Sunday, 26 February 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck, dir. George Clooney (2005)

Good Night, and Good Luck is the story of the confrontation between CBS News anchor man Edward R. Morrow (David Strathairn) and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. These witch hunts are well known; those familiar with Arthur Miller's work will know how this period affected him and his work: The Crucible, for example.
The film does not show anyone being dragged off and thrown in jail. Instead, it depicts a group of journalists at CBS trying to come to terms Sen. McCarthy's one man crusade against Communism seen in every corner of independent thought throughout the United States. In the face of the seemingly monolithic power of government Edward R. Morrow decides to broadcast a series of in-depth examinations of the kind of mock-trials McCarthy was engaged in and questions their legitimacy and legality. I wouldn't describe is as a hatchet job on the junior member from Wisconsin, but some will.
It's a powerful and timely film. It's wonderfully acted - Strathairn is tense and righteous throughout in equal measure, and the direction is sure and satisfying. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be staying on the straight and narrow and showing that he can act. Clooney is curiously set back in the film, he doesn't overpower the screen with his presence and allows the others their space.
If, as one critic put it, one feels preached to, it is because this is a film with a message. So get it. The Left will love it, the Right will hate it. The usual idiotic debates will rage, trying to strangle appreciation and independence, art and beauty. Perhaps there is no hope for us. I left the cinema sad and worried. I enjoyed it immensly, but couldn't help feeling plus ça change plus c'est la meme chose. The danger is most certainly within. Not without.

Saturday, 25 February 2006

OED for All!

This is a bit of an anorak thing to get excited about I know but it's from today's Guardian:

"Oxford University Press has signed a breathrough deal with public libraries across England. Library users will get free access to online resources including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Oxford English Dictionary, Grove Music and Grove Art. The agreement was brokered with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which hailed the benefits for all sides. Indeed, anyone will be able to get full, free access to the databases at home using their library card number."

I love the OED.

Lesley Grant-Adamson, Flynn (Faber, 1991)

Lesley Grant-Adamson is a well-known British crime writer and Flynn is her seventh novel; she has clocked up fifteen so far - the latest being Undertow. In Flynn she introduces a new character, a detective called Laura Flynn. The book runs two stories in parallel, an initially innocuous case of corporate ownership and the case of her father who walked out when she was four. It is actually very good, quite subtle. She doesn't go for any flashy effects, and most of what happens is very believable, at first seems even banal, until you realize you are actually biting your nails. The writing is very solid and Flynn is a nice character, well balanced between competence and chaos, a detective who gets rather modest jobs that just pay the bills. When yet another seemingly modest job comes along you feel that she's enjoying the increasing danger but at the same time that she's not at all sure that she can keep things in control. All of this is set against the backdrop of the Irish in London, with more than a tinge of the failure so many of them encountered. There's much that is poignant and intelligent in this book. I enjoyed it a lot and will read more.

Sunday, 19 February 2006

Barbara Vine, The Blood Doctor (Penguin, 2003)

This is quite simply an awful book. It needed a scalpel-wielding editor to be ruthless, for a start. It is a good 200 pages too long. And the excessive length is indicative of the lazy meandering writing. It's not that the idea isn't a good one. It isn't bad. Though it isn't great. No. It's the bad writing. Why is crime fiction often written so badly, especially when plots take lots of thinking and sometimes even a bit of cleverness?
And why bother writing novels of the same genre under a pseudonym? Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, but Ruth Rendell is a crime writer, and Barbara Vine is a...crime writer. I can understand, say, if someone is a poet and a novelist: those two don't seem to mix that comfortably (think of David Harsent, for example). But why write crime novels under two names?

Tuesday, 14 February 2006

Bennett & Kerr II

The latest catalogue (no. 133) from Bennett & Kerr Books, which I have posted about before, has lots of little gems to get your excited. I nearly lost my head when I saw Christopher Baswell's Virgil in Medieval England (Cambridge: CUP, 1995) and rang straight away hoping it wasn't gone. It wasn't. I'm happy. But of course the crisis was really all of the other books I wanted. A couple of examples: facsimiles of MSS Tanner 346 and Bodley 638, two important Chaucer manuscripts, for a very good £50 each, and the Hengwrt facsimile for £85. Two other little gems: Patrick Boyde's latest two fine studies, Human Vices and Human Worth in Dante's Comedy (CUP 2000), and Perception and Passion in Dante's Comedy (CUP, 1993), both for a very competitive £20 each. Panofsky's Early Netherlandish Painting, 2 vols (Icon, 1971, orig. 1953), only £30. These are the things that my shelf feels bare without but which I cannot afford right now (maybe I could do a fast for a while...). These are great works that should have good homes, or else donated to me!

Sunday, 12 February 2006

A Short Film About Killing (1988), dir. Krysztof Kieslowski

A Short Film About Killing originally formed the fifth episode of Kieslowski's celebrated Dekalog, a set of one-hour films broadcast on Polish television exploring the ten commandments in a modern context. Two of these have been developed into full-length features, A Short Film About Love and this one about killing. It's a powerful and affecting film that is hard to describe in detached terms.
It is the story of a young man Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) who brutally murders a taxi-driver (Jan Tesarz), who is put on trial, found guilty, and executed by hanging. The Exodus text tell us not to kill, rather than not to murder, and the implication throughout the film is that killing is perpetrated by the individual criminal and by the State. Both deaths are depicted in gruesome detail: the taxi-driver takes forever to die and is attacked in three different ways by Jacek. It must be the longest murder scene I've ever seen in a film. Likewise, the court process is not dealt with, just the death sentence, and eventually his hanging. Jacek's idealistic young lawyer defending his first case comes to realize that he can be an eloquent and persuasive critic of the death penalty but the judge will still not be turned, the instrument of the State will be deaf to these pleas. This is all against the backdrop of gloomy housing estates in Warsaw in a cold winter. There is no preaching in the film: Kieslowski simply shows us both killings graphically and their barbarity speaks for themselves. The why? we have during the film changes its focus from the taxi-driver's murder to the murderer's murder in a subtle and unsettling way.
Even though this is a highly finished film it is a far cry from the sheen of Three Colours, a film that is far more 'mainstream' in a certain way, or perhaps even The Double Life of Véronique. That's what makes it so powerful, its roughness. Kieslowski is one of the great directors in European cinema, and A Short Film About Killing amply demonstrates why. Watch it.

Friday, 10 February 2006

World Press Photo Award Winners

Check out the World Press Photo Award Winners from the BBC News website; haunting and beautiful.

Thursday, 9 February 2006

In Our Time: Geoffrey Chaucer

Listen to the latest programme of In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 about Geoffrey Chaucer. The three experts are Caroline Larryngton, Ardis Butterfield, and the great Helen Cooper. Well worth listening to! Poor Melvyn just wouldn't leave the whole 'what kind of English is it?' question. You just want to give him a little slap on the wrist and tell him to listen!
You can also download this as a podcast from the Apple iTunes Music Store.

Monday, 6 February 2006

Salesman in Beijing

Listen listen listen to Arthur Miller read from his account of a production of Death of a Salesman on BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Reading. It is just wonderful to hear him describe these actors taking part in a production that would have been unthinkable during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution. It's the stuff of theatre, of lives. Especially the description of the two actors who spent years playing cards because there was nothing else to do who play cards as Charlie and Willie. Very moving.

Sunday, 5 February 2006

Caché, dir. Michael Haneke (2005)

On Friday evening I went to see Michael Haneke's new film Caché. It's a fine film, so subtle and insidious. The film opens with a long sequence of a camera shot of the front of a house with people coming and going, cars passing, life happening, and it all looks rather innocent until we see a rewind button being pressed. We realize that we are watching what the two protagonists are watching, an anonymous tape of their house left on their doorstep. More tapes are sent, but who is sending them and why? They lead Laurent (played by Auteuil) back to a long lost childhood friend and the events that forced the boy into a new life that follow him tragically. The macro event is the massacre of over 200 Algerians during a protest in Paris in 1967 when they were driven into the Seine. The boy's parents were among the dead. So many scenes of the film are make you question points of view, who is watching, are we watching a tape, is this the 'objective' camera, who am I? It creates some very odd moments of identification with the characters and is remarkably unsettling.

The film is about responsibility, individual and collective. The whole subject of France's very difficult history with Algeria is probed in a very intense way by Haneke as we see Laurent deal with what it meant for him as a six-year-old boy. It's not a history lesson, it's far more powerful. Very little actually happens in the film. That is, very little except for one very VERY shocking encounter between Laurent and his childhood friend. An encounter that makes us completely refocus our appreciation of the effect of these events on the boy's life. Juliette Binoche brilliantly traces out a character that slowly doubts and disintigrates in front of this faceless amorphous threat. There is no soundtrack, which really adds to the relentless quality of the film. It is merciless on the viewer, there is nothing easy about it at all. And the final intriguing scene leaves you screaming questions at the screen, literally. And then you stop yourself short when you realize that treating it as a whodunnit is the easiest question to ask about the film. It's very powerful, very clever. Mark Lawson described it as the first great masterpiece of the 21st century: I disagree only in that I don't think it's the first (for that see previous film post). But it's an extraordinary film.

Wednesday, 1 February 2006


The library in TCD (the alma mater) has a copy of the New Ellesmere Facsimile. I went to see it on Friday. I swear it's almost like turning the pages of a manuscript. You almost smell the manuscript it's so good. It is soooo beautiful. I've never seen anything like it. A collection of essays was published with it, ed. by Stevens & Woodward, an invaluable reference work on the manuscript. It's bound in white calf leather and oak boards, much like a fifteenth-century manuscript would have been put together. The thing that most shocked me is how really luxurious the manuscript is. I know I've read that many times before but until I sat down beside a really good facsimile I hadn't realized just how luxurious. There is so much empty space, a real sign of money in a patron's manuscript. And the borders are gorgeous (see Kathleen Scott's article in the collection above re. dating, which now looks a bit earlier than we thought). And of course we now know the name of the scribe, Adam Pynkhurst (see Lynne Mooney's article in this month's Speculum). One thing is for sure, whoever commissioned this manuscript was serious about his Chaucer and put a lot of effort into making one big and flashy Canterbury Tales, as did the scribe(s). Where did that impetus derive from? Chaucer's death?


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