Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Harry Potter and the Die Hard with a Godfather (Part IX)

Hollywood's scribes are soon no longer to scribble, as has been reported in venerable industry bible Variety and in a variety of less venerable, more bibulous sheets. Unless the studios suddenly become such creative, economical output machines that they start to produce low-budget, non-writer-reliant flicks, we can expect rush-jobs of rehashes of remakes of sequels to prequels. They might go a little something like this:

1. Godfather -1: the prequel: Francis Ford Coppola traces the Corleone family back to their earliest days: the grandchildren of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Diane Keaton knock seven bells out of each other in their Sicilian kindergarten. James Caan's grandson is felled in his open-top stroller.

2. Harry Potter 6 and 7 are filmed simultaneously: as soon as the actors finish speaking their lines for 6, they run off set, out of the building, into the next soundstage along, onto the next set and deliver their lines for 7, then back to the first studio. This asthma-inducing round-robin continues until Hermione (Emma Watson) manages to cast a spell to split all the actors in half.

3. Untitled Michael Bay project: scenes from Bay's greatest hits - Armageddon, Pearl Harbour, Bad Boys, Transformers, Playboy Video Centrefold: Kerri Kendall - are reassembled into a new movie - Crash! Smash! Bash! Crash! - which critics say makes as much sense as any of the original films, but is rather better edited.

4. Cineplexes are suddenly filled with the back catalogues of our greatest - and most prolific - directors, as studios decide that the public needs to be educated into submission in the art of film. Expect retrospectives at your local Odeon or Vue of every Bergman movie, including all five hours of Scenes from a Marriage, plus hilarious outtakes where Liv Ullmann accidentally stabs her husband 850 times.

5. Coronation Street: the movie: this is in fact nothing more than the week's episodes spliced together. Funnily enough, when viewers are forced to sit through 2 1/2 hours of it each week straight, without commercials, it suddenly becomes a lot less popular.

6. Harry Potter 8: J.K. Rowling is forced to write a new Harry Potter by studio executives who threaten to reveal the real story of how she wrote the first story: not in a cold Edinburgh cafe, as she has always claimed, but dictating it to her secretary while being massaged in the presidential suite of the Savoy Hotel.

7. Andy Warhol comes back into vague - sorry, vogue - sorry, Vogue - with five-hour Sleep and eight-hour Empire packing crowds in. Completely unrelated to this popularity is the free marijuana is given out before each showing, which produces reactions like "Wow, neat, man", "Why is there a giant cat in the room?" and "Warhol's aesthetic was clearly influenced by - hey, my hand's all fuzzy."

8. The collected bloopers of Lindsay Lohan's career: this just consists of showing her movies.

9. Studios realise how little the public knows about the world around them and beyond their high street, so they film the best-elocuted people they can find reading out all the papers and magazines in Oxford Street Borders from cover to cover. By the time they get round to the Economist, current affairs have become history.

10. Harry Potter 9: see Harry Potter 8.

Angel in America

No, not a review quite yet, but a piece on Tony Kushner from the Guardian (here).

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The first time I saw a Tony Kushner play, I was an unwilling audience member who feared being trapped in a theatre on a swelteringly hot summer night for a three-hour snoozathon about Afghanistan. Within 10 minutes, I was enraptured, and it has been that way for me with Kushner ever since.

He is probably best known as the author of the epic Angels in America, which has just finished its first British revival, at the Lyric Hammersmith, since its 1992 debut. This stunning, panoramic, seven-hour epic is set in Reagan's New York as Aids begins to cast its shadow over the gay community, but it reaches far beyond this to cover questions of human progress and universal matters of the human heart.

The play's characters, including a disintegrating gay couple and a notorious crooked lawyer, are all stamped with Kushner's trademark eloquence. They barrel on in a manner that would be Shakespearean - poetic, metaphorical, philosophical - but for the references to the ozone layer. It works on screen as well, as proved by the award-winning TV version, which starred Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson.

Kushner's most recent London premiere was Caroline, or Change, at the National, a musical about a black maid in a Jewish household at the time of the Kennedy assassination. Again, Kushner tackles a turning point in American history, exploring the intimate lives of his characters against this pivot. True to form, the cast includes a singing washing machine.

The music, by Jeanine Tesori, is a passionate combination of blues, folk and spirituals, with Kushner's profound, euphonic lyrics putting them to flight. The songs are the only time Caroline, the maid, can express her feelings with fluency and emotion, compared to the regular prolixity of the sophisticated family.

That first play I was so wary of was in fact a double bill: Homebody/Kabul. Homebody is a 40-minute monologue by a woman passionate about Afghanistan; she tells of how she wants to go there and how the people suffer under the Taliban. Kabul follows her husband and daughter as they go to Afghanistan to recover her body. This pre-9/11 play is most notable for a violent and prophetic speech delivered by an Afghan about how terror will be taken to New York. In the humid Young Vic in 2002, this was a knockout blow, couched in Kushner's trademark fast-flowing style.

Kushner is never concerned with anything less than the greatest matters of life - he presents the microcosms of human interactions and the macrocosms of global movements, always wrapped up in the most literate and passionate way.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Passion

The entire Glyndebourne experience is a marvel, from taking the special coach to the opera house through Lewes' narrow streets to the instant atmosphere conjured up by putting everyone in evening dress. This is before you've even got to the interval and its legendary suppers.

Were that all, you could certainly have an enjoyable evening, but when the music and singing are as powerful and moving as they were in Friday's performance of J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion, it is a complete and enrapturing world. As a Glyndebourne virgin, I found my initiation exemplifying all that is good in classical music and modern theatre.

Bach's Passion, telling of the last days of Jesus' life - from Last Supper to crucifixion - was written as a work for chorus and orchestra, but what celebrated director Katie Mitchell (whose Iphigenia at Aulis was a hit at the National) has done is stage it as an opera. A travelling troupe of singers have taken their Passion to a town where many children have been killed - in a Dunblane-style massacre, we assume. Gradually, the grieving parents are drawn into the performance as the chorus and as actors in the story.

As the piece progresses, there is a melding of all its layers. The parents who need to express their grief are comforted by the actor playing Christ, but also by Christ himself as they get more deeply involved. Similarly, Christ is both their children who have been killed and the redemption for this, and he faces a chorus of parents who are also his tormentors and supporters in Judea. This is a symphonic approach which resolves itself into the beauty of the music's emotions.

It's a marvellously successful conceit which highlights the emotional resonances of the music, singing and story in a dramatic context, consequently (for me, at least) making them a lot more comprehensible and thus moving. A father would be brought out of the chorus to sing, only to be overcome by his grief and collapse in Christ's arms. When, at the close, the parents took Christ's hands to be blessed, it was overwhelming.

The singing was - to my neophyte ears - clear and almost unbearably tender at points, savage at others. Some of the best singing came from the chorus members who were singled out as characters in the Passion-story, since they sang with all the grief of their characters.

The staging - a plain classroom - added much to the sense of wonder and grief, including a striking, powerful use of the dead children's photos. As has been much remarked upon, there is an awful lot of pouring - salt, water - which is perhaps a little heavy-handedly symbolic, however one of the companions singing of how her heart has broken as she pours salt in a long stream from a glass is a wonderful visual interpretation.

Mitchell has managed not only to bring out the emotion inherent in the story and the music but also to amplify it with her idea, redoubling its strength as all the piece's facets mesh and mould into a more wondrous whole.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Forthcoming attractions

>>> A review of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, the greatest piece of drama of the last 25 years.

>>> With a writers' strike imminent in Hollywood, 10 movies made of recycled parts we might soon be getting.

>>> Katie Mitchell's St Matthew Passion - a Glyndebourne virgin speaks.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Goodbyes

So her prose still reads like it was written by Voldemort's snake but good grief can J.K. Rowling tell a story. Well-paced, with long episodes in one place broken up by humour and action, and with plenty of vividly-told sequences, it was certainly more enjoyable than the last couple. Its resolution is predictable, its theology simplistic, its characters still quite thinly drawn (I'd never believe Harry experiences any emotion ever), but I was up till 3am finishing it.

There are two things which stand out for me. The first is how Rowling has created a very potent world with a Nazi state at its centre. She does this through scenes such as that in the Ministry of Magic, with its ubermensch accoutrements and cruel inquisitions into blood-purity (indeed, Mudblood crops up throughout) but also through slight touches. You get the sense, through reported speech mainly, of how the rest of the world beyond our heroes is faring, and this gives it an insidiousness which truly unsettles.

The other aspect which works so well is how precisely and tightly imagined the plot of the whole series is. I won't reveal all the details (tho' I would have thought that polar bears had their copies from Borders Arctic Circle already), but either Rowling had countless tiny plotlines laid out before she started, or she's been exceedingly fortunate in tying together loose ends.

Did she know Ollivander would be so important in HP7? Was Riddle's diary always a Horcrux, or did the concept of Horcruxes come later? Rowling is on record as saying she had plotted them all already, but just to have such resolutions is testament to a mind with a flair for fantastic plotting. It also makes her world seem much more coherent and credible.

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The funniest riff on Harry Potter was Miles Kington's in the Independent: Voldemort became an airline whose passengers never returned. (Pense en francais!)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Breakfast on Pluto, Life on Mars

Like a lusciously-scented, gloriously-petalled rose in a field of rubble and shrapnel, Cillian Murphy brings beauty and loneliness to Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto. Abandoned as a baby on a priest's doorstep in 1960s Ireland, Patrick Braden (Murphy) grows up as the font of all glamour and disobedience in his small hometown - as Kitten, the coquettish local transvestite, he stands out, and strikes out when he goes to London to search for his mother.

Despite the all-out knowingness of his get-up, Kitten is an innocent abroad, already once screwed over by his first lover, the leader of an Irish band who stashed Kitten, along with Republican weaponry, in a desolate caravan by a lake. All Kitten wants is someone to take care of him - his mother, or in her stead a lover; one of these lovers is a magician (Stephen Rea) who uses Kitten in his act, part of which has Kitten hypnotised and asking members of the audience if they're his mother. The willingness with which Kitten wants to please his lover, set against his lover's failure to see how tragically ironic this act is, makes it devastating.

It's by no means all gloom. It's hilarious when Kitten becomes a Womble impersonator - desperate times - and his buoyancy is infectious, tackling everything with a wry eye.

The film works well as it contrasts and finally melds small-town Ireland and hip, happening London, bringing them together in an IRA bomb in a London club for which Kitten is blamed and brutalised by the police. The IRA is present throughout, having earlier blown up one of Kitten's childhood friends, and its corrosive effect is shown in the relationship between Kitten's best friends, one of whom is an ardent Republican.

Cillian Murphy is superb as the vulnerable, spunky Kitten, always hiding his true feelings under a Blanche du Bois-like nervous femininity. He endures through optimism and believing in the smile he's painted on, but his heartbreak is terribly visible, especially as he desperately clings to his men, however unsuitable. Murphy, who carries the whole film with his wonderful, pitiable charisma and amazingly blue eyes, never lets you see him cry, but you can read the unfathomable sadness at his core, another brave soldier in a host of other people's wars.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Superior Sondheim

Here is a post on Stephen Sondheim from the Guardian; it's reproduced below.

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Chances are that even if you've never seen a show by Stephen Sondheim, you know his songs. Send in the Clowns, Not While I'm Around, the lyrics to every tune in West Side Story - they're all Steve's.

Unlike the heroes of the golden age of musical-makers - Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb - Sondheim can write both tunes and lyrics, meaning he is only restricted by his own ambition (and thesaurus). Whereas certain other modern composers aim for banality and invariably reach it, Sondheim's words fizz with cleverness and his melodies are complex and inventive.

His shows have encompassed cannibalistic barbers (Sweeney Todd), fairy tales (Into the Woods), impressionist painters (Sunday in the Park with George), lascivious Romans (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and presidential killers (Assassins), adding spectacle to the sound. There are constant revivals in Britain and America - indeed Sweeney Todd has just been performed at the Royal Festival Hall and Into the Woods at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio. He has been translated into many other languages, Hungarian and Hebrew among them, although quite how you render his intricate rhymes is another matter. Take the macabre By the Sea, Mrs Lovett's song from Sweeney Todd:

With the sea at our gate, we'll have kippered herring
Wot have swum to us straight from the Straits of Bering!
Ev'ry night, in the kip, when we're through our kippers,
I'll be there slippin' off your slippers!

I'd like to see that in Hungarian.

Sondheim has a particular line in conveying poignancy and pain, as heard in Send in the Clowns, sung by a rising actress to her fading actor-lover, or in Losing My Mind.

Having said that, he can also have you rocking in your seats, as with this duet from Into the Woods of two princes competing over who is in the greater romantic agony. The humour of A Little Priest from Sweeney Todd is dark but undeniable, as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett discuss who's filling her pies.

His work is renowned for making great demands of the performers, which has the advantage of weeding out the poorer actors and players. Just consider Getting Married Today from Company: here, Madeline Kahn has to get through the words like a spitfire while keeping them clear and still acting. The musicians don't have it any easier.

Sondheim has never achieved the popular recognition of Lloyd Webber, even though he is regarded by those in the know as the greatest living composer of musicals. With Sondheim you get complex, intelligent words and music, which are beautiful to hear and reward further thought. The drama is never lacking either, whether it's that of fading hoofers in Follies or Greek gods in Frogs.

If you're still not convinced of the man's many talents, you can discover more of the manifold pleasures of Sondheim here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hack Vettriano

This was originally published on the Guardian's Arts Blog.

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Much like Big Macs and Nuts magazine, I don't mind Jack Vettriano's work existing - I just wish it carried a health warning. Careful: this painting may make you think you are looking at art.

It's almost impossible to talk critically about Vettriano, the self-taught Scottish painter, without being assailed as a snob by his legions of fans. No doubt, he has brought pleasure to millions of people who have prints of The Singing Butler hanging on their walls, but as Sotheby's expects a bumper result from his paintings from Terence Conran's Bluebird Club, we should not make the mistake of classing him as a major - or even decent - artist.

Vettriano himself has, in fact, put his finger on why his work should never hang in the National Gallery. While talking about The Singing Butler, which features a couple dancing on a beach as a butler and a maid hold up umbrellas, he said: "You could say it's safe - and I think that people like to sit on their sofa at night and just imagine they were that couple."

If great art - even just good art - has one quality, it is not being safe: it provokes thought, even outrage, breaks boundaries, pushes you into aesthetic overload. It doesn't make you look at it and think "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to be in Guernica". Jack Vettriano's paintings are as daring as rich tea biscuits.

His style is superficially like Edward Hopper's, but Hopper's paintings are filled with strong emotions, despite their apparent simplicity. His use of space is exemplary, often contributing to the emotional depth by isolating figures in one corner of a canvas or dwarfing them in a scene, whereas Vettriano is nothing but front and centre.

He is also often described as producing "sexually-charged" work, but there's more sexual tension in a bad Constable than in the best Vettriano, despite their overtly sexual subjects. He no more manages to produce anything erotic in his paintings of women in their lingerie than he does in a scene of deckchairs. It's all so clear, so directed - where is the room for imagination? Sleazy is closer to the truth.

None of this has to do with his popularity or him being self-taught. You don't have to go to Central St Martin's or Goldsmith's to be a great British artist, and there are plenty of popular artists who are excellent.

The problem is Vettriano's lack of talent, inspiration and depth. His work is like Edward Hopper without the intelligence or feeling, and it will be a cold day in the National Gallery when Jack Vettriano's pictures hang there.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On the margins, on screen

It is all too easy to ignore immigrants as a subject for film. Much of society wants to ignore them as people, so it’s not surprising that they barely figure on screen. This is not only despite having all the same problems as non-immigrants (family, love, money) but a whole litany more (assimilation, deportation, acceptance).

That’s why it was heartening to see Quinceanera, known in England as Echo Park, LA, which deals with both these types of problems: we see the dilemmas of immigrants as immigrants and as humans, instead of one-dimensional issues about crossing the border or getting sent home.

A quinceanera is a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday held in Hispanic communities; it’s analogous to a Jewish bar mitzvah or a secular sweet sixteenth. Magdalena is approaching hers when she finds out she is pregnant by her boyfriend. Her preacher father kicks her out, so she goes to live with her great-great-uncle and her gay cousin, another teenager rejected by his family.

The film works extremely well for several reasons. The acting is wonderfully understated, and Emily Rios, who plays Magdalena, is a revelation, shifting easily between defiance and heartbreak, all rolled up in teenage girl anxieties and grown-up concerns. Her similarly defiant cousin Carlos, involved in an awkward, deceptive ménage a trois with a neighbouring couple, is convincing in his first love. The atmosphere is well-portrayed too: the sun-drenched photography enhances the stifling, vivid scenery of LA’s urban desert.

But Quinceanera succeeds most of all because it manages to interweave the immigrant background of the characters with their present, more Americanised desires. The strict Catholic morals of her resolutely Spanish-speaking father jar with Magdalena’s more cosmopolitan, Anglo teenage ambitions – sex, love, friends, parties – all of which are reinforced by American culture. Her quinceanera must have a stretch Hummer limo, like all her friends did. Magdalena’s great-great-uncle represents a middle way, learning to speak English yet selling Mexican food to Angelenos, a melancholy yet content figure.

The film, already under no illusions, also subtly comments on the position of immigrants in society when two WASPy women are shown buying food from one of the characters’ stalls: “These are the best tacos in LA,” she’s heard saying, purchasing food in an area she’d never be caught dead in otherwise.

Quinceanera feels like a realistic portrayal of how immigrant families struggle, trying to adopt a new identity without wanting to erase wholly the old one, all the while dealing with the same issues as the rest of the world. It shows how immigrant communities can provide not only an interesting, unfamiliar background but also stories just as involving as those in the mainstream. There is no artistic reason to ignore them.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Guantanamo Bay on Park Lane

Patton Oswalt, the vocal star of animated smash Ratatouille, said in an interview that press junkets for promoting films were a new kind of torture:

"This is how they break people in Guantanamo: They ask them variations on the exact same question. "What time did you go to the store?" "At 12:15." "So what time of day was it?" "At 12:15." "So, was it 12:14?" They're just breaking me down."

Boy, is he right - but not just for the stars.

I have been to my fair share of press junkets for various articles, and they always seem like a sweet deal: free film, lunch at the Dorchester hotel on Park Lane (the usual venue), Q&A with a megastar. But after your first one, you see the truth: they are anodyne freakshows where both star and writers are imprisoned, surrounded by a network of passive-aggressive PRs and heavies ready to club you in case you ask Julia Roberts where she got her teeth fixed. (Not that she did - that would be would a libelous suggestion. She should though. Talk about grinny.)

Every movie has to be Citizen Kane when you're asking your one question. Anne Hathaway, how many Oscars do you think Ella Enchanted will win this year? To be fair, The Aviator was half-decent, but Leo and Marty slapped each other's backs so hard you thought they might cough up their lungs.

And questions must be reverent, lest the star jump off the dais in a huff. This is why I never got to ask what I really wanted to. So, Julie Andrews, what size cheque did they wave at you to 'sing' in the Princess Diaries 2? Denzel, Denzel, over here, me, over here, tell me why you thought the Manchurian Candidate needed to be remade? And no, "Iraq" is not a reason. On it goes for days, the hundred-odd dictaphones deposited in front of the talent whirring away.

Even the lunch at the Dorchester was depressing. If anyone can explain why marmalade and cheese make a good sandwich, please let me know. With chips! Salty, salty chips. No alcohol, obviously, since that would bring about a groggy revolt from the scribes.

It's not even like the tortuous process brings any worthwhile results (much like Guantanamo, I suppose). Dull pieces with predictable questions about questionable movies, all with as much fake cheer and bonhomie as Prozac can force. At least at Guantanamo you're only forced to sit through Barney and Black Sabbath - it'll be a long time before I forgive Anne Hathaway for Ella Enchanted.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Canteen cock-ups

Perhaps it was a sign when the waitress started telling us what a bad day she'd been having. If anything tells you that you might need protective clothing and pyjamas while you wait for your meal, it's going to be disgruntled staff.

And does Canteen ever have disgruntled staff. Disgruntled, rude, slow, incompetent, indifferent, in a world of their own. It is quite possible to sit at a table in Canteen, the refurbished restaurant at the rear of the Royal Festival Hall, until you are old without being noticed. I came out with several grey hairs (tho' worryingly I went in with them too).

We went in for dessert after seeing Sweeney Todd in the RFH and it was a marathon of making eye contact with the waiters just to get one to come over. While waiting for the puddings, I was quite happy to chat and observe the quiet chaos unfolding around the low grey leather-pale wood booths, but once fifteen minutes had passed and our desserts had flown past us twice (exposing the true value of their electronic ordering pads), patience wore thin.

The chocolate caramel sundae melded chewy brownies with soft, almost yoghurty ice cream, and a tall, crisp biscotto gave a good contrast. Similarly balanced was the gingerbread with stewed rhubarb and ice cream, where the gingerbread (emphasis for texture on the 'bread') hit the sweet notes the rhubarb did not. More than three chunks of rhubarb would have been appreciated.

We had ordered glasses of water with dessert but they failed to appear by the time the bowls had been (metaphorically) licked clean, so we asked another waiter for them (again after finding one who would look at us). When they eventually turned up, the waiter managed to knock a bottle of beer off his tray and all over our table, including my programme.

He neither apologised nor made any effort to clean up the beer as my friend and I frantically mopped it up with napkins, but the highlight came when he picked up the bottle, observed its semi-full frothy state and asked us if we'd like it. The rest of someone else's bottle of beer that he'd just spilled over us.

As we gaped in outraged bemusement, he stood there blank-faced and the beer continued to drip onto the floor. Suffice it to say, dessert was free that night.

It seems that being a waiter uses certain skills and traits anyone has: if you make a mistake, you apologise; if you spill something, you clean it up. Quite how Canteen managed to find people who not only can't wait but can't even act like normal people is beyond me.

I returned on Sunday, just to see if it had been a one-off or whether incompetence is institutional. Sadly, after waiting half an hour on a slow lunchtime for cheese (cheese! Just slice it and put it on the plate!), it seems institutional. I can understand that a new restaurant has teething problems, but both times I have been it was not madly busy and the staff seemed unable to cope with their duties. Perhaps Canteen has a policy of only taking on novices. If so, a rethink is needed.

The problem is that the food is delicious and reasonably priced, sourced locally and simply prepared. This might not seem a problem, but if you have to suffer their service each time you go, the dilemma is clear.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sweeney (T)odd

The more I hear and see Sweeney Todd, the less I like it. This is not how I envisaged the course of my love affair with Stephen Sondheim's operatic masterpiece. After flirtations with clips on YouTube and passion with a cast recording, last night at the Royal Festival Hall we split up - or should I say, I dumped Sweeney.

The problem is not Sondheim's, that is to say, not the score or the lyrics, which are as complex, dramatic, witty and fresh as ever. The drama is where it falls down, with redundant episodes and a feeble climax lacking logic or resolution.

The plot sees Sweeney return from penal exile in Australia, looking for revenge on Judge Turpin, who sent him down to get hold of his wife, Lucy, and his baby daughter, Johanna. Young sailor Anthony rescued Sweeney, and Mrs Lovett rents out the room above her pie shop to him so he can resume his career as a barber. Sweeney hungers for revenge, practising his throat-slicing skills on his customers, who get turned into pies by the pragmatic Mrs Lovett, while Anthony tries to rescue the captive Johanna.

Bryn Terfel was an outstanding Sweeney, with his powerful, clear voice and natural charisma dominating the entire production. His shifts between rage and grief in 'Epiphany' ('They all/ Deserve/ To die') were the ravings of a broken man, instantaneously rendered by Terfel, who filled the hall with his roars and cries. Maria Friedman as Mrs Lovett was a little too Pat Butcherish for my taste and brought out the humour too much, sitting uneasily with the macabre. I realise that some people say the skill of the show is its variety of tones, but these in fact pull it too far in too many directions. The change from terror to laughter before 'A Little Priest' is ruinously absurd.

I wish I could compliment Ms Friedman on her singing but the RFH's sound crew made this impossible: the sound amplification was such that the clever lyrics were swallowed up in the front row. All that reached the nose-bleed seats were pretty sounds but pretty indistinct words. This lack of clarity badly damaged some of the most complex moments of the score. The two quartets, which demand four people singing four different lines, had their harmonies mangled and squashed. This was not such a problem with Daniel Boys (Anthony), whose tremulous tone - dull, aptly for his character - was best suppressed, but Emma Williams was delightful.

The faults of Sweeney Todd stretch beyond these specific ones, to those inherent in the book. Instead of winding the strands of Sweeney-Mrs Lovett and Johanna-Anthony together with economy and a satisfying resolution, Hugh Wheeler's book is bloated, incomplete and illogical. Why is Tobias able to escape from a locked room when before he couldn't? What happens to Johanna and Anthony? Why is the Pirelli episode there (apart from allowing a semi-witty song)?

This carelessness spills into characterisation. Mrs Lovett is greedy and ruthless yet tender and sympathetic, without regard for consistency: is a woman who puts people into pies really going to be worried about who she's filling her food with? If some characters are unrealistically complex, some are incredibly one dimensional. Anthony and Johanna, who are assigned some of the best songs in the show, are stereotypes fresh out of Victorian melodrama, whereas Sweeney himself is well-developed.

Certainly several of these problems could have been resolved with a little more rehearsal time, or at least a little more thought given to the staging, which made good use of the different levels of the RFH's platform but failed to explain how Pirelli's enormous corpse could lie unnoticed on Sweeney's floor. Having said that, the disposal of the victims got a big laugh, as indeed anything involving a tea-trolley should. Perhaps the sorest sign of a quick production was the desk chair meant to represent Sweeney's monstrous barber's chair, which raised unwanted laughs.

There is nothing wrong with the score: Sondheim comes out blameless. The alternately devoted/chilling 'Not While I'm Around', sung to and then by the murderous Mrs Lovett, is beautiful in its simple emotions (at least from Tobias' end), even as it reinforces the utter weirdness of all the relationships in the show.

'Green Finch and Linnet Bird' was trilled quite delightfully by Johanna. I always find the lines 'Larks never will [sing], you see,/ When they are captive,/ Teach me to be more adaptive' touching for its self-aware juxtaposition of odd sentiments. (Or perhaps I just like the word 'adaptive'.) And 'Johanna' always stirs, especially with its motif of the three ascending notes then gathered into a chord.

If anything was wrong with the music, it was the London Philharmonic Orchestra's fault (apart from Friedman forgetting the words to 'By the Sea' and tripping up over the complex rhyme scheme). At the end of the show, when there are bodies over the whole stage and all the singers are thundering out the Dies Irae-esque 'Ballad of Sweeney Todd', that the LPO should quieten down is inexplicable.

I would gladly hear this production's songs again - hopefully with greater clarity - but to have to allege that it works as a spectacle and a play is beyond me.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Woody on paper

Here is a Guardian blog post about Woody Allen at his best - in his prose.

Sotheby's: Behind the Scenes

AUCTION FEVER

Josh Spero

By the time it reached £8,000,000, the murmur in the room had become a roar. Damien Hirst’s Lullaby Spring had made a rapid progress up through the middle millions and was already well into record-setting territory. The focus was not on the piece, which sat on the rear wall, largely ignored at this moment, but on the auctioneer. As the debonair Tobias Meyer brought the gavel down Thursday night at £8.6m, the audience burst into wild applause.

Auction fever had clearly spread through this sale too, driven on by the earlier £19m for a Francis Bacon. But it is not just the six multi-million-pound sales of this mega-auction week which have been infected by it: behind the scenes, belying Sotheby’s calm grandeur, there has been a fortnight of the most refined and efficient frenzy you’ve ever seen.

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“These walls were blue yesterday,” says Robin Woodhead, Sotheby’s Chief Executive for Europe and Asia, pointing around one of the cavernous galleries in Sotheby’s headquarters on New Bond Street. They are now white, for items in the Contemporary sales, and they are still wet. If anything suggests the lightning speed at which Sotheby’s has to work, this is it.

It is Wednesday in the week before the sales and more than 450 lots are being installed throughout the building, with paintings and photos affixed to every square inch of available wall. Workmen angle spotlights onto a Peter Doig painting, while Noble and Webster’s light sculpture Happy, complete with its rainbow of bulbs, rests against a wall, still protected by scrunched-up foam. Ladders of varying heights wait to trip up the unwary.

“What tends to happen with Impressionist and Contemporary is that they rehang a lot of things,” says Wyndham Plumptre, one of the gallery technicians responsible for the hanging, “and when you’ve done it seven or eight times and it’s ten o’clock at night, we do sometimes reach breaking point.”

In what looks like the calmest part of the room there is in reality artistic intensity. Four men are filling the Hirst cabinet, made from stainless steel with a mirrored back and composed of row upon row of brightly-coloured pills (actually individually cast from bronze then hand-painted). There are over 6,000 pills, hence it is a labour not just of love but of length: it will take them four days to finish. There is an electric tension between the pain-staking pill-placing and the need to have it done before the galleries open to the public, as they do for every sale Sotheby’s has.

In the next room too things are in flux. The Francis Bacon self-portrait, one of the week’s highlights with an £8-12m estimate, is at the far end, but will finish up by the entrance come Sunday. A central partition, to accommodate more pieces, has not even been assembled yet. Further rooms, painted in navy blue for the Impressionist and Modern auctions, are calmer, although minute nudges are still being made to make the paintings (which include a first rate proto-abstract Waterlilies and a sensational Matisse) level.

Two days later and the same restrained rush to put up pictures is occurring in nearby Hanover Square. For a second year, Sotheby’s has taken over half the square with a marquee, in which workmen install 300 items from the Contemporary day sale (that is, the slightly lower-value works).

Many of the pieces are up already, but there are still ubiquitous ladders and piles of bubble-wrap blocking the view, as well as workmen’s benches with their assortment of tools. A Donald Judd steel sculpture is in its box and a Jake and Dinos Chapman piece sits unassembled, its conjoined twins lying on the floor separated from their base, while a dozen workmen run photos up pulleys, standing back and squinting at their alignment. Next to a bag of nails is a creased map showing where each work has to go, although come the preview brunch on Saturday everything will have been thoroughly rearranged.

Both here and in the main building on Wednesday, the chaos has been quiet. Hundreds of man hours are spent over just a few days setting up the shows, and the work is the odd combination of calm professionalism and frenzied urgency. The wonder is that everyone remains so unruffled when the weight of a week of auctions presses down.

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If the first week is frenzy with a peaceful appearance, then the weekend is peace with a frenzied appearance. Two events are held to show off the collections to clients and interested members of the public, the first a brunch in the marquee on Saturday, the second a soiree on Sunday in Sotheby’s itself.

Stepping into the marquee, the most noticeable thing is how pristine and orderly everything looks. Less than 24 hours earlier, you could hardly move for boxes and bubble-wrap. Now a bronze rat by Banksy sits on a pillar behind waiters laden with champagne, and the waitress with full English breakfast canapés weaves around a modern terracotta warrior by Yue Minjun.

The marquee is filled with the contented hum of young patrons of the arts admiring imminent purchases. One woman brays that she wouldn’t pay £200,000 for an enormous Sigmar Polke – she could do it herself in 15 minutes. The single sign of the effort that went into arranging the marquee is when a new photo has to be displayed, but it is done with customary grace.

Sunday evening is a different beast entirely, in no way low-key. 700 fabulously dressed, fabulously wealthy clients converge on the New Bond Street galleries, where waitresses in hot pink mini-dresses distribute croustades like theatrical ushers – except ushers’ trays never glowed purple. The rooms are packed and everywhere you turn is a conversation in a different language, reflecting the global reach of today’s art market.

Two men have their photo taken in front of the Hirst cabinet and someone walking past a Giacometti bust almost knocks it off its pediment. Several people gape at an explicit Tom Wesselman painting (open-lipped applies to both) and at points it’s nearly impossible to hear yourself. One client wants to see a painting, so it is taken off the wall, leaving the spotlight illuminating an empty square.

This weekend is completely unlike the days preceding it. A social whirl replaces artistic concentration. Despite the busy surface, largely nothing happens beyond socialising and eyeing up the art, inverting the week’s quiet intensity.

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It is hard to tell if you are at an auction house or the opera when you go to see a sale at Sotheby’s. Certainly things get sold, but with a smartly-dressed audience filing in at the start, the auctioneer conducting his bidders with his gavel and the high drama of ever-increasing sums of cash, you might be forgiven for getting confused.

The two large galleries on the first floor of Sotheby’s New Bond Street have been merged into one, with room for 400 in the stalls. At the front is the rostrum, where Henry Wyndham, Chairman of Sotheby’s in Europe and tonight’s auctioneer, will soon stand, while on the right is a bank of 40 phones, each manned by a Sotheby’s expert (house term for the specialists) connected to a client who wants to bid privately.

An hour before the auction starts, the sign giving the sale’s name – Impressionist and Modern Art – is still being screwed into the wall above the rostrum, while the star of the show, Monet’s Waterlilies, is being nudged up and down and having a spotlight fixed onto it. This doesn’t reflect disorder or carelessness on Sotheby’s part but reveals the absurdly high speed they have to work at. The day before, this room was still two rooms, with paintings lining every surface; now it has been transformed into a commercial arena.

The star of the preview week’s festivities, Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinet, languishes unnoticed at the back of the room.

The audience – buyers, sellers, spectators, press, experts – drift in by dribs and drabs while a lady from the BBC delivers the ‘and finally’ item for the six o’clock national news in front of the Monet, which is expected to fetch £10-15m. Melanie Clore, worldwide co-chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, stands at the centre of the whirling preparations and directs everything with cool grace.

Everyone you might expect at a million-pound auction is here: the gentleman staggering in wearing painterly garb (all he lacks is a smear of eggshell blue across his cheek); some Russotrash in high heels and higher skirts, taking over the bleached-blonde mantle from minor European royals; and a global array of the wealthy and well-dressed. The increasing influence of those from emerging markets is reflected by the Russian rouble denomination on the bid board, a new entrant.

At seven o’clock, Mr. Wyndham – already a tall man at six foot six – climbs onto the rostrum, towering over the room, and starts the bidding on a beautiful Post-Impressionist by Henri-Edmond Cross. A preconception about auctions is instantly shattered: they are not conducted in reverent silence, with the spectators giving their rapt attention to the ever-increasing millions being chucked about on canvas and oils. There is more noise than almost seems decent, and not just dealers on their mobiles and the bank of telephone proxies but general chit-chat, murmuring about the art and dinner afterwards and why is she wearing that top. Mr. Wyndham carries on in his gently cajoling style, his focus absolutely directed onto his bidders.

Bidders – another place for illusions to be cracked. The rise of the telephone bidder is no surprise, but the effect it has had on the atmosphere is poisonous. Instead of being able to watch two keen buyers compete over one item, psyching each other out, playing with the tension in the room like a long volley at Wimbledon, the bids are delivered mostly by their eager telephone substitutes. This does create tension over high-value items, but mostly it leaves you underwhelmed.

Even the bidders in the room it is almost impossible to see. They do not flail about with their paddles but instead catch Mr. Wyndham’s eye with a gesture undetectable to anyone else, thus when he announces the next bid, he may as well be making it up so hard is to tell where it has come from. On occasion he will banter with a bidder to try and persuade them to offer more, and his smooth, saturnine style and dry wit make it hard to refuse.

A few lots catch fire. The Monet eventually reaches £18.5m, but it takes an age, with Mr. Wyndham giving long pauses between bids, just repeating the last one like a mantra until he has secured the next. It is agonising getting to the final price for the Monet, and it is not much better with the gorgeous Matisse, although this does set a world record at £11m. For items like these, there is silence and complete attention.

The rapidity seen before the auction started is shown as each painting is whipped off the easel after it is sold (or passed on, that is, unsold) by one of the porters, who stands next to it with a look of dignified boredom. Off comes the Schiele, on goes the Picasso, a speedy conveyor belt of masterpieces.

As the auction progresses, the room empties out, and by lot 45, it is only half full. Still, the murmuring continues. Much like at the opera, it is hard to sustain tension for the full length of your performance, and the sale drags increasingly. It is not that the pictures are not nice to look at, or that it is not interesting to see millions change hands in a second, but the rapid fire of lots, the insubstantial sums mentioned tend towards monotony. It is really just the same thing, 45 times.

Once the auction is over, there is no clapping or cheering for the £90m raised, possibly because the sale has been pale in comparison with Christie’s the night before, or possibly just because everyone is tired from having to sustain their enthusiasm for such a long period. There is just relief, because legs can be stretched, and the memory of the slow trek towards £20m for the Monet.

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Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of the Contemporary Art department in Europe, described these weeks as pervaded by “auction fever”, driving prices ever higher and pushing bidders into a frenzy.

In fact, however, the fever strikes when you would least expect it: outside of the sales, there are paintings to be hung and re-hung and then hung again, all in the space of a day. There are walls to be repainted and marquees to be installed. There are lights to focus, catalogues to distribute, members of the press to assuage. These are all when it feels most feverish, when it seems like everything is being done on the hop and nothing will be ready in time.

Oddly enough, the auctions themselves are some of the calmest times. Apart from the highest value lots – and especially those which unexpectedly become high value – most items get rattled through, with a distracted crowd murmuring and attending to themselves.

In a year where we have seen every record for works of art fall – both in auction houses and outside – the most exciting, most feverish times at Sotheby’s were not determined by the imminent fall of the hammer but by the frenzied grace of the circus surrounding the sales.