Monday, 29 October 2007

In Rainbows

Tom Moody writes about the new Radiohead album.

When I heard that Radiohead were releasing their first album in four years as a pick-your-own-price download, I thought it made a lot of sense. Why, indeed, should I have to pay ten pounds for an album from a band which insists on being as artistically erratic as Radiohead? This product could have ranged in quality from the utter genius of 'The Bends' and 'OK computer' to the stubborn, artier-than-thou pretension that was present in 'Kid A' and 'Amnesiac'. For a new album as brilliant as 'OK Computer', I would be prepared to pay, say, £20.00. An album as awful as 'Amnesiac', though, I'd rather avoid completely. Now I'm not a gambling man, so I elected to download the album for exactly £00.00. So, was it worth my time?

In short, yes. More so than any of the band's releases since 'The Bends', this album actually makes me feel happy. It's easy to forget that Radiohead, a band who have come to specialise in alienation, depression and anxiety, do have the ability to make some pretty uplifting and invigorating music. The opening tracks '15 step' and 'Bodysnatchers' are the liveliest, most light-hearted tracks that Radiohead have recorded since 'The Bends', and, while this album is hardly a bunny rabbits and flowers affair, and a more sombre and drawn-out mood prevails during its mid section, I formed the impression throughout that a great pressure has been lifted off Radiohead and that they are finally able to freely express themselves. It sounds as if they have broken free of the suffocating, self-conscious pretension that has bogged down all of their albums post-OK Computer, and that they are now making the music that they really want to play, and that we really want to listen to. All the Radiohead staples from throughout their career are present; the spiky guitar riffs, the mournful piano chords, the ghostly sound effects, and the layered electronic beats. And unlike their previous album, 'Hail to the Thief', which too often felt like a selection of cast-offs from the guitar-based and electro-based eras of the band's history, here all the elements of the music combine with an apparent effortlessness to achieve a fresh, vibrant and frequently hypnotic sound.

This is also Radiohead's most humanly relatable album, as they have abandoned political topics for their lyrics in favour of that more commonly-trodden ground of pop music: relationships and love. Although, this being Radiohead, they approach the territory from a typically twisted and complex angle. 'Weird Fishes' and 'All I Need' deal with similar subjects of infatuation and obsession. In the former Thom York wails; 'I'd be crazy not to follow/ follow where you lead/ your eyes/ they turn me', before drawing comparisons to being devoured by fishes and worms on the ocean floor. And then the album heads into the still darker waters of 'All I Need'. This song contains some of the most powerfully evocative lines that Radiohead have ever dreamt up: 'I'm an animal trapped in your hot car'; 'I'm an insect that just wants to share your light', and ends with an elegantly simplistic way of conveying the confusion of unrequited love: 'It's all wrong/ it's all right/ it's all wrong/ it's all right', repeated over and over, in an emotional release at the crescendo that saves us from a particularly depressing moment in true old-school Radiohead fashion; the effect is similar to that found in 'Exit Music' from 'OK Computer'. 'Faust ARP' depicts a relationship falling apart in a claustrophobic and uninspiring 21st century environment, filled with duplicating and replicating plastic bags. 'Dead from the neck up I guess I'm stuffed, stuffed, stuffed' mutters the singer, before concluding that 'I love you but enough is enough, enough'.

After all this sombre reflexion and frustration, the determined recklessness of 'house of cards' is refreshing; 'I don't want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover, no matter how it ends, no matter how it starts, forget about your house of cards, and I'll do mine'. This direct, what-the-heck attitude sits at odds with the rest of the album and serves as a great way to lyrically break free of the barrage of submissiveness which dominates the previous tracks. Then the penultimate song, 'jigsaw falling into place', at long last brings a more solid and lively beat back into proceedings. One of the most simplistic but powerful songs ever written by Radiohead, it depicts an (apparently) perfect moment shared between the singer and a romantic interest in a club; 'Just as you take my hand, Just as you write my number down, Just as the drinks arrive, Just as they play your favorite song', before he reveals, on reflection, that 'I never really got there, I just pretended that I had'. It's an evocative depiction of the tenuousness of human emotion. The closing track is a beautiful piano ballad about leaving posthumous videotapes for loved ones. Radiohead allow themselves one sentimental moment; 'No matter what happens now, I won't be afraid, because I know today has been, the most perfect day I've ever seen', then an odd clattering noise becomes dominant in the background, and that's you're forty-two glorious minutes of 'In Rainbows' over.

This is the best Radiohead album since 'Ok Computer'. The band have finally thrown aside the colossal pressure that has been piled on them since the aforementioned album and, instead of searching for something equally groundbreaking, or trying to appeal to fans of the polarizing guitar-based and electro-based eras which they created, have put together their most natural, unpretentious and openly human collection of songs to date. As with all their albums, this takes a good few listens to fully sink in, but trust me; if you do opt to pay for it you won't regret it!

Thursday, 25 October 2007

The Last Legion

Alister Burton's thoughts on what he calls 'The Last Legion (Hopefully)'.

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me, as Kenneth Williams said in Carry On Cleo. All useful comments welcome!

On paper, Doug Lefler seems like a good choice to bring an amalgamation of Roman and Arthurian facts and legends to the silver screen. His CV is a comprehensive list of fantasy and adventure; he has been a storyboard artist on such projects as the 1994 Hercules TV programmes and Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness (1992). Furthermore, he has directed films Dragonheart: A New Beginning (2000) and TV shows, Hercules (as above), Babylon 5 (1998) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1998-99). So why does he make such a mess of the Last Legion? Well, it seems that experience doesn’t count for everything. The problems with this film start when you look at the credits.

Perusing Colin Firth’s acting CV it seems hard – nay impossible – to reason why the producers of The Last Legion would want to cast him as Aurelius, a no-nonsense, battle-hardened Roman soldier. This is the same Colin Firth who stands alongside the perma-grinning Hugh Grant as one of the great English fops; the same Colin firth who has found fame through films like Bridget Jones’ Diary (and the sequel), Nanny Mcphee, Love Actually, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Hope Springs, The Importance of Being Earnest, Shakespeare In Love etcetera etcetera. No one would want Hugh Grant running around in a skirt (and it is a skirt) waving his gladius around, so why is it acceptable for Colin Firth?

In short, it’s not acceptable. Not in the slightest.

Contrary to the horribly miscast Aurelius, Kevin McKidd is fresh from finishing the two-season BBC/HBO TV series Rome, where he plays a no-nonsense, battle-hardened and at times unhinged Roman soldier. It would be easy for McKidd to reprise this role in The Last Legion but, understandably, he would want to avoid falling into the trap of the typecast. So

how could he star in a film about Rome and Roman soldiers now? By starring as a no-nonsense, battle-hardened, and certainly unhinged Germanic Goth barbarian, of course.

It would be easy to spend this whole review condemning the casting choices for this film, in particular Ben Kingsley as Ambrosinus/Merlin, who is in no way magic, this perhaps to protect the film’s supposed historical credibility. But it is that factor – credibility – that this film lacks, chiefly because of the hideously overwritten storyline and the type of GCSE drama class acting that makes you want to vomit into your popcorn.

The film begins with the coronation of Romulus Augustus as a new child Caesar and from there, moves at a pace akin to a horse riding on a jet-powered motorbike, which, incidentally, is akin to how ridiculous this film is. But I digress. Rome at this time has an uneasy alliance with the Germanic Goths that Kevin Mckidd, aka Wulfila, is associated with. This alliance is so uneasy in fact, that it breaks down only five minutes into the film, when the Goths, led by Odoacer (who appears in fact to be Scottish) invade and successfully conquer Rome and capture the newly crowned Caesar, and all in one night!

What follows is an hour of Romans chasing Goths, and Goths chasing Romans, with some double-crossing Byzantines in the mix somewhere too. Along the way, Caesar Augustus finds a “sword of power” after being captured with Ambrosinus on the island of Capri and from here begins the setup of the final Arthurian twist in the film by including some subtle-as-a-brick-in-the-face moments, such as Colin Firth’s arm sweeping from underneath a large body of water clutching his sword. It would seem that director Doug Lefler is in fact out to insult the audience’s intelligence.

Onward then, does Colin Firth prance, over to Brittania, where the last surviving legion of Roman soldiers is hiding. Aurelius arrives at their fort and finds these soldier

saviours of his gone. It’s okay though, they’re not dead, they’ve just been for a walk in the hills and they turn up soon enough. Enter villain #2 who is so enigmatic that the audience gets told nothing about him except his name – Vortgyn - and that he and Ambrosinus/Merlin don’t see eye to eye. Essentially this only serves as a vehicle for the pursuing Goths to gain some extra manpower by promising Vortgyn the sword that Romulus carries.

What follows is a low-budget, uninspiring and badly choreographed battle sequence, between the heroes and villains, with several of the “last legion” seeking refuge outside the walls of their own fort, amid the attacking villains. No, I don’t know why either. The battle concludes with somewhat of a ‘deus ex machina’ but by this point I was too glad it was over to care.

And so to the ending. The tagline to The Last Legion reads, ‘Before King Arthur, there was Excalibur,’ which perhaps suggests that the Roman/Arthurian aspects of the film are quite balanced and complement each other throughout. Not so. Apart from the few not-so-subtle moments as mentioned before, the tying together of the two themes doesn’t come until the last ninety seconds of a long 110 minute film. It is tempting to reveal those final ninety seconds so any reading this can join me in a state of torporific bewilderment, solely inflicted by Doug Lefler grasping at Arthurian themed straws. However I don’t want to be responsible for a mass induced coma, so I’ll leave that to Lefler. Besides, those who haven’t already guessed the films conclusion by now are probably those already comatose and some breeds of dog.

The concept behind this film is tolerable, it’s execution terrible. The whole film has a vagueness to it, which is reflected in the scriptwriting and Colin Firth’s lazy performance – particularly during his combat scenes and “rousing” speech to rally his troops. The sets are

unimaginative at best, some of which look like they have been constructed purely from polystyrene. Behind the film is a concept designed for an adult audience, yet Lefler has watered it down in order to squeeze a 12A certificate out of the BBFC and a few more banknotes into his pocket. The camera suddenly cuts away at the point of any sword/spear/projectile impacting with flesh, and an off-screen grunt or groan informs the audience of that particular character’s doom. There is a vague hint of Aurelius as a father-figure to the young Romulus, which serves only as another setup to the final consolidation of the plot, as does Aurelius’ romance with Byzantine traitor Mira.

Lefler was quoted as saying about The Last Legion, “It was really a director’s dream. All of my cast were so dedicated to this project. In their opinion, it was a very unique experience, because there was not a cynical voice amongst them. Nobody was doing it for a paycheck. Everybody was into it. They would read books about Roman military strategy in their spare time.”[1] Well it certainly doesn’t show, Doug.

[1] Doug Lefler Interview (The Trades, Aug 17, 2007, by Scott Juba)

On the Net

Here are some blogs and other sites I like to read:

Twenty Major is a foul-mouthed Dublin blogger whose posts tend to focus on drinking, descriptions of his poo, and hurling swear words at anyone in sight. He is also very funny.

Ron Silliman writes the most visited literary blog on this, or possibly any other planet. His specialty is avant-garde poetics.

I like how, unlike some newspapers, The Guardian makes all its books and review coverage available freely online.

There's usually something or other that makes me laugh on The Onion.

The above picture is of one of my cats, a ginger killing machine called Sam. There are some pictures of him and other local curiosities on this flickr site.

Last and definitely least is my blog, which I call georgiasam.

Which blogs do you read? All suggestions welcome.

Hull Fair

Laura Pugh on Hull Fair. Thank you Laura, and all constructive comments welcome!

A night at the fair

A pleasant autumnal evening became futuristic with strobes of white and green light in the sky for all of Hull to see. The call for a superhero to save the city? Not on this night…
Spring Bank West bustled with the illumination of the biggest fair in Europe, the annual ‘Hull Fair’. Children excitedly played with brightly coloured rattling fair fancies. Their parents, tired, hurried them away from the tricks of the fair towards a much needed passtime. Hull Fair has been wowing the crowds since the thirteenth century. Once started, it became a known fair for traders, selling anything from exotic goods to livestock. As time passed, entertainment became the fairs main focus, and the nineteenth century saw rise to circus skills and puppet shows; keeping within the tradition of having the fair as closely as possible Friday the 11th of October, of course.
In our day and age it is not host to stalls such as the famous 1930’s ‘ Chicken Joe’ stall, where prizes included live chickens, instead there are a large number of umbrella shaped stands that you can literally aim for. Whether you fancy winning an over sized bear, or a consolation prize that makes you wonder why you had three goes, the fair is the place for you. Rides range from stomach churning waltzers and upside down rides to ghost trains and bumper cars for all ages. If you are a couple after a romantic night out or a group of friends after a night of fun, the fair caters for all tastes. As long as you’re prepared to dig into your pockets and brush your worries aside, you may enter this fantasy world.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Michael Longley

Collected Poems, by Michael Longley. 368pp. Cape, £25

Commenting on the obsessive culture of commemoration in Northern Ireland, the critic Edna Longley suggested that "we should erect a statue to Amnesia and forget where we put it". Her husband, Michael Longley, has his own relationship with amnesia: he has quipped that if he knew where poems came from he'd go there. As his handsome new Collected Poems reminds us, he has been there, several hundred times over.

Longley is simultaneously the weightiest and most light-fingered of poets: as his dustjacket photos have charted down the years, he is part Hemingway, part Father Christmas, an unflinching tough guy one minute and handing out presents all round the next. Drawing on 35 years of published work, Collected Poems has lived through important times and it clocks up its share of appointments with the public and private griefs of the Northern Irish troubles, most famously in the 1994 poem "Ceasefire". But it begins with playful moths in the small hours and ends with "a brain-rattling bramble-song inside a knothole".

The early Longley of No Continuing City (1969) is a metaphysical poet with Philip Larkin's record collection and a fondness for cheery misfits such as Erik Satie and Walter Mitty. Addicted to tightly rhyming forms, he longs for a state of release too, "covet[ing] the privilege / Of vertigo", as he writes in his great set-piece ode "The Hebrides". Still in his early 30s, Longley showed great maturity in An Exploded View (1973), already making the elegiac mode his own in poems such as "Wounds", "Alibis" and "Kindertotenlieder".

Also from this collection are the verse letters to his fellow Northern Irish poets James Simmons, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney, poems whose talk of "poetic conservatives / In the city of guns and long knives" and "burnt-out houses / Of the Catholics we'd scarcely loved" did not always meet with the approval of their dedicatees (as described in Fran Brearton's authoritative new study from Bloodaxe, Reading Michael Longley. This Bloomian anxiety of influence may have had a short-term disorienting effect on Longley, as his next collection, Man Lying on a Wall (1976), is not without its share of anomie, but his fourth, The Echo Gate (1979), is a splendid return to form, including some of his very best poems ("The Mayo Monologues", "The Linen Industry" and "Peace").

Much has been made of Longley's publishing hiatus between Poems 1963-83 and Gorse Fires (1991) but, truth be told, eight years is an entirely reasonable period to take between books, especially if the writer comes back as refreshed as Longley did with a volume that brought a new focus and intensity to his work. The classical world, the west of Ireland, and a sequence on the second world war come together in poetry of rare historical and personal witness, as in the couplet "Terezin":

No room has ever been as silent as the room
Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison.

Longley's poetry has always had a strongly ceremonial bent, which finds a suitable outlet in The Weather in Japan (2000), with the poet also showing himself increasingly haunted by the first world war, in which his father served. His decision to dispense with the virtuoso rhyming of his earlier work has seen him develop a blank-verse line of endless prosodic variety and suppleness. By the time of Snow Water (2004), however, Longley's short poems on County Mayo, snow and war have begun to assume their exquisite contours with an ease that skirts self-parody.

Taken as a whole, Collected Poems shows Longley struggling with the desire to inscribe natural and human landscapes of loss, and the sometimes conflicting demand that poetry comfort or even just cheer us up now and then. It is no surprise that the last line of an untitled quatrain at the back of the book contains the injunction to "tuck me in". In his truest and most enduring poems, Longley manages, in Yeats's words, to hold justice and reality in a single thought without doing violence to either. The many poems in which Longley succeeds in this aim are among the great poems of our time: Longley is the laureate of habitation, of the soul's native, adoptive and imaginary dwelling places, even if underneath it all "There's no such place as home", as he writes in "Check-up".

An early verse letter to Heaney ends with a description of "leaving careful footsteps round / A wind-encircled burial mound". Longley is among the most surefooted of poets, but Collected Poems is no burial mound. in "Detour" he imagines his own funeral cort├Ęge taking a leisurely detour, while he wonders "where my funeral might be going next". The magnificent, decades-long conversation with the living and the dead that is Longley's poetry is too urgent to end any time soon.