’Conversations with Friends’, more of the same

Conversations With Friends. Yawn.

Like most sequels these days, Conversations with Friends is actually a remake. And on one level, you can hardly blame them. 

After the giddy high that The Tiger King initially produced, arriving as it did in the depths of the pandemic, we gradually realised quite how sordid the whole thing was. The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. 

So the arrival soon after of Normal People seemed to provide the world with a much needed palette cleanser. Here was something you could sit back, relax and enjoy in the knowledge that, for the next thirty minutes, your brain would be completely superfluous. 

No bile or vitriol, just polite, keen-to-be-educated and uniformly pretty youths shot against endlessly pleasing backgrounds, as they mumbled sweet nothings about nothing in particular for six glorious hours. 

The only way you could conceivably end up on the edge of your seat would be if you’d sunk so far back into it, you’d inadvertently slipped off entirely to land languidly in a pool on the floor. For many, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Normal People. Which is, like, ironic. You know, like the song.

But now that we’ve all come out of our enforced hibernation, mindless heritage television doesn’t have quite the draw that it did that lifetime ago. And now they’ve produced an exact replica. 

There’s the artistic longing and romantic yearning of youth, the trips back to the parents in the West of Ireland, and the would-be Joycean rejection of old Ireland in favour of continental cosmopolitanism. And all of it centred around the promise provided by the gateway that is the university. Specifically, Trinity College, Dublin.

What’s so baffling, about both Normal People and Conversation With Friends, is how off it all feels. Those parties and soirees with monied students and the would-be litterati, the seminars they go to and the conversations they have wherever they gather, are all clearly meant to evoke a charged bohemia where anything can happen. And out of which, who knows how many great novels and seminal poetry collections will any day now emerge.

But they don’t look, sound or feel anything like the fiercely bright and perennially competitive beacons of youth that they’re clearly supposed to be. What you get instead are what characters like that look and sound like to people who’ve never actually met anyone like that.

Or who met them so long ago, that their idea of what people like that look and sound like is so hopelessly idealised, that the result is entirely lifeless and quietly cringe-inducing.

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.

And then there’s the dialogue. Which seems to have been produced by people whose only training was in watching a series of Aaron Sorkin set-pieces with the sound turned down. They’ve never heard what snappy dialogue is supposed to sound like, so all their characters end up delivering a series of one liners devoid of depth, charm or insight. No wonder there’s absolutely no chemistry between the principals. Nobody should have to deliver lines like that. 

And let’s not even get started on the poetry, or that production of the Tennessee Williams play. 

What was so impressive about I May Destroy You (reviewed by me earlier here), and its world of brilliantly bright young things battling with having to navigate their treacherous, threatening and deeply troubled world, was that the programme makers patently came from and inhabited the world they were depicting. So every scene rings effortlessly true. Likewise Can You Ever Forgive Me?, from 2018, and before that, Wonders Boys, from 2000. All of which cover similar terrain, and revolve around a cast of would-be and actual writers.

But, bafflingly, Normal People was a rip-roaring and stratospheric success. So, quite correctly and very understandably, they’ve gone and produced an exact replica, with another six hours (six hours!!) of more of the same. And for that, I’m afraid, we’ve only ourselves to blame. 

You can see the trailer for I May Destroy You here:

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‘The Northman’, classy video, yawn

The Northman

What you think of The Northman will depend on whether you’ve heard anything about it before seeing it. Unfortunately, its director, Robert Eggers, and his PR team have done such a sterling job promoting it that the chances of you coming to it fresh are almost negligible. 

You’ll be as well versed as I was in how meticulously researched it all was, and about the many and great pains that they all went to to realise his vision. So you’ll very probably be as baffled and as quietly irritated by it as I was. 

What all that painstaking research was aimed at was, apparently, in giving us a window into what life in 9th and 10th century Viking Europe actually looked and felt like. Doing then for the Viking world what Robert Altman and Jacques Audiard did for the western, with McCabe and Mrs Millar (1971) and The Sisters Brothers (2018). Or what Bergman, Eggers’ favourite film maker did for medieval Europe, with The Virgin Spring (’60) and The Seventh Seal (’57). All of which brilliantly redraw a genre’s borders to reimagine its parameters.

Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Millar

But The Northman doesn’t look or feel anything like a film. It’s plainly part of the music video/advertising/video game landscape. All the physiques are perfectly sculpted, everyone’s hair falls just so, and all that killing and mayhem has that choreographed look and feel that we’ll all so familiar with and comfortable watching. 

We know that none of the figures we’re looking up at are actual, real people. They’re just more of those character avatars. Some of whom get decapitated, others of whom survive. None of which matters, because the stakes are necessarily almost non-existent. And the whole thing has that flattened, monochrome look that you get with video, further dulling any interest you might have had in it. 

Worst of all, you never get to hear, and therefore experience, any of the physical things that they’re supposed to be doing. Like, say, taking a bite out of something, or sitting down exhausted into a chair, or taking off a piece of clothing, because all its sounds are neutered by the constant drone of atmos.

Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.

If you’d heard nothing about it before sitting down to watch The Northman, you’d very probably consider it a perfectly pleasant way to while away a stray couple of hours. No doubt you’d have found all that cod, ye oldie, mittle-European dialogue mildly amusing, rather than risibly pretentious.

And you’d probably conclude that Eggers was the younger brother of Baz Luhrmann, determined to treat the world of comic book heroes and D&D with deadly earnestness. Unlike that older brother of his, ever ready to settle for the cheapest thrill and the easiest laugh.

But you’d never for a second imagine that either were working in anything other than the world of video. And when it comes to video, there’s no two ways about it. Eggers is a class act.

Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

I love music videos, and video games. Just not at the cinema. As a matter of fact, they’re exactly what I go to the cinema to escape.

You can see the trailer for The Northman below – and, by the way, a 2 minute trailer is exactly how the Northman should be best experienced. Just don’t ruin your memory of it by watching the actual film.

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The BBC’s ‘The Coming Storm’: QAnon and how to start a conspiracy theory

The BBC podcast The Coming Storm.

The Coming Storm, the latest podcast from the BBC, is a riveting exploration of the phenomenon that is QAnon

QAnon is in many ways the ultimate expression of the culture wars that rage today between the over-educated and anti-educated. In that it states, in a matter of fact manner, that the America they are living in is not the one described by the liberal intelligentsia, but one that is in fact run from within the depths of the deep state by a coven of paedophile cannibals. 

Incredibly, indeed incomprehensibly, some 23% of Republican voters in the US subscribe to this quote reality unquote.

How it all began. He came, he saw, he left a polite note.

Written and presented by Gabriel Gatehouse, international editor on BBC 2’s Newsnight, it is, for almost all of its 8 episodes, a genuinely sceptical enquiry. Giving equally short shrift both to its central claims, and to anyone who airily insists that only dim-witted Americans would be sufficiently cretinous to give credence to that sort of guff. 

On the contrary, as he goes on to calmly explore, people everywhere have always believed that sort of nonsense.

This particular manifestation seems to go back to that twin phenomenon of the 1990s. The ruthless ambition and corruption of the Clintons and the resentment that that generated, combined with the vast blank and unregulated canvass that the Internet suddenly presented us with.

The Coming Storm is an extensively researched, deep dive into how all of that got started, and Gatehouse is commanding, genial and measured. Except that is for a couple of brief minutes, towards the end of episode 2, when he goes off script. 

It’s then that he introduces us to Juanita Broaddrick, who alleges that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978. An accusation Clinton flatly and resolutely denies. 

Broaddrick only made the accusation during Clinton’s impeachment trial, some 20 years later. And that was after she’d previously denied it, only months earlier. 

Where it all began, the Comet ping pong pizzeria.

Nevertheless, her detailed recollection of those events is all too credible and it’s impossible not to conclude she’s telling the truth. And Gatehouse is demonstrably of the same opinion. It’s what he does next that is, to use one of Alice’s words, curious. Because he concludes the re-telling of her story with:

The media knew about her allegations but they sat on it. It was too explosive. The stakes were too high.”

No it wasn’t, no they weren’t and no they didn’t.

The mainstream media hounded Clinton during those weeks, months and years. Especially over anything that had the whiff of sex. But they decided that whatever had happened had taken place 20 years ago, and that all any of them had to go on now was her word versus his.

More to the point, by this stage the American public was bored to tears with tales of Bill’s sexual peccadillos, which were doing little more than further deepening the abyss that divided and divides the states there into red and blue ones.


What Gatehouse does in this telling is to present us with one of those classic examples of an Aristotelian syllogism that fails to function. One of those How-not-to syllogisms. All buses are green, that vehicle is green, therefore it’s a bus. 

Sent from below.

Assuming that her version of events is true, what we have here are two, independent, un-connected events. Event one, she was raped. And Event two, the mainstream media decides against giving her story the kind of extensive coverage that some might have liked. 

There’s no causally connecting because here, but Gatehouse magics one into existence. Which is exactly how you construct a conspiracy theory, before sending it out and on its merry way, into the universe and the digital aether beyond. 

You describe two, separate and unconnected events as if they were obviously linked. Indeed, as if that connection were so obvious, it’s surprising to you that anyone should call that so say connection into doubt. 

In other words, and clearly inadvertently, Gatehouse has erected the scaffolding and is using the architecture needed to construct the very phenomenon he was supposed to have been merely reporting on. 

Curiouser and curiouser. 

Still, it’s a cracking podcast. And that minor blip aside, Gatehouse is thoughtful and measured and is a wonderfully engaging host.

You can listen to it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001324r

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New albums from Circuit des Yeux and Bonobo

Circuit Des Yeux, Io

Io is the sixth album from Haley Fohr in her guise as Circuit Des Yeux. And it succeeds somehow in marrying and merging her twin terrains of grunge folk and experimental rock, and in a way that manages miraculously to evade any hint of pretentiousness. 

The result is an album that sounds like extracts from an imaginary rock opera. But instead of arousing the usual dread and embarrassment that those two words traditionally evoke, it moves and impresses in equal measure. 

Listening to Fohr’s imperial baritone channelling Diamanda Galás, scaling who knows how many octaves, as the strings reference mid 70s ELO, you imagine a David Byrne production, but at an off Broadway venue in a yet-to-be gentrified seedy side of town.

An album born in melancholia, the resulting music soars. 

Bonobo, Fragments

Fragments is the first album in five years from the LA based British DJ slash producer Si Green, who releases albums under the moniker Bonobo. And almost everyone agrees that it’s a wonder to behold and as joyous a way to usher in the new year as could possibly be wished for. 

NPR’s All Songs Considered, the Guardian, the Independent, UK and Irish, NME et al. Only those perennial scrooges at Pitchfork held out, giving it a curmudgeonly 5.4 out of 10, here.

St Germain’s Tourist

The album starts out promisingly enough, and sure enough, tracks 2, 3 and 4 do indeed seem to promise that much needed and proverbial tonic. T3, Rosewood, even hints at the kind of hoped-for ubiquity that Rose Rouge, the opening track on Saint Germain’s Tourist achieved when it was released in 2000, and which it seemed to maintain well into the following year and beyond.

But after those first few tracks, Fragments sinks into mid- and increasingly slower tempo fare. And very quickly, you quietly drift off. 

If you find yourself at a club where Green is spinning his discs, you’ll enjoy his use of those first few tracks as part of his set (and perhaps track 8…). But there’s absolutely no need to sit down and listen to the rest of the album. I’m afraid the boys from Pitchfork get that one right.

You can see the video for the opening track on Circuit Des Yeux’s Io, the Vanishing, below:

And here, if you need it, is a reminder of what St Germain’s Rose Rouge sounds like:

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‘A Very British Scandal’, fancy soap, or that’s what an author is

Bettany and Foy in A Very British Scandal.

Anyone who’s done an arts degree will at some point have found themselves cornered by a post-teen as they enthusiastically exit their class on post-structuralism, to excitedly present you with your very own copy of Foucault’s, ahem, seminal essay, What is an author

Which, if you take the trouble to read, you’ll be quietly flummoxed by, as you try to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Fortunately, we’ve all grown up and moved on from that. And similarly, you rarely hear anyone these days referring to the so-called auteur theory. Which is just as well, as it doesn’t exist – try ordering a copy for yourself. 

A Very English Scandal.

What there was was an essay by Francois Truffaut published in a 1954 edition of the Cahiers du Cinema, titled A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. There, he simply said that, given that, obviously, the author of a film is its director, the study of cinema ought to be organised around a pantheon of great directors. And that the least successful film by a great director was always more interesting than the best film from a mediocre film maker. 

Today, the general consensus is that cinema, again obviously, is a director’s medium. But that television is a writer’s medium. Which brings us to A Very British Scandal

You’d be forgiven for imagining that this were a sequel to A Very English Scandal, from 2018. As, clearly, this is exactly what the BBC and its producers want you to think. But it isn’t. 

A Very English Scandal was written by Russell T Davies, who’s one of, if not the most talented writer on these shores. He came to prominence with Queer as Folk, which he made for Channel 4 between 1999-2000, and for then re-invigorating Dr. Who for the BBC, which he did as its showrunner between 2005-10.

But it was with A Very English Scandal, for the BBC in 2018 (reviewed earlier by me here), and It’s a Sin, for Channel 4 in 2020, that Russel got to demonstrate quite how gifted a writer he is. 

It’s a Sin.

And the problem with A Very British Scandal is that Russel had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was written instead by Sarah Phelps, who spent most of her career as a senior scriptwriter on EastEnders

So if all you are looking for is the BBC’s answer to The Crown, this is the show for you. It’s plush and incredibly fancy soap, where the sumptuous budget has been spent on costumes and locations rather than on script or story. 

And in fairness, so impressive are the central performances from Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, who manage miraculously to make two extraordinarily unpleasant individuals appear almost sympathetic, that’s it’s easy to momentarily get lost in the frocks and stately homes. 

But it’s impossible not to compare the two series if you’ve seen them both. And where A Very English Scandal is fleet of foot, dripping with irony and constantly surprising, A Very British Scandal is leaden, pedestrian and entirely, indeed consistently predictable. That’s the difference a real writer makes. And that’s what an author is. 

Still, that distinction seems to have completely eluded our friends from across the water, if the reviews in The Guardian and The Independent are anything to go by. So bully for them. They got away with it. 

So if you want to escape the real world and wash it all away with beautifully packaged and incredibly expensive soap, by all means enjoy A Very British Scandal. But if instead you’re inclined to fire up those cerebral synapses, get yourself a copy of A Very English Scandal and wallow in its decadent joie de vivre.

Here’s the trailer to A Very English Scandal:

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