Tag Archives: design

Film Review: X-Men: First Class


Flickering Myth ran a poll earlier in the year about which summer superhero movie people were most looking forward to. The contenders were surprise hit Thor, The Green Lantern, Captain America and this X-Men prequel, steered by director of Kick-Ass Matthew Vaughan. For me X-Men: First Class was the most anticipated of the selection by a mile.

The trailers promised a truly epic reinvention of a stagnating franchise. Vaughan went for a completely new look cast of mutants, with the exception of one comic cameo. Amongst this cast the partnership of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender takes centre stage, with the enormous task of matching and exploring the rivalry portrayed by thespian heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the previous Bryan Singer films. For the most part, their youthful interpretations bring something different that really works.

The film starts off brilliantly with Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr and McAvoy’s Charles Xavier on separate paths. Xavier is a brilliant Oxford academic with a fondness for pubs and science heavy chat up lines, which seem rather redundant when he can read minds. Lehnsherr however is driven by revenge into stalking the globe in search of his enemy and his mother’s murderer, Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw.

We see both of our key protagonists as children. The film starts with the young Erik, played rather limply by Bill Milner, being threatened in a Nazi concentration camp, by a toying doctor who turns out to be Shaw, into manipulating metal by moving a coin. We see the young Charles, far more convincingly played by Laurence Belcher (who was also excellent in the Doctor Who Christmas special), finding a fellow mutant, shape shifter Raven, in his kitchen and taking her in as a sister.

Things really get interesting when Xavier has graduated as a Professor in genetics and the CIA come to call on him. He then demonstrates his mind reading telepath tricks in a variety of ways, until he is believed enough to get free rein to create a team of mutants to take on Shaw, who is engineering a nuclear war via the Cuban Missile crisis, which he hopes will leave only mutants as Earth’s dominant species. The best bit of First Class however, is Fassbender’s pursuit of his Nazi nemesis.

What really excited me, more than anything else, was the historical setting of this film. Fassbender has been championed as a future 007 in the past and there hasn’t been a review of X-Men: First Class that doesn’t praise the mini James Bond adventure within it. Adult Erik travels in stylish, suave period suits to banks in Switzerland to interrogate the keepers of Nazi gold for info, by painfully plucking out fillings with his powers, and to bars in Argentina in cool summer gear to kill hiding Nazis with flying knives and magnetically manipulated pistols. In all these locations Fassbender speaks the native tongue and oozes the steely determination of a complex and damaged killer. His quest is a snapshot of what a modern Bond set in the past, bilingual and faithful to Fleming’s creation, could be like.

Aside from the dreams of a reinvented Bond though, the Cold War setting is exciting and thought provoking for other reasons.  The mutant situation mirrors the struggles at the time for civil rights for black Americans and other minorities, such as homosexuals (hinted at by the line “Mutant and Proud”). The whole film can make the most of the visual benefits of period costume, with fabulous suits and dresses, as well as period locations and set designs. The rooms on Shaw’s secret submarine resemble a villainous Ken Adam Bond set. And the ideological conflict between the US and Russia, echoes the differences in outlook between Xavier and Lehnsherr.

Despite rave reviews at first, respected critics have given X-Men: First Class an average rating. I think this is mostly because the film doesn’t live up to the enormous possibilities of its setting and doesn’t explore as well as it could the beginnings of the relationships in the X-Men. It is still a good film. For a blockbuster this is a slow burning watch, which I liked, but I admit that the action scenes could have been more frequent; even though a couple are terrific the film never really ignites. All in all Vaughan’s prequel is good but not as good as it could have been.

One of the reasons cited for disappointment is a lack of focus on the rest of the X-Men. It was a difficult balance to strike, with Xavier and Lehnsherr’s relationship proving so fascinating and McAvoy and Fassbender having so much chemistry, both comic and serious. I actually thought that characters like Beast and Raven were fleshed out more than I was expecting. A much criticised code name scene, in which the younger X-Men members sit around joking about what they’d like to be called, has been pummelled with criticism. I thought this scene was funny, as much of the film is, for not taking itself too seriously and entertaining for introducing the powers of the characters.

X-Men: First Class will divide audiences. Some will think it’s boring, others will love its action punctuated with character development and solid acting. Fans of X-Men will differ with some salivating over the explanations to Professor X’s wheelchair and Magneto’s helmet and others feeling letdown by the promise of so much more. Perhaps the most reliable fan base for this film is James Bond fans waiting for next year’s Bond 23. Fassbender’s literally magnetic and chilling performance is Bondian, as are the locations, the villains and babes on show like January Jones and Rose Byrne.

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Bond’s first lady Judi to return


Judi Dench has confirmed to reporters at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, where she bagged an award, that Daniel Craig’s James Bond will be getting his number one girl back in the forthcoming adventure. She confirmed her involvement after the film was officially announced earlier this month. Pressed for any inside news at all about the production, the chief of MI6 remained characteristically secretive. All she would say was how excited she was to be working with Daniel Craig again, and Sam Mendes, who has directed her in theatre.

This will be Dench’s seventh Bond film as his severe, disapproving boss, M. Prior to her appointment for Pierce Brosnan’s 1995 debut, Goldeneye, M had always been a man. Producers, writers and directors all grappled with the idea of M as a woman. Perhaps ultimately the decision was made because no man could live up to the figure of Bernard Lee, who simply became the embodiment of Fleming’s creation of M in the first eleven Bond movies.

Since her first moments on screen, reprimanding Bond’s bravado and warning she’ll only use the 00 section sparingly, Dench appears to have justified the filmmaker’s decision and won over fans. Producer Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Cubby, said of Dench’s casting:

“Our instinct was if we were going to cast M as a woman, we needed to find an actress who could be totally believable and not cartoonish. Our fear was that it would be laughable and the big thing was to get someone of the calibre of Judi Dench to play the role. And because M is the only authoritative figure in Bond’s life, the casting of a woman as M gave the relationship a whole new dimension.”

Dench’s opening scene with Brosnan in Goldeneye left the audience in no doubt that a female M was not laughable, at least in itself. The script was wise not to gloss over the fact as if nothing had happened, with Bond’s teasing lines humorously, but brutally knocked back by M: “If you think for one moment I don’t have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong”. She also tells Bond he’s a “relic of the Cold War”.

Director Martin Campbell was aware of the pros of having Dench as M. He was told by studio head John Calley prior to Goldeneye, after floating the prospect of a female M, that “You need a star! You need someone with incredible screen presence, how about Judi Dench?” Campbell was so impressed with her performance in his first film that there was no question of dropping her, despite the complete reboot of the franchise, when he helmed Daniel Craig’s first outing Casino Royale in 2006. Costume designer for that film, Lindy Hemming, hailed Dench as a “brilliant piece of casting” and reveals in The Art of Bond by Laurent Bouzereau, that they made M’s costume “a bit more sexy” for Craig’s first film. Bond changes with the times and by this stage, not only was it modern for women to be in positions of power, but it was the norm for them to be expressive and natural in these roles.

What more can be done with Dench’s character though? Even Daniel Craig is slowly outgrowing the franchise, so surely Dench cannot stay in the role indefinitely? This could even be her last film. Glowing comments about her performances as M, like those above, make it difficult to consider replacing her though. Would M become a man again, played by an actor of similar clout? In The World is Not Enough, Pierce Brosnan, according to director Michael Apted, repeatedly asked for M’s role to be “beefed up” to give him more screen time with Judi. This led to the ambitious plot of M being kidnapped by terrorist Renard, played by Robert Carlyle. If M were to leave, she’d need a suitably huge story.

Bond needs a proper adventure and challenge anyway, after the gap between the disappointing Quantum of Solace and the as yet untitled, Bond 23, due to start filming later this year for a 2012 release. Casino Royale made it clear the best stories come when built upon Fleming’s original tales in a modern context. One tantalising, but difficult to execute, story never realised by filmmakers is a brainwashed Bond attempting to assassinate M. This comes from Fleming’s final Bond book, The Man with The Golden Gun, and was never used in the drastically altered film of the same name. This set-piece in the novel is the highlight of an otherwise disappointing final bow for the literary 007. It would need revamping, rooted as it is in the Cold War era of Soviet mind tricks, but you get the feeling a gritty, deluded Bond storyline would suit Daniel Craig’s hungrier acting abilities down to the ground if properly set-up. It could also be fantastic and bold on film. But the problem for the franchise would be how could Bond continue as 007 after being demoralised and duped into trying to kill his own boss?

Whatever the script writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan come up with, the trend has been more and more M in recent years. I look forward to some frosty and prickly dialogue in Bond 23.

The i: Media revolution or pointless newspaper flop?


At Waterloo station the other day I finally succumbed to curiosity. I found myself staring blankly at a WH Smiths emblazoned with a small red letter “i”. In just one moment, demoralised and waiting for a train, all the hype and advertising culminated for me. It was only 20p, let’s see what all the fuss is about. I lugged my stuff over to the store, handed over my solitary coin and headed for a drink to dissect the nation’s latest news phenomenon.

Or is such a big deal? I sit here with two copies, having purchased a second for the purposes of writing this piece. And from the outside it doesn’t look so extraordinary. Sure I’m familiar with the concept, the image they’re trying to sell. It’s a concise compilation of news and opinion, an intelligent but manageable information snack to be devoured by your busy city type. It ought not to appeal so greatly here in my rural setting, and yet the first two local shops I tried were sold out yesterday. Not just a paper for commuters rushing through London terminals and underground stations then? Perhaps it does have some foundations of longevity; having said that, it could simply be the novelty buy of the moment.

If you’re reading this and saying to yourself “what on earth is i?” I am frankly astounded. I don’t believe you can have avoided the marketing blitz accompanying its release. It adorns the side of London buses, plasters newspaper stands and rules the ad breaks at times. The strap-line at the top of the front page reads: “As seen on TV: Britain’s concise quality paper”.  They’re fully aware of the exposure i is getting and I’m guessing the idea is to hook regular readers early. The dirt cheap price will be crucial to the appeal, as will the two key selling points; concise and quality. It’s broadsheet meat in tasty tabloid nuggets.

Essentially it’s a bite-size version of The Independent. The fact that it’s The Independent launching the i does bode well in many respects; The Independent is the newest established national paper in this country. Launched in the eighties it knew how to exploit gaps in the market with price, design, image and politics. Nicknamed the Indy, it used the slogan “It is. Are you?” at its birth in 1986. Such lines show that even back then this was a paper that knew how to bag itself a target market of aspiring intelligent types looking to distinguish themselves from The Guardian or The Times. It would be simultaneously liberal and opinionated, and respected and trusted. In 2003 it took on a tabloid format, which begs the question, why the need for the i?

The clue is in the name. The i is unashamedly jumping onto the Apple bandwagon. We arrive in a new decade, the teenies or whatever follows the noughties, grappling with the coming of the iPad. The iPad seems to herald a new media age in a lot of ways. Countless commentators and reviews argue over its purpose, with many concluding it does not have a particularly functional one. In technology the iPad is halfway between a laptop or netbook and a smartphone or iPod. It fails to do certain things these old staples do so well, whilst also doing some new things no one is quite sure whether we want yet. Most reviews also conclude that the iPad is so much fun, it scarcely matters what it’s for. It’s an inexplicable indulgence, until the content starts to catch up.

 But unavoidably the ethos around the iPad is the direction of travel, the way things are going. People want everything they do, everything they consume, to be aesthetically dazzling and finely crafted. They want to look cool when they read the news and they want to feel cool. They want it to be easy but still be well informed afterwards. They want colour and images. The i is the newspaper equivalent of the iPad; it’s well designed and bright and fun, but it hovers in a new uncertain territory between purposes. Is it broadsheet or tabloid? Paper or magazine? Light or heavy news?

At first I was reading the i trying to work out whether it lived up to its brief of “concise quality” sufficiently, and even if it did, whether it was good enough to warrant such a category of publication. I mean can’t even the busiest person simply selectively scan their favourite paper? I was judging each article to decide whether it had the depth of broadsheet and snappy digestibility of tabloid. The selection of topics for articles is certainly suitably intelligent, with nothing too light or smutty about cheap celebrities creeping in. On the snappy front the opening double page has a “news matrix” with summaries of the day’s top stories, so the reader has at least an overview of everything. This does seem surprisingly handy.

In fairness to most of the articles about serious stories, they do an admirable job of cutting right to the point without being patronising or watering the issue down. But unavoidably there is an unsatisfying lack of depth. Everyday there is a fairly substantial opinion piece however, which can’t be accused of cutting corners. Indeed the opinion section of the paper is a good example of successful fusion between manageable and satisfying content. An “opinion matrix” summarises views from other publications, a bold and genuinely informative move in keeping with The Independent tradition, adjacent to an article from one of their writers. I really like that it quotes other papers, and I imagine the average commuter without the time to buy and read a range, does too. There is only the one opinion piece per day though.

This week the content of the i has been somewhat heavy on anti-Murdoch sentiment, what with the ongoing hacking story and the takeover of Sky forever raging, which I found tiresome. It’s of course admirable to expose such stories, under reported in other papers, but it compromises the potential for other news and comment in such a small paper, and also The Independent tradition of staying above the fray (despite an undoubtedly left-wing reputation).

The television schedule is well designed, split as it is into categories with key programmes, and a smaller list with the all junk underneath. Ideal for those that work all day. There’s also a section called “iq” which seems to be dedicated to the likes of style and recipes and again has a good balance between brevity and depth. The arts area of the paper seems somewhat recycled each day, with film and theatre listings and descriptions; no reviews. Not being a businessman I wouldn’t know if the business section was adequate, but it has its own “news matrix” which seems a good, broad introduction to all the main action of the day. The sports pages are really quite short but do touch on all the main issues; football transfer gossip, Six Nations, Andy Murray.

After all this analysis though I remembered how crucial the comparison with the iPad is to understanding the i. Frequently I toy with it in those cavernous Apple stores, knowing full well I haven’t the funds for such an extravagance or even if I would use it at all, should I win the lottery or rob a bank. But every time I go in for a discrete fondle of the touch screen, that indescribable feeling Apple manufactures so well washes over me. That feeling of being at the forefront; the vanguard of technological advancement. As if I’m in an incredibly cool sci-fi film, not my mundane life. That feeling of childish play, somehow fused with the realisation you’ve arrived as an adult with the James Bond gadget to prove your maturity and success. Look at the tech they let me unleash! Behold the luxuries that make up my exciting everyday existence!

Like the iPad, the i is a symbol of a life style choice, a lot more than just a paper. Now it might be the case that your choice of paper has always been a significant indicator of outlook and ambition, but the i is a heightened version, harnessing the 21st century Apple fever. It popularises that choice and makes it available to the masses as a statement of intent. “Look at me, I am intelligent but too busy to stop, I’ve arrived!”

Even if you don’t consciously think this, the colourful design and appeal of the i put it on that similarly luxurious plain to the iPad. It really is well designed, easy to read and pretty to look at on some pages. And why shouldn’t intelligent news be a pleasure to look at? Why does it have to be bunched in dense text and an excruciating eyesore? Especially when you’re jammed in like sardines on the tube. The colour coded pages help you swiftly find what you’re looking for and the multitude of colour photographs let you feel the news, experience the world, rather than simply read about it. Like the touch screen of the iPad, the i feels interactive at times and immersive despite its concision.

One thing that really baffles me is the continually shabby state of The Independent website following the launch of the i. To truly capitalise on the stylish Apple-like aesthetic they’re cultivating with the i, they would lure people to their equally swish website. But for ages The Independent’s website has been the drabbest online newspaper around. Some would simply call it functional, with its white background and lack of trimmings. But a hideous mustardy brown colour is used across the top and the font is squat and awkward to read. It’s a real shame, because it’s so bad it often puts me off delving into the regularly insightful, impressive content, which has real depth that goes beyond the snippets in the prettier i.

I would do well not to push the comparison with the iPad too far. The i lacks the level of interactivity and excitement cutting edge technology like the iPad can provide. It is, at the end of the day, a slimmed down newspaper. But its design and marketing reflect a cultural trend. There’s nothing wrong with what the i is trying to achieve, and it’s admirable in fact to see something try and keep print publications fresh and competitive. The threats of the iPad and the internet could jeopardise journalism and courageous solutions are needed. The i does the right thing by embracing the challenge of our new aesthetically obsessed, Apple stuffed world, rather than denying it. With its colour, cool and seamless advertising spaces and refreshingly un-patronising news, the i has the potential to be more than an early 2011 fad. Crucially, at 20p, you may as well give this stylish “essential daily briefing” a whirl, before properly digesting your preferred daily in the evening.

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.

First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too.  It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.

 I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.

I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.

The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.

Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.

If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.

From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.

Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.

The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.

The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other.  What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality?  Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.

I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.

These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.

Cultural Wanderings of an Ignorant Youth


This week I went all middle-class and cultural. On Wednesday I went to the Royal Albert Hall for “An Evening of Vivaldi” with violinist Nigel Kennedy. And yesterday I ambled round the Tate Modern, hoping I didn’t look as stupid as I felt. It was all certainly a far-cry from my rural roots and the working class hubbub of a football match and the intoxicating odours of warmed sausage rolls. But if I’m honest I don’t feel comfortable in either environment.

Wednesday then and the much anticipated, long awaited evening of Vivaldi. I was spirited to the venue by an irritable cabbie all the more grunty and scowly I suspect due to the additional traffic clogging the arteries of the capital’s roads, vomited up from below by the tube strike. On several occasions his grumpy state prompted less than textbook driving manoeuvres and one of these bursts prompted the howling horns of a sleek BMW pulling out into our lane, along with an un-graceful involuntary spasm from me. Not daunted in the slightest he drove on and continued occasionally with his inaudible mutterings, and I listened to Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 as he accepted calls about the change in the law allowing prisoners to vote, prompted by the EU courts. Eventually the Albert Hall crept on me from nowhere and I was out, stalking around its beautifully lit circumference, killing time until the doors were opened.

I was suitably impressed by the building from the outside and enjoyed snatching chunks of a singer that floated from a window in the Royal College of Music opposite, but was somewhat underwhelmed by the scale of the interior. I loved the deep scarlet (or crimson?) colour to everything and the history present in the antique seats, but whilst it was undoubtedly a big venue, perhaps my aforementioned working class sensibilities, used to giant football stadia, left me unmoved by the jewel in Britain’s musical crown. However I was pleased with the view from my seat and impressed by the impression that everyone’s seat must have a decent view. Still it felt smaller than it looked on the Dr.Who Proms anyway.

The only thing that mattered to my father (if I wasn’t writing would have called him Dad, but that sounded wrong and just a little too affectionate to be accurate, although father makes me sound more refined than I am) about Nigel Kennedy was that he too was an Aston Villa fan. All I really knew of him was a few performances on TV and the CD of the Four Seasons I own, played by him, that I know inside out and was my only real motivation for coming. That CD alone convinced me I loved Vivaldi and seeing as I loved his native city of Venice too it seemed like a good idea to delve deeper. But as I have said, I am a stranger to this world of cultured classical music and was therefore grateful in many ways for Nigel’s eccentric onstage behaviour with a working class twang. He honestly looked scruffy in my opinion. But he was instantly likeable. He swore frequently and strongly, to the shock of some and amusement of most; “Now I guess I have to play some shit on my own”. He bantered with audience members late because of the tube strike, pouncing on one with kisses and theatrical gestures; “You’ve only missed a few concertos but there’s loads of good stuff left”. He referred to sport when introducing his glamorous and beautiful female companions. He generally joked and entertained. And he seemed as baffled as I was at times at the ever so frequent applause. Every minor piece required a bout of praise at its finish, leaving me and by the look on his face at times, Nigel himself, wondering when they would get on with it. But then I guess it was all so wonderfully and terribly British, and why so many Germans, Irish and Italians were seated around me to enjoy the show.

I am hardly qualified to comment at length on the music itself. The first half of the show was comprised mostly of concertos I was unfamiliar with and consequently towards the end of it I found myself growing a little weary, especially during the softer sections. I confess that I enjoy the frantic and furious crescendos considerably more than the gentle, swaying parts, no matter how beautiful and intoxicating and calming they may be. I suppose the real revelation in seeing the performance live was the sheer visual spectacle of the violin. During my favourite intense moments the entire orchestra moved in energetic, synchronised slashes and jolts. All that striking swishing up and down through the air was like a chorus of swords striking at our ears, echoing the very “V” sound of Vivaldi, Venice and violin. Watching Kennedy duet with his various exotic female companions was also extraordinary for me, seeing the sort of chemistry I had only previously experienced between singers or dancers between two instruments was wonderful. The way he would undulate and stomp and stamp was so engaging at times, as if he was enjoying it then so would we I guess. Nevertheless I shamefully longed for some of the lively hip gyrations and sexy beats of Dirty Dancing which I had seen the week before as a present for my mother, at times. But of course when he finally got round to “four little unknown concertos” I was so delighted he was going to play the whole Four Seasons, and felt for a brief moment brilliantly middle-class and cultured to be in on such a joke. The striking strings tell such a story in that music and the waves of sound rising up stronger and stronger during my preferred pieces was wonderful and fantastic to hear the whole thing in one go. Admittedly by the end I was tired and keen to leave for bed, but I was privileged to have heard what I knew as tracks on a CD, treasured and enjoyed in quiet privacy, in the company of others, even if they were more than simply a casual appreciator as I was.

Mind you I am a bloody expert on Vivaldi when you compare my knowledge of his music to my knowledge of modern art. So I’m not sure why I had the urge to go and look round the Tate Modern, but go I did. I guess part of it was simply the wonderful approach and the walk past St.Pauls and over the marvellous Millennium Bridge, poised like a delicate, wobbly blade over the Thames. The walk was actually surprisingly easy and quick and I shall be doing it again. I loved the contrast of St.Pauls white marble with that of the Tate Modern building itself, beautiful in its own way. Part of my problem has always been though that I appreciate the buildings selected to store great art in more than the works themselves. Whilst I can see the value more easily in the traditional works at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (and I always pop in), with some pieces, such as those of the Venetian canals, blowing me away with their vibrancy and colour, I find it much easier to marvel at length at the scale and beauty of the building around me than the paintings.

Once inside the Tate Modern though the interior is nothing to marvel at. Disappointingly there was no sign of the controversial seed art installation that had made the news, but I picked up a map and set off aiming to educate myself. I was expecting to despise a lot of what I saw, as I am an ignorant, rural, traditional sceptic when it comes to “modern” art in many ways. I do not claim to know what constitutes art and what doesn’t, and would rather not get into that debate as it’s surely a subjective question, but for me a piece of canvas painted one colour, albeit a striking one, is interior design, not art. There’s no reason why it would not have been done before by someone. I’m not saying it doesn’t require skill and aesthetic appreciation, but it does not seem to be art to me. And yes there was the odd piece that I hurried past to avoid staring at it angrily and in disbelief. Even Matisse’s celebrated “the snail” which I was familiar with from a documentary and was surrounded by admirers, does nothing for me with its simple blocks of colour. For the most part however I was surprised at how engaging I found a lot of the works and generally enjoyed my couple of hours or so wandering about.

Calling the Tate Modern “modern” can be misleading in itself, as there is a lot of history to be found within the walls. Granted when you take human civilisation as a speck on the table top of world history then the twentieth century works on show are very modern indeed, but for me as a child born at the end of the century it’s a period rich in variety, close enough to be stirringly relevant but far enough away to be exotic. I stumbled across Monet’s Water Lillies for example, which seemed like a genuine progression of what the sceptic might term “real” art, as opposed to a cop out like some of the more controversial, politically motivated revolutionary pieces. I was happy to sit and lose myself in its colours for a fair few minutes and could see the value in the blend of colours expressing something true about what one actually saw in such situations. As I’ve said before on this blog, for me culture speaks to me most when it says something true and I found throughout the day that reading the brief background of a piece might help me see the meaning the artist was striving for and thus appreciate it more. Having said that some pieces were simply a visual treat I didn’t want to spoil by thinking about and dissecting, such as Jackson Pollack’s Summertime, on the opposite wall to Monet, which was a colourful splash of elongated colour.

Generally reading about and discussing the various methods of artists, especially when they produce dubious results, bores and alienates me. But when these methods are placed in the context of their times and given intellectual motivation I am more interested. I found a number of pieces by German artist Max Ernst interesting, for example. One of them, The Entire City, painted in 1934, was created using a technique called grattage or scraping. This introduced elements of chance into the work and I found this philosophical idea fascinating, especially when placed in historical context it is said to express Ernst’s pessimism at the unfolding Nazi situation in Germany. It also helped that the visual end product of The Entire City was visually intriguing as well as being not so abstract as to be unintelligible by my simple eyes.

I have always found it difficult to relate to the craft of the artist, perhaps simply because I was so utterly useless and talentless myself.  I have always preferred and understood the skill of the written word and seen more value there. But in the “Poetry and Dream” section of the Tate I found some pleasing overlap that could stimulate my brain as well as my senses. A piece by Juliao Sarmento entitled Mehr Licht, meaning “more light”, is interestingly ambiguous with the image of a man holding a woman’s neck and was intended to be so, as the artist points out that such a gesture can be violent or tender. Having said this I still found that the end product of some works seemed to bare no correspondence to their descriptions lavishing praise and finding intellectual enquiries where there were none. Francis Picabia’s Handsome Pork Butcher for example just seemed grotesque and silly and perhaps that was the point, although his Otaiti was more thought provoking.

So whilst I did appreciate the different and striking pieces, especially when they had inspirational ideas behind them and connected to them, the uneducated ogre in me still preferred the pieces that resembled “real” art and exuded skill. Yes there were sculptures by Anish Kapoor and others such as a tumbling stack of felt and a circuit comprised of ordinary silver kitchen objects that held me transfixed for a while, but these seemed to belong in a different category. The realist room containing pieces by Meredith Frampton and Dod Procter, seemed to have a better blend of skill and modern ideas. Dod Procter’s Morning had a wonderful 3D quality and captured the light and imperfections of the human form as well, and better, than any camera. Frampton’s works too seemed to have mastered the fall of light as well as containing symbolic, vibrant objects that made it more modern and set it apart from a traditional portrait.

Oh dear listen to me trundling out the sort of art critic bollocks that usually makes me heave. And worse still I’m a complete amateur; at least they’ve been taught or learned the bullshit they spout inside out. If I’m honest in the vast majority of the galleries I was often distracted from the works by the superior quality of female that creativity seems to attract. I mean seriously I may have to consider cultivating a sideline in bullshit art appreciation alongside my “writer’s beard”, as a friend of mine told me I was now sporting. I have literally not seen so many attractive girls in one place at once in a very long time. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking hard enough. But anyway every other girl seemed to be a stunner, I was looking around for the gallery official whose glorious job it was to admit the beautiful and turn away those whose standards fell short. Was it always like this? I imagined that if I should ever be lucky enough to talk to any of these women, even if they churned out arty farty crap that was incomprehensible to me, I would listen, transfixed, jaw hanging in wonder and scraping the industrial floor. There was the odd creative guy type about who would clearly act as a magnet to all the budding female artists drifting aimlessly, except that a great number of them may have been gay by appearances. But then who can judge by appearances alone? Artists perhaps. Anyway needless to say I did not speak to any of these wonders, these fine specimens, these art drugged creatures. I simply marvelled and left, having enjoyed my cultural wanderings. But I remained essentially terribly ignorant.

The Song of Lunch/ The Fry Chronicles/The Road/South of the Border, West of the Sun


Trawling through various cultural mediums is for me not just a search for entertainment and means of passing the time but a hunt for reassuring truths, universal truths of life that we all share and when found elsewhere as better formed, well expressed versions of your own troubles offer satisfying comfort. I am no poetry connoisseur but when I do read poems the ones I enjoy speak to me for saying something true, often in the simplest of ways.

Take The Song of Lunch, a BBC adaptation of Christopher Reid’s narrative poem, recommended to me by a friend. Through the artificial constructs of art it says something true and genuine about life, rising above the reality of existence. Of course lunches with old friends are not the profound verbal duels shown here, they are not always feasts of slow-mo exquisite detail. But at times the language, the imagery of the poem is spot on and the sentiments exact. That feeling of so much change and yet so little. Those regrets impossible to accurately voice. The simultaneous significance and insignificance of everyday gripes like the noise of the next table, the disappointing wine. On the whole the dramatisation of the poem works well too and certainly the first half an hour or so is immersive and engaging. Alan Rickman’s lazy, lingering, drooling tones suit such a piece perfectly. You rejoice with his ageing character as his planned escape from the office comes off, via the “yawn” of the lift and enjoy his observations of the London crowds. The direction matches the poem well, vividly evoking stand out lines and images. The arrival of the old lover and the disbelief and resurgence of old feeling is also dealt with well, but as Rickman’s character loses himself amongst his thoughts the adaptation struggles to convey the essence of the words, resorting to overlong focuses on Rickman’s vacant, ogling face. During these moments the drama loses its urgency and coherence and even Rickman’s loving recital of the language, full of irresistible rhythm and emphasis, cannot avert awkwardness for the audience. Despite this and the sense that the adaptation worked best at the beginning, only to trail away, The Song of Lunch was a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable watch.

Emma Thompson, the old flame and muse of Rickman’s character in The Song of Lunch, also features prominently at times in Stephen Fry’s latest and second autobiographical work, The Fry Chronicles. This book focuses on Fry’s Cambridge years and the formative years of his career, mainly in comedy. However the book joyfully flits about all over the place, touching upon all manner of topics. Forgive me for what is a very Stephen Fry-espque tangent, but the cover of The Fry Chronicles, by which I mean the covering of the book itself, is extremely attractive and I cannot understand the unrealistic snobbery of people who continue to adhere strictly to the old mantra “never judge a book by its cover”.  It is surely impossible today not in some, even wholly unconscious way, to judge or dismiss books based upon their colourful jackets. A writer can slave away at the world’s next great novel only for it fall flat on its face, or be devoured by entirely the wrong sort of audience, because of a wrong decision in the marketing department. Fry’s book is carefully kept simple, with a mostly pure white background and a tasteful picture of himself accompanied by the title in bold blue. The quotes selected for the cover go some way to conveying the essence of what is in inside. I have also bought and shall soon read C by Tom McCarthy, the expected winner of this year’s Booker prize. His publishers too have done a fine job of creating an enticing, attractive cover, reflective of the book’s content (a whirl of lines reflect the theme of communication) and informative (positive criticism expectedly prevails), without excluding anyone by opting for a garish pink. A nice touch to The Fry Chronicles’ cover is that the inside cover has a coloured stripe pattern that matches that of the socks Stephen sports on the cover and generally such colours would seem to represent his personality too.

Cover rant over, is The Fry Chronicles actually any good, jostling for position as it does with whopping political memoirs from not just Blair himself but his advisers and fellow New Labour architects and other assorted celebrities with bright, bubbling, amusing lives to share? The answer is yes and I have not even quite finished the thematic, slightly chronological trip through Fry’s memories as yet. Of course like any autobiographical work has its faults but Fry does his best to acknowledge them. It is also surely more entertainingly, amusingly and playfully written than a host of other similar works set to come out in the endless run-up to Christmas gift season. Fry’s book will ride high on the bestselling lists right up to the turkey dinner and beyond, and deserves to. Not only is it stuffed full of interesting content and fascinating anecdotal tales, but offers an enormous amount of wit, humour and personal, emotional insight; of the truth I search for on my cultural wanderings.

If anything the book starts slowly with a brief focus on Fry’s adolescent addiction to sugar, which if I am honest I found irritating and hard to relate to, but never boring as the sheer energy and wit of Fry’s prose carried me through this section. Once he reached the start of Cambridge however I could identify far more and I whizzed through this portion of the book. Every now and then Fry will interrupt the recounting of actual events to bemoan his lack of confidence and express his own doubts. He fears that he has become a jack of all trades, master of none and that he has squandered natural talents. It is comforting to hear a man of such talent and intelligence admit to such fears about topics as wide ranging as ambition, fame and relationships. He even hopes that his trials and tribulations are merely facts of the human condition, shared by all, and in so doing says something true. At times his refusal to analyse the failings of others as he examines himself is frustrating, with most name-drops also accompanied by gushing praise, but this is all tolerable as he repeatedly acknowledges he is too kind to be a critic, can be seen as arrogant and would not want to judge anyone but himself, in what is after all, an excellent autobiography first and foremost, as well as a snapshot of the entertainment world of the eighties (which Fry makes accessible to those not familiar with the era, as well as the ardent fan).

If Fry’s book is for the most part a light hearted, jovial glance at what it means to be human, set amongst manicured university grounds and the artificial, rich entertainment world, then director John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a bleak and brutal, stripped back stare at the core of existence. Unlike Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which I reviewed last week, concluding that it had little purpose or idea of what it was, this movie has a strong narrative and never fails to engage, doing so on a number of levels. Early on we are struck simply by the aesthetics of a barren, apocalyptic landscape, the moving soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the emptiness of father and son walking, emaciated and dirty. Then there are moments of genuine tension, excitement and action when the gangs, cannibal or not, emerge and threaten to discover our protagonists and then no doubt exploit or kill them. The scene where a gang member discovers the crouched Viggo Mortensen whilst taking a piss, clutching a gun with just two bullets left, bullets meant for his son and himself should they be necessary, is incredibly tense. It emerges that to be a father in such an environment means being just steps from being a killer. The film grapples with some big ethical questions around suicide, parenting and violence by placing them in a fictional, extreme context. Even without thinking about these deeply it’s impossible not to be moved by the bonds between Viggo Mortensen’s father and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son, who both give excellent performances, or not to be gripped by the hard hitting action or grim scenery.

For me the most moving parts of the film were the flashbacks that revealed the boy’s mother choosing to leave the father and son, effectively choosing to die rather than go on living in a dangerous, frightening, fallen world. Viggo Mortensen’s character must deal with the fact she chose to die rather than be with them throughout the film as he clings desperately to life for his son. Again here I found that elusive truth that could resonate in my own life; people can do irreparable damage to each other, unimaginable hurt, just by living or in this case by choosing not to, but for her things were clearly so bad for it to be the only choice, the only path forward. This passive process, this capacity to senselessly destroy the meaning of the lives of others, is also recognised by Haruki Murakami in his novella South of the Border, West of the Sun.

I read this in its entirety during a series of train journeys this weekend and found it compulsive reading, for want of a better less clichéd phrase. This is the second Murakami I have read following Norwegian Wood and he seems to have an ability to articulate romantic feeling that I find fascinating, given the differences that perhaps ought to exist between Japanese and Western culture. He seems to capture some sort of universal feeling, especially when writing about the ambitions and frustrations of adolescence. His style is simple and elegant and full of spot on imagery, whilst always retaining a sense of urgency and passion. I could empathise with the narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun despite our vast differences; he a wealthy, Japanese bar owner, facing a mid-life crisis and the return of a childhood sweetheart, me an ordinary student in Britain. I could share the agony of his conflicting desires and that sense that incompleteness will always prevail. In fact the novella seemed to conclude that such incompleteness was the only certain destiny of the human condition and that life will always be a meandering search for truth in vain.