Tuesday, 4 August 2020

David at the Movies: "the horror ... the horror"


BBCtv just showed this extended (2 hours 53 mins) version of Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmare vision of the Vietnam War. There’s a French plantation scene I don’t remember from 1979 which seemed improbable – in a movie which makes the improbable seem horribly believable – but the stand-out moments still stand out. Robert Duvall (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) encouraging his men to surf the incoming tide during a bombardment. The Playboy centrefolds strutting their stuff on a riverside stage. Marlon Brando’s Kurtz like some primeval demonic god in his jungle temple.

There is no iota of romance or sentimentality here: the GIs load an injured toddler into a helicopter but we don’t know if the child lived or died. On the river they rescue a cute puppy from a shoot-out, only to mislay it during the next confrontation.

At the heart of this dark, dark movie (inspired by Joseph Conrad’s African novel Heart of Darkness) is Martin Sheen’s Willard. A bit like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, we see from the start that Willard is a man already damaged, probably a sociopath, but the perilous trip up the river and the confrontation with Kurtz turn him into a psychopath, as deluded and dangerous as the renegade he has been tasked with eliminating.

The Radio Times film critic named this as his favourite picture. Brilliant as it clearly is, it’s not mine (If it’s possible to have a “favourite” Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter is mine, as much thanks to its beguiling theme music as to its disturbing central storyline). Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (I even admire the operatic Part Three) is in my top ten movies, even in my top three, and I very much admire his gloriously Gothic take on the legend of Dracula. But the power and the sheer brilliance of Apocalypse Now cannot be denied. Very few movies have this intensity.

Brando’s last words – “the horror ... the horror” – haunt Willard. They haunt me.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

What I'm Reading: the ruthless Saudi Crown Prince

Daniel Silva: THE NEW GIRL

Khaled bin Mohammed, generally known by his initials, KBM, is the proactive and ruthless Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Previously famous for opening cinemas and allowing women to drive in the Kingdom, he’s now reviled because he ordered the murder and dismemberment of a Saudi dissident in the embassy in Istanbul. Reema, his 12-year-old daughter, attends an exclusive private school in Switzerland. Only a handful of people know who the New Girl's real identity, so her kidnapping should have been impossible. Because there are geopolitical ramifications, the Prince calls in the world’s most efficient spymaster to mount a rescue – Gabriel Allon, head of Israeli Intelligence.

Racing between Geneva, London, Washington and Tel Aviv, there are (literally) explosive moments in the muddy trail followed by Gabriel and his mixed team of Israeli/MI6/CIA operatives. There’s another New Girl in the story, Rebecca Manning, newly appointed to Moscow's SVR (the former KGB) but previously close to the top of MI6 - Gabriel exposed her as a "mole" in The Other Woman, the previous Silva novel. Rebecca is the illegitimate daughter of the most famous double agent of them all, Kim Philby.

This is one of Mr Silva’s more "audacious" spy thrillers. In a Foreword he makes no secret of the fact that he has drawn on a real-life Saudi prince known by his initials – and widely believed to have sanctioned a grisly murder in an embassy in Istanbul. Silva fictionalizes the British Prime Minister (more Cameron than Johnson), but he avoids naming the Presidents of the USA and Russia (as previously, he calls Russia’s head of state “the Tsar”, a term that could almost be applied to the imperious current White House ruler!).

Bold, brisk and highly believable, The New Girl showcases Daniel Silva’s exceptional grasp of global politics. Incidental details are always a pleasing part of the mix: the sedate Essex village of Frinton-on-Sea provides one of his UK locations. This is my third Gabriel Allon adventure in a little over a year. It’s the best of the three – and one of the finest in the 20-plus series.

Monday, 13 July 2020

What I'm reading: the new Fanny Hill?


I seem to be having an “erotic week”. 365 Days on Netflix, which seriously pushes the envelope on soft-core movie-making. And now Kate Zarelli’s new novel which does the same for X-rated fiction, the area most famously occupied in recent years by Fifty Shades of Gray

Ellie Murphy, a raven-haired Irish beauty teaching English in Venice, begins a torrid affair with the hunky professor whose book on Casanova she is proof-reading. A master of the sensual arts, Piero soon has her role-playing some of the legendary lothario’s amorous adventures, appropriately costumed: the chambermaid with the novice priest, the prostitute with the soldier on furlough. Piero also introduces Ellie to a gifted artist who paints her in provocative poses for a “special” client, who is allowed to watch the modelling.

Signorina Zarrelli’s steamy sex scenes are the most explicit I’ve seen in a long time. They are also elegantly written. Phrases like “her quivering moistness” reminded me of Fanny Hill, the 18th-century “grandmother” of literary pornography (I bought my copy of Fanny Hill on the Via Veneto in 1969, a stone's throw from the Vatican!). Zarrelli also brings the city of Venice richly and vividly to life – its beauty, its magic, its mystery. And its dark side: Ellie has a mysterious stalker who adds dramatic tension to the story.

This sort of book is not everybody’s taste. It’s not usually mine; I found Fifty Shades unreadable. But The Casanova Papers is in a very different league. It deserves to become a new Classsic of literary erotica.

Friday, 10 July 2020

David at the Movies: the Italian super-stallion

365 DAYS (Netflix)

Wow! The line between soft-core and hardcore is getting a heck of a lot narrower. This Polish/Italian mish-mash is a tale of obsession, although its star stud, Italian stallion Michele Morrone, looks like a model for Calvin Klein’s Obsession fragrance. He plays Massimo, a Sicilian gangster who kidnaps a Polish woman, Laura (Anna Maria Sieklucka), because she resembles the girl of his dreams. He tells her he will keep her for 365 days until she falls in love with him.

Needless to say, it takes only a few minutes of screen-time before she surrenders to his considerable charms. His career as a Godfather is hardly shown, in case it gets in the way of the ‘romance’. Sieklucka is a pretty woman, but the camera concentrates on Morrone, who is impossibly handsome. His hair, never out of place, reminded me of George Hamilton.

The plot is about as slender and incidental as it was in Joan Collins’s two forays into erotica, The Bitch and The Stud. The endless bonking is the only reason to watch this. Female (and gay) viewers will drool. Signor Morrone is the pinnacle of drool-worthy. Straight male viewers might prefer to dig out their old video of Debbie Does Dallas.

Friday, 3 July 2020

What I'm reading: Gays in High Places


It’s the winter of 1976. Tom Wildeblood, a 20-year-old rent-boy, accidentally becomes a private eye following the murder of another youngster from the Piccadilly arcade where punters find their prey. The trail rapidly leads to Gays in High Places, notably to the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. In this ‘What If’ version of real events, amateur hitmen have murdered Thorpe's toyboy Norman Scott and are now looking for our inept hero and his boyfriend.

With Tom Driberg, Harold Wilson and Marcia Falkender in its cast, Beneath the Streets is an uneven mix of the mighty and the mundane. Tom’s estranged mum and dad in Reading are about as mundane as you can get. In Downing Street, Wilson is a fading force, over-reliant on Falkender, a PA with too much power. We are reminded that people in high places frequently have feet of clay – in Jeremy Thorpe’s case, very muddy clay. And the story ends with a chilling hint of other shocking scandals that, in 1976, were still under the radar.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

What I'm reading: Funny and sad and a bit disturbing

David Sedaris: NAKED

An earlier set of recollections than the David Sedaris book I read last year, this is a memoir covering his boyhood in North Carolina and some time he spent 'on the road'. Needy and nerdy, he suffered from OCD and competed aggressively with his siblings for their parents’ attention. His mom once congratu-lated herself on having six unmarried children: “I’ve taken the money we saved on weddings and am using it to build my daughters a whorehouse.” Wish my mother had been so acerbic!

Sedaris grew up gay in a town and a time where ‘faggots’ were easy bait for bullies. He worked as a volunteer in a local mental hospital and met an equal number of weirdos and psychos hitchhiking or riding Greyhound buses. Dropping out of college, he spent a summer fruit-picking and fruit-packing. One of his co-workers was a major-league dumbass: “I’d tried to straighten him out, but there’s only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer."

David Sedaris 
Hard to believe from an early life like this that Sedaris, now in his sixties, matured into a noted broadcaster and essayist. There are pleasing echoes of Truman Capote in his fluent prose and even his life style. Naked (the title is from a chapter in which he moves into a nudist trailer camp: weirdos in the buff!) is funny and sad and a bit disturbing. Keep an ear out for the author’s occasional monologues on Radio 4 – like our 'National Treasure' Alan Bennett, he’s a joy to listen to as well as a joy to read.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

What I'm reading: Romance with Hardy echoes


It’s 1917. In Oxford-shire’s Chiltern Hills beautiful young Ellen Quainton has been brought up in the austere Primitive Methodist faith. Grieving for a fiancĂ© lost on the Western Front, she is wooed by Sam Loveridge, one of a group of gypsies helping to bring in the harvest. Sam has an ill-tempered wife who has failed to give him any children.

Ellen recklessly surrenders to seduction by the hand-some gypsy. Romany culture is as hide-bound as the “Prims” and Sam is forced to serve jail-time for another man’s crime. In prison he is brutally flogged, but then befriends a parson who teaches him to read and write. Meanwhile, in the Chilterns, an elderly widower rescues Ellen from the shame of pregnancy, but her heart has been lost to Sam, who knows he will look for her after his release.

Passion and tragedy are combined by Katie Hutton into a rich powerful saga. The author is a writer of substance: this fateful love affair brings echoes of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. The Gypsy Bride has a fine pedigree; romance readers will find it deeply absorbing. And a sequel is promised next year!