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Midsommar

The sun shines down on a picturesque village as characters are killed off in outrageous ways. But folk horror Midsommar is more Wicker Man than Midsomer Murders, a hallucinatory bad-trip to a Swedish pagan festival with its own Pyramid stage and pyrotechnic climax.

Ari Aster’s follow-up to 2018’s Hereditary is also about family and grief. Both films feature nightmarish images that will be hard to erase from your memory. If Midsommar feels slightly disappointing after Aster’s brilliantly disturbing debut, it is an atmospheric, ambitious and unsettling film, with added comedy value.

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After a shocking family tragedy, college student Dani (Florence Pugh) travels to Sweden with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and three of his mates. They have been invited by one of them, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), to his home – a rural commune called the Hårga, which is holding a once-in-ninety-years festival.

In a long pre-credits sequence, writer-director Aster has already shown us that Dani and Christian’s relationship is under strain. All the signs are that this will not be a happy holiday: turbulence at the end of the flight; depth-charges of doom from Bobby Krlic’s creepy score. And a world turned upside down by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski as the group drive to their destination – the sky becomes a river with their car skimming along its surface.

The gateway into the Hårga commune is a through a homemade wooden sun and it feels like a portal into another world, like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Almost immediately the group are offered drugs and things get progressively weird.

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Midsommar goes on a bit too long, but its extended second act induces a woozy, trancelike state in the viewer, as if we, too, have been taking drugs and been out in the sun too long. When Christian asks what is in some potion he is being offered, he is told that the drink “breaks down your defences and opens you up to the influence.”

So many hallucinatory potions are swallowed or inhaled in the film that we doubt the truth of what we are seeing. Expected country customs such as maypole dancing and feasts (“Skol!”) intermingle with the jarringly unusual. The commune’s children play ‘Skin the Fool’ and carve wooden runes at school; we are shown embroidered sheets with graphic images (a girl has spiral eyes like Kaa’s in Jungle Book).  Dani sees grass growing out of her hands.  Is that a bear, there, in a cage?

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Comedy highlights include Will Poulter’s character freaking out about the lack of darkness at 9 in the evening (“I don’t like it!”) and an assisted  sex scene which defies description

Florence Pugh, who recently appeared in BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl, has a magnetic screen stillness and an open face that helps us side with Dani and empathise with what she is going through. Her grieving innocence also makes her very appealing to the villagers, if not her own boyfriend. Pelle helps her figure things out, telling Dani: “I have always felt held by a family … But do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”

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Aster has crafted a kind of slasher break-up movie about family and belonging, dressed up as a folk horror, which puts Dani through a harsh bout of Gestalt therapy. Seen in this way Midsommar almost offers us a happy ending.

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Amazing Grace

****

This grainy 1972 documentary, which records two nights of Aretha Franklin at the height of her superpowers, is finally available after technical and legal problems. Music fans will be delighted that film and soundtrack are now in synch: the resulting film is an uplifting time-capsule of gospel rapture and mighty afros.

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This being a church (the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles), the First Lady of Soul offers up her astonishing voice to the Lord. It is a gift of great richness and warmth. Stretching the song Amazing Grace out to nearly 11 minutes, Aretha uses melisma to goosebump-making effect. This is speaking-in-tongues singing. Her voice goes all over the place, up and down the scales, channelling the spirit, as the congregation encourage her to “Sing it!” and “Bring it!”.

Backed by her band and the Southern California Community Choir, Aretha’s voice fills the church and it is overwhelming, causing some to shake their stuff in the aisles and others to flop back into their seats, sobbing. Music sounds special in churches. Atmosphere, spirituality and raw proximity can often combine to make you feel overcome with emotion. To have been part of this audience, witnessing Aretha in close-up, must have been incredible.

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Standing at the mike in her white sequinned gown (a green and white paisley number for Night Two), or playing the piano, Aretha is a meek and humble presence, taking her ego out of the equation. She doesn’t speak to those gathered, taking a back seat while The Reverend Dr. James Edward Cleveland preaches and sings her praises.

Director Sydney Pollock includes one scene from a rehearsal which shows Aretha in ‘business’ mode, unhappy with the music and demanding retakes from her band. This seems a bit random unless it is meant as contrast, to show her no-nonsense side: this is a powerful lady in control, not just a submissive instrument for the male preachers’ greater glory.

Cleveland is the second star of the show, a religious MC who combines humour and pathos. “She can sing anything,” he says, [pause] “Three Blind Mice …” Preaching in front of a garish backdrop painting of Jesus walking on water, Cleveland marvels at his people’s journey: “Never did we think 20 years ago that God would do great things for us”.

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Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, is also is called upon to testify to her talents: “That intangible something that is hard to describe. It was more than that to me … it took me back to the living room at home when she was 6 or 7. I saw you crying and I saw you responding. I was just about to burst wide open. I say with pride. Aretha is not only my daughter, she is a stone singer.”

He compares her to James Brown, Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. “Some people ask me when Aretha is coming back to the church. She has never left the church.” Franklin wipes the sweat from his daughter’s face as she sings I Have Heard of a Land. He watches her intently, knocked out by the sound that is coming out of her mouth, still astounded by that voice.

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Eighth Grade

*****

Eighth Grade is an excruciatingly honest coming-of-age drama about what it feels like to be a socially awkward 13 year-old girl. It is cringe-inducing, funny, moving and ultimately hopeful. Teenage actress Elsie Fisher is wonderful as Layla. Her performance feels raw and real and we are with her every step of the way, suffering her agonies of mortification and celebrating her hard-won victories and glimpses of happiness.

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Layla’s painful journey from eighth grade to the cusp of High School freedom is orchestrated with empathetic brilliance by first-time writer-director, Bo Burnham. After witnessing such a sensitive and wise portrayal of adolescent girlhood, it was a surprise to learn that Bo is a twenty-eight year-old man.

During her last week of Middle School we follow Layla around as if she is the subject of a documentary on teenage anxiety. Fisher’s acting is so lifelike that we respond to her character as if she was a real person. We first see her via her homemade vlog, in which she tries to help her audience feel better about themselves. Her video topics include ‘being yourself’ and ‘how to be confident’. A dedicated self-improver, Layla has a wall of motivational post-it stickers (sample: ‘Go Get’em!’) and a handwritten list of ‘Things I want’ and ‘how to get them’. Top of the list are a best friend and a boyfriend.

When Layla is awarded the class superlative award for ‘most quiet’, she looks so crushed we want to give her a hug. Layla is determined to beat her shyness but there seems to be no escape from her lonely misery; the tyranny of the mobile screen and peer pressure of social media only add to it.

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Layla has a crush on Aidan, winner of the ‘best eyes’ award. But sex is a puzzle to her, made more baffling by the sex education video they are shown in class (‘Chapter 1: the hair down there’). Any tentative forays into the sexual end in squeamishness and embarrassment.

In one of the film’s best scenes Layla makes her entrance at a ‘cool’ classmate’s party: we watch her from behind as she trudges towards the swimming pool with sloping shoulders, as if walking to her execution. It has the same sense of dislocation, of being forced into an alien world, as the pool party scene in The Graduate (1967), in which a reluctant young Dustin Hoffman surveys the watching adults through a scuba diving mask. As if to emphasise this link, nerdy Hoffman lookalike Gabe (Jake Ryan) surfaces next to Layla wearing a swimming mask and starts chatting to her.

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Any attempts to befriend the cool kids is doomed to failure. A hush descends as birthday girl Kennedy opens Kayla’s present, a card game. “It’s actually really fun,” says Kayla. Kennedy looks as if she has just unwrapped a dog turd.

Despite all this Layla has the courage to take the mike and sing karaoke. In a nicely-judged move by director Burnham we don’t get to hear what she sounds like and we don’t get to see any negative reactions from the other kids. For all we know, Kayla might have a singing voice like Aretha Franklin.

Much-needed happiness arrives in the form of Olivia (Emily Robinson), the older girl paired with Layla for the day when her class visit their High School. Olivia is kind and reassuring (“You’re so cute … I was a complete mess when I was your age”) and it is a joy to see Layla really smiling, loving the company of a cool older friend. This is what she has been missing and we wonder how much easier life might have been for her with an older sister to mentor her.

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Beyond the teenage angst, Layla has a loving relationship with her Dad (Josh Hamilton), who has brought her up single-handedly since she was a baby. He might be a bit of a ‘dork’, but she takes his advice to heart. When he interrupts her phone-scrolling at the dinner table – gently encouraging her to ‘put yourself out there a bit more’, she is annoyed. But the next topic of her vlog is ‘putting yourself out there.’

When we first see Layla she is wearing a butterfly t-shirt so Burnham prompts us to expect transformation. Will she turn into a beautiful butterfly? Or will the nervous butterflies in her stomach stop her becoming her true self? When Layla opens her old time capsule shoebox she doesn’t much like her younger self. But her new eighth grade one includes a video message to her future self: “I can’t wait to be you.”

Free Ballooning

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If you think that extreme sports such as kite surfing are a recent invention, think again. According to Tom Crouch’s book Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships (2009), by the end of the nineteenth century the Free Balloon was not only popular in France, but was “attracting an entirely new class of enthusiasts on two continents.”

As Crouch explains, “a short voyage aloft, dangling beneath a colorfully decorated bag of hydrogen” – like the image depicted in the above poster – “proved just the ticket for a jaded young man with money in his pocket and a taste for adventure.” Likewise, this poster reminds that while entertainment like the circus and ballooning were sources of cultural fascination throughout France, the level of a Frenchman’s participation was dictated by his social status.

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The Aéro Club de France became a favorite gathering place for one of the wealthiest and most fashionable social circles in fin-de-siècle Paris. Ballooning, for over a century the presence of aerial showmen, soldiers, and adventures, now became a sport appearing to wealthy dilettantes.

 

 

 

Skinny Lister live at Cambridge Junction

April 10th, 2019

Skinny Lister are a welcome reminder that not everything in England has gone to shit. This rollicking good-time indie folk six-piece are a tonic for our troubled times – a dose of communal uplift and an advert for the healing power of live music. They should be prescribed on the NHS.

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Since the band formed in London in 2009 they have released four albums and toured extensively, honing the kind of polished-yet-spontaneous live set showcased at this Cambridge Junction gig. Not having heard them before my son offered me a ticket, I am now a convert. Skinny Lister’s songs are so catchy they get into your bloodstream after first listen. By the time they play Six Whiskies during the encore you feel like bellowing along even if you’ve only had a couple of shandies.

Comparisons to The Pogues are warranted – see Sally Maclennane-soundalikes This is War, and Hamburg Drunk. Skinny Lister share the same bar-room romanticism and sonic template. They even have a Christmas song (Christmas Calls). But they are far more clean-cut and harmonious. Singer/guitarist Dan Heptinstall looks more like young actor Thomas Sangster (Maze Runner, Nanny McPhee) than Shane McGowan, and their folk-pop cocktail never seriously threatens to go off the rails.

Any resemblance to folk imposters Mumford & Sons, though, should be confined to their most popular song on Spotify, Rollin’ Over, which has the same earworm quality as Mumford’s inescapable smash The Cave.

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Skinny Lister have a musical magpie approach, borrowing sparkle from British pop royalty – Dexys, Madness and The Clash (see My Distraction’s nod to Police on My Back’s 2-note guitar solo); they also deign to allow the commoners into their repertoire – see The Alarm-like call-to-arms of 38 Minutes. But their best songs transcend these influences: Cathy has an exuberant terrace-chant of a chorus (“Oh Cathy, you’ve got me on my knees, my knees, my knees”) and Six Whiskies is a stirringly bittersweet ode to London.

On stage Skinny Lister line up a bit like The Clash in their global heyday, orchestrating their look and attack – red shirts and quiffs on one side, black on the other. They have a cool bass player (Scott Milsom) who lifts his double bass high in the air; he looks like actor Laurence Fox (Lewis) playing Paul Simonon.

The band are generous. “You’re looking very beautiful tonight” vocalist Lorna Thomas tells us more than once (we’re really not, but thanks, anyway). She gets off the stage to dance with those at the front, passing round an enormous earthenware flagon from which many of us take a swig. What was that stuff? I can’t be sure but it tasted like vodka and peppermint. In the spirit of cameraderie they invite members of the support bands on stage for a communal encore.

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Slow songs such as Colours are interspersed in the set, but don’t dampen the party mood, with the band encouraging audience sing-alongs to Bonny Away and John Kanaka. We came to escape the madness of Brexit and Skinny Lister have a song for that too (Thing Like That):

Why do you want to go and do a thing like that?

We’ll come to find we’re living in a land gone mad

Throw away the world to get your country back

Why do you want to go and do a thing like that?

 

 

Forever Iris – Celebrating the Centenary of a Magnificent Novelist

As part of 2019’s Cambridge Literary Festival journalist and critic Alex Clark chaired a discussion to celebrate the writing of novelist Iris Murdoch, who would have been 100 years old this July. Joining her were writers and critics Catherine Taylor and Jonathan Gibbs.

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Clark began by acknowledging Murdoch’s Marmite quality: “I identify as an Iris Murdoch fan. But a lot of people don’t like her.” Gibbs, whose own work has drawn comparisons with Murdoch, prefaces his current novel The Large Door with a quote from her: “One of my fundamental assumptions is that I have the power to seduce anyone.” She famously had multiple affairs with both men and women during a long marriage to John Bayley.

Gibbs first read Murdoch’s debut novel Under the Net (1954) because he was reading “lots “of existential novels.” He now has a poster of the “lovely” cover for The Sea, The Sea (1978) on the wall of his college room, presumably the classic Hokusai painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa used for the book’s first edition.

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Taylor said she had read all Murdoch’s books by the age of 20 (her Mum was a huge fan), rediscovering them 20 years later. She acknowledged the change in the prose quality after the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The author of books on philosophy such as The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Murdoch “put a bit of her philosophical tenets into her work, like Simone de Beauvoir.”

As someone who confessed not to read women writers at the time, Gibbs was shocked and surprised how funny and “page-turnery” Murdoch’s novels were: “it was an absolute joy to come across someone who was writing such vivid prose.”

Clark noted that the author was ambivalent about her intricate plots, both cleaving to them, then not seeming to care about them. In her letters Murdoch does not really talk about the novels, which begged the question of why she wrote them at all. Taylor pointed to an unfettered imagination that could not be constrained by only one discipline.

When Murdoch’s first novel was published in 1954 Kingsley Amis wrote “she is a distinguished novelist of a rare kind”. Under the Net had a “definite whiff of Europe,” said Clark, a mixture of philosophy and gritty kitchen sink realism.

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What other qualities marked her out? Vivid settings and the chameleon ability to shift between them. Polyamory, gender-fluidity, a “ridiculously over-the-top” carnivalesque cast of characters. “She just plays around with these characters like a puppet master,” observed Taylor. She was working through a particular theme until it worked itself out on the page.

Murdoch’s prose is “so simple and pellucid”, said Gibbs. Her novels are “luminous … beautifully clearly written” – place, buildings, nature are all vividly captured. Taylor: this is a writer, like Dickens, “who really dwells on the physiognomy of her characters”.  She goes against the “show, don’t tell” advice given to budding writers, telling you about them instead.

Since her death in 1999 Iris Murdoch’s reputation has become “obfuscated”, influenced by her husband’s memoir of her when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, which was the basis for Richard Eyre’s feature film Iris (2001). Taylor thought this was “questionable,” a way of writing about her without her knowledge. There was a “prurient interest in a mind falling apart,” agreed Clark. “All marriages are opaque,” said Taylor.

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Clark brought the discussion back to seduction: “this is what she is fascinated by – sudden revelations that a character is passionately in love with another.” These “thunderclaps” are why Murdoch is popular with adolescent readers. Like Shakespeare, she makes us believe in falling in love, said Taylor, and she writes beautifully about middle-aged love in all its “piteousness and ridiculousness”.

Murdoch came of age during World War II and the horrors of way work their way into her books. She is concerned with the nature of ‘goodness’, morals and ethics in relationships, and what happens to her characters when they are not ‘good’.

What conclusions did she come to? wondered Clark. “If you come up with the answer, you shut up,” observed Gibbs, citing authors such as Rimbaud. But Murdoch was always asking the same questions – 26 times. Her books get longer, the older she gets.

How important was her Irishness to her? (My own kids always call her ‘Irish Murdoch’). Taylor was delighted to report that a Centenary stamp of the author was being created in Ireland this year.

Clark: “Some of her books aren’t very good, are they?” This was due to the speed they were written at, said the others (1 every year during the 1960s/70s). Books like The Italian Girl (1964) “feel like they were written in a fever,” thought Clark, “but not a good one.”

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Murdoch described herself as “a male homosexual sado-masochist.” Unlike contemporaries such as Margaret Drabble she did not go in for feminism. She wrote books that would appeal to men, said Gibbs. Her male characters are “a mess, but it’s flattering to be worthy of [the novelist’s] attention.”

The panel discussed The Sea, The Sea, winner of the Booker Prize in 1978, and “a phenomenal work about self-deception,” in which the “amazing central character, Charles Araby,” tries to rescue an old flame from her marriage. But she doesn’t want to be rescued. Clark wondered whether this exposition of male shortcomings chimed with the #MeToo movement, or was at odds with it.

Gibbs talked about a recent ‘Murdochian’ novel, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015), which has also sharply divided readers, with its ‘operatic’ suffering and sexual abuse. Like Murdoch, the author here is not much interested in psychological realism, so much as Dickensian character development and the playing out of an idea.

To close, Alex Clark tells the story of Philip Larkin and his lover, Monica Jones, of how they used to enjoy visiting libraries on holiday and defacing books, much like Joe Orton famously did. Thus, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net became ‘Under the Nether Regions.’

Questions from the audience included one about humour and comedy. The Black Prince is farcical, said Taylor, and there is always a death in her books, but it is hilarious. The Sea, The Sea is a tragi-comedy about coercive control. Her characters say very witty things, said Gibbs. They’re all clever, gossipy, and they have outlandish names. Girls have boys’ names like Julian.

Taylor pointed out that Murdoch “jettisoned people quite cruelly in real life, just like her characters.” The author could be “terribly heartless,” agreed Clark, but she was “driven by ideas of the moral good.”

How many of the audience had read an Iris Murdoch novel in the past year? A few hands go up.

The event finished with the panel’s personal favourites:

Catherine Taylor – The Flight from the Enchanter

Jonathan Gibbs – The Black Knight

Alex Clark – A Severed Head.

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Us

Jordan Peele’s 2017 magnificent debut Get Out was always going to be a hard act to follow. Us retains much that was so good about that film – the creepy atmosphere, shocks and thrills, snappy script, bold storyline and dark humour. But whereas Get Out seemed effortless and perfectly formed, Us feels a little strained and overcooked. An offbeat central idea gets bogged down by too much talky explanation. The dragged-out ending becomes tiresome and the final twist is predictable.

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But this story of a family battling their mysterious look-alikes is still hugely entertaining. It features a visceral central performance from Lupita Nyong’o as mom Adelaide, whose past comes back to haunt her, and writer/director/producer Peele is generous with his cryptic puzzles, pop-culture references, gory violence, satire and comic dialogue.

Many of his best lines are delivered by likeable doofus dad-on-vacation, Gabe (Winston Duke): – “there’s a family standing in our driveway [pause]; it’s probably the neighbours”.  “You don’t need the Internet,” he tells his screen-addicted kids. “You’ve got the Outernet”.

Us starts with an onscreen caption, perhaps the real-life germ of Peele’s fantastical plot idea: “There are thousands of miles of tunnels under the United States … Many have no known purpose at all.” Cut to an ‘80s tv charity advert for Hands Across America. Then we are at a beach fairground in 1986 Santa Cruz. A little girl wanders away from her dad into the hall of mirrors inside Shaman’s Vision Quest. Find Your Self, the attraction promises, and the girl does indeed bump into another girl who looks exactly like her.

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Jump forward to the present. The little girl has now grown up into the mother of a sporty teenage girl and her eccentric little brother. As they are settling into their holiday home, it is invaded by red-jumpsuit wearing doppelgangers who move as fast as velociraptors and speak in strange voices. “It’s us,” says little Jason (Evan Alex).

When asked ‘what’ they are, the Mom answers “we’re Americans.” What do these ‘others’ want? To kill their ‘twins’, it seems. And we soon find out that these Hydes are attacking their Jekylls all over the USA.

By the end it all gets a bit silly. Even the score by Michael Abels, who also composed the soundtrack to Get Out, is disappointingly ‘horror by numbers’: screechy strings, subterranean bass note, mad monk choral chanting.

Is this a satire on the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’? A swipe at Trump-era division and the scapegoating of immigrants? Interviewed by Steve Rose for The Guardian Peele said:

“We are our worst enemy, not just as individuals but more importantly as a group, as a family, as a society, as a country, as a world. We are afraid of the shadowy, mysterious ‘other’ that’s gonna come and kill us and take our jobs and do whatever, but what we’re really afraid of is the thing we’re suppressing: our sin, our guilt, our contribution to our own demise … No one’s taking responsibility for where we’re at. Owning up, blaming ourselves for our part in the problems of the world is something I’m not seeing.”

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