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

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal”

A Very English Scandal.

There’s a wonderfully seductive and darkly comic drama available on the BBC and RTE at the moment which delves into sexual mores and politics in a refreshingly mature manner. A Very English Scandal is a dramatization of the non-fiction book of the same name by John Preston, charting the Jeremy Thorpe affair of the 1970s. 

Very much of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up variety, and, without giving anything away, it’s the story of the leader of the Liberal Party in Britain at a time when there was a real possibility that they might have ended up in government there. 

Inconveniently though, one of his former male, ahem, friends refuses to leave him in peace, and so he decides to take definitive and decidedly drastic action.

Ben Whishaw, left, as Norman Scott, right.

I have to confess, the idea of watching a drama revolving around a forgotten leader of a defunct British political party from the 1970s, and starring Hugh Grant, was about as appealing as, well, watching a drama about a forgotten British politician from the 1970s. And I gave it a wide berth first time around. So I’m really pleased to have caught it this time round as it is, as one of its characters might have put it, an absolute hoot.

There are all sorts of reasons as to why it all works so well. For starters, and very surprisingly, Grant gives a career-defining performance as the brilliant, driven if flawed Thorpe. Then there’s the tone it strikes. Pretty much everyone involved seems to have been some class of an eccentric. But instead of playing this for laughs, showrunner Russell T. Davies and director Stephen Frears play it largely straight. Which, of course, makes it all the more comedic.

Then there are the various subplots which complicate the central plot, broaden the story’s horizons and add layers of enveloping irony. Thorpe’s search for a wife, and then for her replacement. His support, as a staunch Liberal, for the bill to have homosexuality decriminalised. And his rise through the Liberal Party and up the greasy pole of British politics, and the politics of party politics that that creates.

Normal People, lovely view.

The contrast with Normal People couldn’t be starker. The latter takes a two hander, bereft of subplots, and tries forlornly to stretch it out over a never-ending six hours. So it’s forced to paper over the dearth of plot with an over-reliance on familiar and exotic locations.

A Very English Scandal also makes wonderful use of its locations, but they are never anything more than the backdrop to a wonderfully dynamic story that’s constantly building in momentum. And the fact that its events are both true and accurately recounted only makes the series all the more remarkable.

You can see the trailer for A Very English Scandal here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

“American Epic” watch, listen and marvel

American Epic

American Epic is an extraordinary window on to the roots from which American music sprang. And it provides therefore the key to understanding all subsequent genres that popular music went on to spawn throughout the course of the 20thcentury. Essentially, it’s in two parts.

The first, American Epic, is the three part documentary series produced by BBC4’s Arena, and the 5 cd box set that that produced. The second is The American Epic Sessions, which is a documentary feature (effectively episode 4 of the series), and the two cd box set that that generated.

Jack White and The American Epic Sessions.

The whole project revolves around the technological revolutions that were going on in sound at the beginning of the 20thcentury, and the cultural waves that those ripples produced. For the first couple of decades, the music industry had been an exclusively middle class enterprise. Phonograph recordings were manufactured so that opera arias, classical music and Broadway show tunes could be played in well to do homes.

But the invention of radio in the 1920s seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to that nascent industry. Anybody with electricity could listen to any amount of music, all day long. So, in desperation, the recording industry sent scouts out into rural America to record the sorts of music that people without electricity – and therefore a radio – would be interested in listening to on their hand-cranked phonographs. 

Charley Patton.

They then went back to headquarters with these stacks of discoveries to fuel the most powerful medium of the day, radio, with the same thing that all media are always in search of; content.

What this did, crucially, was to connect the urban radio listeners and the industry that served them, with an entire country of rural communities that had, up until then, existed in effective isolation. 

In many ways, it was the field recordings that came out of the 1920s that moulded and created a United States of America. And it was these recordings that laid the foundation for what would become the blues, country, bluegrass, soul, RnB, gospel, rock n roll, hip hop and each and every conceivable kind of pop.

The second part, The American Epic Sessions, focuses on the technology that made all of this possible. In 1925, Western Electric made a portable recording apparatus that could be powered by battery. Scouts were quickly sent out to scour the country to record anyone who had a song to sing and wanted to have it memorialised on wax. 

Lead Belly.

Overnight, a host of nationwide stars were born. The Carter family, the Memphis Jug Band (because they used jugs in place of the instruments they couldn’t afford), Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson to name but a paltry few.

Depressingly, the US government melted down the vast majority of these 78s in the course of their second WW effort. The shellac that records were made from before the advent of vinyl was needed for the production of camouflage paint. So by the time the folk revival kicked in in the 60s with its celebration of all things Americana, incredibly few 78s were left in existence. And none of Western Electric’s recording pieces had been preserved for posterity.

The Cater sisters.

Until now. Because over the last couple of decades, sound engineer Nick Bergh has managed to get his hands on the individual bits and pieces that the apparatus was made of, to painstakingly reconstruct a single, functioning recording piece. 

And he and programme maker Bernard McMahon decided that the best way to re-master all the original recordings that go to make up American Epic, was to invite current performers to record a song on wax, using the original, recreated Western Electric recording apparatus. That way, they would all gain an unrivalled understanding of exactly how it had functioned. 

So Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos and Ashley Monroe got together with producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record an album, which they documented on film. 

Monroe by the way penned one of my favourite lyrics, with her autobiographical Like A Rose, which she wrote with none other than Guy Clark.Ran off with whatshisname when I turned eighteen…” which is quite simply the perfect kiss-off.

Rhiannon Giddens.

Documentary wise, the 3 episode American Epic is the one to watch. The Sessions is basically an added bonus. Conversely, musically speaking, unless you’re an aficionado, you should go for the 2 disc American Epic Sessions, rather than the 5 disc American Epic box set. As the former is that bit more expansive, made up as it is of original as well as traditional songs. Obviously though, if you can, watch and get both.

Taken together, the whole enterprise is nothing short of monumental.

Watch Los Lobos here

And Alabama Shakes here

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

HBO’s Our Boys

Our Boys is the sort of thing many people will feel they ought to try and see, rather than something that they actually want to watch. Well, I’m happy to report, though perfectly understandable given its subject matter, that reticence is entirely unwarranted.

Co-created by the Israeli showrunner Hagai Levi, who’d previously made In Treatment, and the Palestinian writer, Tawfik Abu-Wael, Our Boys was picked up and shown on HBO, and was met by almost universal acclaim.

Predictably, hardliners on either side of the Israeli Arab divide were equally furious, offended and outraged. Which, needless to say, strongly suggests the show hits absolutely the right note.

The story that the drama depicts takes place at a very specific moment in time. Three Jewish boys have been kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians, but Our Boys begins in the immediate aftermath of that horrific event. 

In other words, it doesn’t focus on the deaths of the three Israelis, but on the kidnapping, killing and burning of the Palestinian boy that a trio of fanatical Israelis take their revenge on.

Our Boys.

What’s so gripping and endlessly fascinating about the show is the way it delineates each of the layers that sub-divide both sets of communities. Giving each and every faction its own weight, and its characters a chance to explain themselves from their points of view.

Despite focusing on two very narrow tracts of land on either side of what is effectively the current boarder, each community is endlessly split within its own walls. So there is the divide amongst the “settlers”, between the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim. 

And then between the more, and the less pious, in both of those groups. And, amongst that former group, between those who are more peaceably inclined, and those who feel that enough is enough, and an eye demands an eye, as the bible clearly states.

Gabriel Byrne in HBO’s remake of In Treatment.

Likewise, amongst the Palestinians, the boy’s father wants to press the Israeli police for justice and attend the court proceedings that follow, once the perpetrators have been apprehended. But all that does, he is angrily told, is to acknowledge the Israeli’s right to jurisdiction over them, and to absolve them of the continued and perpetual mistreatment that the Palestinian people are forever the subject of at their hands.

What’s so depressing, and of course so familiar for anyone who’s ever spent any time north of Dundalk, is that, despite all these subtle and nuanced distinctions, absolutely every discussion, conversation, argument and fight ends up being about one thing. Either you’re with us, or you’re with them. Which is as true for the Israelis as it is for the Palestinians.

Ultimately, the show triumphs by refusing not merely to take sides, but to in any way judge. The result is a series that is continually illuminating and endlessly gripping.

You can see the trailer to HBO’s Our Boys here. And you can read the slightly longer appraisal in Harretz, the admittedly liberal (in the context of Israeli politics) journal here

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

HBO’s triumphant Watchmen: cinema V television

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen.

First things first; Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is something to behold. It’s Back to the Future directed by Lars von Trier on a particularly good day, and scripted by Dennis Potter. Except it’s been fused in a parallel universe on the other side of the looking glass, so that race and gender have been reversed.

We’ll come to that in a bit. But to begin with, how has this succeeded where so many others have failed?

Scosese’s Raging Bull.

As has been well documented, two fundamental changes have taken place across the media landscape over the last couple of decades. On the one hand, we’re in the midst of a proverbial golden age of television. And on the other, the world of cinema has become completely polarised. 

Superficially speaking, that polarisation has always been there. 20thcentury cinema was made up of Hollywood films, and independent films. But those two canvases produced a wide variety of different kinds of films. Hollywood could mean Double Indemnity, The Godfather or Raging Bull. Independent could give you The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Amélie, Babette’s Feast or Prospero’s Books.

Amelie.

It’s impossible to imagine any of those being made today with the aim of screening them primarily at the cinema. Because there are only two kinds of films that you’ll find in the cinema today; franchise products, and really low budget, genuinely independent fare.

That’s what Scorsese was complaining about in those series of interviews that he gave towards the end of the year just gone, and which culminated with that op ed piece in the New York Times, here.

He can’t connect, he says, with any of those superhero movies, because there’s nothing at stake. How could there be? They’re superheroes. And none of the people making those movies have the room to take any kind of risks. Because there’s just too much money involved in the franchises they fuel. Which is why, if you’re an adult hungry to explore grown up themes and ideas, it’s to television that you today turn to. And not, alas, cinema.

So what would be the biggest risk when exploring the comic book landscape?

The Wachowskis V for Vendetta.

Ignoring the super of your heroes and viewing them instead as grown ups dressed in masks. If they don’t have their superpowers, then there’s no need for all that green screen nonsense. And when you don’t have that to fall back on, you’re forced to explore instead the relationships between your various characters, and how they fit in in the world in which they find themselves. What would drive an articulate, intelligent person to put on a mask and fight crime?

That was why V for Vendetta worked so powerfully, and it’s why Lindelof’s Watchmen is such a triumph. The DC universe of masked crime fighters allows him, and the Wachowski siblings before him, to explore individuals whose time is out of joint and who feel cursed to set it right. Not because they’ve been arbitrarily gifted with some nebulous super power. But because they can do no other.

And what, if you are a 21stcentury American, are the two most pressing personal and societal issues? Race and gender. So here we are in Watchmen, presented with a cast (and crew) who are predominantly black, and female. And older.

Lindelof’s The Leftovers.

Interestingly, both V and Watchmen originated with the perennially grumpy Alan Moore, who, predictably, has disowned them both. I tried reading (is that what one does with a graphic novel?) his Watchmen, and I have to confess it sailed serenely over my head. I just found it flat, and static, and all too black and white.

Lindelof’s Watchmen is so much more dynamic. And relevant. 

You can see the trailer for Watchmen here.

And if you haven’t already, you should watch Lindelof’s The Leftovers, which I reviewed earlier, here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.