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12th October 2006

12:54pm: Orhan Pamuk awarded Nobel Prize
Orhan Pamuk, my favorite author, was just awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his novels.


I've read everything he's written that's been translated into English - in the middle of his latest book right now, "Istanbul".

I don't know why I should feel like I do, but it's a very good day for me.


15th August 2006

12:36pm: Amsterdam
I just got back from two weeks in Amsterdam with my wife and daughters. I'd never been before and it was just marvelous.

I'm not someone who likes to lie baking in the sun, reading summer novels in a place removed from the local population. I mean, why the hell travel if that's what you want? I can always go lie down on tar beach (the roof) for that.

People there are really tolerant, helpful and cool. For a busy city, its paradoxically laid back. I was amazed that my 4 and 8 year olds enjoyed going to museums and cafes - and the food in cafes can be first rate. Just walking in neighborhoods and villages you've never seen before can fill a day easily. We were also lucky enough to be there for Gay Pride weekend, and the kids enjoyed what seemed like mile after mile of boat parade threading its way past on our canal.

My house was the black one in the center, part of the excellent Hotel New Amsterdam.

Well - its great to be back, but all things being equal, i'd rather be in Amsterdam.

12th July 2006

2:51pm: Down Argentine Way
Watched this piece of fluff last night -

Honestly, not a great movie. My wife says her grandmother would watch movies like this and say, "Why exactly did we flee from Nazi Europe?"

But - it is the U.S. film debut of Carmen Miranda - who is marvelous, though only onscreen for a very short time. Just three numbers worth - and she does all of them on a nightclub set with the same costume and no staging. Still, she's pretty damn compelling.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein listed Carmen Miranda as his favorite singer/entertainer. Interesting when you consider that Wittengenstein - an Austrian working in England - probably never understood a word she sang in Portuguese. I think perhaps that makes her the perfect choice for a thinker who held that all philosophical problems were actually at their roots, communication problems.

Anyway, I just love her.

And yes, I am straight.


5th July 2006

4:54pm: Archers Overload
I get on these tears where I have to see several of a directors movies, all in a row. I've done this before with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but there is so much to mine in the Archers' work, that it bears coming back to again and again.

This weekend, after watching Black Narcissus, I ended up watching three more, "Tales of Hoffman" (1951), "Thief of Bagdhad" (1940) and "Contraband" (1940). I'm not sure how to do an LJ Cut - so please forgive my wordiness...

"Contraband" and "The Thief" both star Conrad Veidt - "The man you love to hate" as he used to be billed back during the war. This isn't fair, as he was a truly great film actor, in addition to being a German who left his country of birth from conscience, like Marlena Deitrich. Truly, this can't have been easy to do; I can't imagine it.

Veidt in "Casablanca"

Veidt's courage aside, his performance in both movies are really commanding. Contraband is a fairly standard early war propaganda film, but with some nice Archers twists: One actor plays two roles, and Veidt is a neutral Dane, trying to preserve his country's neutrality against the forces of the Anglo-Nazi spies trying to drive Denmark into the Axis camp. Contraband is moody and nicely paced, but in its 'realistic' approach, it isn't much like the Archers' best efforts.

"Thief of Bagdhad: an Arabian Fantasy" on the other hand is pure unadulterated Powell nuttiness (Pressburger didn't work on this one). It is a complete fantasy, right down to the murderous mechanical Indian doll and the flying clockwork horse. Sabu is wonderful and Conrad Veidt provides the archetypical EVIL vizier/sorcerer. For those who've seen Disney's Alladin, this film will seem terribly familiar: nearly every character (including Veidt's Jaffar) and plot point in it was lifted (stolen) from this picture.

As far as I'm concerned, they lost most of the wonder in the translation to cartoon; this is one of those stories that must look "real" in order to work. Cartoons can do anything, so you aren't surprised when they do. When people do impossible things on film, its much more surprising and fantastic and dreamlike. Like Harryhausen and Schneer's "Jason and the Argonauts" vs. the cartoon version of the same.

SPOILER ALERT - Finally, "Tales of Hoffman" was a revelation. I'd seen it in bits and pieces, but taken all together - it is a dream. Beer steins come to life, a courtesan from Hell slides across a floor made up of the bodies and souls of those she's corrupted, a mechanical woman dances prettily and perfectly before being ripped to pieces (gosh, but Moira Shearer is a game gal). I love this movie, since it seems like it's going to be a very straightforward staging of Offenbach's opera, but it soon goes into the realm of the Archers' fantastical technicolor alternate universe. The only part I didn't like was the final story of Antonia - the only tale that falls short of living in the surreal, and since its the last story, you really want it to be more audacious than the two that came before it.

Robert Helpmann and Moira Shearer in "Hoffman"

But this is a small criticism really. These last two are movies I first saw when I was little, when I had a low threashold for boring crap. It's funny how - 35 or so years later - my tastes haven't changed. I'm still measuring a new fantasy movie against "Thief" and "Hoffman" and "Matter of Life and Death". It's amazing how so few movies come close to the standard set in these movies.

Despite the advances in technology by the people in the SFX labs and elsewhere, the people immediately behind and in front of the camera - they're the ones that matter most to the feeling being created and the story being told.

30th June 2006

11:06am: Black Narcissus
- OK, I'd been avoiding this one for a few years. Why exactly, I'm not really sure.

Probably because its about nuns. I'm perhaps a casualty of Wars of Religion (not the 16th Century ones, the ones we're holding here in the U.S.). But - feeling like I don't want to watch a film about religion and the monastic life is a dumb reason not to watch a film by the masters Powell and Pressburger.

It's brilliant.

And it turns out this is a movie about spirituality, and sex. Hooray! This movie is up there with the Red Shoes in terms of sheer stunning visual brilliance - the script is very tightly and economically written. And then there is the remarkable performance of this woman:

Kathleen Byron - who is I think 83 right now and still beautiful - gives one of the 10 best performances I've ever seen on film. At times over the top, yes, but perfectly modulated throughout the film in that it exactly matches the drama, the cutting, the music, the framing and plot, and Oh god, that Technicolor - the best use of it I've ever seen. She's very much the most beautiful monster I've ever seen in what by the end almost becomes a horror movie.

So much has been written about this movie, so I don't want to belabor the points already made by so many others more eloquent than I. Just go watch it on the biggest screen you can to get the full effect of Jack Cardiff's technicolor and Powell's shots of Kathleen Byron's haunted eyes.

18th May 2006

4:03pm: Your phone conversations are *not* being bugged...
Repeat *not* being bugged, or so we are assured by the Airforce man in the shiny blue suit...

And yet - though nobody seems to believe this according to polls - those same polls show that nobody much seems to care if its true or not.

To stay sane, its time for me to turn to the great anti-populist Mencken once again, who said: "Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

16th May 2006

2:07pm: Why don't we have charity auctions like this one over here?
Though I wish I'd gotten the bedtime story from Tilda for my daughters (who adore her), the headline auction item seems to have been worth seeing...

16 May 2006
By Mirror.co.uk
KATE MOSS stunned guests at a celebrity auction last night by snogging the face off Hugh Grant's girlfriend Jemima Khan.

Millionaire Bhs boss Philip Green stumped up £60,000 for a "Kiss Me Kate" item in the celeb-studded event. But after puckering up for a peck on the cheek he offered the kiss to the person he outbid - Jemima.

Kate got stuck in, according to fellow guests, and ended up snogging Jemima for a full-on 60 seconds.

The auction and dinner was held at Annabel's in central London in aid of the Hoping Foundation for Palestinian refugee children.

A game of golf with Hugh Grant, with jemima as caddy, went for £12,000. Other lots included a cricket lesson from Imran Khan, tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury and a children's bedtime story read by Narnia actress Tilda Swinton.

The event raised more than £200,000.
11:31am: John Wayne is one of my least favorite Americans, a horse’s ass of a man. And yet, having stated that, I'm readying myself for the flames.

I was comforted to find - after watching that PBS special last week - that John Ford, perhaps the greatest American director and politically a liberal, felt the same way and treated him like a moron on the set. But, he was friends with the ultra conservative Wayne, off and on, for more than 40 years. I think he saw in him something that takes some effort to admit to - especially for a liberal/communist like me: Wayne is actually a great film actor, in a subtle and quiet way.

For years, I just sort of wrote him off, mostly because of the war pictures and the dumb westerns (early and late), but watching the Ford movies when I live in London changed that. Maybe it was the distance from home?

If you put Capt. Brittles from “Yellow Ribbon” next to Ethan from “The Searchers” and both of those next to his role in “The Quiet Man” and the Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach,” they’re four very different people – and when I saw how different, I suddenly realized how really good Wayne could be. He can play characters that embody real contradiction: the pacifist soldier; the killer who tries to save people's lives; the boxer who won't fight; the rescuer who wants to kill the rescued.

That said, sometimes, he’s just Wayne, and other times, he’s a parody of himself. He’s very uneven, but at his best, he’s surprisingly moving and real.

Kathy believes that Wayne may be that good, but she can’t watch him for long, and I can understand that: a lot of people who grew up during Vietnam won’t watch John Ford's movies because Wayne is in them. But, when “How Green Was My Valley” comes on, which Wayne isn't in, we’re both sitting in front of the set, weeping like idiots.

That movie beat Citizen Kane at the Academy Awards in 1941. For years, I figured the fix was in, that there was no way it was a better film than “Citizen Kane”. But, thinking about the year, and what people liked then, and how cold “Citizen Kane” leaves you, and how extraordinarily well done “Valley” is and how deeply you feel it, I changed my mind. It’s a lot more traditional and less challenging that Kane, but so what? Personally, if both were on at the same time, I have to admit, I’d watch “Valley”.

I know this makes me a rank sentimentalist, but I realized that’s what I prize in a movie more than anything else.

Anyway, there are better directors than Ford. I love Powell and Pressburger, Passolini, Fellini, Rossellini, Carol Reed, David Lean, are as good or “better” if that can be applied to art. But Ford holds a special place for me, as he latched onto what being American meant in those westerns – all the good and a whole, whole lot of the bad. Ford's work is about taking the clear, good picture of America and forcing ambiguity into it.

Watch "Fort Apache" in light of Iraq, and you'll see what I mean. Ford loved the army, but the arrogance of the generals with the people they're supposed to be policing is in full display, and Ford is unafraid of attacking it with both barrels.

We could use someone like him right now...someone who plunges the dagger in and removes it before anyone knows what happened. You know - a real satirist, subtle and dark whose work is masquerading as patriotism.

So flame away. I know both of their records on Vietnam, and I know how rotten Wayne was during HUAC. I really do hate him, but I have to defend the point that his work under Ford was perhaps the best ever done on, and in, America.

(he types as he puts on his flame-retardant suit...)
1:26am: Cruising
Yes - Pacino's Cruising from 1980.

The Mrs. and I just watched this film, both of us remembering how reviled it was when it was filmed here in NYC back in 1979. We were expecting to be howling, laughing at how bad it was. Pacino memorably tried to get out of filming this picture, and many of our friends were protesting the film's supposed take on gay life: that every gay man in NY was either a practicing leather queen, or a potential serial killer.

But - surprise, surprise - this is not only not a bad movie, it's actually just on the verge of being a good movie. We both thought it unexpectedly and sympathetically humanizes the gay characters it portrays, even the characters that might have otherwise come off as cliches, and that William Friedkin (of Exorcist fame) actually paces the film fairly well up until the main suspect is identified. Then, the tension goes slack...

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the picture are these: it depicts a scene long gone from NYC - the West Village's leather bars - in a way that brings back memories of the way my neighborhood used to look - fat cops in blue short sleeved shirts patrol the streets, full of brutality and tainted by corruption - leading us to reconsider what is manliness, and how macho attitudes infect everyone's dealings with each other. It also delves into a surprisingly ambiguous denouement, in which we are not sure exactly who the killer(s) actually are.

Overall, this legendarily bad picture is neither as bad, nor as offensive as the protests made out. But, one aspect of it is still very offensive: the poorly thought out, highly questionable, idea that somehow, a leather lifestyle leads to violent behavior, and this leads to killing. The movie is based on a book that explored real-life killings in the West Village leather community, and why Friedkin decided to try to work within the author's pseudo-scientific explanation of progressive violence is anyone's guess. This is where the picture really goes off the rails.

See it once, just for the artifact value, decent direction, and for a good, underplayed performance from Al Pacino, pre-HooHaa!, eye-tuck wackiness.

9th May 2006

10:40am: Boycott CRAP!!
An article in the Times business section said that the real challenge in making movies is not finding creative artists, but in finding the best trailer directors and marketing executives, because "people decide to see movies based on the stregnth of the trailer and the marketing campaign".

First, I thought - This can't be true. How stupid are audiences that they're conditioned to make decisions based on what a commercial tells them?

I'm a member of a generation that - statistically - believes word of mouth, doesn't believe what advertising tells them, and believes what they read in a newspaper before they believe what they see on the news or hear on the radio. The tail end of the baby boom - born from 1960 through 1972 - we are the "show me" generation.

And yet, though it makes me sick to think it, I suppose the assertion that marketing sells movies is probably true.

- There are certainly hundreds of people who make independent movies every year, and those films - which take years to create and conceive and execute - aren't ever seen by more than a handful of people. Most filmmakers can't get financing, and many who can simply can't make the deals that get their work seen. So yes - there is probably a surpluss of people who can make a good movie about real things.

- I can see it in my kids, though I try to shield them (pretty unsuccessfully as it turns out) - people of all ages see an ad and respond to it. People do go based on a trailer - they have become a sort of anti-art form. And I guess they work.

Indeed, I DO respond to the trailer - but almost always negatively as it turns out. Trailers are for me about 95% of the time, a warning that a movie obviously sucks or it wouldn't need the high-excitement, earsplitting trailer.

This happened very clearly to me with "Inside Man" the really quite good Spike Lee movie that's out just now. I saw the trailer - which made no mention of Spike's involvement - and simply saw Denzel Washington and Jody Foster - and I thought: "another sucky, big budget, blow-'em upper. Stay home." I was glad to be wrong, but the trailer did what it was supposed to, I reckon. It scared me away and invited the dummies into the theater. How was I to know this movie wasn't dreck? Word of mouth got me - someone I trust spoke the truth.

And speaking of speaking the truth, I was very inspired by Tilda Swinton's speech to the San Francisco International Film Festival. She ties business, politics, morality, fatasay and reality - and the news media's creation of what seems too often to be an alternate reality - together into an eloquent meditation on film and dreams.

She also rightly points out that film can be - at its best - art that comes from, frames, and is framed by the personal reality of the filmmakers. And one which, hopefully, inspires thought in its audiences, inviting them to share the dream of a film and incorporate it into their own, subjective realities.

I admire her take on what's dangerous in the crap that gets produced over and over in Hollywood, which as I said above, I have to be careful about when considering my kids. Entertainment is too often like junk food. The pre-packaged, industrially produced fantasy - very pat, no ambiguity, and little real nourishment - is about as satisfying as those little, disturbing "Lunchables" my wife and I laugh about when we see them for sale at the local Food Emporium. But still, people buy them - people...we...know (shudder).

But is the fault with the stars or with ourselves? I'm not saying there aren't plenty of people in the entertainment industry who need to be chided for their belief in the bottom line, but perhaps we can affect that bottom line a lot more than we expect. the fact is, we're already doing it. People aren't going to the movies like they did only last year, and each year shows lower and lower attendence.

However, Raising ticket prices seems to be working for the Hollywood executives' morale. The attendence is down, but the bottom line is still good.

Funny thing is, Hollywood doesn't just believe the bottom line - they're also drinking the water they sell. They believe the marketing if it tells them what they want to believe.

There's every indication that studios just view the recent trend toward movies with interesting plot deeper character development as just that - a trend. Trends peter out, they go away. Studios already believe that middle America was angry about the Oscars. They'd seen enough "news" reports before the Academy Awards that showed little old god-fearing people in a town in Kansas that "didn't like seeing gay cowboys on the movie screen". You can bet that Hollywood is still going to option CRAP, and keep producing "Lunchables", just to keep the movie houses filled when the anti-art sentiment is guaged. Hell - just look at what's coming this summer! Direct in response to your stated beliefs in market research studies - a whole load of un-challenging, inedible dung sandwiches.

It's not a good choice Hollywood makes, but they make it again and again. The funny thing is that when they give the people "what they want", the people still stay home or they wait a couple of weeks for the DVD to save a few bucks. The crap movies cost a lot, but they lose a lot - or don't make as much as the studios think they will. I think that War of the Worlds cost $150 million, or something, and yet it didn't make the money back in the US, relying on foreign distribution (which yielded much less than expected), and DVD to break even. A $165 million dollar film can only BREAK EVEN?

Just as opften, little movies like "The Squid and The Whale" make $65 million when they only cost about $13 to make.

Bruce Campbell - love his movies or hate them - is a real, honest filmmaker. When he was on the Late Show with Craig Ferguson a couple of months back, Craig asked him why people weren't going to the movies.

"Because the movies suck." was his truthful reply.

Ah, Hollywood. They'll never get it because they don't have the brains, the balls, or the will to try. It's just business, supply and demand - don't worry, there's plenty of creative genius out there making commercials and videos and small independent films to choose from. All Hollywood has to do is pluck them from obscurity and get them to work in harness and produce "Lunchables" to go with their popcorn.

Rant over, now a call to action...

Our fault is in accepting the dreck we're handed.

The movie "industry" may seem to be a monolith, but it is show business, just like vaudeville. Pelt the bad acts with tomatoes and they won't come back; reward the good acts with your applause, and attendence.

We audiences need to be more discerning, more exacting, and less accepting of bullshit.

We need to vote with our feet.

Film is a business - show business - and the free market needs to be flooded with discerning customers - not accepting "consumers" (how the fuck can you 'consume' film?).

Don't see sucky movies and call them when you see them: friends don't let friends see sucky movies.

DO see good movies, and pass the word.

Encourage your friends, neighbors and family. If you love movies, act responsibly.


19th April 2006

2:50pm: "Vlad the Impaler"
My book on the Medieval Balkans has been published. Technically, it became available a couple of weeks ago to everyone via the miracle of the internet. I couldn't be more excited, as this is the culmination of more than 2 years of work on the project. Those in the historical wargaming community - an extraordinarily interesting alternate society of history geeks - who have read it have given me and my two contributors nothing but good reviews and praise.

As soon as my publication date came and went, I realized it was just a date. The project actually continues, even though the writing, production, and editing ended. People are asking questions about it, interpreting it, and arguing about parts of it. So, the book just kind of 'lives' out there without me.

At first I thought, sic transit gloriam. Now I realize that if a bus hit me tomorrow, "Vlad the Impaler" might go on living, albeit in a small community of insane people distributed worldwide. This is a very strange feeling - like giving birth to an adult who already doesn't live at home, and doesn't write.

I'm already getting ready for the next book - researching medieval Central Asia. This one will be fiction.

16th March 2006

2:16pm: sucked, actually
Just in case you think I'm totally undiscriminating - I was fooled into watching "Love Actually" last night.

WTF were they all thinking? How were so many decent actors convinced this thing worked? Did they read the whole script, or only their scenes? How incredibly bizarre that you have people like Laura Linney (who's got talent and great instincts) signed onto a movie in which Hugh Grant plays a 40-ish, single PM. I have a seven year old - they don't tell you articuately they've fallen in desperate love with a classmate like the kid in the movie does.

I finally realized it's a movie about an f***ed up alternate universe - Bizarro-London, let's call it. Not a believeable moment in it.

Well - nice to feel pain once in while. I haven't seen a stinker in a few months, and this certainly fixes that.

14th March 2006

1:01pm: Beat Takeshi
Last night - I watched Beat Takeshi's new version of "Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman".

Wow and wow. Having seen the previous version from about 1990 just a couple of weeks ago - I was able to compare them pretty much as I watched. What emerges in about two seconds is that Takeshi Kitano has created a completely different version of a classic. It's like watching a Romeo and Juliet that's entirely tragic in tone, next to a version that's full of excitement and spirit and humour.

Also - deciding to boost the color palate of each scene and infuse the movie with drum rhythm - from the farmers hoeing and planting rice in rhythm with drums to building auntie's house as an elaborate and 'melodic' beat - are crazy and yet, really wonderful decisions. Making the celebration at the end conclude in a gigantic production number - American tap dancing crossed with traditional Japanese drumming - is just goofy and inspired.

So much fun. And soooo much blood!

Pretty much a perfect entertainment.

6th March 2006

10:01am: Oscar, soporific Oscar
After Jon Stewart's funny and low key monologue, the Oscars began to weave their spell over me and put me to sleep for a few minutes. So little of this year's award ceremony was about movie-making (honestly, I know that it barely exists for that reason anymore, but at least they used to pay the movies lip service), that I abandoned the sorry, boring affair after an hour and 15 minutes and popped in a VHS of Polanski's MacBeth, which the movie gods be praised, is a GREAT MOVIE.

Still horribly struck by the POV shots from the vantage of MacBeth's decapitated head as it is spit upon and mocked while being carried through the streets.

Just a chilling and thrilling movie. And it felt both subversive and entirely correct to watch it instead of the big bore-cast.

3rd March 2006

10:35am: Ugghhh....

Patrick, your Auntie Mame is hung...


1st March 2006

3:05pm: Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein
Derek Jarman's movies continue to amaze.

I watched Wittgenstein last night, which reminded me why I love his movies.

From his introduction of Wittgenstein as a child - a figure who becomes the narrator of his own later life and death - he manages in one economical piece of film to create pathos for a figure we haven't yet met (the adult philosopher) by reminding us throughout the film that he was once a child. Its also a completely unsentimental pathos, as that child is a pretty sharp, clear-eyed observer of his own family and world.

Jarman doesn't let you sit or get comfortable. He shifts ground, constantly jumping, moving to the character's adult life in Cambridge quickly, then the Great War, then exploring his take on philosphy (all philosophical problems are simply created by imperfect understanding of the language games each culture uses to conduct communication), his sexuality (non-sexual to guiltily homosexual), and his relationships with people and the world (an uncompromising and unattainable search for perfection without attaining it in his own life).

In the end, Jarman's use of black backdrops in every scene and minimal sets create a visual tone poem that manages - ironically - to transcend languague while exploring its main character's frustration with it. Many scenes are separated from those around them - with black space and time, like a Brechtian episode - there to enjoy, but also there to stand away from and examine -

Michael Gough is wonderful as a bemused Bertrand Russell and Tilda Swinton is marvelous and unrecognizeable as his terribly illogical lover - Lady Ottoline Morrell. Karl Johnson inhabits the role of the adult Wittgenstein in a very human and real way, an aware intellectual and yet, at times, an anti-intellectual inhabiting the real world. Johnson plays his role relating to those around him very emotionally, and yet, he does so at a remove - as though his Ludwig doesn't want to get wet, doesn't like the mess of the world, a point reinforced in the script and imagery.

I like this wonderful pastiche/garbage pail of a movie. I like its space alien and Jarman's use of a nude model - in one quick piece of film - to make an eloquent statement about class attitudes to sex and art. His audaciousness never fails to challenge you as a viewer.

Thank goodness.
2:50pm: Lola Montes
Well -

I realize Lola Montes is considered to be a Max Ophuls's masterpiece; and that it is a landmark of postwar cinema in that it makes a woman the subject of the action, rather than an object; and that it is a cult favorite; and that the performances from Peter Ustinov, Martine Carroll and Anton Wallbrook are compelleing; and that the costumes and sets are glittering pieces of cinematic gold.

But why then does it have to be so goddamn boring? Kathy and I tried watching this one TWICE before throwing in the towel. I actually fell asleep both times.

Sorry Sir Peter, wherever you are. I'm getting "Topkapi" next week to watch you steal the jewelled dagger. That should square things between us.

19th February 2006

4:17pm: Vermont not to be
Ugh -

So I said I was going to be in Vermont for the weekend, but NO.

Bad omens abound.

We mean to leave my parents' house at 8 am. But, my sainted mother tries to foist off two 12" quiches she is defrosting onto my family. We wait around until 9:00 while the cold, greasy, heavy affairs melt a little in the oven. Finally we leave with two semi-crylstallized pies, made with about 8 pounds of gruyere cheese, a dozen eggs and a pound of Italian sausage. The smell from these potential biological weapons is difficult to take and my stomach starts to get all wobbly.

Thankfully I'm behind the wheel and therefore insulated from the road movement. Not so the rest of our small party: Julia and Dinah start whining, complaining of delicate stomachs nearly immediately. Five minutes into the first stage of our ascent and trouble already. If not careful, we'll never make it to the summit before nightfall sets in and along with it, sub-zero temperatures...

Twenty-five minutes into a five-hour drive from NYC to Rochester, we get hit with a freak blizzard that drops about an inch of snow on the road. This makes seeing difficult, so we have to pull over briefly. The snow lets up just as suddenly as it began, so we quickly move on.

45 minutes into the attempt, and the WQXR signal konks out as we hit the Catskill highlands. Kathy searches frantically for a radio station. Finally, she raises a Polka show out of a small station in Ulster County. The "Beer Barrel Polka" alternates between blaringly loud and just barely audible due to the signal popping in and out as we thread our way among the gullies and peaks.

One hour and nine minutes into the drive my youngest dd Dinah starts to wail, cry and complains she's car sick. We allow her to open up her window. Doing 65 mph in 27-degree air helps Dinah, but makes everyone else cold as a witch's tit. Jimmy Stur's polka band plays a wonderfully peppy number from Slovenia.

Eight minutes later, a distressed Dinah vomits up popcorn and apple juice into her heavy winter coat.

We stop in Kingston long enough for her to get some Benadryl, Pepto and a half a Dramamine into her. A few minutes later, she asks for a turkey sandwich. Sitting, miserable, in a Blimpie, we feed the kids and contemplate our next moves. Then we pack the kids up - dressed in fresher clothes.

By the time all this has happened, its 1:30 p.m. Only a quarter of the way there, we realize we are licked. We turn around and spend the rest of the day getting back to base camp, our party frostbitten, foul smelling and in a fouler mood. The climb was just too much for us.

Next time, I'm bringing a goddamn sherpa.

17th February 2006

11:48am: Tilda on Derek Jarman, from the Guardian
Tilda fans,

This is a slightly shortened version of the speech she gave at the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival. If you want to see Tilda actually deliver this speech, pick up the DVD of Derek Jarman's film of Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II". You'll find the speech among the DVD's special features section.


Letter to an angel

Derek Jarman's films were eccentric, beguiling and above all honest. We need his guiding spirit now more than ever, says the actress Tilda Swinton

Saturday August 17, 2002
The Guardian
Dear Derek, Jubilee is out on DVD. I found a copy in Inverness and watched it last night. It's as cheeky a bit of inspired old-ham, punk-spunk nonsense as ever grew out of your brain, and that's saying something; what a buzz it gives me to look at it now. And what a joke: there's nothing one-eighth as mad, bad and downright spiritualised being made down here these days this side of Beat Takeshi.

There's an interview with you at the end of the thing: a face-to-face. Very nice to see that face, I must say. Jeremy Isaacs asks you, last of all, how you would like to be remembered, and you say you would like to disappear. That you would like to take all your works with you and... evaporate.

It's a funny thing, because the truth is that, here, eight years later, in so many ways, you never could disappear, but - it has to be faced - in so many others you have. It has snowed since you were here and your tracks are covered. Fortunately, you made them on hard ground.

Well, I could tell you that we got some things right back then, sitting round the kitchen table in Dungeness, projectile-vomiting with the best of them: you were indeed the great Thatcherite film-maker - for every £200,000 film you made, real profits were seen (by someone or other) within at least the first two years; and all those royal circus brides did end up cutting themselves out of their wedding dresses and looking into the camera. Alan "all film is an advertisment for something" Parker did end up running the BFI and dissolving its production arm; and FilmFour was just a flash in the pan.

They talk about the British film industry a lot these days. You remember that renaissance they all got moist about in the 1980s after Chariots of Fire won four Oscars - "The British are coming"? And then that thing with Henry V? Well, the renaissances are rolling themselves out pretty much yearly now, as director after director makes his or her first film and then graduates to making commercials.
It felt as if industrial films on these islands in those 1980s were made by people who could not quite get into television. Or by shameless, traitorous expatriates who had legged it for the "free world". In those days, British Film Inc, when invoked, meant getting proud about The Lavender Hill Mob or Whisky Galore! An American-Indian partnership began to give Britain an exportable identity: these were the Crabtree and Evelyn Waugh days of post-imperial mooning about, when nostalgic dreams of the Grand Tour meant film culture to a lot of people. Class obsession - still the greatest stock in trade of industrial cinema here - began to show a profit.

I had run away to join a different circus myself: Planet Jarmania. You were the first person I met who could gossip about St Thomas Aquinas and hold a steady camera at the same time. I thought it would be good to hang out with you for six weeks: I guess we had things to say. Our outfit was an internationalist brigade. Decidedly pre-industrial. A little loud, a lot louche. Not always in the best possible taste. And not quite fit, though it saddened and maddened us to recognise it, for wholesome family entertainment.

Wholesome families were all the rage then. There was a fashion for a thing called "normal" and there was a plague abroad called "perversion". There was no such thing as society, and culture meant something to do with yogurt (this was before the Sunday Times educated us that culture means digested opinions about marketable artistic endeavours). Things are different now: people (at least pretend to) have an enormous amount of sex and tell everybody else about it. We use the word terrestrial without a flicker of spacethink. People cook and decorate their flats and celebrate the millenium and the opening of the Commonwealth Games in cajun/Echo Park hacienda/Alternative Miss World circa 1978 styles. Straight has started to mean honest again, getting very drunk is hilariously funny and smart, and newsreaders would refer to today as July seventeenth.

We used to be referred to as the arthouse; how it used to irk us then. How disparaging it sounded; how sickly and highfalutin; how pious and extracurricular. For arthouse superstar, read jumbo shrimp. Yet, then, as now, the myth prevailed that there was only one mainstream. We were only too happy to know that our audience existed and to hoe the row in peace. Nobody here paid that much attention to us, that's true: no one ever thought we might make them any money, I suppose.

What grace that constituted. Not to be identified as national product. The intergalactic BFI. ZDF in Germany. Mikado in Italy. Uplink in Japan. This was our nation state: this was continuity. We sneaked under the fence, looked for - and found - our fellow travellers elsewhere. Here's the thought: slice the world longways, along its lines of sensibility, and not straight up and down, through its geographical markers, and company will be yours, young film-maker. Treason? To what?

The dead hand of good taste has commenced its last great attempt to buy up every soul on the planet, and from where I'm sitting, it's going great guns. Art is now indivisible from the idea of culture, culture from heritage, heritage from tourism, tourism from what I saw emblazoned recently on the window of an American chain store in Glasgow - "the art of leisure". That means, incidentally, velours lounging suits by the ton.
The colonial balance has shifted and the long spoons are out. We now stand shoulder to shoulder with something identifiable as civilisation itself, or else... Security never felt so much like a term of abuse. I was in Los Angeles earlier this year and was asked by a jeweller's assistant in an emporium on Rodeo Drive if the reason I declined to wear a stars and stripes jewelled badge on my front at a public event was that I was "an Afghani bitch". You may not need me to tell you about the fight for civilisation afoot these days. More of the same, but worse than even you could have imagined. Meanwhile, in a binary world, we on these islands cream on creamily up a Third Way.
Things have got awfully tidy recently. There is a lot of finish on things. Clingfilm gloss and the neatest of hospital corners. The formula merchants are out in force. They are in the market for guaranteed product. They go out looking for film-makers with the nous of one who might consider employing halogen spotlights in the hopes of attracting wild cats into a suburban garden. They are missing the point. Don't they know the roulette wheel is fixed? That the croupier is a cardsharp? Do these people not watch old movies? It's the spirited that hold the hands in the long run, it always was - the low-key for the long term, the irreverent, the cheats, the undaunted and inspired rule-breakers, not the goody-goody industrial types with their bedside manners and managerial know-how.

It is all done with smoke and mirrors, and it always will be. Not with memos and steering groups. Not with statistical evidence or test screenings. Don't they know the basic laws of being in an audience? That we say we want to know more about the villain, but we don't really; that we say we like happy endings, but our souls droop without the bittersweet touch of something we might recognise, as we bend from our fascinating and complex mortal world into the virtual dark and back again. That we say we want famous faces we can recognise, but there's one thing that a face that we identify as an actor's first and foremost cannot do for us that the face we might see as that of a person can do. It is human beings that are of use to us in the figurative cinema. Human shapes and gauchenesses and human passions. Not drama and perfect timing and a well-tuned charisma round every bend.

I have always wholeheartedly treasured in your work the whiff of the school play. It tickles me still and I miss it terribly. The antidote it offers to the mirror ball of the marketable - the artful without the art, the meaningful devoid of meaning - is meat and drink to so many of us looking for that dodgy wig, that moment of awkward zing, that loose corner where we might prise up the carpet and uncover the rich slates of something we might recognise as spirit underneath. Something raw and dusty and inarticulate, for heaven's sake. This is what Pasolini knew. What Rossellini knew. This is also what Ken Loach knows. What Andrew Kotting knows. What Powell and Pressburger, what William Blake knew. And, for that matter, what Caravaggio knew, painting prostitutes as Madonnas and rent boys as saints. No, Madonnas as prostitutes and saints as rent boys - there's the rub.

I think that the reason that you count for so much, so uniquely, to some people, particularly in this hidebound little place we call home, is that you lived so clearly the life that an artist lives. Your money was always where your mouth was. Your vocation - and here maybe it helped a little that you offered that special combination of utter self-obsession with the appearance of the kindest Jesuit classics master in the school - was a spiritual one, even more than it was political, even more than it was artistic. And the clarity with which you offered up your life and the living of it, particularly since the epiphany - I can call it nothing less - of your illness was a genius stroke, not only of provocation, but of grace.

Your gesture of public confessional, both within and without your work - at a time when people talked fairly openly about setting up ostracised HIV island communities and others feared not only for their lives but, believe it or not, for their jobs, their insurance policies, their friendships, their civil rights - was made with such particular, and characteristically inclusive, generosity that it was at that point that you made an impact far outspanning the influence of your work. You made your spirit known to us - and the possibility of an artist's fearlessness a reality. And the truth of it is, by defying it, you may have changed the market as well.
That earlier Jubilee year you gave us prophecy - painting extinct in Paranoia Paradise, the generation who grew up and forgot to lead their lives, the idea of artists as the world's blood donors, history written on a Mandrax, fear of dandelions - and yet, like Carnation from Floris, not all the good things have disappeared.

Maybe now it is as bad as you and I used to say it could possibly get. Maybe it's worse. But here we are, the rest of us, tilting at the same old, same old windmills and spooking at the same old ghosts. And keeping company, all the same. It's a rotten mess of a shambles, you could say. It's driving into the curve, at the very least. Some would say you are well out of it. I reckon you would say: "Let me at 'em."
The challenges facing a film culture today? The possibility of film-makers losing the use of their own spirits. The paralysis of isolated, original voices. The existence of the student loan in the place of the student grant. The rarity of distributors with kamikaze vision. Too many conference tables. Too few cinemas. Too little patience. Pomp and circumstance. The concept of the "successful" product. The idea that there is not enough to go around. The eye to the main chance. The substitution of codependence for independence. The idea that it has to cost millions of pounds to make a feature film. The idea that there is only one way to skin a cat.

This is what I miss, now that there are no more Derek Jarman films: the mess, the cant, the poetry, Simon Fisher Turner's music, the real faces, the intellectualism, the bad-temperedness, the good-temperedness, the cheek, the standards, the anarchy, the romanticism, the classicism, the optimism, the activism, the glee, the bumptiousness, the resistance, the wit, the fight, the colours, the grace, the passion, the beauty.



• Tilda Swinton will deliver a full version of this speech at In the Spirit of Derek Jarman, a Vertigo Magazine event at the Edinburgh film festival, today at 1pm at the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh. Details: 0131-623 8030 or www.vertigomagazine.co.uk

15th February 2006

8:12pm: Rip off!
Ahhh -

Two days in a row of found (read: not my) material. Slacker.

Thanks to Mophandl (who really knows his stuff) on the Trad Jazz group for this witty little number:

Doin' the (Uptown) Lowdown
1933 Music by Harry Revel, Lyric by Mac Gordon

Where do we get that music that puts that swing so hot in us?
Where is life, never dull, hum-drum or monotonous?
Hop a subway, hop a cab,
Shoot right up to Harlem
Where the population
Found a new sensation.

Screen celebs and stage satellites,
Social debs and High hat-ellites,
Masses, classes, Doin' the Uptown Lowdown.
Where they spend their semolians
Just to watch those Creolians
Skippin', hippin', Doin' the Uptown Lowdown.

You'll find laughter afer midnight,
That's their play-time.
Hi-de-hay time!
What price, Yeah, man!

Bankers with their Cinderellatives,
List'ning to those hot hi-yellatives,
Up in Harlem, Doin' the Uptown Lowdown!

14th February 2006

1:10pm: If Wargaming is your true religion...
...and you have the stomach for bad poetry, read on.

It has the sound of Kipling and the ring of truth.

Advice to a British Lead Soldier
L'Envoi to Sand-table Sonatas
Flashdout Kasting
Dedicated to LVB

If yer painted with oils and washed with a brush,
If yer de-tail's all crisp and yer parting-line's flush,
Remember it don't mean a tittle or tush
To the Man Who Writes The Rules.

If yer coat's painted red when it ought to be blue,
An yer 'at's an off-color, yer skin's a sick hue,
It don't matter a bit 'ow some fool painted you,
For you lives and you dies by The Rules.

If yer paint is all chinky from years o' hard use,
An yer bayonet's gone an one arm's hangin loose,
Yer as good as the next 'un an' just as much use,
To the Man Who Writes The Rules.

Oh he knows all the hist'ry, he thinks an' he reads,
And what 'e don't know 'e can fake if he needs,
'E can tell you the pace of men, camels or steeds,
An' the 2D morale O' the mules.

He's a Solomon wise with a sceptre an' crown,
He's historian. mathematician and clown,
An' he don't care a whit (which is good!) for renown.
He's The Man Who Writes The Rules.

If yer lined with a marker, or lined with a pen,
Painted double-ought sable or camel-hair ten,
It's one an' the same when the dice roll again,
For you lives an' you dies by The Rules.

If yer base is magnetic, or coinage, or card,
If yer pose is high port, or reloading, or guard,
If yer bought by the casting or bought by the yard,
It don't mean a toss if yer plastic or hard
To The Man Who Writes The Rules.

On styrofoam hill or vermiculite plain,
When the tape-measures whirr and the dice roll again,
An' the pizza-smell's thick, so's to rattle yer brain,
It's The Rules that permit, an' The Rules that restrain,
And you lives and you dies by The Rules.

For the painter's a grind and the gamer's a plod;
The collector, 'e's just an obsessive old sod,
But I tell you, 'e's bloody well near to a God,
Is The Man Who Writes The Rules.

Oh, The Rules they are fresh, or The Rules, they are stale,
An' they favour the dusky or favour the pale,
An' they're overly broad or 'ave too much detail,
An' they don't know the difference 'twixt Congreve or Hale,
An' they finish too quick or they plod on too long,
An' they figure the spears or machine-guns too strong,
An' their cavalry movement is simply all wrong,
But when the dice sing o' their rattley song
It's all just the prattle of fools.
For you lives and you dies
Mind, you lives and you dies
Yes, you lives and you dies
By The Rules.

13th February 2006

9:16pm: The only thing pressing today is the strange schadenfreude I feel at Dick Cheney shooting a fellow hunter.

This is a terrible incident that just missed being a tragedy - no pun intended. But recalling Cheney's taking Kerry apart during the election for going duck hunting and shooting a goose by mistake, I feel nothing but righteous anger. The fact that the puppeteer accidentally did something much worse (ie. blew one of his key fundraisers in the face with .8 birdshot) somehow makes me feel warm inside.

I realize it makes me a small person to have posted like this my first time out of the gate, but it is nice to see Cheney have to eat crow rather than shoot quail.

I hope Mr. Whittington recovers quickly and thinks twice about where to send his millions next time around.
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