Sunday, November 19, 2017

John Banville's Mrs Osmond

my review of the new John Banville novel from yesterday's Weekend Australian...
...not a whole heartedly ringing endorsement I am sorry to say...
Mrs Osmond by John Banville

When a writer turns to pastiche in the later stages of his career he is either paying a compliment to the muse that inspired him throughout the difficult times or else the poor soul has run completely out of ideas. What to make then of John Banville’s Mrs Osmond which is the second pastiche he has published in the last two and a half years? Banville’s previous effort, The Black-Eyed Blonde, was a journeyman-like sequel to the Raymond Chandler novel The Long Good-bye that although lacking Chandler’s gift for simile, did echo Chandler’s skill for characterization and occasional seat-of-your-pants plotting.  
            Mrs Osmond is a sequel to Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady, a novel Banville has proclaimed in interviews to be the greatest example of the form in the English language.
            Portrait famously ends with the beautiful and brilliant Isabel Osmond (née Archer) realising that the spiteful Gilbert Osmond has married her for her money and that his long term mistress is Madame Merle. Isabel quits Rome after visiting Pansy, Osmond’s daughter, to comfort the dying Ralph Touchett in England, where she remains until his death. An unpleasant encounter with Caspar Goodwood forces her to flee again back to Rome. The reader is left in a delicious state of unknowing, pondering whether Isabel is returning to Osmond to live heroically for Pansy's sake or whether she is going to somehow rescue Pansy and leave Osmond.
            John Banville steps into the breach to tell us what he thinks happens next. We don’t, of course, immediately get the satisfying confrontation with Isabel’s dirtbag scrub of a husband Gilbert Osmond. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait, Wilkie Collins observed and Banville first gives us something of a Bradshaw’s railway tour of fin de siècle Europe through France and Switzerland where Isabel meets various characters we encountered in the original. We meet again the charming Hildy Johnson prototype, Henrietta Stackpole, with her crazy ideas about freedom for women. The villainous Madame Merle shows up and the two Osmond women circle one another like sabre wielding duellists looking for an opening. We rendezvous with the terribly nice Edward Rosier, who pursued Pansy’s hand in marriage but who was turned down by her snobbish father. Isabel seeks out her sister-in-law, Countess Gemini who, in Portrait, revealed all about her brother, and we get another run in with the delightfully batty Mrs Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, who saved her from a life of genteel dullness in Massachusetts.
            Banville does a nice job building upon and enhancing these characters although the conversations don’t do a whole lot to forward the story. Banville has garnered much praise for imitating the prose, syntax  and page length paragraphs of Henry James. His homaging skills are indeed impressive and I doubt whether even a James scholar could tell the difference between a Banville description of a French railway carriage and the actual article.
            The dialogue is a little harder to swallow, for Banville often attempts a facsimile of Henry James’s ill judged attempts at wit. James’s genius clearly did not run to banter, although his admirers urge us to overlook this defect by explaining that humour does not age well. This defence is unconvincing as Portrait shares a decade with Oscar Wilde’s first plays, peak Mark Twain and Jerome K Jerome – all of whom remain laugh out loud funny. A Portrait of a Lady becomes a great novel once the gears have begun to turn and James stops malleting us with the stale jokes and ghastly repartee of its initial chapters. When Banville tries to replicate James’s jocularity the results are almost unbearably tedious.
            The wheels of Banville’s novel inevitably turn towards a revenge plot that many readers will find satisfactory. I was a little bit unconvinced by all of this and found the set to with Gilbert as anti climactic as the Bride’s meeting with Bill at the end of Kill Bill – a touchstone I’m not sure Banville or James would wholly approve of. However, this brings me to the larger point: the ending of A Portrait of a Lady was perfect as it was and when I finished Mrs Osmond I was left wondering why Banville had done all of this.
            The popular parody Twitter account @John_Banville imagines Banville, Colm Toibin and Roddy Doyle spitting at one another in a state of perpetual feud. After Colm Toibin published his best selling biographical Henry James novel, The Master, the @John_Banville account erupted in a jealous rage, claiming he could do better and sell more. The actual John Banville, I’m sure, had more lofty goals in mind but artistically Mrs Osmond doesn’t come close to The Master’s concentrated brilliance, psychological penetration or deep emotional resonance.
            Mrs Osmond however is not a total waste of everyone’s time. Banville is a professional and nothing in this book will unduly disturb a Henry James completest. Fans of the novel and the Nicole Kidman film might well enjoy this as a harmless entertainment. Mrs Osmond is competent, safe and reliably dull. I am with Gunter Grass here, it may be an arid book, but it is a book nonetheless and therefore sacred.
           The real psychic toll of Mrs Osmond will not be on the reader but will be on the author. As a Booker Prize Winner and perpetual longlistee for the Nobel Prize (another subject the @John_Banville parody account hilariously mocks) John Banville can petty much publish anything he wants now. We can only hope that something exciting happens to him in real life or else, no doubt, a disheveled, rosy-cheeked Molly Bloom shall arise from her linen sheets and be coming soon to a bookshop near you in a quality hardback edition. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

One Football Team For Ireland?

Both Irelands exit from the World Cup qualifiers has prompted me to repost this from a while back. 
Republic of Ireland is out of the World Cup again and Northern Ireland has not played in a World Cup since Mexico in 1986 when they were eliminated in the first round. The recent success of Iceland aside I think it will be very hard for either North or South to qualify again. In the 1980's the Iron Curtain was still intact, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union only fielded one team each and Northern Ireland could usually secure a second or third seed in the group competition. The standard of play and the number of countries has increased in Eastern Europe since and typically Northern Ireland now gets a third or fourth seed with virtually no hope of making it to the World Cup finals against superior opposition. Northern Irish fans have coasted on memories of the 1982 World Cup when we came within a whisker of making it to the semis, but those glory days were more than a generation past and the current squad wd need to get very lucky to qualify now. The situation in the Republic of Ireland is better. Since their nadir in the 1980's the Republic has been to three World Cups: 1990, 1994 and 2002. Both Irelands qualified for the last European Championship but the World Cup Finals now seem like a bridge too far for both of them.
It wasn’t Northern Ireland’s fault that football - unlike rugby - became split in Ireland. Dublin was the centre for Gaelic Games on the island and Belfast was traditionally the centre for football. The Irish Football Association was (and still is) based in Belfast but during the partition, a rival federation, the FAI, was established in Dublin in 1921. It was nationalists in Dublin who divided football on the island of Ireland, not unionists in the North. Confusion reigned for the next thirty years with dozens of players getting called up by both Ireland federations until, in the 1950's, Con Martin, Davy Walsh, Tommy Ahern and Reg Ryan had the odd distinction of playing for the IFA and FAI teams in World Cup qualifiers. FIFA put a stop to this by ordering a renaming of the Irish teams and a strict division of players: footballers born in Eire would play for the Republic of Ireland, those born in the north, Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland still managed to punch above its weight, qualifying for the 1958 World Cup and then producing such stars as George Best, Pat Jennings, Sammy McIroy and Danny Blanchflower, before the heroics of the Espana ‘82 campaign. Northern Ireland fans are a small but dedicated bunch and I have been to many memorable home games at Windsor Park. The defeats of England and Germany come to mind and truly anything can happen there in that tiny, intimidating ground in the heart of west Belfast. But now that the team has been eliminated from its eighth World Cup in a row it is time to face facts, an all Ireland team is our best hope of ever getting to the Cup again and over the long term an all Ireland team might do quite well, especially if it began to draw players from all of Ireland’s football codes. Ireland north and south has a population of nearly 6 1/2 million people which is much bigger than Scotland or Wales and bigger even that Denmark, Finland and Norway who are pretty successful footballing nations.
The all Ireland rugby team is currently ranked fourth in the world and an all Ireland football team would surely rise in the FIFA rankings. There are of course many problems with this scheme. Firstly, the IFA would be furious at the loss of money and prestige if home games moved to the Aviva stadium in Dublin. Secondly, football is not rugby, rugby in Ireland is a middle class game that no one, deep down, really gets too serious about whereas football is important and comes with a heavy sectarian baggage that rugby does not possess. I concede these points, but one way to win over hearts and minds in Belfast would be to play half the home games there. Loyalist and Republican paraphernalia and flags could be banned completely as they are for Belfast Giants games and then you might even see some Catholic supporters or families with children, rarities both in Windsor Park. Sectarianism is not the universal acid it once was in Belfast and it shouldn’t be forgot that Glasgow is a city divided between Rangers and Celtic supporters who come together to boo England at Hampden Park.
Another difficulty is that many Northern Ireland players would fight to qualify for an all Ireland team; perhaps none of the current team would be good enough. But competition is ultimately a good thing, you want footballers playing their hearts out to get selected for the national team, not just assuming they’ve made it because they’re on a big club in the EPL. The Irish rugby team grants no favors to players because they are from Ulster or any of the other provinces and that has made the team stronger. Of course the diehard sectarian nutcase ‘supporters’ will never buy into this plan, but the whole point of the peace process in Northern Ireland is to build cross community bridges and displace sectarianism whenever possible. Money, patience and trust, but especially money from FIFA, UEFA and the British and Irish governments could grease a lot of wheels and make it happen. It’s already too late to get the ball rolling for Qatar 2022 but that's a bullshit corrupt world cup anyway. 2026 in North America seems like a better bet. I know some people will say, hold on a minute, it's not just about winning it's about playing the game, old chap. Yeah, pal, that may apply to some sports but not to football.
Of course none of this is likely ever to happen. FIFA, the FAI, the IFA all guard their fiefdoms jealously and most of the fans lack the imagination to see that this wd actually be a good thing in the long run. I think it wd work and be good and maybe in a parallel universe it will happen, not this one.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Liam McIlvanney on Rain Dogs and Sean Duffy

as part of the Irish Times book club pick last month, the IT asked a whole bunch of writers and academics to write pieces about the Duffy series, particularly Rain Dogs. We got lovely articles from Ian Rankin, Diana Gabaldon, Val McDermid, Brian McGilloway and Brian Cliff but the one I wanted to highlight here was one from Burns scholar and Professor of Irish and Scottish Studies at Otago University, Liam McIlvanney. I think Prof McIlvanney (son of the inventor of Tartan Noir William McIlvanney and a superb noir novelist in his own right) just somehow hits the nail on the head... Judge for yourself.... 

‘I’m not a great detective,’ DI Sean Duffy says at one point in Rain Dogs: ‘maybe I’m not even a good detective, but I am bloody persistent’. As a writer, Adrian McKinty has been bloody persistent – he has seventeen books to his name – but he has also been very, very good. It has taken some time, but the rest of the world is finally getting wise to what many of us have long understood: Adrian McKinty is one of the most intelligent, daring and stylish crime writers currently at work today.
His breakthrough books have been the Sean Duffy thrillers. Set during the Troubles, the Duffy series could be construed as historical fiction. Certainly, McKinty has a deft touch with period detail and there are walk-on parts for big-name historical figures – both Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Savile have cameos in Rain Dogs. But the books don't feel like historical novels. They’re far too urgent and too topical. In Rain Dogs, powerful men abuse the vulnerable with the connivance of shifty underlings. This is Savile and the seventies, but it’s also Weinstein and now. It’s as if McKinty has found in Troubles Belfast an artful optic on the compromises and corruptions of today turning a historical lens on our own times to. 
The character of Duffy – droll, dissident, driven – anchors the series, but equally vivid is the treatment of place. Belfast and Carrickfergus are like Duffy’s on-off lovers. Coronation Road, the murderous rain, the rusting hulks of the giant cranes: he loves it all and he hates it too. The poetry of the streets is everywhere in McKinty. You can hear Ciaran Carson as well as Raymond Chandler in McKinty’s setting of scene: ‘Clouds over the Knockagh monument. A storm over the condemned city of Belfast’. But McKinty doesn’t get carried away: he never lets you forget that beneath the spurious troublespot glamour lies an impenetrable bedrock of provincial ennui. 
As a Scot, I particularly relish the Caledonian dimension to McKinty’s work. County Antrim may be the only place on the planet where you can see whole swathes of Scotland from the outside, and ‘the blue line of Scotland’ looms large in the Duffy books (as it does in that earlier Troubles masterpiece, Maurice Leitch’s Silver’s City). Mr Underhill, the begrudging caretaker in Rain Dogs, with his ‘defensive John Laurie cadence’, is perhaps McKinty’s most finely realized Scot, and his Lallans dialect – ‘I soon kenned that she was deed. So I went in and called the poliss’ – is pitch perfect. Even the Antrim locals in McKinty’s novels speak ‘a form of lowland Scots straight out of Robert Burns’, and words like ‘sheugh’, ‘wean’ and ‘wraith’ give the prose its colloquial pep. 
It was Raymond Chandler who held that ‘the most durable thing in writing is style’. If that’s true, then expect McKinty’s novels to last. He writes an insouciant vernacular prose that can somehow absorb words like ‘lepidopterously’ without breaking stride. Too much crime fiction is written in a frictionless, disposable style. McKinty doesn't do disposable, but he does almost everything else.
He can do staccato itemizing à la James Ellroy: ‘Light off. Close my eyes. Sleep. Dream.’ He can give you spare, starkly Carveresque action: ‘I aimed the Glock at his heart and pulled the trigger’. But he can also take off into lyrical flights that are beyond the scope of most of his contemporaries: ‘The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystic parabolas’. Descriptive riffs of this quality are strewn throughout McKinty’s fiction, and it’s these that finally set him apart. His prose style is vital, vigorous and – as that other Carrickfergus boy, Louis MacNeice, would have it – ‘incorrigibly plural’. If you're not reading him already, do yourself a favour: start now.

Liam McIlvanney

Thursday, November 9, 2017

How To Make A Cup Of Tea

A few years ago the Guardian stepped into the great "how to make a cup of tea" debate with its scientific "proof" that you must put the milk into the cup first and then the tea (which is hopefully after the tea leaves have been brewed in a tea pot). The comment thread under that article is a fascinating poke into the dark recesses of the British mind... 
There are many many blogs and websites relating to tea and tea making out there but if you want one of the first and best articles I think you have to go back George Orwell's famous "A Nice Cup Of Tea", which can be read here, and was originally published in the Evening Standard in 1946. I'm not going to rehash Orwell here as you should just jolly well click the link and read the piece for yourself. It's very fun reading and basically sound advice if you want to make tea the old fashioned way. Christopher Hitchens attempts (not entirely successfully) to update Orwell's tea making instructions, here, but at least Hitchens admits to the existence of something called a tea bag. The Guardian commenters and tea purists would rather see their sons and daughters run off to join a cult than use a tea bag, but I am comfortable with the tea bag and use it myself much of the time. I agree with Hitchens however that tea bags should NEVER be left in a cup of tea and when I watch the Big Bang Theory etc. I find myself utterly aghast when characters walk around the set with tea bag rat tails dangling down the side of their mugs. The tea is stewing that whole time getting more and more tannic and unpleasant. Get the tea bag out of the mug as quickly as possible is my advice. 
I make the best cup of tea in our house. My tea is a comforting brew that can be given to sniffly children or confused Jehovahs Witnesses* or people who have just had a road accident. Its not a purists tea. Its milky, often made with a tea bag (although sometimes leaves) and it often contains SUGAR. Yes that's right, I said it. I sometimes put sugar in my tea. Orwell disagrees, the Guardian disagrees, Hitchens disagrees but when the mood strikes I like sugar in my bloody tea. Tea with sugar was the drink that built and lost the British Empire. Tea with milk and sugar was the drink they drank while breaking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, that the pilots drank in the Battle of Britain, etc. 
Anyway, this is how I make tea. Like I say if you're a purist or some kind of tea nut STOP READING NOW. 
1. Boil kettle. 
2. While kettle is boiling, add milk and either Ceylon Orange Pekoe tea leaves (in a tea infusion ball) or a strong tea bag (Twinings Assam Bold is a good one) to the mug. Let the tea and the milk mingle. No one, and I mean no one, ever does this but I do and I explain why below. 
3. Add the boiling water to the milk. (In my opinion boiling water scalds the tea and ruins it but if you add the hot water to the milk it suffuses through the tea bag or the softened tea leaves and gives you a very gentle, pleasing drink.)
4. Remove the tea bag after about 45 seconds. 
5. Add sugar to taste. I prefer one tea spoon. 
6. Stir. And there we go: a mellow, comforting, delicious beverage....
*The Jehovahs Witnesses are always confused because I always invite them in and offer them tea (everyone else on the street is always rude to them but they're not all trying to dodge doing any writing...)

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Boys Are Back In Town

I'll be doing TWO events at the Noireland festival in Belfast on Saturday, October 28th. Both of these events are taking place at the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street. The first event is at 11.30 - 12.30 where I will be participating on a panel on Identities...
Secondly (and this isn't on the festival programme because it's an event sponsored by the Irish Times) I'll be recording the Irish Times Book Club podcast at 1.00 pm with the Irish Times books editor, Martin Doyle also in the Europa Hotel. I believe this is a free event. So don't miss out! 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Val McDermid on McKinty and Rain Dogs

the great Val McDermid was kind enough to write an article about me and my novel Rain Dogs for the Irish Times Book Club. With permission here it is below
In the 1980s, for most people living in Britain, Northern Ireland was, to quote Neville Chamberlain, “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. But although the consequences were less catastrophic than Chamberlain’s attempts at appeasement, consequences there were for the citizenry on both sides of the Irish Sea who chose not to engage with that quarrel.
The only way to avoid history repeating itself is to make an effort to understand it. Some of that understanding comes from historians and political analysts. But by far the most effective route to getting under the skin of the past comes from the people who make it up – the novelists, the film-makers, the TV scriptwriters and even the poets.
If you doubt me, then pick up any of the Sean Duffy novels by Adrian McKinty. Duffy is a cop, but he’s a million light years away from the slab-faced monoliths who regularly spoke for the RUC during the Troubles. Duffy’s an iconoclast. A dope-smoking, music-loving, sarcastic smartarse who nevertheless can’t escape a deep-rooted commitment to the place he loves. He’s a contrarian – a Catholic RUC man who lives in the heart of the loyalist community – and that’s the ultimate key to his personality.
In Duffy, McKinty has created the perfect character to explore the fragmented, savage and often contradictory world of law enforcement in Northern Ireland, a world where the worst crimes are sometimes perpetrated by those charged with protecting their communities.

Mordant excursions

In Rain Dogs, the fifth in the series, Duffy lifts this to a new level with mordant excursions into the wider world. The book opens with a glorious set piece, a fictitious Belfast visit by Muhammad Ali, leaping “lepidopterously” on stage to sting like a bee. “He had shadow-boxed, he had waved, he had lied and told them their city was aesthetically pleasing. He could have run for Mayor on a Nation of Islam ticket and won on a first-round voice vote of the council.”
And this in spite of support from Bono, protests from the National Front and Ian Paisley’s “elderly band of evangelical parishioners, singing their discontent in… determinedly joyless psalmody”. This is a writer delighting in his linguistic facility; not showing off, but sharing it with the rest of us.
That brio never leaves Rain Dogs, even when despair and disaster visit Duffy. And there are plenty of those dotted through a novel whose murder mystery is only one segment of a disturbing journey through the dark duplicities of spider-web conspiracies. There’s an audacity to McKinty’s imagination that makes the reader draw breath sharply.
But he never relinquishes his hold on the understanding that wit and sharp observation is what keeps us reading long after we should have turned out the light. Duffy’s perversity, his sarcasm and his self-deprecation are what anchor us to these books. As well as the deft plotting, of course. Here, a stolen wallet, a Finnish trade delegation and a locked room murder cleverly lead us to the rotten core of a deeper conspiracy.
And that’s how the lessons of history seep seamlessly into our consciousness. If you want to understand where we are in 2017, read Rain Dogs. Better still, read all the Sean Duffy novels.

Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty is October’s Irish Times Book Club pick. Ian Rankin and Brian McGilloway will be contributing articles about McKinty throughout the month, along with an essay by a serving Catholic PSNI officer, which will be published anonymously as his life is still under threat from dissident paramilitaries. The series will culminate in a public interview with McKinty conducted by Irish Times Books Editor Martin Doyle in Belfast’s Europa Hotel (Europe’s most bombed etc) on Saturday, October 28th, at 1pm as part of the inaugural NOIRELAND International Crime Fiction Festival, which runs from October 27th-29th. The podcast of the interview will be available on October 30th.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Blade Runner 2049's Literary Background

A short video I made looking at the literary background to the new film Blade Runner 2049. (Mild spoilers.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Irish Times Book Club And Rain Dogs

the essay I wrote for the Irish Times on how and why I began the Sean Duffy series and a brief intro to my novel Rain Dogs which is the Irish Times's book club pick for the month of October:
It was July 2011 and I was facing something of a crisis. I had missed the deadline for my new novel by six months and I still had no book. I’d been writing thrillers and mystery novels at a pace of a book a year for the previous eight years and now the well had run completely dry. I’d been teaching during the day and at night staring at a blank computer screen with bleary eyes.
            Half a year of worsening writers block and no pages at all.
            And then one morning very late or very early I wrote: “The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife.”
            When I woke up the next day I read the paragraph and liked it but I was immediately alarmed because I knew that this passage had taken place in Belfast. When my first novel had come out in 2003 it had been well reviewed and I’d been called in to pitch a TV show to the BBC. I’d offered them a Sweeney/Starsky and Hutch style crime drama set in Belfast during the 70’s and had been told in no uncertain terms that this would not fly. A wise old owl at the Beeb advised me to avoid Northern Ireland as a subject matter at all costs because “nobody in Ireland wanted to think about The Troubles ever again, no one in England wanted to think about Northern Ireland ever again and the Americans still thought of Ireland in terms of The Quiet Man and wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about.”
            In 2003 the Irish crime fiction scene was on life support with maybe a dozen titles per year. I saw that the Wise Old Owl was right. So, for the next eight years, I’d written about pretty much everywhere I’d ever been to in my life except Belfast.
            Until now. Not only was this 2 a.m. paragraph Belfast but it was Belfast in 1981 right after Bobby Sands’s death in the dark heart of The Troubles. I called the book The Cold Cold Ground and assumed my publishers weren’t going to be too happy with a Troubles era novel – but when everybody’s telling you not to write about a certain subject it’s almost certainly the subject you should be writing about. I sent the synopsis to my US publishers who promptly turned it down but fortunately my UK publishers said yes.
            I grew up alienated from literary fiction which I saw as a genre for and about upper middle class people, consequently I’ve always wanted to use crime fiction as a vector for making art; in Cold Cold Ground I tried to do exactly that as well as discussing a lot of interesting themes, particularly race, religion, gender and sexuality. I set the book in the terrace where I was literally born and raised, in a working class housing estate in Carrickfergus. I wanted a protagonist that would generate a lot of friction and fracture lines with the people of that street so I made him Catholic, a policeman, Bohemian, middle-class and I gave him a Derry accent.
            When the novel came out it not only got the best reviews of my career but it actually sold, which was a complete novelty. I’d always been well reviewed but no one had actually gone out and bought the bloody books. I think readers can sniff out authenticity. Before I’d been making stuff up but now I was telling the truth. Not what Werner Herzog calls the truth of accountants, but artistic and emotional truth. Thirty years had passed and people were ready to hear about had really happened during Belfast’s thirty year suicide attempt from 1968-1998.
            I thought The Cold Cold Ground was going to be only book I’d ever do on The Troubles so in the end I tried to say too much and I forgot things. I remembered the bombings and murder and racism and homophobia but I forgot that in the midst of tragedy Belfast has always used jet black humour as its coping mechanism.  
            In the subsequent books in what became the Sean Duffy series I managed to wrangle the tone closer to the way it actually was back then. Chiaroscuro works because the darkness and light are in balance.
             Rain Dogs begins in the winter of 1987. A young woman is found dead in Carrickfergus Castle just outside of Belfast. The woman is a reporter for the Financial Times who was allegedly depressed and suicidal. Rain Dogs starts as a conventional locked room mystery, becomes an almost meta reflection on locked room mysteries in general, detours to Finland and the “abortion special” overnight ferry to Liverpool before bringing it back to Belfast again.
            Two men I met in real life – Jimmy Savile and Muhammad Ali – are catalysts for the book and both of them make an appearance in the novel. 
            Rain Dogs is the fifth book in the Sean Duffy series and by this stage I understand the characters well enough to let them tell their story through me. Duffy still lives in the house where I was born (113 Coronation Road, Carrickfergus) and he is still a man out of joint with his neighbours, 80’s music, Thatcher, Reagan, the RUC, the Provos and the whole scene. The book won the Edgar Award which was a completely unexpected international breakthrough.
            There is one more Sean Duffy novel after Rain Dogs, the economically titled Police At The Station And They Don’t Look Friendly, but Rain Dogs works as a standalone and it ends on the kind of rickety transition that I love to see in novels and music. Happiness for Sean is out there, as it is for all of us, fleeting and frail, just a little snowdrop of light, but definitely there, burrowing out of the dark earth where it’s been hiding all along.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My 12 Favourite Film Noirs

"40's style with added robot"
a post from last year
The Blu Ray release of the quintessential film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), is as good an excuse as any to watch a classic noir. But what exactly counts as film noir in the first place? It's a tricky definitional problem. Although the classic noir era is over it’s not easy to define what noir was or when the noir period definitively ended. If you're going to say that nothing after 1959 counts as a proper noir (which a lot of film historians do) then many of my favourites below aren't going to make it. But the following is my list and my rules so I'm going to say that the cut off date is August 1987 when John Huston died (director and actor in many of the greatest noirs) which allows me to cheat a little. Obviously these are idiosyncratic choices and apologies if your favourites (Night and the City, Pickup on South Street, DOA, Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, Cutter’s Way etc.) didn’t quite fit into the top 12.

12. The Asphalt Jungle
Directed by John Huston (1950)
Sterling Hayden gets himself mixed up in a robbery, but the real fun is watching the gang unravel under the pressure of success. Crosses and double crosses, a cameo by a purring Marilyn Monroe, an impressive Sam Jaffe as Doc  Riedenschneider; this is one of the all time great heist-gone-wrong films.

11. The Killing
Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1956)
Sterling Hayden gets himself mixed up in another robbery and again everything goes wrong after it all goes right. Hayden’s  Johnny Clay is a pacing, muscular, cerebral criminal, but while lady luck is on his side at the track it isn’t at the airport.

10. The Third Man
Directed by Carol Reed (1949)
Orson Welles is dead, or is he? Orson Welles is a bad guy, or is he? Joseph Cotten tries to find out or does he? Sewers, a Ferris wheel, duffle coats, the cuckoo clock speech, oh and the greatest existential ending of a film ever...

9. The Postman Always Rings Twice
Directed by Tay Garnett (1946)
Huge rip off. There is no postman or doorbell. Lana Turner smoulders and John Garfield is sucked willingly into the gravitational pull of her platinum sun. The plan is to kill her old man and take the insurance money. They know it’s not going to work but they do it anyway. Brilliant.

8. The Big Steal
Directed by Don Siegel (1949)
Don Siegel began his career directing the montages for Casablanca and finished it directing various Clint Eastwood vehicles in the 70’s, which isn’t a bad career at all. Along the way he made this slice of noir about an army lieutenant wrongly accused of robbery who pursues the real crook through Mexico. Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer stand out in a terrific cast.

7. Strangers On A Train
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1951)
Two strangers meet on a train and realise that they both need someone bumped off.  Based on a slyly brilliant book by Patricia Highsmith with a script by Raymond Chandler and an uncredited Ben Hecht, Alfred Hitchcock entered his great 1950’s period with this perfect stomach churning noir. Robert Walker chews the scenery as Bruno, a charming psychopath who wants out from under the heel of his father. Farley Granger provides able support.

6. Rififi
Directed by Jules Dassin (1957)
Jules Dassin got his start directing Yiddish films in New York, then he moved into mainstream Hollywood movies (directing the great Night and the City), then he got blacklisted, moved to France and directed this noir classic, with a cynical, bitter Jean Servais as an excon with a plan for a robbery on a jewellery shop. The heist itself is the highpoint of the film with its famous 10 minute zero dialogue, zero music, coming-through-the-ceiling scene. Everything succeeds perfectly but this being a noir you know that somehow it isn’t all going to end with expensive plonk and cottages in the Dordogne.

5. The Maltese Falcon
Directed by John Huston (1941)
Humphrey Bogart is tough guy private eye Sam Spade who helps Mary Astor locate a missing relic from the Knights of Malta that might be knocking around the streets of San Francisco. Also after the “black bird” are a snivelling Peter Lorre and a lugubrious Sydney Greenstreet. The ending is a bit contrived (although faithful to the novel) and fits with the best traditions of downbeat, pessimistic noirdom.

4. The Big Sleep
Directed by Howard Hawks (1946)
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall star, William Faulkner wrote the screenplay, Raymond Chandler wrote the novel. I’ve seen this half a dozen times and I still don’t really get the plot: something about a missing Irish rebel, a pornographer and dodgy films, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the chemistry between Bogie and Betty Bacall. Hawks runs a tight ship throughout but lets the future Mr and Mrs Bogart really rip in their scenes. Grainy, dirty, rainy and slick, this is probably the highpoint of Hawks’s impressive career.

3. Double Indemnity
Directed by Billy Wilder (1944)
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck star in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of the James Cain novel. It’s another knock-off-the-hubbie-and-get-the-insurance scheme. Babs rocks the sunglasses and angora sweater look and poor Fred doesn’t stand a chance (neither does the husband of course). Raymond Chandler argued with Billy Wilder, drank like a fish and somehow wrote the screenplay. He has a brief cameo at 16 minutes in (his only appearance in a movie.)

2. Blade Runner
Directed by Ridley Scott (1982)
Some people are under the mistaken belief that this is only a science fiction movie but in fact it’s a classic noir. Filmed on The Maltese Falcon set on the Warner’s back lot, it’s the story of half a dozen people trying to make sense of life before they themselves die. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a Blade Runner, whose speciality is hunting androids who have returned to a dystopic, ruined Earth. Along the way he falls for the beautiful replicant, Rachael, who’s so convincingly human that she doesn’t even know that she’s a machine. Based on Philip K Dick’s short novel of ideas: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, Ridley Scott has turned this material into a metaphysical detective story where the detective finds out not who done it, but how to be a good human being.

1. Chinatown
Directed by Roman Polanski (1973)
You know what happens to nosy fellows? They get their noses cut off. No, really, they do and it's not pretty. Robert Towne wrote this gloriously depressing tale of a 1930’s Private Eye (Jack Nicholson) who uncovers a plot to steal water from the city of Los Angeles and divert it to land in the San Fernando valley. One man finds out the truth and his wife (Faye Dunaway), hires ex Chinatown cop, Nicholson, to find out who did him in. The villain of the piece is John Huston, playing Dunaway’s rapist father with gleeful malevolence. Roman Polanski’s direction is lush, romantic and old fashioned. His cameo as a knife wielding maniac is disturbing on all sorts of levels. But all the performances are pitch perfect (look out for James Hong who plays the butler in this and a genetic designer in Blade Runner). The ending of Chinatown is melodramatic and a little rushed, but it still works, and as in all the really best noirs the hero is thwarted and beaten. (I feel that Robert Altman's superb version of The Long Goodbye also from 1973 (and also filmed in LA) is marred a bit by its satisfying ending.) Noirs teach us that defeat lies ahead for us all; learning how to deal with this defeat and ultimately death itself is the only meaning of life we’re ever going to get in this world of tears.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Max Tegmark's Multiverses

Max Tegmark
one of my favourite posts from two years ago...
Our Mathematical Universe by physicist Max Tegmark is a popular science book in which he unpacks his theory of the level 1,2,3 and 4 multiverses and then in the last third explains his theory of the mathematical universe. I understood the multiverse idea (the first 3 multiverses anyway) but I didn't really get his concept of the mathematical universe (he's either saying that all the laws of physics depend upon fundamental mathematical concepts which isn't very interesting, or he's saying that everything in the universe (suns, planets, you, me, our conscious minds,) is mathematics itself, i.e. we are living in a platonic universe of numbers that only thinks it's a physical universe - this is a very interesting concept indeed but seems completely crazy to me.) I don't have the competence to judge the last third of the book but I do want to talk about the multiverse idea which is fascinating.
The level 1 multiverse is very easy to understand. All Tegmark is saying here is that space is infinite and beyond the visible light boundary of our universe there must be other shit out there. Indeed there must be entire universes out there. This is the cool part: since space is infinite and the different way atoms in a universe can assemble themselves is huge, but, crucially, finite, then there must, logically, be universes out there with an exact replica of you reading this and me typing this. Indeed there are an infinite number of universes out there with exact replicas of you and me, and an infinite number of universes where we are slightly different, or you became President or we both swam the Hellespont or I ended up playing rugby for Ireland (I still believe this cd actually happen). Infinity is a very powerful concept and creates some surprising results. Like I say, cool stuff. 
The level 2 multiverse is also easy to comprehend. In the expansion phase of our universe just after the Big Bang a 'baby universe' was formed that became our universe, an infinite number of these formed, some with completely different laws of physics than our own, but sentient entities like you and me could only exist in one like ours, the Goldilocks one where gravity, Plancks constant, the electro-magnetic force etc. balance perfectly. But again because an infinite number of these multiverses formed there are other yous and mes out there in slightly different physical realities.
The level 3 multiverse is a trickier beast to grasp. Tegmark and what he claims are "an increasing number of quantum physicists" are beginning to reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that has been the dominant interpretation of quantum physics since the 1920's. If you remember the infamous "double slit experiment" from high school you'll recall that when an electron is fired through a piece of metal with a double slit in it sometimes the election acts like a wave and sometimes like a particle. No understands why this is so and it is deeply mysterious to this day. The Copenhagen interpretation basically says that the electron both goes through one slit and does not go through the same slit at the same time. When the election is "observed" by a conscious entity or by a machine (like a camera) its probability wave collapses and it picks one slit to travel down. This has lead to the Schrodingers Cat paradox wherein a cat is both dead and alive at the same time until it has been "observed" - a thought experiment meant to ridicule the Copenhagen Interpretation itself, which I think it did. One alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation is the Many Worlds Theory. Here there is no need for dead-alive cats, because when the cat experiment is done 2 worlds are created, one in which the cat is dead and another in which it is alive. When you open the cat's box you don't collapse the cat's probability wave you just find out which universe you are in. Similarly when the quantum double slit experiment is carried out, many worlds are created full of scientists carrying out the same experiment. This, some people say, (smart people like David Deutsch) is how quantum computers work - an infinite number of computers exist in an infinite number of many worlds. I know this sounds crazy but I found this part of Tegmark's book very convincing and I now think that the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics invented by Hugh Everett is more logical than the Copenhagen Interpretation. Which would mean, if Tegmark, Everett, Deutsch etc. are correct, there is an infinite number of yous and mes existing in what is called Hilbert Space who can interact with one another at a quantum level. If you want to interact with another you in Hilbert space you can do so, here. 
The level 4 multiverse is the multiverse of Platonic mathematics that I didn't really understand. You can read Tegmark's short explanation of it on his MIT website here. Like I say, I didn't follow this in the book or on the website.
I would like to offer an an alternate level 4 multiverse that exists temporally rather than physically. Consider Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok's idea that the universe goes through an infinite number of big bangs, expansions, heat deaths, brane collapses and big bangs...(This is not mentioned in Tegmark's book but I just thought I'd throw it in here. If this is true then not only have I typed this sentence before and you've read it before, but we've all done this infinitely many times in the past, which I for one find depressing. (As did Nietzsche when he thought about the similar notion of eternal recurrence.)) Another possible Level 4 or maybe Level 5 multiverse is Nick Bostrom's idea that we are probably all living in a simulated universe anyway, which he proves from 2 assumptions and then a statistical argument. 
Scott Aaronson
If indeed there are an infinite number of multiverses out there it raises some interesting questions. First of all it makes what I call Strong Atheism philosophically untenable. With an infinite number of universes there must, logically, be at least 1 universe in which a universal God spontaneously came into existence. It is impossible to say whether we are living in that universe or not. Its unlikely that we're in the universe with the God in it, but its impossible to rule it out. An atheism which denies the existence of all gods is therefore logically mistaken; however a more tempered form of atheism (Soft Atheism) which merely denies that there is any evidence for the existence of God works just fine. There are other really fun consequences of living in a multiverse that this dude has catalogued here. (Seriously click on that link and it will blow your mind.)
Max Tegmark's book really gave me food for thought. I didn't get all of it, but I enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it for any of you who have ever, Douglas Adams fashion, wondered about the big questions of life, the universe and everything. It got good reviews in the Guardian and The New York Times among many other papers. The best take down I've read of Tegmark's thesis was done by Scott Aaronson on his vastly entertaining and informative computational science blog Shtetl-Optimized.(Tegmark himself gets sucked into the really rather geekily clever comment thread.)

Friday, September 15, 2017

How To Be Boring

Everybody knows the advice publishers and agents give to young writers: start in the middle and keep it fast, fast, fast to the very end! And that's still pretty good advice if you're all about story and turning pages. But what if you're not? What if you want people to focus on the words and take it easy and read your book slow? Well then you're probably living in the wrong age aren't you? We're the age of quick cuts and page turners and memes and vines. Why watch a whole movie when you can watch a youtube video telling you everything wrong with it in 15 minutes?
When I was a kid we read a lot of Thomas Hardy novels in school and I bloody hated them. One of them, Return of the Native I think, begins with a 15 page description of a heath: the heath in winter, the heath in spring, the heath in autumn and yup you guessed it, the heath in summer. Christ it was tedious. I'll never read anything so boring in my life I thought...until I went to law school. Reading all 5 judgements in a nineteenth century probate case, now that my friend is a whole new level of boring. 
And maybe it was the discipline of law school or maybe it was the time I struggled through bloody Les Miserables in French or maybe it was just a reaction against the begin-in-the-middle school of thought but in the last 5 years or so I've been hunting out authors who take it slow. Who don't begin the middle. Who don't cut to the chase (because usually there is no chase). I've found to my amazement that I quite like Thomas Hardy and Thomas Mann and Thomas Wolfe come to that - 3 Toms who are a little more leisurely about their story telling. 
Lately I've just finished Magnus Mills's The Forensic Record Society and I think its a work of genius. A bunch of blokes meet up in a London pub to listen to records. Nothing much happens. It ends. It's brilliant. Like all of Magnus Mills's books. The comedy of Stewart Lee is similar - Lee is often deliberately boring and repetitive and I love him for it. It's the same thing too with the books of David Peace: repetitive, deliberately slow, amazing. We've got slow cooking and slow travel, how about some slow reading, eh? Less stress, more focus on the words, more pleasure...
Some of you will think I'm mad so feel free to ignore the below reading list of contemporary writers and a few oldies who, ahem, go at their own pace and are all the better because of it: 

Magnus Mills
Charles Palliser
Thomas Mann
David Peace
Susanna Clark
Gertrude Stein
Marcel Proust
Anthony Powell
John Dos Passos
George Eliot
Virginia Woolf
Thomas Hardy
Hanya Yanagihara
Miguel de Cervantes
JA Baker
James Joyce
Herman Melville

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Ned Kelly Award 2017

I am delighted to say that my novel Police At The Station And They Don't Look Friendly has won the 2017 Ned Kelly Award. My wife and kids were in attendance on Friday night in Melbourne when the award was announced. (We were there last year too when I was shortlisted but did not win.) I'm really thrilled about this. To have won the Ned Kelly Award and the Edgar Award for different books in the same year is more than I ever hoped for. Sometimes, with a little luck, dreams do come true. Thank you to all me mates who were there and thank you loyal readers for sticking by me when things weren't looking so terrific not so very long ago and I was thinking of jacking in the whole thing. Go raibh maith agat!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Karin Slaughter

my review of Karin Slaughter's The Good Daughter from the Weekend Australian:

James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance did much to discourage casual visitors from travelling to small-town Georgia. I imagine Karin Slaughter’s new novel The Good Daughter will have Georgia tourism operators similarly tearing out their hair. The book takes place in fictional (I hope) Pikeville, a town with more than its fair share of drunks, bullies, racists, rapists and drug dealers.
The story begins on St Patrick’s Eve 1989 with such an intimate portrait of a loving, interesting family that you just know something terrible is going to happen. This is a Karin Slaughter novel and she has never been one to shy away from nominative determinism, but even I wasn’t quite expecting the brutality of the opening prologue.
Rusty Quinn is Pikeville’s public defender. He’ll take on your case even if you have no money and even if the odds are stacked against you. Unfortunately for him and his family this means his clients are mostly low-life scum who can’t even pay their bills.
Rusty’s wife, Gamma, is a charming and brilliant ex-NASA scientist who tells her two daughters, Charlotte, 13, and Samantha, 15, that when they grow up they should take any job anywhere as long as it’s far away from corrupt and parochial Pikeville.
Gamma is funny and clever but her self-preservation instincts are maybe not up there with the reader’s. When Rusty defends an accused rapist of a popular local girl who went on to hang herself, it’s no surprise the Quinns get firebombed out of their home and are subjected to a blizzard of threatening phone calls.
When Rusty wins the case and there are ­rumours of a lynch mob floating around, this would be the time most of us might take the kids on that long-put-off trip to Disney World.
Alas, Gamma and her two girls stay put and in a horrific 10 pages or so one of Randy’s old clients, Zack Culpepper, and his brother break into the house wearing ski masks and toting shotguns. Randy isn’t home and a desperate Gamma tries to placate the gunmen, begging them not to harm her daughters.
Zack, however, cannot be placated and he shoots Gamma dead on the kitchen floor before marching the girls out to the corn field. Zack is a dumb criminal but with some animal cunning he has sensed the public mood and has realised the Quinns might just be victims of a revenge attack. He and his brother aren’t remotely interested in revenge but in the stack of cash Rusty keeps in his office for paying bail bonds. Charlotte figures all this out in the seconds before she is shot and tossed into a shallow grave.
Cut to 28 years later.
Samantha and Charlotte (known now as Charlie) have survived and become lawyers. Sam is a rich patent attorney in New York while Charlotte, the good daughter, has stayed in Pike­ville to follow in their father’s footsteps. Charlie is at a school shooting in which a “low functioning” 18-year-old kills the school principal and another child. Because Charlie is a witness she can’t take the case. Up to the plate steps 74-year-old Rusty, who defends the girl and again invites the collective wrath of Pikeville.
There are quite a few twists and turns and Charlie ends up on the case anyway, and in a shrewd move on Slaughter’s part she spends some of the second half of the book at war with her sister, who despises her father for the “weakness” that brought death and destruction to their happy family.
What’s great about The Good Daughter is Slaughter’s clever meta-textual undermining of a trope we are familiar with: the young daughter of the decent southern lawyer who works as a public defender of men accused of terrible crimes.
Early on, Slaughter name-checks Clarence Darrow but she might as well throw in Atticus Finch, too, because that’s who we’re all thinking about. She has a lot of fun with the idea that maybe some of those men Rusty skilfully defends aren’t worth the trouble he takes.
Slaughter’s fictions are a considered literary extension of the southern gothic style made ­famous by Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and Ellen Glasgow. O’Connor indeed provides the book’s epigraph and during the heated fights between the sisters I was half expecting one of them to quote Quentin Comp­son’s ­famous “I don’t hate the South!” from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom!, but Slaughter adeptly pilots us away from that cliche without injury.
The Good Daughter is maybe a bit overlong and a trifle overbaked, but as blockbuster fare and beach-reading material this is one of Slaughter’s best books yet.
Adrian McKinty is author of the Sean Duffy series of crime novels.
The Good Daughter
By Karin Slaughter
HarperCollins, 512pp, $27.99

Friday, August 25, 2017

BBC Culture's Top 100 films of the twenty first century so far...

The BBC polled prominent critics, film historians, writers and directors to come up with a list of the top films of the century so far. I've reproduced the list below. The top of the list is eerily similar to a list of films I came up with in 2009 as my favourites of the decade which you can find here. I've done three things to the raw data of the BBC list to personalise it slightly. If the film is in bold that means I've seen it and thought that it was ok. If there's an * next to the film it means I really liked it. Two ** indicates that I think the film is a masterpiece. If I've put the letter next to the film I'm saying that I think the film may be a bit overrated by the critics at the moment. If its not in bold I'm afraid I havent caught that one yet. Its a bit of a strange list: no Werner Herzog, Kelly Reichardt, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Roy Andersson, Denys Arcand, Joanna Hogg or Ben Wheatley? What's up with that?

100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003) O
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) **
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) O
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) *
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009) O
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) *
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) O
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) **
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) O
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) O
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015) O
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014) *
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) O
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) O
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) **
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) O
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) O
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) **
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) O
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
25. ​Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) *
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) O
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) **
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) **
17. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) *
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) *
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) **
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) O
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) O
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) *
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) **
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) **

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Pride And Prejudice (1940). Journeyman director Robert Z Leonard turns in a creditable movie version of the book in this big budget 1940 studio production. The screenplay was partly written by Aldous Huxley (one of an amazing six writers they needed to translate this material to the screen) and is notable for the interesting spin on the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh towards the end. The parts in the film are well played: Edward Ashley is a suitably villainous Mr Wickham, Greer Garson is a lively Elizabeth Bennet and Maureen O'Sullivan is a radiant Jane Bennet. Greer Garson's look of hatred towards Miss Bingley after she has dissed her family is some of the finest screen acting you'll ever see, but everyone in the cast is playing second fiddle to Laurence Olivier who is an extraordinary Mr Darcy. This is one of Olivier's best early screen roles: he radiates perfect quantities of menace, intelligence and diffidence. I should also mention Edmund Gwenn as a drole Mr Bennet. The movie is let down a little by the costumes by the famous Adrian Greenburg (who et al. in a brilliant career designed Dorothy's shoes for the Wizard of Oz) which are beyond ridiculous and not remotely Regency.

Pride and Prejudice (1995). For an entire generation of people in the UK this BBC mini series is the definitive version of P&P. With a lot more room to breathe (six hours) the characters are fully fleshed and many of the more diverting but easily cuttable bits of the book are left in. Colin Firth is a stolid Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle is a charming Elizabeth Bennet. The BBC lavished a lot of money on carriages, country houses and authentic Regency outfits. And nobody puts a foot wrong. And yet. . .Well call it heresy if you want but I don't find Firth all that interesting as Mr D, Adrian Lukis is a timid and unthreatening Mr Wickham and Jennifer's Ehle's Lizzy lacks bite. You cannot complain about Alison Steadman's Mrs B or Andrew Davis's faithful screenplay. 

Pride and Prejudice (2005). Keira Knightley is a spirited, beautiful Elizabeth Bennet with lank hair and dirty boots. Rosamund Pike is a lovely Jane Bennet. Carey Mulligan shines as Kitty Bennet and Jenna Malone and Talulah Riley are great as Lydia and Mary. Simon Woods is an outstanding Mr Bingley playing him as a bit of a nineteenth century Bertie Wooster. Matthew Macfayden is an appropriately dour, broody Mr Darcy almost as good as Olivier's version. Rupert Friend is sinister and scary as Mr Wickham. This is by far the best directed of the three versions I'm reviewing here. There's a tracking shot at the Bingley ball (the second ball in the book if you'll recall) where the camera swings through the action taking in a sad Mr Collins, a humiliated Lizzy, Mary being consoled by her kind father (Donald Sutherland), an ethereal Jane and a happily toasted Mrs Bennet (the superb Brenda Blethyn). The screenplay was written by Debborah Moggach with script doctoring by Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her script for Sense and Sensibility). At two hours this is the right length for the story and the humour of the book is excised & reattached with ease. The scene where Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) proposes to Lizzy is one of the funniest you'll ever see. There's also a little more room given to the servants than any of the other versions, which when you read Jo Baker's Longbourn and watch the upcoming BBC version of that superb book you will appreciate. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015). An ok attempt to mix zombification and class into a post apocalyptic romance. Lily James is all right as Lizzy, Sam Riley makes an OK Darcy. Charles Dance is sadly off form as Mr Bennett. Lena Headey steals the show a bit as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Ok, as Simon Pegg is wont to say, skip to the end: Wickham, a kind of semi-zombie, (Jack Huston) leads a horde of zombies out of London to conquer England but after Lizzy, of course, realises he's a baddie he is stopped by she and Darcy at the Last Bridge. Good cast and a few good ideas but cd have been much better....

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Guide For Hipsters: The 15 Coolest Novels

a post from a couple of years ago...
So you're a hipster and you live in Brooklyn, Camden Town, St Kilda or downtown LA. You've got your Oxfam cords, your Atari T shirt and your 1970's replica Adidas trainers (I've actually got these and they're great!) You're in the coffee place that no one knows about behind the stolen car chop-shop. It doesn't have Wi-Fi or comfortable furniture but it does have really good coffee. So you're there drinking the Bali Mother Temple Blend, sneaking admiring glances at your trainers, and checking out the other hipsters in the place. Some have Edwardian sideburns, some have full beards and as for the men...Sorry, old joke, couldn't resist. No, the girls are really cute and you're sitting there, worried that you're going to spoil the illusion of cool by bringing the wrong retro paperback out of your battered bike messenger bag. What novel is it ok to read that won't set the hipster alarm bells ringing? In the 1980s it was easier - Sartre, Camus, Henry Miller, Eudora Welty, Philip K Dick, a battered Penguin Classic. . .
But that shit don't work no more. It reeks of a set-book in uni or sixth form college and you're far too cool to be doing homework in here. So what does work? Here are some book suggestions and what to say to the curious guy/gal who - hopefully - asks you about your reading material:

1. Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace. "It's so much funnier on the third reading."

2. Crash - JG Ballard. "It's about this pervy guy called Ballard who meets this guy called Vaughn who wants to kill himself in an erotic car crash with Elizabeth Taylor's limousine. . .What? They made a movie out of it? I don't watch movies from the last 40 years."

3. Platform - Michel Houellebecq. "It's a bit like Crash, actually, but without the cars, Ballard, or Elizabeth Taylor." 

4. Red or Dead - David Peace. "It's like Fever Pitch, but, you know, good."

5. The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton. "Yeah, I read the one that won the Booker. This is her earlier better, longer, less crowd-pleasing one."

7. The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem. "Its about this kid who lives in Brooklyn in the 70's and this homeless dude gives him this ring that lets him fly. No, wait, come back, it's the greatest American novel of the last 20 years. . ."

8. Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke. “What's it about? Uhm, well, aliens come to watch all the children on the Earth doing a conga dance that gets out of hand as they merge into a giant supercreature and sublime off into another dimension. He wrote it at the Chelsea Hotel if that helps explain things."

9. La Casa de los Espíritus - Isabel Allende. "Oh this? No, not really my cup of tea. I'm only reading it to improve my Spanish in preparation for my Ayahuasca rebirthing ceremony."

10. Human Race Get Off Your Knees - David Icke. "Alice Walker's favourite book, apparently. I'm guessing this is fiction." 

11. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth. "She hasn’t met all three of her suitors yet but I’m only on page 973.”

12. The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman - Angela Carter. "The book to give to a white male worried about 'Femi-Nazis'."

13. Post Office - Charles Bukowski. "I actually worked for the Post Office & it was exactly like this except with more drunks and way more depressing."

14. The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach. "I came for the love triangle. I stayed for the Moby Dick, baseball & body snatching."

15. The Cold Cold Ground: Adrian McKinty. "The best crime writer you've never heard of. . .Wait, you've heard of him? Jesus, that dude is so over."