‘The Double-Bass’ by Patrick Süskind

A startling monologue as a double-bass player in a government-funded German regional orchestra sits at home drinking beer and lets rip on the entrapment of the instrument that, to him, is the cornerstone of the orchestra.

Yet, as he talks, the anonymity, the loneliness, the alienation of the double bass kicks in to his ramblings – an unloved instrument where no great composers ever wrote real music for it. I’ll play you the standard work for double-bass…the concerto by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf…There. That’s it…All in all there are more than fifty concertos for double bass…have you ever heard of Johann Sperger? Or Domenico Dragonetti? Or Bottesini? Or Simandl or Kussewitzki or Hotl or Vanhal or Otto Geier or Othmar Klose? Have you heard of any of them? Those are the luminaries of the double-bass. He’s particularly put-out as he admires Sarah, a young, emerging mezzo-soprano. Whilst she can spend time with voice coaches and piano or violin accompaniments, the double-bass offers nothing. There is no sex-appeal or attraction.

Sitting alone in his sound-proofed apartment, the physical presence of the musical instrument is, to him, overpowering – always there, an intimidating dominant second character. He fantasises about winning Sarah by yelling out her name as silence falls in the auditorium at the forthcoming festival premiere of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. As the novella closes, that possibility is left open.

It’s short, it’s bittersweet. The Double-Bass started life as a one act monologue, premiering at a theatre in Munich and where the actor played the double-bass on stage. It would have undoubtedly had more impact than a single night’s reading of its 60 pages.

‘Little Fires Everywhere’

In an exclusive suburb where fines are issued should the grass grow above the regulated six inches, tensions between Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and newcomer Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) simmer from the moment they first meet. The fact that very early in the opening episode we watch the large, luxurious Richardson family home uncontrollably aflame and burn to the ground (with arson suspected) sets the scene to a very personal conflict that at its core is exploring the concept of motherhood.

A woman who plays by the rules and who has strict, colour-coded schedules for her four high-achieving kids, Elena struggles with transient lifestyler, Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother. With teenage daughter, Pearl, in tow, the pair burst the idyllic suburban bubble of Shaker Heights.

Both women have their secrets and chequered pasts. Both women find themselves reluctantly embroiled in each other’s lives primarily through their children. Pearl, moving constantly from one temporary home to the next, is enraptured by the opulent permanence of the Richardsons. Rebellious Izzy, youngest of the four, is attracted to Mia’s mystery and disregard for the rules. Both Richardson boys are attracted to Pearl.

Initially wary, eventually wholly distrustful, privilege, class and race contribute to the rapid breakdown of what, according to Elena, is a fledgling friendship. Mia, as a struggling black woman, tenant in Elena’s apartment and part-time house-manager to the Richardsons, sees it very differently. But do not expect a simple drawn line between white and black/rich and poor/adult and child/husband and wife. The strength of Little Fires Everywhere is that within the (occasionally over-the-top) melodrama of family life, there’s not always clear distinctions of who is right and who is wrong.

With its secondary plot involving a custody battle of a young Chinese mother looking to have her baby returned to her from a wealthy childless couple (close friends of the Richardsons), Little Fires Everywhere is not short on melodrama or driving home its exploration of ‘motherhood’, race and class. And, adapted from the novel by Celeste Ng, this is both its strength and weakness. When it hits the mark, Little Fires Everywhere is an engrossing drama. But it spreads itself too thinly (8 x 50-60 minute episodes) and the intensity of its subject becomes watered down and a little too pat and obvious.

Streaming on Prime – an Amazon original.

Rating: 60%


‘The Report’

As emotions rise in the US following the 9/11 attacks, the war on terror produces CIA procedures of considerable concern. As chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Dianne Feinstein (an indomitable Annette Bening – The Kids Are Alright, American Beauty) commissions staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver – Marriage Story, Star Wars) to provide a report.

Writer/director Scott Z Burns (long standing creative partner of Steven Soderberg – The Laundromat, Side Effects) presents an authentic, patient telling of the resulting probe. Years in its exploration, some of the most shocking procedures of torture, inane decisions based on hearsay and their attempted cover-ups in recent American history are revealed.

Precise, intelligent with occasional flashes of emotional indignation, The Report is a superior political thriller with Adam Driver proving once again his sublime command of the screen.

Streaming on Prime – an Amazon original.

Rating: 74%

‘Native Son’ by Richard Wright

Bigger Thomas, a sullen 20 year-old, is charged with the murder of two women. He has inadvertently killed a wealthy young heiress and disposed of the body. To cover his tracks and buy time, Thomas has written a ransom note demanding money. A few days later, afraid that she may shop him, he murders his girlfriend in cold blood.

Fear, Flight, Fate – the three parts that make up Native Son. It’s 1930s Chicago and Bigger Thomas is poor and black, living in a one-roomed, rat-infested tenement with his mother and two younger siblings. He is angry. The only work seems to be jobs serving whites: crime is preferable, even inevitable. With a criminal record, options are limited. The offer of work by the wealthy philanthropic Dalton family is something of a lifeline – but it quickly ends in tragedy.

Affiliated to the Communist Party at the time of its writing (1940), Richard Wright certainly wears his politics on his sleeve. Native Son is an unsparing reflection on poverty, disenfranchisement and hopelessness along with what it means to be black in America. But in Bigger Thomas, Wright created a man who is estranged from black and white culture, disgusted as he is by his mother’s generation dressed in the knee-pants of servility. For Wright, Thomas was a crime waiting to happen, such was the social, economic and political situation of the day. The philanthropic Dalton espoused the provision of support for the black community of Chicago, donating table-tennis tables to community centres whilst owning the rat-infested ghetto real estate. By refusing to rent to the black community outside the ghetto, his company were able to charge higher rents than other (white) working-class areas of the city. Thomas is the product of such a society: there’s no escape for him. And, just to ensure the inequities are not missed, Mary Dalton, the murdered heiress, is both a reformer and girlfriend to Jan Erlone, a fully paid-up member of the Communist Party.

Native Son does occasionally slip into didacticism, particularly in the third and final part as Boris Max, Thomas’ Jewish Communist lawyer, highlights the brutality of racism and living on the margins. And Wright is guilty of overly florid prose at times (in such passages it reminded me stylistically of D.H.Lawrence and The Rainbow in particular). James Baldwin, writing in 1948, whilst praising certain aspects, did dismiss Native Son as stereotypical protest fiction but, over time, the position of Wright’s novel has changed. A bestseller on its publication (the first for a black writer) that quickly dropped off the radar, it is now seen as one of the most important novels addressing racism and American race relations ever written.

‘The Public’

A feel-good narrative with a social conscience, The Public sees a cohort of homeless men occupy Cincinnati Public Library as unprecedented freezing weather conditions hit the city.

In his first screen outing since 2010’s The Way Back, Emilio Estevez as librarian Stuart Goodson is empathic to the cause. He himself was once a homeless addict: books proved to be his saviour. But the city and its police force, headed by Alec Baldwin (The Departed, It’s Complicated), is not sympathetic to the act of (non-violent) civil disobedience.

Estevez’s film, whilst overlong, is restrained in its telling – there is no big showdown or violent clashes, no hostage-taking or extreme demands. Micheal Kenneth Williams (12 Years a Slave, The Red Sea Diving Resort) had simply lead his peers into the library to survive the cold. As a result, The Public may lose some of its clout in terms of a social statement (the storming of the library by SWAT would be one dramatic answer): instead it focuses on the humanity of its message – and is the better for it.

Streaming on Netflix

Rating: 62%

‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’

Director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae) was a socially conscious filmmaker who focussed as much on characterisation as plot. John le Carre’s novels are noted for their close and realistic depiction of the world of espionage. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with little in the way of the sex, glamour and action of the early James Bond films that had just been released, was more a psychological narrative – the perfect material for nuanced, underplayed performances.

Appropriately shot in a stark black and white, disgraced British spy Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) defects to the east, determined to expose the Head of the Abteilung (East German secret service) as a double agent. Little goes as anticipated. Leamas has committed the cardinal sin of espionage – recently falling in love. With the unexpected appearance of the naive, caring librarian Nan Perry (Claire Bloom – Look Back in Anger, The King’s Speech) in Berlin, plans go awry and Leamas is forced to question his loyalties.

An icily-controlled Burton (he received his fourth Oscar nomination for the role), uncharacteristically subdued, is compelling as Leamas. But the film itself, for all its humanity, is a little too grim, a little too bleak. It’s no place for heroics, nor levity.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 1966.

Rating: 59%

‘The 39 Steps’

A real boys-own type of story of derring-do, John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps has received many a silver screen and small screen treatment (as well as remakes of the story). But it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version – a classic movie-thriller recipe – that is seen as the critical stand-out. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with ‘The 39 Steps’ stated screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown, Mission Impossible).

On the eve of World War I, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat – Goodbye Mr Chips, The Citadel) finds himself embroiled in murder and espionage as a British agent is murdered in his London apartment. Forced on the run, he heads for Scotland to save himself and prevent foreign agents stealing military secrets.

Very much Hitchcock’s precursor to his own North by Northwest, The 39 Steps is something of a thrilling evergreen as Hannay evades capture on the Queensferry rail bridge, across Scottish moorlands and at village election hustings. Very much a studio film, the loss of expansive open air vistas is more than made up for by the claustrophobic uncertainties of flight.

Rating: 66%

‘Of Human Bondage’

The film that shot Bette Davis to stardom – in part for her being controversially omitted from the 1935 best actress Oscar nominations – is a (now) somewhat dated adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham story.

A heartless waitress in a London cafe, Davis strings along the besotted, doe-eyed Phillip Carey (Leslie Howard – Pygmalion, Gone With the Wind). Shy, self-conscious due to his club-foot and a struggling doctor-at-study, Howard finds himself unable to break away, even when, with child, she leaves to (apparently) get married. Unable to commit to any relationship, Carey finds himself drawn back to Mildred time after time.

Director John Cromwell (Algiers, The Prisoner of Zenda) brings to the screen a painfully honest story of love and obsession shot in claustrophobic boarding rooms or foggy (studio) London streets. As a quiet obsessive, Howard is pitch perfect. Bette Davis plays the vixen perfectly (no surprise there!), but it has to be said that her Cockney accent is plain terrible! Not one of Davis’ best films – but certainly an interesting early Hollywood ‘classic’.

Nominated for 1 Oscar in 1935.

Rating: 50%

‘The Last Days of Ava Langdon’ by Mark O’Flynn

On the outskirts of the Blue Mountains settlement of Leura, eccentric Ava Langdon lives in a small run down shack with two rats for company, her manual typewriter and personal memories. As O’Flynn’s short novel opens, Ava is off to the Post Office to dispatch her latest missive to the Sydney publisher. Unorthodox in every way, including her writing, Langdon gained success with a novel a few years earlier – but has never achieved corresponding acclaim since.

The Last Days of Ava Langdon is loosely based on the life of novelist Eve Langley, writer of The Pea Pickers (1942) and who, believing Oscar Wilde to be her alter ego, changed her name by deed poll in 1954. Living alone in extremely basic conditions in a shack in the Blue Mountains, Langley died sometime in the first half of June 1974 (it was three weeks before her body was found).

Solely preoccupied with her passion for words, Langdon wakes obsessed with finding the perfect sentence, the perfect description. And here are her four fibro walls which guard her boxes of rejected manuscripts, each one four hundred pages long and typed on rose-colored paper. Each encapsulating an aspect of her life, the romance of it, the creative force of it. It’s been 20 years since the publication of The Apple Pickers but still she writes every day, convinced that aspired acclaim will follow. As she heads off to Katoomba Post Office, this singular, machete-carrying character will have a singular experience of a day, including a run-in with the local police, a collision with a ute, escape from hospital and unexpected time with her estranged son.

As to be expected from a renowned poet, the language of The Last Days of Ava Langdon is poetic, precise and, considering its subject, poignant. It’s also occasionally very funny (thankfully, the humour is with Ava and not at her expense). But it did feel at times like a literary exercise: with very little evidence of a plot as Ava wanders the streets watched by wary neighbours and tourists alike (a total eccentric, she would have been better known among locals than she comes across here), style, technique, language appears to be at the forefront. The result is that I can appreciate O’Flynn as a writer – but not as a storyteller.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, The Last Days of Ava Langdon lost out to Extinctions by Josephine Wilson.

‘Memory: the Origins of Alien’

Solemn though it may be with its low lit graininess, Memory: the Origins of Alien is an insightful exploration of creative teamwork as Ridley Scott (director), H.R.Giger (artist) and Dan O’Bannon (writer) work with crew and actors to produce a classic of the sci-fi horror genre.

Forty years after its general release, with its chest-bursting scene, Alien continues to shock. It spawned many a sequel and made Sigourney Weaver a star. This documentary explores, through talking heads, interviews and all-important film clips, Alien‘s genesis and references – from the Furies of Ancient Greece through to John Carpenter’s Dark Star via many a schlock horror film of the 1950s and 60s.

Director Alexandre O. Philippe (78/52, The People vs George Lucas), an award-winning filmmaker of films about films, confirms the status of Alien but without getting totally under its skin. It’s interesting but doesn’t quite satisfy.

Streaming on Stan.

Rating: 63%