Friday, 25 May 2012

Sean Penn: Bringing Sexy Back

Regular readers (!?) will recall that back in the autumn of 2010 I was dagging around after Sean Penn on the Dublin and New York shoots of Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place.
The London Telegraph kindly sponsored the second leg of that itinerary, and with the UK release of the movie early last month my write-up of the whole adventure duly appeared in the Telegraph's Saturday magazine - a cover story, thank you very much.
There's not a huge amount of material that I left on the cutting room floor, outside of a fair bit of stuff recorded on my dime in Dublin that was/is intended for the update of my Sean Penn: His Life and Times. And I used most of the jokes too, though there is a story about Sean and a New York cop in Central Park that I would love to regale everyone with, but that it could have repercussions...

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Dickens and "utterly unreasonable compassion"

Having of late and very gladly taken my turn as a missionary for the exalted name of Charles Dickens, I was pleased back in February to attend the wreath-laying at Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, that marked the bicentennial of the great man’s birth. 

I went along not expecting the ceremony to be a huge deal, rather more interested in the prospect of seeing the Abbey in full formal regalia, and also the outside prospect of some top-quality people-watching. (Simon Callow had made it plain that all true believers should shun the Abbey and make their way to Portsmouth for the day; but then Simon Callow was not someone I’d been hoping to snag a glimpse of.)

I had a slight wardrobe malfunction at the door to the Abbey, an impeccable usher leaning to my ear to murmur, ‘May I remind you, sir, of the formality in respect of hats...?’ For I was in fact wearing one, and it had simply hadn't occurred to me that a man must go bare-headed into church... Anyhow, once inside, I was allotted a nice seat right on top of Gladstone's grave. After the solemn entrance of HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and a lovely airing from Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, we were treated to a consummate and notably upbeat assessment of Dickens and his legacy by Claire Tomalin, and a very controlled and intense reading of the death of Jo from Bleak House by Ralph Fiennes. 

But to my surprise my favourite address was that given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams is obviously a smart man, though in the past that hasn’t stopped him from saying a lot of fatuous things – fatuous even by the low standards of what clever Anglicans are forced to say just on account of the collars round their necks. But literary appreciation is evidently a strength of his. I have quite never been able to bear the thought of his book on Dostoyevsky, but quite possibly this has been my loss. His best observations on Dickens were in respect of the ticklish issue of caricature, melodrama, excessive emotion and what have you. Very accurately he praised Dickens’ gift for depicting characters who are in advanced states of inner torment – ‘in hell’, as was the forgivable gloss – and pointed out that what is often their salvation in Dickens is an “utterly unreasonable compassion" that shakes the dungeon and “because of its utter unreasonableness can change everything.” It is the very same excess that leaves many of us in bits over Dostoyevsky, and Williams was, I daresay, promoting the connection quite deftly. 

On the star-gazing front, by the way, I feel I need only report that I made my way out of the Abbey side by side with Ron Moody - The People’s Fagin, no question. A cherishable moment.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

David Storey & 'This Sporting Life': Me on Radio 3

Back in early March BBC Radio 3 kindly broadcast a contribution of mine to their regular 'Essay' series. In that particular week all the contributions were on the theme of representations of sport, and grouped under the heading 'Listener, They Won It.' I'd been asked to pick a film that gives an especially good audio-visual account of how a particular sport is played and experienced. Pretty much without hesitation I chose the film version of David Storey's novel This Sporting Life, directed by Lindsay Anderson in 1963. Thanks to BBC iPlayer you can still listen to the edited broadcast here; and what follows is the text that I read out:

"The opening credits of Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life are accompanied by a musical score so nerve-straining and ominous, it could lead you to expect some kind of spy thriller set in Cold War Berlin – or maybe a tense war drama about young squaddies patrolling the Malayan jungle – either of which would have been perfectly viable subjects for a British film in the early 1960s.

But then we start to hear the unmistakable din of a crowd watching live sport. Then comes a credit thanking Wakefield Trinity rugby league football club, for their ‘generous co-operation’ in the making of what we’re about to see. The music turns a shade more muted and melancholy. And, with that, we’re thrown directly into the thick of battle.

A rugby ball rolls loose over turf: a player lunges for it but it’s booted clear of his grasp. Cut to a defensive tackle, made rather high – round the attacking player’s neck, wrangling him to the ground – but quickly he recycles the ball behind him with a scrape of his boot. The attack resumes: another player makes a purposeful run, ‘handing off’ a defender as he goes. The crowd noise rises. Already you feel the pace of this game, the size and force and fierceness of the big men in the frame.

The attack gains ground in the teeth of more tackles, and the camera tracks to keep pace with play. A man goes down in the mud but, again, he heels the ball back to a teammate. Suddenly half a dozen passes are strung together. The crowd roars. Then the ball’s in the hands of the ‘loose forward’ – the team’s fastest runner, Frank Machin, who barges his way through – not so much ‘handing off’ as elbowing defenders aside – to ground the ball over the try-line for a score.

Straight away there’s a defender right up in Machin’s face – they eyeball one another and butt their barrel chests. Cut to a scrum – the camera down at eye-level of both rows before they lock heads, then up with Machin as he retrieves and passes the ball. But no sooner has he released than an opponent darts around the scrum and punches him smack in the mouth, making a bloody mess of his front teeth. This is what the late Bill MacLaren, the BBC’s beloved ‘voice of rugby’, might have called ‘a wee bit of argy-bargy’...

Except MacLaren’s game was rugby union, one of the sport’s two rival codes, divided not just by a rule book but by social class and geography. In a British context, for sure, rugby union is southern and bourgeois. But This Sporting Life is a tale of rugby league: unambiguously a game of the north and of industrial working-class men who, back at the end of the nineteenth century, simply couldn’t afford to give up their Saturday wages and play their sport at leisure, in the union manner, as ‘gentlemen amateurs.’ And so, in 1895, the northern and southern clubs formally went their separate ways.

It was the Union game that I was taught to play as a boy, at a grammar school that fancied itself as a bit fancy (such that association football was considered totally uncouth, even though we all kicked a ball around the schoolyard at lunchtime.) And I could see that Union was more ‘sophisticated’ than League in terms of rules and tactics: hence its reputation as the game of ‘kick and clap.’ But, being a bit on the wiry side as a lad, I was less keen on how Union favoured the chunkier sort of player just because of the primacy it gave to the scrummage.

In League, a scrum is hardly more than a ritual for getting the game restarted. But scrummage is really the trademark of Union: its visual signature of big mastodon-like blokes knuckling down to heave for the try-line; that sense of a ponderous stop-start battle fought in winter mud. Of course League has never lacked for ‘muck and nettles’ either. But it is faster, and more free-flowing – offers more opportunity for flourishes of individual artistry. Certainly it’s the kind of rugby I’ve always preferred.

To argue that one code is tougher or more demanding than the other would only be a pointless provocation. Let’s just say that in League as in Union, toughness as a masculine virtue is very obviously prized. Neither of them are games for retiring types or faint-hearts. And yet, by the law of averages, you will occasionally find that beneath a rugby shirt beats the heart of a poet. One such poet is David Storey, who is perhaps the boldest and most accomplished of those English writers from the 1950s who were lumped together as a movement under the label of ‘kitchen sink realism.’ This Sporting Life was Storey’s first published novel, which he duly turned into a  screenplay for Lindsay Anderson. And in common with his later work it was absolutely rooted in the life he’d actually led.

Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1933, Storey was a miner’s son and grammar school boy whose dad didn’t want him going down the pit but, rather, setting himself up in some more respectable profession. Storey was a very handy rugby player, but he had other more burning talents inside of him – painting, for one. In 1953 he signed professional forms with Leeds rugby club. But he used his signature money to pay his fees at Wakefield Art School, since his dad refused to subsidise any such bohemian ambitions.

When Storey then won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art, Leeds gave him special dispensation to attend classes in London then commute back home for matches. Thus the £6 a week earned by Storey’s sporting life also funded his higher creative calling. And yet this radical divide in his young self also put Storey in a sadly familiar predicament: that of the northern proletarian artist whose self-education and high attainment act also to alienate him from whence he has come.

As Storey has told it, his Leeds teammates regarded him frostily as “the outsider from London.” Meanwhile at the Slade School he was taken for “a bit of an oaf.” It got to be that the only time he could find solace was in those solitary London-to-Leeds train rides; and it was in this solitude that the painter began to write, and a novel emerged. Its title came to Storey in a remark he overheard on the radio: ‘This sporting life’ somebody said, ‘is gonna be the death of me…’

But his real inspiration had been a particular experience on the pitch. Though no shrinking violet, Storey had a very rational fear of getting seriously injured in a game. And once, when a loose ball fell at his feet and his instinct told him to stoop and collect it, he was sure in that same instant that to do so would earn him a kick in the face. So he held back, and one of his older teammates took the ball, and duly received that dreaded boot to the teeth. Though Storey had got away unscathed, he did have to accept a short four-lettered rebuke from his veteran teammate, and he felt guilty – that guilt turning, upon reflection, to an imaginative sympathy, one that led Storey to describe This Sporting Life not as an autobiographical work but rather more the tale of ‘the guy I caused to have his teeth kicked in.’

And this is the guy we meet in the opening reel of Lindsay Anderson’s film. Frank Machin is played by the young Richard Harris, himself a gifted rugby player in his teens before he left Limerick for drama studies in London. And the camera can’t lie: Harris looks like a player – big and burly, but athletic, his eyes intensely focused under a no-nonsense haircut. A tough guy, for sure. But it’s no accident that the movie starts with Machin losing his front teeth; for in the drama that follows he’s forced to endure any number of hard knocks.

After that assault on his mouth we see that Machin is of sufficient value to his club that he can demand to be chauffeur-driven to a private dentist, there to be fitted for a plate at ten guineas. ‘Come on’, he chides the dentist through swollen lips, ‘whatever the bloody price...’ But as the nitrous oxide gas delivers him to unconsciousness, so the film begins to bleed the past into the present: a bold editing style that mirrors Storey’s novel and lets us into Machin’s life – the path he took to sporting glory, and the thorny question of whether it was worth the effort.

The younger Machin we meet as a local lad at a Saturday dance, a hothead, wild enough to pick a fight with a player from the City rugby team. But afterward Machin badgers the team’s aged talent-spotter to get him a trial; and the scout can tell, Machin obviously has something burning inside him that demands expression.

The trial is a triumph. Machin’s ball-running skills are abundantly clear, though he’s nearly thwarted by a teammate, Gower, who obstinately won’t pass to him. So at the next available scrum, with the referee’s vision obscured, Machin smacks Gower in the mouth: proof, if it were needed, that he’s not to be messed with – though the viewer does get the sense that what goes around will come around.

What also comes over from these superb rugby sequences is the skilful eye of director Lindsay Anderson, then at the outset of a movie career marked by a preference for gritty material that belied his upper-middle-class background. But then his Cheltenham schoolmate and friend the writer Gavin Lambert remembered Anderson as always playing a very ‘efficient game of rugger.’ Anderson’s natural style was a kind of poetic social realism, and one sees this in the way that he repeatedly frames Richard Harris on the field: waist up from a low angle against a great grey Yorkshire sky – gladiatorial, mud on his shirt, exertion etched upon his face.

Having proven his worth in trial, Machin is signed up for a thousand pounds by City’s industrialist owner Mr Weaver, and he soon becomes a hero to the team’s support. Away from the pitch, though, the emotional crux of the film is really Machin’s turbulent relationship with his landlady Mrs Hammond, a woman with two children, widowed by an industrial accident at Mr Weaver’s factory. Perpetually terse and fraught, Mrs Hammond keeps her late husband’s boots by the hearth, always polished to a shine. Machin looks at those boots, and at Mrs Hammond’s handsomeness, and her obvious repression and unhappiness, and he determines that he will drag her free of the little world that’s oppressing her – one whose leash he believes he has already escaped. He cannot see that he is laying claim to ownership of her, just as Mr Weaver owns a contract on him.

Meantime, Frank’s star rises: he buys a Bentley and a cashmere coat, escorts Mrs Hammond wreathed in furs to a fancy restaurant. But his behaviour is obnoxious and embarrassing. He wants to see himself as entirely his own man, principled, heroic, protesting society’s limits, careless of material things. But this blinkered, battering kind of individualism only serves to make him enemies, even out of people he claims to love.
Lindsay Anderson saw This Sporting Life as ‘a tragedy’, and it is, in the sense that it expresses superbly the lonesome plight of a sportsman who has contrived to ruin his life everywhere other than on the field of play; and must realise, moreover, that his glory days are numbered.

As his Local Hero status recedes, Machin discovers that he’s not really so special: in the eyes of the crowd, only ‘a great ape’, a surrogate for lesser men who pay their ticket and so pay his wages, just to live vicariously by his efforts for eighty minutes or so.

Late on in the film, with Machin’s personal life unravelling, Anderson shoots one match in the manner of a battle scene, with no sound but a harsh percussive score, and images of weary, filthy bodies crashing dazedly into one another – a plangent sense of cold and exhaustion and pain – ignorant armies clashing on a darkling plain.

The final sequence is yet more painful, as Anderson frames Machin in the last of those low-angle shots from waist-up, looking older and slower and more easily hurt in the tackle. The floodlights are on in the winter dusk, the cooling towers of gasworks overshadow the pitch. And as Machin stands, bruised and battered, his breath condensing in the air, one voice from the crowd cuts through the din. ‘Come on Machin! Get a bloody move on!’ Those ‘lesser men’ have renounced their former idol. Resignedly, heavy-footedly, he jogs back into the fray. This sporting life, we understand, will be the death of him – and it’s wisdom dearly bought. But – in the hands of David Storey and Lindsay Anderson – elevated to the level of poetry.

Dear diary...

In my late teens (this would be 1988) I began to keep a diary, and this peculiar habit sustained me for several years, its upside being that I nearly always knew what I was thinking, its downside being that I nearly always knew what I was thinking... In those days one had ample time to order one’s thoughts; but then order in one’s affairs can quite quickly become oppressive.

In my late thirties (this would be 2008) I began to blog, and did so fairly diligently for a couple of years, the upside being that I was able to curate all sorts of written opinions on the issues that concern me, the downside being that these came to bear a rather strained relationship to the writing that I did for a living... Time is money, these days, I find, and one has to be mindful of succumbing to luxury.

Looking back, we can all say of ourselves - can't we? - that we have been a succession of selves rather than one integrated individual. And yet, the effort does persist to try to pull it all together... I’m going to have another go at it here.