Archive for September, 2010

The Fry Chronicles

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on September 30, 2010 by alexlarman

Reading Stephen Fry’s splendidly entertaining and compelling second volume of memoir, the thought struck me with some vehemence: What exactly is Stephen Fry going to be remembered for? For his seminal work with Hugh Laurie, probably. For his excellent performance as Oscar Wilde in the biopic, perhaps. For his appearances in Blackadder, possibly. For his near-suicidal departure from a West End play and flight to Bruges? Doubtful. But for the apparently endless quiz show appearances, advert voiceovers, bit parts in films, Twitter updates, general ubiquity? It seems incredibly unlikely. Lest we forget, Fry – apparently a cuddly, loveable figure – makes no bones about describing himself as a self-loathing and deeply unhappy man, with his bipolar disorder and ongoing issues about his Jewish background and sexuality feeding into his work in a compellingly unusual way.

It’s sometimes as if there are two entirely different Stephen Frys both battling for space in the public eye. (No doubt there is an entirely separate entity who exists for private consumption as well.) There is the erudite Cambridge graduate, plummy-voiced and tweed-jacketed, who has more or less cornered the market in what the general public seem to expect of an intellectual. (Fry was once described, cruelly but with an edge of accuracy, as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person should be’. ) Then there’s the other, more complex man, someone whose latent insecurity led to him quitting Twitter briefly because he was upset by some ill-judged comments about him, and who was famously celibate for 14 years. So, can the real Mr Fry stand up?

In his earlier volume of autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, Fry explored, largely without recourse to self pity or after-the-fact moralising, the decline in his fortunes that led to his expulsion from Uppingham for theft, followed by his near-constant playing truant from his subsequent schools, ending up, notoriously, with his imprisonment for credit card fraud. The book ends on a positive note – he is accepted into a tutorial college to prepare for Cambridge entrance – but it’s a remarkably grim and surprisingly affecting journey.

After the fall, the rise. In The Fry Chronicles, it’s roughly split between his glittering career at Cambridge, with much made of his famous friends – Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie amongst others – and his success within the Cambridge Footlights, and his later rise to a sort of low-level fame on various sketch shows, and riches from his involvement in rewriting the book of the musical Me And My Girl. If you disliked Fry, this might seem another exercise in faux-modest smugness, a ‘stop it, oh stop it, oh go on tickle my tummy and praise me to the skies’ book that promises even more luvvie namedropping anecdotes in future volumes.

What stops the book being unreadable is that Fry is too intelligent not to anticipate the readers’ boredom at reading about yet another multimillionaire’s wonderful life. He openly discusses his belief that intellectually, sexually and socially he has spent his entire existence feeling inferior to others around him, and that even when he appears to be having a wonderful time of it he’s consumed with self doubt and misery. This current of sadness and, at times, almost absurd hyperbole might leave the reader wondering whether Fry genuinely believes what he writes or if he has given into ‘poor me’ syndrome, but it makes the book a far more compelling read than another bland recounting of success.

As with all Fry’s books, it’s beautifully written (in fact slightly overwritten – he never uses one adjective when three will do) and a very quick read. He helpfully indicates when some stories have already appeared in Moab, though there is an anecdote about a hypnotist which is already in the earlier book.  It ends on a cliffhanger with Fry doing ‘naughty salt’ for the first time, and the promise that the next volume should encompass Fry & Laurie, Blackadder Goes Forth, Jeeves & Wooster and, one hopes, the events of the 1990s that saw him crack up and flee the country and then return to play Wilde. If this is indeed what happens, it is entirely possible that Fry’s lasting achievement might well be these volumes of memoir. Who’d have thought it?

The Social Network

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , on September 30, 2010 by alexlarman

A film about the foundation of Facebook. At first glance, it’s hard to think of a drier and more boring subject. It would take, one imagines, a phenomenally good cast, writer and director to bring this to life. Well, it just so happens that if your director is David Fincher, your writer is Aaron Sorkin and your ferociously talented cast includes Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, a revelatory Justin Timberlake and many more actors who will inevitably become stars of the future, there is a good chance that they could make a thrilling piece of cinema out of the phone book. And the story of the foundation of Facebook isn’t just a group of bespectacled nerds sitting around a computer discussing code; instead, in Fincher and Sorkin’s hands, it’s an almost Shakespearean saga of ambition, betrayal and class, with a powerful performance from Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the brilliant but deeply dysfunctional protagonist.

You know that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller from the first scene, a 100mph tete-a-tete between Zuckerberg and his soon to be ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara, soon to be protagonist of Fincher’s next film, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) in a Harvard bar. Instantly, we sense that Zuckerberg is brilliant but almost autistic in his inability to respond to the emotional signals that Erica’s giving him, to say nothing of magnificently patronising. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a break up, and Zuckerberg takes revenge of sorts, first by writing a misanthropic blog about Erica, and then by hacking into each fraternity house’s ‘Facebook’ to allow users to rate the various girls. This attracts official attention, but it has already sown the seeds of a grand project, which Zuckerberg’s more cautious best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew ‘soon to be Spiderman’ Garfield) puts the financial muscle behind. As ‘The Facebook’, as it’s originally known, gathers steam, a number of people take a close interest, most notably a pair of blue-blooded WASP twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (as played by Armie Hammer with the use of brilliant but unobtrustive CGI)and Napster founder and Internet celebrity Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).

As the film moves between 2003-4 and the foundation of Facebook, and a  few years later where Zuckerberg is being sued by both the Winkelvoss twins and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and Saverin, it is clear from the off that things went badly wrong for Zuckerberg. What the story explores with pace, wit and humanity is both the initial excitement of the way in which an initially small-scale project captured people’s imagination, and then the way in which, for those involved, ambition outstripped friendship in an all too predictable fashion. Fincher, always a stunning visual stylist, pulls off his usual coups – an elite Harvard party shot like the fashion shoot from hell, a Henley (!) set boat race which perfectly illustrates the mindset of the old-fashioned Winkelvosses – but he’s very much assisting Sorkin’s expertly judged script, which bristles with clever lines and laugh-out-loud witticisms but never shies away from emotional truth.

He’s helped by a fantastic, brooding score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that gives a dynamic energy to scenes with no more action in them than people sitting around talking about money, and stunning lead performances. Timberlake is seductive, charismatic and ultimately rather pathetic as the Mephistophelean Parker, tempting Zuckerberg and Saverin with the thought of riches and influence beyond their wildest dreams. Garfield supplies what comes closest to the film’s moral centre as the decent but way-out-of-his-depth Saverin. And Eisenberg, in a career-best performance, offers a fascinating look at a brilliant but deeply flawed man, who (it’s hinted fairly strongly) has deep-rooted psychological issues with everything from trust to relationships. The final scene’s various ambiguities and nuances (scored, gloriously, to the Beatles ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’) are almost entirely down to his stunning turn as someone whose ‘journey’, for want of a better word, can be seen as someone hardly having changed at all, but whose life has altered immeasurably.

Doubtless this will be a significant player in next year’s Oscars. It’s certainly one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and I have no doubt that it will deepen and grow richer upon repeated viewings. (Comparisons with Citizen Kane, albeit for narrative structure rather than artistic genius, are not unwarranted.)  It’s a pleasure to watch from beginning to end and a reminder, as if we needed one, that Fincher is one of the most talented and able directors working anywhere today.

Current Enthusiasms

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , , , , on September 19, 2010 by alexlarman

This is a shameless rip-off of something that Brett Anderson occasionally deigns to do on his website, but here is a short list of things I’ve recently seen and done, with (hopefully) short and illuminating commentary on each one.

Muse at Wembley Stadium

Well by now you know where you stand on the Muse phenomenon – you either reject them as a group of flatulent jumped-up Queen copycats or embrace them as the most exciting and innovative live act of their generation. I’m in the latter camp, and have been for some time now. Although I am concerned that their albums are beginning to verge on self-parody, their live shows just get better and better. This, their latest stadium mega-production, offered acrobats suspended from UFOs, a stage set that looked like a crashed spacecraft, extras swarming the stage waving flags draped with slogans, and of course two hours’ worth of shamelessly anthemic songs that had a capacity audience alternately jumping up and down and bawling choruses that, if analysed in the cold clear light of day, are utterly ridiculous but work beautifully in context.

Buried

It’s Ryan Reynolds! In a box! For 90 minutes! And that really is it. This fiendishly horrid film is the claustrophobic experience that lesser films (coughPhoneBoothcough) never quite had the guts to be, as Reynolds’ hapless contractor finds himself kidnapped in Iraq and placed in a coffin, armed only with a mobile phone rapidly running out of battery. Little-known director Rodrigo Cortes does a fine job of building the tension and excitement, as well as building an increasingly political subtext into the mix. Shame that it won’t really stand up to repeated viewings, but it’s a memorably intense experience first time round at the cinema.

I’m Still Here

Now explicitly revealed as a spoof concocted by Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck, this mockumentary following ‘Joaquin Phoenix’ and his descent into insanity occasioned by his disillusionment with his acting career is consequently a lot easier to enjoy. When I was watching it and it was still up in the air as to whether it was real or not, I felt that there were giveaway moments (anything involving P Diddy; an appearance halfway through from veteran actor Edward James Olmos when he delivers a monologue that feels scripted; the ending) but it’s still a memorably black-hearted satire on the culture of celebrity which, almost in passing, shows Phoenix to be one of the most fearless actors working today. His return to mainstream cinema is eagerly anticipated.

Grinderman – ‘Palaces of Montezuma’ and Brandon Flowers – ‘On The Floor’

Both Brandon Flowers’ solo album and the second Grinderman LP were highly anticipated due to the feverish support that both Flowers and Nick Cave have from (you rather imagine) diverse audiences. Unfortunately both are somewhat of a let down, Flowers’ Flamingo and the imaginatively named Grinderman 2 representing retreats into their respective comfort zones rather than a true progression. However each features one magnificent stand-out track. On Flowers’ album it’s ‘On The Floor’, a slowly building epic of religious doubt and society meltdown that’s easily the equal of anything that The Killers have done. And on the Grinderman LP, ‘Palaces Of Montezuma’ is a refreshingly big pop tune reminiscent of the Bad Seeds’ Nature Boy, albeit with typically brilliantly offbeat Cave lyrics, as he hymns ‘a custard coloured superdream of Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen’ and ‘the spinal cord of JFK wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee’. The overall effect is funny, disturbing and stirring all at the same time.