Monday, March 28, 2011

Down by Law - Jim Jarmusch (1986)

I've been meaning to watch this for ages, even have my own copy of the DVD but have no idea where it might be so when I saw it in the library, I grabbed it. It is entirely black and white, which was gorgeous to watch. It opens with panning shots around the streets of New Orelans and introduces us to two of the central characters before the credits roll: Jack (John Lurie) a small time pimp and Zack, a drifting DJ. He has a row with his girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) and hits the road).
He makes a very convincing drunk

Both are arrested for no good reason, maybe because the cops need to make a bust and non-one's going to make a fuss about either of these two. Of course, they end up in the same cell in jail. Zack is first in, by 17 days. When Jack turns up, he's none too welcoming - its three days before Zack says anything to him. This says a lot about the movie, actually - its very laconic, lots of long still shots with very little spoken and when the camera does move, its generally very slow.

Of course, they do start talking after a while
and Jack convinces Zack to do some DJ spiels (once he gives up thinking Jack is a garbage man). They even have a fight
It is just after this that they are joined by the third man, Roberto or Bob (Roberto Benigni): he has a tough time finding an audience
He's a great lover of Walt Whitman, although he can only recite him in Italian. There is a vaguely comic tone to the movie, Bob in particular introduces a gentle humour to proceedings, but the one time I laughed out loud is when he starts them off on a ridiculous chant "I scream, you scream, they scream, we all scream for ice cream". The fun comes when he gets the whole prison chanting it but when the guards come along, our three friends are the first to quieten down and play innocent.

Bob seems to be the only one with any real aspirations of freedom - he draws this window
and organises what seems to be a most random escape. This leads to about 40 minutes of running time with them lost in the swamps and woods of Louisiana. Once again, Bob is the hero: they're all starving and he manages to kill a rabbit, start a fire and cook it (although he does apologise for a lack of rosemary, thyme and olive oil).
Eventually they find civilisation, in the form of Luigi's Tintop:
Jack and Zack send Bob in then criticise him for walking "in there like an idiot". He's no fool, quite the fast mover - by the time they go in, he's already fallen in love and engaged to be married!

Although there isn't really much of a story and several points at which you just have to accept what you're given (the escape, the fact they're not caught, Bob's engagement), this was an incredibly charming wee movie, wonderful to watch with a very understated soundtrack. I particularly liked the slow waltz of the characters around each other as they gradually formed a friendship and really don't begrudge Bob his freedom (he's the only genuine criminal among them, if you accept that throwing a billiard ball in self defence, albeit with fatal consequences, is a criminal act).

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nick Earls - The Story of Butterfish

It is always a delight reading a Nick Earls novel, because he manages to be so real in the presentation of his characters. Until this one, all of the novels I've read have involved people in the medical profession (presumably because that is his own background). There has always been a fair amount of music in his novels but this time round, the central character (Curtis Holland) IS a musician - he played keyboards for recently broken up band Butterfish (which has made a career out of very popular "over-ripe overblown ballads" and then made the fatal third album which was "pretentious and directionless at the same time") and is back in Brisbane, trying to work out how to live.

Being the keyboard player for a band that has sold 20 million CD's has insulated him from any such need in the past (and even when in the band, he could leave most responsibility to others, particularly front-man Derek). He's very rich but is still working, now with a commission to produce music for a Scandinavian band. One consequence of this is that the novel is full of music talk, both about bands and about the actual making of music.

Curtis makes a surprisingly good fist of this new life, considering his reputation as being a "shit communicator" and what he has to deal with. His father has died, his brother is recently single, his neighbours require careful negotiation and then Derek comes back to town.

The novel starts with Annaliese coming into his life. She's the girl from next door, sixteen, a "confounding mixture" of self-assuredness and fragility looking for her missing not so bright dog, Oscar, although "he's never really got that". Later on, he spots her coming up the street, her hands playing an imaginary keyboard:
she was concentrating, playing precise notes. Not with great feeling, but marking them out neatly as if she might come back later and put more into it. Then she noticed me and her fingers sprung back from the keys and her hands turned into two fists that dropped to her sides. She was holding onto the very slender hope that I had seen none of it.... The air keyboard player can only surrender. There is no other choice.
They come to spend quite a lot of time together - she hangs out in his studio where its air-conditioned, gets involved in his music. I particularly enjoyed their conversations, there's lots of playful teasing between them, although the dialogue is spot on throughout. The blurb makes it plain that something happens between the two of them, but for once we have a muso who acts responsibly. He is very fond of Annaliese, thinks that if she were only 25 it would not be a problem, but she's too young at 16. So, there's a bit of a startled rejection scene, leaving him wanting and needing to "put some kind of patch on the hole it had left in how she felt about herself".

Her brother, Mark, is 14: apparently a stereotypical sullen teenager, playing computer games and dressed in black with inappropriate facial adornments. Curtis's first assessment is that he would have hated Butterfish on principle, too close to pop and insufficiently evil: "fourteen year old boys with nails through their ears had taken it upon themselves to be our natural enemies". But Mark has great commercial instincts - I loved his negotiation of the deal to mow Curtis's lawn - is a talented although disturbing writer, and turns out to have a secret plan which is really quite lovely. He and Curtis turn out to have quite a surprising rapport.

They are both summarised as "complicated people", neither children nor adults with
lives full of negotiations and power shifts and forced trips across town, and hormones and wild ideas. Everything was to be tested - themselves, the inconsistencies the world offered them every day.
Then there's their mum, Kate. She does the neighbourly thing and invites Curtis over to dinner:
"I was just swearing at the meal when you came in."
"As long as it didn't swear back, I think we're okay."
"You'll never hear it with the oven door shut."
Sure, it may not be highbrow literature, but for suburban Brisbane, this seems to me to be perfect in its naturalness. She's a "crap" cook but Curtis is kind, blames her tools - there's an amusing scene when she uses what Curtis says is a comedy knife stolen from a clown to cut (or at least bruise) mushrooms. Somewhere along the line, he has learned to be a great cook, so he helps her out and they go on a shopping expedition to buy a proper knife. This reminds me: there were two aspects I didn't like about the book - he made this absolutely delicious sounding curry that left me salivating and wrote so convincingly about a particular kitchen knife that I have to get one!

Because Curtis has been away so long, and his dad has just died, he needs to get re-acquainted with his brother, Patrick, and with the idea of family, albeit a family of just two. Curtis is no rockstar to Patrick, just the little brother, so Curtis spends a fair while sparring with him, taking pre-emptive (conversational) strikes against him so he won't be bested. Things get better when Curtis learns that Patrick has separated from his partner, asks if this is when he says he never liked him (the partner, Blaine), thought him a narcissist:
"Oh, God. He had so little to be narcissistic about. And yet he managed, against such odds..."
"And you have much more to be narcissistic about than he does."
"I've always thought that."
The coolest thing about their relationship are the revelations - both about how they saw their own and each other's childhoods - and about the secret life of their dad (who had a mad scheme pretty well developed to put on an opera about an early explorer, Sturt). Once they learn he'd been on internet dating sights, they develop a running joke about him having a mail order Russian bride.

Derek is the one character who is closest to being a caricature but even he has his moments. He "has a big mortgage on the whole rockstar clich
é" and really has only one layer at most times. But he's back because his dad might die, and that brings the meagre best out of him (after he and Curtis have a ridiculous fight in the street).

Oddly enough, this book shares something with the last book I wrote about: it was also a play. Here is the author talking about the creative process.


Monday, March 14, 2011

David Nobbs - Cupid's Dart

Best known for creating Reggie Perrin, David Nobbs is still producing fiction, with 17 novels under his belt. Cupid's Dart (2007) has a slightly unusual history, as it is a novel based upon a televised play, written way back in 1981.

The central character, Alan Calcutt, shares a little with Reggie: he is deeply out of touch, has trouble relating to his workmates, mainly because he despises them and has trouble with family. His mother is in a rest home and he makes a dutiful weekly visit, desperately trying to work out how to fill in the time but at the same time wishing his mum would get out a bit more, so she'd have some quality of life. Things are so bad that he at one stage plots to kill her, in both their interests, with a poisoned cake.

But the major story here is his meeting of Ange (
in the play, she was played by Leslie Ash - the cool chick in Quadrophenia), a much younger but vastly more experienced girl he delights in saying he picked up on a train. She is 24, a darts groupie. He's 56, a philosophy don, a virgin, and has no idea what she's talking about half the time. But he has enough self awareness to work out that he's doomed to an increasingly sad life if he doesn't do something.

He talks like a textbook but somehow they find a way to chat with each other as they share a table in the train and he, for the first time in a couple of decades, finds himself interested or, in his words, "she inspires an affectionate response", particularly her unselfconscious joy at being alive. He is full of ponderous talk of philosophy and how it provides no answers, just questions. Instead of even trying to address his conversation, Ange muses about birds:
I wonder if birds are afraid of heights - it'd be a right old do if one of them was afraid of heights. Fuck up his life a bit, wouldn't it? The old singing and that. Know what I mean?
To their mutual surprise, Alan asks Ange out (to dinner at a very fussy restaurant) and she accepts. Although he has no idea how it will go, he has the wit to "avoid Wittgenstein, concentrate on darts".

And so, a relationship of sorts develops: the opening chapter makes it clear it does not last beyond the year but, surprisingly, good things happen to both of them during the year. He finds her thoughts extraordinary, because they do tend to come out of left field, but that helps shake up his very stale take on life and his work or, in his words, he is screwed up until she "unscrews" him (and they do spend several nights just talking before anything approaching sex happens). He is taken way out of his comfort zone (pubs and international darts tournaments for a start). She gets to be taken seriously - no-one has ever wanted her for her mind before - and escape the Essex girl stigma and a rather concerning lack of esteem when it comes to men.

There are not many laugh out loud moments here (although I did laugh when Alan is very anxious about a declaration of love he wrote under the influence of several pints of Belgian lager and sent to Ange - he is so desperate to retrieve it, convinced that it will be fatal to their relationship but it is so unreadable she thought he'd sent her notes for a lecture) but I enjoyed these two characters. They may have been laid on just a little thick but they were distinctive.