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The 1992 BBC Version of A Doll’s House

dolls

Nothing wrong with this 1992 David Thacker directed version.  Nothing at all.  The one on YouTube comes with Portuguese subtitles, but there’s nothing especially wrong with that either.

This is a very patient, very careful staging that leaves nothing out.  In deference to the medium, we see rather more rooms than we would do in a stage performance and the camera swoops a fair bit from time to time.  At times this mobility is subversive of the very claustrophobia implied by the very title of the play.

The outside door that slams is at the bottom of a spiral staircase.  It’s one of the best slams I’ve heard – not loud but resonant.

I found myself oddly moved by the Linde- Krogstad romance, as played by Geraldine James and David Calder.  It occurs to me that the play could be re-organised to make the Linde-Krogstad story more central, until they became the romantic leads of a redemptive drama. Such a re-organisation would be far more acceptable to nineteenth-century tastes, and maybe to twenty-first century tastes too.  Linde and Krogstad are characters who know what most writers know – that the truth will set you free.  But Ibsen isn’t “most writers”.   He knows that it won’t.

It’s always nice to see Patrick Malahide.  For a while in the 1980s, he was the funniest thing in Minder, playing the obsessive police officer determined to put Arfur behing bars.  More recently, he played the Vikingish Lord of the Iron Islands Balon Greyjoy, forced to unwrap his son’s severed penis.  Here he plays the dying Dr Rand.   In olden times, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, and the flirtatious discussion of hosiery in his tender scene with Nora is something to behold.

Trevor Eve is suitably slappable as the infanticising Helmer.  The question of whether to refer to characters by their first or second name is, as Ibsen well knows, extremely political – and one of his chief problems with employing Krogstad (or Nils) is Krogstad’s habitual use of the familiar first name.  Trevor Eve is exquisitely dressed – in some ways he is the most beautiful thing in the production.   It is critical, of course, that Torvald is not an especially “bad guy”, that he’s no worse than any other unreflecting instrument of patriarchal perpetuation.   No better either though…

Juliet Stevenson is the character who talks to herself.  It’s an issue with so-called “realist” drama, that people shouldn’t, on the whole talk to themselves, that they should find someone to talk to if they are to give any kind of an account of themselves.  But people do of course talk to themselves.  Everybody does it, don’t they?   So long as talking to oneself doesn’t develop into a full blown argument, talking to oneself is no “first sign of madness” as we used to be told as kids.  Juliet Stevenson’s solitary fragments denote desperation.  Nobody does truly madly deeply desperate quite like Juliet Stevenson.  Did she ever play Molly Bloom?  She’s certainly got the stream of consciousness for it?

Joyce was fascinated by Ibsen.   And he fell in love with a woman called Nora.

 

Ho hum. Time to start crowd-sourcing Europe then.

EU-flag-007

So, today it actually happens.  Sir Tim Barrow will actually hand deliver (just in case it gets lost in the post) a signed and sealed Article 50 notification to Donald Tusk.

For European citizens hailing from any of the bits of pieces of the jurisdiction formerly known as the UK, this is a unique defeat.  Everybody has found themselves on the losing side of an election before – but those elections were all reversible by the same electorate.  To leave the EU is a unilateral decision, but to rejoin the EU is a multi-lateral one.  If whatever polity emerges from the bits and pieces left over from the UK ever wants to rejoin the EU, it will require the consent not merely of however many people it has left, but also of the governments of many different European nations.  The UK had the sovereign power to leave, but has not the sovereign power to rejoin.

Furthermore,  the people who are negotiating the terms of Brexit look like trashing the reputation of the British for a long time to come.  So far, the Brexiteering delegates have startled their European counterparts with their basic ignorance and their absurd threats and demands.   This is unsurprising, since Brexiteers have no demonstrated no loyalty to anything other than their own egos and have far too much contempt for Britain and its people to go to the effort of drafting any kind of workable plan for actual European withdrawal.  Yet these very people are going to represent the name of “Britain”.  They will mean “Britain”.  And their crass failures will make it harder for those people hailing from a substantial portion of an island formerly known as Britain to ever rejoin Europe, some distant saner decade from now.

So, despair?

Nah… organisation.  Crowd-sourcing.

The onus is now on individuals to be more European.  There’s a political imperative to join European cultural and scientific organisations, learn another European language, improvise structures that support European identity.  It is for British now to assert their European identity at every practical opportunity.

It’s a shame nobody writes letters any more, because now would be a good time to put EUROPE in huge letters on envelopes – even if the letter is only traveling from Stockton to Darlington.

Everyone will have their own ideas as to how best to affirm European identity over the decades to come, and I’m confident these ideas will be witty and varied – witty and varied enough to sustain the flame of a message that the awful and clumsy people “representing” Britain in the forthcoming negotiations might not  actually be representative of the people who actually live there.

Above all – anybody in Britain who feels a loyalty to Europe and has a clear and viable path to a European citizenship is morally obligated to take that path.

I did have this little petition that I was circulating, that was perhaps misguided.  I initiated it just before the referendum last  June,  and it’s on the official EU noticeboard.  It predates the kind of discussions that we’ve been hearing more recently from Guy Verhofstadt about elective or individual EU membership.  Here it is.

https://petiport.secure.europarl.europa.eu/petitions/en/petition/content/0846%252F2016/html/Petition-No-0846%252F2016-by-Conrad-Brunstrom-%2528British%2529-on-Individual-Membership-Subscription-for-European-Citizens-of-a-nation-that-has-voted-to-leave-the-EU?

It was never intended just as a means for smug and monied metropolitans to get through passport control quicker.  It was intended rather as a statement of political commitment, a way of putting monies where mouths are.  It was conceived of as a statement of very deliberate personal and if need be financial commitment to the European project.  The Junocrats, who believe that in June 2016, the UK spoke with an authority and an integrity that can never be repeated and delivered a judgement that should be considered sacred until the sun itself goes nova – will never credit future opinion polls showing regret for Brexit.   A critical mass of people making their own decision to contract into Europe and being able to wave an actual document that affirms their European citizenship will be harder to ignore.

And in terms of the socially divisive nature of elective EU membership – fees can be organised by a clearing house or membership club that takes from each according to their means and sets fees according to needs.   Wealthier elective Europeans can subsidize less advantaged elective Europeans.  The more you pay in, the more Europeans you’ll be sponsoring.

This membership will not offer value for money.  It will not bring EU investment back, and it will not facilitate trading relations.  While it will pay for a few conveniences for committed Europeans, it will exist chiefly to make a campaigning statement.   Consider it a statement of friendship and affinity and as a way of saying that European identity should be as inalienable as any other kind of political identity.  One opinion poll in a day in June should not have the power to strip anyone of their sense of loyalty to a European ideal.

I’m alright anyway incidentally.  My own European citizenship is secured.

The 1979 BBC version of Henry IV, Part I.

henry iv

This is one of the earlier entries in the “Do the whole lot” BBC Shakespeare project of the late seventies and early eighties and is, accordingly, the subject of many complaints.  These Cedric Messina era productions were widely condemned for their stodginess, unimaginative staging and hyped up “heritage” signposting.

That said, this David Wiles directed version is satisfyingly “stagy” in useful ways, eschewing the filmic pretensions of the earlier As You Like It and focusing on lavish indoor sets.  The costumes are perhaps tediously authentic, with rather stained efforts to make Henry IV himself and Prince Hal look exactly like their familiar portraits.

Despite the fact that Henry IV is very much about national and regional differences, there is no organised attempt to deploy different accents in this production.  Tim Piggott-Smith’s Hotspur has as posh a voice as anyone else in this production, despite references in Part II to his “speaking thick” and the obvious opportunity that most actors and directors happily embrace to give him an accent that bespeaks his Northern background. John Cairney, though Scottish, does not even try to sound Scottish as  Douglas, the martial Scot (a character who is never referenced without his Scottishness being mentioned), while Richard Owens offers us one of the worst Welsh accents you’ve heard in your entire life.

The Battle of Shrewsbury, despite being filmed on a dry-iced indoor set, is rather chilling and the single combat between Hal and Hotspur is surprisingly bloody and visceral.

Given the stolid nature of the production design, commentary focuses inevitably on individual performances.  Jon Finch (star of Hitchcock’s Frenzy and Polanski’s Macbeth) does well enough as the irritable and irritating titular monarch.  Bolinbroke never has much fun as king and, as a usurper, he’s constantly restless on his uncomfortable throne.  Accordingly Finch’s Henry fidgets continually, often readjusting a ring on his finger.  He is always ineffectually bullying and repetitively querulous, but in his longest scene with Hal, quite movingly surprised and delighted by the possibility that Hal might be something other than common report makes him.

David Gwillim’s Hal is, for the most part, very unpleasant.  Far from being “one of the lads”, he is a posh kid very conspicuously slumming it,  that kind of posh kid who never loses his sense of entitlement and innate superiority, no matter how loud and raucous the Eastcheap pub becomes.  Tim Piggott-Smith, meanwhile, is a delightfully affable Hotspur.  The key to Hotspur is the fact that he is a supremely witty and eloquent character who disdains wit and eloquence.  When, in his first big scene, Hotspur describes the foppish emissary who arrived just after a bloodbath to demand prisoners for the king, there’s a deftness and invention to the thumbnail sketch which betrays Hotspur’s rhetorical sophistication.  We love Hotspur because we love to hear him talk, and he talks best when he talks derisively about people who are all talk.

Interesting to see Clive Swift in a completely villainous role.  Swift’s Uncle Thomas has the knack of seeing straight through people with a penetrating coldness.   The Earl of Worcester is, after all,  the true villain of the play, the great misleader, the quiet instigator, and the man who could have prevented the Battle of Shrewsbury before it started, saving the life of Hotspur and thousands of others, just by communicating the King’s “fair offer” accurately.  The weary resignation with which Swift’s Worcester accepts his imminent execution at the end illustrates the reality of someone who will die as he has lived – in a spirit of cold-blooded detached calculation.

Always a little strange to see Michele Dotrice, the “Betty” of  Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em fame in a serious role, but that’s not her fault.  She offers a glimpse of a world of straightforward companionate marriage, a world in which humans have something better to do than plot ways and means to slaughter one another.  This glimpse is, of course, swiftly slammed shut.

And then there’s Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff.  Quayle knows this role back to front and inside out.  This is a particularly old and jittery Falstaff, one whose mortality seems very imminent.  Quayle has a variety of strange noises for Falstaff to make, and his growlings and wheezings help flesh out a Falstaff as a cornered beast who needs to hum and ha for a bit before giving any kind of creatively advantageous account of himself.  Quayle’s Falstaff is also as cruel and exploitative as he needs to be, particularly when it comes to embezzling recruitment funds and the pressing of the “food for powder” that will decorate the battlefield of Shrewsbury.

What is perhaps lacking from this performance, is any sense that Falstaff could move it bit faster if he wanted to.  It seems bizarre as well as cruel to expect such a dyspeptic creature to offer any kind of military service.  In short, this Falstaff is insufficiently robust to play a convincing coward.

I look forward to the sequel.

Battle of the Century (1927). The Pie Fight is sublimely vindicated.

baATTLE

We’re still missing a middle bit.  We have the opening boxing match, between Stan and Noah Young who had already played Big Scary Guy in Sugar Daddies and Do Detectives Think. Implausible as a contest between these two might seem, a bout that the most corrupt commission in Nevada might seem reluctant to sanction, Stan should in fact have won this supposed battle of the century, having stuck out his fist so that Noah Young could run into it.   Only Stan’s typically dim-witted intransigence in following the basic instruction to return to a neutral corner causes Noah Young to survive the constantly restarted count, and once the match is properly recommenced, Young’s retribution is swift and unequivocal.   Apparently you can see Lou Costello as an extra watching this fight if you care to squint closely.  It’s remarkable how tranquil and relaxed Stan looks while unconscious.  He falls peacefully asleep after his head injury in much the same way he would a decade later in Way Out West.

Ollie, Stan’s manager, is now in need of funds, and attempts an insurance scam, based on Stan falling and hurting himself.  This is the bit we’ve lost.

But we do have the pie fight.  There’s nothing logically or necessarily funny about a cream pie pushed into the face, and most of the time, whenever it’s attempted, it isn’t funny.

Battle of the Century (1927) IS funny though.  It’s funny because it’s done well and it’s done joyously.  Estimates of the number of pies used in this film drift towards the tens of thousands.  We can meditate on the fundamental laws of comedic retributive violence.  There’s qualitative escalation, such as you find in Big Business or Tit for Tat, where the participants are limited and constant.  There is no defensive capability in such battles and the scale of wreckage increases steadily and incrementally from the knocking off of a hat to the destruction of a medium-sized building.   In a film like Battle of the Century, however, the escalation concerns the number of participation.  After all, once someone has been comprehensively pied, nothing worse can happen to them, in the pie line at least.  For pie related escalation to occur, people have to duck.  When people duck, an innocent bystander is pied instead, an innocent bystander who does not remain innocent for very long.

This pie fight is funny because it’s timed so well.  The camera lingers on the faces of people before they get pied.  The guy in the dentist chair, the snooty lady looking through  her lorgnettes.  We’re laughing before they get pied, because we know what’s coming to them and they don’t.   There’s also a kind of carnivalesque levelling effect at work in a pie fight.  When coated in pie, social distinctions are abolished.   Aristocracy, Clergy, Intelligensia, Law Enforcement, become indistinguishable from the lowest of the low (Laurel and Hardy).  When you’ve been pied into a state of whitened democratic anonymity, you a re seized with a desire to reduce someone, anyone, to the same level.  And, apart from the cost of the pies and the laundry – who is really hurt?  Everyone’s pride has taken a knock, but when the leveling pie throwing has reached its apotheosis, pride and its inconveniencies are long forgotten.

Oh, and there’s the exquisite longtime L&H collaborator Anita Garvin as well.  She slips on her pie and then lands on it, resulting in the most hilariously uncomfortable walk you’ve ever seen.  Wasn’t she marvelous?  Always marvelous.

She once met Whitney Houston apparently? Armenia’s 2017 Eurovision Entry.

Artsvik_main_photo

Artsvik has wonderful braided hair in her performance video.  In some of the establishing shots, her hair is looped into something that resembles a Barbara Hepworth sculpture.  Or at the very least an early 90s  Björk poster.  Look.

http://www.eurovision.tv/page/timeline/2017-participants

Wanna tell a story,
About a girl with history.
Take it from my heart it’s gonna be your beat,
Take it from my soul it’s gonna be your heat.

Many colors and shades,
So many voices to embrace,
All around.

Many stories and tales,
She took it all into her space,
Hear the sound.

Heee

Over deeps over hills,
She casts her wings and now it feels,
Love is one.

Flying high she became,
A sun who’s love and light’s the same,
For everyone.

Fly with me high oh high, with me high oh high,
Never stop believing that love will take us high.
Fly with me high oh high, with me high oh high,
Never gonna stop believing that love’s for you and I.

Love, love is one

Fly with me high oh high, with me high oh high,
Never stop believing that love will take us high.
Fly with me high oh high, with me high oh high,
Never gonna stop believing that love’s for you and I.

 

She has spent much of her life in Russia (where a 1992 meeting with Whitney Houston apparently changed her life and gave her a reason to live), and Artsvik may be a key player in whatever happens as a result of Russia’s possible exclusion from the context.

Armenia meanwhile, is one of those critical liminal countries that test Europe conceptually.   Europe, after all,  is but the western extremity of a the Eurasian landmass with no inherent integrity to it at all.  Armenia is further east than many nations that are automatically deemed Asian.  But if and when Russia (or the most populated part of Russia) is European, then Armenia is European too.

Armenia has another claim of course, which Armenians will happily share with you, which is that it was the first Christian kingdom in the world – a claim that is disputed by that equally unEuropean nation – Ethiopia.  The extension of  “Europe” to include states geographically in Asia can be read negatively – as the imposition of an imperialist expansionist Westernism upon territory over which it should claim no jurisdiction, or it can serve as a reminder of “Europe’s” Asian roots and African roots – that there is little of any cultural value that might be promoted as characteristically “European” that does not derive from Egypt and the Middle East.

Black Athena by Martin Bernal.

This song is unmemorable, a techno production layered over a melody that hints at something indigenous, something which folks in Berlin and Paris might lazily assume could be casually sung around a campfire just outside an Armenian village.

No folk song could contain those words though.  No translation of these English words back into Armenian could produce an Armenian folk song.   These words don’t mean anything at all – except for “I want to win Eurovision and I want it bad”.

In the meantime here are my thoughts on the Australian entry:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/oldyoung-isaiah-firebrace-australias-2017-eurovision-entry/

And here’s Albania…

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/albanias-2017-eurovision-entry-the-centerpiece-of-a-dystopian-german-expressionist-musical-called-fritzlanglangland/

400 years ago today. Heliocentrism took a knock.

conradbrunstrom

astrolabe

A place for everything and everything in its place.   You knew where you were in a Ptolemaic Universe.  But, oh no, a bunch of trendy young people who thought they knew better than their parents had to change everything and confuse the old folk.

Well, 400 years ago today, good old fashioned geocentrism got a bit of a respite as it was communicated to Galileo Galilei that he was to henceforth cease and desist from promulgating the notion that the earth goes round the sun.

Today also makes me think of Thomas Kuhn of course, and the nature of scientific revolutions.  Kuhn took a lot of flack himself of course (though nothing compared to Galileo or Bruno), and he was accused of encouraging the notion that science is no better than cultural relativism.  Kuhn did not mean any thing of the kind of course, though some of his clumsier…

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“Putting Pants on Philip”. Laurel and Hardy and “Coming to America”.

pants

The athletic young Stan Laurel had, in his comic arsenal, a peculiar scissor-shaped leap in the air, used to denote a state of high excitement and/or fear.  He deploys it in a variety of films but never more than in Putting Pants on Philip.  Young Laurel is coming to America for the first time and his ability to integrate is challenged by two considerations.  Firstly, he insists on continuing to wear a kilt, and secondly, he is compelled to chase pretty women whenever he sees them.  Perhaps 1920s Scotland was relatively deficient in women deemed sufficiently pretty or perhaps (more plausibly, rural Scotland’s pretty women are further apart from one another) or perhaps Scotland is anxious to get rid of its most inconvenient son.

In any case, the dockside does not reveal America at its finest or most welcoming.  Stan is subjected to a humiliating public examination and the boorish and insensitive crowd finds Scottish national dress hilarious.  Ollie himself is mortified when he realises that the immigrant that everyone (including himself) is happy to mock, is the very nephew he’s been dispatched to collect.

Fifteen minutes of kilt jokes ensue.  Watching this film, you can’t help feeling that it is America (Culver City?) that is small and parochial, not rural Scotland.  Culver City must be truly starved of entertainment if a Scotsman in a kilt can bring the whole town to a standstill.  (Although I’ve always been puzzled by the idea of an immigrant steamer that runs directly between Glasgow and Los Angeles).  And when Ollie appeals to law enforcement to get the crowds to stop laughing at his nephew, the officer merely joins in.

Unfortunately, Stan/Philip accidentally sneezes off his own underwear (for sure that could happen!) resulting mass fainting when the kilt flies up – as it must needs fly up on a regular basis.  It is decreed that Philip must be subjected, for the common good, to the shackles of trousers – which he’s never worn in his entire life.  There’s a scene of homophobic panic in a tailor’s shop as Philip refuses to submit to inside leg measurements.  The struggle to get these measurements involves a protracted wrestling match.  Philip has felt violated ever since he set foot on American soil and is himself a walking, leaping violation. This is a rare Laurel and Hardy film insofar as Stan’s face in close up is as poignant as Ollie’s.  Philip’s sense of hurt and humiliation is palpable and the camera is allowed to linger on it.   This movie is therefore both  a madcap farce and thoughtful commentary on the challenges of immigrant integration at one and the same time.

There’s another much older man in traditional Scottish costume wandering around who doesn’t seem to attract gawpers in the same way and who exists only to confuse Ollie.  Ollie tries to tell that leaping in the air and chasing them is no way to meet women, and attempts to demonstrate old school southern gentility as an alternative – a technique which proves equally inefficacious.

By about half way through this movie, Ollie has moved from being one of Stan’s persecutors to being his chief and only protector.  We’ve all of us had the anxiety dream about being unclothed in a public setting.  Stan/Philip doesn’t seem to know of “shame” as a disinhibiting control mechanism, and so all of that embarrassment becomes tranferred to Ollie.  Ollie makes all of Stan’s shame his own, and is mortified on his nephew’s behalf.

Within this “funny foreigner” comedy, however, there’s a lot of heart in these twenty minutes.  The audience feels for Stan and his sense of loss and confusion in a strange new world.  He may be inappropriate around women, but there remains an innocence to Stan’s character which suggests that if he ever catches up with any of them, he will merely embarrass himself with direct professions of affection.  The peculiar leap in the air is an intuitive demonstration of how good it feels to be alive, to live in a world with so many pretty women in it, suddenly so relatively close together.  Pants shackle him.

The 1969 TV adaptation of Twelfth Night. Guinness, Plowright, Richardson and yes Tommy Steele.

feste

Tommy Steele smiled a lot.  Maybe he still smiles a lot.  I haven’t seen him for a while, but at the height of his fame in the 60s he was always grinning.  Steele’s was what I’d call an “almost” slappable smile.  The Tommy Steele smile was not quite an Andre Rieu slappable smile, but a smile you think about slapping before allowing your arm to flop down to your thigh as thinking “Ah, sure, he’s just a genuinely happy man.”

I do think Tommy Steele smiles too much for Feste though.  Tommy Steele is more of a Will Kempe clown than a Robert Armin clown.  Besides, in many ways Feste is a nasty piece of work.  He’s always scratching around for money and his revenge on Malvolio is remarkably disproportionate, slow and contrived.   The whirligig of time brings in his revenges with a look of cold blooded satisfaction, surely?  Not with the grin of Tommy Steele.

For this production, Alec Guinness uses the same voice he was using to play Charles I round about the same time, a soft Morningside posh-Edinburgh accent that gives peculiar accent and piquancy to his aspirant fantasies.  Malvolio has reached to tippy top of still being “below stairs” and so dares to dream an impossible dream.  Far from being a “puritan”, he seems like a passionate aristocrat.   Ralph Richardson’s Toby Belch captures the cruel sense of innate privilege that underscores Belch’s ability to slum it below stairs.  Like Falstaff, Belch is a user and an abuser, but unlike Falstaff, Belch can’t take his drink.  Richardson plays a fine drunk, and the key to playing drunk (as I was told long long ago) is to play “not drunk”.  Nothing communicates intoxication better than a certain over-deliberation and care to obfuscate the obvious symptoms of disorder.

Joan Plowright doubles as both Viola and Sebastian.   I’m not sure how well this works.  Alright, specifically, I’m not sure how well Joan Plowright as Sebastian works.  She affects a deep voice and make up has applied a hint of stubble to the lower half of her face.  Perhaps she (and or director John Dexter) would have done better to just leave Sebastian as Cesario, as it were.   Plowright’s delivery of keynote Viola speeches such as the “patience on a monument” moment is exemplary, and she does Cesario’s wide-eyed devotion proud.  (Arguably, Joan Plowright plays three parts, not two: Viola, Sebastian and Cesario.)

The play is cut a great deal, in order to be accommodated within a two hour slot that also contains commercial breaks.  Without the commercial breaks, this pacy Twelfth Night is trimmed down to an hour and forty minutes.  Aguecheek’s key line “I’d as lief be a Brownist as a politician” is gone – as it tends to go, in most every production I see.  John Moffat’s Aguecheek, incidentally is awkwardly bulky in places.  A fight between Moffat and Joan Plowright doesn’t look like a faux-fight between well-matched weaklings at all.  Ho hum.

Orsino is always difficult.  It’s not clear who is actually governing Illyria, because Duke Orsino spends all the live long day in bed, lounging on sofas, composing bad poetry and listening to music.  There’s a nice scene where all of Orsino’s attendants troop into the bedroom to whip off his nightgown and pull on a dressing gown, but Viola/Cesario neatly turns her back on him at the crucial moment to avoid seeing any Ducal nudie bits.

They don’t do television Shakespeare like this anymore.  You don’t get these videotaped indoor productions with shaky looking scenery anymore.  TV cringes at film rather than at theatre, which depresses me somewhat.  Bring back garish costumes.  Bring back studio lighting.  Let us know again that we are in a world of make believe.  Let us smell theatres once more.

“Troubling Otherness in Fevre Dream” by George R.R. Martin. A Talk by Dara Downey. Vampires go boating

Fevre_dream

Sometimes it’s nice to invite guest speakers – sometimes it’s nicer to introduce one of our own.   Our own Dr Dara Downey gave a talk yesterday afternoon about this lesser known work by George R. R Martin.   Martin, of course, gave us the world of Game of Thrones.  He’s about 6000 pages into the extended saga of Westeros so far and shows no sign of getting to the end any time soon.

Fevre Dream, which I read at high speed in the space of 24 hours… is a far more self contained novel.  It is something like a viable contribution to the world of Southern Gothic, and a book that is as fascinating in its failures as in its successes.

It’s the 1850s, and Abner Marsh, a steamboat captain who’s down on his luck, makes a deal with the pale and refined Joshua York to build the biggest and swankiest Mississippi steamboat you’ve ever seen – the “Fevre Dream”.  As they sail south towards New Orleans, it is observed that Joshua only really comes out at night, as do his close friends and associates.  And he’s pale – really really pale.  The book exhibits the truth that you can only remythologise vampires by demythologising them first.  By exploding all the stuff about silver and mirrors (Joshua ensures that the steamboat Fevre Dream contains as many mirrors and as much silver as possible), the book attempts to prove the central proposition that mortals share the earth with immortal blood-suckers – more plausible.  Of course, Marsh, as the main “point of view” character “doesn’t hold with slavery” as a crude means of ensuring that we have some sort of moral compass on board this vessel.

Part of what’s strangely enjoyable about the book, is the attempt to find a “politically” correct language to describe “people” who, let’s face it, just aren’t like us.  There are vampires and vampires we learn.  Julian the Vampire, who has a southern planter’s sense of innate aristocratic entitlement and the rationalising vocabulary of a Sparknotes Nietzschean, has no time for sensitive turns of phrase at all.  Humans are “cattle” – and there’s an end of it.  Nice guy Joshua on the other hand has a variety of circumlocutions to play with.  You sort of know that Joshua is OK because he like poetry, quotes Byron and Shelley, and is perhaps named after Joshua Chamberlain, the liberal arts Bowdoin professor who commanded the 20th Maine at Little Round Top on the crucial second day of Gettysburg.  Like Chamberlain, Joshua York lived a strangely elongated death in life, carrying a war wound from the Siege of Petersburg for some fifty years after the war’s end, becoming perhaps the war’s last military casualty.  Joshua is also an experimental chemist and has concocted a fluid that can wean his “people” away from their habitual bloodlusts.

Dara Downey discussed Fevre Dream in a larger context of Southern Gothic, contemporary vampire literature, and literary representations of racialised slavery.    In her talk we learned much about Martin’s preoccupations with extreme whiteness, and about how this whiteness frames very uneasy conversations about how humans as well as the diurnally-challenged, are variously “othered”.  Her talk further discussed how the book stages encounters that test the limits of sympathy and interrogate racialised hopes and fears without really demonstrating the kind of narrative economy of political consciousness required to bring such explosive issues into any kind of optimal equipoise.  The subsequent discussion revealed much about what the late twentieth century wanted from vampires, and the diversity of ways in which vampirism has been mapped upon the flaky porticos of old Southern plantation houses.  As Dara Downey demonstrates – vampirism attempts to find a way of talking about the objectification of human flesh and the othering of bodies, but always risks making the Civil War seems safe in its historicised distance.  Perhaps, the very immortality of vampires (who are still, in Fevre Dream‘s epilogue, showing up at Abner Marsh’s grave with floral tributes) might offer a way of denying that history is ever safely dead, safely buried – even at the crossroads with a stake through its cold black heart.

At times it feels that metaphoric and metonymic axes of interpretation are tying each other in knots in this book.  To impose a parable of the Civil War on the actual landscape of the Civil War is a bit like setting Animal Farm in 1917 Russia.

Perhaps every generation gets the monsters it deserves.

Old/Young Isaiah Firebrace. Australia’s 2017 Eurovision Entry.

Isaiah

So, it’s to become a regular thing is it?  Australia in Eurovision.  Well, I suppose Europe is as Europe does.  You’re as European as you feel.  And right now, Canberra feels closer to the heart of Europe than Canterbury and before very  long, Australia Fair is set fair to  become the biggest Anglophone nation in Europe.

And they’re giving us the prophet Isaiah to fall in love with and follow.

Now there’s a name and a half – “Isaiah Firebrace”.   “Isaiah Firebrace” sounds like the subject of a sentence with the necessary predicate “… is trapped in his compound with a hundred of his most loyal followers and a crate of AK47s and suicide pills.”  It’s the kind of name that suggests the kind of moral authority needed to denounce Moabites and Ammonites and Trilobites etc. etc.  He’s an indigenous Australian who has achieved  huge amount in his very few years, and his nation is investing heavily in the singer not just the song.  I’m now very curious about 21st century indigenous Australian naming conventions.

The song itself is not to be confused with “It Don’t Come Easy”, Ringo Starr’s big hit from the early 70s.

Isaiah is very young indeed, and based on the extreme close ups favoured by the official Australian video,  everybody in the world is intended to fall love with him.  For my part, I’ve been teaching Jonathan Swift for the past few weeks, and the idea of seeing human flesh in extreme close up has started to fill me with the same sense of unease as Gulliver felt among the Brobdingnagians.   I keep wanting to step back a bit.

You’re not so much voting on a song as contracting to melt into his eyes.  Prepare to melt. Or not.

The song itself has a remarkably aged feel to it.  Isaiah, though only in his mid teens, has been burned by love so often that it’s hard for him to love again.  Imagine carrying Leonard Cohen’s life experience in a body loaned from some off cut from One Direction.  You may be intoxicated by this old-young virtuoso performance, just as you are amused by Australia’s near-far relationship with Europe.

This may win.

Here are his lyrics…

I can tell by your eyes you want more than this
But can we be much more beyond these sheets
No I don’t
Don’t wanna mess with your head
But my love
It’s hard to love again

It don’t come easy
And it don’t come cheap
Been burned too many times
To love easily
Don’t mistake me
My love runs deep
But it don’t come easy
It don’t come cheap
No not with me

I used to move in fast to erase my past
But it never works no it never lasts no
In my mind
I gotta get things right
Take it slow
Before I jump this time

No it don’t come easy
No it don’t come cheap
Been burned too many times
To love easily
Don’t mistake me
My love runs deep
But it don’t come easy
It don’t come cheap
No not with me

And if you think
I’ve got a heart of stone
You couldn’t be more wrong
Ooh
You might think
I’ve been afraid too long
Afraid of love

But it don’t come easy
Been burned too many times
To love easily
Don’t mistake me
My love runs deep
But it don’t come easy
It don’t come cheap
No not with me
Ooh
No not with me
Ooh
Don’t mistake me
My love runs deep
But it don’t come easy
It don’t come cheap
No not with me.

In the meantime, here are my thought’s on Albania’ entry…

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/albanias-2017-eurovision-entry-the-centerpiece-of-a-dystopian-german-expressionist-musical-called-fritzlanglangland/