Friday, January 30, 2009

On yonder hill there stands a creature

You may or may not know that the recently departed poet/playwright/Nobel laureate Harold Pinter wrote a characteristically blunt poem before the Iraq war. It went like this:

The big pricks are out.
They'll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.

During a mail conversation just after Pinter died, a friend of mine fulminated in a Pinteresque rant himself:

I’ll miss him.

When normal people get old and go batty, people ignore them and put them in a home and start spending their inheritance. If you've written 29 plays and are considered famous and one of the Hampstead "we're socialist, honest guv" set, then people continue to listen to you. Hence the "big pricks are out" etc, etc. Had any normal granddad written that, he'd be dispatched like a shot to some out of the way Colditz-on-the-Wold and we'd all be riffling around under his bed for the reddies. It reminds of a Jeeves and Wooster novel, where one of Bertie's uncles was discovered in the drawing room "sticking straws in his hair". Also, an Evelyn Waugh short story which has some old major "hanging by his braces in the orangery". I daresay there is some small window of wisdom that comes just after youthful ignorance, and just before losing your marbles but, generally: you get old, you go weird.

Such is life.

The person who came up with the above paragraph will soon be joining me in infrequently updating – or frequently not updating – the blog. He will be using a pseudonym. It is Hipparsus, which is marginally better than his original choice for a nom de plume, Benjamin Buttmunch. Hipparsus, by the way, was a student of Pythagoras who discovered the existence of irrational numbers (like Pi, or The Dark Knight’s domestic gross – SNAP). His name is more commonly spelled Hippasus, but Hipparsus is nothing if not unpredictable.

There is a chance another person might also join us in a few weeks. There’s a party in my blog, and everyone’s invited. It’s a pity party.

But back to that Pinter poem. In September 2004, The Private Eye did a send up of it in a section called “Harold Pinter’s Revised Book of English Verse.” And lucky you, dear reader, because you can find it below.

One caveat: In order to get the joke, one really should be familiar with the original poems.

Then again, one really should be familiar with the original poems anyway.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Top Ten Tunes of 2008

My list of the best songs of 2008 is up at The House Next Door. Here's a teaser:

"I think it was Lester Bangs who said listening to Pink Floyd is like wrestling with shit. Him or Spiro Agnew. Whoever it was, they were right. It’s a band I tried to like for a long time—“everyone says they’re great, so they must be”—but I have finally come to the dawning realization that theirs is the type of music that should be confined to history—or the dorm rooms of frowzy, flatulent frat boys with too much money, too much time, and too much homegrown. From what I understand, the sempiternal Dark Side of the Moon is supposed to be a musical masterpiece, but I wouldn’t know, because try as I might, I have never been able to listen past “Money” lest I die of ennui. And, fine, I will be the first to admit that “Wish You Were Here” is a pretty good tune. But so was “I’ve got the key—I’ve got the secret.” I don’t see anyone waxing lyrical about the euphonious delights of Urban Cookie Collective."

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Our survey says...

Every year around Oscar time, Edward Copeland organises an Oscar survey. The first one in 2006 was on the best and worst movies to have won the best film Oscar. 2007’s survey was on lead actresses, and last year’s on lead actors.

Due to personal reasons, Ed is unable to run this year’s survey, but he says that, hopefully, he will be back next year. In the meantime, Brooke Cloudbuster at The Performance Review has agreed to conduct this year’s survey, which will be on the best and worst supporting actress Oscar winners. The deadline is February 10th.

Survey. I just wanted to say survey again. Survey. Survey. Survey.

Click here for this year’s survey.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"There's a nurse on duty if you don't feel right."

What’s your favourite bit from This is Spinal Tap? “This one goes to eleven” is wonderful, sure, and one of the few gags in the history of the cinema to retain its original brilliance, and oomph after nearly thirty years. Stonehenge is another one, not to mention Derek Smalls’s (Harry Shearer) comment during the post-gig group discussion – after the gigantic (or miniscule) fuck-up on stage – that they might want to restage the number the following night with different choreography. Or Smalls, again, but this time reacting to news that the record company is experimenting with the band’s new album cover: “They have monkeys opening it?”

Sure enough, those are all sublime moments from one of the greatest films of all time. Yet, what I find most delightful are the slightly less zany moments, the emotional heart of the film itself – the relationship between the bandmates. Michael McKean’s Christopher St Hubbins and Smalls at a roof party marking the end of Tap’s ill-fated American tour, and possibly their careers, babbling on about their long-abandoned dream projects (“You’re a naughty one, saucy Jack”). Or the sheer frustruation tinged with a sense of sudden loss and deep sadness as St Hubbins declares that he and Nigel Tufnell (Christopher Guest) shan’t work together ever again. Then there’s the single, most tremendous moment in the entire film as Tufnell comes to visit the band backstage before one last gig, and, after a confrontational exchange with St Hubbins, asks him to do a great show.

It is those little moments of character and emotion that resonate the most, and they have always been mainstays of Guest’s mockumentaries. Both Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show feature groups of people with questionable intellects, and Guest and his exceptional troupe of actors always approach the characters with sympathy and pathos, providing a genuine core of emotion to the enveloping farce. In A Mighty Wind, the pathos, for the first time in a Guest feature, takes centre stage, and it’s somewhat overwhelming. Roger Ebert, for example, wrote in his review, “(T)he key characters in "A Mighty Wind," especially (Eugene) Levy and (Catherine) O'Hara, take on a certain weight of complexity and realism that edges away from comedy and toward sincere soap opera.”

A Mighty Wind is, indeed, a somewhat uneven film. The parts that make it up are rather splendid, but they fail to cohere – the naïveté of the performers and folk music as a whole are too nice a target, especially the way they’re refashioned in the film. Guest approaches the people, as well as the songs, with such genuine compassion and tenderness that, by the end of the film, the satire aspect has gone right out the window. But, seeing these incredibly talented actors, with an obvious love for the project, perform at the top of their game – not just acting, but also performing the songs, including a brilliant little ditty chronicling the chronicles of a wanderer, who never quite managed to wander – I was unable not to fall in love with it. It’s my favourite of all Christopher Guest films.

The set-up owes a lot to This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. The death of a folk music mogul inspires his son, Jonathan Steinbloom, underplayed to subtle perfection by Bob Balaban, to organise a memorial concert in his honour, bringing together three of the more successful bands of the oeuvre during its 1960’s heyday: The New Main Street Singers (featuring, among others, Jane Lynch and John Michael Higgins), reduced to performing their acoustic set under the pandemonium of a roller coaster with only one remaining member from the original line-up; The Folksmen (McKean, Guest and Shearer, together again), one-hit wonders, who partake in long and heavy discussions to conclude that their original look might now be considered retro, even though, in the sixties, it was nowtro; and Mitch and Mickey (Levy and O’Hara), former lovers scarred, not just by each other (and, in Mitch’s case, years of psychosis), but also their music. Pretty much everything one expects from such a set-up ends up happening, including temper tantrums, set-list problems, and one major issue with the floral arrangements in the lobby.

The film is not a laugh-riot, that’s for sure. But there are some belly laughs, mostly provided by three veteran actors from Guest’s previous mockumentaries. In his one brief scene, the late great Paul Benedict probably provides the film’s best one-liner (improvised, of course); and Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr together steal the show, the former as a truly bizarre showbiz agent, and the latter as a Swedish TV producer with a penchant for Yiddish. And some of the songs give “Big Bottom” a run for its money (pay special attention to the last line of the eponymous tune).

Yet what we end up with doesn’t have anything further in common with Guest’s previous directorial efforts. There is an unsettling undercurrent to the leading couple from The New Main Street Singers, one of whom used to be in the, erm, adult movie industry, but is now a modern-day witch, with – this is genius – a cult based on the power of colour, and that aura of unease is always around them, but it doesn’t amount to much. The Folksmen are all too happy to be given a second chance, and one of them even undertakes a drastic change by the end of the film, one that mirrors a certain member of the real-life band Jethro Tull (I used to listen to them, and never heard the end of it from my friends at university). And Mitch and Mickey have such a sweet story, and such a beautiful song, that they leave no room for cynicism, or even true satire. That can only be a good thing.