Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Giant rabbit films or, there's some bunny for everyone

It’s an odd corollary of giant rabbit movies that everyone involved seems preoccupied with the size of their bunny. Generally, they’re about the same height: 'Six-feet high. Or is it six-feet three-and-half?' queries Veta Louise of her brother Elwood P Dowd’s constant companion, Harvey. 'Six feet,' comes the answer from Donnie Darko (2001).

You’ll have to judge for yourself the size of the creature that looms large in the nightmares of Gal (Ray Winstone) in brill Brit gangster flick Sexy Beast (2000). But then, this is one mean hombre of a rabbit, who rides into Gal’s desert dreams on the back of a donkey, and then opens fire with a machine-gun. (He is again armed when we get a very brief glimpse of him as Winstone waits for a showdown with menacing Ian McShane.)

The obvious conflict here is with our preconception of rabbits as frolicking, floppy-eared furballs generally preoccupied with procreation – fecund symbols of springtime and abundance. 'I like rabbits an’ all,' says Donald 'Donnie' Darko in the language symptomatic of US teens ever since The Catcher in the Rye, 'they’re cute and they’re horny.'

Not so Donnie’s new imaginary friend Frank, who’s a sort of Terminator-bunny, albeit one that saves Donnie’s life. Frank persuades Donnie to leave home moments before an errant jet engine obliterates Donnie’s bedroom. It is 2 October 1988, 28 days before the end of the world, according to Frank. (Donnie Darko, 2001, shares with that greatest of films of US childhood, E.T., a climax played out to that backdrop of all-American festivity, Halloween.) Frank then launches Donnie into a series of suitably apocalyptic acts, including fire (at the home of a paedo life coach played by Patrick Swayze) and flooding (at Donnie’s school).

And then there are the rabbit references: Echo and the Bunnymen on the soundtrack – this is the 1980s after all – and Watership Down on video in English class. 'Maybe you and Frank can read this one together,' teacher Drew Barrymore suggests to Donnie of Richard Adams’ book. In the clip we see, Fiver predicts a bloody future for furry kind at the paws of General Woundwort – certainly the nastiest 2D rabbit around. But the animated field is dominated by wily Bugs and pratfalling Roger.

Separated by nearly 40 years, Bob Hoskins’ experience of acting opposite thin air for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? must have mirrored that of James Stewart in Harvey (1950), although in the latter case the only visual hint the audience gets of Stewart’s long-eared sidekick’s existence is a hat with two holes in its top, a gag that was probably too hard to give up for the film’s makers. They should have resisted temptation; after all, Harvey doesn’t exist, does he?

We’re told that Harvey is a Pooka who, rather like Donnie’s Frank, 'protects him' and we’re led to understand that he represents loveable drunk Elwood’s alcoholism (the duo hang out at Charlie’s bar with all the other alkies). But could Harvey instead be a signifier of Elwood’s homosexuality, the fluffy-tailed equivalent of Paul Newman’s plaster-cast leg in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

A sweeter-natured drunk you never will see. We’re told 'he was a great home boy', a man who became 'the biggest screwball in town' after his mother’s death. Briefly, Harvey leaves Elwood for another man, but the philandering bunny almost immediately returns to his old chum. 'I prefer you too,' Elwood replies to Harvey’s unheard statement. And all the time poor Veta Louise is trying to marry off her own daughter. Clearly, you're nobody until some bunny loves you.

Rabbit rabbit rabbit: five more giant bunny films
We’ll probably never really know what Rob Reiner meant by putting Bruce Willis in a giant pink bunny suit in unexpected 1994 mishit North, where Willis plays Elijah Wood’s conscience. Willis appears at other moments as a delivery driver and a cowboy – maybe he just likes the outfits.

As 'costume designer' on Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), Chloë Sevigny dressed youngster Jacob Sewell in pink, felt bunny ears for his role in the cat-baiting Midwestern freakfest. His appearance is as confusing as Willis’s in North - Sewell by turns hangs out, skateboards, plays the accordion or serves as target for two kids who play like homophobic Elmer Fudds: 'Kill the queer wabbit!' (Sevigny, of course, went on to do the honours in Vincent Gallo’s awful blowjob fest, The Brown Bunny.)

Who else but David Lynch would take the theme and hop away with it - from his hare-brained web short Rabbits to psyche-delving Inland Empire (2006). There may be bats in his belfry, there are certainly giant bunnies in the living room.

Ginormous mutant killer rabbits terrorise the American south-west in Night of the Lepus (1972), starring Janet Leigh… while demon bunnies rise again in Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-rabbit (2005), one of Aardman’s final forays into Hollywood with Steven Spielberg’s giant Dreamworks corporation. Funny, as in bunny ha-ha.

A longer version of this article appeared in Little White Lies magazine some time back. The picture, top, may mark the start of my interest in giant bunnies. I'm sure there's a Korean movie I'm missing, if not many more...

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Gangway's Henrik Balling on pop

Over the past two years on this blog I have intermittently celebrated Danish pop band Gangway. This should be the last post based on an interview with the group's main songwriter, Henrik Balling, in Copenhagen.

On writing for popular Japanese actor and singer Masahiro Takashima: 'I never met him because he was doing a movie and he didn't have time. The funny thing was I don't think he had a clue what he was singing about, because he did it in English… [One song was] called The Language of Love and the chorus goes: "It's a shame that the language of love was invented by fools and handsome charlatans/ And people like me who were brought up differently/ On mineral water and Hector Berlioz/ We don't have a chance when we meet up with girls at the local disco." And then there's a line I made him sing: "And I'll never be drunk enough to win the Nobel prize." I thought that was funny because there's a couple of alcoholics who got the Nobel prize like Hemingway, and I thought it was great to hear [Masahiro] sing that.'

On playing Japan in 1995: 'It was quite expensive to go and see us. It was something like £50 for a ticket so people were very quiet during the actual songs - they did applaud and everything - because they really wanted to get everything. I think that's a good idea to have really expensive tickets because then people are very quiet and tend to listen. It's like if you go to see, well, he's dead now, but Frank Sinatra - £200, £300 for a good seat, how can that be a horrible show? It has to be good, no matter how shitty it is, and if he can't sing the high notes, who cares, it was the best show you've ever seen because it was expensive.'

'I really don't want to buy pop albums if the artist is over 35 because I think they tend to get boring. I like that whole battlefield of youth: from 20 to 30 you go out there, fight everybody and get your piece of cake. From 30 to 40 you say, "How much did I get?" You count your money and you try to repeat yourself and get more money and after that, then it's over. I've got nothing against Pink Floyd but I think that's a good example; there's a huge difference between the first and the last album in that sense. They're very popular and people buy their albums whenever they release something; it's a secret career somehow because nobody writes about Pink Floyd do they?'

'CDs are the most horrible way to put out music, even DVDs are better because the cover is soft plastic that won't break. How many of us know the sound of a CD smashing on the floor, and you know that the lid comes off and it's difficult to get the booklet out: you have to squeeze it and you can't really get it. It's a horrible format, I hate it, the covers become blurred after a while, really horrible.'

On trying to write songs in a different way: 'Belgian Lovers [from album That's Life, 1996] is a weird song, I like the music. I did an experiment with the lyrics, trying to write like an idiot, in the sense you start here and then all of a sudden you start to write something else because you can't focus. I thought that was so funny at the time. It's a bit embarrassing now because I come across as an idiot.'

On gig-going in London: 'Just before we started the band, Allan [Jensen, Gangway's lead singer] and I went to London for two weeks to see a lot of bands and we bought Time Out. We saw some bands that we'd read about or knew about and then we just looked at the names - that looks like an interesting name let's go and see them. We went out almost every night to see bands and that was really, really good because we thought of England as this fantastic country for music - pop music, rock music - and it was actually good to see all these bands were crap. Hey, we can do better than them. Of course, all the good bands were there but it was great to see that not all of England was good. If we'd gone to see bands that hadn't released anything and they all were completely great, that would have been horrible. We saw bands that were nothing, just crap from the word go, and that was really good. We enjoyed our stay in London very much.'

On meeting Robert Palmer: 'He sold millions of records all over the world compared to our 100,000 maybe, so I asked him if I could show him one of our videos and get his advice. He said: "It's the snare sound." Isn't that great?'

Merry Christmas and a very happy new year!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Making excuses

I try to stick to the arts and/or London on this blog, so I hope you'll excuse this short digression and place it in the latter category, perhaps. I don't intend to write about the snow that's variously 'paralysed' or 'crippled' the south-east and brought 'the country to its knees', but I am intrigued by a new form of excuse-making, which I trace to the build up to the Iraq war.

BAA spokesman Andrew Teacher told the BBC of the ongoing chaos at Heathrow: 'If there was a crash or a plane skidded off the runway, we would have people saying, "Why didn't you close the runway?"' Yes, you would, because it's your job to manage the runways and, at this moment, a lot of people suspect that you haven't done that very well.

A single snowfall on Saturday morning in London has potentially put a lot of people's Christmas festivities in jeopardy when my local high street, which is under the Heathrow flight path, was completely clear of snow by Sunday morning. And if it's a question that we don't understand the complexities of the situation then you should explain them better, otherwise it looks like you can't do your job.

It reminds me of England football manager Fabio Capello's reaction following November's abysmal defeat to France in a friendly game which came down to: you (the media) told me to field young players, I did and look what happened. Capello is in his job because of his experience - way above that of any member of the press - and what the media, and many fans, were bemoaning was his inability to turn a bad situation round whoever the tools at his disposal.

Another version of this arose following the allegation Saddam Hussein had rockets that could be launched at major targets within 45 minutes prior to Gulf War II. This was extremely well publicised by the Evening Standard but, when it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we were told by people like Alastair Campbell that we had remembered this wrongly and at no point had we believed this was an argument used to justify an illegal attack on another state.

It's the memory of this which may well have led to Adam Boulton's Sky News freak out prior to the election, when he started screeching like a wronged child in an interview with Campbell: 'Don't keep telling me what I think, I'm fed up with you telling me what I think.' It's a tactic that might be labelled a weapon of mass distraction.

Monday, 20 December 2010

London's other underground lines

We're rightly fascinated by London's disused tube stations, deep-level shelters and secret rivers but last week I gained an unexpected insight into the underground telephone infrastructure. I thought the lines lay a few feet beneath pavements but five nights of work outside my flat - until 2am and beyond, zzz - has shown me otherwise.

Two very enthusiastic and loyal BT workers showed me the three-storey drop they had to descend to fix phone lines on my road; at the bottom was water. According to one of them, there's a route at Tottenham Court Road that runs beneath the Underground; he said it's known as the German line because it was built by prisoners of war, though I'm not sure if the chronology tallies on this. If anyone knows any better do let me know.

The repairmen were here as a length of cable had been stolen from along the whole road, affecting 1,600 homes. I was told cable can fetch £5,000 a tonne and, in this case, the thieves had probably made away with £7,500-worth.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Three more great electro albums, 1994-2003

1. Give Up, The Postal Service, 2003
I don't know if you've ever sought out a new band because they cite the groups you love as influences only to discover they sound nothing like those predecessors. Well, the obverse tends to throw up some pretty startling discoveries, take for instance New Order's Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, who might have formed an edgy guitar-rock group but are, instead, Electronic. Something similar happened with the coming together of Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and producer Jimmy Tamborello: Give Up is constructed of delicate bleeps and bloops, underpinned by skittering programmed beats. In the same manner Pet Shops Boys guest on some of Electronic's best tracks, so Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis lends her vocals to much of the record. It's an album of contrasts: Such Great Heights is joyous, while Natural Anthem fractured and brittle. I was introduced to Give Up when staying with a very cool, beautiful woman in San Francisco so it's never going to be bad (I'll always associate the trip with track Sleeping In, I think her favourite was Brand New Colony). However, I do have to question this couplet (from Clark Gable): 'I was waiting for a cross-town train/ In the London Underground,' by which he means the Central Line, presumably.

2. Furious Angels, Rob Dougan, 2001
Rob D's sole album to date was a labour of love, built around his 1995 track Clubbed to Death (Kurayamino Variation) - inspiration for a 1996 film of the same name by Yolande Zaubermann, starring Elodie Bouchez, Béatrice Dalle and Roschdy Zem. It took six years for Dougan to perfect his heavily orchestrated masterwork, raising funds himself to avoid compromise. The result is uplifting, bold and aggressive; the sleeve features images of Dougan on fire, smashed to pieces or shot at. The album's opening, title track is its other most immediate number (along with Clubbed to Death) and begins with Dougan's growling vocals, reminiscent of a Chris Rea who, in the words of Blade Runner, has seen things you people wouldn't believe. This is a mescalined Mad Max with a death wish, exemplified on Speed Me Towards Death and Left Me For Dead ('You searched through my mouth to check for gold teeth/ You were pawning my shoes as I bled... I won't rest my head until hell is your home'). There's rock bottom, though, and there's rock bottom...

3. The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails, 1994
Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor has long professed his admiration for Gary Numan and there's sporadic talk of them working together; the Brit synth godfather is more than a musical influence, if The Downward Spiral is anything to go by, as they share a virulent disregard for god. Reznor moved into the Beverly Hills house where actress Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family in 1969 to work on his second album, and its spirit permeated Piggy and March of the Pigs ('pig' was written on the front door of the house in Tate's blood at the time of the murders). Most of the album was produced with Flood, who had previously worked on NIN's debut, Pretty Hate Machine (1989), as well as with Erasure and Depeche Mode, among others. Some of it is silly (Big Man with a Gun, yeah yeah) but as Reznor strips away layers of humanity we're left with unexpected, beautiful instrumental A Warm Place and Hurt (covered by Johnny Cash). His most recent work was the soundtrack to David Fincher's splendid The Social Network; film scores might be a direction for the apparently blocked Numan to investigate.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Special movie sidekicks

If you're easily offended: hello, how are you? Hope you're very well.

At the turn of 1980s/ '90s, cinema developed a penchant for differently abled siblings. Top of the list was Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), brother to Tom Cruise's Charlie ('Charlie Babbitt is my brother') in Rain Man (1988). Charlie is after the fortune their father left to Raymond and together the brothers end up on a roadtrip that reveals the depths of the latter's autism: Raymond can recall numbers from the phone book he read in a motel; he counts toothpicks; he knows the number of male drivers killed in road accidents in 1986 (46,400) and the number of times Qantas planes have crashed (never). Raymond is also, as he often reminds us, 'an excellent driver'.

Five years later, Johnny Depp's Gilbert Grape was having to care for younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), as well as massively overweight mother Bonnie, when Becky (Juliette Lewis) hits town. Arnie has a predilection for Burger Barn and climbing the town's water tower in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (I haven't included Forrest Gump here as I'm specifically interested in buddy movies though there may be an - admittedly abstruse - argument for including River Phoenix's narcoleptic hustler in My Own Private Idaho, Gus van Sant's 1991 update of Midnight Cowboy, which again starred Dustin Hoffman as a mannered sidekick.)

A slightly different take came when 1996 Belgian circus clown-turned-filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael teamed Down syndrome actor Pascal Duquenne with Daniel Auteuil for The Eighth Day (1996). Auteuil's businessman Harry is separated from his wife and kids when he, almost literally, runs into Duquenne's Georges, who becomes an immovable presence in Harry's life. (Van Dormael is another with huge lacunae in his directing CV: his follow-up to The Eighth Day, Mr Nobody, came 13 years later; his debut feature, Toto the Hero [1991] is especially worth seeking out.)

While Charlie, Gilbert and Harry all discover there is more to life than their own worries, it is harder to accept that we should start living like their charges. It's all good and well looking at life through the eyes of innocents, but if we live this philosophy we end up like The Idiots. Lars von Trier had the final word on cinema's sentimental sympathies in 1998 - as Rain Man Raymond would say, 'Uh-oh.'

Monday, 13 December 2010

In and out of literary fashion

I'm underwhelmed by Tate Modern's Gauguin exhibition, which leaches colour from Paul's famous nudie paintings, although it does highlight a couple of novels in its wake. Featured heavily in the gallery shop is Mario Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise (2003), a double portrait of Gauguin and Gauguin's feminist grandmother Flora Tristan.

The book was further proof of the Peruvian writer's glowing reputation - recently confirmed with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, perhaps the final blow in his feud with Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. The exhibition also references W Somerset Maugham's earlier Gauguin-inspired novella, The Moon and Sixpence (1919; made into a film with the delectable George Sanders in 1942).

Once hugely popular for such titles as Of Human Bondage (adapted for cinema a few times) and The Razor's Edge (filmed with Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney in 1946), a 2006 adaptation of The Painted Veil, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, did little to revive interest. While the sun may have set on Maugham, George Orwell is afforded changing reward: everyone reads Animal Farm and 1984 but continuing reissues by Penguin of his hardy back-catalogue, notably the essays, reap little attention.

A thorough favourite at school, Graham Greene is another whose formidable oeuvre is treated with ambivalence - the legacy of jealousy over the author's contemporary popularity and prolific output or price of Britain's continuing anti-Catholic sentiment? (We can't have one as monarch; see also this last weekend's Wikileaks revelations.) How welcome a reappraisal of The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair (brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore in Neil Jordan's 1999 movie), Our Man in Havana and the rest, ahead of Rowan Joffe's adaptation of Brighton Rock (pictured), starring Sam Riley (Control) and Andrea Riseborough, due out 4 February.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Cinema on track

A friend stuck at home ill recently asked for good movie recommendations via Twitter. My best prescription is Film4's afternoon fare: a B&W thriller, ideally set in wartime. (He preferred the specific suggestions Galaxy Quest, Role Models and Mean Girls.) My favourite 1940s sickbed fodder has the added bonus of being set on trains: movies so good they're worth calling in ill for.

Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1940) is billed in some quarters as a follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938): it features comedy duo Charters and Caldicott reprising their roles as bungling, if doughty, English travellers. Night Train... stars Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison in a tale of industrial espionage played out on a journey to Munich (US fans can enjoy a new edition thanks to Criterion).

Eight years later, Jacques Tourneur returned to the theme of undercover agents with Berlin Express, starring Merle Oberon and Robert Ryan. As well as playing upon the tensions between the four Allied powers holding Berlin - the US, Britain, France and the USSR - the film is notable for its use of real bomb-damaged locations. I wonder if the scenes of an apocalyptic Berlin and, particularly, Frankfurt have the same effect as they do now upon contemporary, war-weary viewers who had suffered their own devastation.

UPDATE An hour after I posted this, @GdnFilmandMusic Tweeted an article by Joe Queenan slagging off train movies, which is just wrong. More4 today rescreened another great piece of post-WWII propaganda, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), which also stars Robert Ryan. Spencer Tracy was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a one-armed man who arrives by train in a desert town where he stirs up a hornets' nest. While the movie ostensibly hangs on the disappearance of a Japanese citizen four years before, in 1941 - the last time the Union Pacific stopped in Black Rock - it becomes a study in tension whether Tracy's character gets to catch the train back out.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Norwegian Wood: Murakami on film

I've always been struck by the beginning to Haruki Murakami's bestselling novel, Norwegian Wood (1987). Thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe is in a 747 coming into land at Hamburg airport when a Muzak version of The Beatles' Norwegian Wood plays over the PA; he is transported back 20 years to when he was a student in Tokyo, specifically his love affairs of the time.

It's a startling introduction that is only referenced very briefly a couple of pages in and never mentioned again: the entire rest of the novel is told in the past. A sonic version of Proust's madeleine, it is a tantalising glimpse of Watanabe's grown-up future but it is ignored by a much-anticipated film version of the book, out 18 March 2011.

Director Tran Anh Hung's Norwegian Wood (pictured) opens with the suicide of Toru's best friend Kizuki, which forms the rest of the drama; Toru falls in love with Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko while being courted by fellow student Midori, 'the kind of girl you notice'. (Norwegian Wood is Naoko's favourite song: 'That song can make me feel so sad… I don't know, I guess I imagine myself wandering in a deep wood. I'm all alone and it's cold and dark, and nobody comes to save me.')

As has been well documented, the massive success of the book provoked a sort of crisis for the author, who fled Japan. It's easy to see why it's so popular: its universal theme of first love is tempered with a seriousness only death (suicide) can bring. It's no way one of Murakami's best, nor is it a particular favourite. At the back of the Vintage edition, translator Jay Rubin seems to offer an apologia for the work, as well as answering criticism aimed at what he calls 'its autobiographicality'.

There are undeniable traces of the author, from the book's late-1960s university setting, with its burgeoning student protest movement, to Watanabe's reading matter: 'Truman Capote, John Updike, F Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, but I didn't see anyone else in my lectures or the dorm reading writers like that. They liked Kazumi Takahashi, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima…'

The film raises questions about Rubin's translation as Tran Anh Hung's take on Murakami's book is slow - at 133-minutes long - and overly reverential. Long takes may have suited Jun Ichikawa's version of Murakami short story Tony Takitani (2004), but the English-language translation of Norwegian Wood is lively and funnier than its big-screen version; Watanabe's comic roommate, nicknamed 'Storm Trooper', is reduced in the movie to a single gag. (Having done a little post namechecking Olivier Assayas the other day, he could be a better fit, even Cédric Klapisch or Christophe Honoré.)

British reviewers will no doubt point to Jonny Greenwood's decidedly odd score, which leaps in, strings blazing, at the film's few moments of heightened emotion. Otherwise old Can tracks take up the best part of the soundtrack, fading in and then being cut off abruptly in a manner that may or may not be reminiscent of the stop-go pacing on Martin Scorsese's remarkable Kundun (1997).

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Bono can seriously damage your career

In interviews to promote his latest film, The American, Dutch photographer/ director Anton Corbijn has been discussing his friendship with Bono. It's not a good sign: German director Wim Wenders' career never recovered after collaborating with the U2 frontman on The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), starring Mel Gibson and Milla Jovovich, which gives you some idea of its awfulness.

Previously, Wenders had worked with a string of novelists, including Peter Handke on The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty (1972), Sam Shepard for Paris, Texas (1984), and Handke again for Wings of Desire (1987). Wenders overreached himself in 1991, however, collaborating with Aussie Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey on Until the End of the World (pictured).

Carey and Wenders' 151-minute, globe-trotting folly is set in a hypothetical 1999 that's way ahead of 2010 in terms of silly hats and clunky telecommunications. The director was closest in imagining a future accompanied by a perpetual soundtrack - the film's features Talking Heads, Neneh Cherry, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Peter Gabriel and, lethally, U2. (Wenders pursued his musical fascinations in 1999 to Cuba and the Buena Vista Social Club.)

While Western filmmakers (Hal Hartley, Sofia Coppola and Gaspar Noé spring to mind) seem to go mad when they tackle Tokyo - one of 15 city stops for stars Solveig Dommartin, William Hurt and Sam Neill - Wenders is more like director Peter Greenaway and musician Thomas Dolby, seduced by the ideas and possibilities of new technologies. Next year, Wenders releases Pina, a groundbreaking documentary about German choreographer Pina Bausch, which combines cinema's format of the moment - 3D - with one of its subjects du jour, dance (La danse, Black Swan…). Here's hoping he's back on form.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A Gangway riddle

This is my 100th post on this blog, so I thought I'd return to Danish band Gangway. After our informal interview, songwriter Henrik Balling and I headed for a floating bar set atop one of Copenhagen's western Lakes and, later, dinner in Christiania.

Balling tells me he used to present a pop programme on Danish TV and had the chance to interview Meatloaf. Knowing Meatloaf is a clever guy, Balling decided to ask him, should there be a different law for the infinitely big and infinitely small?

A Belgian woman who smoked throughout her pregnancy gave birth to twins. All that came from her breasts was smoke and the twins remained absolutely tiny [the narrator holds his fingers no more than a few millimetres apart]. In the struggle for survival, one of the twins kills the other.

In Finland, a pregnant woman walks through something like a nuclear cloud and gives birth to a giant. One day the giant causes an accident that kills hundreds of people. Now, the miniscule twin is never going to harm anyone else; should there be a different law for the two?

Meatloaf's answer was this: you lock the two in a cell together and make the tiny man cook for the giant, who in turn must mend his cellmate's clothes. Lord knows what the ratings were like that night.

To come: Henrik Balling on pop. (Pictured: HB's bicycle.)

Monday, 6 December 2010

Going for the slow burn

One of the cinema highlights we can look forward to next year is Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. The director notoriously leaves a long hiatus beween films - 20 years in the case of Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998). Compared with that, the five-year gap to his last film, The New World, is nothing.

Another director I love who we haven't heard much of in a while is Vincent Ward. The New Zealander made his name in 1988 with The Navigator and followed it up five years later with the epic Map of the Human Heart but then lost his way with mythical What Dreams May Come (1998), starring Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra; I trust we'll hear from Ward again. Basque director Julio Medem is another major talent who's recently reemerged, with the small-scale Room in Rome, which has gone straight to video in the UK.

In difficult times for film funding, it won't come as a surprise if we see more of these lapses in the future, however. (I've written before about Hal Hartley and Whit Stillman.) Some authors are famous for it in the book world: Thomas Pynchon made his debut in 1963 with V. but, perhaps understandably, hit a 17-year silence following Gravity's Rainbow prior to Vineland (1990). Recently he's been downright prolific and the psychedelic prose of his latest, Inherent Vice (coming three years after Against the Day, 2006), makes a damn fine read.

The biggest novel of 2010 - Freedom - came nine years after its predecessor, The Corrections. The same gap followed author Jonathan Franzen's previous work, Strong Motion (1992).

Some of my favourite musicians are famous for having long breaks between albums; take The Blue Nile, who left a five-year gap between beautiful debut A Walk Across the Rooftops (1984) and the equally lush Hats, before waiting a further seven years for the disappointing Peace at Last (1996). Their fourth album, High, was released in 2004, so it's about time for a follow-up.

Even less in a hurry to get back in the studio is the formidable Scritti Politti (Green Gartside). Here are the years of release of his last three albums: 1988, 1999 and 2006. Importantly, every time he does deliver, it's worth the wait. Don't rush back.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Poster post

When I briefly lived in Paris I collected some very big posters for Luc Besson films Le dernier combat (1983), Subway (1985) and The Big Blue (1988). They went up on my walls as a student and I still have Subway on show in my flat, though I've never found a reliable method of securing it.

I wish I'd picked up a - smaller - poster for an early Olivier Assayas film, Paris s'éveille (1991). It's not an amazing film, about a father, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and son who fall for the same woman, but it and Subway showed me the possibilities of cinema. Both movies star beautiful women - Judith Godrèche and Isabelle Adjani, respectively - and the poster images are great (see above).

The films are also notable for their soundtracks, another fascination (the score for Paris s'éveille is by John Cale). As is the way with French actresses, Godrèche recently recorded an album to support her directorial debut, Toutes les filles pleurent (2010). Benjamin Biolay features on the title track, while Piers Faccini guests on the album's stand-out number, Farewell.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Gently does it

One of BBC4's pre-Christmas treats is an adaptation of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which has previously been adapted for Radio 4 with Harry Enfield. Titled simply Dirk Gently, the TV version is scheduled to be broadcast 16 December and stars Stephen Mangan and Helen Baxendale, who's been missing too long from our screens.

DGHDA was a much-anticipated departure from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio and book series that made Adams' name - not least because the author tended to let time lapse between projects; he coined the phrase, 'I like deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.' (The Hitchhiker's trilogy was extended to a quartet by So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish in 1984, while a fifth book, Mostly Harmless, was added in 1992.)

Published in 1987, Dirk Gently allowed Adams to take flight with ideas of the interconnectivity of events - centred on a sofa impossibly wedged in a stairwell - while riffing on various comic themes, including why horoscopes never warn you when you're about to die. A follow-up a year later was called The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, while posthumously published The Salmon of Doubt (2002) is named after a draft for a third Gently novel that is included in the collection.

Haruki Murakami wrote his earliest works before the Dirk Gently novels were published but Adams' spirit can be felt in the Japanese author's freewheeling A Wild Sheep Chase (1982; 1989), Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985; 1991) and Dance Dance Dance (1988; 1994). The first date I've given there is the original publication, with the English translation to follow. Because of the lapse between them, Murakami can feel like Adams' spiritual heir to English-language readers, but he outstrips his potential mentor temporally and in terms of quality.

However much you may wish otherwise, the Dirk Gently books are overly meandering and comically weak; more deadlines should have been allowed to pass in their gestation. At an hour's runtime, the BBC may be looking for a successor to Jonathan Creek's quirky magical detection; tightened up from the books, there's no reason why Dirk Gently can't succeed, though I question whether Christmas party season is the best launch time, iPlayer or no.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Feels like the Richter groove

'You need more than/ the Gerhard Richter hanging on your wall' - Pet Shop Boys, Love etc

The first time I knowingly saw work by German artist Gerhard Richter was MoMA's major retrospective in New York in 2002. It was a special trip: I think it was the first time my then girlfriend had been to the United States, and we saw this. As writer Geoff Dyer says elsewhere, and slightly differently, it was as if these paintings had always been waiting for me.

I love Richter's early paintings from photographs, and even his painted photographs, though equivocate on his bright lines and the like (adapted by designer Farrow for the cover of Pet Shop Boys' last album, Yes, which includes the line quoted top). In the last few years there have been a couple of major exhibitions of Richter's work in this country, including Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Whitechapel Gallery's Atlas and his Paintings from Private Collections at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama promises to be the first major retrospective of the artist in London for 20 years; let's hope its power hasn't been dissipated by these other recent displays. Before then - arriving 19 January 2011 - Tate Modern hosts Gabriel Orozco. I've seen the show in Paris and it's a zinger, up there with the venue's Cildo Meireles exhibition in winter 2008/9, and Francis Alys this past summer.