Monday, 29 August 2011

Danish duo

In keeping with a fondness for reading fiction from places I've visited, I recently embarked on a couple of books by Danish authors. Carsten Jensen's We, the Drowned (cover detail pictured) could do worse than having a quote from Henning Mankell on the front (and back) and features Newfoundland - another predilection of mine - but unfortunately pales alongside Michael Crummey's Galore, my stand-out read of the year so far. Both novels focus on seafaring towns, and Jensen's work has the broader historical sweep, but the magical realist elements (a feature of both books) are gradually swept away. I don't read many books by women, but We, the Drowned - with its theme of the feminisation of a town and its way of life - is particularly male, and suffers for it.

Mercy, the first novel to be translated into English by Jussi Adler-Olsen, shares with Pedro Almodóvar's latest film, The Skin I Live In (from a novel by Thierry Jonquet), the theme of punishment and illegal incarceration. Given its Danish origins, it's tempting to point out the political machinations in the book's background, which are reminiscent of those in TV series The Killing. Out now in Penguin paperback, Mercy starts poorly but soon gets going, and signals a new line of investigation for fans of Scandinavian crime in the 'Department Q' series.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Masters of melodrama: Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk

There's a telling moment in his introduction to the DVD of Max Ophüls' The Reckless Moment, when Todd Haynes calls the German-born director 'Sirk'. Ophüls' camera, of course, flies gracefully through such dramas set in turn-of-the-century Europe as La Ronde, starring Anton Walbrook (1950), Madame De… (1953) - which features another ronde, this time following a pair of earrings - and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), adapted from a novel by Stefan Zweig. The director was no less adept at the seamier side of twentieth-century life in the US: The Reckless Moment (1949; pictured) was based on a story in Lady's Home Journal and stars James Mason as a blackmailer who starts to sympathise with his housewife victim, Joan Bennett.

Ophüls made only one film in colour (Lola Montès, I think), but his oeuvre is as rich and sumptuous as anything by Sirk, another German, five years his elder. Born Hans Detlef Sierck, the central tragedy of Sirk's life occurred in 1937, when he quit Germany with his second - Jewish - wife, leaving behind the son from his first marriage. Claus Detlef Sierck became the blue-eyed boy star of Nazi cinema but died on the Russian front in 1944. Sirk reimagined the last weeks of his son's life in the film A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958).

Both Ophüls and Sirk had worked in theatre and were masters of spectacle, with a special interest in women's rights and inequalities. Many of Sirk's films star strong female leads: Written on the Wind (1956) is an oil-dynasty intrigue with stunning Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone, who at one point clutches a model of priapic rig to her chest; Jane Wyman falls for her gardener - Rock Hudson, Sirk's leading man of choice - in All that Heaven Allows (1955; remade by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Fear Eats the Soul in 1973, this time featuring a Moroccan guest worker in Germany, and again by Todd Haynes for Far from Heaven, 2002); the valedictory Imitation of Life (1959) has Lana Turner and Juanita Moore caught in a typically bleak look at the post-WWII dream.

After leaving Hollywood, the director's last films were short projects for his university students in Munich in the 1970s; each year's intake voted on which of their favourite scripts they would produce - Sirk made the one that came bottom.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Alfred Hitchcock's 10 best cameos

The Lodger (1927)
The director starts modestly enough for his first British film, glimpsed at his desk in a newsroom, and later in the crowd watching an arrest.

Blackmail (1929)
This superb early thriller features a climactic chase in the British Museum and onto the roof of the Reading Room, but before we get there Hitch is glimpsed being attacked by a child in a tube carriage.

Lifeboat (1944)
Another trademark turn, this time in 'before' and 'after' photos in a newspaper ad for slimming product Reducto Obesity Slayer.

Spellbound (1945)
He comes out of a lift at the Empire Hotel, smoking a cigarette and carrying a violin case - one of several appearances with a musical theme.

Strangers on a Train (1951)
The director is once more weighed down with a musical instrument - this time it's a double bass he's trying to manoeuvre onto a train as Farley Granger disembarks.

Rear Window (1954)
Hitch is seen winding up a clock in the songwriter's flat approximately 30 minutes in.

North by Northwest (1959)
He misses a bus in the opening sequence.

Psycho (1960)
When Janet Leigh returns to her office at the start, Hitchcock is standing outside the window, wearing a cowboy hat.

The Birds (1963)
As Tippi Hedren enters Davidson's pet shop, Hitch comes out leading two white terriers.

Topaz (1969)
The director is being pushed in a wheelchair in the airport when he stands up, shakes hands with a man, and walks off.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Five Euro crime writers

First published in the UK in 2004, Have Mercy on Us All marked the arrival of a ferocious crime-writing talent. Fred Vargas is an archaeologist whose books are often inspired by a historical event, such as the plague, delivered with dark humour(s). Commissaire Adamsberg is the central figure, the work having taken a bit of a hit, for me, with a diversion for The Three Evangelists (2006). Vargas's latest - and Adamsberg's sixth - An Uncertain Place, kicks off in London's Highgate Cemetery.

The work of Andrea Maria Schenkel fits alongside the best of the recent wave of Scandinavian crime writers - I'm thinking particularly of Karin Fossum. Novels The Murder Farm (2008) and Ice Cold (2009) have thrown new light on wartime guilt while her most recent, Bunker, is a terrifying psychological thriller. All three are published by the exemplary Quercus and translated by luminary Anthea Bell.

As if to emphasise the split in Eurozone countries, Petros Markaris's Costas Haritas novels are notably more popular in southern Europe. The Late-Night News (2004) was a suitably depressing introduction to the internal workings of Athens CID as Haritas investigates first the deaths of an Albanian couple, then a woman reporter's murder. Hard-boiled, and not conducive to tourism.

For the Anglophone reader, it's hard to look anywhere other than Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen mysteries for an insight into Italian politics and corruption although Carlo Lucarelli stands out among a host of native crime writers. His UK debut Almost Blue (2004), a creepy tale of a blind radio buff who hears the voice of a serial killer, emerged some time after it had been made into a film in Italy. Lucarelli is one of many who's turned his hand to historical crime, in this case a trilogy of Commissario De Luca novels set in fascist wartime Italy.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte is currently best known for his Captain Alatriste books and though the author may not be the latest cutting-edge Spanish crime writer, he's been at the forefront of publishers' fascination with historical crime fiction since mystery The Flanders Panel was picked up by Harvill in 1994. (Harvill was also behind Vargas here, among others.) Follow-up The Club Dumas became a film, The Ninth Gate (1999), under Roman Polanski, starring Johnny Depp, while Viggo Mortensen has since become Alatriste (alongside Elena Anaya).

Monday, 15 August 2011

Welcome to Iceland

I've got a piece in Voyager this month on Scandinavian crime novelists, written with the magazine's splendid editor, Andrew. Due to the focus on Denmark, Norway and Sweden, there was no space for Iceland, home of one of the best Nordic crime writers of the last decade, Arnaldur Indridason. (I haven't tried his compatriot Yrsa Sigurdardottir, any good?)

Indridason emerged in the UK in 2004 with Jar City, a terrific exploration of this remote country's landscape and heritage in the form of a murder-mystery. (The book was reissued with the unbelievably dull title Tainted Blood but seems to have reverted to form, thank goodness.) There are now seven Inspector Erlendur investigations - branded Reykjavík Murder Mysteries by the publishers - as well as a historical thriller (Operation Napoleon), though the work has slightly flagged for me since 2006's Voices. (All dates are for UK translations.)

In 2008, a film version of Jar City hit our screens and I interviewed director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík, 2000) about the difficulty of casting the much-loved lead role (the part went to Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, pictured). I was especially taken with Kormákur's views on his country and what drew him to the book initially - 'We never believed we could make thrillers due to the lack of crimes,' the director noted of his first encounter with Indridason's work.

For Kormákur, detective Erlendur is a 'true Icelandic character, the type of man who has moved from the countryside and never really found ground in the city. That's why I emphasised the mountains: when he's out smoking, I pulled the mountains in. This man took the mountains with him to the city. There's a lot of those people, they bring horses to the city and they have a country life in the city but it doesn't fit. I liked that part of having him drive through the lava field and being alone in this humungous country - it's very big with very few people - and also emphasising not the beauty spots but the spots that are more real to me.'

Since then Kormákur has worked largely in the US - including on a thriller scripted by Indridason called Contraband, which stars Mark Wahlberg and is due out in Britain next March - although you can't blame him returning home to what sounds like an idyllic life. 'My ground is in Iceland but it's hard with an audience of 300,000 people, I've been lucky to get some experience abroad. If I haven't totally fucked it up I'll do some more movies but I'll always come back to Iceland, I'll never leave the country. I have five children, I live on a farm breeding horses - I just think life won't get much better than that.'

Friday, 12 August 2011

Let it rain

Among those who have looked for reasons for the (temporary?) cessation of riots in England, some commentators have pointed to the ever-reliable British weather: it rained. Downpours herald the end to the violence in Colin MacInnes's 1959 novel, Absolute Beginners; as his hero waits for an escape flight to Oslo, down comes the rain: 'I held up my arms in it, and opened my mouth and cried, "More! More! More! That'll stop it… That'll do what the ruling orders can't do! That's the only thing to keep the whites and blacks and yellows and blues… indoors!"'

Reaction to the riots is all too familiar: 'in the leader sections… they were still on about unrestricted immigration… They said Welfare was an urgent consideration, and what was needed was a lot more experienced welfare officers to iron out awkward misunderstandings… the magistrate had advised people to stay indoors at night… Best news of all - really heartening - was that the cabinet minister in charge of home security had received reports of all these happenings at his country house, and was studying them closely, and said the utmost strictness will be observed in the impartial enforcement of the law.'

Ultimately, though, 'so far as the government and top cats who control things were concerned, these riots might just not have happened at all, or have been in some other country.' In MacInnes's west London there are Teds, Hoorays, the new immigrants and even newer teenagers (the 'absolute beginners' of the title): 'And what a time it's been in England, what a period of fun and hope and foolishness and sad stupidity!'

A friend also highlighted this lovely extract from Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The 12 best novels about filmmaking, Part 2

6. Blue Movie, Terry Southern (1970)
Award-winning director Boris Adrian 'a film-maker - in the tradition of Chaplin, Bergman, Fellini' decides to make a stag film 'that's really good', in this Hollywood satire from the co-author of Candy (1958). 'I've got to find out… how far you can take the aesthetically erotic… suppose the film were made under studio conditions - feature-length, colour, beautiful actors, great lighting, strong plot… how would it look then?' Flown to Liechtenstein by his producer, Adrian gets his chance to fulfill an urge that's overtaken directors from Stanley Kubrick (Southern worked on the script for Dr Strangelove) to Lars von Trier.

5. The Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West (1939)
'West's Hollywood is made up of degeneracy and brothels, of failure and sexual desire, of cock-fighting and third-rate boarding houses,' says Alan Ross in his introduction to Picador's collection of the one-time screenwriter and contemporary of Scott Fitzgerald's work. Locust follows aspiring actress Faye Greener and the men who flock around her: set painter Tod Hackett, a cock-fighting Mexican and his cowboy extra friend, and a hapless clerk - Homer Simpson. It may have served as inspiration for AM Homes's This Book Will Save Your Life (2006).

4. The Last Tycoon, F Scott Fitzgerald (1941)
Hollywood loves films about filmmaking, so it was never going to forego the chance to shoot a script based on a work by one of America's greatest writers, even if Fitzgerald's novel was unfinished on his death in 1940. Robert De Niro and Theresa Russell were among the stars for Elia Kazan's 1976 movie set in Hollywood's golden age of the 1930s, inspired by MGM mogul Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald had also worked in Hollywood, and previously mined the territory in his Pat Hobby stories.

3. The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster (2002)
American author Auster is rightly celebrated for his early novels, notably the New York Trilogy, but hopefully not at the expense of this powerful, more recent work. Grief-stricken professor David Zimmer receives an invitation to visit the elderly subject of Zimmer's film studies monograph, The Silent World of Hector Mann. For the last 50 years, Mann has been making films in secret on his New Mexico ranch, all of which are due to be incinerated within 24 hours of Mann's death. In an imaginative tour de force, Auster - who's made films himself - creates a shimmering back catalogue for his and Zimmer's mutual subject.

2. Remainder, Tom McCarthy (2005)
What happens when movie fiction becomes more real to us than our own experience, the brilliant Tom McCarthy asks in his debut novel (cf news events that are described as being like a film). Following a freak accident, Remainder's narrator lands an enormous amount of money, which he uses to create ever more elaborate sets and scenarios to bolster his sense of authenticity; 'Even before the accident, if I'd been walking down the street just like De Niro, smoking a cigarette like him… I'd still be thinking: Here I am walking down the street, smoking a cigarette, like someone in a film.'

1. Flicker, Theodore Roszak (1991)
History professor Roszak's book is tremendous: a student investigating the films of German B-movie director Max Castle uncovers a plot involving Orson Welles, Cathar knights and subliminal messages planted in films, which are portrayed as encapsulating the perpetual battle between good and evil (black and white/light). An unsurpassable mix of fanboy thrills and the sort of playful erudition espoused by Umberto Eco, it has long been rumoured to be a project for director Darren Aronofsky.

Part one is here

Monday, 8 August 2011

The 12 best novels about filmmaking, Part 1

12. The Director's Cut, Nicholas Royle (2000)
I forgot to include one of Nick's books that would have been appropriate for a previous post, so am making sure not to repeat my mistake here. The majority of the books in this list are about Hollywood, so let's start with the exceptions. Framed within a murder mystery, Royle's work has a very strong sense of place, including the view of central London's Hanway Street he would have had himself from the eighth floor of Time Out's offices on Tottenham Court Road.

11. Show Business, Shashi Tharoor (1992)
Seriously injured on the set of his latest movie, Bollywood star Ashok Banjara reflects on his life in India's film industry and as a disgraced politician while hundreds of fans stage a vigil outside the hospital where he is being treated. Author Tharoor is a fascinating figure: he ran for the position of UN secretary general in 2007, supported by India, where he is now an MP; this book is due to be reissued by a US publisher in September.

10. LA Confidential, James Ellroy (1990)
Crime writer Ellroy's connection to the Black Dahlia killing is well-documented - not least by the author himself; his LA Quartet inescapably features Hollywood at its heart and great fun is to be had here in the character of Jack Vincennes (played by Kevin Spacey in Curtis Hanson's 1997 big-screen adaptation), the police sergeant compromisingly attracted to the showbiz world.

9. The Player, Michael Tolkin (1988)
It's easy to forget that The Player was originally a novel, such is the reputation of Robert Altman's 1992 film, starring Tim Robbins as a film studio boss targeted by a rejected writer. Tolkin creates a freewheeling thriller about creative power and ambition; a host of stars appeared as themselves in the movie version, much as they did in 2003's Elmore Leonard adaptation, Be Cool.

8. & 7. Karoo, Steve Tesich (1998) & Playland, John Gregory Dunne (1994)
Two books by scriptwriters about scriptwriters: Tesich adapted The World According to Garp (1982) and apparently died four days after completing this book (one of many here that features celluloid on the cover), about script doctor Saul Karoo, alcohol and nicotine addict. From Ellroy's 1950s to the 1940s, Dunne's screenwriter delves into the past to uncover what happened to Baby Blue Tyler, one-time child star, now trailer park resident with 11 marriages behind her.

Part two - numbers six to one - is here. If you'd like to add any suggestions below, please do!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Three bands too eclectic for their own good

1. Mickey 3D
In addition to the handicap of singing in French in the Anglophile pop world, Mickey 3D also suffer from failing to fit into a simple category; in music, it pays to be immediately identifiable. On probably their best album, Tu vas pas mourir de rire (2002), this very good band from the Loire region in the centre of France jump from hip-hop (Les enfants) through rock (Amen) and North African influences (Yalil) to synth pop (La peur) and chanson (Chanson de rien du tout).

2. It's Immaterial
Best known for singles Driving Away from Home (Jim's Tune) and Ed's Funky Diner, included on any number of 1980s pop compilations (and ads), It's Immaterial are typically characterised as synth pop although the Liverpudlian duo were mining the new wave with a particularly British blues we would probably label folk. Album Life's Hard and Then You Die (1986) showcased the band's offbeat lyrics, while follow-up Song (1990) was produced by The Blue Nile's producer Calum Malcolm, who made them sound a bit like The Blue Nile.

3. Satellite
I have no idea where one-man band Jonny Green came from, nor where he went after 2002's splendid Fear of Gravity album. He's writer, guitarist, drummer, programmer, vocalist and producer on this sneaky, fun album of looped samples, strings and more. It's pop with a dark edge: 'You took my clothes/ So that I couldn't go out/ That's how I got arrested' (from the title track); Baby it's You rocks out ('I don't know what a psychopath like you wants from me') while instrumental October is the Art of Noise revisited, of all things. And then... nothing?

Monday, 1 August 2011

Ten or 11 things I know about Godard

1. A Bout de Souffle (1959) was written by François Truffaut, who was also supposed to oversee erstwhile Cahiers critic Jean-Luc Godard's filmmaking debut, which stars Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

2. Godard had wanted to cast Danish model Anna Karina in a small role in A Bout de Souffle but she refused to do nudity. When he pointed out he had seen her in a TV ad for Palmolive soap she replied she’d been wearing a bathing suit beneath the suds - 'It was in your mind I was naked.'

3. Karina and Godard married in 1961, the year he cast her as the lead in Le Petit Soldat. The release of his second film was delayed for two years due to its portrayal of the war in Algeria; in the meantime Karina starred in comédie musicale Une Femme est une Femme (pictured top, 1961) as a woman whose husband doesn't want her to have a baby, so she turns instead to his best friend, played by Belmondo.

4. Belmondo and Karina teamed up again for Pierrot le Fou (1965), part-gangster flick, part-road-movie, part-musical comedy portrait of the end of the the marriage of Godard and his star.

5. By the time of sci-fi flick Alphaville (1965), starring Eddie Constantine, Godard's love for Paris had dimmed and he used locations around the city as the setting for his dystopian vision of the future.

6. Godard has a bit of a thing for using prostitution as metaphor: for the acting industry in Vivre Sa Vie (1962), featuring a stand-out performance from his muse, Karina, and for living in Paris (Deux ou Trois Choses Que Je Sais d’Elle, 1966).

7. Deux ou Trois Choses… was made simultaneously with political movie Made in USA (1966), shooting one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Karina is the girl with a gun in the latter, a multi-coloured noir film.

8. Godard makes an unexpected cameo in children's film Shéhérazade (dir. Pierre Gaspard-Huit, 1963), which stars Karina: 'The beggar walking on his hands is Jean-Luc Godard, in disguise of course, and without his glasses,' she says.

9. La Chinoise (pictured above, 1967) presaged the following year's student uprising although a year before JLG had been skeptical of consumerist apathy among 'the children of Marx and Coca-Cola'; Jean-Pierre Léaud is a winning lead amid the sloganeering of Masculin Féminin (1966) as if Truffaut's Antoine Doinel - name-checked here at one point - has had a lycée education.

10. In Passion (1982), starring Isabelle Huppert, narrative, sound and image are fragmented; other themes and appearances that can be traced across the films include, crucially, a preoccupation with pinball machines (notably also in Vivre Sa Vie).

11. Léaud, Nathalie Baye and Johnny Halliday are among the stars scurrying about in 1985's Détective, a Feydeau-esque policier where the hotel setting seems to serve as a potted version of contemporary France, much as the cruise ship takes on global connotations in his latest, Film Socialisme.

All the films cited here are available in the DVD boxsets Jean-Luc Godard - Vols 1 & 2 and Jean-Luc Godard: '60s Collection except Film Socialisme, which is in (some) cinemas now