The Happy Prince

Film, written and directed by Rupert Everett.

‘The Happy Prince’ takes its title from Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name, about the statue of a selfish prince who solicits the aid of a bird, a swallow, to first understand and then help the poor. He redeems himself through his pity for them and then by giving away his sapphire eyes and the ruby from his hilt. In the movie, this tale is woven artfully through the weft of Wilde’s life: back and forth from the filmic present to the past; as a children’s bedtime treat and as payment to a young boy who is starved as much of fantasy as of sustenance.

Rupert Everett, who directed and wrote this tour de force, also plays Wilde, speaking French and English (with a smattering of Italian). He is jowly and, by turns, jocund and morose. With jaw jutting forward in grim stoicism, he negotiates what is left of his life after being imprisoned for sodomy. Promising and repeatedly failing to resist the much younger Bosie (acted by Colin Morgan) whom he loves unreciprocally, the cocaine, absinthe, champagne and compulsion to take centre stage are secondary aspects of his addictive personality and contributory factors to his grizzly dénouement.

Wilde limply attempts to be reunited with his wife, Constance (a balanced performance by Emily Watson), and grieves his lost sons – after he was incarcerated he never saw the pair again. Replacing them with a little match boy and his inamorato brother from the gutters of Paris, he is, in turn, cared for by his coterie of homosexual friends. Reggie and Robbie, played by, resectfully, Colin Firth and Edwin Thomas (who played John Colville in Churchill) bail Wilde out endlessly, and nurse him ‘to the last’ in a series of touching scenes which avoid the archetypally camp, despite a ‘darling’ here and there.

For once it is appropriate to have such a male-heavy cast, though the female roles are strong: there is an Italian mama (Franca Abategiovanni) who, in an ironic, teasing scene, believes there are ‘loose women’ in the house (despite the number of naked men reclining in her parlour!) and hysterically chastises her son and guests, frantically searches and then delivers an obsequious apology when she discovers she was wrong.

Sumptuous scenes in Naples and belle époque Paris are all about the brocade and ‘black tie’ of the time, but they are interspersed with the sordid. There is no sparing the gory details, gruesome blood and vomit, but although there are references to public toilets and a rambunctious game of strip Musical Chairs, there is little or no sex.

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The album cover of the Bing Crosby / Orson Welles version of ‘The Happy Prince’.

The film lays out the facts before us without judgment: the suffering of the poor, the horror of their depredation, and the abuse of minors. Somehow the audience know it is there, understand why at some level, and can still enjoy the humour and developing relationships. After all, many of us are guilty of turning a blind eye to our own bad habits, or not saving where saving is in our power. Other themes examined in this movie are of the rich and powerful versus the poor and artistic, and of course the persecution of gay men in the 19th century.

Then there’s the religion: Christ as Wilde’s only prison companion; a crippled priest saying his prayers in a simple cliff-top chapel; the last rites with a very funny, Irish-accented Tom Wilkinson. This is the last ditch attempt, of course, to attain redemption, but we nevertheless fear that he will be forever asking forgiveness, even at the pearly gates, in contrast to the Prince of the story whose leaden heart is taken up to heaven.

The powerful scenes which remain with me are many: Vesuvius errupting (not in the sexual, but in the doomsday sense), while Constance’s apparition haunts him; Everett tottering on a nightclub table giving a hearty rendering, to delighted revellers, of ‘The Boy in the Gallery’; the degradation at Clapham Junction, the spit; the unexpected tears when he sees Bosie for the first time after his release, on another station platform. Indeed Wilde mourns that they have been reduced to living on the edges of society, in the in-between places. The awful reality of unrequited love is raw throughout.

As the narrative draws to its elevated conclusion, as his soul is being raised on high, and in contrast to ‘the boys’ left behind fighting at the graveside, the watcher is invited to wonder if the angel (God?) of the original story sees the love in our hearts, even if outwardly we are damned.

Edinburgh Art Festival 2018 – preview

Edinburgh Art Festival (preview)

26 July – 26 Aug 2018

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Kate McMillan’s The Past is Singing in our Teeth.

The Edinburgh Art Festival is a platform for the visual arts at the heart of the jambouree that is August in the capital. Where many may think of ‘the festival’ as being theatre and comedy, this organisation draws together all manner of exhibitions and installations, and places them centre stage.

Vital to the EAF is the Platform which supports artists at the start of their careers. Rae Yen-Song  is at the City Art Centre and the exhibition draws upon her experience as a female, Chinese Scot.

A highlight of the EAF Commissions looks to be Ruth Ewan’s Sympathetic Magick which will bring street magic to various venues around the city. Past festival commissions have resulted in permanent works, including Alison Watt’s Still from 2004 which currently hangs in the Memorial Chapel of Old Saint Paul’s Scottish Episcopal Church.

There is a growing Pop-up Programme which in 2018 involves Bill Viola’s video Three Women at The Parish Church of St Cuthbert. Looking at the topic of transfiguration, his wife and her daughters who star in the work, “briefly enter an illuminated realm”. Viola is always a stimulating view; A second event which stands out from the wide-ranging publicity is The ERRAID RESIDENCY, a stamp collection by 6⁰West in response to the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson which can be found at The Scottish Arts Club, Rutland Square; Invisible Women give us Consensus  which “forces us to consider how gender and time shape perceptions of worth” and that is at the Urbane art gallery, Jeffrey Street; Finally Warmed Air  is a site-specific performance within the anatomy department of Edinburgh University exploring various levels of perceiving and experiencing the body. It could incorporate cadavers!

There are partner exhibitions with the Arusha Gallery, Rhubaba Gallery, Edinburgh College of Art, Sculpture Workshop, Stills and The Number Shop to name but a few, plus all the biggies, the brightest and best Edinburgh galleries are linked too. In particular check out Tacita Dean’s Woman with a Red Hat at The Fruitmarket Gallery; and the first solo UK show of Indian artist Ravi Agarwal’s Nàdar / Prakriti at The Edinburgh Printmakers.

There are Art Early events (who does not like the sound of activity trails and an outdoor picnic?) for families and children, a brilliant idea for those who rise with the dawn; and three Art Late tours doing the rounds of the collaborating galleries and including music from Jared Celosse , Ross Birrell at theTrinity Apse; and the women and men of Glasgow-based band The Ninth Wave.

As part of the Learning and Engagement aspect, there is an audio described tour with Juliana Capes including a hearing loop; and the Artist Talks incorporates the sparkling Christina Jansen on contemporary jewellery in Scotland.

The delightfully named Mud Oven Afternoons, where you can create edible sculptures, will be at the Johnston Terrace Wildlife Gardens – somewhere many will not have explored before.

Sharpen your eyesight, polish your specs and wander the circuit that is the EAF whether the sun shines or not!

The featured image above is The Impetuous Engine, 2016, film still, Isobel Lutz-Smith.

Mud Oven Afternoons

 

The Just Festival, Edinburgh

Just Festival St John’s Church, Edinburgh.

3-26 Aug 2018

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Age and Stage, Just Festival theatre, Edinburgh.

At a time when I hear so many people worrying over the future and being anxious about the lack of care they see around them, I welcome the annual socially-conscious Just Festival. On their classy website, they state that they are “in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, celebrating humanity in all its differences, and promoting the exploration of new perspectives with the aim of reducing religious, political and social intolerance.” This is a tall order but a mighty refreshing one.

The festival is divided and formed into sections: performance (dance, theatre, music), visual arts, conversations, talks, storytelling and a view (includes a short film) are all encompassed in this programme which hopes to challenge perceptions, celebrate differences and promote respectful dialogue, both religious and non-religious.

Just has made impressive alliances with recognised charities, universities, social groups and community projects which add specialist knowledge, depth and cudos to their events. In the conversations it is notable that there are experts, academics as well as artists on the panels, promising a well-rounded approach.

The honest shape of our communities, where many people do not have the type of contact with others which they desire, is tackled across the genres: Inner Circle, one of these conversations focuses on the LGBTQ population; Trapped in Isolation and Connected Lives, in the theatre category, look at loneliness and the complex reasons why folk may feel alone and ostracised. Let It Art, in the visual art camp, shows the work of youngsters in response to how they view peace, conflict, terrorism, and violence; and Identity and Belonging uses storytelling and photographs expressing individuality in the light of ageing.

The stated aim of tackling “freedom towards a united world” shows itself in Mandela’s Legacy (100 years after his death the panel ask what can be learned from his work and influence), Brexit Means Anxiety, and Faith In Politics. Closely related is the international connection: Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s play The Island examines “the situation of black political prisioners”; Sounds from Gold Coast will no doubt bring exuberance and joy to the hall at St John’s using rhythm, harmony and dance; and We Are will be “bouncing off their own ethnic roots” and, “Inspired by, and dedicated to, the women of Ghana, West Africa, who gather under the full moon, they tell stories of sorrow and joy.”

There is a sense of genuine self-questioning and fresh topics of conversation with Slaves In Scotland, Ethics of Aid and in the theatre section with Where Are You Really From? looking at migration and asylum.

It is clear that here has been impressive attention paid to the balance between the sexes throughout the planning stage (see Faith-based Courts for example); and Fierce Females (a view which includes a film), Every Girl Matters (conversation), and Take Refuge Under My Shade (dance) all contribute to equal representation.

There is a most promising sub-section entitled Death on the Fringe. Death is a subject about which we have been famously silent in the west, that is until the last few years when the rise of the Death Cafes (started in Fife btw) and the preponderance of blogs and books on related issues have launched a new era of openness and a desire to speak and share about this topic (see the Wee Review of Richard Holloway’s Waiting for the Last Bus). This talk series encompasses the “surprising history” of the Scottish Funeral by acclaimed speaker Eddie Small; and an account by Awdri Doyle of her Life of a Funeral Director. In addition, you might have heard of birth doulas. This model has now been used for the end of life, so given that “The mortality rate in Scotland remains at 100%” the third presentation in this sequence, End-of-Life Doulas, is from Hilary who works in the role of  “making death better”.

The Just programme has some great images, a wide spread of events covering a diversity of right-up-to-the-moment ideas and themes and a plethora of participants from young to older and from all over the world.

Top of the agenda is respect and the right to self-expression, and using the arts as well as more straightforward debate and exchange, this festival is seriously Just!

 

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Where Are You Really from? theatre, Just Festival, Edinburgh.

 

 

 

 

Cries and Whispers

1972 film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullmann.

This masterpiece has a strength and depth that I do not often see in films. Full of powerful female roles – the sisters, daughter, above all the maid – it is above all a series of single and slow shots, often with great attention to shadows and fog, foreground and background, which are the most arresting.

The three sisters gather in the family mansion because one is at the end of her life. Depicting her terrible suffering and their various responses to it, Cries and Whispers is concerned with all the important things in life: dying and death (of course, sadness and grieving and what happens afterwards), love, religion, sex, lack of human communication and connection. And betrayal, raising the questions whether we all do these sorts of things to each other, especially in our important relationships, and when we do, is it through a lack of awareness, a lack of kindness, self-interest…?

The style is all about the implied – snatches of conversations hinting at abuse in the past; subtle facial expressions; a view through the window into the garden at the right moment – nothing is thrust at me or over-explained, rather I am allowed to sit back in my cinema chair and draw my own conclusions, using my own intelligence and powers of observation, respected.

It is a measured Galliard (i) of a film, one meaningful step at a time, allowing me to see the detail and depth of a face or scene and almost always leaving certainty aside. After she dies and then calls her sisters, is she meant to be a ghost? When one refuses to attend the sick room, is this because she cannot bear the suffering, or is there a relationship issue we are not aware of? The pace allows some space to reflect while watching. I could not have slept for a second, although one man managed to snore throughout!

The cast is made up of women suffering and damaged in themselves, the most powerful being the maid – voluptous, clever, loving, agreeable, she has many of the attributes we expect from ‘the staff’ in these historical movies, but is a much rounder character than that. The exquisite tenderness in the removal of her top and cradling of the dying woman is something I will not forget quickly.

Meanwhile, the men take a back-seat, although they are implicated by what they do not say, what amuses them. At the edges of the main drama, their words or actions highlight the dysfunctional family situation – for example, as in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, it is the man who generously suggests a payment is made (here, to the maid after the death of her mistress) and his wife who refuses.

I am reminded of a more recent American film as I watch. To The Wonder (ii. 2013, directed by Terence Malick) must surely be paying homage to Cries and Whispers with its plaintive domestic scenes, lack of extant dialogue and slow self-conscious choreography on wide open plains.

What has stayed with me? The most explicit scene in which she accidentally knocks over a delicately decorated glass at the supper table. There is a suggestion that she expects her husband opposite to chastise her, but there is silence. She toys with a shard of glass and later takes it with her when she goes into her room where she desperately stabs it between her legs. Somehow she manages to walk into their shared room, lie back on the pillows and smear the blood over her face. Does her husband enjoy the result of her wound? Is the blood part of their love-making? She smiles and he moves to join her with no sign of horror on his face. The next morning she is moving around, apparently with no pain. Chilling.

Afterwards, I feel sad even morose, quiet and contemplative.

I watched this, on the spur of the moment, at one Vintage Sunday showing at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, May 2018.

i. A Galliard is an Elizabethan dance style.

ii. To The Wonder

 

Never Steady, Never Still

2017 Film directed by Kathleen Hepburn. 5 stars.

A stunning film in both definitions of the word, Kathleen Hepburn’s best known film is also painfully realistic. Very gradually, we come to understand how desperately challenging Judy’s life is. Shirley Henderson brilliantly inhabits the body of someone with Parkinson’s – the gait, the gestures, the voice – and evinces incredible pathos as a result. Her 18 year old son, Jamie (played by Théodore Pellerin) is the other key character in this Canadian feature, and he, too, is deeply immersed in his role so that we squirm when he is embarrassed and cry when he cries. It is no wonder Hepburn has won a whole raft of accolades for this.

Gently, the extent this illness has on Judy’s life unfolds. Set against the exquisite, quiet backdrop of the water and hills, icy forests and snowy roads of Alberta, the physical pain and mental challenge is terrible. The setting or rising sun, rose-glowing at the horizon, may be indicative of the atmosphere in the home, but it is never overly obvious. This is because we are slowing down with the pace of the film and increasingly mindful, unable to avoid empathising with what is taking place.

As if Judy and Jamie do not have enough to contend with, they must also deal with death and consequent grieving (there are marvellous views of the simple funeral chapel); bullying around heavy machinery; drug taking; an unpleasant sex scene with a prostitute in a tiny portacabin toilet; teenage pregnancy and the inevitable questions about sexual orientation – although I thoroughly enjoyed the candid, awkward conversations between Jamie and 17 year old Kaly (Mary Galloway) in the final section.

The opening scene of the mother in her white nightie standing thigh-high in the sea outside her lodge, and the accompanying narrative of her miscarriage and stillbirth, manages to be both light in tone and heavy in implication. Again and again, we see the cast from behind, although we might be shown, over a shoulder, a second character facing us. Often intense close up is used, so close that it can be almost out of focus, such as the upsetting, but fantastically realised, getting-dressed sequence at the end; or the camera is at ground level, for example, when Jamie and his best buddy play ice hockey: the sound and sight of the blades cutting, chillingly, through the ice.

With so many beautiful and artful images to stay with you after it ends, there is nevertheless a sense of discomfort and danger. Despite the occasional easy humour, you cannot avoid understanding something about life with this debilitating disease.

Wonderstruck

2017 Film, directed by Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ new film, ‘Wonderstruck’ is set simultaneously in 1927 and 1977. There are two stories about two children, Rose and Ben, searching for family, running away from home and, in the case of Rose, kneeling touchingly at the water’s edge and sending her note of despair away on an origami boat (for more paper folding, see later). Of course their stories coincide at the end – albeit with charming storytelling and impressive acting from Millicent Simmonds and Oakes Fegley .

Shot in black and white for the 20s, and technicolour for the 70s, the combination of these styles with appropriate costume and largely relevant music, make for no confusion about which part of the narrative we are following, and establish a clear ambience. In addition, as it shifts back and forth from era to era, we learn about the kids’ home life, hobbies and relationships, and begin to guess what the connections between them might be.

The poignant scenes of the misunderstood and vulnerable young ones roaming busy streets, of old cinema and theatre, antique book store, and museums galore (which unfortunately are reminiscent of Night at the Museum with some identical shots), are all arresting but somehow predictable; beautiful and yet obvious.

Both characters are deaf and much is made of this – Rose in her silence, with a stern father shouting, is secretly longing for her film-star mama (most authentic silent film until you recognise Julianne Moore!). Her narrative mimics little Ben’s, newly bereaved after his own mother dies in a car accident, and who is then struck by lightening no less.

The score is variously pop and classical, interspersed with quiet. There is an astronomical theme hence several renditions of 2001, A Space Odyssey (Also Sprach Zarathusra), and quite a bit of David Bowie with the final credits running out on ‘Can you hear?’

Repeated use of newspaper cuttings; scribbled messages on feint-lined pads; sign language; lip-reading for the audience; gesture and mime – with even a very brief appearance by a Marcel Marceau street performer – are enlisted to get the message across. The final denouement is enticingly told with animation and collage alongside a magnificent paper landscape of New York.

There is very little left to the imagination, countless clues are easily spotted by the keen-eyed (how many left-handed women can you see?), but Wonderstruck has lush sets and is richly dressed.

Zaragoza blog including paper museum, EMOZ (see below)

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Exhibit of paper folding, EMOZ, Spain. Apologies: artist’s name unknown.
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Victorian pop-up book, part of the historical collection EMOZ, Spain.

Museum of Paper, Zaragoza, Spain

Book Review: The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans.

Ecstasy is vital to life! Philosopher advocates losing control with humility. 

4 star

In The Art of Losing Control, A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience,  Jules Evans is concerned with ecstasy – ”Can we learn to lose control safely,’’ he asks, ”or is it always dangerous?‘’ In 10 chapters and 250 pages of compact type, he makes a clear case for this basic human need and concludes that without it, we, as a species, are in danger.

This is Evans’ second book after Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations about Ancient Greek philosophy; and as a modern day philosopher and stoic with a high profile (he runs The London Philosophy Club, and is a Research Fellow at the University of London), he has some considerable authority in the field, which is not immediately apparent as I plough my way through the first half. This is partly because he can be dismissive of views he cannot understand: ”all sorts of nonsense, from horoscopes to…”, and partly because it is a mixture of formal and informal writing where one minute there is a first hand account of an orgy, and the next, the author is getting to grips with deep intellectual debate.

It is not that this is a tricky academic tome or too choc-full of dense language, but that there really are very many references, and its scope is grandiose, covering as it does, all of civilisation. In fact, as I move from a chapter on psychedelic drugs to a chapter on rock music through the ages; from The Contemplation Zone to The Tantric Love Temple at an imaginary festival (which is his device and thence his structure), I become increasingly persuaded that Evans is an authority and by the Mosh Pit – chapter 8 about war being an ecstatic experience – convinced also that this is a vital book and ecstasy is something we should indeed all be concerned with. He gets closer than most in identifying why we have not yet attained the nirvana we are searching for, and makes a good stab at how we might go about getting it.

It is a work of far-reaching research, both literary and personal: He attends a Vipassana meditation; an Alpha Christian course where the ensuing community support means a lot to him; as well as often referring to his teenage NDE (‘near death experience’. He has the ability to sum up huge bodies of work (eg. CBT) and human movements (eg. Romanticism) in pithy understandable phrases, and though he does increasingly state his own view: ”We need to worship less, consume less, and play more.’ ‘ p. 90, and repeats that finding peace is hard work and can only be learned gradually, the book trips along and is very entertaining.

The Art Of Losing Control is published by Canongate.

Jules Evans own website with very popular blog.