Monday, May 03, 2021

DVD/150: PET SHOP BOYS PERFORMANCE (Eric Watson, 1991)

For their second tour, Pet Shop Boys collaborated with English National Opera director David Alden and designer David Fielding for a show that is easier to admire than to like.

Alden's avant-garde staging has not aged well and dancers filmed in close-up while gurning for the back of the Birmingham NEC is never good but it maintains interest if not involvement.

In a vague narrative Neil and Chris travel from boarding school to Heaven!


Shelf or charity shop?  A reluctant keeper - as you might have guessed, it's not my favourite PSB show; there's not much joy in the show and although it is designed as a through-show, the lack of audience involvement leaves it cold - only at the end with ALWAYS ON MY MIND are the auidence included in the show. But some of the imagery lingers in the mind and Eric Watson - a longtime photographer of the Boys - did a good job at capturing the flavour of the show.  Favourite moments include Neil and Chris in their orange and pink dayglo suits - Tintin's Thompson Twins never looked so good, Chris' solemn hip-hop dancing in his shirt and pants to WE ALL FEEL BETTER IN THE DARK and Sylvia Mason-James' glorious version of RENT.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

DVD/150: LE FABULEUX DESTIN D' ÉLISABETH VIGÉE LE BRUN (The Fabulous Life of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun) (Arnaud Xainte, 2015, tv)

I bought this in Paris at an excellent retrospective exhibition - Élisabeth's first, only 163 years after her death!

A two-part tv biography, cleverly filmed to suggest not only the 18th Century Paris that Élisabeth knew but the countries she visited in exile.

Encouraged by her painter father from an early age, Élisabeth determined to be a painter and, at 21, married art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun which gave her an exhibition space for her work and soon she became a sought-after portraitist.

Unhappy with her court portraits, Marie Antoinette requested Élisabeth paint her: both the same age, the women developed a friendly relationship and Élisabeth became the Queen's unofficial court painter.

Élisabeth escaped the Revolution and was exiled for 12 years in Europe: her fame had spread across Italy, Austria and Russia and she managed to make a living until she could eventually return to Paris.

Shelf or charity shop?  The series is hampered by the English narrator who has a flat monotone throughout, much better were it narrated by the talking head experts. There is no acting per se - as usual with modern tv documentaries, actors are filmed wandering about, gazing out of windows, giving people SUCH a look - but Marlene Goulard and Julie Ravix as the young and old Élisabeth both look good at what they do!  I will keep it for an enjoyable wander through the eventful life of an under-rated artist who proved more than capable of surviving in a dangerous time on her talents and wits; she died aged 86, five years after writing her memoirs, and her tombstone reads "Ici, enfin, je repose..." ("Here, at last, I rest...")

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Exit Through The Giftshop - Pictures At An Exhibition #22

More treasures of pleasures past...


I bought this at the Dulwich Picture Gallery at their impressive Vanessa Bell exhibition in 2017 which sought to celebrate her as an artist rather than as merely a member of the Bloomsbury Group. 

Painted in her living room in Gordon Square, the composition shows her continued interest in post-impressionism, with a spray of paper flowers from The Omega Workshops providing inspiration for the painting and it's harmony of colours.


As this painting is in the National Gallery collection, I presume I bought it there as part of a Renaissance exhibition.  It is understood to be one of the earliest surviving paintings of Michelangelo and, due to it's inclusion in the 1857 Manchester Art Exhibition, it is known widely as 'The Manchester Madonna',

Odd that if it is one of his earliest paintings he could never be bothered to finish it!  But it's the unfinished state that appeals to me, the ghostly angels at the left of the painting and the unpainted sections of the Virgin's cloak give it a solarised look that looks almost surrealist against the fully realised infant Christ and John the Baptist.  I like the small detail of the infant Christ reaching for the book that the Virgin is trying to keep away from him... As usual, Michelangelo's figures have a marble-like solidity.  And on the subject of Michelangelo's marble...

3) THE PIETA BANDINI (Detail) (1547-1555) - Michelangelo

This was bought at the Museo dell' Opera dei Duomo in Florence; it's a strange museum which houses most of the original works once in the Duomo... like, they could just move them back?  Michelangelo struggled with the sculpture for eight years before he damaged it, allegedly, in a fit of wilful destruction stating that the marble was flawed.  It is widely believed that the looming figure of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of the artist, then in his mid-seventies. 

Michelangelo's damage was extensive but was mostly restored by a sculpter named Tiberio Calcagni who had helped the Master with some of his commissions.  It had been allocated to Calcagni by Francesco Bandini, prelate of Siena, who had acquired it when Michelangelo left it with one of his servants.  It was originally to be used as decoration for Michelangelo's tomb but his unhappiness with it put paid to that.  The supporting figures of Mary Magdelene and the Virgin Mary are fairly unremarkable but the figure of Christ has a slippery solidity while the figure of the standing Nicodemus / Michelangelo commands the attention.


I bought this at the Uffizi in Florence where the French Princess reads on, unconcerned at the steady stream of visitors to the gallery.  Liotard was fascinated by all things Turkish and he had a penchant for dressing his subjects in exotic clothing.  What I love about this is the thought that Princess Marie-Adelaide got all dressed up to go to a costume party then changed her mind and started reading on her couch!

Marie-Adelaide was the fourth daughter of Louis XV and lived at Versailles up until the Royal family were taken to live in Paris at the start of the revolution.  She never married due to a dearth of available Catholic princes but was a favourite of her father and as such, took a dislike to his official mistresses Madame de Pompadour and later Madame du Barry.  She attempted to recruit her niece by marriage Marie Antoinette to have du Barry socially ostracised but failed when the Dauphine spoke to du Barry.  This put Marie Antoinette on the Princess' hate list too.  She and her sisters managed to escape to Italy before the reign of terror and died in exile aged 67.


A very happy memory is visiting Monk's House on a sunny day in 2014.  Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought the house in an auction in 1919 for £700 and over the years, as they both became successful, they started making improvements to the rudimentary interior and garden.  They lived increasingly at Monk's House during the 20s and 30s due to Virginia's recurring mental breakdowns which were exacerbated by London life, and became a much-loved part of their life.  After Virginia's suicide in 1941, Leonard lived on at Monk's House until his own death in 1969.

Now operated by the National Trust, the sitting room is one of the ground-floor rooms available to view and it is a particular thrill to walk around it's stone-flagged floors and wondering how on earth the long and lanky Lytton Strachey managed to not brain himself on the low ceilings.  The sitting room has light green walls, painted by Virginia, which gives the room a cool, subterrranean feel.  I'd love to visit again.

Friday, April 16, 2021

DVD/150: POLYESTER (John Waters, 1981)

John Waters gives the 50s and 60s Hollywood soap opera 'women's pictures' a good kick up the dirtbox with his scattergun film-making in POLYESTER.

Divine stars the put-upon heroine, for the first time playing a character not based on his own persona.

Where did it go wrong for suburban housewife Francine Fishpaw?  Neglected by her husband Elmer who runs the local sex cinema and is sleeping with his secretary, and ignored by her two children Lu-Lu who go-go dances everywhere and Dexter who is secretly the rampaging Baltimore Footstomper.

Even her mother and the family dog hate her; her only friend is her former maid Cuddles who has recently inherited a lot of money and dreams of becoming a debutante.

Francine turns to alcohol but that's when her super-sensitive nose sniffs out sexy hunk Todd Tomorrow who swears undying love... is happiness calling for Francine?

Shelf or charity shop?  I think POLYESTER can happily live in the DVD plastic storage box but I always forget how enjoyable it is - even if my 40 year-old Oderama card has long since lost it's whiff.  Divine is great as Francine with her Liz Taylor hair, purring voice and outraged dignity; he really was a great comedic actor.  The real revelation is Tab Hunter, the first real Hollywood star Waters ever cast who is an absolute riot as the manager of an Arthouse cinema that screens Marguerite Duras triple-bills, he even gets to sing the title song, one of three in the film co-written by Deborah Harry.  For Waters fans, there is the joy of spotting his 'Dreamland rep' - Mink Stole is sexy secretary Sandra with her Bo Derek corn-rows, Cookie Mueller and Susan Lowe as victims of the Baltimore Footstomper, Mary Vivian Pearce as a manic nun, Jean Hill as a revenge-seeking preacher after having been whacked in the arse by a broom, and of course, Edith Massey as Cuddles, dreaming of her debutante ball and "batchelor cotillions".  Sadly these were the last appearances from Edith and Cookie who both died during the 1980s.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

DVD/150: THIS HAPPY BREED (David Lean, 1944)

In 1939, Noel Coward wrote THIS HAPPY BREED about a working-class family; he starred in the play, which played alternate performances with his more debonair comedy PRESENT LAUGHTER, but by the time the film was made, the role went to Robert Newton.

David Lean, who had co-directed the previous year's IN WHICH WE SERVE with Coward, here was sole director for the first time. he also adapted the play with his Cineguild colleagues Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame who also was the cinematographer.

In 1919, Frank and Ethel Gibbons move into a Clapham terraced house with their three children Queenie, Reg and Vi, Frank's shrill spinster sister Sylvia and Ethel's opinionated mother Mrs Flint, and over 20 years we follow their happinesses and tragedies against the events that shaped the period.

Frank learns their neighbour is army pal Bob Mitchell whose sailor son Billy soon loves Queenie.

Shelf or charity shop?  A shelfer.  Although Coward's view of his working-class characters has a patronising tone, he knows how to make the main characters 'pop' and while David Lean had concerns about directing actors - on IN WHICH WE SERVE Coward handled the actors while Lean did the action sequences - he needn't have worried with such a talented cast, and he whips the action along at pace. Robert Newton.s performance has not dated well but Celia Johnson is wonderful as the loving but moral Mrs Gibbons, a performance which won her the US National Board of Review award for Best Actress.  While all the characters seem to take turns saying "There'll be trouble and no mistake" or "Well I'm sorry I'm sure!", there are stand-outs from Amy Veness as Celia Johnson's formidable mother, Stanley Holloway is always a delight as salt-of-the-earth neighbour Bob, John Mills gives a better-than-usual performance as sailor Billy - the only cast member from the original play - and Kay Walsh, who was married to Lean at the time, is excellent as the snobbish Queenie, a Clapham Bovary who yearns for a better life.

Monday, April 12, 2021

DVD/150: TOKYO MONOGATARI (Tokyo Story) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

Last year I found relief from lockdown stresses in the films of Yasujiro Ozu on the BFI Player, my favourite was the profound TOKYO STORY.

Ozu based it on Leo McCarey's 1937 Hollywood film MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW.

Shukichi and Tomi visit Tokyo to see their oldest children: son Koichi, his wife and sons, daughter Shige and her husband, and their daughter-in-law Noriko, the widow of their son killed in WW2.

Their younger son Keizo lives in Osaka and the youngest daughter Kyoko lives at home.

On arrival they find Koichi and Shige are too busy to spend time with them, only Noriko is happy to show them the city and spend an evening with them.

Their children pay for a spa visit but they cannot settle and decide to return home early.

Tomi is taken ill on the train; now it is the children who return home...

Shelf or charity shop?  In a class - and a shelf - of it's own.  It was first shown in London four years later and won the first-ever Sutherland trophy for the most original and creative film shown at the NFT, and received it's first US release in 1972; bizarrely Japanese exporters thought Ozu 'too Japanese' for Western audiences while happily exporting Samurai and feudal ghost films.  Deceptively simple, Ozu packs a deep emotional resonance that lingers long after the film ends: it's weighty themes of the disappointments within families, death, absence, and perseverence are handled with a delicacy of touch that is astounding - where 99.9% of directors would go for award-worthy emotional grandstanding, Ozu closes the door quietly on his characters to give them their space.  Ozu and co-writer Koga Noda's story is told at a steady pace, giving his cast - and us - a chance to walk alongside the characters.  Ozu had his own little 'rep' company of performers and here he cast Haruko Sagimura - who won a Japanese Supporting Actress award - as Shige the eldest daughter who balks at spending time with her parents and Nobuo Nakamura as her complaisant husband.  Kyoko Kagawa - in her only Ozu film - is very good as the youngest daughter who makes the quiet observation at the end "Isn't life disappointing?"  Three performances however go beyond acting: Chieko Higashiyama is Tomi, the ever-smiling mother who sees good in everyone - the scene where she goes for a walk with her grandson who ignores her attempts to chat will break your heart - the luminous Setsuko Hara as Noriko, the loving daughter-in-law and Ozu's favourite actor Chishu Ryu as the father Shukichi; the film slowly reveals the hard times he put his wife through during their marriage but his loss at the end is palpable.

Arigato Ozu-san, arigato..