Season 3 of the sumptuous “My Brilliant Friend”

The Rai/HBO adap­ta­tion of Ele­na Fer­rante’s revered quar­tet of Neapoli­tan nov­els returns for its third sea­son (it’s been out, truth­ful­ly, for a while now), and if any­thing it’s even more impres­sive than sea­sons one and two.

My Bril­liant Friend, which is both the title of the first nov­el and of the over­all series, fol­lows Lenu (as in Ele­na) and Lila as they move through child­hood into adult­hood and maturity. 

With one leav­ing the squalor and cor­rup­tion of the impov­er­ished neigh­bour­hood in Naples where they grow up to become a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist. And the oth­er stay­ing behind to stand in defi­ance against every­thing that bares down on her in those unfor­giv­ing environs. 

And through all the men, and sex, and births and betray­als and suc­cess and fail­ure, the one thing that holds firm is the depth of their fierce friend­ship, forged as it was in fire of youth.

Ferrante’s tetral­o­gy occu­pies a curi­ous space. Like the nov­els of Bret Eas­t­on Ellis and Philip Roth, they’re clear­ly and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly lit­er­ary, but they’re far too suc­cess­ful to be classed as pure­ly lit­er­ary. The clos­est com­par­i­son is prob­a­bly Tom Wolfe’s Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties

Remark­ably, the tele­vi­sion series not only does jus­tice to the orig­i­nal, if any­thing it improves on it. And it’ll be inter­est­ing to see what they do to cor­rect the fact that, between our­selves, the fourth of the nov­els isn’t quite as unput­down­able as the pre­vi­ous three, and rather drifts off.

What My Bril­liant Friend does so suc­cess­ful­ly is to use the close up of its inti­mate por­traits of two female friends and set them against the back­drop of every­thing that was hap­pen­ing in Italy. As it moves from the con­ser­vatism of the 50s, to the vibran­cy of the 60s and the agi­ta­tion of the 70s. 

What the tele­vi­sion series does, even more impres­sive­ly, is to present us with an unro­man­ti­cised pic­ture of how harsh life can be for all too ordi­nary peo­ple liv­ing on the periph­ery. But to do so by mould­ing exquis­ite­ly craft­ed images with metic­u­lous­ly com­bined sounds. The result is both vis­cer­al­ly real, and at once glo­ri­ous­ly cin­e­mat­ic and defi­ant­ly romantic. 

My Bril­liant Friend proves that not every­thing that has hap­pened in the world of film and tele­vi­sion is all bad. A cen­tu­ry ago, you would have had to go to a bespoke, art house cin­e­ma to find fare such as this. Films deter­mined to zoom in on the very local but to do so in widescreen tech­ni­colour cinemascope.

Like the Sici­ly we’re pre­sent­ed with in Tornatore’s Cin­e­ma Par­adiso, or the Provence of Claude Berri’s Jean de Flo­rette and Manon des Sources, or with De Sica’s pair of rov­ing, work­ing class lovers in Sun­flower (reviewed by me ear­li­er here).

Today, it’s not only read­i­ly avail­able on a tele­vi­sion near you, there are four sea­sons of eight episodes each. And each one is com­plete­ly and com­pelling­ly believ­able and at once tri­umphant­ly and glo­ri­ous­ly escapist.

Watch the trail­er to My Bril­liant Friend here

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Reza Aslan’s book on Jesus, that Viral and the Origins of Anti-Semitism.

Reza Aslan on Fox News.

Reza Aslan on Fox News.

The day after Reza Aslan was inter­viewed by Lau­ren Green on Fox News last July, Buz­zfeed post­ed the 10 minute clip under the head­line, Is this the Most Embar­rass­ing Inter­view Fox News has ever done? here.  So far it’s got over 4 mil­lion hits.

His book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was already a best sell­er, and there were some who sug­gest­ed that Aslan was all too will­ing to go head to head with the intel­lec­tu­al giants at Fox to fur­ther fuel those sales. And that the 35% increase in sales that fol­lowed was all part of a care­ful­ly con­trived plan.

Aslan's brilliant "Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth".

Aslan’s bril­liant “Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth”.

All of which is to miss the point. It’s a bril­liant book. The exten­sive and all-encom­pass­ing research that Aslan has done has all been dis­tilled into a won­der­ful­ly acces­si­ble, page-turn­ing nar­ra­tive. We fol­low the peo­ple of Judea decade by decade, as they pass through a series of insur­rec­tions which pro­duce a steady suc­ces­sion of Mes­si­ahs, all bent on wrest­ing the promised land from greedy Roman hands.

The sto­ry he tells gets espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing when the Chris­t­ian fac­tion of Judaism splits after Jesus’ death.

On the one hand, there was Paul who sought to open up Chris­tian­i­ty to allow gen­tiles join by insist­ing that faith was all you need­ed to be a fol­low­er of Christ. You were not in oth­er words required to fol­low Jew­ish law.

And on the oth­er there was Jesus’ broth­er James, who was head of the Jew­ish Chris­tians based around the all impor­tant Tem­ple in Jerusalem. They (con­tin­ued to) define them­selves by their strict adher­ence to the Law.

Paul’s indif­fer­ence to Jew­ish Law quick­ly devel­oped into out­right hos­til­i­ty, and even­tu­al­ly he was sum­moned to Jerusalem and forced to humil­i­at­ing­ly recant. And that would have been that.

Except that it was pre­cise­ly at this moment in time that the Romans final­ly tired of their con­stant insur­rec­tions, and the new­ly crowned emper­or Ves­pasian sent his son, the future emper­or Titus, to quash the Judeans once and for all.

The looted Menorah displayed in the Roman Forum.

The loot­ed Meno­rah dis­played in the Roman Forum.

Father and son were deter­mined to make an exam­ple of the Judeans, and under­stood all too well that the Judeans and their pecu­liar, sin­gu­lar reli­gion were one and the same. By the time their cam­paign was over in 74AD, the peo­ple and their reli­gion were in tat­ters. And sud­den­ly, Paul’s Hel­lenis­tic brand of Chris­tian­i­ty became the only Jew­ish game in town.

Hence, as the gospels came to be writ­ten over the next few decades, Mark in 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 90s and John between 100–120AD,  the blame for Christ’s death shift­ed from the Romans to the Jew­ish priests of the temple.

As under­stand­ably, Chris­tians tried to dis­tance them­selves from any sug­ges­tion of Jew­ish­ness, which could eas­i­ly be met with exe­cu­tion. And equal­ly, the peo­ple that Paul and his fol­low­ers were now try­ing to con­vert, in their very un-Jew­ish way, were of course the Romans.

So for the next few cen­turies, Jews and Chris­tians defined them­selves in terms of the Oth­er. The few Jews who had sur­vived were liv­ing in exile in Baby­lon. And they defined them­selves as those who con­tin­ued to rig­or­ous­ly obey the (Jew­ish) Law. Whilst all around them, through­out the rest of the Roman Empire, Chris­tians defined them­selves as they who did not have to obey the Law. But could wor­ship through faith alone.

So being Chris­t­ian was expressed in your anti-Jew­ish­ness. And being Jew­ish, by your anti-Christian-ness.

Over time, they each came to denounce one anoth­er with increas­ing vit­ri­ol. And that very prob­a­bly would have been that. But some­thing extra­or­di­nary happened.

In 312 Con­stan­tine con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. Incred­i­bly, with­in bare­ly a few decades, the whole of the Roman Empire had fol­lowed suit. It’s worth remem­ber­ing that when Akhen­at­en tried some­thing sim­i­lar in 14th cen­tu­ry BC Egypt, the priests there very near­ly suc­ceed­ed in eras­ing his name or any evi­dence of his exis­tence from mem­o­ry with­in a few years of his death.

Not only did the Roman Empire con­vert to Chris­tian­i­ty almost over night (the Coun­cil of Nicea took place after all in 325), but the rest of the West­ern world to the North and East of the Roman Empire also con­vert­ed. And so  the whole of Chris­ten­dom, that is the whole of the West­ern world, were prac­tic­ing a reli­gion that had begun by being defined by its anti-Jewishness.

When Islam then rose up in the East, it was all too easy for the West to lump the few Jews that there were with the new Oth­er, and to con­tin­ue vil­i­fy­ing them accordingly.

All of which, as Aslan’s book so bril­liant­ly illus­trates, begins with that split in the very ear­ly church, between the Hel­lenis­tic fol­low­ers of Christ under Paul, and the Jew­ish branch under James, in the soon to be sacked Jerusalem.

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Top 5 Reasons Not To Bother Seeing “The Great Gatsby”.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

5. Because it’s a Baz Luhrmann film. And Luhrmann doesn’t make films, he makes music videos. And they have a lan­guage all of their own.

With just three or four min­utes to get your sto­ry across, you need to paint your char­ac­ters in big bold pri­ma­ry colours and in over­sized emo­tions. And every­thing has to be in short hand and reduced to its bare min­i­mum, so that all of the sto­ry points can be under­stood, imme­di­ate­ly. No shot ever lingers for more than a sec­ond and a half before it’s ruth­less- and rest­less­ly cut, and the next is busi­ly inserted.

It’s breath­less and, occa­sion­al­ly, exhil­a­rat­ing. But hav­ing to watch 90 min­utes – or more — of all that is like being asked to read a nov­el in text speak. It gets weary­ing, very, very quickly.

4. Because, as the old Hol­ly­wood adage goes, the best books make the worst films and vice ver­sa. And Gats­by, some­what sur­pris­ing­ly, hasn’t aged a day. It’s majestic.

3. Because, and not with­stand­ing the above, the 1974 ver­sion is actu­al­ly pret­ty good. Penned by Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la, it’s a tad rev­er­en­tial and tip­toes ten­ta­tive­ly around its source. But what saves it is its cast­ing. Robert Red­ford is perfect.

Every­thing that makes him so sus­pect as a per­former ren­ders him ide­al for Fitzgerald’s neb­u­lous, opaque anti-hero. And all of the con­flict­ing emo­tions you expe­ri­ence when watch­ing him are trans­ferred on to the fig­ure of Gatsby.

Robert Redford as Gatsby

Robert Red­ford as Gatsby

Red­ford is porn per­son­i­fied. You know that it’s all show, that there’s noth­ing there, there. Beneath the sur­face, or beyond that facade. That when­ev­er any­one tries that hard to make it look nat­ur­al, all you ever notice is all of that effort. And that there’s some­thing faint­ly ridicu­lous about any­one that fix­at­ed with and hap­py about how they look.

And yet, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Which means, obvi­ous­ly, that you’re every bit as shal­low as he is.

Until even­tu­al­ly, in a vain effort to jus­ti­fy your attrac­tion, you find your­self ask­ing, what if? What if there’s noth­ing wrong with mere sur­face? What if that’s all there is?

All of which of course is exact­ly what the nov­el is about.

2. Because it’s in 3D. Which is so five min­utes ago dot com.

1. One word; Aus­tralia.

One more rea­son? Very well, here’s the trailer.

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Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Book “The Swerve” a Joy.


The Swerve

The title of  Stephen Green­blat­t’s lat­est book The Swerve, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fic­tion in 2012, is a ref­er­ence to what is arguably the sin­gle most extra­or­di­nary idea human beings have every had.

It charts the life of Pog­gio, a 15th cen­tu­ry book hunter who chanced upon the only sur­viv­ing copy of Lucretius’ just­ly famed poem De Rerum Natu­ra, or On the Nature Of Things.

Aside from being a mag­nif­i­cent poem in its own right, it is also the most com­plete descrip­tion we have of the phi­los­o­phy of Epi­cu­rus, who Lucretius was a devout fol­low­er of.

Epi­cu­rus was a 4th cen­tu­ry B.C Greek philoso­pher, who became increas­ing­ly con­vinced that we fail to live our lives to their fullest because we’re paral­ysed by our fear of death. Or more pre­cise­ly, of what hap­pens to us after. So he wrote, famously:

Where we are, death is not, Where death is, we are not.

The soul, he declared, is as mor­tal as the body. And what­ev­er Gods there are would hard­ly be both­ered one way or the oth­er with what we mere mor­tals got up to here on Earth. He’d been able to arrive at these ideas because he him­self had been a fol­low­er of the 5th cen­tu­ry Athen­ian Democritus.

Plato and Aristotle

Pla­to and Aristotle

If you cut bread up into small­er and small­er pieces, the Greeks had won­dered, what hap­pens? Can you chop it up indef­i­nite­ly, into small­er and small­er bits of bread? Or is there a basic stuff, that can be chopped up no further?

It was from this that Dem­ocri­tus for­mu­lat­ed his extra­or­di­nary idea; his atom­ic the­o­ry.

Not only is every­thing made up of atom­ic mat­ter – atom is just Greek for indi­vis­i­ble. But absolute­ly every­thing in the uni­verse is made up of the same basic atom­ic mat­ter. Trees, peo­ple, the plan­ets, sand, every­thing was and is made up of the same stuff.

By con­ven­tion hot, by con­ven­tion cold. In real­i­ty, atoms and the void.

How on Earth do you look around you and log­i­cal­ly con­clude that every­thing in the uni­verse is made up of the same, invis­i­bly small but iden­ti­cal­ly indi­vis­i­ble stuff?! Before micro­scopes or tele­scopes, and with noth­ing more than your mind and a few equal­ly curi­ous con­tem­po­raries to bounce ideas off of?

It took sci­ence over two thou­sand years to catch up with this idea. And it’s hard­ly Dem­ocri­tus’ fault if John Dal­ton then used the term “atom” in the 19th cen­tu­ry to describe the wrong stuff.

Atoms can be divid­ed. They have at their cen­tre a nucle­us, and that can be divid­ed into pro­tons and neu­trons. And they in turn can be divid­ed up into the quarks that form them. So we should have saved “atom” up and used it for what we now call “quarks”.

It’s Dem­ocri­tus’ atom­ic the­o­ry that ban­ish­es super­sti­tion from our lives by insist­ing that every­thing, even our souls, are mate­r­i­al, and made up of the same, basic stuff.

But it also does some­thing else. It describes a mech­a­nis­tic uni­verse, deter­mined by uni­ver­sal laws. And a deter­min­is­tic uni­verse does not allow for free will. This trou­bled Epi­cu­rus huge­ly. And so he came up with a slight mod­i­fi­ca­tion; the swerve.

Will In The World

Will In The World

Atoms do not come togeth­er because of the laws of grav­i­ty and motion, he said. Pre­dictably in oth­er words. They swerve. So mat­ter is pro­duced ran­dom­ly. And it’s this that allows for free will.

The Swerve is Greenblatt’s fol­low up to his mag­is­te­r­i­al book on Shake­speare Will In The World. Which is not mere­ly the best book on Shake­speare, but the only one you’ll ever need to read. And this is equal­ly good.

It describes how the Mid­dle Ages was trans­formed into the Renais­sance. And it does so by giv­ing us a win­dow on 1st cen­tu­ry B.C Rome – Lucretius was a con­tem­po­rary of Cicero and Cat­ul­lus, and was admired by Vir­gil and Ovid. And on 5th and 4th cen­tu­ry B.C. Athens. Which is of course where the renais­sance came from. And it man­ages to be effort­less­ly eru­dite and glo­ri­ous­ly read­able. Read it.

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Bob Dylan’s Triumphant Fourth Act Continues with “Tempest”.

First came the trou­bled and won­drous­ly angry young man of the 1960s. Then there was the old­er and wis­er and all too wound­ed soli­tary fig­ure of the 70s. Then, even more remark­ably, he re-emerged for a third incar­na­tion with Oh Mer­cy in 89 and then with Time Out Of Mind.

And if that weren’t enough, he burst forth for a fourth time, back on to the scene and into rel­e­vance in the 00s with an explo­sion of activity. 

Four albums (so far) with Love and Theft (01), Mod­ern Times (06), Togeth­er Through Life (09) and now Tem­pest. The extra­or­di­nar­i­ly can­did Chron­i­cles Vol­ume One (04).  Scors­ese’s doc­u­men­tary. And of course the peer­less Theme Time Radio Hours (see here for ear­li­er review).

If you want to under­stand where his lat­est album Tem­pest is com­ing from, and how he arrived at it, you need to go back to Chron­i­cles and its fourth chap­ter on “Oh Mercy”.

It had nev­er occurred to me that, by the 1980s, Dylan might have been every bit as dis­ap­point­ed with what he’d been doing with him­self for the pre­vi­ous fif­teen years or so as his legion of fans were. Nobody, it tran­spires, was quite as dis­il­lu­sioned with the path that he’d cho­sen to go down than he him­self was.

There was a miss­ing per­son inside of myself and I need­ed to find him.”

He says at the begin­ning of the chap­ter and we don’t so much as fol­low him as he recalls where he was then. Rather we’re there with him, in real time, as he bur­rows deep inside in the hope of dis­cov­er­ing the source of his turmoil.

” I felt done for, an emp­ty burned-out wreck…  I’m a ’60s trou­ba­dour, a folk-rock rel­ic, a word­smith from bygone days… in the bot­tom­less pit of cul­tur­al obliv­ion. I was what they called over the hill.”

Until all of a sud­den, out of absolute­ly nowhere, he stum­bles into a jazz joint and has one of those near-myth­i­cal, Joycean epipha­nies. And to his aston­ish­ment, where he needs to be going, musi­cal­ly, and what he needs to do to get there are glo­ri­ous­ly and crys­tal clear. And he begins the jour­ney out of his self-sculpt­ed Sty­gian gloom and back into the light.

I had a gut feel­ing that I had cre­at­ed a new genre, a style that did­n’t exist as of yet and one that would be entire­ly my own.”

It would take him years to get there, that much was clear.

I wished I was at least twen­ty years younger, wished that I had just dropped on the scene all over again.”

But for the first time in years, he was pal­pa­bly excited.

I was antic­i­pat­ing the spring, look­ing for­ward to step­ping out on the stage where I’d be entire­ly at once author, actor, prompter, stage man­ag­er, audi­ence and crit­ic com­bined. That would be different.”

In ret­ro­spect, the next cou­ple of albums, Oh Mer­cy and Time Out Of Mind were not so much the result of that new approach as they were sta­tions on the way. 

It was only with the cur­rent batch that that des­ti­na­tion had tru­ly been arrived at. And Tem­pest is the lat­est, and there­fore the best exam­ple of where that was. 

There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing inter­view he gives with Mikal Gilmore in the Sep­tem­ber issue of Rolling Stone. You can get a taster of what’s in it here.

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