HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’

The Plot Against America.

What you think about the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America will depend on whether or not the name David Simon means anything to you.

If you’ve never heard of him, then you will very probably find the six part mini-series perfectly diverting. Roth’s novel imagines a dystopian, counterfactual past in which FDR does not win his third term in 1940, and is instead defeated by the celebrity du jour and would-be fascist Charles Lindbergh.

John Turturro and Winona Ryder are introduced to the erstwhile first lady.

Lindbergh helped set up The America First Committee to promote American isolationism and keep them out of the Second World War. Championing white supremacy and blaming the Jews for trying to involve America in a European fracas, he not only refused to condemn the Nazis, he’d travelled to Germany in 1938 where he was awarded, and proudly accepted, the Service Cross of the German Eagle from Hermann Göring.

So it’s not hard to see what drew Simon to the source material. But, disappointingly, the series fails ultimately to take flight. And it fails on two counts. 

The gang’s all there, The Wire.

First, as every schoolboy knows, the best books make the worst films. And what works so well in the novel is the way in which Roth gets inside the young Philip’s head to give us a child’s-eye view of the world he finds himself in. So that the political backdrop is precisely that, a backdrop.

The book’s one failing, without wishing to give anything away, is that rather than move towards a dramatic crescendo, plot wise, it just sort of fizzles out. 

Treme.

Necessarily, in order to visualise the book, the programme makers decided to flesh out the political sub-plots in lieu of being able to dramatise what is essentially an inner monologue. But all that does is to highlight how literary the novel is, and how impossible it was always going to be to try to adapt it for the screen.

Second, and very surprisingly, it is, dialogue-wise, incredibly clunky. Everybody says exactly that they are thinking, and characters are forever spouting exposition and telling us, in case we missed it, what to think.

One episode begins with the father asking his friend why the local police aren’t protecting the Jews from the neighbourhood vigilantes. To which he replies: 

“Not many Jews on the Newark Police Force.”

“But that shouldn’t be the point”, the father says earnestly, emphasising the word shouldn’t, in case we’d missed it’s import. And so on.

What’s so especially disappointing about this is that this is the programme maker and the team who brought us The Wire. Rarely had dialogue been less on the nose.

There isn’t space here to look in more detail at what Simon has done since then. Suffice it to say, his output subsequently has looked increasingly conservative, and The Wire is looking more and more like something of an anomaly. 

Show Me A Hero.

After The Wire and Treme, skipping delicately over Generation Kill, the conservatism of Show Me A Hero, reviewed earlier here, came across as refreshing. But The Deuce, not withstanding its subject matter, was every bit as conventional. And now this.

All of which is a shame. Because the show is actually pretty good at imagining what it must be like for members of a minority community to live their normal lives, as the country they think of as their own turns inexplicably against them.

This Plot Against America isn’t a bad show. The dialogue is no more clunky than in the vast majority of shows you’re likely to sit through. And it looks every bit as ravishing as you’d expect of a modern day period piece. But I do hope we’re not going to have to re-evaluate Simon’s output. The medium needs its heroes.

You can see the trailer for The Plot Against America here

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“When All is Ruin Once Again”; impressionistic, elusive and impressive.

The filmic essay is a very particular breed. Part of this the golden age of television that we’re all luxuriating in has been the plethora of extraordinary documentaries that the small screen now has to offer. Most conspicuously with BBC4’s Storyville strand, reviewed by me earlier here. But the filmic essay is something else entirely.

Adam Curtis, reviewed by me earlier here, is the best example currently of someone producing this very specific type of documentary. There are plenty of individuals who attack a subject and pursue a particular polemic in a consciously objective manner. But an essay is an active attempt to try to understand something. 

Adam Curtis’ very personal meditation on Afghanistan.

It’s open and questioning where more conventional documentaries are crusading and confrontational. And When All is Ruin Once Again is a confident and original addition to its ranks.

The film is set in Gort, on the border of Clare and Galway in the west of Ireland, and is framed by the opening of a section of the motorway between Gort and Crusheen, in 2010. But its completion is promptly aborted as what was then the recession took hold. And it wasn’t until 2017 that it eventually came to be completed. 

The husband and wife team of Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth moved to Gort in 2010 and made the film over the following seven years. Documenting the changes that the country, and especially the West has undergone, as we moved effectively from the 19thcentury into the 21stover a period of little more than twenty years. And few things encapsulate that change as pertinently as the transformation rendered by the construction of a motorway.

But the film refrains from lazily contrasting a noble if austere past sullied by the enforced transition to a crass, materialistic future. In which an Irish identity has been sacrificed on the altar of globalization. What you get instead is a thoughtful and gentle portrait of one generation quietly making way for the necessary arrival of the next.

For the most part, the film avoids the sort of hectoring you might have feared given the subject matter. It does take one misstep. It ends with a voice over issuing a bog standard warning of the imminent environmental catastrophe that unchecked global warming presents. Which is a shame. Because that’s exactly that kind of tedious didacticism that the rest of the film so impressively avoids. 

Apart from which, When All is Ruin Once Again is a refreshingly subtle and quietly personal portrait of a world in transition. Which is neither good nor bad. It simply is, and ever thus will it be.

You can and should see it on the RTE Player. And you can see the trailer for When All is Ruin Once Again below (though I should point out, a tad disappointingly if inevitably, it’s a pretty misleading trailer. The actual film is, happily, much less didactic than the trailer implies.)

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“Atlas Shrugged”: Who is Ayn Rand?

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

In a word, arguably the most influential American writer of the last hundred years. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Ayn Rand was at once the most reviled public intellectual by any of the actual intellectuals in America. And the only one of them to have had any genuine impact on the American psyche and the public at large.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1905, she was a childhood friend of Nabokov’s younger sister Olga. And after becoming one of the first women to graduate from a Russian university, she emigrated to the States, gravitating to Hollywood. There she found work as an extra on a Cecil B. DeMille picture, and she then spent the next decade or so working as a Hollywood hack and writing minor plays and unremarkable novels.

That all changed with the publication of her two monumentally successful novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The former was published in 1943, and although largely ignored by critics it sold millions and was quickly adapted into a Hollywood film and a Broadway play. 

With the financial security that that afforded her, she moved to New York where she was able to further develop her so say philosophy of Objectivism. This she was going to more fully explore in a non-fiction book called The Moral Basis of Individualism. But she put that to one side to work instead on a follow-up novel to The Fountainhead; Atlas Shrugged.

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged was, she explained, “a demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of self-interest”. But to her deep disappointment it was critically panned, not withstanding the fact that it was an even bigger commercial hit than The Fountainhead – between them, they’ve so far sold over 30 million copies.

But she spent the rest of her life largely ignored, producing non-fiction books that nobody read and expounding upon her philosophy of Objectivism to deaf ears. So how is that she came to be so influential?

Her impact came in two waves. In the period in which she was writing Atlas Shrugged, in the 50s, she attracted a small but fiercely loyal group of acolytes. One of whom just happened to be a certain Alan Greenspan

Author Ayn Rand, in August 1957 on Park Avenue.

Three decades later, as Reganomics swept all before it, Greenspan became Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a post he held between 1987 and 2006. And Rand’s hitherto ignored philosophy of Objectivism, with its rabid anti-communism and its purblind deification of individualism, suddenly appeared wondrously prescient.

But it was rise of big tech in the late 90s and early oughts that really saw her come into vogue. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel (PayPal), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Travis Kalanick (Uber) and, apparently, Steve Jobs were and are all fanatical and very vocal fans. And a cursory glance at Atlas Shrugged quickly reveals why. 

Rand’s would-be Great American Novel is essentially an incredibly bloated romance novel. Personally, I love romance novels, the best ones of which are all almost exactly 195 pages long. Atlas Shrugged is just 50 pages shy of War And Peace

Essentially, its world is populated by a handful of exceptional and blindingly brilliant individuals who are personally and single-handedly responsible for propping up and fuelling the economy. And whose visionary plans society, the government and the great unwashed are perpetually trying to foil. 

Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Free from conventional morality and unfettered by the shackles of organized religion, these sexually promiscuous, physically imposing latter-day Greek gods (they’re all gods, interestingly) were likewise chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his The Bonfire of the Vanities, an actual, bona fide Great American Novel. But his ‘Masters of the Universe’ were unceremoniously felled by the layers of irony he hacked them down with. 

Irony, alas, seems to have eluded  Rand entirely. Instead, what we get are reams and reams of monochrome prose consisting of occasional bursts of romance, which she’s actually pretty good at, amidst pages and pages of her tedious and puerile cod philosophy.

All of which is monumentally dull, not to say wearisome if what you are looking for is interesting, grown-up ideas and a good read. But it’s just what the doctor ordered if instead you’re a borderline sociopath with a Napoleon complex. Hence her vogue in the oh so male world of big tech.

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Ye Vagabonds, Varo, Landless and the new Irish trad bands

Ye Vagabonds.

The current wave of new Irish trad bands can be traced back to the forming of The Gloaming in 2011. Five musicians of different ages and from different musical backgrounds, The Gloaming were determined to look out and around in as many, all encompassing directions as possible. 

They looked back not just to traditional Irish music, but to classical music, both contemporary modernism and the classical canon. And out, to Irish music in America, but also to jazz and the blues, and to all manner of world music, to Africa, the Americas, Asia and beyond. And they did (and do) so with an unabashed and unapologetic seriousness. 

Paving the way, The Gloaming.

To everyone’s slight surprise, The Gloaming’s three album and various residencies proved a huge commercial success. Which has opened the door to a number of bands made up of similarly serious if somewhat younger musicians, almost all of whom are in their 20s. And each of whom is as keen to broaden and stretch the scope of ‘trad’ as those 5 stalwarts in The Gloaming.

Lankum were the next to enjoy that sort of relatively high profile success. Their second album, Between the Earth and the Sky won the RTE Folk Album of the Year in 2018, and last year’s The Livelong Day was, if anything, even more lauded.

Landless’ Bleaching Bones.

And they’re now signed to the mighty Rough Trade, who’ve set up River Lea, an imprint aimed specifically at these shores. And the latest addition to that rostrum is Ye Vagabonds.

The Carlow duo who make up Ye Vagabonds had been resident at Walshe’s in Stoneybatter, before the youknowwhat, where they were often joined by Landless. Landless’ debut album, Bleaching Bones, was recorded at Guerrilla Studios, in Dublin, which was set up by John ‘spud’ Murphy. 

And Murphy was also the producer on those Lankum albums, having previously worked with Katie Kim (reviewed by me earlier here and here), who is also on River Lea. And more recently, he worked with Varo on their debut album there. 

So to varying degrees, they all move in similar orbits but their take on trad is very much their own. Lankum for instance, are invariably compared to the Pogues. They provide a similarly punk-infused, in your face assault on the traditional ballads and songs they dive into. While Ye Vagabonds produce a much more measured, studious approach, very much in step with that of The Gloaming. 

Varo.

And all three are hugely invested in drone music, which looks on the one hand to indigenous music from all over the world. And on the other, to the avant-garde of La Monte Young and the Velvet Underground

And both Landless and Varo are, if anything, even more distinctive. Landless are four female singers who perform traditional ballads from the all around the British Isles unaccompanied by any instruments, sculpting their melodies with extraordinary four-part harmonies. While Varo are a female duo, one from France and one from Italy, who filter traditional ballads through the prism of European Baroque music.

You can, and should, listen (for free) and then download their albums from Bandcamp; Varo’s eponymous Varo here,

https://varodublin.bandcamp.com

 Ye Vagabond’s The Hare’s Lament here

https://yevagabonds.bandcamp.com

and Landless’ Bleaching Bones here

https://landless.bandcamp.com

And you can see Landless on Blue of the Night

this Varo video

and Ye Vagabonds below.

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“A Special Day”, “ Padre Padrone” and the 1977 Cannes Film Festival

Una Giornata Particolare

The Palme d’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1977 was fought out between two relatively low-key Italian films, Una Giornata Particolare and Padre Padrone. So it was up to that year’s jury head, the revered Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini, to reach a decision. His verdict proved controversial on two counts. 

Una Giornata Particolare, clumsily translated as A Special Day (though I can’t, I have to confess, think of an improvement), is set on May 6th, 1938 and is particolare for a number of reasons. It was on this day that the Führer arrived in Rome from Nazi Germany to pay an official state visit to his good friend and fellow dictator Mussolini.

The drama unfolds over a single day and takes place entirely in a now empty block of flats, as practically all the residents have flocked to pay tribute to the visiting dignitaries. The only two people left are Sophia Loren, the down-trodden, stay at home mother of six, and Marcello Mastroianni, an urbane and secretly gay radio announcer.

Loren and Mastroianni as they are more traditionally imagined.

It’s particolare for him, because this is the day that he, like so many other gay men in 30s Rome, is due to be exiled to the island of Sardinia. That being the not quite final solution employed by the perennially inept fascists that Italy laboured under. And it’s particolare for her, in that she ends up spending it almost entirely in his company.

Rather like Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, if in a somewhat less operatic manner, what’s so engaging about Ettore Scola’s film is the way he transforms what could have been a drab, kitchen sink drama and elevates it into something else entirely. Rather than undermine the drama, the presence of Italy’s two most glamorous movie stars, playing gloriously against type, lifts the film from what could have been a very grim affair. As does the way the film is shot and so carefully choreographed. The result is not at all what you’d expect given the subject matter. And is all the more moving thereafter.

Padre Padrone.

Padre Padrone, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, offers a different kind of grim. Set in what feels like another century but is in fact the remote rural mountains of Sardinia in the 1950s, it’s about the effective imprisonment of the young Gavino, who is bound by the centuries-old tradition that he serve his father on the barren family farm. And his determination to somehow escape, which he does ultimately through the portal of education.

But it too is moulded into a surprising form. It begins and ends as if it were a documentary, which, far from giving you any sense of actuality, merely serves to heighten the sense of artifice. As does the fact that, once we embark on the film proper, we are constantly privy to the inner thoughts of the different characters. Including, even, the farm animals that they come into contact with.

One of the great, iconic scenes in Italian cinema, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

That regular intrusion of those voice overs, as we eavesdrop on what they are thinking, is used by the Taviani brothers to consciously distance the viewer from what feels otherwise like an intimate portrait of real people living their actual lives. 

You can see what a film maker like Rossellini would have been drawn to in each of these two films. But it’s equally obvious how far film had moved since his hey day, even with films that were dealing with exactly the kinds of topics that he had once been drawn to.

Ultimately, it seems that the presence of two titans like Loren and Mastroianni, and those elaborately orchestrated shots of Scola’s, proved too much for him, and he campaigned vigorously for Padre Padrone, which duly took the prize. The controversy that followed was twofold.

Mastroianni and Scola teamed up again for what is one of the very few films that gets Naples.

On the one hand, the other members of the jury let it be known that they had very much not appreciated his 12-Angry-Men like determination to convert them to his choice – if indeed that waswhat actually happened. And on the other, rather more surprisingly, the Festival committee announced that they too were unhappy with the decision. Their reason though was on the grounds that Padre Padrone was in fact a made for television “film”, and Cannes was a celebration of cinema with a capital C.

They rang Rossellini up a few weeks later to smooth things over, and to invite him on to the following year’s jury. But a week after he returned to Rome, he died of a heart attack.

Truth be told, watching them both today, it’s difficult to say which of the two is the better film. They are both, in their very different ways, wonderful. But ultimately, you would have to side with the rest of the jury. There’s a classicism and balance to Una Giornata Particolare and a universality to its themes which, necessarily, isn’t there for the very particular and specifically local story that Padre Padrone tells.

You can see the trailer for A Special Day here

And the trailer to Padre Padrone here

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