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.



19 comments on “What I Read Last Week”

  1. Keith says:

    Add ‘Saville’ to one of Coogans’ unpleasant men. Meanwhile what I read last week- Trevor Wood’s debut thriller Man on the Street, a wonderfully gritty novel. Likable rogues solving crime on the streets of Newcastle. I now eagerly await the follow-up from Amazon. Highly recommended crime aficionados.

  2. Keith says:

    Argh, that should be Savile with one ell. So as not to confuse this creep with anyone with two. Unable to edit….

  3. Russ Wigglesworth says:

    I remember seeing “Rotten To The Core” in the local cinema in Maywood, NJ USA when it was first making the rounds. I’m sure Murphy doesn’t mention it. I think it was Rampling’s first film. I was oblivious of her at age 10 but loved the complex plot line and the idea of organized crime that wasn’t the Mafia and could be somewhat silly. So many good characters populated those films! Can I ask whatever happened to the Bryant and May map? As I read the series I am constantly uaing Google Maps to view the area that is mentioned in the story. It would be great to have something as a guide. RW… Petaluma, CA

  4. Joan says:

    I really liked Steve Coogan in Philomena, Stan and Ollie and the Trip to Greece! Not all unpleasant!

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    Strange, but I prefer Ms. Lebowitz as a raconteuse, rather than a writer (e.g. ‘Pretend It’s A City’ with Martin Scorsese on Netflix).

    As for the Sondheim book (and ‘Passion’) — a musician friend had a copy of the 2010 expanded edition. I paged through it with the idea of borrowing it but, although I am fond of Sondheim and have more than a passing knowledge of music, I found it too ‘wonkish,’ especially with its emphasis on Sondheim’s compositional process. And this despite other more general material.

    A big part of the problem, generally speaking (and present company excluded), is that I’m not a big fan of peeking ‘ behind the curtain’ when it comes to creative or artistic endeavours; I really don’t need to know how the magic trick works or why a director chose one approach over another. Creating means making choices. The choices a creator/artist makes either work for me personally or they don’t, and knowing why they made them rarely either improves my enjoyment or lessens my disappointment. This is, of course, highly personal.

    Which prompts a seamless segue to Sondheim’s ‘Passion’ which you feel was overly emphasised in the book and you found ‘oddly bloodless’ for a musical (chamber opera?) about the ‘nature of love.’ I didn’t notice an inordinate amount of space devoted to it in the book but then that’s me. I know ‘Passion’ from the DVD of the filmed musical with the original Broadway cast and a semi-staged TV concert version. I enjoyed both a great deal but you’re right — although I would substitute ‘cerebral’ for ‘bloodless.’

    I think a large part of it is Sondheim’s often ‘intellectual’ approach to affairs of the heart. In addition, I think the medium of the stage, and a musical, in particular, even with fine performances, lacks the necessary immediacy to evoke the all-consuming passion at the center of the story. On the other hand, Ettore Scola’s brooding neo-romantic gem of a film ‘Passione d’Amore’ (1981) on which the musical is based, does this in spades. When it comes to passion, I think the medium does matter.

  6. Ed+DesCamp says:

    @Stu-I-Am: I agree that Fran Leibovitz was great in “Pretend It’s a City”, while the Reader was quite uneven. David Sedaris captures the passing scene better.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    The social realism films of the ’60s that author Robert Murphy (‘Sixties British Cinema’) prefers may have offered up an ‘overdue blast of reality,’ but it was a selective and usually romanticized reality. And though often compelling, it was largely a false narrative about the reality of British life. Now, of course, this original working class ‘reality’ — albeit still inward looking — has shifted to that of the middle and upper classes — attempting to demonstrate that the self-absorbed and wealthy are flawed ‘real’ people too — just with designer open plan kitchen-diners, not cramped little kitchens.

  8. Andrew+Holme says:

    I’ve recently re-watched ‘Stan and Ollie’ and thought that Coogan did a superb job of playing Stan Laurel, who I would nominate as the nicest comic genius this country has ever produced.

  9. Paul+C says:

    Thanks for the list – will try the Fran Lebowitz asap.

    Recently found 3 old paperbacks in a charity shop by a US film writer named Joe Queenan : Confessions of a Multiplex Heckler, If You’re Talking to me Your Career Must be in Trouble, and Joe Queenan’s America (a tour of low brow American pop culture). These are all hilarious, very sharply written books which me laugh out loud constantly. Available for peanuts on Amazon.

  10. John Griffin says:

    Films don’t capture reality. In reality, people have boring lives, have to go for a shit now and again, and often have lots of interesting hobbies to make sense of their mundane lives. It’s a pity we don’t have Smell-o-Vision, as the 60s stank of fags, BO, hair-oil and cheap perfume
    “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” had far less drunkenness, far less violence, lots less shagging, and not enough grime.(I lived in Nottingham off and on till 2001 and briefly worked in Raleigh’s hub shop).

  11. admin says:

    I agree about Philomena and Stan & Ollie, the latter greatly underrated and topping the peculiar sub-genre of films about faded celebrities ending up in the wrong places (cf Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Judy etc).

  12. Stu-I-Am says:

    Having piqued my curiosity about Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Dark Matter,’ I read another review. The comparison to the unseen but postulated dark matter of astronomy and its effect on what we can observe is certainly apt when it comes to filmmaking. How, for example, projects disappear into a ‘black hole’ (one form of dark matter) never to be seen again. Why a screenplay presumably attractive enough to be purchased in the first place undergoes a brain and heart transplant and ultimately bears only the slightest resemblance (if that) to its original self — and then may disappear altogether into a drawer somewhere.

    The number of reasons a film doesn’t get made is roughly equivalent to the number of hands on the levers behind the scenes. In a real sense then, these unseen hands are too often the arbiters of culture, not those who actually create it. And, of course, the same parallel is there with publishing, theatre and just about all creative and artistic endeavours, but perhaps only to a somewhat lesser degree..

  13. Jan says:

    Am I dreaming or did someone already make a film about the great but faded ageing female Hollywood movie stars who ended up starring in sub Hammer horrors and schlock movies in Britain? I always sort of thought there might have been a good horror story (of sorts) hidden within the story of what happened to these women. Not just about their dreadful humiliation but how they must have conned themselves this was another chance of their reinvention and stardom.

  14. Keith says:

    And for what I’m watching…Squid Game is really fun concept of a show that takes time to develop the characters and make you care and understand them before the games begin, interesting quirky characters, and real social commentary on humanity. Up to episode 5 now, a lot of humor too. Though I would recommend watching the original with subs. Having watched the first two episodes twice, once dubbed in English, the other not, I feel dubbing just doesn’t work. A terrific survival drama.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    Winter pop culture preview. Both the US (Comics Code) and the UK (Children and Young Persons [Harmful Publications] Act) effectively banned horror comic books or those “of a repulsive or horrible nature” in the ‘mid-50s as harmful to the mental health of minors. And while both are still technically on the books, they are not enforced so, it will be interesting to see what a new generation of critics and alarmists have to say about the new wave of inclusive comics, especially from DC Comics.

    The latest LGBTQIA+ character to join the DC universe is to be a bisexual Superman in November (‘Superman: Son of Kal-El’ #5) . Actually it’s Jonathan Kent, the son of Superman (Clark Kent) and Lois Lane (oh, you didn’t know…?) a.k.a Superboy, who dons the mantle (cape) while da is off in deep space for an indefinite period.

  16. Joel says:

    @ jan…gregory w. mank has written a few books about women in horror movies from the 30’s, 40’s etc. i too find this kind of thing interesting.

  17. admin says:

    Keith – watch out for tomorrow’s review of ‘Squid Game’.

  18. Paul+C says:

    David Sedaris is touring UK theatres with a stage show next year – tickets available now

  19. James Devlin says:

    Leibowitz’s problem is long-term “writer’s block” (her term), which has kept her from publishing anything new for some FORTY years. It’s not to be wondered at that her material seems dated…

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