Waldemar Januszczak and the curse of the Sistine Chapel

Waldamar Januszczak.

The finest writers on art, at least in the English language, are Peter Schjeldahl and Waldemar Januszczak. And they straddle the Atlantic like two colossal light houses, the former from somewhere in Williamsburg where he files his celestial copy for the New Yorker, the latter from his muse in Chelsea where he writes a weekly column for the Culture section of the Sunday Times.

If you haven’t seen this already, treat yourself.

Januszczak has gone on to forge an almost flawless career as a documentary film and series maker where he focuses principally on late 19th century Paris. But he’s equally adept and comfortable on the Renaissance and everything in between. All of those movements that led from there to the birth of Modernism as it burst forth from Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

He is both deeply knowledgeable and consistently illuminating on everything from Picasso – on whom he teamed up with the peerless john Richardson – Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, to the Baroque, sculpture and the birth of Impressionism, reviewed by me earlier here. But that ‘flawless’ is stained by that ‘almost’ courtesy of an albeit understandable fixation with the Sistine Chapel.

In 2011, he made his one and only dud, The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, which was recently screened again on the excellent Sky Arts. All of its parts are as engaging and enlightening as you’d have hoped and expected. All of that research into the Medici popes, the Franciscans and his meticulous reading of the bible and the scriptures was well worth the considerable effort it obviously cost him.

But none of it adds up to anything. There’s no there, there. He plainly sees some sort of connection between the Branch Davidians and that madness at Waco, Texas, and the chapel’s ceiling. But if anyone can tell me after watching it what that connection is, I’ll send you on a bar of chocolate and a can of fizzy pop.

He’s wonderful company and a glorious guide, and I am more than happy to have sat through the thing for the second time. But for the life of me, I’ve still no idea what any of it was actually about.

If you’re unfamiliar with Januszczak, then you should search out some of his articles, any of them. His criticism is absolutely bullet proof. And if you can, watch any of his documentaries. But you should probably treat The Michelangelo Code as something of a bonus track, a deleted scene. Strictly for aficionados only.

You can see the tailer for the Michelangelo Code here.

You can sign up for a subscription right, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music

I May Destroy You, the new HBO/BBC series

I May Destroy You

In the MacTaggart lecture she gave at the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival, Michaela Coel, the star of Channel 4’s sunny sitcom Chewing Gum, told a stunned audience that she’d been sexually assaulted. She’d been out on the tear trying to avoid a writing deadline, and the following morning she began getting sinister flachbacks. It’s just such a night that her dazzlingly impressive 12 part dramedy series I May Destroy You circles around.

Coel plays Arabella, a thirty something doyenne of the Twitterati who is expected to build upon the success of her surprise best seller Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial by delivering its sequel to her agent and publisher. 

And, faced with a 9am deadline she does what any respectable writer would, and heads out on the town. The following morning, as the haze of the night before begins to slowly clear, she starts to get flashbacks of being raped.

Over the rest of the series, she and her closest two friends, aspirant actress, Terry and their gay partner in crime, Kwame, slowly piece together the events of the night. 

But the ‘event’ of that night is as much the backdrop as it is the focus for the stories that the series follows. As the characters experiment with drugs and sex, work and play in search of what they assume will be revealed as their true identities in a world where identities, certainties and all manner of lines have been seen to disappear ‘neath perpetually shifting sands.

What’s so exhilarating about the series is the way in which Coel steers, and frequently veers between comedy, pathos, ironic detachment, genuine pain and back again. And often, all in the course of the same, single scene.

We flashback to Arabella’s Italian boyfriend, and the trip she and Terry make to Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome. To her childhood, and her estranged and idealised father. And to an event at school that is looked back upon in a very differnt light. And all the while, everything is slowly but surely helping to create a picture of exactly what it was that happened that night.

The writing is flawless, both structurally and dialogue-wise, it’s impeccably put together and all the performances are note perfect. Most impressively, not to say unusually of all, Coel manages to deliver on the season’s finale, which I’ll obviously not spoil by saying anything about here.

I May Destroy you is that rare thing. A series that comfortably lives up to and delivers on all of the entirely justifiable hype.

You can see the trailer to I May Destroy You 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!

Towering Gabriel Byrne can’t save BBC’s “Quirke”.

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

The must see television of the last decade or so, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, or for that matter Buffy, Friends, The Simpsons, South Park, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls and Louie – even Letterman, early Conan or The Today Show  – all have one thing in common; their writing.

On the one hand it was their ability to draw you in with precisely delineated storylines that stretched across entire series and beyond. And on the other, it was the care and craft that was invested into each and every one of their episodes.

So it’s hugely disappointing that instead of prioritising the scripts for their collaborations on Quirke, RTE and the BBC invested all their time and effort on its sets and costumes. The first of the three feature length episodes had too much plot, the second not enough. The whole thing could be summed up by that advertising slogan from a few years ago;

“we won’t make a drama out of a crisis”.

A series of incidents happened one after the other, without ever amounting to drama. Some of them Quirke managed to piece together, others he all too easily chanced upon.

The eponymous protagonist – whose name was repeated endlessly in much the same way that old school salesmen begin every single individual sentence by repeating your name at its beginning – was played by Gabriel Byrne, who was by far and away the most impressive thing about Quirke. If anything, his towering performance somewhat imbalances everybody else’s.

Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in Entourage;  happier times.

Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in Entourage; happier times.

But it was the clunkiness of the plotting and the predictable manner in which each of the scenes unfolded that really bogged the whole thing down. It looked great, but to absolutely no end.

Perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, the man they got to write it, Andrew Davies, is the BBC’s go to man for sanitized and securely safe versions of Jane Austen, And the chap ITV turned to for its replacement for Downtown Abbey, with the monumentally dull Mr Selfridge starring poor old Jeremy Piven, who deserves so much more. Next up, Davis is applying his middle brow metrics to War And Peace. Oh dear.

And the source material is just John Banville in mufti. I suppose really it was exactly the sort of thing one ought to have expected to find at half past nine on RTE1 of a Sunday eve. Not to much The Sopranos,  more the Onedin Line.

Quirke was little more than a slightly darker Downtown with a bit  more swearing and whiskey with an E.

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

Weather Forecasts, and What We Now Know in the BBC’s Superb “Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey”.

Orbit: Earth's extraordinary journeyLast autumn, Kate Humble presented a one-off programme on BBC2 called Will It Snow? The question it asked was, is it possible to make long-range weather forecasts? And the answer was an emphatic No.

Weather patterns are subject to what chaos theory dubbed the butterfly effect. A butterfly beats its wings off the coast of Tokyo and six months later there’s a hurricane in Florida.

The problem is, every time you try to make a set of predictions you need to factor in about a dozen variables. If any one of those variables behaves slightly differently than expected, then that will have a knock-on effect on half a dozen other variables.

And each of those will affect half a dozen other variables, each. Any number of which will eventually come back to radically affect many of those original variables a few weeks or months later.

Any mid to long-range predictions therefore will have been rendered completely useless. And that’s assuming there’s only a slight variation in one of the original twelve. Invariably, there are innumerable small variations across the board.

So whilst it is possible to make accurate predictions over a four or five day period, because you can allow for those slight variations, over anything more than a few weeks those small changes will come to have huge and completely unpredictable ramifications.

This topic was treated in a much more measured way when Humble teamed up with Helen Czerski for their three part series, Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey. During which, they followed our planet as it made one of its annual orbits around the Sun.

Using various exotic locations across the globe to illustrate the different phenomena they were exploring, they combined exactly the right mix of glossy, travelogue locations and fascinating, sober scientific explanations.

We learnt and were shown how the Earth’s tilt is responsible for the annual seasons, and discovered how it, the tilt, is one of three elements that determine when and why our planet experiences sporadic Ice Ages. Crucially, they kept the science accessible without in any way becoming patronizing.

For not withstanding our inability to ever be in a position to make long-range weather forecasts, for the first time in our history we can provide a scientific explanation for a huge range of the weather phenomena that govern life on this planet.

Though the Earth’s tilt has long been guessed at, it is only now that we understand definitively that it has a 41,000 year cycle, during which it moves from an angle of 24.5 degrees to 22 and back again, and that currently it’s at 23.5°. Likewise, whilst tornadoes and monsoons have long since been marveled at, today we can provide a scientific explanation as to how and why they take place. And although we’re never going to able to say exactly when and where they are going to happen, discovering what we can and can’t predict is the most valuable gift of all that science had given us.

Once again, the BBC took us on a guided tour of what we now know, and how it is that we know it. It’s an area they’ve become increasingly impressive in, and there’s a distinct sense that, as far as scientific programmes on television are concerned, we’re living in something of a golden era.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week  with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

BBC’s “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” Educates, Informs and Entertains, Brilliantly.

Monty Don's Italian GardensWatching Monty Don amble lovingly through some of Italy’s most spectacular gardens is rather like watching Bruno Ganz’s angel experiencing the rapture of finally falling in love in Wings Of Desire.

You feel that here’s a man who’s spent all his life burdened with a passion that he somehow couldn’t quite put his finger on. And the sense of joy now that he’s unearthed it is palpable. This man lives and breathes gardening. And it’s infectious. Or rather, he makes it infectious.

Like all the best ideas it seems obvious in retrospect, and it’s slightly surprising that a programme like this hasn’t already been made. But that of exploring Italy via its gardens is an inspired one. And, like most apparently simple things, he could all too easily have got it horribly wrong. Happily though, Don strikes exactly the right balance between the programme’s different elements.

Water, as is becoming increasingly obvious, is by far and away our planet’s most precious resource. So naturally it was the currency through which the Italian aristocracy expressed its wealth. What better way to do so than by extravagantly wasting it as wantonly as possible? And few things waste water quite like an Italian garden.

Episode 1 was centred around Rome, and as he walked us around the grandeur of the Villa D’Este there, Don put the opulence of the garden into the context of the history and the society that helped produce it. But he never lectures, nor do you have the sense that he’s merely showing off. Instead, he’s simply explaining how something that extraordinary came into being.

It’s not a question of him being interested in history and gardening, rather it’s his conviction that it’s not possible to be interested in one without the other. And watching him elaborate and hearing him explain, it’s impossible not to be drawn in.

Similarly, when in subsequent episodes he talks about food and the produce from the land, it’s not yet another area of interest, it’s all part and parcel of what gardening is all about. It’s all of it born of the same passion.

Crucially though, his enthusiasm is tempered by an intelligence that has the capacity to stop, stand back and calmly survey. It’s an intelligence in other words that’s been molded by experience and understands the need to always take your time before reaching any conclusions. Were he back at Cambridge, one of his more annoying classmates might proffer that his is the perfect mix of the Apollonian and Dionysian urges.

Before ever he got the gardening bug, and after a host of other things, he began work as a jobbing writer, and you can get a taste of his talents and this programme here.

If you missed it first time around it’s currently being re-shown on BBC4 on Saturdays. It’s programmes like this, and people like Don that give the BBC its august reputation. And it’s one of the reasons that it continues to be the yardstick against which all other broadcasters are measured. I hope they appreciate him.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week  with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!