Friday, 22 April 2016

Wot I'm reading: Gore Vidal - America's gay pioneer

 Gore Vidal: THE CITY AND THE PILLAR


Continuing my intermittent trawl through through the 'classics' of modern gay literature, I've just re-read this novel from 1948, which I think is the very first 'home-grown' gay novel in the US. The literary establishment - and the critics - were vicious in their condemnation of Vidal. He rewrote the book in 1965 with major changes and this version, still reprinting today, has sold millions. The revised ending is less melodramatic than the original (murder) but the hero's "hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-wronged-faggot" action seems equally out-of-character.

Vidal's writing, especially in the later volumes of his American History series, became verbose and flatulent, almost a parody of Henry James. The City and the Pillar, like many early novels from writers in the 40s and 50s (and still all too often today), shows clearly the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald: lean, finely-honed prose with a kind of muscular elegance, which works supremely well for this chronicle of the coming-of-age and the coming-out of a gay high-school senior during WW2 and its aftermath. Jim Willard's briefly reciprocated love for a fellow student casts a shadow over the next decade of his life as he becomes a sailor, then a tennis-coach (and kept boy) in Hollywood and New York.

Scenes in NY and LA offer early glimpses of the archness that were to characterise the author's public persona in later life and reach an apotheosis in Myra Breckinridge and Myron, the two-volume high-octane farce which for many readers is at once his best and his worst writing. Ronald Shaw, the closeted actor who keeps Jim for a while, an on-screen macho-man who is privately needy and insecure, calls Rock Hudson to mind although the time of the story means he's more likely to be based on Randolph Scott or perhaps another version of the author. Paul Sullivan, the writer Jim comes close to loving, doesn't suggest Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, the 'obvious' candidates for a gay author, but again he may just be a twist on Gore, as Jim obviously is. In fact there are many moments that seem to demonstrate how a writer chops his own life into pieces to provide the basis for different characters, although in his autobiography Vidal insists his protagonists are not based on real people except for Bob Ford, Jim's lost love, and a woman 'inspired' by Anais Nin, whom Gore claims to have romanced. Many scenes - and many of the characters - could as well belong to New York or Los Angeles of today as to the 1940s. Except for some clunky conversations exploring the 'Nature Of Homosexuality' which must have seemed insightful as well as daring in 1948, this is a lot less dated than other gay novels of the era.

The sex scenes are almost as discreet as Mr Forster's - there's nothing as lurid or as dazzling as Gore would later concoct for Myra/Myron. But overall The City and the Pillar is not only an outstanding piece of gay fiction (better than many that were to come after Vidal opened the floodgates) but also one of the best novels of its era, different from but as exquisitely readable - still - as the early works of Capote and Carson McCullers.

In later life Gore overdid the bitchiness and bitterness, perhaps disappointed by his failure to make it as a realm presence in US politics, the role he most craved. But his output as novelist, historian and essayist was prodigious. Other writers may have left a bigger footprint (Roth, Mailer, Updike, Irving,), but Vidal deserves to admitted to the literary pantheon. He wouldn't thank me for this, but he is probably, as Somerset Maugham is supposed to have said of himself, "in the very front rank of the second-raters".

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

David at the movies:collateral damage has a face

EYE IN THE SKY


This comes over as something of a propaganda movie for the War on Terror. Using drones (including one designed to look like a housefly), a joint British-US-African intelligence team has tracked three Most Wanted Al-Shabab terrorists to a village house in Kenya where they are fitting up two freshman suicide bombers. Far from the killing zone, the drone 'mother-ship' is waiting to release its deadly missiles. But there's a girl selling loaves in the road outside the target house. 'Collateral damage' suddenly has a face, an identity.

Helen Mirren is in Jane Tennison mode as the UK mission controller. She and her boss (Alan Rickman in his final role) are pretty sanguine about the moral balance between one young bread vendor and the many lives that will be saved if the suicide bombers and their recruiters are taken out. But Whitehall mandarins (up to an including the Foreign Secretary) are a lot more squeamish than their opposite numbers in Washington. Surprisingly, the two people who will actually launch the missile (sitting at consoles in a Portakabin-like shed in faraway Hawaii) are allowed a voice in the debate. Is this credible? Surely they simply push the buttons they're ordered to push?

It's presumably meant to reassure us - as voters as well as moviegoers - that decisions about the lives of innocent civilians are weighed in the balance by military decision-takers. Given the recent history of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, this is a tough pill to swallow. But, credibility aside, Eye In the Sky is a tense nail-biting 'parable' about one short sharp episode in the endless battle between the Forces of Evil and those we like to hope (or wish) are the Forces of Good.


 EDDIE THE EAGLE


Eddie Edwards always was an awkward-looking kind of guy, and this is an awkward-looking biopic of his against-the-odds progress from a working-class home in Cheltenham to the Olympic ski-jump slopes of Calgary. His story has been heavily fictionalized, reworking elements from Chariots of Fire and Billy Elliott to chart the obstacles strewn in Eddie's path to glory: childhood health problems, an unsupportive father, funding shortages, a mean-spirited Olympic selector (Tim McInnerny in sneering overdrive). The Julie Walters role of the motherly coach dispensing tough love becomes a bumpy fraternal bond here, with Hugh Jackman as an ex-Olympian turned hardcore boozer.  Jackman contributes a solid if not entirely convincing presence, and Taron Egerton breathes real life into Eddie's dogged determination.

The jumping scenes unavoidably become repetitive and the redemptive 'bromance' is somewhat clunky, but like its predecessors Eddie the Eagle delivers moments of great charm and a rousing feel-good finale. A small movie with a big heart.


 GRIMSBY


I would be shirking my duty as your film critic if I didn't warn you, gentle sensitive reader, that this is the rudest, crudest, filthiest film I've ever seen. Remember how American Pie back in 1999 took us to new levels of toilet and cum jokes? Grimsby takes us way beyond that. The core story is a clumsy (very clumsy) satire on the Bond movies as naff Northern lad Sacha Baron Cohen joins his macho superspy brother Mark Strong in efforts to foil a Blofeld-sized global terror outrage. Locations, also mocking the Bond franchise, range from London (and Grimsby, not quite 007 territory) to South Africa and South America. James Bond has never faced quite the challenges confronting our intrepid heroes in an African safari park in the movie's high (and low) point.

Sacha's Nobby rewinds his 'shtick' back to its Ali G roots. Mark Strong does a splendid job as the comedian's never-so-straight man, and lovely Penelope Cruz clearly has fun in a role that tears her image to shreds.

I would also be shirking in my duty as a film critic if I didn't confess - oh dear! - that I don't think I have ever laughed so much at any other movie. The audience at our multiplex was convulsed, paralysed with laughter.  The humour in Grimsby is utterly puerile - almost an insult to the viewer's intelligence - but it totally works. I foresee a whole new Carry-On-style wave of (very precisely) "below the belt" comedies.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

A rarity: the movie that's better than the book

NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON


A couple of weeks ago I reviewed (see below) Pascal Mercier's novel, which was loved and praised by millions - but not by me. Now I've caught up with the 2013 movie version and become an admirer.

Film adaptions of 'serious' novels often fall terribly flat: The Magus, The House of the Spirits and Captain Corelli's Mandolin are three examples that spring quickly to mind. But everything that, for me, didn't work in the novel works so much better in the movie of Night Train to Lisbon. Uninspiring schoolmaster Gregorius (Jeremy Irons delivering a pleasing new take on his career-making Charles Ryder in Brideshead) gets on the train much more quickly after the disappearance of the woman he saved from suicide, and this shift in momentum is kept up in Lisbon as he tracks down the people who knew the mysterious author and revolutionary Amadeu. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney bring two of these shadowy figures to life in a way that the book somehow failed to, and a supporting cast recreate the drama and romance of the past in flashbacks which were merely 'as told to' stories in the novel. Jack Huston and Lena Olin give Amadeu and Estafania a vital poignancy that they lacked on the page.

Christopher Lee has a nice cameo as a priest, which must be one of his farewell appearances. The voice-over excerpts from Amadeu's sententious philosophy, so wearisome in the book, are kept to a minimum, enough to convey the novel's sense of self-importance without slowing the story to a snail's pace. Crucially, the mystery girl from the bridge reappears and is given a link to the central story that rounds it off neatly.

I don't know how I missed this movie three years ago. Although, had I seen the film first, I might have found the book even more of a disappointment. Racking my brains to think of another movie that does eloquent justice to a major novel, I've immediately come up with the John Schlesinger/Julie Christie version of Far From the Madding Crowd and Jack Nicholson's tour-de-force as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. 

Any other nominations for good/bad movie adaptations - via Comments?

Saturday, 9 April 2016

RIP, Jackie: "tasteless and flashy" to the end!

Jackie Collins: THE SANTANGELOS


We're not supposed to speak ill of the dead - so here goes! I gave up on Jackie Collins many books back. Yes, her Hollywood novels are glamorous and gossipy, like the film and pop 'fanzines' whose style she writes in, but the formula became very repetitious. And this one is no exception. We're not told how old Lucky Santangelo now is, the ruthless hotel and film studio mogul who is also the insatiable wife of comedian Lennie Golden and matriarch to a brood of gorgeous but dysfunctional children, now grown, who variously model, act, sing or run nightclubs. As always, there's lots of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. One of her characters uses "amazeballs" as a superlative, an adjective I'd only previously heard on TV's Miranda show. Everyone else uses the f-word, of course, excessively. "Tasteless and flashy" is how one bitchy character describes Lucky to her husband. There's no arguing with that.

Again as before, there's a vengeful psycho stalking Lucky's family and friends. This one, topically, is the ruler of an imaginary Arab state called Akramshar. His name is King Emir Amin Jordan - shouldn't that be al-Jordan? And how did her editors let ludicrous King Emir get into print?

RIP Jackie: will she write from beyond the grave?
Ms Collins writes her own kind of prose, which almost defies criticism. An undercover cop "was Puerto Rican and verging on pretty, in a tough 'don't fuck with me' kind of way." The bar on this sort of writing has been lowered rather than raised by la Collins during her long reign as the Queen of Hollywood fiction. She was famous for her raunchy sex scenes, all written with sledgehammer subtlety in fifty shades of scarlet and often unintentionally (or intentionally?) comic: "Men got off on her nipples; in full bloom, they were quite spectacular."

Harold Robbins, without any grand aspirations, was a much better writer: The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers had all the greed and gossip of a Collins novel, but his style had a kind of Mickey Spillane crispness and grandeur. Jackie Collins occasionally reaches for crisp but she cannot (couldn't) do grand.

Billed as 'The Final Chapter' in the life of Lucky Santegelo, this ninth instalment may not be the last. Harold Robbins carried on writing from beyond the grave, and so too may Jackie Collins. There's gold in them thar cemeteries.

The fabulous Collins sisters - only Joan is left now
Two weeks ago I reviewed a Southern Gothic thriller that was one of the best books I've read in the last few months. The Santangelos is far and away one of the worst: scrappily plotted, poorly written and under-edited. Total tosh, in fact, but - although I skimmed through chunks of it - I had to read through to the end! Jackie Collins had her own kind of magic: RIP.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Another girl gone in this stunning thriller

John Hart: THE LAST CHILD


It's six months since I discovered John Hart, reading Iron House, his most recent novel (there's a new one out next month). Iron House blew me away. The Last Child is his previous book, similarly set in North Carolina. 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon's twin sister was abducted a year ago and never found. His father has disappeared; his grief-wrecked mother has taken up with a bullying property magnate. Johnny spends many hours scouring the area looking for clues to his sister's disappearance. Another abduction and an encounter with a black vagrant who seems to know something spur the boy on. One local detective also refuses to let the case go cold and tries to watch over Johnny and his mom.

This is not a new theme but John Hart gives the story a Southern Gothic twist that makes it feel fresh and exciting. His prose style is as rich as Stephen King's: one suspicious local man "was sixty-eight, with bristled hair, two loose teeth  and eyes like raw oysters."  There's a riverside cemetery scene with an atmosphere that calls Charles Dickens to mind. The suspense builds to a vivid, visceral climax that tears at your heart strings.

Hart is a real find. Thrillers don't come any better than this. I can't wait to read the next one.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

"If you liked SHADOW OF THE WIND, you'll love .....

NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON

Well, that's what the back cover promises. And on the front cover Isabel Allende calls this "One of the best books I have read in a long time." An endorsement from the author of The House of the Spirits, and comparisons with Carlos Ruiz Zafon's modern masterpiece: who could resist? Sad to report, I somewhat wish I had.

Shortly after saving a beautiful Portuguese woman from suicide, Raimund Gregorius, a middle-aged Swiss teacher, comes across a book of modern philosophy by an obscure Portuguese doctor turned revolutionary during the time of Salazar. Gregorius abandons Bern for Lisbon and a quest to learn more about the mysterious author (and, the reader must surely hope, re-encounter the equally mysterious lady). It's a long and slow journey, almost entirely comprised of encounters with men and women who knew and loved/admired Amadeu de Prado. The author punctuates the narrative with chunks of Prado's sententious prose. 

This is not an easy read. The book is well written (and translated) but the passion that drives Allende's writing is missing, and so is the undistilled magic of Zafon's. The prevailing (albeit prejudiced) view of the Swiss is that they are staid, precise, somewhat dull. And that's how Night Train to Lisbon felt to me through most of its 430 pages. The slow unravelling of a mystery was the core element in John Fowles's splendid The Magus, the first modern epic (1966) on a slightly 'supernatural' theme. But there just isn't enough mystery in Lisbon; and the ending was a disappointment.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Wot I'm reading: A 21st-century LGBT soap opera

Elizabeth Lister: CONSEQUENCES

 

'Were the women who stayed in unhappy marriages for the sake of their children the ones who got it right?' Elizabeth Lister asks this question in the first chapter of her new novel and then introduces us to a wife who decides not to stay.

Set in an unnamed town in the British Midlands, the book resumes the saga of Ms Lister's previous heroine Tracy Manners, a lesbian whose life has had many ups and downs. Her latest companion is Clara, who leaves her husband and takes her eight-year-old daughter to live with Tracy. Clara's uber-bitch mother is horrified at this turn of events, her spineless father less so. Her husband also lets his life take a new direction.

Clara's brother Colin is a closeted gay; the closet gets quite crowded and then empties as the pacy plot unravels. With bisexuality, rape and even incest among the ingredients, Consequences is on the cutting edge of contemporary drama. It has all the pace and energy of a soap opera, albeit a very modern, 'metrosexual' one!