Nice, August 2009

So there’s me, Fred, and two Norwegian girls that we met on holiday. The girls are a lot younger than us, maybe 19. we’re touring the South of France together.

So what are you doing around here, I ask Christina (blonde)

‘studying for exams’ she tells me.

That sounds interesting, I tell her.

it’s not really. She answers flatly.

and are you studying too? Fred asks the other one, brunette, serious.

Sarah concurs.

‘So, drinks, what shall we have….’

I’ll have a beer, (Christina) I’ll have one too. It ends up being three beers, nothing for Fred, he doesn’t drink.  When you’ve been travelling for as long as I have you get used to all kinds of crazy scenarios. Fred writes screenplays, then convinces older women to give him the money to make them into movies. Fred’s latest is about a mutant shark that takes over the South of Los Angeles. Fred touts the story as a parable on consumerism or something. It sounds terrible but what do I know?

Fred drinks instant nescafe from a plastic cup.  The girls laugh at his jokes. at this bar a can of beer costs 1 euro. We have been white water rafting today.  It rains a lot here. The girls speak really clear, accented English.  We’ve been drinking all night. There isn’t much else to do. Christina has a small tattoo on her shoulder that looks like a lizard. I would like to sleep with her. and that is what goes through my mind in a hotel bar in Nice, August 2009.

The Best Year of my Life

I was born in 1982, the same year as Britney Spears and Prince William. I’m sure there are many more celebrities born in the same year, I’m just listing the two I can remember. People say I look a bit like Prince William, but I’m not sure.

Princess Diana died in my fifteenth year… I went up to London the day of the funeral, because I was fiercely monarchical and I knew it would be a historic occasion. Streets full of people crying everywhere, shops closed early on Saturday (!) out of respect, and a book of remembrance in Kensington that people queued for hours in the hope of signing. I’d never seen anything remotely like it, this was before anyone close to me had died, before I went to a funeral.

I witnessed the royal scandals, reading about them in the daily papers on my news round, I saw my parents divorce and see other people, so I knew even the royal family had their problems and were fallible to the same pitfalls as normal people.

A year later I was into acting in a big way, I failed my school exams and had to retake my first year of sixth form college. That was the year Frank Sinatra died. Another towering giant I would never meet in person, he was a mystical figure known to me only for his glittering concerts. I now think he was the greatest singer to have ever picked up a microphone, but I didn’t think that then.

I suppose I grew up in the eighties but I came of age in the nineties. I managed to miss most of the political fallout to Thatcher Vs the miners and the Hillsborough disaster. I was only seven when the Berlin Wall came down and the  Soviet Union dissolved. I mention all of this because I think you can’t escape from the time you were born. We are a product of our time. No doubt people who grew up during the Cuban Missile Crisis remember building bomb shelters and the fear of a communist takeover. I never lived through anything as terrifying as that, until the planes flew into the World Trade Centre and people were falling from the skies. You can’t fail to be desensitized by that, how could anyone not be? For a while after the attack, I was afraid to use elevators and I got vertigo in tall buildings.

Well, I went to study film in 2002, which for someone brought up on images instead of words seemed like the most logical thing to do. At university I had pictures of the Rat Pack on my house lounge. My idols were Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but I also liked Peter Lawford very much too, because he made it as an Englishman in Los Angeles, at a time when that must have been really difficult. i learnt to roll my own cigarettes (much cheaper) and how to act interested in what someone was saying even when I wasn’t. And i was learning about girls, who were still a foreign species to me.

My best friend was studying medicine at the same time. i always knew he would go in for something like that. He had the organised mind, the mental abilities and the scientific knowledge, it was just something he was meant to do.

After the second year of university, I came back home to my mum’s house. I had gone travelling in Europe the previous summer, my student loan giving me a nice fund and the perfect opportunity to promenade around Europe’s historic cities. In 2004, there were no famous deaths that I can recall. The war in Iraq had come to an end. There was no serious terrorist attack that I can recall. i was doing the best I had done in my studies. I found a great house for my last year. We threw some crazy parties, filling the bathtub with beer and holding our own rock concerts in the basement. Spirits were high, and some of us were getting high, but I didn’t need pot to make me feel fine.

My friend was studying in Prague for a stage. He asked if I would come out there for a while. his girlfriend had broken up with him and he must have needed the company, or else he wouldn’t have asked. i got out there as fast as I could. i didn’t need any persuading. he had his own place that was on Wenceslas Square which was where the russian tanks rolled in, scene of many uprisings and street rebellions. Whenever I think of Prague, Kracow, or any East European city, I picture dumplings, cabbage, and people dressed in folk costumes, and the music of Dvorak and Smetana. although each country has its own established identity, they all descend from the same race, the Slavs. Hitler tried to annihilate them, and they have been invaded and fought over, but somehow they have survived.

All that heavy food. My friend was surrounded by sausage and gravy, but he never ate it if he could help it. 2004, the summertime. Greece held the Olympics in Athens. i got a plane from London to Prague. I downed several vodkas and closed my eyes. My friend was there to meet me at the airport. I didn’t really know anyone else to spend the summer with. Most of my friends were either retaking exams or stuck in boring summer jobs. So I was glad to not have to do any of that. Well, we had all kinds of fun out there. Money was not a problem and if we ever ran out, well, his parents were just a phone call away. In the day we rented movies, bought wine., I scoured the local markets for local vegetables, herbs and spices. wine was bought (a lot) and we drank all day. In the evenings it was mostly beer, that was what the locals drank and we wanted to fit in. I suggested that we travel somewhere by train. I suggested Krakow. And so we booked a train the following evening. I say we, but it was just my friend, spending an hour in the booking office talking Czech to the clerk.

We got on the train that evening. It was mid-week and there weren’t many passengers on board, so we walked through several carriages before we found our compartment. It was eleven at night but we were both too excited to sleep.  I had bought Klaus Kinski’s Kinski uncut with me. He had Bill Bryson and we decided we’d swap books to keep things interesting. Whole towns and villages passed  by, but it was pitch black so we couldn’t see anything.  We arrived at Krakow at 6am, before most places had opened, and with no hostel booked. I was used to just turning up somewhere and taking pot luck at finding a room in a backpacker’s hostel but my friend was used to something more comfortable. He ignored all the places I suggested and instead booked us into a four star hotel. This was a step up from the grimy places I was used too. I suppose when you are young you  think you don’t mind where you sleep, but now it matters more.

It was a very luxurious holiday. I don’t mind admitting that it was the best year of my life.

Sinatra, The Mob and JFk

Now for a story from one of my favourite periods in history: perhaps no other period contains so much poltical change in such a short period of time.

For one brief, none too long era, a process of enlightenment was spreading, the nexus of politics and entertainment.

It was a glorious time: people called it Camelot, after the magical realm of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. In the late fifties, JFK was the brave young Arthur, beside him his younger brother Bobby. Their father had been a senator in the thirties and had ruthlessly groomed his sons for life in government.

Alongside these feted men, Jacqueline Kennedy was Guinevere to Jack Kennedy’s Arthur.

When it came to entertainment, they looked no further than the recently established Rat Pack. By 1960, Sintra was King of the entertainment industry. He had already established dominance, not only as a phenomenally successful a singer, but as a well respected actor, winning his Oscar for From Here To Eternity in 1953. As if such accolades weren’t enough, Sinatra sought influence in politics too. He had been a frequent attendee at the White House, rubbing shoulders with Roosevelt in the forties. But it was JFK to whom he allied himself most closely.

The Rat Pack had a reputaion as hard drinking, carousing jesters. Maybe that was deserved, they appeared to live exactly as they wanted, appearing in movies that simply continued their antics on screen. But there is another more important element. The Rat Pack were pro civil rights. Considering how paranoid America was about race, this is highly commendable. Although they were to make fun of him in sometimes cruel onstage gaulimaufry, Sinatra and Dean Martin were always supportive of Sammy Davis Junior, even when they were performing in the racist South, where black musicians were denied entry to certain clubs on the basis of colour.  The Rat Pack  welcomed women too, and from the early days Shirley Mclaine was a hanger-on.  Marilyn Monroe, Julie Prowse and Angie Dickinson were group mascots. The Rat Pack had been originally established by Humphrey Bogart, but membership changed after his death in 1956.

Peter Lawford was JFK’s brother-in-law, and the Rat Pack campaigned for JFK at the Democratic convention in 1960. Lawford suggested that JFK stay with Frank, and he went to great lengths to accomodate him, building a helipad specially. yet after Robert Kennedy advised him to sever all ties over Frank’s alleged mafia friends (Sam Giancana), the stay was cancelled. Instead, JFK stayed at Bing Crosby’s residence. This angered Frank so much that  he never had a good word to say about Lawford, and his part in 4 for Texas was written out.

Relations soured father after Marilyn Monroe’s death, Frank believed that the Kennedy’splayed a part in her death, even suggesting they had wanted her dead. It was reported that JFK was the last person Monroe called before her death. Only a year later, JFK was assassinated.  Although relations had turned bitter, Sinatra was heartbroken when he got the news. According to Nancy Sinatra, he cried for three days in his bedroom.

Five remakes better than the originals

1. A Star Is Born, 1954. (Remake of A Star Is Born, 1937) George Cukor took the original idea (young star is created by her creator, and becomes more successful as he becomes obsolete) and made it the saddest film in history, and a showcase for the powerhouse performance of Judy Garland, as well as providing James Mason with one of his most sensitive roles. Key scene: at the Oscars, Mason’s character slaps Garland hard across he cheek, as she collects her first Oscar award.


2. Imitation of Life, 1959. A monumentally effective tearjerker. Lana Turner is an actress who becomes best friends with her black maid. The film shows every aspect of human weakness, folly and greed . Key scene: the funeral of the maid: a horse-drawn carriage, Mahalia Jackson singing at the service, and her daughter throwing herself at her coffin. In the fifties Douglas Sirk made several films in which women were the key players in tragic situations, this is one of his best.

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3. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Norman Jewison’s film has a sexy chess scene and the song The Windmills of Your Mind. The remake is a lot more fun and doesn’t take itself half as seriously.

4. The Man Who Knew Too Much 

A rare example of a director remaking his own work, this is great until the end when Doris Day starts singing.

5. Scarface (1983) The Brian De Palma film goes way over the top with excessive violence. Still, many people prefer it to Ben Hecht’s original, including David Thompson.

Five remakes definitely worse than originals

Psycho (1998) – Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of Psycho was unanimously slated on its release.

The Italian Job (2002)

Solaris (2004)

there are so many more examples, particularly egregious are American remakes of Japanese horror films, usually with Sarah Michelle Gellar, eg The Grudge. Also be wary of any attempts by stars to remake obscure european classics (Madonna doing Swept Away) for their own vanity projects.

Dark Water (2005) Poster

Jennifer Connolly in another terrible remake. Honestly, don’t go there. 

And the most unnecessary remake? Funny Games, since Michele Haneke had already made the film perfectly the first time around, but remade it, because he thought Americans wouldn’t be interested in anything with subtitles.

The original Funny Games, it is neither about a game nor in any way funny, your stomach will shrivel to the size of a pea when watching this film.


Film review: Side Effects, farewell Soderburgh

There is a scene towards the end of Side Effects of such powerful sensuality that I regret not being able to describe further, for revealing too much about where the film is heading, nevertheless, it has enough twists and turns to make even the most eagle-eyed viewer question what they have seen.

Steven Soderburgh has claimed this as his last film, effectively retiring from making films. Whilst his career has been up and down, from lacklustre (Haywire) under-appreciated (The Informant) and experimental (The Girlfriend Experience), Side Effects beats them all in having a great plot and cast. It says interesting things about Pharmaceutical companies and how they get us taking their pills like so many pieces of candy, and how difficult it is to know what somebody is thinking, even as to whether or not depression exists beyond the feeling of sadness at a period of grief or crisis.




Hollywood rebel Rooney Mara

In Side Effects (how succinct that title is) Emily (Rooney Mara) is in meltdown after her husband goes to jail through insider trading, apparently suicidal, she drives her car into a brick wall (this happens three months before her imprisonment) and goes to a pysch ward. There she is treated by Jude Law’s kindly doctor Martin. He gives her SSRIs, to maintain her serotonin levels to normal. When they are inefective he puts her on Albixia, an untested drug whose website is full of dubious reviews heralding its virtues. She goes from morose to perking up big time, shopping for sexy underwear, mounting her husband like a dog in heat. ‘Whoever invented this drug is going to be very rich’ says Martin. 

But the drug has some unfortunate side effects, including murder. Emily is on trial, whilst Martin finds himself with a civil case of his own. I won’t say any more about the plot. Jude Law is brilliant as the doctor, able to proscribe beta blockers for his wife but not able to give himself the treatment he needs. Rooney Mara is sensational, reacting instead of acting, always doing something interesting. She is at the moment the most intelligent actress in American cinema, a rebel who plays by her own rules. And Catherine Zeta Jones is powerful stuff too, a ‘don’t fuck with me’ consultant with problems of her own.

Admittedly the film does have a powerful side effect on the viewer: you won’t be able to get it out of your mind.

Dorothea Lange: Chronicler of the American Depression

Photo-realism is very hard to achieve these days, as nearly everyone is used to having their picture taken, but it used to be different. Look at these photos below: they are as real a depiction of the suffering and deprivation of the American depression as one is ever likely to see. They are also some of the most powerful photos ever taken.

Below: Farmers who have bought machinery cooperatively 1939


BELOW: Immigrant Mother – 1938


For many, this photo entirely captures the great Depression. Lange took the photo of the mother of seven children after she had sold their tent to buy food. It is almost unbearably poignant, a reminder of the terrible suffering undergone by ordinary people.

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Young migratory mother, originally from Texas




George Amico


Schoolgirl eroticism and the end of colonial rule in Australia: reiterating the brilliance of Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock could be given credit as being the first work of Australian cinema. It showed for the first time the process of leaving the English Empire, and the mysterious enigma of the Australian past, the Aboriginal dreamtime and the vast wilderness of the outback.

What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream

Thus the film begins, taking its inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe. We are given the first impression that things are not as they appear as the ghostly pan pipe theme music kicks in.

As the titles remind us, on the 14th of February 1900, a party of schoolgirls visited the rocks in Victoria. Three were never seen again. In actual fact the film is a work of fiction, adapted from Joan Lindsay. This is the first sign of the film’s conflation of truth and fiction. Yet, the film inhabits a very real location, one that is instantly familiar, of a girl’s boarding school built by English settlers in Australia in the nineteenth century.

Their visit to the hanging rock is a treat, a reward for good behavior. That the visit takes place on Valentines Day makes it that bit more notable. The opening sequence introduces us to the girls, focusing on the students who will disappear on the rock later on – so that we can get as close to them as possible. Decorous scenes of the girls going about their daily routine are depicted glowingly by the film’s ravishing cinematography. Miranda (Anne Lambert) washes her face inflower-infused water and looksImage at her reflection in the mirror, as Irma reads her a rapturous love poem.

Chubby Edith sits by herself counting cards which she presumably sends to the other girls. More poetry is read in dulcet voices, and the girls are seen lacing themselves into tight corsets, to show how they are literally bound by Victorian morality.


Accompanying the girls on their trip are teachers from the school, a young French teacher and the much older Miss McCraw. Once the girls arrive at the rock the film really takes a headfirst jump into the unknown. The rocks appear to have faces carved into them. The four girls form a breakaway group to investigate the rock closer, leaving the rest of the party on ground level. ‘Look at them down there,’ observes Irma, ‘they look like ants.’ At the top, the girls remove their shoes and stockings, and they begin a strange, hypnotic dance.

Only Irma stays behind, evidently she hasn’t the courage to go inside. And that is the last we see of them, as the remainder of the film is taken up by an attempt to find them and find out what happened in the rock. Three days later one girl is found at the entrance. She is bruised and her clothing is ripped, however a medical examination reveals that she is quite ‘intact’. 

That is the only mention made of sexual behaviour, yet the film is very much a coming of age story. In many ways the girls that enter the rock are leaving childhood behind, facing the rich and strange sexuality of female adulthood.pahr missing poster

That the girls all wear white (and how impractical that must be in the outback) is no accident either, since it stands for purity and virginity. By the end of the film, we see a beautifully slow sequence of the girls picnincking, reading Shakespeare, looking at pictures  by Botticelli, all done with no sync sound but using the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto as an accompaniment. We watch, mesmerized, as Australia’s colonial society melts in the midday sun.

Jack Johnson: The Great White Hope

Recently it occurred to me that there are few films that are made about black boxers. When We Were Kings doesn’t really count because it is a documentary.

One film that tells the story of the world’s greatest prizefighter, until Ali, is The Great white Hope.

Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was the unbdisputed champion, but he was dismissed by many white exponents of the sport who searched for a white candidate to beat Johnson. Johnson  ,met James J. Jeffries in 1910. The Fight of the Century, as it was called,was won by Johnson in the 14th round.  

The aftermath led to race riots, and whites were angry they had been unable to find a ‘great white hope’ to defeat him.

Johnson was as confident in life as in the ring, ignoring attitides to what constituted propriety between races. All three of his wives were caucasion.

In many ways he was the first sports celebrity, being paid to endorse products and patent medicines, as well as an enthusiastic amateur race driver.

The film The Great White Hope is based on his life. James Earl Jones plays Johnson, and Jane Alexander his love interest.