Although he will go down in cultural history as the incarnation of Lawrence of Arabia (not so much the real-life one, but the fascinatingly cinematic variation thereof), Peter O’Toole had his literary side as well. When he passed away last week, most obituaries mentioned one of the hellraising actor’s more memorable lines of poetry:
I will not be a common man.
I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.
For more O’Toole greatness, check out Gay Talese’s rattlingly good profile on the man from Esquire in 1963. Among other snappy lines, it includes this bit:
All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church … a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”)…
Alice Englert and Elle Fanning in ‘Ginger & Rosa’
The newest film from Sally Potter (Orlando) is something of a departure for her. Straightforward stylistically, it’s a beautifully-shot story about two girls growing up in fractured families and learning how to navigate the stresses that the outside world and inexplicable, irresponsible adults put on their friendship.
My review ran at PopMatters:
In Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, two girls are linked by disaster at birth and have a hard time dodging it during their lives. As the film begins, the 17-year-olds are wrapped around each other like young kittens looking for a warm place to sleep. But soon enough, even joyful experiences (political activism, young love) lead to frustration and rage.
The setting is 1962, London. It’s a grey place, barely rebuilt after the Second World War: people keep their coats on indoors because the heating is no good. Here Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) find solace in one another and in jazz records. These bohemians have been best friends since childhood. Their mothers gave birth in adjoining hospital beds just as an atomic bomb was blasting Hiroshima off the planet’s surface. As the film juxtaposes the mushroom cloud and its aftermath with the mothers screaming in childbirth, we get the idea that the girls are born into a world of destruction…
It’s available today on DVD and Blu-ray.
Here’s the trailer:
Sally El Hosaini’s debut film My Brother the Devil is a drama about two brothers in an Egyptian immigrant family living in a hardscrabble part of London who have to fight everything from homophobia to the gangs on the street to each other.
My review is at Film Journal International:
As older brothers go, Rashid (James Floyd) is not so bad. Although he’s given to arbitrarily punching and berating his younger teenage brother Mo (Fady Elsayed), as would be expected, he also keeps an eye out for the kid and doesn’t want him to follow in his footsteps. The streets outside their small high-rise flat in Hackney are filled with temptations that have already lured Rashid far astray by the time the film begins. Although the conflict that this sets up for the brothers is hardly new territory, Hosaini’s take on it veers into some unexpected complications that keep the drama crackling…
You can see the trailer here:
In Sally Potter’s new film, a pair of teenage girls navigate the complexities of love, poetry, jazz, boys, bad dads, and The Bomb in 1962 London bohemia. Ginger and Rosa opened in limited release on Friday; my full review is at PopMatters:
The setting is 1962, London. It’s a grey place, where Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) find solace in one another and in jazz records. These bohemians have been best friends since childhood. Their mothers gave birth in adjoining hospital beds just as an atomic bomb was blasting Hiroshima off the planet’s surface. As the film juxtaposes the mushroom cloud and its aftermath with the mothers screaming in childbirth, we get the idea that the girls are born into a world of destruction…
You can watch the trailer here:
With the premiere of the third season of Downton Abbey, it has become clear that the rest of the show (no matter how long it remains on the air) is likely going to some extent be centered on one thing only: The fighting of rearguard actions against the inevitable march of modernity, dissolution of class barriers, and the wrecking of aristocratic fortunes and the privileges they once bestowed. There will be more of the expected soap opera theatrics—one hopes for a couple good cases of selective amnesia, perhaps an evil twin to Cousin Matthew who pops up after spending a few years debauching in the Far East and now has eyes for Mary—but in the main it will keep coming back to the house, the staff, and the great tubs of money needed to keep it all running.
It’s now 1920 in the show, with the Irish Civil War about to hot up in earnestness, England still mostly devastated from the losses of war, and the Great Depression and World War II waiting just around the corner to knock off what was left of the nation’s imperial largesse that sustains all those estates and their to-the-manor-born inhabitants. History insists that it will come to an end. But for all the show’s characters who carp from the sidelines about the new era and increasing freedoms, it’s clear that going forward the background emotion will be a reactionary sort of nostalgia for a time when servants and the lower classes knew their place. (For all those pining to work downstairs, PBS’s site has a truly horrible quiz here: “Which Downton Abbey Job is Right For You?“)
James Parker has a short, sharp rumination on the show and its “magnificent badness” in the Atlantic. It’s memorable, among other things, for his take on how Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham (“…he has cultivated a strange, plodding denseness and deliberateness, as if the earl is contending with a minor brain injury”). Parker goes on to note, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that no matter how long the show continues, the end fate is certain. To that point, he pulls out a sad little gem from, of all places, Rod Stewart’s autobiography, where the singer is describing a time in 1971 when he and his fiancée Dee Harrington were looking over Cranbourne Court, a Georgian estate west of London they wanted to buy:
Its owner, Lord Bethell … was an English aristocrat fallen on hard times. As he showed Dee and me around the property one afternoon, Dee nudged me and pointed out quietly that his trousers had worn so thin that you could make out his striped underpants through the material.
Safe to say that the show’s creator Julian Fellowes will give the Crawleys a more dignified exit than that. Whether or not they deserve it is another point entirely.
Besides smashing guitars and banging out beautiful noise on world stages for the past few decades, The Who’s Pete Townshend is something of a reader. This would be surprising in and of itself, classic rock gods not being known for their love of cozying up with a good read, but Townshend (who, after all, did create an entire rock opera around a Ted Hughes poem) takes his appreciation of literature a little further.
According to this interview from the New York Times, Townshend could be termed something of a book nerd. When asked for his likes and dislikes, the list is truly comprehensive, ranging from Les Miserables and Scandinavian crime fiction to lesser-knowns like William Boyd and Paul Hendrickson. He also opened up his own bookstore a few years ago, called Magic Bus.
But get this: Pete Townshend even worked in publishing as an acquisitions editor for the London house Faber & Faber:
That was the best job I ever had. I had lunch with the old chairman, Matthew Evans, this week, and we both went dewy-eyed about the old days. He’s in the House of Lords trying to stay awake, and I’m pounding stages like an aging clown.
Some people like books and others have a passion for books. It seems safe to say that Townshend is the latter.
Although Henry James remains today one of America’s most celebrated novelists, and his most famous characters were usually American, he was never precisely enamored of his home country. Much like how T. S. Eliot decamped from St. Louis quickly as he could for the more rarefied airs of London intellectual life, James didn’t see much of value in his home country—though, unlike Eliot, he would frequently write as an American abroad in the wider world.
Novelist Colm Toibin, in reviewing Michael Gorra’s new book Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, pulls out this interesting bit from a piece James wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne just before The Portrait of a Lady. In it, a sweepingly dismissive James lists the things he sees as missing from American life that he sees as necessary for the novelist:
…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church . . . no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses . . . nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals . . . no Oxford . . . no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class . . . no Epsom nor Ascot.
To a baroque and class-obsessed stylist like James, the country’s comparative lack of history makes for a thin existence. To a degree, James is right, without that weight of civilization which he lists, it is difficult to create a certain kind of literary figure: i.e., those like himself. America did ultimately export the likes of Twain, Hemingway, Kerouac, Bradbury, and Bellow, who all did just fine without thatched cottages or cathedrals—but never could have written The Portrait of a Lady (whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your taste).
Good enough that Colson Whitehead is covering the Olympics (somewhat post-facto) for Grantland. (His conversations with the W.G. Sebald app beat most of what NBC had to say.)
But even better that once his first piece actually takes him to London itself, Whitehead’s thoughts immediately turn towards the apocalypse:
…I started scoring events in terms of what they’d offer in a human-annihilation-type scenario. Offensewise, archery skills seemed like an obvious asset at first. But the archers’ high-tech bows wouldn’t survive a day of jumping off roofs, tromping through sewers, and escaping cannibal hordes. The bows were items of cruel but fragile beauty, with their carbon limbs and polyethylene strings, their V-bar extenders and side-rod stabilizer doohickeys. Great for the marksman’s art, but no good in a volume-kill scenario. You’d be better off with a simple machete. The qualifying heats made it clear that swimming is a good life skill or whatever, but only marathon-distance swimming was going to help you make it to the island after a squabble over rations or sex resulted in your tiny escape vessel overturning. Triathlon, I decided, with its endurance super-combo of swimming, biking, and running, solved multiple problem areas. I made a note to see it in person.
Whitehead published his own take on the zombie apocalypse last year, Zone One. Not so much archery in it, sadly enough—he left that to Suzanne Collins.
Martin Amis, barbed-pen satirist of the modern era and boon companion of the late Christopher Hitchens (with whom he shared a sharp impatience with lazy thinking), has taken it on the chin from the press and the literati in his home country of England for years now. Hard to say why, perhaps it was that habit of speaking his mind. But in any case, when Amis decamped from London to Brooklyn to set up home there with his (American) wife, the sniping started all over again.
In The New Republic, Amis — whose newest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, comes out August 21 — has a few things to say on the cult of the author and the attribution of false statements:
Backed up by lavish misquotes together with satirical impersonations … the impression given was that I was leaving because of a vicious hatred of my native land and because I could no longer bear the well-aimed barbs of patriotic journalists.
“I wish I weren’t English”: Of all the fake tags affixed to my name, this is the one I greet with the deepest moan of inanition. I suggest that the remark—and its equivalent in any language or any alphabet—is unutterable by anyone whose IQ reaches double figures. “I wish I weren’t North Korean” might make a bit of sense, assuming the existence of a North Korean sufficiently well-informed and intrepid to give voice to it. Otherwise and elsewhere, the sentiment is inconceivably null. And to say it of England—the country of Dickens, George Eliot, Blake, Milton, and, yes, William Shakespeare—isn’t even perverse. It is merely whimsical.