Monday, January 26, 2009

Where's Waldo? Inauguration day eye-spying

Although this is theoretically an arts blog, it is also my arts blog, and so when something as brilliant as this comes along, it behoves me to share it with the universe.

For the most detailed photo of a President since the evidence at Clinton's impeachment, check out the link below, a shot where you can zoom in so far that you can see Cheney's thoughts.

But first, take a check-list with you: see if you can spot Cheney, Aretha, Yo-Yo Ma, a tear from W's eye, Big Bird with a camera, a gold eagle appearing out of a man's head, Al Sharpton with a fake Burberry scarf, a Nobel prize winner and the lovechild of Susan Sontag and the last of the Mohicans.

Click here for photographic pleasure you can't measure.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Rewriting history/his story: Further Tales of the City

If you're going to seize the imagination, better do it young. Lucky, then, that Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City sequence, six novels about San Francisco life in the 70s and 80s (from pre-Aids to very much the Aids era) which were originally published as a daily newspaper column, got me when I was 14.

Spanning a thousand pages and fourteen years, the series let Maupin create intensely developed characters - a core of half a dozen and a guest cast of hundreds - whose lives are filled with romantic, sexual, fantastical and tragic events, set against the climates of Carter- and Reagan-era America. There is also a Warholesque omnipresence of evocative brand names, making Maupin's San Francisco a vivid, fully-realised picture of the times (and changing times - Betamax recurs in its heyday and then as a laughable historical curio).

This is not to be a paean to Tales, however, although I could quite happily sing its praises for pages. I was recently kindly given all the TV adaptations of the first three novels (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City), and as the third one has not been broadcast in Britain yet, I watched it first.

It has the same excellent cast as the first two (mostly) - Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the pot-growing landlady whose house draws the characters togethers; Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton, the ambitious Cleveland secretary; and many others - which gives the films the same constancy as the books.

What has changed to a great degree is the plot. Further Tales has always felt like the least successful of all six books to me: its plot - a survivor of the Jonestown massacre has to rescue her children from a not-dead Jim Jones, while (inter alia) a news anchor is kidnapped by Anna Madrigal - takes the degree of absurdity which the elastic nature of San Francisco seems to allow too far. There are logical holes in the plot, unsatisfactory twists and endings, and a bizarre, pointless jaunt to Russia, which one of the characters even concedes is 'drifty'.

The movie version adds some successful episodes - a funny run-in for Michael Tolliver at the Glory Holes and the return of dippy Connie Bradshaw - and there is the welcome reappearance of Anna Madrigal's ancient, crotchety, whorehouse-running mother, although she is despatched off-screen for no obvious reason other than as a pull at the heart-strings.

But what is added (quasi-incest), what is taken away (a queer-bashing of two key characters, originally written in to reflect the Milk-Moscone murders) and what is edited (dialogue is rewritten, losing the point), as well as what remains, all conspire to make the show unsatisfactory.

Maupin is co-credited as screenwriter, along with James Lecesne, and this made me wonder whether he had taken the opportunity almost to rewrite history/his story: I can't help but feel that there are aspects of the Further Tales book he must be unhappy with (the exigencies of a daily serial could not have helped), and the series is the perfect occasion to rectify these. That this rewriting keeps some of the madness is in fact beside the point: it is the ability to get it right the second time round which is interesting.

There are not many opportunities for writers to republish, as it were. Obviously, film scripts are a second bite of the cherry, if the original writer is engaged, which is rare. Some authors do rewrite without films, and even win awards: Peter Mattheissen's Shadow Country is three books rewritten into one and won the National Book Award last year. Stephen Sondheim regularly adds or removes songs as previews continue and plays are revived. And of course Shakespeare, as a jobbing playwright, went through several versions of his plays, to the extent that, thanks to directorial choices, Hamlet can end up a veritable tombola of lines.

The problem is clear: rewriting is inherently to concede that the first go was faulty. As much as the writer may feel this - and looking back on articles I've written, I would certainly change things - it is a matter of private pride or public reputation, or at least is perceived as such. Not many people could regularly republish because people would stop taking them seriously.

But I'm not sure rewriting is an admission of failure. Would we admire Philip Roth more if he said that the Human Stain could have done with a little more subtlety? Almost certainly, since this would not come off as weakness but as humility, an honest striving for perfection.

Of course, if you rewrite it and get it wrong the second time (as, I fear, with Further Tales) - well, perhaps third time isn't the charm.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

In the line of fire: Ed Stourton

I like Ed Stourton, soon-to-be partially-redundant presenter on Radio 4's Today programme. Never mind the 'posh Ed' nickname - he asks intelligent questions and has a melodious voice. As media-savvy readers will know, he was ingloriously fired from Today, and (more ingloriously) had to find out from a Daily Mail journalist. After a ruckus, and some honest comments from Ed about his shock, he was promised some sort of rolling contract. Harmony was regained.

Or was it? Ed has been filing reports for Today recently from the Gaza Strip, covering the Israeli attacks. It can't be safe. Let's hope the BBC bosses only sent him there for journalistic reasons...

Friday, January 02, 2009

Unamerican Icescapades: Mighty Ducks 2

Not that I am in the habit of watching the highlights of the Emilio Estevez filmic corpus, but I did catch the last half of Mighty Ducks 2 today. I haven't seen an ice hockey movie since Mighty Ducks 3 in 1994 (a school treat - lord knows what I'd done to deserve that), so give it another 15 years and I'll have seen the trilogy.

Mighty Ducks 2 (or 'Revenge of the Duckies', as it's known in drag circles) is a perfect studio picture, straight from the modern Disney school of racial and gender harmony: the team is a Benetton rainbow, from the cornfed (Joshua Jackson) to the kid from the mean streets of South Central L.A. (Brandon Adams).

It should also be the perfect picture to push the pro-American bilge we have become used to, less subtly than Invasion of the Bodysnatchers but not quite as flag-waving as The Green Berets (good link here) or the Rambo series. It is, after all, about the Mighty Ducks kids hockey team at some global championship. U-S-A! U-S-A! etc.

What actually happens is rather unexpected. The team, playing in the final against evil Iceland (how much foresight writer Steven Brill had!), who cheat and steal [matches, not millions], cannot get up a head of steam in their America jerseys. Indeed, they are facing almost-inevitable-but-just-possibly-evitable defeat.

When Estevez, as their plucky coach with a puck-full of horrific hockey memories to exorcise, gives them an interval talking-to, he makes them name their home cities, to inspire them and make them realise who they really are. Heave, I know. The funny thing is, they re-emerge onto the ice wearing their Mighty Ducks jerseys, having junked the US ones. They then, of course, go on to win the match and the world championship, though this is surely violating the rules since there is no country of Mighty Ducks (outside of a Marx Brothers film). The audience scream, the signs flash up Mighty Ducks win, hoorah hoorah.

What this seems to say is that it is local loyalty, or club loyalty, or loyalty to one's friends, not blind nationalism, which gives the winning spirit. This is hardly the moral we expect from the Mouse House. Now if only this were more of a global guiding principle.