Reviews 13 June 1985
Cinema, Television, Music, Theatre, Books reviewed.
What is a "thriller"? The quesstion is, I think, useful because these days a hell of a lot of movies are being marketed as thrillers that patently are not. Thus anyone wanting to see a real thriller has to take pottluck and in the process could well miss out on the precious few that do crop up.
To my mind, the term "thriller" should really be confined to movies whose main preoccupation is realisstic violence. Horror movies, for example, are not thrillers because the violence is unreaalistic. On the other hand, many movies without a shred of violence in them get laabelled "thriller" when really they are what used to be called simply "dramas". Then there are the hybrids: coomedy-thrillers, romanticlers and the like. Their main preoccupation is, however, rarely violence: the thrills are usually few and far between.
The problem is welltrated by two recent releases both of which have been marrketed - and reviewed by critics - as "thrillers" but only one of which, on the definition above, really is. That one is Blood Simple. The other is Witness which I would term a dramaathriller hybrid; very heavy on drama and very light on thrills. This is not to deniigrate "Witness", the drama is good, but to raise the point that "thriller-seekers" may be needlessly disappointed.
The main preoccupation, after all, in "Witness" is the dramatic encounter between an anachronistic, rural, reliigious community (the Amish) and a modem, urban, secular man. The man (Harrison Ford) is, of course, also a cop and his business is violence: in this case, the bring to justice, or flight from, three of his colleagues in the Philadelphia police force who are involved in a drugs racket and have already murdered their own to protect themselves.
At least the makings of a thriller here, then. But only the makings. Ford is forced to flee Philadelphia to protect his own life and that of the only person that can finger the rogue cops, an Amish kid (Lukas Haas) who, on a rare trip outside his commuunity, witnessed the murder. They flee to the Amish commmunity and from that point on, to all intents and purrposes, the thriller turns irreevocably into a drama.
The bulk of the movie concerns' itself with Ford's puzzled but sympathetic enncounter with the culture of the Amish. This has its most dramatic expression in the mutual attraction of Ford and the widowed mother of the Amish kid (played by Kelly McGillis). Some of the authoritarian and patriarchal nature of Amish society is exxposed in this relationship but other sequences, for example the impressive barn-raising episode, emphasise its sturdy, collective independence; yet others its pacifism.
These glimpses of the life of an obscure, 14,000-strong community of Protestant farrmers in Western Pennsylvania are interesting. Director Peter Weir handles it all with obbvious sympathy and a sureeness of touch. But there reemains a problem. As time goes by one begins to ask: was the whole cops and drugs scenario simply a plot device to get Harrison Ford into an Amish drama? Of course, the "action" returns in the final scene in order that the baddies get what was coming to them. It is pretty much on that kind of level though and also somewhat innconsequential. In this dramaathriller hybrid, the thriller element has, unfortunately, suffered. "Witness" is not really what it purports to be.
Disappointed "thrillerkers" need, however, look no further than "Blood Simple" for the perfect remedy. It's thriller through and through and, to my mind, one of the best since the thriller heyyday of the Forties and Fifties.
It takes its inspiration directly from the psycholoogical thriller current of the late Forties: specifically the movies "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice", from the novels of James M. Cain. These are stories of "small" people caught up in webs of murder, betrayal and deceit through their sexual lust and financial greed. There are no heroes or villains, only losers.
In "Blood Simple", the basic story is straightforward enough. The owner of a smallltime bar in rural Texas (Dan Hedaya) suspects his young wife (Frances McDormand) of having an affair with one of his employees (John Getz). He hires a small-time, sleazy private-eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to furnish proof. Having got it, he then offers him 10,000 dollars to kill them both. The private-eye accepts but then . . . things start getting very complicated. Far too compliicated for me to remember.
The trick with a good thriller is, of' course, to keep people in suspense whilst keeping it all (fairly) realisstic. This movie actually goes one better. Not only is the audience wondering what will happen next but the characcters themselves are even more in the dark. We eventually end up with a punch line which we understand and the person it's aimed at in the movie doesn't. And when you go back over it, it all sure could have happened the way you think it did. Wonderful stuff.
The story is only the bones though. Any thriller, especiallly a psychological thriller, or film noire -if you insist, must[ establish its mood of dark' menace. hi the first couple of minutes screen time we get night, lashing rain, lonely road, nervous lovers and voiceeover. Guns come a little later. All this lind colour too.
And then there are the extras. A couple of set-piece scenes, especially one invollving a premature burial, utiilise a combination of Hitchcockian suspense with schlock horror gothics that is totally new to this - go on then genre. And all in the best possible taste with macabre humour thrown in for good measure.
The people responsible for this masterpiece turn out to be - surprise, surprise - not Hollywood moguls with milllions of oil dollars in their back pockets but a couple of film buffs out of Minneaapolis, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. This is their first feaature film and they produced, directed and wrote it all themselves on 1.5 million dollars raised from the local Minneapolis petit-bourgeoisie.
"Blood Simple" has no doubt made me over-critical of a good movie like "Wittness". But if anything is to be learnt from this comparison of thrillers, it's possibly this: that if after over twenty years in the ascendancy, cop thrilllers have no other direction to go in other than as plot background for ordinary drama, then maybe its high time they made way for the return of "new-improved" psychological drama.
Television - Derot Morgan Special
If someone dangles a wage packet in front of you and says "Be tragic" you can usually muddle through. Put some characters together, give them a dream that just might come true, then kick the legs out from under them. It's a snap.
Someone dangles a wage packet in front of you and says "Be funny" and you're in trouble. You can usually fill the space, maybe use a few one-liners to retread an old formula, but it shows. And when it doesn't work it's like someone just walked into the room and caught you making faces in the mirror. Embarrassing.
It's a risky business, trying to be funny. Every now and then someone asks why R TE has such a bad record at comedy. The answer is, it's a risky business and RTE is an institution wherein risk-taking is frowned upon.
If even half the stories a bout Dermot Morgan's coomedy series are true, about how it was got at by the people in suits and edited down to last week's Dermot Morgan Special, then it's unnfair to judge Morgan or prooducer John Keogh by what we saw. But their names were on the label.
The mish-mash was an emmbarrassment. All the more so because the trailer for the programme, in which Pat Kenny did one of those macho Today Tonight jobs where you stick the microphone up the victim's left nostril and ask him isn't it true he's a louser, was so good.
There were some good bits in the special. The Wolfe Tones take-offs, mainly. But Morgan was swimming toowards us through a swamp of mediocrity, shouting his jokes too loudly. Morgan is usually funny, sometimes hilarious, sometimes flat, like most people who make a living at trying to be funny. His Saturrday morning radio show has an Eamon Dunphy who's even funnier than the real Eamon Dunphy. Last week, in the wake of the news that the Catholic church is going broke the show had a piece in which the receiver is called in, a bunch of priests stage a sit-in to fight for their jobs.
If Morgan is funny how come the TV special was so bad? There were three stages to the making of the show. The original material, the handling of the material, and the cobbling together of the special.
The original material, what we saw of it, was strained in places, but there were good ideas. The length of time between writing and broaddcasting rules out topicality , which means every piece has to stand up as a selftained scoop of humour, a much more difficult job. It can be done, but it's hard to produce it in volume.
The handling of the mateerial was dire. The songs, for instance, were filmed when they would have been more effective if videotaped in the studio with two or three cameras and an extra hour of technical rehearsal. The cuttting from one "Wolfe Tone" to another was haphazard and unsympathetic to the mateerial. The piece on pub behaaviour would have been better Without Morgan up front; maybe with him doing a Gerrit van Geldren voice-over (it was still one of the better pieces). The use of a static camera in medium long-shot for the mad rugby player was disconncerting, though there's not much you can do with a sketch like that' if you're working on film. The poor production 'quality might be the result of a lack, as much as of a misuse, of resources. Whatever, we were still shorttchanged.
The way in which the "special" was cobbled togeether was the funniest joke on the screen that night. There was a laugh-track so' ineptly chosen that every time Morgan twitched it seemed like a Croke Park-size audience howled. Running gags, which might have run well week by week were thrown in carelessly (aw, no, not the goddamn rugby player again).
Okay, the Dermot Morgan Special made Leave It To Mrs o 'Brien look like a vicarage tea party. So, put the axe away for a minute.
Morgan is a good scripttwriter, an excellent mimic' and he knows about humour. John Keogh has a good track record in radio humour and in TV production. Maybe they just blew it. They're entitled. Maybe the suits uppstairs mucked them around.
Whatever it was, somebody took the teeth out of the thing and Morgan ended up not funny but gummy. Where was his mad Garret, his pompous Charlie? .
Morgan had a go at the Wolfe Tones, it worked. Mine 's-a-pint Republicanism is a worthy target. It is also an easy one. Mocking republiicans, or even pseudolicans, makes you brownie points with the suits. It can even be, and was, funny. But if that's the extent of your risk-taking you're in trouble.
"That Crowd", on the Late Late, might work out into something if we don't watch them too closely, just let them get on with it in the autumn. The TV Gaga comeedians range from dreadful to inspired (who was that guy who did to Garret so exxcellently what Morgan failed to do?). Comedians like these and Dermot Morgan have a right to failure now and then. If R TE is ever going to connsistently produce decent coomedy it will be through people like these, who will sometimes do a pratfall and just look silly. They need resources and less interfeerence from the suits. Otherrwise we'll go on importing thick British comedians for the Derek Davis shows and occasionally hauling on the homegrown imitators of the thickies from the clubs and pubs around town. And the civil servants who produce the likes of Mrs 0 'Brien will be allowed to go on codding themselves that they're prooducing comedy.
ROCK • Wild Hearts, Duel, Low-Life and Cupid & Psyche 85
The mega-hype which surrrounded the selling of Frankie Goes To Hollywood last year ensures a cynical reception for any other acts launched by their record company, ZTT, run by manipulative ex-rock journalist Paul Morely and extravagant producer Trevor Horn. However, two of their more recent signings are just too good to be missed through distrust.
One is the great American Sixties singer of simple swelling love songs, Roy Orbison. The Big a is back and ZTT have got him, in fine voice as ever on a glowwing new single, "Wild Hearts", taken from the new Nic Roeg movie, 'Insignificance'. Ineviitably, given the company he's now keeping, the darktacled heavyweight is being packaged and sold like never before. ZTT even went to the Cannes Film Festival last month, where 'Insignificance' was in competition, to distriibute copies of the special "Cannes mix" of the song. Only the record label is different, in fact, but the music survives all the attenndant excesses.
ZTT's other 'discovery' comes from Germany, the four-person group, Propagannda, and here the hype extennded to Paul Morely marryying their lead singer, Claudia Bruecken, last Valentine's Day in a well-publicised ceremony. Propaganda are going to be the Abba of the 1980s, say ZTT, and on the evidence of their thrilling second single, "Duel", they are probably right.
This follow-up to their exxcellent first single, "Dr Maabuse", is a treat in 7", in which form it eclipsed everyything else on Top of the Pops last Thursday. But the 12" versions are, as they used to say, something else. The "bittersweet mix" is a glorious extension of the first draft, to be played over and over again and then flipped over for the majestic "cut rough mix" which builds from a whisper to a scream, climaaxing in a succession of powerrfully OTT ZTT crescendos. A classic pop song to be played very loud and very often, "Duel" whets the appetite for Propaganda's first album, which is highly unlikely to disappoint as Frankie's Pleasure Dome did.
The new New Order album, "Low-Life "(Factory Records) is the third from this eniggmatic band which rose from the ashes of Joy Division. The lyrics are as transparent and the music as striking, as the sleeve they're wrapped in. Banal might be an even more appropriate word to describe the lyrics here, although more likely, they are tonguecheek.
No matter when they're spurted out by Bernard Summner's pained, urgent voice over a heady, invigorating musical scheme. Like the single from the album, the decidedly odd "Perfect Kiss", the material takes a few plays to inveigle its way into the system but it does eventually, memorably so in the case of the opening and closing tracks, "Love Vigilantes", a soldier's story (yes, yet anoother one) which opens like "Love Me Do" in which Bernard bursts into desperate chants, repeating "I cannot bear the thought of you."
These two tracks are as close as New Order come to' emulating their magic "Blue Monday" on the album,sbut "Low-Life" is a consistently solid and satisfying record, even in its curious inclusion of the instrumental, "Elegia ", which sounds like Ennio Morrricone might have had a hand in the production. It fits in firmly with Morricone's scores for the European westerns of the 1 960s.
The lyrics on Scritti Polittti's appealing, pretentiously titled new album, 'Cupid & Psyche 85', are plain daft, unless I am completely missing some hidden subtleties. I susspect not. As the accompanyying press release from Virgin Records significantly notes:
"The group was named after the Italian for 'political wriiting', words which amused Green by their resemblance to such nonsense phrases as 'tutti frutti'."
Green, the group's vocaalist, has a seductive, instanttly identifiable voice. He makes a soft throaty sound that's rather like a benevolent verrsion of the possessed girl's voice in 'The Exorcist'. Agreeable as its tones are, however, Green's voice becomes rather repetitive when heard on nine songs back to back. It lacks the variation to sustain innterest over the course of an entire album.
Much of the material on 'Cupid & Psyche 85' is allready familiar. It includes four tracks already released as singles, the sparkling "Absoolute" and "Wood Beez", reecorded by Arif Mardin at the Power Station in New York and the two outstanding nurnnbers, along with "Hypnotise" and the current single, "The Word Girl". So you know what to expect.
Books - Black Robe
Brian Moore's novels will never make him a millionaire. Despite a writing career that has spanned thirty years and begat sixteen books he is reegarded as a "literary" rather than a "popular" author, perrhaps because of the themes he chooses to write about but more likely because of the delicate, descriptive, prose which has adorned his novels like a bee would attend a flower, with meticulous conncentration and concern with the job at hand. Moore's solicitous use of words and his colourful characterisation are a strong feature of his novels yet there has been a change over the past few years.
In 1983 'Cold Heaven' introduced his readers to a more spare, economic, writing style; prose he had flirted with, first in 1976 with 'The Doctor's Wife' and later with 'The Mangan Inheritance' (1979) and 'The Temptation of Eileen Hughes' (1981). What set 'Cold Heaven' apart from those novels and was in 'complete contrast with his early novels was the change of narrative pace to the sort of fast paced novel more commonly associated with the Frederick Forsyths and Jeffrey Archers of this world.
However, while 'Cold Heaaven' was a tautly delivered, suspenseful, adventurous noovel it lacked the topicality and strong plot that turns Forsyth's and Archer's novels into best sellers. It was also slightly flawed because Moore still hadn't perfected the style to the standard of his previous' novels.
With his latest novel 'Black Robe' all those problems have been effortlessly swept aside. Moore has mastered his new style - which he says will reemain with his future novels - and provided his readers with a strong period novel about the French Jesuits of the 17th century and their misguided, pathetic, attempts to convert the North Ameriican Indians to Christianity.
The novel is an adventure and an education; an "enterrtainment" in the truest liteerary tradition of the 20th century from modern, conntemporary, novelists (of which Moore is certainly Ireland's finest). It also continues the themes which are prevalent in most of his novels and for which he is best known, reliigion (Moore is an agnostic with a "fascination" for the subject) and belief and the human mind, a theme he has pursued in his novels with an almost fanatical obsession.
Moore's portrait of Judith Hearne iri his first novel 'The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne' (1955) and the Abbot in 'Catholics' (1972) show him to be an artist of genius when developing such characcterisations and so it is again with the Jesuit Priest in 'Black Robe', Father Paul Laforgue.
Laforgue, like most of his contemporaries, couldn't unnderstand the "Savages" cullture but the Indians had the "Blackrobes" - in modern colloquial terms - sussed. All the tribes - the Algonquin, the Iroquois and the Huron - thought the "Blackrobes" were inferior, stupid, illlmannered people who couldn't hunt, didn't like the forest and always complained about the cold. And when the Jesuits expressed their prejudices towards the Inndians ritual cannibalism the Indians countered with a logiical argument about the priests communion (which they saw as the priests own form of ritual cannibalism) and bapptism (called water sorcery by the Indians and performed on "victims" who sometimes died).
The Indians thought the "Blackro bes" were witches, not men, who differed from their fellow countrymen not in the religious order:
"What sort of men are you?
You don't come here, as other Normans do, to trade forfurs. You ask to live with us in our villages, and yet you stay apart in this house. No one may sleep here and you hide your nakedness from us. Why? If you are men why do. you not fuck women? Why do you keep a corpse in that room and eat it to give you strength? Why did you bring this sickness which was never seen before? And why do you use it to kill us, if we refuse to bow down to your god?"
Laforgue is only one of a number of characters from the period Moore so vividly describes. There is Daniel Àa young Norman who cleverly uses the Jesuits to his own needs - and there are the Indians - Mestigoit, a sorrcerer who torments Laforgue and taunts him about his peculiar priestly habits ; Annnuka, the Indian girl whose relationship with Daniel dissgusts Laforgue and her father, Chomina, who resigns himself to help the priest and pays for his decision.
'Black Robe'is not Moore's best novel, it is simply diffeerent, but it might be the novel (Moore is completing the film script this summer) which brings him to a wider audience and ultimately to the recognition many lesser novelists have enjoyed simply because their work is more popular.
The sculptor James McKenna also has a reputation as a playwright ("The Scatterin' ") and poet and, in the early 1970s established the mask theatre group "Rising Ground". His exhibition at the Taylor Gallery, "Works in Retrospect, 1964-1985", displays a characteristically single-minded determination. In his work as a sculptor, he has consistently employed traditional methods and mateerials to make art that is uniiversally accessible. Carving, modelling, casting in wood, stone, clay, bronze, he has adhered to a distinctive style of simplified naturalism. He has adhered to it so stringenttly that the issue of accessiibility must, one feels, be vital to him.
There is not an enormous quantity of work in this selective retrospective, even given that neither of the two great wooden horses are there, or, obviously, the major commmissioned piece at Thomond College in Limerick, "Resurrgence" (a formidable but surrprisingly stilted compendium piece). But McKenna invests each individual work with such gravity and substance that one is aware of the painsstaking process of its making, as if each one were carved out of time itself.
The human figures, which, with the celebrated horses, are McKenna's virtually exxclusive subjects, are invariably rendered as weighty, monuumental presences. The horses, for example, are massive beasts, great lumber torsoes sitting on staunch legs. But all that mass balanced on four lean supports suggests preecariousness. They are, as well, ingeniously segmented; commposite structures locked to-' : gether by dowels and gravity.
Any idea that they are creaatures of speed and agility seems remote. Sturdy dray horses, perhaps. What is emmphasised is their solidity, their rugged beauty and dignity: qualities that perhaps best symbolise the human aspiraations they carry.
The humans are similarly static, planted in the earth with no hint of Rodinesque fluidity. Even "Woman in the Fields", stooped over, workking, is rounded and expanded into serene, monumental stilllness. The individuals are allways ordinary people, unnglamourised. But their innate grace, beauty and dignity come through. They have something of the mixture of earthiness and classicism found in Aristide Maillol's nudes or, to choose a conntemporary example, Elizabeth Frink's men and horses. Her debt to Marini is obvious. Add Giacometti, with his images of fragile individuals clutching to their identity and their tenuous position in space, and you have a reasonnably balanced set of influennces on McKenna's work. But they are influences, not exxplanations or alternatives.
The gravity of his figures, their density and poise, his painstaking insistence on their role and validity in the world, inevitably suggests the optiimistic assertion of humanist values. His people do not lack social and cultural idenntity. Their Irishness is reepeatedly emphasised, while many pieces celebrate family unions - mother and father, parent and child. There is often a note of lyricism, as in the graceful "Aisling, Scarrriff", a cruciform nude carved in pitch-pine and red deal, its chiselled contours' stained with brightpigment.
McKenna seems slightly uneasy about the question of finish, as if he is unwilling to conform to accepted nootions. This is particularly eviident in the wood sculptures, where joins denote improovised extensions and dark, pulpy wood filler covers surrface gaps. The resultant roughhhewn look can be disconcerrting, but it does accord well with McKenna's disdain for eliti~t values. It is to his credit that while the storms of modernist fashion have raged about him he has, consistently, modestly, tennded his own garden and quietly made his point.