Friday, 16 October 2009

The Beatles: Rock Band

I hope to be writing quite soon about Sam Taylor-Wood's new film Nowhere Boy, concerning the adolescence of John Lennon, which I think is closing the London Film Festival this year, and is for that same reason quite properly under wraps for media coverage until then. Meantime - since I don't listen to 'new' music other than what I overhear on the wireless, and since like a million other people I was lured into a record shop on Wednesday September 9 in order to re-buy records I already own - I've been listening to a lot of Beatles music again lately... Indeed I suspect a million other people like me have been well primed to appreciate Sam Taylor-Wood's forthcoming directorial debut.
I only just realised, for it had quite passed me by, that Philip Norman published a long and newly researched biography of Lennon last year. The newness has to me a special novelty because, in common with a lot of other readers, I think Norman's Shout! was the definitive account of The Beatles' lives and times. That said, I was 10 years old when I read it, and my critical radar may have been a bit shaky. Still, great long passages of it live in my memory still, as much else Beatles-related from that time - which was, to be precise, in the months immediately following Lennon's murder, one of the first news events to truly shock and unsettle my young self.
I'm not sure if at that point I had already acquainted myself with those Beatles LPs that were already in my parents' collection. What I know for sure is that after reading Norman I managed to get for myself what seemed to be the pertinent ones missing from that collection - first Revolver and Sgt Pepper, later 'The White Album', Abbey Road, Let It Be. In other words my folks' Beatles collection stopped at the point where the stuff got a bit darker and stranger and zanier (though, if I remember right, they did have a splendid and rare-looking vinyl of the Magical Mystery Tour, so resuming the continuity around 1967...)
But well I remember my 10-year-old excitement at owning my own Revolver - its very outer sleeve as spidery and enticing and monochrome-cool as Philip Norman had described it in his book, right down to the absence of the band's name from the cover. And the music? Oh boy. Well, 'She Said She Said' remains today one of my favourite songs, and sums up the direction in which John seemed to lead the band circa 1965-66: the worldlier lyrics, the acidic bite of the guitar, the new signature of bass, and John's voice with a new edgier authority too.
At first I used to think pretty much everything that was 'right' about The Beatles was down to John. And then for some years I thought the Stones were far better anyway, because they were less 'English', and properly inspired by Robert Johnson hawking his soul down at the crossroads rather than by Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. But my reacquaintance with The Beatles is giving me a new appreciation for Paul - for 'Paperback Writer', 'Lady Madonna', 'Blackbird', 'Hey Jude' - and yes, I know there's an existing consensus that these were already pretty good songs before I came round to them.
I guess I've also come round to the view that Lennon wasn't always the perfect singer of his own songs. Or at least that some of the cover versions I've heard - of 'Julia', 'Across the Universe', latterly 'Jealous Guy' - make huge leaps in bringing out their deep feeling. Whereas McCartney always had the feeling on tap. With Lennon, of course, there were other emotional issues at play. This is part of what makes Nowhere Boy... But, well, more of that anon, I hope...

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Esquire (November 2009) has been on stands a quare while now, truth be told...

This month's ish rejoices in no fewer than four guest editors: Nick Hornby, Evan Davis, Rankin, and Ricky Gervais, who bags the cover. My film column is about Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, of which I note, "Parnassus could have been a great role for Christopher Plummer, who recently played Lear on Broadway and has always excelled at a certain kind of blue-blooded devilry." I also out myself as "a diehard fan of the fairytale, and hate to see this form dismissed out-of-hand as artless or childish. Bruno Bettelheim told it right when he argued (in his seminal The Uses of Enchantment) that such stories address our core existential anxieties: ‘the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life, and the fear of death.’"

Gordon Burn - Final: Sex & Violence, Death & Silence

In a few weeks' time Faber will publish this collection of Gordon's writings on art - posthumously, sad to say (indeed is there a sadder word in the language?), rather than as the latest entry in what was becoming an ever more phenomenal body of work. I see that The List have flagged up the publication here, and his four northern obituarists - David Peace, Val McDermid, Lee Brackstone and myself - are cited one more time.

Whose NHS?

What’s it worth to you, this National Health Service of ours? Are you a true believer in its virtues? Are you essentially agnostic? Or might you indeed deem the NHS to be the work of the Devil? Of course this issue of the imperfections of our health system became banner news over the summer of 2009 owing to President Obama’s healthcare reform travails. The flat-out moronic element amid the opposition to Obama, as given a prize platform by Fox News, unwisely mouthed off about the communistic horror of Britain’s ‘socialised medicine’ and, quick as Dickens, I – just like you, I’m sure – started getting emails from friends and strangers proclaiming ‘We love the NHS.’ Both Labour and the Tories, meanwhile, acted like they would prefer to talk about something else.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the NHS a great deal, but there’s a debate we all need to have – a debate that isn’t moronic or wicked even though Fox News are among those who would wish for it. ‘In a world of ageing patients, explosive medical costs and galloping scientific advance,’ John Lichfield wrote in the Independent, ‘there can be no such thing as the perfect health service.’ Quite, and that’s why we haven’t got one.
But I have not a moment's quarrel with whatever is my National Insurance stake in the NHS (about £300 a year, I think, though people seem to perceive it as much higher). That is a bargain in anyone's language for the essential services rendered (sometimes frustrating, more often invaluable.) Two months ago my wife gave birth to a baby girl, this after months of hospital appointments with specialists and consultants, blood tests and bloodwork, nuchal-fold and chorionic villus sample tests, umpteen ultrasound scans... After two nights in a hospital bed she was home and then received a dozen midwife/health visits. For these services we received no bill. (If we lived in the USA and didn’t have maternity insurance we might have been stuck for $10,000.) A bargain, and a precious one, simple as that.
I might say that on the second night of my wife's post-natal hospital stay we decided to get her one of the little private bedrooms on the maternity ward so she could be assured of the peace that would aid restful sleep. That cost £100 - perhaps a little over-priced, but that was our choice, and it did the business. I can't say I have any quarrel on paper with the extension of other such chargeable choices through the NHS system. (I can well remember Boris Johnson's idiotic complaint in public about how he'd been unable to procure an extra slice of toast on the ward after his wife was resting up post-labour. Oh, how the free market wept! Clearly Stalin stalks the halls of London's hospitals! Putting a price on toast would be worth it if only to give a further reason for Boris to shut his gob.) Charges, made transparent at the point of access, merely supplementing what could and should otherwise be a good-enough 'free' service, seem hardly a cause for controversy - rather, a solidly good idea.
Our not-quite-‘free’ service isn’t always a good one, but that’s not the main reason why we can’t go on funding comprehensive health care through taxes alone. It’s because even the not-always-good not-quite-‘free’ service could die the death of a thousand cuts unless one makes some strategic incisions now, permitting extra infusions of private-citizen money into the bloodstream. The ongoing duty of care to the elderly and infirm, most of whom will have paid into the system all their lives, is precisely why the rest of us need to look at how we keep the system functional before we ourselves are old and infirm and at its mercy.
The money is the thing, because the NHS now faces the direst financial straits since its establishment, according to The King's Fund and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The costs allegedly run at £105 billion a year. What are the greatest drains within that? Admin and management consultants? Big Pharmaceutical drugs? Doctors and nurses? Foreign nationals nipping in for IVF treatment, non-tax-paying economic migrants bringing the kids? Timewasters, the obese, smokers and drinkers, even if they be tax-payers too? All these play a part, I’m sure, but percentage-wise the chief layout is salaries, isn’t it? Pay and pensions for 1.5 million employees, plus the pensions of those millions who have worked in the system over the last three or four decades.
Our present deficit is such that no-one seriously denies the need for some public spending restraint. We won't go broke, but we can't stay this indebted. The tragedy here, as Phillip Stephens of the FT noted, is that of course the NHS really needs to spend more: ‘Given its demographics, Britain will need to devote a rising share of its income to health.’ But if the state must cut back, there is only one other option, right? As Stephens put it, ‘One way or another, patients are going to be asked to contribute directly to their care.’ I can't really see any other way round it, myself, call me myopic - and so I would like to hear a good and reasoned argument about how and where that charging would operate.
There are some things about the NHS that are sacrosanct. I don't think staffing levels are one of them - or rather, not current staffing levels, or, if you like, allocation and distribution of human resources in the grand scheme of the organisation... We need more qualified doctors, that's for sure. And anyone who lays hands in order to cure should be considered pretty well essential in a hospital. Even though it puts me in company with all those pitiful boarding-school-educated Tories, I'd happily see the return of ward matrons, keeping good order. On a related note, I wouldn't want to lose any cleaners.
So who is deemed expendable? McKinsey filed a report in the summer arguing that 110,000 NHS posts should be cut, including those of "frontline health-care staff." That's too frightening for words, and neither the Government nor the Tories backed the suggestion. Indeed health minister Mike O'Brien got his gloves on: "We have created 80,000 nurses jobs and 40,000 doctors jobs and you think we're going to cut them? Labour created the health service, we want to see it improve." That was classic from-the-gut (or knee-jerk, if you like) Labour/NHS tribalism. So where did O'Brien think the needful savings would be found? 'Focusing on quality, focusing on innovation, focussing on the way in which we improve service will reduce the overall cost without reducing the number of staff.’ No, I don't think he really believes that will do the trick either. But the alternatives are not palatable, even for the Tories, with their Party's traditional hatred for what it sees as the unforgiveable mediocrity and inadequacy of everybody else.
David Cameron has - quite sincerely, I'm sure, and by wisdom dearly bought - been most insistent that the NHS is safe and beloved with his Tory party. MEP Daniel Hannan's embrace of the Fox News platform need not be blamed on Cameron. But he is responsible for this parliamentary party of his and what they'd do in government. Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, tried in rebutting McKinsey to nonetheless applaud the projected slashing of ‘the bloated health bureaucracy.' Yes, I'd be for that too, if I thought it would make such a vital difference, rather than just playing the game of kick-the-faceless-bureaucrat. But no, it's going to take a sight more than reductions in admin costs, isn't it? Tough choices all round.
What proposals have you heard for charging? I’m already paying a whack for my prescriptions these days, such as the tendonitis I’ve got from over-carrying my kids, or the intestinal infection my GP diagnosed that, it turned out, I didn’t actually have… But nationwide these sorts of charges must be throwing more into the pot? There could be a separate budget column labelled Unnecessary Antibiotics for the Middle-Class.
I know the Social Market Foundation suggested patients should be charged £20 to see a GP. Wrong on the face of it, if it deters the poor or the anxious elderly, but then isn’t there a way to make such charges reclaimable? Isn’t that an element of the French system? The vulnerable allure of it is that it would help to get shot of Those People who needn’t really go to the doctor. And shot of them we need to be, somehow… McKinsey reckoned 40% of patients in any given hospital didn’t need to be there. I know... which 2 out of any 5 would that be? Me? Thee? Or Them? You can look around a surgery waiting room or a hospital ward and form your own opinion. Of course, it’s the medical professionals who’ll know better, and it's their time that is of the essence. I’m assuming most of them would naturally want to be part of this debate too, and I personally am really keen to hear any and all opinions - other than the one that goes ‘It’s OK just as it is...’

Monday, 12 October 2009

Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch: That Old Rugged Cross

Today I gave myself a little treat away from the coalface of work and, just for pleasure, attended an afternoon preview screening of the new movie by Bruno Dumont, whom I tend to think of as my favourite contemporary filmmaker.
One of my fondest film-related keepsaves is a postcard Dumont sent me back in 1999 after I'd failed in a fan-letter effort to entice him to attend that year's Edinburgh Film Festival. (I was at that time the curator of festival retrospectives - in 1999 we were honouring Robert Bresson - and I also did a bit of programming of the main selection, to which I had been thrilled to add Dumont's L'Humanite.) Basically, though he regretfully had other plans that summer, Dumont seemed to appreciate my obvious regard for his stuff, a fact of which I was most glad. But the real added frisson for me was the image on the postcard itself - a soaringly boring flat landscape which I (rightly or wrong) took to depict Bailleul, the town in Flanders where Dumont was born and later made his first two features, La Vie de Jesus and L'Humanite.
What, then, of Hadewijch? What can I say? Well, nobody does it better. But these days, really, nobody else does it. Dumont is assuredly not a religious man, and yet his work is so staunchly anti-psychological in its construction of character and drama, and visually (like the films of his beloved Bresson) so much more reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics than of common-or-garden 'motion pictures' that one tends to reach for the language of the spiritual in discussing him; and this time he has helped us out by making a film about a modern-day teenage Christian mystic, a bourgeois girl from a Parisian political family who elects to scorn delights and live laborious days in the manner of the grand old hymn:
O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
has a wondrous attraction for me;
for the dear Lamb of God left his glory above
to bear it to dark Calvary.
Of course, it's not as simple as that; and I can't begin to explain why. I wasn't always riveted by Hadewijch, but at the times that I was, my main feeling, once again, was 'God, I love this filmmaker.'
A quick word on Dumont and Bresson. Dumont has always made plain his regard for the master, and clearly favours some similar techniques. Yet certain critics who imagine they know better have always used this as a stick with which to beat him. It beggars belief that any viewer who has truly loved the films of Bresson could 'make the best the enemy of the good' and so fail to admire the manner in which Dumont has adopted Bressonian traits (the flattened image, the wilful ellipsis, the 'anti-psychological' drama, the imperative of editorial rhythm, the drilling of performers or 'models') to his very own ends. Then again, there's a whole strain of contemporary commentators on film who take Bresson semi-seriously just like they were taught to, and yet roll their eyes over Dumont; had those same scribblers been around when Le Proces de Jeanne d'Arc or Une Femme Douce or Lancelot du Lac came out and stood in need of support, then you can bet Bresson would have had to whistle for it.
If Bresson obtruded like bones through the flesh of Dumont's (probably over-feted) debut La Vie de Jesus, that influence has been more thoroughly assimilated and built upon since. Admittedly Hadewijch has distinct shades of Mouchette and even Bresson's own debut Les Anges du Peche. This, though, is no mere imitation by Dumont, but – to borrow a term from George Steiner – an 'answering', one that reminds us that the best scrutiny of art is by sympathetic fellow artists. ‘Cruelly, perhaps’, wrote Steiner in Real Presences (1989), ‘it does seem to be the case that aesthetic criticism is worth having only, or principally, where it is of a mastery of answering form comparable to its object.’
This is, of course, an argument on the margins of le cinema. Dumont is the very model of a 'festival filmmaker', an enigma to larger paying audiences; but if it is his lot in life to be adored only by Cannes juries composed of his foremost fellow professionals, then one imagines he could settle for that distinction.