Archive for April, 2017

Cats I Have Known.

April 27, 2017

 

 

Tum Tums, T-Two and Sara.

Tum Tums would jump up onto the bed with a distinct “hello, here I am” kind of chirrup and land in a precise sitting position right side front paw already at his mouth ready for a grooming session. It was a deftly choreographed move and the family, gathered about chatting or listening to bedtime stories, would stop and say as one “Tummies” and sometimes even applaud. Tums was nothing if not cool. I think he would have taken a bow had it occurred to him.

One day a huge swelling appeared on the side of his face. The vet said it was a cancerous tumour and just like that his time was up. He had come to us via Sara, a little black cat with a white bib who showed up out of nowhere one day. She was a feral, barely an adult and heavily pregnant. She was distressed and looking for reassurance. I opened the door and in she came, hissing me off as I reached down to touch her.

She found a bed and a couple of hours later a flood of kittens emerged. When they were weaned she left us and but the kittens stayed with the exception of T-Two. The rest were boys and they hassled her a bit. There was a brief scuffle one morning and off she fled out the door and we never saw her again. Fortunately she’d been spayed so at least she wouldn’t be having kittens.

Sara popped back a for visit every four to six months and might stay for as long as a month if we were lucky. She’d announce her arrival with a very specific call aimed squarely at me and after a voracious loves session that included lots of kneading and heads butts she would settle down to feed.

I was late to marriage and never adjusted to sharing a bed so had my own room. Some of the cats slept with Jane, some with me. When Sara was about the other cats fled (to the warmth and safety of Jane’s bed). She wanted me all to herself and made no bones about it. Nights would be filled with her cuddling close and purring up a storm. Then she would was off. We left that house a few years later during one of her away periods so I have no idea what became of her.

 

Ben.

Ben was a survivor. We lived just off a main road and every cat we had was killed on this road, with the exception of Ben. His wanderlust pulled him in the other direction, down the farm and far from the prescient danger of speeding cars. He was a lean and rangy type who was loving and affectionate at home but elusive down on the farm. I would often see him prowling about along the hedgerows, sometimes impossibly far from the house, and thrilled at the sight would call out his name but he was having none of it running off to the hide at any approach.

When my male cousins came down from the city to stay during school holidays I worried that Ben might fall prey to their habit of shooting anything that moved. They answered my pleas to be careful by promising to kill him on sight. I was an anxious and sensitive kid and they were boys bought up to be proper boys and were rather callous with it. I was always relieved when they went home and Ben was left to do his roaming unmolested.

He liked to sit on the carpet and pull himself along with his front paws giving himself a good bum scratching in the process. It drove Mum to distraction. “Ben” she would hiss while clapping her hands, “dirty boy”. We got him when I was about ten and when I was thirty Mum phoned me and asked if I would take him to the vets to be ‘put down’. He had lost control of his bowels and was becoming ever more confused. “I can’t do it,” she said. It was bloody sad but at least he made it where the rest had failed.

 

Gee Bees and Little Kirry.

Charlotte named most of our cats and Gee Bees was no exception. A derivative of ‘ginger balls’ it was the perfect fit, as was the oft-quoted “Get off the bloody road Gee Bees”. Yeah, he had no idea and we could often be found doing whatever we could to scare him out of this habit. He was a rescue kitten and arrived with a tortoise shell tabby who ended up as Little Kirry. When we eventually moved to the country we found ourselves a magnet for feral strays and before we knew there were cats everywhere.

Gee Bees hated the interlopers and disappeared. We discovered him months later living with some elderly neighbours at the other end of the road. He was fat and happy and they doted on him. For years after we would call in to say hi and he never forgot us rushing out to present his belly from his custom made cat bed and bowl full of specially prepared food. He did well. Little Kirry was another story. Rescued from a household of raucous boys she was shell-shocked and easily startled and forever remained elusive preferring to live outside in all weather coming in only to feed.

She relaxed somewhat the years passed and was in her own way loving and affectionate. She had a particular way of standing up on her back legs to greet a head scratch, but nothing more than that thanks. No picking her up and certainly never any kissing. She loved her food, especially ‘wet’ food from a can. Anything else was meet with an expression that can only be described as disappointed. She always seemed to be at pains to say “Look, I don’t want to seem ungrateful but…….”. She was quite fat when she was caught short by a tractor mowing down the long grasses in the paddock beyond the house. It was a sad end for a cat who turned out to be a gentle if wounded little soul.

 

Bijou, Katie, Boy, Wednesday and Thursday.

I was given Bijou as a gift. She was a Burmese and before I had her fixed she was mated with another Burmese and had a litter. I kept a little female and the rest went off to good homes. Bijou was hit by a car while still very young but Katie managed a long life. She had two litters and I kept Boy from the first and Wednesday and Thursday from the second. They spent their entire lives as a close-knit family unit, sleeping, eating and socialising together.

Katie was something of a control freak and used to like torturing her family with little games the best of which was this thing she did at feeding time. I would put the food out and she would stand over it looking ‘nonchalant as all hell’ as she licked a paw with studied disinterest. Bit by bit the family would inch closer until they were almost in reach of the prize and then Katie would act. A big swipe and everyone would scatter as if their lives depended upon it. When she was ready she would feed and thus sated leave them to it and under no illusion about who the boss was.

Boy was especially devoted to his mother and was the first to die at about sixteen years of age. Wednesday who had a distinct and rather amusing greeting meow died a year later. Thursday who was just about the prettiest cat one might imagine was a superb hunter who was undone by cancer not long after her sister. Katie went blind and lost her faculties and I delayed having her ‘put-down’ through a misguided sense of loyalty and love. Still, she was just about as old as I cat might get when I finally let go. She was always waiting at the top of the driveway when I got home from work and greeted me like I was the last great thing. Who could ask for more?

 

Noggie and Pej.

I was driving to work one morning when I noticed a little black shape on the very edge of motorway. I drove on for bit before coming to the conclusion that it was probably a kitten and taking a deep breath decided to be late for work and spun the car about. It was a busy road and an onerous task but I got back the kilometre or so and sure it enough it was a wee kitten about the right size for the palm of my hand. I put it down on the car floor and phoned Jane and said I was on my way back with a new cat and when we got home he drank his body weight in warm milk. He was hungry and would remain that way for the rest of his life.

Winston, Jane and I proposed all manner of names but Charlotte (as usual) got it exactly right and Noggie it was. He was a complaint cat, the sort that would put up with being dressed in dolls clothes and pushed about in pram for more time than was perfectly reasonable. He decided that Jane was going to be his favourite and that was that. He was devoted her in the same way Peej (another feral kitten we had found and nurtured) was devoted to Charlotte.

I have this abiding mental image of Peej following Charlotte about the lawn with his tail high in the air. His loyalty to her was absolute and though Noggie tended more to broad socialising when push came to shove it all came down to Jane. If she left the house just for a minute one would hear the thump as he jumped off her bed to see where she was going. By the time he found her she was often on her way back in and a comedy of errors ensued as they collided on intersecting paths.

It got really crazy if she got in the car and went off somewhere for any period of time. After collecting an item of her clothing, usually a bra, he would haul it about the house and yard howling with grief before falling into a heap and tangling himself up into a knot with said item. A lot of time was spent detangling Noggie. It was both funny and tragic.

Once he managed to pull her heavy bath towel through the cat door and drag up and down the driveway for two onerous hours. When she got home he was wrecked from exhaustion and went to bed for the rest of the day and by bed I mean the middle of the kitchen floor right under Jane’s feet, tongue hanging out and oblivious to the mayhem he was causing.

To say he was fat is an understatement. He eventually reached the stage where he could no longer clean his bum so we had to clean it for him. We put him on various diets but it made no difference. Otherwise he was the undisputed king of the household and would take each new arrival under his wing and show them the ropes. He was sociable, affable and dominant. If ever one of the kids gave up their spot on the prized seat in front of the TV he would pounce on it and no amount of “bloody Noggie” and pulling would shift him. He would put his ears back and dig in his claws and that was that. He knew his place. Jane was first, he was second. No argument.

He increasing bulk eventually reduced his mobility and I remember watching him size up the kitchen bench one day from the floor. He crouched, put his ears back, waggled his bottom, checked his position, rechecked, made a couple of half-hearted practice flexes then got up and walked away. He knew his limits. Sadly he suffered a congenital bladder condition which would cause him great pain and the vet warned us that his life would be cut short. It was and it was a great loss to us all. Noggie was by and away the most distinct feline I have ever known.

 

Barty.

I found Barty right down the end of farm. He was tiny, ginger and starving. Rickets had warped his bones and he had no strength to resist me, not even the semblance of a hiss. I was living with my paternal grandparents at the time and grandma, long denied a cat by grandpa who was not a fan, took to him immediately and with a bit of feeding and nursing he was soon growing and glowing. I wanted him to be mine but he had other ideas and for the next eighteen years followed grandma about everywhere. Relatives nicknamed him ‘Sylvia’s Shadow’.

After grandpa died Sylvia and Barty went to live in a small unit in town where he slept in her lap by day and at the end of her bed by night. When she went shopping he walked (limped is more like it – the rickets had maimed him for life) with her to the end of the driveway where he waited until she returned. He died of old age four years before she met the same fate. In her hundredth year she told me that she missed him and dreamt about him every night. In the dream she would get back from the supermarket and there he was waiting at the end of the driveway. “I thought you were dead” she said relieved as she bent down to stroke his head. Then she would wake up and go about her day alone and disappointed.

 

Epilogue.

There have been many cats over the years. Little companions with a fierce emotional intelligence and personality variations as distinct as the flavour of each passing day and I remember them all. Annabel, Georgie-Nins, Wendy, Sammy, Cody, Old Sara, Blue. Fierce predators with an independent disposition, funny, amusing, affectionate and loving. Easy to care for with remarkably human centric ways and methods, their short and fragile lives are their only real drawback, that and the grief we endure when we lose them over and again. I am fifty-four now and there will be no more cats for me. I do not want to got through all that again. I have my memories and that is enough.

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Film Essay: The Wicker Man and Why it is One of the Best Ever British Films.

April 23, 2017

Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle)

We are browsing the JB Hi-Fi on Barton Street in Hamilton when I happen across The Wicker Man – The Directors Cut. I turn to Steve and ask if he has seen it. “Yeah. It was bloody awful. I hate Nicolas Cage and that stupid thing with the bees at the end…….” I have no idea what he’s talking about but the clue is on the display right there in front of me. I pull it down and see it’s a remake. I had no idea. “Nah, I’m not talking about that, I am talking about this,” I say thrusting the DVD case at him. He glances at the cover and blurb on the back. “Any good?” he asks.

“Good?” I say. “It’s a bloody masterpiece. One of ten greatest British films ever.” Then unable to help myself I launch into the story of Robin Hardy (1929-2016) and his remarkable film. As I am finishing up we are approached by a late middle-ager who says, “I don’t mean to interrupt but I overheard your conversation and thought I might introduce myself.” He turns out to be one of Robin Hardy’s sons (one of eight Hardy siblings), an English implant into Hawkes Bay who is in Hamilton on business. “Dad is making a sequel as we speak”. I went home and Googled it and sure enough he was.

The Wicker Tree was released in 2011 but I only lasted until through to the fifteen minute mark. It was dull and plodding and though the retrograde stylistic homage to late 1960s Hammer films was intriguing it was wasn’t enough to keep me locked in. Still it hardly mattered. Hardy made three films, the other being the underwhelming 1986 serial killer thriller The Fantasist, but to have directed something as singular and wondrous as The Wicker Man (1973) – described by one critic as the Citizen Kane of horror films – is achievement enough for anyone in my book.

 

Christopher Lee (1922-2015) made over two hundred films in a career that spanned six decades. Best know for his work at Hammer Horror, he also managed to fit in  numerous big money franchises like Star Wars, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Bond.

The Wicker Man was Edward Woodward’s vehicle not Lee’s, but Lee’s compelling second act performance as Lord Summerisle (leader of a Pagan cult) helps to lift the film to heights it might have missed with a less idiosyncratic actor. Lee called it “My best film” and received no pay for his performance. (The studio was in trouble and such was his belief in the project that he did whatever he could to see it through). Lee’s faith in the film was such that his endorsement kept the legend alive through those years where it might have disappeared into the void. And it came close.

Hardy’s finished product met the same fate of as many distinctive films often do with the studio demanding some ‘narrative adjustments’ to make the film ‘more commercial’ as well as insisting that some twenty minutes be cut from the length. Hardy reluctantly agreed to most of this though he stood firm against changing the ending to ‘something a little more upbeat’.

Dismayed by the final result Hardy began his campaign to restore the film to its original form in the mid-1970s but had to wait until 2001 when French studio Canal+ acquired the international distribution rights and proved sympathetic to his cause. But he faced numerous hurdles, the least of which was loss of much of the source material. In the end various film prints and video versions provided Hardy with all the requisite scenes and a restored narrative was released in 2013.

 

 

Edward Woodward  (Sergent Howie)

Edward Woodward (1930-2009) was the chain-smoking star of hit British TV spy thriller Callan (1967-72) and was chosen for the lead role of Sergent Howie ahead of name film stars like Michael York and David Hemmings. He was a surprising choice but his ability to maintain a state of ‘controlled intensity’ throughout the film was the perfect fit for the virtuous Sergent who is sent to an isolated island in the Scottish Hebrides to investigate the disappearance of a girl. His quest for truth becomes a trail of the soul as his Christian faith goes head to head with humanities darkest primordial tendencies. Summerisle is not the rural idyll it appears to be.

In a way The Wicker Man is a take on the Biblical New Testament story of the forty dark days and nights of the soul Jesus spent in the desert as he tried to come to terms with who and what he was. A virtuous man otherwise disinterested in ‘worldly’ things is tempted by a immoral force determined to break him for the sheer satisfaction of the act and Howie is sorely tempted, most notably by Willow the innkeepers daughter (all kinds of metaphors at work here) played by Britt Ekland, the films other notable star turn.

Bond girl and relic of an age when female stars were blatantly marketed for their sex appeal, those are indeed “my breasts” on display she confirmed in a 2013 interview “but not my bottom. I was never comfortable with my bottom – it was a bit big – and my contract stipulated that I was not to be filmed from behind for the nude dancing scenes. I was a shocked when they hired a someone to be my bottom double”. The film was not a great experience for her and the ‘go to sex symbol’ of her time was baffled by both Lee and Woodward who showed no interest in her naked body during the shoot. “Dour men” she said of them. That aside, she is excellent in the film and certainly more than the sum of her ‘parts’.

 

 

Britt Ekland (Willow)

But a successful film is more its Director and cast. It is a happy confluence of talent, which in this case included the cinematographer Harry Waxman (Brighton Rock 1947), choice of film stock (the super-heightened colour tone of the film offers an appropriate otherworldly sensation that accentuates the rural idyll of Summerisle), film editor, producer and of course, the writer.

Anthony Shaffer (1926-2001) was skilled screenwriter and author (Hitchcock’s Frenzy 1972, classic thriller Sleuth 1972 and Hollywood mega hit Sommersby 1993 are among his works) who adapted David Pinners novel Ritual for the film while successfully blending in elements from The Golden Bough – anthropologist James Frazer’s classic study of mythology and religion. But this list excludes one notable element, the music. Yes, halfway through what was becoming a ‘fraught’ production Hardy announced to one and all that from this point on he was making a musical.

One the films grand delights is the soundtrack, which was finally released as a standalone album in 1998, a mono version lifted straight off the film. In 2002 everything was finally set right and Paul Giovanni’s (1933-1990) eclectic collection of instrumentals and songs (some traditional and others composed especially for the film) were properly rendered, mixed and mastered in glorious stereo. One of the standout tracks Willow’s Song has gone onto to find of a life of its own and has been covered by numerous artists including the Mediæval Bæbes, Doves, Faith and the Muse, Isobel Campbell, and the Sneaker Pimps.

 

The Maypole Song from The Wicker Man 1972

 

 

Willow’s Song From The Wicker Man 1972 – Performed by Britt Ekland sung by Rachel Verney.

 

By the end of the 1960s, the cult of L.S.D had irreconcilably altered the minds of young filmmakers, set designers, writers and cinematographers. The camera had been ripped from the tripod and caution had been thrown to the wind. This new wave of cinema was examining society in ways that previous generations of filmmakers could only have envisioned in their wildest musings.

The Wicker Man is a confronting lysergic hallucination that explores the dark recesses of the human psyche but more than that it purposely eschews the blood, gore and guts of the standard horror format in favour of something more insidious – an exposition of traditional superstitious mores that can twist and warp a communities sensibilities to the point where community has itself becomes the beast it is seeking to contain through its ritual.

The films conclusion is shocking but compelling. Your eyes are drawn into the spectacle and while some part of you is horrified at what you are seeing, another part is gleefully rejoicing in the insanity of it all. More than a just a ‘horror’, this is a subversive, artful and daring psychological exposition. Otherwise it is just plain bonkers and I mean this as a compliment.

After The Wicker Man Woodward tackled Australian Boer War biopic Breaker Morant (1980) to great acclaim before heading to America where as McCall, a kind of vigilante good guy, he filled the drivers seat of hit TV series The Equalizer from 1985-89. Hardy was working on the third and final instalment of what he was calling the ‘Wicker Trilogy’ in 2016 when he died suddenly aged 86.

As for the film, why is it so great? As neatly as Citizen Kane deconstructed the American dream so does The Wicker Man similarly examine Britain’s self-eulogising mythology. Sometimes the ‘actuality’ is best examined as metaphor and The Wicker Man exhumes the entirety of a people succinctly and says hardly a literal word in the process. That takes some doing. Like Citizen Kane – widely regarded as on of the best three of four films ever made – The Wicker Man is a unique, daring and innovative and like Kane it is a joy to watch over and again with something new to discover with each new pass. Should be more widely celebrated than it is.

 

 

Film Essay: ‘From the Power and the Glory’ to ‘Citizen Kane’.

April 12, 2017

 

 

 

Spencer Tracy made 75 films, was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, (he won twice for Best Actor) and remained until his death in 1967 a major box office draw. Without rhyme or reason his name popped into my head prompting a flood of memories from my youth when on a Sunday afternoon it was my habit to lie down in front of the TV and watch old movies. In late 1960s New Zealand there was only one TV channel and Sunday afternoons were devoted to the golden age of Hollywood. This might have been my favourite time of the week.

With Spencer dancing about my head I was overcome with nostalgia for a style of film that had a profound influence on the way I viewed the world. Suddenly I found myself longing for a cadence of speech, style of dress and for colloquial terms now faded from popular culture. For sweeping orchestral scores credited to names like Bernard Herman and Alfred Newman, for crisp black and white cinematography, for stories with rich moral lessons and soundtracks that crackled and hissed.

As for Tracy himself, I had vague memories of two films, Boys Town and Woman of the Year and of an actor imbued with more natural humanity than most. Turning to Wikipedia for more information I discovered this marvellous quote from his long time lover and fellow actor (and Woman of the Year co-star) Katherine Hepburn:

On June 10, 1967, 17 days after completing Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Tracy awakened at 3:00 am to make himself a cup of tea in his apartment in Beverly Hills, California. Hepburn described in her autobiography how she followed him to the kitchen: “Just as I was about to give [the door] a push, there was a sound of a cup smashing to the floor—then clump—a loud clump.” She entered the room to find Tracy dead from a heart attack. Hepburn recalled, “He looked so happy to be done with living, which for all his accomplishments had been a frightful burden for him.”

It is an interesting observation about a man who for millions was a larger than life figure who apparently ‘had it all’ and it occurred to me that if anyone were to ask I would reply that this is exactly how I felt about things. Suddenly I felt an urgent desire to spend some time with this man and converse with him about life.

I went online and explored Spencer’s filmography and settled on the 1933 film The Power and Glory described by its Wikipedia entry as the narrative prototype for Citizen Kane, (a film widely recognised by filmmakers and critics as one the greatest films ever made). This piqued my interest being the fan of the latter as I am. On that note, thank the gods for the Internet for the film was easily found and moments later a relic of the electrical/mechanical age of filmmaking was playing out digitally.

 

The Power and the Glory was written by Preston Sturges and for his first screenplay he was payed the extraordinary sum of $17,500 and notably, given a profit share which at the time was highly unusual and controversial (especially with other writers who now began to examine their own contracts and wonder how they could get a piece of this potentially lucrative action).

Sadly for Sturges, who was on the cusp of a glittering career, the film limped through its initial release and he made a spare $2000 from the deal. However the film was singled out by critics for its use of a highly unusual narrative structure (flashbacks) and the studio recognising the originality at work in the screenplay placed a plaque commemorating the films pioneering method on the New York theatre where it debuted and over the next few years its reputation grew as did the profits.

The story of Railroad Tycoon Tom Garner (Tracy) begins with his funeral revealing a man who is regarded with mixed feelings and whose suicide is for many a cause for celebration. This poses a series of questions, notably why was he so hated (or ‘misunderstood’ it is argued by his assistant and best friend Henry), and how did it all go so wrong?

Flashback structure aside, the screenplay is by and large fairly standard. Director William K Howard’s style is hardly remarkable and the cinematography is mostly nothing out of box but behind this camera is the great James Wong Howe (two Oscars for cinematography but at an early stage in his career here) and every now again an image or sequence leaps of the screen with such intensity that one can imagine a young Orson Welles sitting in a theatre soaking it all up and storing it away in his imagination for future consideration. As for the script itself, though perceptive, the dialogue fails to sparkle in a way that anyone familiar with Sturges later work should expect.

That said everything that would later manifest in Welles’s polished portrait of media tycoon Charles Foster Kane is a there. Welles plays Kane in a remarkably similar to the way Tracy plays Garner: with verve, wit and constant smile that suggest both men understand the great secret of life – that it is absurd.

Kane funds his empire via an inherited goldmine that has struck the motherlode and the unambitious Garner finds his muse via his wife, a woman of vision and the will to make it happen. These men are accidental tycoons and are, in varying degrees, aware of the ludicrousness that underlines their public image. The self-knowing secret smile fades as both men find themselves overcome by a creeping narcissism born from their privileged isolation.

As for Spencer Tracy, his presence alone is reason enough to enjoy The Power and the Glory and as the final scene plays out we understand, by way of Tracy’s innate humanity, that Garner is an unfortunate man whose best potential was wasted in the pursuit of wealth and power, the same condition Kane finds him self in as he sits alone in his grand mansion Xanadu surrounded by material excess and a life unfulfilled.

 

For a while I worked behind the counter of a DVD store that catalogued films by director. It was a frequent haunt for media students from the local Polytechnic and University seeking out films they had been recommended by their tutors, most notably Welles’s Citizen Kane which they had been told time and again was among the greatest film narratives ever conceived and a must see for any serious student of film.

It’s surprising how often they would return the film and remark that they could not understand what was so special about it. Of course not, they had seen it all before because the techniques that Welles had pioneered had long since become standard. What they needed to understand was that Welles had taken all that had come before and re-imagined it; in the process changing forever after the way filmic stories were told.

The Power and the Glory is a diverting and interesting historical artefact but Citizen Kane is astonishing. From beginning to end, through scene after scene, it sparkles with inventive dynamism and I thank The Power and the Glory for bringing me back to a film I thought I knew well but didn’t. There is so much going on that it is like exploring the night sky without reference point or telescope. What is this film and how did it come to be? The Power and the Glory provides some of those answers. And as for Tracy, our conversation was excellent and I will be watching more of his films as time allows.

 

The Power and the Glory Directed by William K Howard (1933)

 

Citizen Kane: Trailer (1940). Directed by Orson Welles

 

*In 2014, The Power and the Glory was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. 

 

Graeme Downes and Mathew Bannister – Unsung Godfathers of the Modern New Zealand Music Scene.

April 12, 2017

In the early 1980s I was listening to The Verlaines, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Sneaky Feelings, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Split Enz, The Swingers and Mike Nesmith and while they all eventually drifted from the forefront of my musical palate I never forgot the joy of these formative music discovery years.

Those sparkling melodic memories are burned into my psyche and all that has required for them to reappear was the right set of circumstances. In the case of The Verlaines it was seeing a vinyl reissue of their first album 1985s Hallelujah All The Way Home on display in a record store in 2016.

 

With a cover that re-imagines the band in iconography from the Middle Ages this LP is especially beautiful in the way that CDs can never be and seeing it again bought back memories of its treasured place in my collection and over the next few weeks bits and pieces of tracks I hadn’t heard or thought of for years started popping into my mind from the mysterious ether, ear-worming me in the most delightful of ways.

For a while I was such a fan of The Verlaines that I even went to see them play live and I hate live gigs. It was at Mainstreet in Auckland and what I remember most was Graeme Downs breaking a series of guitar strings and slowing up proceedings as he stopped, sometimes mid-song, to thread a new one. I don’t know if he was having a bad day, nervous or playing true to form, but he was testing the limits of the guitar and the audience. I decided I needed to hear some actual Verlaines for real and discovered a nice cache of material at the Auckland Central Library. The album I selected was called Untimely Meditations (2012).

Almost three decades years after his professional debut, Verlaines muse and leader  Downes has mellowed not at all. Imagine a swath cut from the last 100 years of musical history referenced and archived in a twisted lucid dream. This is Untimely Meditations – an alchemical soup that defies easy categorisation but here is a hint a what I was I was hearing: The Who, Television, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Coltrane, Fela Kuti, Gil Scott Heron, the Brill Building, Beefheart, The Velvet Underground and Fripp.

Perceived influences aside, Downes is a true original. His melodic structures and arrangements are like nothing else under Kiwi sun, edgy and angular affairs that serve to challenge, confound and thrill the listener at any given moment. In the decades since the Verlaines debut album Hallelujah All The Way Home, Downes has added horns, organ and strings to the original mix of bass, guitars and drums and the result is intoxicating.

Age has not diminished Downe’s fire; it has improved it, taming the wildness, focusing it into rare heat. Once this fire melted iron ore, now it’s the kind of fire that makes glass, that delicate reflective substance with the ability to contain the world in its shifting light. The good news is that a new album is due to be released sometime in 2017.

 

The Verlaines ‘It Was Raining’ from Hallelujah All The Way Home (1985)

Sneaky Feelings: Coming True from Sentimental Education (1986)

 

This brings me around to The Verlaines long time associates and former Flying Nun stable mates Sneaky Feelings. The Sneaky’s and Verlaines were among the influential labels first signings and spent a lot of time together on the road and in the studio and though their sound and styles were very different, in their first recordings (The Dunedin Double EP), you can hear the two bands feeding off each other.

While the friendship between the acts remained strong, artistically they were destined for different paths and by the time of their respective debut albums, that difference was well apparent. The Verlaines were an alternative rock band with progressive overtones, The Sneaky’s were a classic pop and soul band with that drew from influences as diverse Motown, Gram Parsons, Burt Bacharach and The Beatles.

The bands 1986 album the Bacharachian Sentimental Education was a lush and melodic affair that appealed to my sensibilities so perfectly that I wore out my first copy. Playing it over and over on my cheap stereo, I was trying to graft something of what I was hearing into my own song writing style and listening back to my own recordings made around that time, I succeeded, but like everything I was drawing from back then, The Sneaky’s faded from view as new interests caught my attention.

The Weather: Aroha Ave from Aroha Ave (2008)

 

In 2012, the Sneaky’s, somewhat indistinct in my musical memory, came bursting back into my life in the most unexpected of ways. I was working behind the counter at a Hamilton DVD store called Auteur House, an oddball affair that catalogued its movies by director, when a customer bought an empty case up to the counter for retrieval. He was a shambling figure with greying hair and sporting a visibility jacket, one that made me wonder if he had spent the day operating a roadside stop/go sign, (he was in fact a safety conscious cyclist).

Processing his request into the computer I asked for his name as per standard procedure. “Matthew Bannister,” he replied, “The Matthew Bannister from Sneaky Feelings?” I asked, “Yes” he said. Then for whatever reason I said, “You got old,” a rather absurd statement bearing in mind that we were the same age. He looked back at me like a possum caught in headlights so I hastily took his money before attempting some kind of redemptive statement. I wanted to say how much I admired his music but it came out garbled and still looking like a possum caught in headlights he grabbed his movie and fled the shop.

I bumped into him again two years later at the home of a mutual friend. We were drinking beer, smoking pot and listening to music when in ambled Matthew who was in fine form. He spent the evening bouncing about the room while we swapped tracks and talked philosophy and music history. We parted friends and have been ever since.

Like Downes, Bannister has maintained an impressive output of music over the years demonstrating continued growth as a musician/songwriter. As a solo artist and a member of various bands, his songs reflect his fear, rage, disappointments and efforts to wrest happiness from life’s shifting tides. The result is music whose delicious melodies and playful arrangements belie their dark acerbic underbelly and impending sense of tragedy.

The good news for fans is that the Sneaky Feelings have reunited and have recording new material (due for release in 2017). Nice except that Bannister barely needs them. With albums like The Weather’s Aroha Ave – produced by the legendary Ed Cake, anything from the Dribbling Darts and his own solo efforts, the albums Moth and Evolver, (a gobsmackingly good reimagining of the Beatles Revolver album) and his current squeeze The Changing Same, Bannister’s post Sneaky’s career speaks for itself, describing a unique musical voice with a legacy any songwriter would be proud of.

Like Downes, Bannister has proven himself over and over to hardly anyone and the time is long overdue for both musicians to be honoured in some way by the local musical community for their efforts. Both are unique writers who must rank among the nations best if not among the best sellers and lets face it, if they were operating in a larger market, say France, Germany, Britain or the USA, they would probably be making a living from their craft.

This is tiny isolated NZ where their minority appeal means that they are mostly destined to work on the shop floor during the day, dreaming of the music they might make when get home as time, energy and hard won finances allow. I don’t know Downes except as a distant semi-mythological figure but I do know Bannister – a warm, caring and slightly eccentric character for whom I wish nothing but the best.

The Changing Same: Make Up My Mind (2014)

 

The Verlaines: AWCWD from Dunedin Spleen (2016)

Morris and the Comportment of a Good Heart.

April 11, 2017

 

 

Morris was not long married and father of one when he signed on with the British Army as a Chaplin in 1939. He would not see his family again for five and a half years.

“I feel asleep in a trench in the Burmese jungle and woke up to find myself surrounded by Japanese soldiers. They must have thought I was dead because they were taking no notice of me so I stayed dead for a few hours. Suddenly there were shots and two Jap’s fell down about me and the rest fled. A moment later members of my unit piled into the trench and one said ‘we got about five miles down the line and we realised we had lost you Padre’. They fixed me some food and a hot drink and off we went”.

About two months before he died he grabbed my hand and said he had a confession to make and needed absolution. I looked about like a startled hare and wondered if I was the right person for the job but he wasn’t hearing any of it. “I have never told anyone this but I need to get it off my chest. I had two affairs during the war. Once with an Indian nurse while on leave in India and once with a Chinese schoolteacher while on leave in South Africa. “You have to understand I was young and lonely and sure that I was going to die out there and I was looking for warmth and connection”. He paused for a moment then asked me if I thought he was a bad man? I didn’t and told him so. He seemed relieved.

 

Morris was an Anglican vicar who had felt the call to serve ‘the loving Jesus’ since he was a child. “I never rose through the ranks because I refused to play the game.” The game he was referring to was politics. Morris didn’t care about being seen to do the right thing, he did as he felt and this included tending to the needs of homosexual parishioners in a time when homosexuality was not only a mortal sin but also illegal with it. This did not make him popular with his peers nor did his acceptance of other faiths including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. “At their best they are all paths to love” he confirmed.

It was his open mindedness that bought him and his wife to New Zealand, that and a daughter who had married a Kiwi and had moved out here several years earlier. She sent him a clipping from the NZ Herald about an iconic Anglican church in the heart of a major NZ city that was falling on hard times and in need of a vicar who could make a difference. Morris got the job and in 1967 he and his wife made the big move and began life afresh.

I wished I had of asked him more about these times because as I am writing I am only beginning to realise how spare my knowledge of him is. I am recalling snippets about how he revitalised the parish by organising dances for single Christians wanting to meet other single Christians and putting on special services for Gay Christians. They retired in 1979 and moved to the Central Waikato to be near their daughter.

Morris flirted with my then wife, a pretty and vibrant young woman of considerable charm while reassuring me that it was all a game. “I am a eunuch you see old boy so I am no competition to you.” He had contracted testicular cancer a few years before I met him and they had been removed. Not long after he had lost his beloved wife to illness. This last one was real blow and he staggered back to life determined to find new meaning. “I lost interest in the Church of England. It was moribund and had forgotten the essential Christian message of love”. Like me his searching had bought him to the Rosicrucian Lectorium, a Gnostic Christian sect based at Karapiro just outside of Cambridge.

The Rosicrucians suited Morris to a tee. They were Christian but they also borrowed heavily from the Eastern spirituality that had long impressed him. He liked their egalitarian attitude and enjoyed their fellowship though he couldn’t cope with their vegetarianism. He was part Basque and carried that peculiar Basque genetic profile that meant his body could not absorb iron from plant food. He needed flesh.

Otherwise he saw through their more pretentious allusions and made a great deal of fun at their expense. These Rosicrucians, (or as he liked to call them: The Rosy Crustaceans) were of Dutch origin and being typically dour were ripe for the picking. He referred to their founding figure Jan van Rijckenborgh as J Rickenfuhrer or Rickenburger as the mood took him all in honor of Rijckenborgh’s instruction that the leader should never be exalted. Of course they exalted him, at every turn, but Morris was always there waving the satirical flag to remind them of their obligations.

In this context he referred to their bi-monthly magazine The Pentagram as The Penthouse. To their credit they put up with up with it possibly because he was creakingly old and to protest would just be wrong headed. Still, for those of us less inclined toward unswerving fealty he was fresh air blowing out the bull dust.

Once he decided to surprise his daughter and her husband by going out to their farm with the idea of completing the renovations underway on their house while they were on holiday. He managed to pull the roof in on their living room while inadvertently setting their entire winters wood supply alight. That story followed him about like a bad smell and any mention of it were the only times I ever saw him look displeased.

Halfway through his ninety-third year his body shut down and he went fast. It was a peaceful death at home in his own bed surrounded by friends and family. The Anglican Bishop of the Waikato officiated at the funeral and stood before us all in his finery and waxed lyrical about Morris’s eccentricities (his Gnostic faith) and suggested that god would take into account all Morris’s good work and forgive him for his aberrations. Seriously, I wanted to kick the smug bastard where it hurt the most and regret that I didn’t. I have seldom before or since met a person with a truer heart than Morris’s. A man who judged no one but himself, he didn’t deserve to go out on a snipe like that.

 

 

 

 

Van Morrison, Mike Nesmith and the Road to Enlightenment.

April 11, 2017

 

 

From 1977 through to 1982 Van Morrison had a neat run of radio hits in New Zealand that included Wavelength, Cleaning Windows, Full Force Gale and Bright Side of the Road. I liked them all, especially the last one and decided to add some Van to my album collection. I was going through a heady Flying Nun thing at the time so musically this was quite a departure.

Before I go on I should acknowledge the apparent paucity of my Van choices. I became friends with an avid Morrison fan a few years back and said over a beer “Oh! I like Van too”. His interest piqued he asked what my favourites were and as I listed the aforementioned songs his falling expression said it all – I had it wrong. Very wrong. “What? No Moondance, Brown Eyed Girl, Astral Weeks, Gloria………..” (It was a long list).

He decided I needed educating and over the next weeks proceeded to play me some ‘proper’ Van. His pot was good and he had a fridge full of Mac’s Gold so who was I to complain. Did he change me? No, he had missed the point. The thing that had connected me to Van had less to do with music than with the message.

I look back on those years and a series of albums that include Beautiful Vision, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, A Sense of Wonder, Into the Mystic, Enlightenment and No Guru, No Method No Teacher and it’s all about the artist searching for meaning – something to explain himself to himself while exploring the overarching mystery of existence that was drawing me in.

If I were to sum up the overall mood of this loose collection it would be ‘reaching for the transcendent’. Through these years Van was a seeking spiritual truth/enlightenment and his songs were asking to similar questions to the ones that were swirling about my psyche. While I liked Van’s tunefulness it was in his lyrics that struck a chord with me, a kid who was in the process of casting aside the Catholicism of his youth and embarking upon new adventures of the mind and spirit.

At this juncture I should pause for a moment to consider what it is I mean by enlightenment and after some thought I have settled on a series of words: perspective, knowledge, informed understanding, insight, clarity. In a classic spiritual sense, someone who is seeking ‘enlightenment’ is exploring the workings of the mind in order to better understand suffering and unhappiness.

The literature tells us that that desire, attachment to worldly things (including inherited tradition and possessions), expectation and ambition imprison and limit us. Enlightenment is the liberation of oneself from this psychological imprisonment. Once free of our cultural programming we are able to experience life in unique and exciting new ways.

I purchased No Guru, No Method, No Teacher on the title alone. It was ‘Guru’ that caught my attention. Except for some Beatle references as regard their passing flirtation with Indian spirituality I knew little else about the term but felt that there might be something worth exploring here. My first task was trying to figure what it was Van was trying to say with this title and this being pre-internet days it meant scouring whatever music magazines on offer at the library looking for information via reviews and interviews.

There wasn’t much but I did find a review that suggested Van was a Gnostic Christian though it didn’t elaborate. I learned that Gnosticism referred to a kind of Western esoteric mysticism that emphasised letting go of worldly preoccupations in order to achieve a ‘higher’ form of understanding about life, the universe and everything – yeah, just like Eastern Spirituality. I also learned that within the many wisdom schools (that exist in parallel with most every major world religion) there are numerous ways of seeking enlightenment that do not always include a method or guide.

The no guru, no method, no teacher approach is all about using a combination of self-reflective analysis and research to find your own peaceful accord with the mysteries but it is controversial approach and not popular with those who declare that enlightenment cannot be achieved without assistance. The cynical might suggest that lack of financial gain or institutional control may have a role to play with this perspective. One especially virulent Guru proponent declared, “This way is just anarchy. People require guidance – no ifs or buts about it”. As for Guru, it is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘master teacher’ as opposed to a ‘generalised teacher’.

Christian Gnostics did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, more an enlightened teacher. This put them swiftly offside with the early Christian church and they were literally rubbed out of existence. The survivors became secretive and hidden – they had to and this is a tradition that has endured to this day. These sects often shroud themselves in mystery and use arcane symbolic language to conceal their message. Check out the situation of the French Cathar’s in 1209 to get a more complete picture of the psychology at work.

Gnosticism is from the Greek word Gnostic meaning ‘knowledge’ and the emphasis is on intuitive knowledge rather than intellectual knowledge. European Gnosticism was probably influenced by ideas picked up from Merchant trains out of the East (Buddhism is another notable influence) and has been at large before the Greek gods were even a twinkle in the historical firmament. Later they grafted the Jesus into their belief system and evolved in new directions though older forms have persisted.

Gnosticism, as I discovered, is no different to other belief systems, fractured into a multitude of parts each claiming pre-eminence over the others. I got in deep for a year or so before waking up to the reality of the situation, that I had swapped one belief system for another and was exactly back where I did not want to be when I had left the Catholic faith of my youth.

But it wasn’t all a loss. The sect I found myself in taught me a few useful things like: “Tear down the mental constructs inside of you and rid yourself of everything you think you ‘know’ and here on the empty landscape of the mind discover your true self”. It has proven a useful method but one has to be very wary of erecting a whole new set of constructs in the place of the old. Otherwise the system of reflective self-analysis they taught has helped me to evolve as a person.

 

Van makes mention of numerous Western esoteric traditions in his music including metaphysical treatise The Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Movement ( Theosophy is mash up of spiritual ideas drawing from diverse sources). Well known spiritual philosopher Alan Watts gets a song, and esoteric Irish poet W.B Yeats is ticked off on the track Rave on John Donne (Inarticulate Speech of the Heart 1983) along with a host of other esoteric luminaries including Walt Whitman.

Then there is the more mundane and less exciting Christian orthodoxy (his ghastly 1989 Christian duet with Cliff Richards – May God Shine his Light was probably the nadir of this period). On his recommendation I explored them all (except for the Jesus love us stuff – had been there and done that) and found value as well as a whole lot of jiggery pokery.

But it wasn’t just Van who was teaching me stuff. In 1977 I wrote to former Monkee Mike Nesmith (remember fan mail) telling him how much I liked his song Rio, which had been a huge hit across Australasia. But more than the song itself was the title of the album it was off: From A Radio Engine to the Photon Wing. Now what was that all about I thought as my mind conjured up strange images of landscapes beyond the confines of space and time? Mike wrote back and with the letter came a box full of records he had made including one called The Prison (he explained nothing but seemed grateful some kid was taking notice).

A book with a soundtrack, The Prison was my first introduction to the album as a conceptual device and I loved it. It was the first vinyl record I wore out. The album opens with the words: ‘Life is the unsuspecting captive of a million dreams, chains of desire bind so vastly to the earth. Seeing the attachment born, of knowing all those things, being alone and at one with the joys of rebirth’ – Opening Theme: Life, the Unsuspecting Captive.

I had no idea what this all meant but it resonated with me and I sang it to myself over and over trying to get to grips with the ideas at play. Later Van led me to Gnosticism and Gnosticism to the Tao De Ching (our particular sect was very big on the Tao De Ching, a Chinese philosophical text dating back some three thousand years), which led me to the ideas outlined in The Prison. Nesmith was big on the Tao (or ‘the way’) and metaphors alluding to it abound throughout his music catalogue.

Tao is the essential, unnamable process of the universe and The Tao De Ching instructs us in the art of letting go and learning to roll with the nature of things and in the process discovering peace and fulfilment. Resistance it tells is not only futile, it is counterproductive. Nesmith’s potent 1972 contractual obligation album, the ironically titled And The Hit’s Just Keep On Coming even features a track called Roll With The Flow featuring a series of narratives linked by a refrain that goes – I roll with the flow wherever it goes and its rolling out of here. Otherwise filled out with lyrical flourishes like ‘he was a didactic minister’ ‘she was a lacklustre lover’, he also taught me a lot about lyric writing, wordplay and phrasing.

Beyond his pop superstardom, movie production (he was the brains behind classic cult film Repo Man) esoteric mysticism, car racing and business career (he is a successful entrepreneur as was his mother – she who invented Liquid Paper), Nesmith is a progressive thinker dedicated to all manner of causes like The Council of Ideas- a forum dedicated to solving the great problems of our times. He is interested in technology and his ‘Video Ranch’ is a pioneering online shopping and recreational site.

Much like Van, Nesmith has maintained a singular musical career and has been beholden to no one, including The Monkees, sidestepping most of the reunion tours and associated activities. “I am to busy” is his standard reply to questions on this subject. He also refuses to sign autographs. The Prison is an allegory about the cultural constructs that imprison our minds and blind us to the vast potential beyond perceived reality and I will be ever grateful to Nesmith for opening that particular door for me.

 

Eamon, a guy I know from Belfast – Van’s base and hometown, told me that he was selling natural gas for the home on the phone and the next name on the list was a Mr V. Morrison. “Can’t be I thought to myself but the feck it was.” he said. “So what did he say?” I asked. “Told me feck off then thought better of it and asked how much then signed up.” How many people can say they have sold natural gas to Van Morrison?

Another story concerns his father who was doing backstage security the night Belfast threw a big concert to celebrate Van’s 70th birthday back in 2015. “My Da said he was drinking before the show and being a difficult c**t but they got him on-stage in one piece and he was brilliant”. I took everything Eamon said with a pinch of salt because he had a fair share of the blarney about him. Still he was entertaining and played the consummate Irishman abroad well.

In his biography Testament Band guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson tells about rehearsing with Van for the concert film The Last Waltz. Nervous, anxious and prickly (and a little drunk) throughout Van turned up late on the night dressed in an Elvis one piece and armed with Elvis style karate style kicks proceeded to knock the roof off the show. Complex, unfathomable but when push comes to shove…….

He often alludes to the difficult aspects of his nature in song and has clearly struggled with life and living at times. But enlightenment, when you distil it down, is mostly about learning to ‘know’ yourself and coming to terms with who and what you are. I get the sense he found his peace with himself and has moved on from his restless searching. Grumpy and contrary are a better fit for the man than smiling over at Cliff Richards while singing about Jesus the lord and saviour.

We are what we are and for many of us the best we can do is recognise the worst about ourselves while keeping a firm eye on the good. So much of human life is bulldust. Eschew the crap, cast aside the clutter of ideas and learn the value of silence and everything will be as it should be. This is enlightenment according to Lao Tzu the composer of the Tao De Ching.

Flowing robes, a serene countenance, adoring devotes – yeah probably not so much. That’s more like cheap perfume. And as for music, sometimes it is nothing more than a catchy tune. Other times it can be a life altering experience. Whatever, as an art form it’s ability to influence should never be underestimated.

‘No guru, no method, no teacher, just you and I and nature, and the father in the garden’ – Van Morrison.

 

 

Zombies, Existential Dread and The Girl with all the Gifts.

April 11, 2017

Early on in the film discovery phase of my life I happened upon George A Romero’s landmark Zombie Trilogy. All at once clever, disturbing and satirical these films were a delight and I have watched them many times since but as the Zombie phenomenon broke out into mainstream I realised I was less a fan of Zombies than I was of Romero and while I have dipped into some of the more popular shows and films nothing bar the British movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later have sustained my attention…… until now.

I was out walking when I happened across Unity Books (Central Auckland) and decided to go inside. I must have walked passed the place a hundred times and while I often stopped to look in at the window display I was never going any further as book buying is no longer my thing.

When I was younger and earning better I used to buy lots of books. I loved the excitement of book discovery and outlined of my personal space with a display I imagined explained to visitors something of my inner world. Considering I had few visitors the whole thing ended up seeming a little vain and frivolous so one fine day I packed all my books down and left them out in public space for people to take.

Thinking I had done some great deed I drove back to have a look an hour later to find a group of shabby looking kids kicking them about and throwing screeds of torn pages into the air. In retrospect nothing less than my vanity deserved.

I am well pleased that phase of life is over and I have since learned that the value of the books most precious to me lies in the memory of the experience not in the possession of the hardcopy. But there I was in a bookstore and I saw they had a Sci-Fi section, which pleased me no end this genre being my first love and all and because I had this impression that bookshops devoted to literature largely eschew the format out of a misguided sense that it just isn’t worthy enough.

Iconic NZ Broadcaster and literature fan Kim Hill certainly thinks so, I have heard her say it more than a few times over the years, and her opinion isn’t so unusual. I remember walking into a grand looking bookshop in Wellington a few years back and after a look about asked if they had a Sci-Fi section. The response was bemused blinking that left me feeling a bit inadequate. I scarpered and spent my money elsewhere.

As for the genre itself, it is actually a mixture of things that includes fantasy, dystopian futurism, space opera, social and technological speculation, time travel and Zombie narratives. So there I was running my fingers across the book spines when a title caught my eye. I pulled it out and balanced it in my hands and knew that I was going to read it and like it. I jotted down the title: The Girl with all the Gifts and decided to order it from the library. Sorry Unity but at almost $40 it was well beyond my means.

 

 

Book Review: The Girl with all the Gifts

By M.R. Carey.

7/10 Stars.

 

An infection has crossed the globe turning humans into mindless hosts for a parasitic life form that craves protein. These creatures stand about waving in the wind until a movement or scent from a warm living thing triggers them into action then its all running, clawing hands and tearing teeth. The few remaining humans have nicknamed them ‘Hungries’. If you have ever seen 28 Days Later you’ll have the idea.

The uninfected have retreated to a couple of protected enclaves including a research facility where Dr Caroline Caldwell is seeking a vaccine by dissecting and experimenting on the body parts of the infected but not just any old infected. He team has discovered children who have been infected but maintain something of their humanity.

These children are a striking new mutation and involved in the research is teacher and psychologist Helen Justineau whose job involves trying to understand their nature. Are they still human? Caldwell thinks not as she obsessively takes them apart with surgical tools. Justineau is not so sure and her emotional bond with a girl called Melanie is complicating things at the facility.

As for Sergent Parks, the guy who runs the day-to-day operations at Hotel Echo, these kids are dangerous, after all he is the guy who discovered them and has had first hand experience of just how overwhelming their hunger for flesh can be. He and Justineau are not seeing eye-to-eye and as far is Justineau is concerned Caldwell is out of control.

The kids are imprisoned and when required are strapped securely into wheelchairs and ferried about the facility. By and by it all goes wrong and Parks, Justineau, Caldwell, a soldier called Gallagher and Melanie (test subject number one because of her extraordinary intellectual abilities) find themselves on the run across the barren wasteland that is now the British countryside in a desperate attempt to reach Beacon and safety. Caldwell needs Melanie for her research, Melanie is attached to Justineau (the only human who has ever shown her any care), and the others just want to survive.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a spare and neatly observed novel that follows in the grand tradition of Romero’s groundbreaking original Zombie film Night of the Living Dead centered on a group of disparate people thrust together by circumstance and trying to find a way forward against increasingly insurmountable odds. M.R Carey is a novelist whose main source of income has been writing for comics (X-Men for Marvel as well as numerous projects for D.C) and graphic novels. The tight narrative structure required for this type of prose has shaped him into an economical wordsmith who knows how to spin a compelling yarn without wasting space.

The book is a reliable page turner with a well considered plot and neatly drawn characters that respects the readers intelligence and left me thinking that good writing is good writing regardless of the genre. To hell with literature snobs – Zombies make just as good a backdrop for tales of the human condition as do the sorts of themes and settings favoured by actual proper writers.

 

 

Film review: The Girl With All The Gifts (2015)

Directed by Colm McCarthy

6-10 Stars

Okay, now I have read the book I had to take a look at the film which turns out to be very much in that tradition kicked off by Danny Boyles genius film 28 Days Later (2002) and its follow up 28 Weeks Later (2007). The Girl With All the Gifts could well have been titled ‘28 Years Later’ judging by the overgrown cityscapes our little band of adventurers are wandering across as they head for the sanctuary of Beacon.

In actuality we are only eight years out from the initial outbreak but the huge mature trees filling the streets of London suggest a timeframe more in line with decades rather than a decade. The landscape is actually the abandoned Pripyat City in the heart of the Chernobyl exclusion zone whose brutalist Sovietism is not London by any stretch of the imagination. Nice try but it does serve to make the film feel a little B-Grade, as in low budget. They would have been better off sticking to those neatly rendered CGI images of an overgrown London that otherwise worked so well.

The rest of it is filmed on sets and the results are quaint rather than convincing reminding me of the TV shows I grew up watching in the late 1960s. I am thinking Star Trek, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants – all formed on soundstages with sets that are inexpensive and suggestive rather than comprehensive. Maybe this was purposeful stylistic decision?

The cast is a neat list of top line character actors including Glenn Close as the Dr Mengele like Caldwell, the ever-reliable Paddy Constantine (Dead Mans Shoes) as Sergent Parks and Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) as Justineau. They do a fine job with what they have. Melanie is helmed by an earnest Sennia Nanua whose uneven performance takes the edge of things, if only a little.

The film mostly stays true to a book written for easy big screen translation but for reasons unknown the production team have has eschewed some essential plot elements leaving the film structure feeling a little flimsy. In the book the fall of Hotel Echo is a an event which tells us a larger story about the state of the world as it stands but in the film version the security fences are clumsily knocked down by Hungries after being perfectly adequate for many, many months. Expedient but clumsy.

The director Colm McCarthy is an episodic TV director and struggles a bit with the longer format of a feature film. The Girl with all the Gifts lacks sustained tension (sadly so because the book hums along like fire on a fuse) and dramatic flair. A friend had seen it before I did and her opinion pretty much sums up my own: ”It’s ok”. Still there is potential for more from this loose franchise and that would be nice. The British do post-apocalyptic better than most.

 

What Others Are Saying:

It’s a film for people who thought they never needed to sit through another zombie flick. It’s also quite likely the strangest entry that will ever appear on Glenn Close’s IMDB page’.

– Chris Nashawatay Entertainment Weekly

 

‘A wicked, gory and even occasionally funny take on George A. Romero’.

– Barry Hertz Globe and Mail.

 

Epilogue:

I am remembering how much I loved post-apocalyptic scenarios in my youth, a strange dislocated time when I feared my natural lonerist tendencies. In my less guarded moments I dreamt of long walks through cityscapes returned to nature. It was silent and abstract world and I was happily adrift in it. There were never any Zombies, thrills, adventure or other people. My post-apocalyptic landscape was all about the mystical unconscious.

So what is the attraction of the Zombie besides the obvious scare fest? Could it be down to some existential dread based on the loss of individuality? Whatever it is, it’ a popular theme and a reliable moneymaker. The other big player here is the body-snatching genre; that’s when ethereal alien beings take over the individual’s body, eliminate the consciousness and turn it into a vessel for themselves.

Stephenie Meyer’s (the Twilight series) The Host is a modern classic (though the sputtering 2013 film adaptation by Kiwi Andrew Niccol is not). Of the several other films originating from Jack Finney’s 1954 Sci-Fi novel The Body Snatchers the best are the 1958 and 1978 titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are perfectly realised and are a ‘must see’ for those so inclined. The 1978 film features Leonard Nimoy as a charismatic cult psychiatrist and a brilliantly hysterical Donal Sutherland as a City Health Inspector on a mission to save the world from creeping threat. The final reveal is a classic.