Friday, May 6, 2016

Cate Blanchett / Five best moments

Cate Blanchett
Poster by T.A.

Cate Blanchett: five best moments

The Oscar-winning actor is back in the race with the romantic drama Carol but what have her career highlights been?

Benjamin Lee
Friday 27 November 2015 09.58 GMT

Even in the her more questionable choices (coughs, Crystal Skull, ends coughing), Cate Blanchett remains a captivating presence.
In her latest film Carol, a delicate romantic drama from Todd Haynes, she is deservedly picking up Oscar buzz for her role as a housewife who falls for a younger woman in 50s Manhattan, capping off a year that’s seen her play a Disney villain in Cinderella and a tipsy journo in Truth.

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 Carol - video review

With the film finally in cinemas, here’s a look at her finest moments on screen.


Despite a few major opportunities – a supporting role in Paradise Road, a key lead in Oscar and Lucinda – it took Shekhar Kapur’s surprisingly gritty period thriller to announce Blanchett’s arrival. She dominates the film with a performance of great strength and wit, belying her relative inexperience. She picked up an Oscar nomination but lost out to Gwyneth Paltrow’s far inferior turn in Shakespeare in Love.

The Talented Mr Ripley

While every performance in Anthony Minghella’s lush thriller is note perfect, Blanchett’s small yet indelible work is often overlooked. In another actor’s hands, the role of meddling society girl Meredith Logue could have turned into screechy caricature, yet she humanises her, adding a tragic edge and making us keen to know more.

Notes on a Scandal

While many dismissed it as a lurid potboiler, there’s something commendably mean-spirited about this perverse thriller. Judi Dench’s sexually repressed, desperately lonely misanthropist attaches herself to Blanchett’s superficially charming yet ultimately unhinged paedophile teacher, and the two go down in flames. Blanchett, in another Oscar-nominated performance, is hypnotic, giving us an uneasy empathy with a difficult character.

I’m Not There

Another two nominations came her way the following year, one for a grand performance in an underwhelming sequel to Elizabeth and the other for her transformative turn as one of the many Bob Dylans in I’m Not There. Of the starry cast, Blanchett was the most impressive, embodying the singer yet giving more than just a token impersonation.

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s latter-day mediocrity came to a dramatic, albeit brief, halt with his transformative character study of a woman drinking and sweating her way towards a breakdown. Blanchett’s Oscar-winning performance lurches between horror and sadness, making us hate and pity her simultaneously. Despite becoming bigger than the movie around her, she remains grounded.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Robert De Niro / Five best moments

Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro: five best moments

With a sparky new role in David O Russell’s Miracle Mop biopic Joy, here is a look back at the Oscar winner’s finest performances

Benjamin Lee
Friday 1 January 2016 10.00 GMT

Between plane-movie roles in The Intern and Dirty Grandpa, Robert De Niro provides us with a much-needed reminder of what he can do in David O Russell’sbiopic Joy, about the inventor of the Miracle Mop.

As a temperamental father looking for love, De Niro delivers a sharp turn in a film that is filled with awards-calibre performances. Before he returns to cinemas in a few weeks to make smutty jokes with Zac Efron, here are five of his films to revisit.

Mean Streets

At the age of 30, De Niro was a little old to be breaking out, at least in Hollywood terms. After roles in a selection of curios (including Brian De Palma’s Greetings and The Wedding Party), however, he aligned himself with the similarly aged Martin Scorsese for this seminal crime drama. Harvey Keitel took the lead, but De Niro’s self-destructive trouble-maker stole every scene.

Taxi Driver

Insufferable De Niro impersonators have helped to make Travis Bickle his most over-quoted character, but it’s worth remembering just how electrifying he is as the lonely, paranoid and unravelling New Yorker on a mission. The film gives De Niro the opportunity to showcase the full gamut of his talents, from awkward outsider to psychotic vigilante.

The Deer Hunter

Capping off one hell of a decade, De Niro’s final film of the 1970s saw him briefly step away from Scorsese for a heartbreaking role as an army conscript heading to Vietnam. He earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his crushing performance, which is showcased in all its terrible glory in the Russian roulette scene above.

Raging Bull

While their musical collaboration New York, New York brought the pair their first and only flop together, Scorsese and De Niro soon reunited for this Oscar-winning boxing drama. The film might have, controversially, lost out on a best picture Oscar to Ordinary People, but De Niro deservedly picked up best actor for his transformative take on Jake LaMotta.

The King of Comedy

The King of Comedy is easily the least watched film on this list, but it’s the one that arguably contains De Niro’s most fascinating performance. His fifth film with Scorsese saw De Niro show off his talent for pitch-black comedy. As the monstrous, tragic, annoying, delusional Rupert Pupkin, he is utterly transfixing, and his unhinged obsession with the cult of celebrity made the film hugely prescient.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Robert Mapplethorpe / Prince of Darkness

Photo by Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe, Prince of Darkness

A new HBO documentary on the late photographer is smart enough to realize that his power derived from his creepiness.

There’s a darkly funny and truly unsettling moment about halfway throughMapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, the terrific new HBO documentary, which premiered on April 4, about Robert Mapplethorpe, the openly gay Queens-born photographer who shocked the world with his graphic gay S&M pictures before he died of AIDS in 1989.

His former lover and confessor Jack Fritscher leans into the camera and says, “I have to say that, because nobody will say it.” He pauses nervously, then continues, “Not to put [Mapplethorpe] down, but…Satan, to him, was not this evil monster. Satan was like a convivial playmate”—a truck or some construction interrupts him—“having a jolly good time seducing the maidens.” Fritscher is alluding to Mapplethorpe’s deep foray into a nocturnal world of multiple sex partners and extreme acts. “To me, it was a bridge too far.”
But the ominous noise from somewhere continues. Then Fritscher calls, agitated, to someone else in the house, “Can we close the doors? I’m getting awfully cold.” The audience around me—at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a massive Mapplethorpe retrospective just opened—laughed uneasily at the idea of Mapplethorpe, in his black leather, dropping in from the dark afterworld on a surviving lover just as he divulges his judgment of Mapplethope as a gleeful devil.
The moment underscores the power of this lavishly sourced documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the duo that has brought us, among several other documentaries, the runaway cult TV hit RuPaul’s Drag Race. As with that show, this doc enjoys knife-sharp editing, with an eye for stray facial expressions or vocal tics that serve as perfect ironic buttons for intense moments. But what is really important about Look at the Pictures—in addition to its being the first tautly told tale of Mapplethorpe’s life and work for those not familiar—is the frankness with which it re-coronates the artist as a prince of darkness, a title he would surely endorse.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Deborah Eisenberg / A brief survey of the short story

Deborah Eisenberg
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 33: Deborah Eisenberg

Intellectual and moral seriousness blends with great wit in the stories of Deborah Eisenberg, as well as a gift for metaphor

For most people there is a gap between the person we are and the person we want to be, or think we are and turn out, in fact, to be. This is the space many of Deborah Eisenberg's short stories inhabit, and attempts to navigate it are what provide their drama. But these voyages of discovery often fail to make landfall, or, Columbus-like, arrive in unexpected places. Dissatisfied Otto, contemplating the puzzle of identity in Some Other, Better Otto, despairs: "No wonder one tended to feel so fragile. It was infuriating enough just trying to have contact with a few other people, let alone with all of one's selves!"
It says something that, despite how widely they range otherwise, each of Eisenberg's four collections to date, published over the last 25 years at a rate she calls "glacially slow", begins with a young person coming to New York on the verge of becoming someone else. By the time of Twilight of the Superheroes, the ambitious title story of Eisenberg's most recent collection (published in 2006), that redefinition of self has come to include not only the architect Nathaniel, but the city of New York and, by extension, an entire section of American society. It's told in short, separately titled sections that skip in constantly unpredictable directions; a playful, essayistic piece that only gradually reveals the seriousness of its subject. Hovering between Nathaniel and his art dealer uncle Lucien, the story is one of the best liberal critiques of post 9/11 America to come from a fiction writer's pen. Its delineation of a confidence that turned out to be illusory is acute:
"Because the future actually ahead of them, it's now obvious, had itself been implied by a past; and the terrible day that pointed them toward that future had been prepared for a long, long time, though it had been prepared behind a curtain."
In the story's present, time has passed and normalcy has returned to the city, but "you can't help sort of knowing that what you're seeing is only the curtain". This apprehension in turn feeds a dangerous nostalgia for a time that seems like a paradise, but was in fact the by-product of a blithe ignorance. While this story marks a new height of complexity in Eisenberg's work, its roots run through her earlier collections. Each of those feature stories set in Central America, which have their genesis in a trip Eisenberg made to Nicaragua in the early 1980s, "to see", she once told an interviewer, "where our tax dollars were going". Many of her stories have elliptical aspects, and works such as Under the 82nd Airborne and Holy Week are only more menacing for the oblique way she approaches the US-funded secret wars that convulsed the region's "blood-drenched countryside". Sharing traits with Graham Greene, Don DeLillo and Malcolm Lowry, this sequence of stories within the larger corpus asks, as Lucien does in 'Twilight of the Superheroes', "How far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?"
While Eisenberg's subject matter is never trivial, one of its most immediately appealing traits is the way its intellectual and moral seriousness is blended with great wit, as well as a manifest talent for metaphor and simile. In her stories we stumble upon the "greedy bliss" of an open-mouthed skull and the "lush sheaves" of cello arpeggios; an accent so slight as to be "a crisping around the edges of words"; a glass phone booth in a deserted night-time car park that looks like "a tiny, primitive spaceship"; hair that's "black like a telephone", and an outfit like "a scout uniform from a pornographic movie". These skilful dabs, applied judiciously, are a key component of what Lorna Sage called Eisenberg's "discreet patina of style which is nearly matte, has no shiny gloss, but is nonetheless worked to a certain finish".
Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2009, Eisenberg proposed that "the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile, and more evanescent thing than the plot of a novel". There's plenty of strangeness in her work, but aside from a couple of instances in the earlier stories it never feels gratuitous. Whether she writes about how a death reveals the truth about a girl's family (The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor), an innocent abroad discovering his capacity for brutishness (Across the Lake), or the serial metamorphoses of post 9/11 New York, the volatility that's found in Eisenberg's stories arises from situations that exist in three dimensions; that can be turned and considered from a variety of angles. In this they accord with the thoughts of the ex-junkie Rosie in Rosie Gets a Soul, when she wonders at where she's ended up:
"But maybe that's what life is always like. All the time, for everyone. Maybe any moment you could say, this is normal; it's just what's happening. And you could equally well say, this is the strangest thing that ever could be. Probably so – it'll just depend on where you start the story."


A brief survey of the short story

Monday, May 2, 2016

Joyce / A brief survey of the short story

James Joyce

A brief survey of the short story part 32: 

James Joyce

With just one collection of stories, Joyce left his mark on almost every short story writer who followed him

James Joyce statue In Dublin
James Joyce statue In Dublin. Photograph: George Sweeney/Rex Features
James Joyce wrote just one collection of short stories, but it ranks among the finest in world literature. His influence on the form is as great as that of his near-contemporary Anton Chekhov. Between them their innovations – informed most discernibly, in Joyce's case, by Ibsen, French symbolist poetry and the Irishman George Moore – have influenced nigh-on every short story writer of the last 100 years.

Dubliners, a work of what Terence Brown has called "embryonic modernism", pushed the short story collection into new areas. Its 15 stories function perfectly well in isolation, but reading each as part of a whole creates unique effects. Their themes, concerns and meanings overlap and reverberate. Most obviously, all 15 stories take place in Dublin. Secondly, they are ordered so that the book charts life "under", as Joyce explained, "four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life." From this grounding, a range of experience is explored: love, marriage, employment, politics, religion and death. Deeper within this superstructure subtler patterns occur; concealed associations that might or might not be detected by the reader: Joyce's signposting is subtle, often to the point of obscurity.
Joyce called these stories "epiclets". He wrote them in Dublin, Zurich, Pola, Rome and Trieste between 1903 and 1907, but publishers' concerns about their content meant Dubliners didn't appear until 1914. Discussing the stories in letters, Joyce wrote that "My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis."
For Joyce, "paralysis" represents a moral failure resulting in the inability to live meaningfully. It appears on the first page of the first story, "Two Sisters", in a sentence that offers a key to the whole book:
"Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word Simony in the Catechism."
Here the "paralysis" is both literal, in the case of a dying priest after his third stroke, and moral: "simony" takes aim at the Catholic church's corrupting stranglehold on Irish society (culminating in the gleefully satirical Grace); "gnomon" is somewhat different, being more about form than content (a gnomon is a parallelogram with a section removed, as well as the shadow-casting part of a sundial). The word is a cryptic warning to the reader that these stories contain many absences, not least traditional plot, character and scene-setting.
These absences are part of what Joyce referred to as the style of "scrupulous meanness" with which he wrote Dubliners, meaning the frugality he applies to language, image and emotion. The approach has since become a type. As Joyce Carol Oates has said, "the Joycean short story is immediately recognisable as a sub-genre in which the directness of the prose and the suggestive ellipsis of poetry are blended". Few, however, can achieve what Joyce did with such sparseness. In Dubliners, as Lance St John Butler says, "the line from linguistic detail to narrative meaning is direct ... form is content; the language and even the grammar of Dubliners are the stories' meaning."
Through his language, most notably his mastery of free indirect style, which confers the intimacy and inflection of first-person storytelling on third-person narration, Joyce subtly lays the ground for each "epiphany": the moment, towards which each of these stories build, when pointlessness gathers itself, however briefly, into something revelatory. The most famous of these comes at the end of "The Dead", when Gabriel Conroy envisions the snow that is falling all across Ireland that night. This moment underlines Dubliners' unique unity as a collection: read alone, as Florence L Walzl has noted, Gabriel's epiphany seems something like "redemption". Succeeding the 14 previous stories, however it is more "a recognition that he is a dead member of a dead society". Indeed, with the line "the snow falling faintly through the universe ... upon all the living and the dead", Joyce performs a stunning inversion: now the frustrated, egotistical Gabriel is "dead", and dead Michael Furey, who loved Gabriel's wife, lives on in memory.
It is no coincidence that this complexly patterned sequence should begin and end with stories – "Two Sisters" and "The Dead" – that have interchangeable titles. Their endings are twinned, too. As David G Wright says: "[Two Sisters] begins with a boy standing in the street, looking through a dimly lighted window and imagining the death of the man inside, while 'The Dead' ends with a man looking out through a window towards a dim light from the street, reflecting on human mortality in general and on the account of a particular dead boy which his wife has just related to him." Having ranged across the city and its suburbs, Dubliners' opening and closing scenes take place just a street away from each other: like the circular wandering of the swindler Lenehan in "Two Gallants", our journey through the paralytic stasis of Dublin leaves us – physically, if not intellectually or emotionally – right where we began.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Boccaccio / A brief survey of the short story

Giovanni Boccaccio

A brief survey of the short story part 31: Boccaccio

The 100 stories of his Decameron, moving through a wild array of moods and subjects, were a watershed in European literature and continue to inspire nearly seven centuries on

Chris Power
Wednesday 9 February 2011 12.31 GMT

Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron ("Ten Days") is one of the most influential collections of short stories in European literature. To the preeminent 19th-century literary critic Francesco De Sanctis it was a "Human Comedy" to stand beside Dante's divine one. It introduced an array of literary innovations, and has provided material and inspiration for writers from Chaucer, Rabelais and Shakespeare to Keats, Molière and Mann.
In 1348 the Black Death claimed between two-thirds and three-quarters of the population of Florence. It's uncertain whether Boccaccio witnessed the plague firsthand, but the account of it with which he begins the Decameron (written at some point between 1348 and 1360) powerfully captures an atmosphere of death and disorder, as traditions and institutions collapsed into anarchy. "In the face of its onrush," he writes, "all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing."

Against this backdrop Boccaccio gathers 10 young Florentines – seven women and three men – who retire to the countryside until the plague passes. For entertainment they tell stories every day (Fridays and Saturdays excepted) for two weeks, each day having its king or queen who chooses the day's theme. Rustic and idyllic, the frame within which the Decameron's 100 stories play out is suggestively prelapsarian, a zone in which the dying world is remade (the book's title deliberately echoes that of the Hexaemeron, St Ambrose's commentary on the Book of Genesis).

The Decameron's central themes are love, fortune and various types of intelligence (wit, cunning, ingenuity), which Boccaccio weaves through stories that vary wildly in style and tone. The gaps between Day Three's sudden reversals of fortune, Day Four's tales of unhappy love, and the extreme bawdiness of Day Seven are vast, but Boccaccio is adept in each register.

Nearly all of the Decameron's stories are tightly plotted, briskly told, by turns satirical, witty and tragic. As the academic Charles May has noted, following De Sanctis, the book moves away from the typical medieval story in which God and providence direct the narrative, replacing them with chance, coincidence, and the various base and noble drives that inspire human agency. The book teems with characters of all types and standings: clergy satisfying their lust and greed ("they resemble pigs ... for they are too feeble-minded to earn an honest living like everybody else"); pirates scouring the Mediterranean; husbands and wives cheating on each other with bonkbusterish vigour (a full quarter of the Decameron's tales concern adultery); robbers prowling the highways; and merchants scheming for profit. Boccaccio's characters generally function in a psychologically convincing way, although their psychologies are implied through action rather than made explicit by the text.
While Boccaccio's style of characterisation is easily adjusted to – it can actually make a welcome change to be told too little about a character – the manner in which certain episodes are presented can be puzzling. One of the Decameron's great innovations is its treatment of intelligence as a virtue in itself, which leaves many stories operating in a moral limbo. Nothing particularly alien about that to a modern reader, but how do we feel when the savage beating of an innocent maidservant is presented as amusing fallout from a protagonist's witty scheme? The Decameron may ultimately value love and noble deeds above all else, but it nevertheless contains a great deal of sadism, mental cruelty and misogyny, all three of which combine in the controversial story of Griselda with which the book pointedly, yet ambiguously, ends. Perhaps Boccaccio's occasional hard-headedness derives from the ambitious and prosperous society in which he was brought up (the book has been called "the epic of the bourgeoisie"). Or perhaps, as with any great work of art, the Decameron invites and ultimately eludes a single interpretation. The academic Gregory B Stone writes: "Anyone who thinks they can say what Boccaccio intended to say will be saying the opposite of what Boccaccio said."

Opinions of the Decameron have certainly varied across the centuries. Coleridge thought much of it "gross and disgusting", while DH Lawrence praised its "natural fresh openness about sex". Certain tales have defied translators, as a Guardian review of 1934 alludes to when passing over "that one notorious story which ought always to be left in the Tuscan". Some call Boccaccio a proto-feminist, others a misogynist. GH McWilliam, translator of the Penguin edition, believes him to be "no more feminist than St Paul".
In the introduction to Day Four, Boccaccio launches a passionate defence of the Decameron, pre-empting his critics by rehearsing their arguments and demolishing them in turn. He did so because, when he was writing, vernacular narrative prose was not a serious art form. The Decameron changed that, becoming a model for the writers of the Renaissance and providing one of the richest narrative stores in European literature. A satisfying rejoinder to those who, according solely to Boccaccio, of course, said he "would be better employed in earning myself a good meal than in going hungry for the sake of producing nonsense of this sort".