What I Read Last Week
I was a fan of the deadpan dissector of New York life many years before Ms. Lebowitz became a national treasure like Dorothy Parker, able to make Martin Scorsese collapse in fits just by opening her mouth. I even remember the first joke of hers that I read; ‘The outdoors is the bit you go through from the cab to the hotel.’ The essay is the great American literary art form, and these brief blasts against the modern world are, broadly speaking, a hoot. What they aren’t is very relevant to the last thirty or so years, and what was once acidic wit is now rather sweet and (whisper it) very nearly charming. Ms Lebowitz is of course smart enough to appreciate this and is therefore specifically non-specific in her targets. However, the only thing that’s allowed to be non-specific is urethritis, so the rants are a little vague.
Still, whether she’s railing against plants or salads, dogs or death she’s always delightful company – her subject matter may be a tad dated but her peculiar mindset is as fresh as ever. She’s rightly admired by…
I wouldn’t want to be David Sedaris. He must become exhausted getting through everyday life. He’s permanently panicked and periodically doom-laden, and smokes a lot of pot, which can’t help. He seems needy and nitpicky (not necessarily bad things) and I really wouldn’t want to go on holiday with him. But he has a fine observational eye because he follows a cardinal rule; Simply write down what happened and the humour will emerge by itself.
In the UK publishers seem keen to compare him to Alan Bennett, but that’s far too simplistic. Yes, he catalogues the price of chicken and the possibility of mistaking shoulder pads for tampons but, like the true American temperament, is far more upbeat and optimistic than Bennett. And he spots the telling details in a way that most of us don’t or would not wish to.
Anyone who suspects that British film criticism was once run by Corbynist killjoys will have their worst fears confirmed in ‘Sixties British Cinema’. Author Robert Murphy’s preference for cinematic social realism unbalances his otherwise excellent history of British film and reminds me of everything that went wrong in our national cinema. Instead of developing universal themes and looking outwards to the world, we turned inward and produced endless cramped little kitchen sink dramas.
Murphy doesn’t try to understand popular British film but fiddles around in the support-feature margins. You can learn just as much from studying ‘Passport to Pimlico’ as you can from discussing ‘The L-Shaped Room’. Left-leaning films acted as a long overdue blast of reality after the war, but it doesn’t make them much more interesting. Of course it’s BFI sponsored book and full of fascinating material, but to skip over the rich strand of say, British fantasy films, to fail to mention the designers and wardrobe creators who gave British films their unique look, to dismiss all comedies, musicals and action films to concentrate on forgotten B-movies just because they hint at a socialist subtext does our once rich and varied industry an injustice. It was this very parochiality that helped to destroy the industry. Somehow though, it’s still a very enjoyable read.
My feelings toward the films of Michael Winterbottom are mixed; he’s a fine filmmaker but insists on using an unlikeable star, Steve Coogan, who is drawn to playing unpleasant men, as in ‘Greed’ or ‘The Look of Love’. It’s interesting to speculate how those fascinating subjects would have looked with amore charismatic star. But the book is great. The premise; let’s look at the projects directors didn’t make to find out why the British film industry is in such dire straits. This is the ‘dark matter’ of creativity, the mind-pool of ideas that we want to share with others.
Along the way there are good lessons to be learned from his interviewed peers, and I found myself taking notes. Bottom line; always have a story in mind, ready to go. Be realistic about the budget. Projects take much longer to realise than you’d think. And keep hammering one idea home until you get it.
Just room to add one more volume of Sondheimiana – ‘Sondheim on Music’ seems as if it will be a rather academic volume (there’s a lot of music notation involved) but in fact it’s a highly readable set of interviews about the creative process, although for me there’s too much about ‘Passion’, his oddly bloodless play about the nature of love.