Category Archives: Film

James Joyce and his decent silk hat

I’m currently deep into Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, an 800-page opus which is, in parts, almost as detailed as “Ulysses” itself.

As such, I’m well into the world of Joyce-words: ‘europicola’, ‘allalluvial’, ‘douncestears’, to pick three among thousands. At times it’s not easy going, and it got me thinking. Did the man himself ever read his work into a microphone? What did the colossus of Modernism actually sound like?

The answers are: yes, and like a slightly stiff Irish lawyer.

In November 1924 Joyce made a recording of a section of “Ulysses”. The audio, set down at the HMV studio in Paris, would be one of only two such artifacts he made (five years later he would make an eight-minute recording of an extract from Finnegans Wake).

The excerpt Joyce picked is from the ‘Aoelus’ episode of ‘Ulysses’, a section known as ‘The John F Taylor speech’. The passage is a metaphorical take on the relationship of Ireland and England. Joyce picked it, his friend and publisher Sylvia Beach later said, because he reckoned that it was the only part of his book fit to lifted out and ‘declaimed’.

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

Listened to the audio down the passage of 90 years it sounds strange – ethereal and formal in equal parts. It didn’t inject much color into my impression of Joyce – but it did lead me onward, to the footage above.

It is one of only two pieces of film I can find of the Irish writer, both shot in Paris in the 1920s (the other features the writer and his wife strolling down the street – here at 3:00 minutes). In the clip Joyce stands on the street, holding a conversation with someone off camera and looking like a skinny Irish version of Vito Corleone as he stares dismissively into the camera.

It’s spliced with a brief clip of the writer stepping out of a house, a child running before him. Again the vibe is one of a literary made man.

The footage casts little, if any light on the writer himself. That’s no unfortunate thing, given that Joyce’s life is woven so extensively into his work already. If anything the film represents a brief respite from the latter, writing that’s at times entertaining, eye-opening, and hugely frustrating (usually in the same paragraph).

At the risk of sounding simplistic this brief clip also shows that, despite the poverty, drinking and illness, the writer could certainly pull off some nice threads.

Or, as he wrote in the short story ‘Grace’: “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster…”

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Fear and foreboding in My Favourite Things

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember
My favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.

Everything’s going to be ok. We’re kids again, in our pyjamas and Julie Andrews is telling us not to worry about the thunderstorm outside. Silver white winters melt into spring.

Don’t listen to Maria. The real ‘My Favorite Things’ was recorded four years before the movie version of The Sound Of Music and just a year after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical debuted on Broadway.

In October 1960 – 55 years ago last week – John Coltrane took the then barely-known song into the studio, recording a version of it with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis and drummer Elvin Jones.

Over 13 minutes the bandleader and Tyner unlocked the dread in the lyric. Maria becomes unsettled, her soprano sax voice begins with the familiar list (“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”) but soon sounds terrified, trembling at the thunder in Davis’ bass. Remembering’s not working this time.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Eight minutes in she is screaming, as Coltrane pulls the melody way out, beyond the musical, beyond reassurance, and far beyond from Julie Andrews’ smile four years later.

It’s unsettling, but hypnotic. Once you’re into the music you can’t escape – not until McCoy Tyner frees you from the locked-in rhythm, not until Steve Davis’ storm abates.

Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ is many things –  a classic example of modal jazz, a subversion of the American songbook, a blend of Eastern and Western idioms.

Most unlikely of all it was a hit single, in 1961, and remains one of the most popular songs in a less-than-popular genre of music. The saxophonist would return to it often – on foot of public requests – in live performance.

Listening to it today the beauty and optimism are still there, on the song’s surface –  small comforts which scarely conceal the dread running underneath.

Fifty-five years later, with fear and anxiety the dominant emotions of a boom-and-bust, post-9/11 21st century, Coltrane’s performance sounds like the song of our age.
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Time to get reel

photoI’m hopeless when it comes to cinema.

I go to a movie theatre once a year, maybe once every two years. I don’t buy or download movies.

Occasionally I’ll spot a film on TV and record it. Later I might even watch it. Three months later.

Where did it all go wrong?

As a teenager I was a weekly cinema-goer – my good pal W and I were regulars at a long-departed cinema above the old shopping centre in my hometown.

In college and after I still made the effort. And then, passing a theatre one day in my early 30s, it occurred to me: ‘I can’t remember the last movie I saw’.

Despite this I never thought that the situation needed fixing. Then, a few months ago, my wife and I were sitting in a Dublin hotel bar with good friends of ours when the subject of movies came up.

A parade of recent releases, classics and curios was offered up. I realised – and so did my companions – that I had seen about 10pc of them. Pitiful, really.

And so The List (above) was devised.

About Schmidt? About time.

About Schmidt? About time.

Like most lists it’s utterly arbitrary, scripted on the whims of the three who drew it up. It’s basically a crash course in Films I Need To See Before I Die.

As you can see it’s got a bit of everything, though weighted a little heavily towards Woody Allen.

And it’s a departure from the usual top 20 ‘must see’ lists. How many of those include Sixteen Candles, The Departed and The Bad News Bears (the Walter Matthau version)?

That night at the Clarence Hotel was six months ago. Since then, I’ve watched three of the 20 movies on the list (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight In Paris and The Departed, all worthwhile viewings).

That’s not a huge number, and at this rate it’ll be 2016 before I catch Broadcast News, but I’m getting there.

The question is: what should number 21 be?

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On turning 36

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934.
Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway sailed the Caribbean in the Pilar, spending much of his time fishing for marlin out of Bimini; the fish later featured in his greatest work.

Miles Davis played club dates, stranded between his first and second great quintets following the departure of John Coltrane.

Marilyn Monroe, disillusioned with fame yet planning new movies, died of a barbiturate overdose at her home in Los Angeles.

Edmund Hillary published High Adventure, an account of his successful ascent of Everest.

Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he had drunk often (and worked occasionally) with fellow alcoholic John Cheever, hoping that a change of location would help him sober up.

Siddharta Gautama attained enlightenment following 49 days of meditation, after which he was known to followers as the Buddha.

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her researches on radiation.

'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps' J.M.W. Turner (1812)

‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’
J.M.W. Turner (1812)

J.M.W Turner completed Hannibal Crossing The Alps; contemporary critics branded his impressionistic landscapes as “pictures of nothing, and very like.”

Woody Guthrie wrote Deportee, after reading a newspaper report of the death of 28 Mexican farm workers in a plane crash at Los Gatos, California.

Billie Holiday, battling drug addiction, starred in a 15 minute short with a 12-year-old piano prodigy, Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson.

Bob Dylan finished the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, having released his 17th album Desire; it went to number one in the Billboard Pop Albums chart.

'Taos, New Mexico (1931)' Dorothea Lange Pic: The Getty Trust

‘Taos, New Mexico (1931)’
Dorothea Lange
Pic: The Getty Trust

Dorothea Lange traveled to New Mexico with her husband and two children, frustrated that family life had limited her photography.

Patrick Kavanagh published his poem on rural deprivation, The Great Hunger; every copy of the magazine it first appeared in was seized on the orders of the Irish government.

Gertrude Stein continued to encounter difficulty in selling her writing to publishers, despite critical acclaim for her first novel Three Lives.

Dylan Thomas began work on Under Milk Wood, having completed his first American tour; shortly afterwards he dropped it to script a film for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

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Miley and me

Miley. Pic: Michael Connors.

Miley. Pity the waiter.
Pic: Michael Connors

Eating dinner recently I glanced over my shoulder – to be greeted by the sight of Miley Cyrus’ backside.

Add me to the millions who’ve seen the popstar’s derriere in recent months then.

Impressive as it was, Cyrus’ bum played second fiddle to her mouth, with which the pop star dispatched a series of requests, loudly, to the wait staff.

The location was the Chateau Marmont, where my wife and I were meeting friends for a Christmas dinner.

My other half had told me that we were likely to encounter a famous face or two at the hotel, a Hollywood celeb bolthole for more than 80 years.

(So much so that I had my ‘I love Nespresso too!’ monologue prepared in the event I bumped into Clooney in the gents – next time G!)

Watching Cyrus source a clean fork, or whatever, may not have been the most dramatic episode in the Chateau’s history (there’s been one or two) but, in fairness, it did cause us to pause mid-mouthful (and also pity the waiter).

A genuine, bona fide, shock and awe star no less. Much as I’d like to pretend I’ve no interest  in the comings and goings of A-listers I couldn’t resist glancing once or twice at Cyrus’ table for the rest of the evening.

(BREAKING: 20-something Team Miley eat and yap for two hours before bouncing out into the night. World continues to turn.)

Me. Digestif time. Pic: Clare Kleinedler.

Digestif time.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Truth to be told the sighting was probably a little wasted on me. Without my dining companions I probably would have missed it altogether – despite Miley’s wracking bell tones.

I’m hopeless at spotting celebs. In the newsroom, on a news site, it’s usually no problem; but in the flesh…er, is that the guy from that TV show?

Cyrus could have plonked herself on the table and twerked the wine bottle and my response would still have been one of outraged confusion and, probably, indigestion.

This is in contrast to my wife who, in a former career, made a living off her celeb-spotting skills. (An hour after the Cyrus episode she noticed Bobby Cannavale, recently seen in Blue Jasmine, shuffling through our hotel lobby. I thought he was a porter).

Nonetheless if you’re going to have a glammed-up dinner why not do so in a dining room with the hottest name in pop? And Ridley Scott. And the daughter from Veep.

Unfortunately for Miley though, she was upstaged on the night, proving a bouncing, jabbering distraction to the real star of the evening:  the restaurant’s famed spaghetti bolognese – or rather the cook behind it.

Chef Spence in action. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Chef Spence in action.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

The dish, a Chateau staple, came from the kitchen of executive chef Carolynn Spence, a pal of my wife’s and something of an Eirophile (we had a good chat about Dan Donnelly’s wandering arm).

Over the years I’ve eaten plenty of spag bol but I can’t ever remember it tasting like the one we had that evening. The meat sauce melted on my tongue, the pasta (not too little, not too much) was my sort of al dente.

This plate was so good that not even one of biggest celebs in the world could distract me from it – well, maybe for half a minute.

The rest of our night was devoted to equally important things – catching up with friends, including a chat with chef Spence. Maybe we should have invited Miley over for a drink.

Then again there’s more important things than celebrity. Even in Hollywood.

The Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood. Pic: Gary Minnaert

The Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood.
Pic: Gary Minnaert

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‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch’

Scott Fitzgerald the screenwriter, 1937. Pic: Carl Van Vechten

Scott Fitzgerald the screenwriter, 1937.
Pic: Carl Van Vechten

In December 1940 a hack screenwriter died in the sitting room of his girlfriend’s home in Hollywood.

Alcoholic, in poor health, receiving little credit for his work and dropped from a contact by MGM a year earlier, he would spend his last days working on a draft of an uncompleted novel.

When his body was later taken to Maryland for burial just 20 or so people showed up to his funeral.
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The screenwriter, Scott Fitzgerald, had described himself as a ‘hack’ – in his final years at least.

Writing freelance movie scripts was some way from his previous work and promise, which included, in The Great Gatsby, one of the closest realisations of the Great American Novel.

Fast forward 70 years and the latest screen adaptation of the book earned $300m at the box office this year, with $200m more expected in re-runs and DVD sales.

Fitzgerald The Hack made it big in Hollywood after all.
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'I shouted across the lawn.' 1443 North Hayworth Avenue, West Hollywood.

‘I shouted across the lawn.’
1443 North Hayworth Avenue, West Hollywood.

This week his ghost was all around.

En route to LA in recent days I watched – and greatly enjoyed – The Great Gatsby. Days later my wife and I found ourselves at a hotel in West Hollywood, minutes from Fitzgerald’s last residence, at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue.

The street’s settled, well-manicured homes are the very opposite of the glare and bustle of nearby Hollywood Boulevard.

Passing the property and aware of the last, ill and unhappy days of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century I couldn’t help but think of Nick Carraway’s lament for the doomed Jay Gatsby.

“They’re a rotten crowd…you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

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The high-bouncing gold-hatted Gatsby?

The veranda of a villa on the island of Capri, October 1924. A man and woman sit side-on to one another, each holding a glass.

‘Another gin?’

‘I am quite drunk. Yes. How about Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires? It contains both.’

‘No. It requires a title for the ages. No ash-heaps.’

‘On The Road to West Egg?’

‘The road that passes by the ash-heaps? You’re fixated on dust.’

‘I am fixated on the title. It must be good, rather than fair or bad.’

‘I’m sick. I’m in pain. We are supposed to be celebrating. Decide. Please’.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (gin not pictured). Pic: Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society)

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (gin not pictured).
Pic: Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society)

‘The High-Bouncing Lover.’

‘This isn’t one of your short stories. It must be magnificent, memorable. Yesterday it was gold hats. Today it’s bouncing.’

‘Something magnificent then. Under the Red, White and Blue. Remember the flag of light-bulbs in Harbor Hill last year?’

‘I’d forgotten. It must be something memorable. Extravagant. Tremendous.’

‘I had a line about the night when the lights fail at his mansion. His career as Trimalchio ends, I wrote. There’s a title: Trimalchio.’

‘You are drunk.’

‘Too obscure, perhaps. Trimalchio in West Egg?’

‘You can place him where you want. No one will be able to pronounce it. It must be something great.’

[Silence]

‘Another gin?’

‘I am quite drunk. Yes.’

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