the audience is implicated in the crime of torture. Though Fergus does it out of despair, a regrettable vendetta, because he knows that he is lost inside, we, the audience, enjoy the heavy justice he takes on those responsible. At least a little bit, be honest. Well, for a while, at least.

It’s these side dishes of commentary on the human condition, done well in the context of the surrounding images, that compliments the main of objective of honest storytelling, elevating this above the standard Iraq/Afghan “anti-war” film fodder that can’t help but preach an emptiness both obvious and pointless. The characters here are well-fleshed out and real, not caricatures or propagandists, and the performances well-rounded.

But to call it important is a stretch. Route Irish is the work of a director trying to say things more easily said in other, less subjective or interpretive mediums. And the argument is also there, that it is too late for this kind of film to have any effect, working more as a reader’s letter sent in by a concerned citizen that got lost in the post for a few years. Nevertheless, Loach’s film marks a significant turning point in the way these two invasions are dealt with in cinema, (though it isn’t likely that many other filmmakers will follow the same route) that the war is the Iraqis’ tragedy, no one else’s, not the Brit’s or the American’s, only the Iraqis’. One million war dead and countless others lost. This is the core of Loach’s film. Leaving us with the question: Is this the first honest British film about the invasion?

The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)

Is there anything left to say about The King’s Speech? Declan Tan thinks so

The King's Speech film posterWelcome to the throwback film of the century. You already know the story thanks to the BAFTA-soaked hype parade (and the ubiquitous trailers), and you’re vaguely familiar with the history, World War II and all that (though you won’t be too much the wiser by the end of this movie). On top of this, before even a single frame is set on the screen, prepare to be shunted into a retrogressive state of thinking: that the ruling of a pillaged Empire is something to take great patriotic pride in.

We’re thrown in right before our boy Albert/King George VI is about to give one of his silence-filled speeches, just after the film’s opened with a little heads up on where we are, 1925 England to be exact, the closing speech of the Empire Exhibition. Cue all the trendy framing a voguish director can muster of our reluctant King (later assuming the name George VI when taking the throne) with requisite plain spaces of nothing with our principal character poised at the edge of it, or maybe just the corner of his hat and an eye. Very modern and unimaginative but efficient, much like the film itself.

So Prince Albert (Colin Firth) has a stutter. Not good for a man who regularly has to stand in front of thousands and speak, nor accommodating in a time when the wireless has expanded the reach of said person’ stammer, thus multiplying his failings Commonwealth-wide. So his dutiful wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), gets him help. They’ve been through the struggle of correcting his speech with incapable doctors and therapists, until Elizabeth decides to seek out the man who will change all that. The result is a misfiring, very British stiff upper lip comedy of manners at the outset when we first meet loveable rogue Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). She calls for him, standing in his reception. He answers her from the shitter. It’s all very amusing.

Then there’s a montage of elocution lessons where he makes progress in the confines of Logue’s office but still can’t hack the pressure when it comes to it. Oh and he’s got a mean Daddy who doesn’t help. The story runs smoothly most of the time, kind of chugging along like a well-oiled BBC costume drama, the sort director Tom Hooper has been known for (along with some Byker Grove and EastEnders).

That’s not to say that some of the cinematography isn’t decent. But Hooper’s film, at its core, seems strangely confused over quite a simple story, purposefully evading any complexities to strike its broad brush at the canvas of World politics, finding it acceptable enough to merely shove in a few cameo appearances from Churchill, Baldwin and Chamberlain, occasionally name dropping Hitler and Stalin. Seidler’s script tries its hardest to humanise the King, to make him appealing to the common man with his common problems (a victim of child abuse, how can that miss?) but the tear-jerkers are ticked off one-by-one in supposedly heart rending conversations with Lionel like a film version of a Wikipedia page.

Rather hypocritically it makes the point that the King will never know anything of the ‘common man’, yet Seidler goes out of his way to pave that one-way street, as we the audience/the people are given the dubious honour of trying to understand what it’s like to be royalty (oh so very trying) when the same effort isn’t done from their end. The ruddy swines. It’s the film equivalent of a book that reads “blah blah blah blah b-b-b-b-b-blah” and a sadly condescending experience at that, where magical Disney music plays when a ‘normal’ person has an encounter with the King and Queen. It’s artificial and generally a bit doughy: a forced quaint kind of humour and over-exerted in its attempt at quirkiness.

Churchill (Timothy Spall) especially is played up with unnecessary fervour, too knowing of his potentially important role as if to say: “Yeah, I’ve got a winner here and I’m gonna milk the bastard for all its worth”, taking the part by the throat and throttling it. The same goes for the majority of the performances; Bonham-Carter acts too hard, Firth is almost irritatingly histrionic. Something should be said for Rush though, who carries off his part with dignity and is the only member of the ensemble who makes the thing watchable.

What’s most confusing about The King’s Speech is that it both argues for the importance of a King at a time of crisis, then at the same time passes him off in the main as a complete non-entity and just a speech giver. So which is it?

By the end, and by the time King G VI has to step to the mic, it’s a ruddy relief that he spits out the words, not so much because we’re with him on his dastardly journey, but that the film is nearly over. Amidst this, (of all things!) is the perpetuation of the myth that the people need the Monarch with the silver screen affair ending like a flood of hot turds run into the eyeballs. Hyperbole perhaps. But maybe that’s why it even earned the Queen’s approval. I’ll calm down now.

Alternatively: watch The Madness of King George.

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)

Eight years after One Hour Photo, music video director Romanek steps back in the ring with an adaptation of Ishiguro’s much-touted novel. Declan Tan reviews

In 1952, the breakthrough came. All disease and illness were cured, all disability wiped out. By the 1960s, age expectancy reached over 100 years.

This is the opener for Never Let Me Go, a love-triangular pseudo-sci-fi-drama in which mankind undergoes the dystopian treatment in an alternative history, where science and technology have made the simultaneous leap to put an end to all (physical) human suffering. This, we are shown, is achieved through harvesting body parts and vital organs, taken from mild-mannered clones, to transplant into and onto the broken bodies of the higher strata of society. By now you could be tempted to think Brave New World or possibly Gattaca, and ponder that we might already be well-acquainted with this plot.

Or at least we have seen these ideas before, and more proficiently explored. And that’s the main issue with Romanek’s latest, adapted for the screen by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) from the cult-ish 2005 Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same name, though the premise is ripe with possibilities – questions of ethics and what it means to be ‘human’, questions of science and destiny, questions of soul and suffering and so on and so forth. Yet what we are presented with is a semi-complete dystopian vision, a world half-rendered by Garland’s script, and a sequence of scenes ironically devoid of any human emotion or completion of its big concepts.

The film opens in the 1990s with our 29-year-old heroine, Kathy (Mulligan) the carer, over-seeing a ‘donor’ ‘donating’. She delivers a solemn voiceover filling us in on her dulled recollections. We flash back to 1978, a twee-looking boarding school where the children talk through their noses and their starchy uniforms stifle free movement and free thinking. Introduced are Kathy’s classmates Tommy (Garfield), who she quickly falls in love with, and Ruth (a sedate Keira Knightley), her then-best friend. As we learn more about life at Hailsham school, a new teacher enters the fray and begins to undermine the control held over the children’s pre-determined fate. We quickly begin to realise that there is a darker side to the apparently parentless joy of regimented school life under Miss Emily (Rampling) with episodes showing playground bullying, their inability to think outside their boundaries and chorus-singing of mindwash anthems. But when the mystery of their purpose evaporates (after the first 40 or so minutes) we are left with little reason to hang on, and this is seemingly what the three protagonists are thinking, as they fail to kick up a fuss or do the human thing and rebel. But Ruth and Tommy make a go of it while they’re young, destroying Kathy in the process, leaving her to watch them from afar as they share their first kiss.

When the film jumps forward to 1985, not much has changed. Where the three used to inhabit a school they now live in ‘The Cottages’. They sit around with blank faces, impersonate characters from American television, go on day trips and exist in a kind of ennui on their next step to ‘completion’ (Ishiguro’s euphemism for death). On one of these road trips Ruth glimpses what she thinks might be her ‘possible’, the person for whom her organs and limbs are supposed to be harvested for, yet this event is passed over without much thought or delicacy. The subject of the wider society is also missed, as a short scene in which the trio shyly orders some food at a café merely demonstrates another example of the film’s self-imposed limits.

Frustratingly, the clones simply accept their fates without displaying any trace of humanity; they sink into misery and merely acquiesce to their destinies. And this seems more of a defect on the film’s part rather than an intentional comment on human nature. So, unremarkably, throughout the three decades that the film spans, the three friends experience almost no progression or development; they are static, which is not aided by the type of wispy acting on display from the three leads, and who could only fall flat as a result of the flaccid dialogue anyway.

Also a tad irritating is that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth talk of nothing but their situation, occasionally of ‘love’ but without ever showing it or saying what they seem to think it is (this being another opportunity to delve into the aspects of perceived and actual love) but again, this is brushed away, glossed over with stereotypical reflections. Yet the most implausible aspect must be the fact that the world they live in does not seemed to have changed at all, apart from people living longer. Perhaps this is the film’s intention, to reveal only the singular perspective of Kathy. Even so, it makes the film feel somehow incomplete. And Kathy’s world that Romanek and Garland have recreated is empty and bereft of humanity, the core of Ishiguro’s admittedly overrated book, in a place where man’s body is elevated in meaning and significance in light of his predicament, making it all the more ridiculous that these three fail to deal with anything, waiting years to find out the details of their fate.

Never Let Me Go also suffers from another massive disconnect throughout; a disconnect between its style and the content of its script. Warm hues carry an incongruously somber tone, giving an unintentional sense of discomfort, the sign of a project that does not know its purpose or its meaning. And in an attempt to wrench in some feeling to the one-note script work, the soundtrack plays out melodramatic strings and trite crescendos, telling you when and what to feel, when perhaps silence would say much more than the manufactured emotion.

And to compound these inconsistencies, Romanek seems to possess the extraordinary talent of finding the most conventional and tediously orthodox shot possible for every moment, with the film evidently too busy getting on and telling its tale to get any ideas across visually or verbally, leaving the possibility that perhaps the only cliché avoided here was to not save the twist for the end.

When the inevitable conclusion does arrive, you’re left trying to pick out the pieces that might have meant something. Is it all some treatise on the ramifications of stem-cell research? Who knows. Is it a religious bit of work, blending in (accepted) notions of the soul against man’s concept of law? Probably not. An intriguing concept that at first seems interesting is instead taken for a ride where only the end is sought, and not the journey. So by the time we hear the last grating after-thought of a voiceover trying to tie things up nicely, with too many aspects of the story taken for granted and with social context forgotten, the whole thing sounds like A-level metaphysics, bordering on self-parody: “We all complete. And somehow it never feels quite long enough”.

Miral (Julian Schnabel)

Julian Schnabel’s switch from painter to filmmaker was one of the more surprising reinventions in contemporary culture. For Declan Tan, however, his most recent effort is a serious anticlimax

Julian Schnabel has more than impressed, actually he has excelled in his past features, all biopics of wildly varied personalities and very different nationalities. First there was his contemporary, and fellow New Yorker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, for whom he made 1996’s ebullient Basquiat. He followed up with an Oscar-nominated performance from Javier Bardem in the Cuban-set Reinaldo Arenas biography, Before Night Falls (2000), before picking up more Academy award nominations and the Best Director gong at Cannes with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).

Now Schnabel has transported his considerable skill to the Middle East. And unfortunately, it is with little or no impact. Too poorly informed to be a serious political film, too aware of its own possible significance in having any impact, and too clumsily written to be a comprehensive biography, Miral is simply a disappointment for what could have been a great cinematic statement. It’s like Schnabel finally wants to claim an Oscar for himself, by making a film that looks brave but only on the surface.

Miral doesn’t just try to tell the story of its titular heroine, but also Miral’s biological mother, Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri), a would-be terrorist in prison, Fatima (Ruba Bial), and Miral’s unofficially adopted mother, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). The latter is the core of the film, we start and end with her, and she is the reference point to all of the passing characters throughout.

We begin with Hind’s funeral in 1994 then cut back to 1948 in a kind of a how-it-all-began deal. Hind is walking to work and amidst gunfire and settling dust in the aftermath of the Deir Yassin massacre, she comes across 55 stranded orphans in the streets. She takes them to her mother’s home and feeds them, clothes them and eventually begins educating them. Over the years, this 55 turns to 2,000 until she has a bona fide school for girls, holding strong to a policy of non-participation in political struggle (in any overt way) and a complete commitment to “her children”.

Yes. This is an admirable story.

But Schnabel and Rula Jebreal, writer of the novel and the film, get muddled trying to mix the heavy story and politics, always stalling at a shallow depth on both. Schnabel freely admits he is no expert, admits he is not even trying to be. So he wants to use up the situation for an artistic experience, OK. Perhaps you don’t agree with that. Maybe he’s using the situation to get his hands on some awards. It’s hard to jump to that conclusion, but it looks that way. The politics are watered down, Schnabel and Jebreal seem to have redacted anything too controversial, anything that doesn’t fit in with this kind of fashionable social awareness where only the most superficial details are left in, the crimes of the Israeli government left without analysis, without debate, and only mentioned in clumsily didactic exposition.

As the movie unfolds we’re also offered a backstory for Fatima, the nurse turned activist, who plants a bomb in an Israeli cinema during a showing of Polanski’s Repulsion. Schnabel seems prepared to confront and condemn the thought-process behind an attack on innocent life by Palestinians on Israelis, but the other way round we rarely see the violence, Israelis only demolish buildings, imprison and then release. The murder of civilians seems far away and not immediate, contrary to the actuality of the situation.

In the Palestine that Schnabel creates, the Israeli army is not quite the belligerent occupying force that history has shown them to be. There are snippets of this poking through, some actual footage is cut in with the gloss, but it is ambivalent and afraid to come out and say what it is and say it straight. At the rushed conclusion we are told that the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 were a serious hope for an end to the atrocities. Perhaps this would have been an acceptable comment if the film was made in 1993. With the gift of hindsight Schnabel should or could have plugged the depths of this event for what it really was, another step in further dispossessing and systematically destroying the people of Palestine and as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe says: “to corral Palestinians in South African-style bantustans”. Instead the film laments that the accords have “not yet been honoured”.

Coinciding with the films political naivety, Schnabel seems also to have run out of ideas stylistically. The opening titles are atrocious, even amateurish. Then there’s the camerawork. It seems to try and show the possibility of hope, of freedom in its freeform style, often handheld and spinning looking up at blue sky or the trees, or whatever. But the whole experience is unconvincing, even insincere. These flourishes that made his previous films refreshing and even remarkable, are used to little or no effect here. Ultimately, the photography, mixed with a clumpy script and a removal of the US role in proceedings, amounts to what seems a poor understanding of the sheer desperation of the oppressed people in Palestine.

The Fighter (David O. Russell)

The Fighter film poster

Is there more to the Christian Bale Method than weight loss and accents? Declan Tan views his ‘return to acting’

As unimaginative and uninvolving as it is, The Fighter still manages to (insert boxing pun) throw a few punches before (here’s another one) the final bell, though admittedly it’s identical to every other underdog boxing movie you’ve ever seen. It couldn’t be more predictable, even if you already know the tale of “Irish” Micky Ward, with the only element of this different to any other pugilistic picture being that there’s a crackhead or two involved. And a greedy mother. Which both seemed to have gotten this one fast-tracked into production.

You can imagine the pitch in the Paramount offices, boxer Ward overcomes all the obstacles of his trainer/brother’s drug addiction and troubled upbringing to become the unexpected welterweight champion of the world. With a built-in audience that either like a good Dropkick Murphys track, play Xbox or have seen Rocky, the makers of The Fighter seemed to have realised early on it wouldn’t require much thought or craft to make a success. So if you’ve seen the trailer then there isn’t really any need to sit in front of it for two hours, is all.

But the acting is what it needs to be. The same cannot be said for the lazy script which does its best to confuse with a choppy timeline that skips long periods with no explanation, even leaping over less successful moments in Ward’s comeback career and ending before the much-lauded trilogy of fights with Arturo Gatti.

Bale (playing Micky’s half-brother Dicky Eklund) does his best to squirrel it up a bit, maybe too much, his familiar sunken eyes and weight loss doing most of the work for him, though when we catch a glimpse of the real Dicky during the credits he does appear to have the role down pat. But it isn’t really enough to carry it. Thankfully though, the two leads don’t compete for attention when they are on screen together. Wahlberg keeps it to quiet frustration and restrained integrity as the hero, having spent around four years training to ‘become’ Ward, even having the two brothers live in his home. We can’t knock that part of the production.

We can however take a second look at that script, with shared blame going to Scott Silver (yes, 8 Mile), Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, leaving us thinking who actually has dementia pugilistica in this story? The film presents a kind of a black and white world where people are either bastards doing evil, selfish things, or basically noble and valiant. There are no shades of morality to question here. And it comes out in the dialogue and the narrative, it wears thin and somehow gets a little tedious in spots.

And instead of having you sneer sanctimoniously at the working-class of Lowell, Massachusetts and more specifically the family of Micky Ward, it actually treats the whole familial fighting thing with an almost refreshing lightness of humour, while at the same time allowing you to, without guilt, despise and detest the scummy side of the family. So it does have its good points. Other highlights being the reconstruction of live television, using the appropriate video to give it the feel of live pay-per-view fights, the commentary intact, as it gets the point across that it’s just as much about the people watching Micky and not just Micky himself, as all their hopes rest on his supposedly “Irish” shoulders. Then there’s also Micky’s entrance music: Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’. Yep. Pretty good.

So it’s not all bad, but with the telescoping of film-worthy material condensing down to the last ten or so years, we’re left asking if Lennox Lewis is the next in line for the Hollywood treatment. Don’t do it, Paramount. Don’t.

Gerald Locklin: An Interview

Gerald Locklin has, in his lengthy career, alternately been called a “people’s writer”, a “stand-up poet” (co-credited for coining the term) and, by his friend and contemporary, Charles Bukowski: “one of the great undiscovered talents of our time”. In a fascinating interview, Declan Tan hears about the influence of comic books, the giants of modernism and Lady Gaga.

Gerald Lockin book coverLocklin has somehow managed however, in his mountains of work, to remain indefinable, as his famed “alter ego” Jimmy Abbey observes in his latest collection (The Vampires Saved Civilisation): “it’s a constant struggle, against others and oneself, to remain undefined”.

Through his sheer prolificacy in the small presses since the 60s, working both as a teacher at California State University and of course as a writer, Locklin has influenced many, publishing more than 4,000 poems (catalogued here) along with over 125 books, a feat that would defy the most ardent of collectors.

He has worked in every genre, regularly putting out novels, novellas, short stories, essays, journalism and interviews, tackling all manner of subjects in his signature style, speaking directly in an unpretentious and seemingly casual, exact language.

Lisa Glatt (A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, The Apple’s Bruise), fellow writer and former student of Locklin’s, and now also a teaching colleague in Long Beach, says: “The main thing I remember Gerry telling me was ‘Don’t think too much!’” And though I’ve forced him here to think about ‘writing’, perhaps more so than he would have liked, he has still managed somehow to remain undefined, and an ever-expanding library unto himself.

How do you think comic books have influenced writers, like yourself, reading them when growing up? Is it a kind of first step into reading before becoming a writer? And is it the same with detective novels?

I can only speak for myself. My mother, who was an elementary school teacher, and a very good and enlightened one, taught me to read before I started kindergarten. At first she read books to me, two books a night, one of my selection and one of hers. After I could read to myself, she would let me purchase two comic books at a time: one of my choosing and one from the old Classics Illustrated series. Of the former category, I liked best the ones one might expect, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, Donald Duck, and such. But I immediately took to the Classics as well, voraciously, which allowed me a cultural literacy long before I ever read the actual books – although I, of course, did read all of them in good time.

My mother convinced the nuns to let me into the local parish school when I was four-and-a-half, which was no problem because I had been so well prepared for it by her. I’d breeze through the readers in a few minutes after which the nun would have to find me something else to read or do for the weeks the rest of the class was on the text, and when I was simply faced with boredom, I filled the time with daydreams of being able to fly like Superman.

My father, by the way, was serving in the boiler room of a destroyer escort in the South Pacific during this time, since I was born in 1941, and he did not return except for brief leaves until 1945. After my mother had returned to the classroom, I had a caretaker, an older woman, until kindergarten – there were no pre-schools in those days – so my early entry into kindergarten was also geared to save my mother considerable expense – not that the Catholic schools were free.

As a teacher she would also have known that the Catholic schools were significantly superior to the public (in the American sense) schools, not only because of the dedication of the sisters, but because of the strict discipline – any truly disruptive students were quickly dispatched for the public schools to deal with. There was the occasional private school also (what you would call a public school over there) but few Catholics could afford those, and I doubt they were as good as the parish schools.

The Church served the sociopolitical purposes of the generation of immigrants from Ireland, just as “Negro” churches were doing the same for their members. And the division was not between black and white, but among the different nationalities – Irish, Italian, Polish, German – that dominated one or another of the parishes.

Integration did not really get underway until the 1950s. When a black fighter fought Rocky Marciano, I rooted for the black fighter, not because I had much experience, good or bad, of blacks, but because I didn’t: it was the Italians I mainly had to deal with on the way home or at the playground. And the Irish themselves, of course.

At any rate, I think I simply grew seamlessly out of comic books and into books. I did get my one strong incentive towards writing fiction from the movie and comic book of Bambi – I was so distraught by the death of Bambi that I vowed to become a writer and only write books that had less tragic endings. By then I had already been launched as a poet not only by the poems my mother read to me but by my Aunt Pat, who, when I stayed overnight with my aunts, would stand me up on the bed, direct me to gaze upon the night sky, and instruct me to compose a poem about it. The poems may have been of the ‘Star Light, Star Bright’, variety, but she dutifully copied them down and archived them and from that early, pre-literary age, I took it for granted that I was a writer and would always be one, no matter what I might also aspire to. Because I wrote well in school, I also had that reinforcement from my teachers at all stages in my education. And in high school and college, the former taught by Jesuits, I had five years of Latin, four of Greek, four of French. In graduate school: reading German, and numerous courses in Old and Middle English language and literature.

My mother’s father had come from Ireland, fathered 14 children, and died at the age of 50, shortly before I was born. Of those 14 siblings, of which my mother was the youngest, none except her ever had a child. I was, in other words, the only member of the next generation, and all my surviving maternal aunts and uncles (four or five died during the flu epidemic of 1918, and another, after whom I am named, of tuberculosis) were my aunts and uncles exclusively. Few of them ever married. The ones who lived into middle age lived into old age as well – their 80s and 90s.

My father returned from the war with Type One diabetes and died at the age of 50 of a diabetic-related heart attack a week before my graduation from high school. He was a very good father, and I loved him very much, and it has only been later in life that I’ve realized the influence his death had upon my later life: the friends that, unbeknownst to them, filled successive roles of surrogate father for me.

My father had made the promise that I could be raised Catholic – his own father was Methodist – and he took the further step of becoming involved in all my youthful activities – which got me through cub scouts, for instance, because he could do just about anything, whereas I could do nothing of any useful nature except academics and athletics. I was encouraged in both by mother and father alike, and excelled in both. But I couldn’t change a light bulb and still can’t. And I’m technophobic and never took typing.

I have written many poems about the above, both fiction and poetry: Go West, Young Toad; New Orleans, Chicago, and Points Elsewhere; and any of my early experimental novellas, are good places to look for such materials, although all are fictionalized, as are all human memories and utterances.

As for detective novels, I did read those of the juvenile variety, which frequently involve the solving of crimes and outwitting of criminals, but radio and film were probably stronger influences. I read a lot of crime novels today, for the wit of the British ones and the maleness of the American ones. Where else in English can a male of a traditional sort find characters with which to identify in fiction of the last 50 years? I love to read of Inspector Morse, Dave Robicheaux, and Matthew Scudder. I also love Helen Mirren, Iris Murdoch, and A.S. Byatt – and P.D. James – but a lad does need his infusion of literary testosterone now and then.

I’ve never taken to “serial graphics” by the way – as much as I love dialogue – to read and to write – print is easier on my eyes. The only comic strip I still read faithfully is Pearls Before Swine. Do you get it over the there?

I’ll have to have a look.

Pearls Before Swine is truly pretty funny and sustains one’s illusion of sanity when confronted by the realities of Human Nature.

Gerald Lockin book coverI read something you said in an interview you held with Rain Dog about “sacrifice of the ego”. How does the “sacrifice of ego” free a reader, or an audience as a whole, as well as a writer? Does it mean that the reader must accept what he/she is reading rather than rejecting it on grounds of previous education or taste?

Did I use the term “sacrifice of ego”?

Here is the quote: “And we really need appreciative readers more than we do more poets, but that requires a sacrifice of ego which few are willing to make (and which many no doubt feel that I should be the first to make)”. I am wondering now if the phrase is somehow related to Jung?

No, there was nothing profound in my use of it. Just that a certain charisma attaches itself to the image of the poet – or would-be ones assume that, at least, and are thus reluctant to relegate themselves to the less glamorous roles of reader, critic, scholar, reviewer, editor, teacher, etc., as important as those literary jobs may be, more so, in fact, than a large percentage of the poets – now that the writing of poetry requires so little aptitude, skill, practice, education, etc., although work of any permanent value will always require quite a few of those items.

I read widely in Freud, Jung, and other psychoanalysts at one time – especially when writing my dissertation of Nathanael West – but, no, I doubt they snuck into my use of that phrase.

You’re a long-time follower of the Lakers and the Yankees. What function do sports play in your life? As a supporter of a team I find myself questioning the reason why I support them, as if it is some arbitrary selection my ego must stand by at all costs (a refusal to sacrifice the ego).

I’ve published many sports poems. And I’ve stated often that my participation in sports as a youth saved my sense of self-worth in adolescence – when I was afflicted by acne that rivaled Bukowski’s – and saved my life, to some extent during my 30 years of heavy drinking, and even more so when I gave up drinking in order to lose over a hundred pounds in the wake of pulmonary emboli at the age of 52, and found a substitute for alcohol in the endorphins released by swimming (though badly), lifting weights (as I had from an early age), and occasional long walks.

My main point, though, is that athletic competition teaches you that you can always do more than you think you can – in any aspect of life, literary and academic even: I am, for instance, a very prolific writer. When I need to write fast, I can. And I knew I could quit alcohol when I had to, without going to any 12-step program or ever proclaiming myself an alcoholic. What does that term even mean? All such categories are designed to control us, pigeonhole us, keep us from being as independent-minded as we can be and should be. To humble us. Humility is a good thing, but humiliation isn’t. Self-confidence is.

You mention rooting for the black fighter against Rocky Marciano: Now, this may seem unrelated, but did/do you feel some duty to root for the underdog, and not just in sports? I’m not sure what it’s like in America with this sort of thing, but the British (and Irish) for example, always seem to take pleasure in supporting the underdog.

I would have rooted for Rocky Marciano because of his excellence if it weren’t for the Irish-Italian neighborhood rivalries of those days. Later, my best friends in high school, college and as teaching colleagues were Italian, and I consequently read voraciously in the Italian novels of Pavese, Vittorini, Moravia, Verga, Manzoni, all of them. I rooted against the Russians during the Cold War Olympics, but that didn’t deter my reading of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and the rest.

I root for some teams in solidarity with my kids. I root for the USA when we’re the favorite and when we’re the underdog. I become very chauvinistically American when my country is attacked abroad. But when the USA is not involved, I root for whatever place I’m visiting. Sometimes I do root for an underdog mainly for that reason, but I also hate to see a legend grow old and over the hill. So I often root for an “over-the-hill gang,” all the more so now that I identify with the aging gunfighter (though I’ve never fired a round of live ammunition in my life). My great film hero was and still is Shane – I’ve watched the movie more than any other. I’m an only child and according to psychologists who place an emphasis on the role of Birth Order, the only child, even more than the first-born, hates to see a king dethroned, or any kind of radical change.

I have my liberal sympathies, inculcated by an educated schoolteacher mother who was of an ‘enlightened’ bent way ahead of her time, but I’m not fond of the extremes to the left or right. Of course, one person’s extreme is another person’s mainstream. I’m a registered Democrat but more of an Independent, in fact, and I wish the Democratic Party had remained more libertarian and individualistic, and less socialistic and Orwellian.

A lot of my foreign policy is based on my experiences of human nature in the bars. I learned, for instance, that the person who is willing to fight is less apt to have to. I think that goes for countries as well. The more pacifistic the American public has become, the more wars we find ourselves fighting. I’ve taught courses in contemporary literary theory, but that doesn’t mean I swallow it whole – most of it derives from Marx, and I’ve seen the Marxist countries fail.

It’s assumed that one grows more conservative as one ages because one has more money, and it’s true that one hates to have one’s earned savings eroded by confiscatory policies, but it’s also because one has seen so many sociopolitical, psychological, and pedagogical theories fail in the course of one’s lifetime. Look at all the ‘growing-up’ in terms of political realities that Obama has had to do in just two-plus years. I’m glad he has moved closer to the center. I was never fooled by all his rhetoric anyway. The real racists were not those who voted against him because McCain was a much better prepared candidate for the office of the presidency, but those who voted for Obama only because he was black and because he told them everything they wanted to hear.

He’s been a quick learner – I have to give him that – but I’m afraid he’ll revert to his old ideological ways if he ever re-gains the electoral power of his first two years. I would have loved to have had a Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice to vote for, especially the latter. And I much preferred Bill Clinton to Hillary, and I don’t give a damn how many blow-jobs he got in the White House.

I don’t usually discuss my political opinions because some people will just use them as an excuse not to have to read a writer’s work, to feel superior to it because the author’s opinions are, in their view, so barbaric. Almost all the great moderns held political views that are unfashionable today. And it’s a lot of work to read them. So those views are great excuses not to invest the effort that an Eliot or a Pound or a Joyce demands, and that their work repays.

The Four Quartets is profoundly beautiful verbal-intellectual music, no matter what one thinks of God, royalty, or the House of Lords. And ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ explained intertextualism decades before the term was coined. I’m not a fascist, far from it, but I don’t dismiss great artists as “elitist” either.

That’s about all I have to say on those matters, though. I don’t politicize my teaching or my friendships. And I tell my students they can probably reach more readers and accomplish more with a well-written letter to the editor than with a sloganeering poetic rant. But they’re free to follow their own literary instincts. I don’t teach them what to write, but how not to write poorly.

Gerald Lockin book coverDo sports teach something to a writer, as a participant or a spectator?

Sports teach us that competition is not a bad thing. Feminists prefer cooperation, and it is a necessary component, but neither America nor the western democracies have been better off since they became less competitive internationally. And most of us know that committees are far less effective in making decisions than are strong, confident, decisive leaders – those, at least, who are committed to making the best choices for their constituents. Washington, Lincoln, or Churchill, not Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, nor, it would seem, Saddam or Gaddafi.

The best editors and publishers I’ve had were individuals. As for committees, judge by the recipients of literary awards, and the advanced age at which those most worthy of recognition are finally accorded it. I think the feminists prefer committees because they’re good at dominating them. Whereas the women who have risen to leading nations have all emulated male decisiveness.

There are, or course, exceptions to every generalization. Please remember that you’re asking me to attempt generalizations. I’m doing my best to do so provisionally.

Are sports another release of tension, like drugs or writing or anything else? Or is it much less serious than that? Why do you support ‘a team’?

I choose my teams or individuals for a variety of reasons, I think, most of them fairly common and superficial: I root for the Lakers because they’re a Los Angeles team and I’ve lived here since 1964, whereas I rooted for the Rochester Royals when I was a kid, because I was living in Rochester. I was convinced to favour the Yankees not so much because I lived in New York State – Rochester is 350 miles from NYC – but because a young, athletic priest upon whom I based one of my novellas convinced me that it made much more sense to root for a team that never lost than for one of the many that seldom won. And the Yankees, with their storied tradition, have given me years of pleasure as a result of that – especially, though, in my 1950s adolescence when Mickey Mantle (my great hero), Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and other colorful all-time all-stars were comprising their roster. I’ve rooted for the athletic teams of the universities I’ve attended and the ones I’ve taught at.

Furthermore, I enjoy watching sports and rooting for teams, although not as much as I enjoyed playing them – God, I wish I could still compete at basketball. I’m not as fanatical a fan as I once was, but I’m loyal to the Lakers and the Yankees, because they are a part of my personal history, and, more importantly, because rooting for a team is fun… a pleasure… which, as Coleridge understood, is the best reason for reading or writing poetry also.

There is also the camaraderie that sports provide, and the sense of continuity with our own earlier selves. Nor is that camaraderie homo-erotic. Trust me: there is no sexual pleasure – even of a cryptic variety – in slapping a teammate on the hip-pads – which are composed of a very hard and un-phallic plastic.

Heterosexuals have many faults – which have been amply enumerated by others, but a frequent though not universal gay weakness resides in the need to assert that everyone else is in some way or other gay also. In truth, the closets of the world are simply not that capacious. If diversity is a value, doesn’t that include heterosexuality as well?

What you say about sports relating us to our personal histories I find particularly interesting; is it the same with literature and your own writing?

My own writing is postmodernist, but my literary heroes are moderns: Yeats, Thomas, Auden, Hopkins, Hemingway, Faulkner, Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Greene, Waugh, Frost, Eliot, Pound, Robinson, Stevens, both Cranes, W. C. Williams, Cummings, Jeffers, etc.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed reading my contemporaries – hundreds of them, especially the novelists – I’ve read them all and taught 20th-Century British Lit and 20th-Century American Lit and Contemporary Literature at both the graduate and undergraduate levels for my entire career. I love Beckett, Byatt, Kureishi, Naipaul, Murdoch, Spark, Doyle, Roth, Mailer, Updike, Malamud, etc. all of them. That’s not even touching on the writers in translation, and the films of the New Wave that I was weaned on in the late 1950s and early 1960s or the earlier ones of the Angry Young Men. I saw them all… we all did… “we” meaning the students and writers of my generation. I side with the Modernists in their Aestheticism. I don’t believe in reducing art to a servant of society. I believe any demands outside of the aesthetic are secondary to it, and should be used for it, not catered to by it.

I know that’s not fashionable. So what?

Do you find yourself taking a dislike now to things you once enjoyed, perhaps a book or a writer or piece of music, perhaps? Or maybe the reverse, that you take a liking to something that once seemed unpleasant or simply bad?

I pretty much enjoy the same works I enjoyed the first time around. And new ones all the time. I don’t re-read many books. There are too many new ones. And my writing takes more time from my reading all the time.

Money has never influenced my writing significantly because I’ve never made significant money with my writing. I haven’t come even close to earning with my writing what I have for my teaching. Of course the writing contributed to promotions, travel, and such, but I never wrote anything for extrinsic motives that I wouldn’t have for its intrinsic worth anyway. I wouldn’t even have been any good at it.

Maybe literary wealth awaits me – though I greatly doubt it. But even if it did, to paraphrase Bukowski, it would be arriving too late to harm me much.

I’d use some of it to get back to Britain, Ireland, and Europe, though.

Gerald Lockin book coverYou’ve travelled quite a bit, also spending some time in the UK. What do you think differs in American and British appreciation of the arts?

I wouldn’t want to belabor our differences, because we are obviously more alike than different. We love your comedies. We admire your verbal genius. I tell people that you don’t raise children who can’t write over there; you put them out on the passing ice floes.

You seem to enjoy us most when we are least like you: a Bukowski, for instance. Or a Fred Voss – good friend of mine – who writes poetry out of building airplanes.

Your present is more rooted in your past than ours, but you have a longer history and less immigration. You have done a wonderful job of preserving much less green land, whereas we have a tendency to squander our resources and our talents.

Your schools emulate ours, which is a tragic error. You are a little lacking in confidence at times, whereas we are cocky to the point of obnoxiousness. (In some of these things, the Irish may resemble us more than they do the Brits.)

You are more aware of class than we are – and I do think there is more opportunity for upward mobility over here still – though it may be endangered by our fiscal indebtedness.

I spent a semester on a teaching exchange to the University College of North Wales at Bangor. We (my wife and two young children and I) lived in Menai Bridge, with one of the most beautiful views that side of Big Sur, California. My wife loved it so much it may have spoiled California for her.

I’ve traveled about on various trips giving readings. We had a car during the teaching exchange but it was not very reliable. We had a good rental car for a month a few years later.

We’ve stayed in a lot of bed and breakfasts. We’ve been to most parts of England, a few days in Scotland, a couple of weeks in Dublin and Galway. I spent two-and-a-half months in England while on Sabbatical in spring 1980, mostly in London, with ten days in Paris.

We’ve spent significant time there and other places on the continent. To paraphrase Hanif Kureishi, London just about effing killed me, but those were my heaviest drinking days, and I was lonely for too many weeks.

I was first in England in, I think, 1971, early summer and late; again for five weeks in 1972; back for two weeks of readings while staying with John Mowat and his family in Hull in, I think, 1987; back for Wales, London, Dorset, and all over in 1989; five weeks in 1992, but having had a deep vein thrombosis getting on the Piccadilly line at Heathrow; a few days each in Dorset and London in 1997 (or 1998) and 1999 to participate in the Dorset Literary Festival for Dave Caddy’s Tears in the Fence magazine.

Many poems and stories in that, and many poems in Ambit and elsewhere and on Ragged Edge, Keith Dersley’s online mag and press. A play I co-authored, The Toad Poems, played for a week in Camden Town early last summer, directed by Donita Beeman, but I didn’t get over there for it. I hope it’s revived again soon.

Is good writing more than many different people saying largely the same thing, just in a different way? Is it a natural progression then that things get a bit more money-oriented in this environment of writing, where it becomes a kind of trickery to say the same thing in a new way? Does it need to be more?

There are almost infinite and unpredictable ways in which writing can be good, but finite ways in which it can be really bad. I’m not a terribly judgmental person in any arena except, I suppose, sports. And there are people who are simply assholes. But they generally elicit a certain sympathy from me, maybe because my wife considers me such a consummate asshole myself.

Is there a kind of writer that you don’t respect?

Any writer who manages to stick with it deserves a certain amount of respect. But who am I to presume any other writer needs or desires my respect anyway. I spend much more time doing things – writing included, of course – than I do thinking in the abstract about them. Entertaining abstract controversies that inhibit or restrict a writer’s writing is not my nature. The same for teaching. I like to get things done, and I like to have fun doing them, or afterwards at least. People waste a lot of time on matters that are just pure bullshit. Action cuts through the theoretical shit.

Do you think self-taught poets/writers somehow differ with students of the arts? What can each offer?

Ultimately we’re all self-taught because we can always accept or reject what our teachers teach us. I just try to help my students in any way I can, mainly by telling them what my own experiences have taught me. And to facilitate their learning from each other, from their reading, etc.

I also teach them some things about the techniques of poetry and fiction that would take longer for them to learn on their own. And to point them towards reading works they may enjoy and which may serve as models or stretch their minds. And their own works serve as models for and inspirations to each other. I emphasize positive reinforcement. I tell them to increase their vocabularies and to expand their syntactical arsenal. Most of the time the principles of good prose apply to poetry also.

I also try to get them to write more prolifically and to open their minds to the vastness of subject matter in the world and in themselves. To break through our self-imposed assumptions. Right now at the end of the semester, when I see some good poems I urge the writers of them to submit them to periodicals, and I show them how and I tell them to tell their editors that I urged them to do so. Once they start publishing their work and reading it publicly, they’ll find they can go forward with a new confidence. Success breeds success (as someone more concise than I once said).

So do you think it’s important for your students to get published? I mean, the main concern must be writing something worthwhile, or new, but is it then about having people read it? I presume it is.

I never require that any of my students seek publication. But many are grateful for me giving them the benefit of my 50-plus years of experience with manuscript submissions – and I allow them to say I urged them to submit their work, and I tell them what magazines I am publishing in regularly, and I tell them not to hesitate to say that I urged them to submit their work to these mags that do at least know something of my own work. Without this help from me, most of them would be paralyzed by ignorance of and fear of the submission procedures. They wouldn’t know where to start; they’d be afraid to embarrass themselves, etc. I just give them the confidence to make these first attempts at publication. When they succeed, they gain tremendous confidence, and their writing generally is strengthened by that. And even though the editors who read their work will range from experienced to novices, they will at least be more objective than the students’ friends will be. The “market place”, even for the little mags and small presses, is a more valuable immersion in the literary world than are the endless series of “literary sewing circles” out of which many writers never escape. They become addicted to these captive audiences.

You know the statistics show that most graduates even of MFA programs stop writing shortly after graduation. Having to earn a living is part of it – it often leaves no time for writing. And when you don’t write regularly or ever get any success experiences, you lose confidence in your abilities.

So I try to help them get actually involved in the world of publishing IF they want to.

And I try to teach them everything I know in my creative writing classes, because I know very few of them will continue writing for very long – or will just “write for themselves,” consigning their work to boxes or drawers… forever!

They can learn a lot besides how to write poetry or stories in these classes – about literature, about society, about what and how to read, about how to get along with others, or how to retain your individuality under social pressures, about themselves – their repressed lives… I’m glad my degree was in literature not creative writing, but today with the politicization of literary study, it is less useful for a writer. At least in creative writing they learn the nuts and bolts of writing.

With the explosion of online journals in recent years, how do you view this fanning out of writing/writers, put into boxes and published in niche publications, where the readers and editors keep everything within the same style and limits? Is that a problem? As people on the Internet tend to read or look at things they are familiar with or ‘like’, is there less of a chance for someone to encounter something new unexpectedly?

The good side is that writers can get their work into at least this form of ‘print’ who might never have been able to break into print in the past. There are fewer dictators of taste and such… and when I started publishing, there were very few mags and thus the editors of the ones that did exist were very powerful. And I managed to step on almost every one of their toes: at APR, Esquire, The New Yorker, Poetry, etc. – it’s amazing how many shit lists I got on in spite of my existing in obscurity. And those editors never died!!! I got on The Shit Lists of The Immortals. So I was very grateful for the emergence of so many new magazines, some of them with brilliantly independent editors such as Marvin Malone at The Wormwood Review.

The downside of course is that there is so much more work out there that the wheat can get lost in the chaff. And I think there has been an overall decline of ‘taste’ as a result of that, and of performance poetry, of self-publishing, etc. But somehow the cream does seem to rise if not to the top than not too far from it. And sometimes that happens faster; and sometime more slowly. But a writer has to have faith that somehow it does eventually happen.

I’ve fought against joining the cybernetic world, but, ironically, the friends who have dragged me clawing and screaming onto the Net seem to have done me an enormous favor. I seem to have somehow achieved some modicum of a reputation in the last couple of years. And at the young age of 70!!!

Gerald Lockin book coverWith the web journals it seems (probably only from the ones I am reading) that a lot of writing is concerned with throw-away observation (like the worst of comedy) or a ‘timely’ aspect (like in journalism) and aimed more and more at a temporary effect. Nothing seems timeless from what I read. It becomes more of a titillation, an entertainment (my writing included, unfortunately). This is maybe the result of so much writing published all of the time that stories/poetry must have this ‘angle’ that is for a moment refreshing, but cannot be sustained. But perhaps things were only ‘timeless’ when there was not as much of it being written.

You’re no doubt onto something, though the trivialities you note may have been endemic to postmodernism itself. The modernists were such giants. I guess after WWII the whole literary world craved a bit of a rest – which has turned into a 70-year snooze.

Postmodernism contributed self-reflexivity, but the modernists were anticipating even that, and the modernists dramatized subjectivity and relativity, whereas the postmodernists took them to absurd extremes: to the extent that they mainstreamed the marginal, and marginalized the mainstream, though the marginalized themselves naturally rejoice at that.

I just finished re-reading Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, and having read it (too hastily) and taught it when it first came out. This time I was in awe of it. Talk about a giant. And last night I saw Woody Allen’s Moonlight in Paris, which is a wonderful film, only flawed (for me) by his jejune and stereotypically uninformed parody of Hemingway – when he first comes on screen, that is – gradually his greatness begins to emerge in spite of the filmmaker’s intentions.

I defend Woody Allen’s films, because he’s been an obvious victim of simpleminded feminist and puritan hostilities. But the film is pure parody of the Giants of the 20s, so as funny and engaging and appealing as it is (and God, the women are beautiful!), it makes one aware of how less a giant the parodist is, than are the giants he is caricaturing.

Parody was really the name of the game for the intertextualizing postmodernists, myself included. I’m glad I wrote in so many styles and moods that not all of my work is guilty of it.

I think a lot of people who haven’t liked [Woody Allen’s] recent films will find Midnight very hard to resist, as romance, as nostalgia, as fairly gentle parody. I’m one of them, but I also saw it in a romantic mood in romantic company, and I’ve long been a sucker for the 20s, like most of my literary generation. I’m guessing that for younger generations the 60s might fill that bill. Then again, with their flattening of history, and the pedagogical ‘privileging’ of the synchronic/ahistorical viewpoint over the diachronic/historical one, they may not even be aware that there were decades before their own.

Earlier in your career, did you ever feel as if you were following any writer in particular, as some writers have (becoming heavily influenced or obsessed by certain predecessors), before finding your own honesty/originality? Or did it come naturally?

There’s no question that I was influenced greatly by Edward Field first, in the 1960s, and a little later in the 1960s by Charles Bukowski.

Both were quintessential ‘Stand-Up Poets’, a term that suggests most of the qualities most common to poets of my ilk within my own lifetime. You could find it defined first in an article my former officemate here, Charles Stetler, and I published in the Minnesota Review in 1969, Volume IX, Number 1, entitled ‘Edward Field: Stand-Up Poet’.

Field’s first book had been entitled Stand Up, Friend, with Me. I discovered him through a poem, ‘The Bride of Frankenstein,’ from his second book, Variety Photoplays – the poem had also appeared in the New York Review of Books.

Field is still a good friend, and I consider him our greatest living poet. He splits the year between a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village and a flat near Paddington Station in London.

Later, my friend and colleague, Charles Harper Webb, a great poet himself, published an enormously successful anthology in various editions, the most recent of which is Stand Up Poetry: The Anthology, from University of Iowa Press. I use it in all my poetry classes, even though Field, and Stetler, and I were co-editors of The New Geography of Poets, from U. of Arkansas Press in 1991 or 1992.

It was a lesser sequel to Field’s Bantam Press anthology A Geography of Poets, that sold 31,000 copies in a pocket book edition in, I think, 1977. It was the first truly decentralizing anthology of poets in the USA, because Field had discovered via his readings around the USA that poetry was no longer the possession of NYC and Boston. The spread of university creative writing programs and the underground little mags and small presses had combined to ignite that phenomenon. Another aspect of it was sometimes called “the mimeo revolution,” a precursor, I suppose, to the Internet revolution. It helped to popularize Bukowski.

Webb didn’t know we had invented the term “Stand Up Poetry” when we used it for our article – especially in the first couple of pages, but he credited us as soon as I called it to his attention and showed him the similarities in our summation and his brilliantly organized and explicated introduction to his anthology. Field’s first Geography introduced many of us young California poets to a national audience for the first time.

Ron Koertge and I had become great friends at the University of Arizona in graduate school – I was there 1961-64 – and we were very much both in a learning stage, and much of what we learned was from each other – an ongoing mutual influence which continued into The Wormwood Review, which was the best poetry magazine of my lifetime, from the 1960s to the death of its editor, Marvin Malone, in the mid-1990s.

I’ve mentioned that I was inevitably influenced by poets I had learned to love earlier – Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath – not to mention all the poets I read in graduate school and as a lifelong teacher and reviewer of literature. But Ron, Edward, and Buk (or Hank, as he liked to be called) were major influences from among the living. And so were many fiction writers such as Hemingway, Barthelme, Brautigan, and such, because my poetry was often highly narrative or dramatic – lots of dialogue(s).

Though it is your career, have you found yourself taking writing less or more seriously as it has gone on? Or has it been the same throughout? I guess I am speaking here of futility and purpose.

I always took my writing seriously, and I always wrote a lot and published more and more all the time (from about 1993 on), but my writing seemed more casual in the early days – more youthful, naturally – and I still write a lot of what I call my “smart-ass poems,” as they occur to me, and because my younger readers demand them, and I virtually invented the very short poem – one of mine was three words – although I got the idea from Norman Mailer’s collection Deaths for the Ladies, but I don’t think he wrote any poems after that, and I wrote thousands – I’ve published something like 4,000 according to one index that is linked to

But as my parenthood burgeoned – I have seven children by three marriages, and nine grandkids so far – my seriousness naturally increased – and I took my teaching very seriously, although I gave the impression of being highly unconventional and off-handed about it – and when I almost died of pulmonary embolisms in 1993, and quit drinking and hanging out in bars – the drinking life poems trailed off, and I began writing hundreds of ekphrastic poems in which I was often as irreverent as I had always been, but also celebratory, and mainly I used the art objects, or jazz or opera, etc. as starting points for poems that might end up who knows where, often in my memories or reflections.

I had always written books of travel poems and I continued to. But yes, one does begin to confront aging, death, and so forth, although I still tap dance vigorously at my poetry readings, and I toss in a Lady Gaga medley.

So I would say that I take things more seriously now – especially my progeny and other loved ones. I had always taken my friends very seriously also. I wouldn’t call myself somber or saturnine, but I do pontificate more than I used to, though I’ve long been a somehow agnostic ex-Catholic, who definitely took Catholicism seriously as a kid. I was practically a theologian, though also immersed in athletics: I was co-captain of my high school football, basketball, and track teams in senior year, but I was also Student Prefect of the parish sodality (a youth organization, non-political).

But by the end of high school I was growing away from the church, mainly just tired of sexual guilt, but also under the influence of James Joyce, Graham Greene, and Italian novelists such as Silone, Vittorini, and Pavese – actually all of them, because I had a very literary and Italian good friend. And I also had a high school sweetheart, who would become my first wife.

I definitely mined my childhood and adolescence in my early, often experimental stories and novellas.

Gerald Lockin book coverWith growing amounts of disposable fiction being published, do you think writing has become something too much of a profession, a moneyed ends, rather than a sincere exploration that is merely a necessity for a writer? Perhaps it has always been this way. I often catch myself revering the things from before my time, imagining they were somehow better, though I guess there was also a lot of chaff then, too.

I do think we’ve lacked the giants of the modern period during the postmodern period, but on the other hand we’ve had a lot more extremely good writers in the last 60 years than in the previous 50. Think of Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt alone, how many excellent and many-layered novels they produced, and Martin Amis, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Roddy Doyle, Kureishi… I could go on endlessly, and what pleasure I took from them, and maybe they are a bit long in the tooth now – or worse yet, a bit dead, and maybe I haven’t found as many younger writers I enjoy as much, but their own generation probably enjoy their writers as much as I enjoyed mine.

My former officemate, Chuck Stetler, and I created a course, ‘Fiction Now’, and took turns teaching it for years, and we changed the reading list every semester, and we loved the books and the students loved the books, and we never came close to running out of current books to teach. And even in my graduate seminars in 20th-Century British Fiction and in 20th-Century American Fiction, we sometimes studied a neglected modernist in detail, but more and more I just assigned more and more of the current novels and let them do their papers on the modernists, whom I concentrated on in the double-numbered graduate/undergraduate period courses, the surveys as opposed to the seminars. So I don’t think the novel is dead by any means but we may be waiting for a few rough beasts to slouch their way into print.

Is it dangerous for a writer to a have a philosophy, even for a time, despite that philosophy changing? This brings me back to the message. Is there a place for a message? Or is it all eventually forgotten and lost to inculcation or early education and prejudices?

I think I’ve already noted that there have always been great novelists with a message – Tolstoy, Dickens, most of the Victorians, most of the writers of the 1930s; it’s just that for later readers the messages that were most topical when the books were printed are of least importance to later readers.

The same with poetry: who really cares about the politics or religion of Hopkins, Yeats, Auden, Thomas, Browning, Arnold, etc.? The fiction lives by its stories, not its messages, and the poetry by its music not its messages. But a message for its own generation can be one level of the work – it’s just ultimately not the most important one. No matter what the theorists tell us, there are such things as aesthetic universals – they are just not to be narrowly implemented.

Find a novel or novella you really like, and imitate its structure. I did that with Miss Lonelyhearts, and it served me very well as a starting point and scaffolding for an early novella of mine that I still like a lot. I used Nathanael West’s structure for my own characters and story.

We all learn by imitation. Look at Lady Gaga and Madonna. Look at Ulysses and the Odyssey.

Two messages that have stood the test of time – unfortunately – are those conveyed by Brave New World and 1984: the totalitarian carrot in the first (Soma, or drugs in general) and the totalitarian whip in the latter (threatening the greatest fear of the individual or the group).

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Exit Through The Gift Shop (Banksy)

Declan Tan revisits Banksy’s documentary on street art and the transformation of Terry Guetta into  ‘Mr. Brainwash’

Pretension is a subject seemingly dear to Banksy. It’s all over his work, from his mordant stencils which inspired a boisterous surge in ‘street art’ popularity, to his grand socio-political satires plastered across the most daring of locations, Banksy takes the clichéd and turgid, shrewdly spinning it on its head.

With Exit Through The Gift Shop he has drawn up fresh targets for ridicule, and it’s telling that the original title for this documentary was How To Sell Shit To Cunts. For that is what he seems to do best and, quite ironically, these are the types who most swiftly beleaguer him.

This is particularly the case in LA. where the real subject of this film lives and gibbers. French fashion-store owner and videographer (he cannot be called a filmmaker), Thierry Guetta, has an obsession. He films everything he does without exception: his family life, his social life, even the final trails of a flushed turd. Without exception but not without reason as the film tenderly reveals and this is where the genuine vitality of the film seeps through. It is a forgiving and humane account of a man, directly involved, in the selling of crap to idiots.

After making enough money from the carnival world of fashion, selling vintage clothing to the uniformly individual fashionistas, Thierry (or Terry as he is constantly referred to) buys a video camera and simply presses ‘play’ on his life. Luckily for him, after endless home movies filling his cellar, it turns out his cousin is ubiquitous mosaic-making street artist, Space Invader. From this chance revelation Terry finally finds a worthwhile subject and, unfortunately for his understanding wife and children, he becomes an aborted father and his obsession is thrust deeper.

Shying away from nothing, Terry and the film roll on. Footage of his exploits with his cousin and crew follows; scenes that resurrect the spirit of seminal poet/artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and his SAMO tag are particularly memorable, with their midnight missions become increasingly daring. Inspired, Terry begins to create his own work and after a meeting with pop-art idol, Shephard Fairey, finally gets into contact with Banksy who encourages him further still to put on an art show under his own alias, and thus ‘Mr. Brainwash’ is born.

Perhaps the only disappointment for those expecting a ‘Banksy film about Banksy’ is that he only appears briefly. Yet this purposeful and suitably self-aware approach abides the backseat rule of documentary filmmaking. Terry becomes what Banksy could have been, the sell-out and sold-out hype machine, believing the laughable publicity he has himself created.

On the surface it is a simple, undemanding and humorous film, jammed with great moments of inadvertent brilliance, Terry’s eloquent philosophizing on all manner of subjects (“It’s like I’m playing chess. I don’t know how to play chess. But life, it’s a chess game“) is always a highlight, peppered with impressive footage punctuated by witty commentary from a hooded and distorted Banksy.

Banksy’s debut film is poignant without pretentiousness. It delivers equal focus on the snotty and easily convinced art crowd of L.A. ridiculing the farce of the art world, posing question after question on the pompous seriousness fed into meaningless things but also questioning the received wisdom that a ‘street artist’ can make it big without selling out the message.

All Experience Devolves To Gratitude: Dan Fante

Carrying the torch passed on by Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr, for many Dan Fante is America’s most vital writer. Interview by Declan Tan

Mooch by Dan Fante coverDan Fante is one of the last surviving writers of his generation that could be called a “maverick”. Having spent years in his own personal wilderness, and never touching a typewriter, he spat his years of alcoholism and excess into a maelstrom of novels, poetry and plays. Continuing the tradition of Hubert Selby Jr. (his literary hero), Charles Bukowski and the works of his legendary father John, he has written about the sleep paralysis of the American nightmare from the perspective of someone who has lived through it.

Born in Los Angeles, Fante briefly studied acting at UCLA before going on to hold a number of low-end jobs as he went cross-country to New York working, amongst other things, as a telemarketer, private investigator and cab driver. He settled there, for a time, during the 60s. During this period he wrote plays for radio and local theatre groups and got heavily into drinking and drugs, giving up on his burgeoning career in the early 1972.

Years later and sober, he has written two critically acclaimed plays, both staged in the late 90s: The Closer (aka Boiler Room) and Don Giovanni. His debut novel, Chump Change, was the first of the Bruno Dante saga and a struggle to get published; he sent the manuscript to a slew of American publishers who all rejected it, before finding a home for the work in France.

He recently published Bruno Dante’s latest installment, 86’d and a second poetry collection, Kissed By A Fat Waitress.

What kind of writer is it that you do not respect?

That’s simple. Those who write simply to titillate. Disposable entertainment fiction.

How do you feel about ‘writing’? Are there particular things that have kept you going?

My father John Fante, felt being an author was nearly a sacred calling. I share that with him. A good book can change a life. I continue to try to write that kind of book.

Before you started to actually write, was it something that you felt always seemed to be waiting for you?

You mean other than insanity and death? It took years to scrape the crust of self-hate and madness away. Years. But even as a bewildered young guy I always wanted to write. Writers were my heroes.

Cover of 86d by Dan FanteWhat is art worth? What is life worth? Do they amount to the same thing?

Art is experience – a place visited beyond the reasoning mind. The sense of knowing and experiencing someone’s beauty and passion with awe and admiration. No, they are not the same thing.

Is there a purpose, an underlying intent, to your writing?

Any writer worth his own ashes believes that his words can change the world.

So, there is something worth believing in?

Yes! The living knowing of one’s self as a spiritual entity. The celebration of breathing in and out. All experience devolves to gratitude.

Should a writer have a ‘point’, apart from honesty?

That people will understand his heart. Books are scribbled notes sealed in a bottle and then thrown into the sea.

You have previously mentioned the influence of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but what else was it that drew you to playwriting? Is there something in it that cannot be done with another medium, say poetry or prose?

Yes, surely. The medium of speech has a profound impact. Live theatre – good live theatre – reaches passed the mind to touch the heart.

Have you considered film? Can it offer anything?

Yes. But ‘film’ by its nature is a collaborative effort, which I believe compromises the experience. But there are not wonderful films nonetheless.

What about television?

I don’t know. I don’t look at television. But I do know that it poisons the brain and trivializes all emotion.

Cover of poetry book by Dan FanteHave you ever thought about going back to acting?

Yes. Creating a character on stage can be magical. The experience of inhabiting someone else’s body and emotions is singular and amazing.

You once said, “My secret weapon is my anger”. What are some of the things that make you angry?

The ‘screwing’ of the American people by the merciless engine of corporate greed really does piss me off – when I let myself think about it. The USA has changed the Europeans view themselves. Out of control Capitalism is the plague of the millennia.

Do you feel as if you have to stand by your words or defend them against critics?

People ‘get’ my stuff or they don’t. Most critics are paid to think and not to feel. I don’t write to please critics.

Who is worthwhile to read (poetry, prose or otherwise)? Is Selby still important to you?

All of it. Selby shined a light into the darkness of my mind and allowed me to become friends with my mind.

How do you stave off complacency in your work?

By continuing, hopefully, to get better as an artist.

When you write, does it flow quickly? Do you re-work a lot?

I write two hours a day, six days a week – unless I’m really hot and on to something. I begin my day by going back in my manuscript three or for pages from where I left off. I start by re-working, then let my mind take me forward.

Do you think an audience must be great for a writer to be great, or the other way round, or neither?

Writers are village square evangelists. An audience is essential.

So do you think it is a writer/artist’s duty to wake up the audience?

Oh yes.

How does one escape the guilt that bores into the mind of a Catholic?

By re-experiencing the notion of God.

Was Catholicism a big part of your upbringing?

Sin and personal damnation was a bigger part.

And the publishing world? How did those initial rejections affect you?

A writer must believe he has something worthwhile to say. When he comes to know that his work is important, then nothing will stop him.

Chump Change by Dan FanteDoes the ‘truth’ have to be marketable to get published?

The truth is always marketable if not always pleasant.

I sense some kind of compatibility with yourself and Bukowski’s opinions on contemporary literature that it is airless and false. Would you agree with something like that?

For the most part. Bukowski despised convention. It fed his rage and his work.

What function did drugs have for you earlier in your life?

Without booze and drugs I’d be dead. It helped for years – until it didn’t.

Is originality as important as honesty in writing?

Good writing is always original. Honest is always original.

What would a snapshot of modern life look like to you?

Chaos that leads back to the quest for peace of mind. The more fucked-up things get the closer we get to real metamorphosis.

And how about your own?

I spent the first half of my life pouring gasoline on myself – in search of a match. This second half I’ve set to music… Too many questions but all quite well asked.

Conviction (Tony Goldwyn)

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Conviction is a sickly and cynical bit of force-fed fluff, masquerading as serious drama as it squeezes all life out of its once-dignified story, dragging it through the shit heap of Hollywood to exploit its working-class subjects with predictable execution. Not the first, and not the last time this will happen.

That Conviction has had an underwhelming box-office run in America so far seems like sweet justice to this brand of tracing paper ‘cinema’ cranked through the mangle of big name production houses year-in year-out. Taking its cues from past successes of the genre (Erin Brockovich) it proceeds to tell the real-life story of Betty Anne Waters (Swank), a divorcée mother of two who went through all workable avenues to acquit her brother, Kenny (Rockwell), when he was convicted of murder and given a life sentence in 1983.

The details of the actual case are interesting: the revelation of DNA evidence (introduced after his sentencing), the vengeful and corrupt activities of the police (particularly one local cop) and of course, Waters’ sustained dedication. She gets a high school diploma, then a degree, before finally enrolling to study law. The film, however, skips over vast areas that could have been mined with subtlety, instead going for the dulling effect of a race through the events, dashing them off in its attempt to crank up tension and tragedy whilst condescendingly celebrating the determination of ‘the little people’. Bastardly individuals are picked out as the source of the problem, blissfully avoiding the potentially daring approach of targeting the system itself.

We get to know the Waters’ only in the most superficial sense, a troubled childhood that has made Betty Anne seemingly indebted to her brother, who seems to like a drink and throw a few punches now and again. Instead of exploring the prospect that Kenny could have, in fact, committed murder, we have to sit through the blare of Swank storming about with her uni buddy, Abra (Driver) putting the pieces together in a kind of Columbo-esque fashion.

Just one more thing, without going on about it, in one of these films you know exactly how it will look and how it will play out without having to see it, here even the performances are too strained to admire. Miss it.

West Is West (Andy DeEmmony)

West is West film poster

A decade after its hugely successful predecessor, Declan Tan encounters an entertaining but lightweight imitation second time around

As the long-awaited sequel to the 1999 breakout hit that was East is East, comes scribe Ayub Khan-Din’s West is West, a continuation of the Salford-set story of Sajid (Aqib Khan), jumping us forward five years to 1976. Except this time the plot moves the family (or at least two members of it, initially) out from the bleak chip shop and terraces of Greater Manchester to father George’s motherland, Pakistan.

We’re quickly reacquainted with the principal characters with, among other gags, the expected Pakistani/English culture clash jokes. There’s an abundance of those, but only occasionally do they feel out of place or forced. It has to be said of director Andy DeEmmony, that his control over the tone and the narrative, having taken over the reins from East’s Damien O’Donnell, is stamped from the get-go. He’s obviously at home with this sort of thing, having directed episodes of Father Ted, Spitting Image and Red Dwarf and it’s competently shot, perhaps even well done, but it doesn’t venture to try anything new. The same can be said of the script, which seems happy enough to take on some serious issues with a light-hearted approach, and not to get swamped by social commentary. It tells its story and that’s that. But at least this seems purposeful, because West is West is genuinely feel-good. So we’ll ignore some of the less-than-inspiring acting that the film opens with, as it really starts to pick up when we land in Pakistan, as everything before it just seems like a short meet-and-greet before the story proper gets it’s boots on.

Sajid is at odds with his Pakistani heritage, forced upon him by his old-school father George (Om Puri). His mother Ella (Bassett) is a little more forgiving. But the kids at school aren’t. All of these elements create a state of alienation for the pubescent Sajid as he begins to reject the traditions George has tried to inculcate in him and his family. Recognising this, George whisks Sajid off to Punjab, to the family home of his first wife (whom he abandoned for England 35 years previous), to try and correct the crumbling of his values.

Here we go on the old coming-of-age story-train. Yes it’s all pretty soft, bit soapy even, but it has it’s moments when George’s anguish to repent gets the better of him and the audience. And it’s all pretty much down to the performance from Om Puri who is as commanding as ever. George must fix all the wrongs and face all the things he’s tried to forget over the years since moving to England’s hallowed North. There’s a lot going on: He’s got a son looking for a wife, a wife looking for her husband, his English wife looking for her husband, another son looking for meaning, and a load of other troubles that begin to make themselves known when he settles back into home life in Punjab. Oh and he starts losing his son Sajid to the local sage’s influence, who takes him under his wing with more understanding and tenderness than George can manage.

Suffice to say, if you didn’t like the first film then there isn’t any reason to get in on this one. It’s largely much of the same, a lot of crisp dialogue coupled with some truly affecting family moments (but nothing on a level with the previous film’s physical abuse). The problems is just that it’s instantly forgettable.

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

Derek Cianfrance’s labour of love reviewed by Declan Tan

If you’ve happened upon any of the interviews with director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance talking about his 12-year project, Blue Valentine, you’ll notice there’s a through-line to all of them. As wearied as his two main characters become of each other, Cianfrance, in his routine exchanges with the press, generally refers to his film as a “duet”. Probably because that’s the perfect way to describe it.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who both have the knack of turning up in films that lend themselves to repeated viewings such as this one, play the young couple of Dean and Cindy. Two people, seemingly given the plainest names possible (perhaps a starting point for their universally recognisable situation) who are beginning to see their relationship crumble. We learn of their circumstances which, we find out, are not exactly universal; the shotgun wedding, their daughter, their family problems, previous relationships, ambitions or non-ambitions, coaxingly revealed in flashbacks (actually shot six years ago) that don’t announce themselves or make it immediately obvious that ‘we’re in the past, now’.

Instead, and this is where the ‘duet’ bit comes in, Cianfrance opts for 16mm film to contrast the digital video of the ‘present day’, a delicately scored soundtrack (by the otherwise-disappointing Grizzly Bear) heard only in the ‘past’ sections of the film and of course, a slightly more trendily attired Cindy and Dean. All these techniques and the mise-en-scène subtly carve its narrative, as if sculpting time, without imposing answers on its audience, showing us something as close to real as you can get without setting up a CCTV system in an unsuspecting newlyweds’ home. Which no one seems willing to do these days.

In the opening shots the two are rarely found, in-focus, taking up the same frame, a deft touch to establish the frailty of the relationship’s current grounding, another example of “form illuminating content”, as Cianfrance puts it. Mix in the slow reveals of an intelligent and playful, if eventually unambitious, Dean, working as a furniture remover in New York, meeting Cindy the medical student, then tension between the pair’s wildly different purposes in life becomes palpable as it escalates.

It is one thing a director naming an influence in the hope that it adds more gravitas to his work, without said influence actually being remotely noticeable, but Cianfrance’s work here genuinely calls to mind the work of John Cassavetes, specifically A Woman Under the Influence which Cianfrance has said, in one of many chit-chats, is one of his favourite films. This being only his second feature makes it all the more impressive.

In other words: if you like films, see this one.

Charlie Hill: The Space Between Things

Reviewed by Declan Tan

The Space Between Things book coverCharlie Hill’s debut novel seems already to have been pigeonholed as a love-story, a certainly tragic one, between its narrator, Arch (a character who has already made appearances on the independent literary scene) and Vee, the counterpoint to Arch’s solipsistic, inward-looking existence.

Set in the early 1990s, the novel begins at a party in Birmingham’s alternative district of Moseley to celebrate Thatcher’s tearful resignation and the hope of upheaval that followed. Arch encounters Vee for the first time.

This inchoate, anti-romantic relationship however, seems merely to be the axle that the novel wishes to rotate its wheel of ideas on.

And so begins their intertwining. She resists his placid Beat-quoting and Bukowski-infused conversation to confront him on his easy, ready-made beliefs as to how the good man lives, and how one ought to connect with the outside world. From early on, his reading, his knowledge and his ideas represent the kind of universal influences still batted about today, along with their relation to the 90s youth’s view of history: that seemingly nothing came before the Beats, before the 60s, or before the current uprising, a cycle that finds its repetition in all youth movements since.

This taking of universal influences – still popular in equivalent crowds today – lends an allegorical slant to Arch’s false journey of the self. Locking in contemporaneous ‘End of History’ sloganeering and the ‘End of Politics’ chat, we’re offered an insight not only into Arch’s psyche but also Moseley’s easy-answer, misguided disconnection from the world.

Hill’s depiction of the place is written as a kind of Brummie precursor to London’s boho, hipster-glamourised Hoxton of the noughties, where ostentatious angel-headed hipsters fart around at changing the world, playing at making a difference, all amongst the green smoke, chemical raves and mute squeals for revolution. And Arch, though he keeps an aloof distance from the ‘believers’, is sucked in when Vee calls him out on his go-nowhere, existential ennui. After a night of quick connection and zappy sex, she leaves him and returns to Yugoslavia to cover the ongoing war there, leaving him with the impression that to have her, he has to move his ideas forward.

Meantime, Arch endeavours to make more of his position in this Moseley whirlpool of ideology and revolution, throwing himself into the inbred vortex of poseurism, becoming a ‘believer’ in the cause and evangelical in his limited concepts. He becomes involved in the street protest movement, his false and forced awakening coming at the weeklong free rave at Castlemorton, his transformation induced under the leadership of the volatile Stripe and his vacuous girlfriend Sorrell who epitomises all that he wants to avoid in his newfound, self-satisfied belief of making a stand against ‘The Man’.

He gets into the techno-rave scene and finds intellectual and emotional solace in the engirdling ideas of fellow protester Ig’s civil disobedience vs. Stripe’s brand of direct action – revelations that he thinks will change Vee’s wilted view of him. And so he busies himself with the self-serving, delusional journey from lugubrious impassivity to the ‘anything is possible’ system of beliefs spouted by the movement. He is convinced by the likes of Ig and Stripe of the real, genuine personal responsibility the individual has, slotting neatly into his new box of ready-made views.

And when Vee returns, she furthers his ‘almost’ connection to the outside world, he wants to show her how he has changed, how he has been brought out of his near-sighted slumber, without realising he has merely moved into a different kind of ideological somnolence. It seems Hill’s charge here is that it is just another easy out to go from one kind of complacency to another, easy in these communes of self-belief to continue living within this pipe-dream.

But this ideological transition is not as prosaic or didactical as I seem to let on. Hill’s style is bright with humour, he has a natural ear for rhythm as well as a depth of slang both playful and unobtrusive, slang that has seen the novel compared with Welsh’s Trainspotting, a book overtly referenced by Arch’s culturally voracious squat-mate, Mike. At first, Arch’s narration reads, at times, as an updated Burroughsian Junky, though (initially) softer in its drug of choice, the melange of characters indulge in whatever they can get their hands on. As Arch’s ideas begin to twist into his zealous evangelism, the prose takes on a journalistic intensity, albeit at times a little too pedestrian in its delivery of real events. But these instances are rare, and Hill handles Arch’s clay-footed leap of consciousness and ensuing distress with remarkable pacing and emotion.

The central crux of Arch’s futile journey embodies a very real search for answers. And Arch seems to think he has found them, though they are as illusory as his relationship with Vee, which ends, as made clear in the opening, with loss and stillness. But Arch holds onto his ideas for as long as he can, this impermanent state of mind that has a ragged edge when bordering on a complacent sense of conviction. And this state of mind, no matter what side you are on (if there even are sides) is merely that, a momentary belief in a momentary something, no matter how poor placed or how convincingly argued, and it all becomes a “shit-eating grin” of complacency and self-satisfaction.

Hill deconstructs the ideologies through his characters, each seemingly representing one way or another, and pokes a stick at the inward visions of a hipster crowd like that in Moseley.

Perhaps it is over-simplifying the complex and enigmatic character of Vee, who is never really a part of the protest scene, to say that she is merely the opposite of the Arch. But it is this ‘pipe dream’ of changing the world that brings these characters together, albeit from differing points on the Moseley political spectrum. Vee, with her ‘Endless Inquisition’ and outward view vs. the movement’s limited ‘Finding, Latching on and Believing’ plays out as a battle of ideas that has no feasible winner.

It is easy to see why The Space Between Things has been viewed as a love story (the couple’s penchant for Velvet Underground brings to mind the song ‘I Found A Reason’), but Vee, Arch and the rest of the misfit gang are narrative tools for Hill’s multifaceted scepticism. It is a bleak tale (for the reality is bleak) that can relate directly to the intermittent and possibly futile calls for uprising within protest movements today, its questions true to the questions that face all protest movements, particularly where, like here, few seem fully prepared to put it all on the line. Though that doesn’t mean Hill doesn’t hope we/they do:

“We don’t live in a world of simple answers and I’m wary of those who think we do. We don’t have it in us to create a utopian society, in which the freedom of the individual is not subject to any limitation and the needs of those who can’t provide for themselves are met. The way in which we interact with other individuals and other communities is characterised by compromise – moral, intellectual, emotional. As a species we don’t do intellectual purity. We are flawed. We do fudges and suck it and see.

Acknowledging that this is the human condition doesn’t mean that we should give up on the idea of change – or changes – for the better. I just think we’ve got to accept that striving for improvements in the way in which we organise ourselves is an ongoing and ultimately frustrating process. I think it all comes back to that Beckett line about trying again, failing again, failing better. And I think that on a practical level, if we accept our limitations, we have to be prepared to work with  – and not just against – what we’ve got, however unsatisfactory that may be…”

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

Declan Tan takes a second look at Aronofsky’s tightly-wound psych-out

Recommending this film is not the easiest thing to do. You have those who already know and appreciate the prospect of a new Darren Aronofsky film, granted some of those fans fell off at The Fountain, his most personal and ambitious work, before being pulled back in by The Wrestler.

Then you have those yet to be convinced.

And the thing with his latest is, it will at once alienate part of the audience while at the same time dazzle the rest. But of course this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s surely not Aronofsky’s intention to simply make a film that everyone is going to love, to become the American Nolan; making dark, often subversive films that make big box office. (At least not this time round, as his next project is the follow-up to Hugh Jackman-produced X-Men Origins: Wolverine.)

But back to the film, which focuses on Nina (Portman) an obsessively committed ballerina in a New York City ballet company. She even dreams about her moment in the spotlight in the appropriately ominous introduction, the lead-in for a film that exists almost entirely in Nina’s mind. Through the first shots of her warming up, stretching in the early morning, we’re also entirely convinced of Portman’s commitment to the role. And the paranoia kicks in almost immediately as we watch her gradually disintegrate before our eyes. From the early scenes of her on the train, wearing her white scarf and looking into her faint reflection, we quickly get the sense of her vulnerability. As she rides the subway, she spots what she thinks is herself standing in an adjacent carriage. She is already beginning to fall apart, becoming a ghost under the pressure of her own mind.

She sees her own face looking back at her. Then in a flash it becomes her lookalike/double and newcomer to the company, Lilly (Kunis), all dressed in black. The mind fuck continues both literally and figuratively. She imagines (or does she?) an encounter with the sexually liberated Lilly, the Black Swan to her White. The atmosphere of unreality pervades, with Aronofsky often framing his actors trapped in the reflections of mirrors, mirrors which become significant by the end. At one point even a room of portraits, painted by Nina’s slightly twisted mother, begin screaming mad gibberish at her. It’s a relentless spiral downward as Nina and Lilly vie for the lead role in the troupe’s refreshed version of Swan Lake, led by magisterial director Thomas (Cassel), for whom they also compete.

But Nina has a problem, her dancing, like her mind before the fall, is too controlled. To lead the new season, she must be able to portray both the angelic White Swan and the cursed Black Swan. Lilly offers to help. But Nina struggles, her rigid mind so inextricably linked to her disciplined body, unable to let go and too concerned with perfection. Thomas tells her: “Lose your self”. She does her best.

If you know the story of Swan Lake, then you know where this is going. After a little while you realise the film is itself an updated version of the classic ballet by Tchaikovsky. So it’s got that postmodern thing going on. Which is nice. But even if you don’t know your 19th-century Russian ballet, you can probably work it out. But crucially, it’s not a twist that Aronofsky is going for. He relishes the slow build to the inevitably bleak ending, another glorious slice of his “there’s no escape” doctrine. So it’s the journey that’s to be enjoyed. And enjoy it we do.

Thickly layered with the destructive themes of obsession, passion and ego, a film that will inevitably be labelled as ‘existential’ (though Aronofsky denounces the “existential humanist” label that seems to have landed on him), we have here a masterful piece of immersive cinema. The sound and the visuals conspire in morbid harmony, creating a grim, confusing and often horrifying study of Nina’s crumbling psyche. And it’s the fine work in post-production that draws all these elements together: well-conceived visual effects and a deep soundscape that confidently play with the audience’s nerves, served up with a booming score from long-time Aronofsky-collaborator Clint Mansell, along with oneiric imagery that becomes increasingly nightmarish as we’re drawn into the pressure-cooker world of ballet. Even the details down to costume design have been finely tuned, plenty of contrasting black-and-whites, continually getting at us with ideas of good and evil, darkness and light, simultaneously real and imagined.

And it’s done seemingly with ease. The human mind is familiar territory for Aronofsky, his films are generally set within it, his oeuvre predominantly exploring disintegration of the self through passion or obsession or addiction. His characters find freedom through death, either of the self or of the body, or both, seemingly saying that one cannot survive without the other. And Black Swan might be his magnum opus. Its last, lingering line is: “It was perfect”. He just might convince you.