Monday, 7 March 2022

“When I say infinity, I mean NOW": Adrianne Lenker and Bob Dylan

Big Thief at Bristol Academy, 27/02/22
Big Thief at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 02/03/22-05/03/22
Adrianne Lenker at EartH, 06/03/22


“The new album by @BigThiefMusic is a revelation,” tweeted Dwight from The Office this weekend. “Can I have permission to compare Adrianne Lenker to Bob Dylan?” Permission granted: the parallels are inescapable – and thickening.

When I followed Big Thief on tour in 2020 (not that I like to go on about it), I wrote:
I leave muttering something about Lenker being the only New Dylan since Dylan. You know in ‘Love Minus Zero’ when he sings, “My love, she speaks like silence”, or ‘Visions of Johanna – “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face” – well no-one writes like that. But Lenker does. Not like Dylan, exactly –because what’s special about that? – but prolifically singular, with his perfect abstract specificity. “Your eyes were like machinery,” she sings in ‘Mary’. “Your hands were making artefacts in the corner of my mind.”
Perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of seeing either artist live, though, is that their songs are never finished: they’re in a constant state of flux, developed organically through being played to an audience. How a song sounds on record is just how it happened to sound at the point it was recorded. Or in the words of Dylan at the Free Trade Hall, “It used to go like that, and now it goes like this…” Take the title track of Big Thief’s latest, for example. Lenker introduced it in a whispered, half-written version at an Islington church in 2019. Last month it debuted on record: a wispy rendering so delicate that you feel if you breathed on it, it might blow away. By the time the band takes to the stage at Bristol, it has become a chugging, unremitting post-punk song, with a jagged, slashing guitar riff.

Or listen to ‘Not’, included among Obama’s songs of 2019, and essentially the band’s anthem nowadays. Reviewing the following year’s tour, I called it “an explosion of cathartic anguish … a list song that exalts through endless negation”, but there was release there: a rush of respite in Lenker’s breakaway guitar solo. This tour, there is no release. The support band back then was ITHACA, a London thrash metal group, and a sign that Lenker’s interest in getting heavier was getting heavy. ‘Not’ ends now in an unforgiving squall that’s directed entirely inwards. The flurry of squealing, arrhythmic high notes whistling from Lenker’s guitar feel like clues to an emotion, not the emotion itself. In Bristol, the song becomes a 15-minute freakout. On the second London night, Lenker towers above the crowd during the solo, her face tortured beneath the lights, purging something. The next evening her dress starts coming down during the guitar break, like a stress dream for the ages. She doesn’t quite cut her losses, but let’s say that she doesn’t extend the communication with her muse.

I love this picture because you can hear it.

Another interesting comparison with Dylan is how Lenker’s persona appears to be ageing in reverse. Dylan wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at 21, junked his political ideals in favour of creative ones with ‘My Back Pages’ at 23, and by 27 was writing throwaway country ditties. “Oh me oh my,” he sang that year. “Love that country pie.” By comparison, Lenker was a late starter: she didn’t put out ‘Indiana’, ‘I Still Hear You’ and ‘Steamboat’ until she was 22. But the three records (!) she released in 2014 feel like the crystallisation of late style: simple, pared-down, timeless. They are an old man’s songs. Perhaps her life has been back to front in a way: she married young, then caught up on her ‘freedom’ later.

Five years after that flurry of standards, Lenker would introduce a strange new tune called ‘Spud Infinity’, which mixes abstract cosmic imagery with twee nonsense poetry and sounds like what people who don’t like Big Thief think Big Thief sound like. Over time it has become a clarion call (and a merchandising opportunity: there is a long-sleeved ‘Spud Infinity’ t-shirt; I’m wearing it right now), and morphed from an ethereal poem into a wobbleboard-inflected album track and then a sing-along anthem. Appending an intro and outro centred around the words ‘lah-di-dah’, like an alt-folk Annie Hall, Lenker now takes a transparent on-stage delight in the song’s passages of trivial incoherence, as if Dylan had spliced bits of ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ into ‘Chimes of Freedom’.

That love of language for language’s sake is another parallel, surprisingly rare among songwriters. Think of the DA Pennebaker footage of Dylan in England in 1966, where he’s outside that cornershop, repeatedly re-arranging the words in his mouth, taking simple joy in the possibilities of a sentence. I was reminded of that before Lenker’s solo show at EartH last night, when she performed her customary, gentle duty of asking people who want to talk during the support act to do so outside. “If any of you have any social obligations that need to be… expressed verbally,” she said, “please do them in the… outer realm.” Aside from the humility, it felt like pure Dylan, right down to the mid-sentence giggle. But more importantly, it was pure Lenker: the perfect choice of words, inevitably straddling the mundane and the eternal. The similarities run deeper, though: it isn't just the elegant synonymising that draws these two artists together, it's the very sound of their syllables. Both his "majestic belts of bolts" and her "meteor show at the motel" are as much in love with the tongue as with the picture.

And yet sometimes words aren't enough. In 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands', after close to 10 minutes of cryptic love verse, rock music's most important poet simply gives up on the idea that his lyrics could ever do justice to Sara Lowndes' spiritual and aesthetic beauty, and finally picks up his harp. It's among the most moving moments in the Dylan canon, and finds an echo in Lenker's guitar solos: with words, she builds a dam; with sound, she sweeps it away. Her 2020 colllection of improvised instrumentals hinted at an artist growing tired of chatter, and in the title track of her accompanying 'songs' (which, paradoxically, also provided the name of the new Big Thief record), she made the feeling overt: time to trade the metaphysical for the purely physical. "I don't wanna talk about anything," she sings. "I wanna kiss, kiss your eyes again/Wanna witness your eyes looking."

Perhaps the most prosaic point of comparison between the pair is how prolific they are. Dylan released the five albums spanning The Freewheelin’… to Highway 61 in just over two years, writing dozens of other masterpieces that have since turned up in the Bootleg series. Lenker put out two Big Thief albums in 2019, and two solo records (one comprising instrumental improvisations) in 2020, before penning a 20-song double-album released last month. My friend Jeff called it “her Blonde on Blonde”, and that’s spot on: it’s sprawling, unfocused, with whiplash turns of tone; incoherent, perhaps, but with incredible high points. During the first show that I saw on the official Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You tour, two weeks after the record’s release, she performed three newer songs before playing anything from the album, including two absolute all-timers: a rambling, Neil Young-ish number about a river (‘Forgiver’) complete with shredding solos, and a quiet one, ‘Wait a While’, written mostly on the ferry across from the Dublin gig.

Introducing it, she said it was to comfort the heartbroken, and it seems that she has had her own heart broken. If these shows have seen her between-songs chatter become more natural – spotlighting a sense of comic timing that was always present in her lyrics but previously buried beneath sheer awkwardness – they have also suggested that she is Working Through Some Shit. The climax of ‘Flower of Blood’ sees her assaulting the bridge of her guitar, bending it to within a point of snapping as the track ascends into pure metal; ‘Not’ is purpled with rage, ‘Shoulders’ flecked with spit. It can’t just be down to entering the world of ITHACA, though one wonders how the ambient support act KMRU might influence Big Thief’s next moves: the Bristol show is dominated by strange and extended atonal intros. The next night it’s mostly the new album, then the one after that is as close to a greatest hits show as this band ever gets.

The recent country music influence is largely (and somewhat thankfully) absent. Dylan’s dalliances with the genre have usually been tinged with embarrassment, especially at first: the acknowledgement, perhaps, that this is a small Minnesotan boy playing dress-up. And that’s how Big Thief have tentatively approached country too. If there’s a cringier moment in their career so far than Adrianne’s cry of “That’s my grandma!” during the new album’s square dance number, ‘Red Moon’, then it must have escaped me. I really struggle to understand the point of pastiche in music: it feels like a dollop of self-satisfaction where the heart should be. The band’s other country tune, ‘Blue Lightning’ – a cousin of Evan Dando’s impeccable ‘Being Around’ – is also hampered by its affectations, though Lenker’s preference for playing the song as a lolloping, languid chronicle of offbeat admiration (rather than the country bop favoured by co-conspirator Buck Meek) helps a little.

On the second London night, when the band trips over ‘Little Things’, a song they’ve been struggling to render live, they ‘reset’ by watching Meek play a new number of his own, Lenker sitting down on the stage, bassist Max Oleachik lying on his back. It flows into the one of the most euphoric passages that I’ve ever witnessed at a gig: five full-band numbers of shimmering intensity – a rhapsodic, mounting ‘Mary’, ‘Black Diamonds’ reinvented in the Bunker Studio style – and, tossed in alongside, the sweet humanist sentiment of ‘Forgotten Eyes’ (the key refrain: “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection”). If the band’s essential duality – its capacity for quietness or ferocity – is another mid-‘60s Dylan trait (those being the two halves of his ’66 tour), it’s the spirit of the former, of the hiatus, that dominates Lenker’s heartstopping one-night-only show at EartH on Sunday night.

The first evening at Shepherd’s Bush, she makes her only concession to rock star ladder-climbing I’ve seen so far: playing the game for the three-songs-and-out photographers, striking a few poses, gently accentuating the facial mannerisms. There’s none of that at EartH, nor the breath-caught stillness of her full band solo spots. This is like she’s just picked up a guitar in a mutual mate’s flat and begun to cycle through new songs, cast-iron masterpieces (‘Indiana’, ‘cradle’) and deep cuts (‘Kerina’, an update of Dylan's 'Corrina, Corrina'), covering for flubs with self-deprecating quips, a genius in your front room.

She seems different there. But then she always does. Dylan once said, “I wake up in the morning and I'm one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I'm somebody else.” I’m certain that Lenker could relate. Her most popular song, ‘Paul’, is an ode to one of her alter-egos (“The last time I saw Paul, I was horrible and almost let him in,” she confides), and, most trivially, she always looks different. Last time she was rocking a Henry V pudding basin and then a long bob. This time she turns up shaven-headed, with a scar cut into one side. Across several nights, she’ll dye her hair blonde, and wear variously a vintage wedding dress, a Scarface t-shirt, a sweater that’s more holes than sweater, some sort of ornately-patterned kimono, and a see-through top (a bold choice, since there’s always the danger you’ll be upstaged by your own boobs). An enduringly enjoyable aspect of the Big Thief experience, too, is that the four members each look like they’re in different bands. Brian Epstein would shit.

Musically, though, they’re perfectly simpatico, their irregularities allowing them to effortlessly tessellate. For the most part, Meek plays a supporting role, sprinkling sounds into the mix, occasionally breaking out into an anti-solo dominated by the notes implied but not played. His cult status, or perhaps just the satisfying nature of his eight-letter Southern name, is defined by the fact that for every 10 fans shouting, “I love you, Adrianne,” there is one – always male – just yelling, “BUCK MEEK!” No pleasantries, just “BUCK MEEK!” That’s how you know you’re at a good show.

After playing a tormented new number, ‘Happy with You’ – halfway between an accusatory mantra and a Cranberries song, an impression not dispelled by Lenker’s hairdo – she says revealingly that you “don’t need to explain love”, before launching into ‘Certainty’, probably the best love song she has ever written. Like Dylan’s ‘I Want You’ or his late-period ‘Nettie Moore’, it’s built around a statement of perfect, direct economy (“My certainty is wild”), and there’s something so desperately affecting about seeing her perform it with Meek, when one knows their back story. They were married young, they broke up, they still write and play together, and they perform this almost as equals, both playing acoustics, voices entwined like brambles over a grave. They love each other. It’s complicated but it’s simple. Like the song.

Another guitar hero spotlighted at these shows is 80-year-old Tucker Zimmerman, a contemporary of Ralph McTell excavated from the footnotes of folk by an adoring Lenker, and summoned from his seclusion in the Belgian woods to open half of these shows. She takes the lead vocal on a version of his classic, ‘Slowin’ Down Love’, memorably describes his fingerpicking style as having “a danceband in his right hand”, and disappears at the start of his first show to find his songbook, which he’s left in the wings. He’s helped onto and off-stage each night by members of the main act. And that’s where there’s a key differences to Dylan: these people care about each other, their collaborators, their fans. You can accuse Dylan of many things but not of being a nice person.

There are marked disparities, too, when it comes to their limitations. “Geniuses steal”, of course (the ‘Nettie Moore’ chorus I mentioned was a direct lift), but Dylan has always stolen too much and too often. If Lenker has a shortcoming as a writer, it’s that her auteurism can lead to a repetition of imagery. I regard myself as one of the world’s premier Big Thief botherers: I turned up an hour before doors every night to get on the front row of six consecutive shows, and there are still a handful of their songs that I get mixed up because they essentially trade in the same pastoral imagery or Biblical allusion.

Yet there’s more to the reconfiguring of material than musical evolution. I wrote in a Guardian piece a couple of years back that it took seeing Big Thief live to reveal the secrets of some of their songs, as if they had meanings that could only be communicated in person. Hearing ‘Simulation Swarm’ live was a great musical experience, but hearing ‘Change’ was an emotional and intellectual one. That track had left me cold on record – another lilting trip to the bucolic well – but now that I understand it, I love it. As the perfect closer to the fifth and final show, it unfolded not as a retread but as a soothing antidote to the depressed stupor of ‘Terminal Paradise’, seeing the vastness of nature’s pattern, not the bitter poignancy of a single death. You know, like ‘Every Grain of Sand’.

Lenker has, in fact, only ever recorded one Dylan song, a version of ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’ for an obscure recording studio project in 2015. It was the first song he ever wrote. Like him, she was so much older then. She’s younger than that now.

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Review of the Year: Part 2 – Movies

Here's part two of my Review of the Year, focusing on films. Twenty 'discoveries', six movies re-appraised, five areas of obsession, and some bits and pieces of writing you might enjoy.

DISCOVERIES

... being films that I saw for the first time this year, and loved.

1. Playground (Laura Wandel, 2021) – The highlight of this year's London Film Festival, and a film that I got to rave about in Sight & Sound's annual poll. It's a staggering debut that begins like Être et avoir and ends like a prison movie. Seven-year-old Maya Vanderbeque is extraordinary as Nora, a sensitive young girl trying to negotiate the perilous world of big school, a place of obscure rules and incomprehensible moral codes. “When you help someone, it makes things worse,” she tells a teacher, in the film’s most profound and affecting scene. Shot in shallow focus, at child’s-eye level, it’s fantastically immersive, gripping and moving, the innocence and charm of its opening reels evaporating as Nora is sucked into a vortex of pain. But while it is a film without convenient illusions, and cursed with a memory of childhood’s cruelties and formative, guilt-ridden compromises, it is not merely human but humane, recalling the best of the Dardenne brothers, before a final shot that reminded me of Bicycle Thieves in its sincerity and pained, tear-stained hopefulness. A masterpiece, simply.

2. Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone, 2017) – What if Swimming Pool, but unutterably lovely? A warm and fuzzy film that deals deftly and deeply with faith, love and dead parents – all the good stuff, in fact. It’s unusually attuned to how people talk, and every scene is about something, both on the surface and beneath. Its rough edges, of which there are many, only add to the charm; the slight amateurishness in places serving to make it seem more real, as if it’s a docu-drama starring the people this all happened too. It reminded me, in turn of Housekeeping, Sciamma, Junebug and The Way, Way Back, and yet it’s not derivative in any way. And if its view of the world remains rosily and reassuringly liberal, it is also not uncomplicated. The scene in which Cyd and her aunt talk about sex is some kind of classic.

3. Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945), in which we learn that Stahl created the Sirkian melodrama, Douglas Sirk just perfected it. While Sirk would go on to remake three of Stahl’s monochrome hits – including Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession – the look and feel of his classic cycle of ‘women’s pictures’ seems to have been drawn largely from this Technicolor noir. It’s one of the best-looking colour films I’ve ever seen: sumptuously shot by everyone’s favourite egomaniacal cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, who conjures a chic world of turquoise and cyan that spells d-e-a-t-h. After all, that’s the colour of Gene Tierney’s eyes – as well as the walls of the train carriage, the water on the lake, her gown, her slip-ons and the carpet on those fateful stairs – and her murderously clingy fatale just isn’t going to share new husband Cornel Wilde with anyone. It is a chilly, masterly film that kills the cute, sees perversity and psychopathy within love, and is head over heels with its villain’s face. Full review here.

4. Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader, 1992) – Just the right words, and just the right number of them, as Schrader reworks Taxi Driver again, but finds all kinds of different shadings. For long stretches, it’s his best film, with only the trimmings (particularly the synthetic work by Susan Sarandon and Victor Garber) and the ending dulling its edge. Dafoe was never half as good – as a drug dealer and ex-addict vaguely thinking he might reform – and both Dana Delany and Mary Beth Hurt are absolutely terrific in support. Schrader wraps the existentialism and surprising characterisation in the perfect ambience, helped by a typically apposite score. It’s a film about tormented masculinity, but more than that: its impact on others.

5. Matewan (John Sayles, 1987) – An incredible movie about labour, faith, violence, honour, pragmatism and loneliness, as union organiser Chris Cooper arrives in the town of Matewan to support striking miners, unwittingly but unavoidably setting in motion a chain of violence. It’s a film filled with extraordinary moments, both big and small: Cooper’s little smile at the dinner table and his Mennonites monologue; McDonnell gasping with grief on a porch swing; the procession that follows a killing: Fordian staging and howls of sorrow; and a simply jawdropping finale, Sayles staging a tragedy in the style of a Western gone mad. The film sags just now and then but it has six or seven remarkable scenes, and the feeling of truth. Full review.

6. Ceiling Zero (Howard Hawks, 1936) – In broad plot terms, this second collaboration between director Howard Hawks and star Jimmy Cagney is like every other aviation pic of the ‘30s, and yet what’s going on within that is completely new. You can see it as another film in the vein of MGM’s Night Flight, a rehearsal for writer Spig Wead’s Test Pilot, or a dry-run for Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings but Cagney’s character – and characterisation – are quite unlike anything else in the genre, or in cinema at large. His Dizzy Davis is introduced as a hellraising ledge, a continuation of Cagney’s fast-talking Pre-Code heroes, who returns to the small commercial airport run by his mate Pat O’Brien and picks up where he left off – spewing wisecracks, pulling stunts and chasing women. But that’s all a trick on the audience: his pioneering pilot is a relic, a danger and almost a joke, a 34-year-old barnstormer with a dicky heart, adrift in a new world filling with college graduates. And how he plays it... cast as an inveterate shagger, he goes for the most unexpected option imaginable, giving the most gentle, sensitive and tactile performance of his career. I wrote a mini-essay on the film here.

7. Run for Cover (Nicholas Ray, 1955) – The second of three films from my extended investigations into the work of Jimmy Cagney. Released five months before the same director’s Rebel without a Cause, Run for Cover finds Nick Ray tiring of the young rebel character he had created in They Live by Night and Knock on Any Door, as everyman Jimmy Cagney invests heart and soul in self-pitying, no-good John Derek. If that seems unexpected, then so is everything else about this Western, from an opening anti-heist to a climactic non-shootout among Aztec ruins. Shot like an Eastwood film and plotted like a Boetticher, it’s resistant to the mythos of genre, with no interest in the idea of the legendary hero or the fastest gun. More thoughts here.

8. Shattered Glass (Billy Ray, 2003) takes 10 minutes to settle into anything even remotely resembling real life – or indeed the world of journalism. After that it is completely riveting, always holding back just enough, in terms of both its information and its emotion. Christensen, Azaria and Lynskey are all excellent, but Sarsgaard is just sensational, those four forming the most 2003 ensemble imaginable with help from Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson and Steve Zahn. The film has surface flaws – including a few duff lines and some odd structural choices – but the central thrust of the story is perfect, and it has more to say about how the media (and therefore the modern world) works than just about any other movie of its type. Its intelligence and incisiveness are way above the ordinary.

9. To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985) – A kinetic ‘80s actioner, with cop William Petersen looking to avenge his partner by bringing down psycho Willem Dafoe – using whatever means necessary. What I love most about the film is that it defines its genre and then defies it, offering the most heightened versions of each stock scene, before setting fire to the rulebook in its final reel. That mixture of the traditional and offbeat runs right through the movie. While the dialogue and score are agreeably mainstream, Friedkin’s instinctive handling is incredibly varied. The action sequences are pulsating (I’m not really a car chase guy, but man, that car chase). And yet other parts of it are shot almost like an art film. The extended counterfeiting montage seems amazingly fetishistic, like a Jacques Becker scene filmed by De Palma. The movie can seem meatheaded at times, glorifying the idea of tortured machismo as much as questioning it, but those shades of grey are partly what makes it so interesting. It is also unbelievably entertaining. Bonus thought: by 1995, synths and neon seemed the most impossibly dated elements of the '80s; now they feel more modern than everything else.

10. Remember My Name (Alan Rudolph, 1978) – This pretends to be a slasher and ends up as a noir, but it’s New Hollywood to its bones – provocative and deep, full of subtly striking shots, and lit by one of the best performances of its decade. Geraldine Chaplin is just sensational as the endlessly slippery central figure: brittle, malevolent, vulnerable, sad, with a Chaplinesque physicality and a gameplan we can only guess at. More here.

11. Rocks (Sarah Gavron, 2020) – They should make all films this good. That opening scene is so joyous and yet so alien, its characters the sort of people who sit opposite you on a train and then do your fucking head in for the next two hours. This gloriously empathetic movie allows you into their lives. It’s a film of resilience, desperation and joy, its imagery dotted with spare poetry, its hero all bunged up with unspoken anguish. I was really struck by the parallels with Les 400 Coups. Both begin with their characters symbolically distanced from the touristic image of the city, both end with them seeing the sea for the first time. And, in between, they steal; they run away; we see their parents as lost, childlike figures. If Girlhood is the most obvious parallel in terms of theme, and perhaps Half Nelson in terms of style, the Truffaut film felt like Rocks’ spiritual twin. That it can withstand such a comparison is about as high praise as I can dish out.

12. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) is about sex and death, the very mundanity of its early dialogue scenes accentuating both the film’s eroticism and the fleeting nature of existence, before it begins to drown its men in black, abstract spaces. The movie’s main card is Scarlett, making an early swerve into low-budget weirdness, and it plays that perfectly. I have rarely seen a film as besotted with its star; I’m surprised that Glazer didn’t get both an Oscar and a restraining order. The camera is obsessed with every line of her face, obsessed with her eyes. And it’s through those eyes that we see the film, that we see Earth as an alien landscape, full of curious natural phenomena and simplistic beings. Under the skin, we are all animals, it says – some of us with vast compassion, some of us without even consent. Further thoughts here.

13. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931) – A very Pre-Code Jekyll, with the doc using the pursuit of science as an excuse to relieve his unruly horn. It's really a film about toxic masculinity, with Fredric March a superficially sensitive 'good man' barely masking a monster, and Miriam Hopkins allowed to be bawdy and sensual and yet still an affecting victim. The scene in which she flees to Jekyll and pleads for his help, proposing a master-slave relationship that both tickles his fetish and provokes his self-loathing, is really something. Aside from one oddly stagey sequence near the end – March permitted to do some slow emoting on the floor in front of a piano – it's just a beautifully-directed film: so instinctive and inventive and alive. How the hell was Mamoulian three years ahead of everyone else in Hollywood?!

14. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, 2018) – Skateboarding is an escape from the domestic violence that colours the lives of these young people. Two are victims, haunted by their childhoods. The other may well be a perpetrator, introduced as an outsider hero, but evincing the unstinting self-pity and hollow charm of the abuser. It cheats a little in its presentation of these three characters’ relationships with one another but attains a deep emotional truth in dealing with its central subject.

15. Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999) – A warm, sweet, episodic and often very funny film about a gangster (Takeshi) escorting a little boy to his estranged mother – and back again. Takeshi's character is so fantastically and disarmingly rude – just a little boy himself, really, with little filter and no impulse control – which keeps the movie well away from genre clichés, and the ending works so well precisely because it doesn’t try to do too much. A mention too for that beautiful musical theme (even if it is slightly over-used), and the scene in which Kitano tries to get psychic tips on a series of bicycle races: a comic masterpiece.

16. The Lady in Red (Lewis Teague, 1979) – The last great Pre-Code film, 45 years after the fact, as farm girl Pamela Sue Martin is brutalised by a range of obsolete genres, en route to a dalliance with Dillinger. More here.

17. The Shooting (Monte Hellman, 1966) – Warren Oates plays a bounty hunter in this Ranown-style Western that morphs into a Reichardt movie that morphs into a New Hollywood movie that morphs into a hippie headfuck. It mixes existentialism, Old Testament dialogue and a blankly beautiful psycho in the Gene Tierney mould (Millie Perkins), who can’t really act but whose limitations drag the movie into interesting places: namely exploitation territory. Oates is characteristically sensational in a part that imbues him with the gruff humanism of a Van Heflin, while Nicholson plays the Henry Silva/James Coburn/James Best part from the Ranown cycle with his teeth, and a conspicuously modern sense of nihilism. This period of Nicholson’s career always reminds me of Bruce Dern’s incredulous utterance just three years later: “Jack Nicholson’s a movie star now?!” I’ve never seen a Western in which everyone gets so exhausted, man and beast. And only Meek’s Cutoff ever left you feeling satisfied with so few of the answers.

18. Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975) – An archetypal New Hollywood neo-noir, with useless PI Gene Hackman searching for a 16-year-old nymphomaniac (Melanie Griffith) – only it's him who's lost. Hackman is great, plastering a smile over every emotion until finally it's pulled away, topped only by Jennifer Warren, scintillating as the double-talking, hard-nippled fatale whose gnomic utterances are part of her weaponry. More here.

19. He Was Her Man (Lloyd Bacon, 1934) – A tender, erotic Pre-Code drama with soft-voiced safecracker Jimmy Cagney fleeing the hoods he just crossed, while escorting sad-eyed retired sex worker Joan Blondell to her wedding in an immigrant fishing community. It’s similar in plot terms to The Bride Came C.O.D., but very different in tone, with two astonishing central performances. Neither star was ever gentler nor more sensual. More here.

20. Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, 2021) – A short, sweet, gently magical film about mother-daughter relationships, childhood and depression. It’s surprisingly cheery for a Sciamma movie, its suffering oblique and largely unseen, and perhaps for that reason can’t match the emotional impact of her other features. That small moment, though, where Marion says, “You didn’t invent my sadness”, is one of the most truthful and resonant evocations of mental illness (as I have experienced it) yet put on screen.

***

RE-APPRAISED: MOVIES I REVISITED, AND CHANGED MY MIND ABOUT

THREE UP:

1. The Last Seduction (John Dahl, 1994) – The greatest of the neo-noirs, an intensely funny black comedy in which city trash (and absolute psycho) Linda Fiorentino steals the cash from her husband’s drug deal and holes up in cow town, where she has oodles of malevolent fun manipulating the men around her. It exists not in a credible ‘90s but in a world where Double Indemnity was reality and we’ve just moved on a half-century. The venetian blinds still throw slatted shadows on the walls, and Fiorentino’s ‘backwards writing’ trick is surely a reference to the opening shot of The Maltese Falcon but people can now fuck, and say ‘fuck’, and there’s no censorship code demanding that being a fatale be fatal. Everything about it works: Steve Barancik's misanthropic script, the neat foreshadowing in Dahl's direction, and Fiorentino's for-the-ages performance, which might have won her an Oscar had they not shown the film on HBO first. Peter Berg has just the right amount of callow uncertainty as the patsy, and Bill Pullman and J. T. Walsh are impeccable weasels. I remembered it as a good movie; it's a whole lot more than that. A masterpiece, in fact, but – perhaps more importantly right now – incredible escapism.

2. Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller, 1998) – I remembered this as merely a collection of amusingly insane creative decisions but it is, in fact, a really great film. Babe goes to America in an attempt to save his farm, but instead ends up as a robbery victim, circus punchline and, ultimately, benevolent dictator of a flophouse for abandoned animals. The film takes a simply outrageous risk with its premise, proceeds to capture its city in a similar way to Amélie, and then breaks out seamlessly and stylishly into ingenious or balletic action, including one of the most terrifying and ultimately affecting set-pieces in American film. You'll know it when you see it. The story may be slight and even distractingly eccentric at times (Farmer Hoggett's wife is arrested for being a drug mule in the first 15 minutes, which is perhaps the most normal thing that happens in the film), but the execution is everything, with memorable characters, an undertow of heartbreaking melancholy, and a neat narrative style that surely inspired Pushing Daises. The gracefulness of Miller's camera, and his attendant use of space, is absolutely beguiling. As is the film's sense of originality. Remember originality in mainstream cinema? What was all that about?

3. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1955) – What a knockout: Nick Ray’s meticulous, super-stylised melodrama, got up in Western clothes and shot in garish Trucolor. I saw this as a teenager, when I wanted cool gunslingers and concessions to naturalism, and hated it, regarding the film’s champions as posers and pseuds. Now I’m a pseud myself and can revel in the theatrical choreography, sex-starved sadism and wild gender reversals: those overpowering women and emasculated men. Crawford is quite effective in martyr mode (though her character’s relationship with guns – and the men who draw them – complicates matters), but it’s Mercedes McCambridge who dominates, in her massive performance as the quiveringly cruel Emma, so terrified of her own desire that she starts hanging everyone in sight. Now and then the film falters, abruptly shifting tone with the help of deafening orchestral cues, but mostly it’s fascinating, with incredible use of sound – the characters dictating their own atmosphere like something out of Brecht – and a succession of spectacular pay-offs. In Borgnine’s dance of death and that bullet through the forehead it has two of the greatest flashes of action in Western history. And even its flaws tend to enhance the whole: that cheap and shonky Republic back-projection only adding to the feeling of unreality and claustrophobia. The next year, Ray made Run for Cover (see above), abandoning the strangulated, uptight atmosphere of this one, and toying with genre convention by providing a hero who was a rough reversal of Johnny Guitar: not a legendary gunman posing as a nobody, but a nobody mistaken for an outlaw.

THREE DOWN:

1. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973) – A smug, purposefully shambling pseudo-noir, with Altman not so much deconstructing the PI genre as dismantling it. Since the genre was fine as it is, that exercise ends up being rather more fun for him than it is for us. More whinging here.

2. The Baxter (Michael Showalter, 2005) – Showalter’s performance as the title character is so pointlessly weird and artificial that it actively disengages you. Neither it nor his film quite dares to be a parody, and yet they're also fatally lacking in sincerity. I would love to see the movie that Michelle Williams thinks she’s in, as she is sensational.

3. The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943) – I’d forgotten how talky and didactic this is. I like Lamar Trotti as a screenwriter – his work on Judge Priest, Young Mr Lincoln and Yellow Sky is frequently exquisite – but if you’ve ever wanted to know what it would feel like to be bludgeoned to death by liberalism, then now’s your chance. More here.

***

OBSESSIONS

1. Well, Cagney, of course. An actor I loved when I first got into old movies as a teenager, then came to vaguely overlook and underrate. Seeing him electrify a couple of otherwise mundane pictures (Great Guy and 13 Rue Madeleine) back in 2019 reminded me how great he could be, and I properly remedied the situation this year, watching or rewatching a dozen of his films. The toughness I knew about, as well as his Lorre-ish blending of comedy and danger, but the beguiling softness I'd somehow missed. You can find all the reviews here, but these are the best of them: a salute to the neglected majesty of The Roaring Twenties, and more qualified appraisals of White Heat, The Public Enemy and Love Me or Leave Me.

2. André De Toth – I'm not sure he's a great director – and I suspect those who argue he is of a certain pseudiness – but I've certainly had a good time trying to decide. A kind of poor man's Preminger in comportment, De Toth had one eye, seven wives and 21 children (two of them biological), and made one unassailable masterpiece, a 1959 snow Western called The Day of the Outlaw. That one I was already familiar with (though that didn't prevent me from watching it again), but this tweet encouraged me to dig deeper, leading me to Riding Shotgun, as well as more disposable fare like The Bounty Hunter and Man in the Saddle. All three are led by Randolph Scott, perhaps the worst actor of his era, and the star of several of my favourite films.

3. Paul Schrader/William Friedkin – You know, sometimes the Film Bros are just correct.

4. Mae West – Another blind spot for me: I'd seen just one of Mae's movies before Indicator put out a lavish Blu-ray box-set. The pick of the bunch is I'm No Angel, and although the subsequent imposition of the Hays Code certainly curbed her fun (especially at first), West's control of her body, her talents and her destiny is still so refreshing. She didn't just carry these films, she wrote most of them, and frequently brooked the sexist cliches of '30s cinema, both behind the screen and up on it.

5. Holly Hunter – I don't care what it is, if Holly Hunter's in it, I'll watch it. The greatest actor of her generation, if only occasionally given the material to match. Watching Copycat, shortly after revisiting Broadcast News, made me realise that Holly Hunter talking in a choked whisper is the main thing cinema was invented for. She is absolutely staggering in that film – cast as a cop hunting a serial killer with help from boffin Sigourney Weaver, who got strangled by a psycho and hasn’t left the house for 13 months (which in the current climate doesn't seem that long). The movie is like the halfway point between Tightrope and In the Cut: a hybrid of misogynistic serial killer porn and inverted feminist thriller, and isn't great overall, but it's worth it a hundred times over for Hunter’s rich, multi-layered characterisation, a performance that knocks you sideways.

***

MY BEST WRITING ON FILM

1. My favourite piece to write this year was this one. Getting to tell the story of Ghost World on its 20th anniversary was a dream come true. As a teenager, the film struck me like lightning, and it's been hugely important to me ever since. Since I compressed a month of research into 1,800 words, here are a few deleted scenes:
- Enid’s trendsetting look, worked on by Birch and costume designer Mary Zophres, wasn’t purely for show. “It was a great way to express Enid’s mood from day to day,” says Birch, “because she was so stoic and almost monotone in a lot of her expressions and delivery – with the sarcasm and everything – so it really gave you a glimpse of her inner world.”

- Birch on the age-gap relationship: “The only one in control of that relationship was Enid. She’s the driving force in finding him, in building a connection with him, in trying him out in a romantic capacity and then making the decision to go. So there is no power imbalance, other than that she’s got all the power, but doesn’t know what to do with it.”

- Zwigoff on working with the Weinsteins. “United Artists, MGM and Granada pretty much left me alone, for which I’m ever grateful. It was the opposite of my next film, Bad Santa, which was a constant series of battles with the Weinsteins. I refused to let them ruin that film after I’d put so much work into it. I managed to stubbornly navigate around most of their bad ideas, but I’d say that experience took about 10 years off my life. They deserve prison for that alone.”

- Joe Talbot on Ghost World’s ambivalence: “It doesn’t feel like it’s ever judgemental towards its characters. Sometimes directors end up wagging our finger at our characters, to show our own moral superiority, because we’re afraid that we’ll be judged by the flaws of the characters we’ve created. And I really loved Ghost World’s ability to hover above that fear and that judgement.”

- Illeana Douglas made frequent pleas to Zwigoff for Seymour to end up with her character, Roberta. Those fell on deaf ears.

- What does Birch think Enid would be railing against today? “She’d probably be pissed off about everything,” she says. “As much as I am.” Zwigoff says the character would still have “mindless consumerism” in her sights, “and maybe greed, and religion”. Does he think consumerism has worsened since 2001? “Well, you can now buy a $75 ‘vagina’ candle at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website,” he says. “That’s the ‘high-end’ racket. The low-end grifts are more like the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s. But they’re all trying to scramble for more money for which they would eagerly trade off say, the Amazon rainforest for a few more pennies of profit.”
2. A spirited defence of Return to Oz, for the Guardian. (Link)

3. Interviewing Benh Zeitlin for Total Film (August issue). (Link to preview)

4. Stray thoughts on Tiger Bay, a revolution in British film. (Link)

5. An American in Paris on the big screen. (Link)

6. Trash as social history: Pit Stop. (Link)

***

AND A COUPLE OF PIECES ABOUT OTHER THINGS

1. On returning to gigs, for the Guardian. (Link)

2. On the Manics' Holy Bible for Record Collector's special edition mag:

***

Thanks for reading. I'll leave you with one of the greatest pieces of dialogue ever written, by Jules Furthman for Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, a film that I watch at least once a year:
Bonnie Lee: You love him, don't you, Kid?
Kid Dabb: Yes, I guess I do.
Bonnie Lee: Why can't I love him the way you do? Why couldn't I sneer when he tries to kill himself, feel proud when he doesn't? Why couldn't I be there to meet him when he gets back? Why couldn't I... What do you do when he doesn't come back when you expect him to?
Kid Dabb: I go nuts.

Review of the Year: Part 1 – Books

Hello and welcome to the blog that people have taken to calling "that thing where you review the books you've read that year". They're not lying. No pre-amble, let's get to it.

FICTION

My favourite novels of the year were thematic twins.
The Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton is a deeply moving, searingly perceptive novel about love and missed opportunities that doubles as a portrait of 19th century New York society: a world it is both entranced by and abhors. Newland Archer is a product of that world – a place of stifling surface rectitude and eye-watering hypocrisy – whose firm but shallow convictions are uprooted by his fiancee’s vaguely-disgraced cousin, the Countess Olenska. As he attempts to navigate his feelings within a milieu bereft of complexity or compassion, Wharton conjures a succession of breathtaking set-pieces, rich in romance, irony, longing and sadness. I wasn’t prepared for how funny The Age of Innocence’s opening pages would be, nor how honest, insightful and modern Wharton’s take on love (is it modern, or merely eternal?) – and how could anyone ever be ready for that ending? Ambitious, profound, and profoundly sad, it carries the DNA of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and somehow satisfies you, even as – or perhaps because – it holds you at arms’ length from your desires. J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country (1980) wreaked a similar havoc on me, your reader. It's a novel that does more in 103 pages than most mortals manage in a career, as an old man looks back on the month in the country he spent as a twitching young war vet, restoring a painting in a medieval church. For almost its entire length, it is merely amusing and wise and well-observed, underpinned by an understanding of nostalgia and a clear-sighted evocation of bucolic beauty. Then Carr proceeds to tear your heart to pieces. It's one of the most moving books I have ever read.

Nowadays, Carr's friend and contemporary Penelope Fitzgerald is probably my favourite writer. Her second novel, The Bookshop (1978), is desperately sad (are you beginning to see a pattern?), in the most understated and wounding way. Florence, an unprepossessing woman in her 40s, opens a bookshop in a small town where cruelty is a way of life and no good deed is ever revealed, let alone rewarded. Though the conversations that the hero has with her bookkeeper and her young protégé are extraordinarily funny – like Elizabeth Taylor's children, Fitzgerald's are always bracingly unsentimental little adults – and though nothing pays off in the way you expect, it is really a book about the death of hope. If Fitzgerald's style is yet to reach its apogee, the writing is still shimmeringly clean. Only quibble: does its introduction of a poltergeist work? Perhaps. In anyone else's hands, it wouldn't stand a chance. The Blue Flower (1995) is another Fitzgerald masterpiece, this one anticipating the succession of tragedies awaiting one aristocratic German family. It’s more episodic and fragmented than most of her books, leaning more, too, on documented fact – these are, after all, the early years of the poet Novalis, nonciness not excluded – but it is so recognisably hers. No-one writes better sentences or moves you so quickly to laughter or grief. She was some kind of genius.

I also truly loved Philip Pullman's Serpentine (2020), a brief and beautiful book that feels like the rightful sequel to the original His Dark Materials trilogy, completely authentic in character because, unlike his Book of Dust outings, it isn’t subservient to the demands of plot. It’s wise, tender and gently sentimental, all of that augmented by Tom Duxbury’s glorious line-cut illustrations. While prepping for my favourite feature I wrote this year (more of which later), I revisited Daniel Clowes' comic, Ghost World (1997), which remains utterly fresh: a brilliantly off-kilter and enduringly affecting salute to the freaks.

Then there was The Heavens (2019) by Sandra Newman, an incredibly and indelibly sad book about a young woman in turn-of-the-Millennium Manhattan whose unwitting – even unwanted – second life in Elizabethan England begins to tear at the fabric of her sanity, and befoul the 21st century itself. Newman takes the basic premise of Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, in which dreams redraw reality, a reality that has then instantly always existed, and uses it to explore love, genius, mental illness and the climate emergency. As with Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, the final third seems almost unsatisfying in the moment, but also leaves the strongest impression, being sprawling and daring and dark. Despite those narrative cousins, I've never read anything quite like it.

The same was true of Sterling Karat Gold (2021). Isabel Waidner's wild and pointed fantasia was inspired by The Trial and shares something of Slaughterhouse-Five's freewheeling spirit, but is very queer, very London, and, in almost all ways, very new. Matadors roam the streets of Camden, trans allies time-travel using Google Street View, and Franz Beckenbauer is improbably memorialised as a victim of the AIDS epidemic, but these are no shallow quirks, they are simply elements of a new universe, as Waidner folds sci-fi, social satire and cultural critique into an exalting, vivid and violent story of resistance. This one really got to me. The rhythm of its language, the specificity of its viewpoint, even the colour of its cover – it's an electric shock of a book.

Somewhat gentler, if only on the surface, was Richard Smyth's debut novel, The Woodcock (2021), in which the nature writer trains his eye on the silliest of all creatures: men. Set on the coast of Yorkshire in the '20s, it's a book about love, faith and putting crabs in jars, as an outsized American promoter arrives in the small village of Gravely with the dream of constructing a pleasureground, and our damn fool narrator takes his eye off his own marriage to pursue the visitor's horny daughter. Alive to the foibles of men – their laughable obsessions, their inexplicable decisions, their moments of clarity delivered a moment too late – and darkened by the long shadow of war, it's a wise and richly atmospheric book that deals with immortal themes, and ends in about the only way it can.

Having read Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster short stories, I have since commenced on the novels. The first (Thank You, Jeeves) is overplotted to the point of tedium and dated to the point of irrelevance (Bertie spends much of it in blackface). The second one, however – Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) – is a little gem: largely sprightly and, at its best, quite incredibly funny. The passage in which Bertie rounds on Jeeves for his condescending vocal tics might be my favourite sequence in the series so far.

One of the year's more pleasant surprises was Quentin Tarantino's debut novel(isation), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2021). The man may be an irritating gobshite who doesn’t understand the Golden Age of Cinema, but he sure can write. This book is impeccably conceived: more coherent and introspective than its source film, but with characteristically superb dialogue and plotting. The way he intercuts the 1969 material with chunks of a Western novel is inspired, neatly revealing the unspoken horrors lurking behind the coded artifice of '60s TV, while mirroring those that loom beyond Hollywood at the Spahn Movie Ranch. It's only the elements in which the author isn't as practised that drag it down a little – particularly some tortured synonymising in his prose (who knew there were so many words for a film director?) – as well as moments of self-consciousness, Tarantino never quite as cool as he imagines, since cool is an effortless thing.

I liked, though didn't love, Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021), in which her romantic melancholia – and gentle, disquieting fetishisation of cruelty – rubs up against other things: a revulsion at the insanity of celebrity, and a working-through of the idea that her vein of fiction may have no wider resonance. It’s a criticism that she ultimately rubbishes, but earlier guards against, her main narrative alternated with epistles from its two main characters as they dissect Marxism, Catholicism, climate change and – most brilliantly and perceptively – the virtues and limitations of identity politics. Rooney was, after all, a high school debating champ, and watching her flex those muscles is invigorating. This third novel can’t quite match the overwhelming emotional impact of her first two: it's imperfect in its pacing and pay-off, and incorporates lockdown in a perversely clunky manner. But at the same time, no-one else can do what she does – and now she's also doing something new. At a pivotal moment, she dares to reference Joyce’s The Dead, lending her book’s laddish warehouse stacker the ethereal, tragic grace of young Michael Furey. I say this not just to underline the swaggering chutzpah of Rooney's writing, but also so that you know I spotted it, and think I am clever.

I finally got around to reading an Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None (1939), an incredibly entertaining, impeccably constructed whodunit (and howdunit), with neatly-sketched characterisation and a famously ingenious solution. If the use of language is almost perfunctory, the way Christie juggles her 10 stories is masterly. I also had my first exposure to Robert Penn Warren, through All the King's Men (1946). It's a strange, lumbering book, overwritten to the point of parody in a self-serious mid-century vernacular that sees every thought instantly negated, as if precision were a thing to be feared. Once you acclimatise to the style, the story carries you along, but the lack of lucidity still undermines its meaning. You might have read that this is a book about a Huey Long-like politician – his rise and fall. But that’s the film adaptation. Here, Willie Stark is the climate, not the focus. The focus, instead, is the narrator, an ex-hack trying on the clothes of nihilism after being stung by love, only to find that the consequences of action are a little too hard to bear. Warren’s hard-boiled humour is almost objectively unfunny, and his recourse to not just inversion but self-satisfied repetition is wearying, but his story is interesting and the long, sad flashbacks – to a tragic ancestor, to an aborted love affair – are remarkably touching.

Having been damn near ruined by J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country (above), I went back for seconds, but found How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (1975) a more mixed affair. I loved its melancholia and ambivalent social commentary but was less sure about the evocation of the football itself, or the tone of the comedy: often funny in the moment but also outsized and tending towards pastiche, untethered from the realism that’s broadly required. Carr’s treatment of chances missed (in a cosmic rather than footballing sense) remains, however, uniquely good. Another slight disappointment from a remarkable writer was Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun (2021), in which the author investigates memory and what it means to be human through the eyes of Klara, a solar-powered Artificial Friend whose teenage owner may be on the wane. No-one does ‘voice’ quite like him, the story is essentially effective – the revelations parcelled out periodically – and that wonderful final chapter has moments that are remarkably moving. But there is something missing. The central relationship feels seriously underpowered, the book’s dialogue frequently lacks the ring of authenticity, and the idea of Josie’s specialness being “inside those who loved her” is frankly beneath the bloke who wrote The Remains of the Day, and whose pedestal I generally prostrate myself before.

Muriel Spark's The Finishing School (2005) was less effective still. Her final book, it's a strange and elusive work written in incredibly direct prose. Rowland is a creative writing teacher at an exclusive and lax finishing school in Switzerland who is driven insane by jealousy after discovering that his charismatic, red-headed pupil, Chris, is writing rather a good novel. The Finishing School’s virtues and flaws both come from Spark’s singularity: the style is so pared down by this stage that either her points land with laser-precision or else – when the juxtaposition of short sentences is slightly off – it all seems slightly forced and irrelevant. The book is for the most part amusingly offbeat rather than funny, while Spark’s dislike of people in general and her own characters in particular feels to me not just a matter of taste but a failing, though it has flashes of brilliance: subversive ideas, confounding twists, and weird lines of dialogue that come out of nowhere.

At this stage, we are poking about in the year's bargain bin. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), a non-fiction novel from John Berendt, tells tall tales in Savannah – segueing into murder. It’s flavourful and mostly entertaining but doesn’t add up to quite enough, with obvious and long-winded digressions about voodoo and drag queens, a slightly muted feel to its true crime story, and a sense that this reportage is being written long after the fact, which is why all the characters speak like some version of the author.

My second comic of the year, following Ghost World, was Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), which I feel almost singularly ill-equipped to review. It's not that I don't know enough about comics, but rather that I don't know anything at all. I found it silly, difficult to follow and full of hollow climaxes involving uninteresting fight scenes, though there's some striking imagery and the odd provoking, pre-Robocop contention.

There were only two novels I barely valued at all. Happy All the Time (1978) by Laurie Colwin was extremely grating: an oppressively cartoonish and offensively mechanical book, with endless lists of quirks and objects in place of actual characterisation, and every joke constructed in the same wearisome three-part way. There are a few lovely ideas but you have to withstand a positive blizzard of triviality to get to them. Faulkner's Sanctuary (1931) is just really... bad. It was a potboiler that Faulkner later rewrote in a fit of literary panic, and that shows. There are a few wonderful phrases, mostly at the end of chapters, but it's almost unrelentingly unpleasant, and, in most prosaic terms, I frequently found it hard to follow what on earth was going on or who anyone was. As I Lay Dying has a reputation for being more difficult, but despite its experimental elements it's so much easier to read than this offputting, repetitive and confusing bilge.

***

NON-FICTION

History and politics:

My favourite non-fiction books of the past two years were the various instalments of Robert Caro's epic work on Lyndon B. Johnson. My favourite non-fiction book of this year is Caro's other biography, which won the Pulitzer for 1974. The Power Broker is a 1,300-page character assassination, both sweeping and impossibly detailed, that rips the mask from ‘master builder’ Robert Moses, who dominated the world of New York politics for more than 40 years, providing the city with dozens of highways, hundreds of parks, Shea Stadium and the Lincoln Center, but at what cost? Caro is in awe of Moses’ energy, ingenuity and cunning, but also lays bare his subject’s thirst for power, his myopia and his malevolence. Born in the era of the horse and carriage, and the primitive, expensive automobile, Moses was fixated on the idea that the most beautiful land be given over to create the most beautiful roads. Increasingly isolated by his power, hamstrung by his arrogance and surrounded by an army of sycophants, it was a view that – if anything – hardened with time; by the 1960s, after repeated, unsuccessful attempts to prise him from office, he had fundamentally and irreparably scarred the landscape of his city. His policies were underscored, too, by snobbery: the parks, the highways and the housing priorities of this privileged Yale graduate were in the service of the wealthy. And, as Caro brilliantly exposes, in the service of the white. It is an unstintingly remarkable book, filled with vivid sketches of its once-in-a-lifetime supporting cast – Moses’ mentor is the up-from-the-gutter presidential candidate Al Smith; his primary antagonist FDR – and with heartbreaking vignettes. Moses’ casual destruction of rivals, communal treasures and entire communities is stunningly evoked, particularly in the book’s second half, when Caro breaks with a conventionally chronological narrative to tell almost self-contained, intensely personal stories of the damage done, before revealing the wider malaise, echoing down the decades. The reconstruction of the 'Battle of the Central Park', when Moses' true character was revealed to an adoring public for the first time, is as exciting as anything I've ever read. And the short, snappy early chapter in which the subject mounts the worst gubernatorial campaign in New York history is up there with the funniest. Perhaps Caro is wedded too much to the idea of power corrupting (Moses was, after all, a snob and a racist when he was a young reformer). Perhaps he himself unhelpfully uses immigration as a synonym for a community heading downhill. And there’s also an unnecessary comma on one page near the end. In terms of flaws, that’s about all I can find. In 1,300 pages.

I also loved Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), in which the essayist uses true crime – once removed – to interrogate journalism, non-fiction and literature, examining the hypocrisy behind fact-gathering and the artifice behind art. Her chosen lens is the case of convicted murderer Dr Jeffrey MacDonald, who won a libel suit against Joe McGillis after the biographer pretended to believe in his innocence before savaging him in print. They, then, are the journalist and the murderer, but the book's true value is revealed in the title's dual meaning: the journalist is a sympathetic mother in conversation and a harsh father in execution; he is a killer of reputations. You surely won't agree with everything in Malcolm's wide-ranging thesis, which among other things attributes candidness in interviews to vanity, paints literary creations as simplistic renderings compared to real people, and regards shorthand notes as the only basis for truthful quotes. But it's a book that challenges you and compels you to think, full of beautifully-wrought phrases and thoughts of piercing clarity.

Regular readers will know how much I love reading transcripts of things, like some unspeakable nerd(/history graduate). So Buckley v Vidal: The Historic 1968 ABC News Debates (1968/2015) was a real treat: the complete record of everything that dissolute wordsmith Gore Vidal and debonair bigot William F. Buckley spat at each during their dazzling and ultimately infamous televised duels. In the exceptional documentary about the affair, Best of Enemies, the filmmakers suggest that the debates ushered in a new era of political TV, antagonistic and personality-driven. In his 2014 book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week That Politics Went Tabloid (2014), Matt Bai makes some similarly gargantuan claims about what he sees as another watershed moment in modern media: the presidential campaign of Gary Hart, which appeared to be heading towards the White House, before colliding with the candidate's history of infidelity. Bai's book is partly a (balanced) attempt to rehabilitate a noted shagger – whose downfall is brought spectacularly to life – and partly an incisive examination of why it still matters, and what we lost when politics turned into entertainment. Bai's language occasionally lapses into an imprecise chattiness, and his thesis now feels slightly incomplete – though not wrong – in a post-Trump world, but this is still an exhilarating mixture of room-where-it-happens reportage, wet-eyed polemic and clarion cry. Crucially, it makes you look at the world a little differently.

Another brilliant, and important, non-fiction work was Peter Mitchell's Imperial Nostalgia (2021), a scintillating study of Britain’s relationship with its Empire, and how that continues to warp society, infect the discourse and power the culture wars. Beginning with probably the funniest epigraph I’ve ever read, Mitchell casts a remarkably clear eye over his subject, covering everything from the post-rationalised manufacturing of the imperial myth to the masculine violence that underpins the soft, feminine beauty of the standard British country house; the studied innocence of the colonial project and its “imperial wonder boy” (typified most recently by Rory Stewart) to the ventriloquising of far-right ideas, currently emerging with remarkable regularity from the mouths of a fictional northern demographic. Mitchell is a withering, acerbic and compassionate guide, profoundly moving when dealing with his own father’s death (a metaphor for wanting to resurrect a vanished idyll), even-handed in his extended portrait of culture warrior Nigel Biggar, and fantastically pungent when turning his fire on right-wing commentators like Tim Shipman and Matthew Goodwin. Those vivid, economical portraits of contemporary players are in several cases virtually definitive: Boris Johnson is “a public school boy from a mid-century comic strip ... about to snaffle a pie from the window ledge on which it is cooling”. Occasionally he’ll repeat a phrase or an idea, or be over-exuberant in dismissing a tangled culture story as simply “a lie”. But Imperial Nostalgia remains an invigorating antidote to a form of gaslighting-by-media that Mitchell himself identifies: at times, the sheer quantity of misinformation currently being spewed into the public sphere makes it almost impossible to withstand. The most vital non-fiction either opens your eyes a little wider or else sneaks you around the back so you can see the contraptions that power the machine. This book does both.

So does Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which is about ‘60s America, and came out in 2008, but is the most instructive and insightful book I’ve read in terms of understanding the British culture wars of the past decade. A true conservative movement can never offer economic populism – that's not what it's for – so instead it offers the cultural alternative: flags, family values, and ordinariness as a virtue; stoking up fear of ‘the other’, dampening it with reassurance. Nixon’s version of the culture wars (with an apparent debt to Ayn Rand that’s unacknowledged here) is the one that has stuck – you see it in Brexit, you see it in Trump. On the one hand are the intellectual liberal elite – a spineless, snobbish, effete group selling us down the river to thugs, scroungers, immigrants and weirdos – and on the other are the "silent majority"; decent people who believe in hard work, law and order. In Britain, it appeared that we had reached a rough consensus under Blair: economically conservative but (for the most part) socially liberal. In America, after LBJ’s 1964 landslide, there had been no doubt in the commentators’ minds: this was a nation that had mellowed and matured into liberalism, and once it had speedily dispensed with poverty and racism, it would be casting around for new realms to conquer, not just material but spiritual. Instead came Vietnam, and Watts, and Chicago '68; instead came the Black Panthers and Kent State. That’s Perlstein’s take, anyway – America missed the signs of intolerance and racism. The counterculture missed the way it was playing into its enemy’s hands. And Nixon? Nixon didn’t miss a trick. This book is sprawling and overlong (often Perlstein will strive for a panoramic approach by merely resorting to a breathless compendium of vaguely similar acts in diverse cities). It has little of the oral history that I feel really brings biographies to life – indeed, layers them with life – leaning largely on secondary sources, newspaper reports, and descriptions of TV broadcasts. And while the writing is energetic and readable, too often it's lacking in poetry or flavour. But where the book scores is in its huge, honking opinions. It is a fascinating thesis, with a persuasive overarching argument and a willingness to brook received wisdom, frequently finding nuance in a world that allowed for none. It is depressing, enraging and almost endless, but it is also incredibly valuable, giving you that rare gift: the context to help you understand the world that you live in.

One of this year's great losses was Dawn Foster, the brilliant left-wing journalist (and forever one of the funniest people on the accursed hellsite where I live, Twitter.com). Her first book, Lean Out (2016), is a dismantling of corporate and choice feminism, touched by a remarkable sincerity when focusing on her particular areas of expertise (poverty and housing), but also laced with typically withering one-liners: the finest is surely when she dismisses the author of a report on women in business as “former banker and government minister, and current man, Lord Davies". I also enjoyed Essex Girls (2020), a debut non-fiction work from one of my favourite novelists, Sarah Perry. Though I was slightly flummoxed by its thesis, which doesn't seem to entirely cohere, I also found it eye-opening and profound, full of beautifully-wrought language, and blessed by a singular way of seeing the world. By contrast, Joan Smith's influential, near-legendary collection of essays, Misogynies (1989), was broadly poisonous. I wrote about my problems with it – though also its virtues – here.

James Felton's Sunburn (2020) made me laugh out loud every couple of pages. It's a discursive, gag-heavy survey of a half-century of The Sun (for any children reading, The Sun is like The Beano but for racists), written in his distinctive style, with enough context, plenty of righteous anger, and great jokes. If this piques your interest in the subject, Tabloid Nation and Stick It Up Your Punter! are also indispensable.

John Preston's fantastically pacey and entertaining biography of Robert Maxwell, The Fall (2020), is perhaps more purely enjoyable than a book about Robert Maxwell should be, given the great tragedies in his early life, his execution of civilians during WWII, and the notorious raids he made on the Mirror’s pension fund. I’m not complaining, though. Like Ben Macintyre, Preston will sometimes prioritise a quirky detail or anecdote over real psychological insight, and if in doubt he tends to turn to some absolute bastard for comment – Murdoch, Conrad Black, Jeffrey Archer, Alastair Campbell – but it’s a vivid, readable portrait of a large and awful character, with something amusing or amazing on almost every page. Another riveting if vaguely unsatisfying tome was The Suspect (2019), by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, which is just about the definition of a pageturner: the turbo-charged story of Richard Jewell, the hero of the Atlanta Olympics bombing in 1996, who then became the chief suspect – and the subject of a trial-by-media. That was partly down to the actions of single-minded FBI agent Don Johnson and colourful local reporter Kathy Scruggs, their ad-hoc collaboration providing a handy illustration of how the relationship between law enforcement and the media continues to distort much of news journalism. The authors’ juggling of the various narratives isn’t always perfect, but every time you fear that the book might be flagging, there is some stunningly-deployed twist or colourful new character, and the access and insight is truly remarkable. From innumerable conflicting accounts, they fashion a solid character study and a riveting thriller, and their command of the facts and the context enables them to elucidate the wider significance of what we’re witnessing. “A contributing source for the Warner Bros’ film, Richard Jewell” is surely the most joyless yet legally watertight “now a major motion picture” strapline ever.

Less successful was David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon (2017) (soon to be a major motion picture). It's a feat of research, as opposed to one of writing, as Grann chronicles – and later expands upon – an FBI investigation into a series of murders in Oklahoma’s Osage Mountains during the 1920s. The victims: Native Americans who had been made wealthy by a rare and savvy contract clause while surrendering their oil-rich lands. There’s no faulting the thoroughness of Grann’s digging, even if he ultimately has to overstate the significance of his own discoveries, but everyone who works for the New Yorker nowadays seems to write in the same restrictively mannered, semi-intellectual style, and the often-remarkable material is too often dropped on us in chunks. Ultimately, this readable and empathetic book never brushes against greatness, while its 'birth of the FBI' subtitle is a piece of marketing that isn't really borne out by the work itself. Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of Nxivm (2021) by Sarah Berman is similarly flawed, fascinating and quite remarkably unpleasant, while told with genuine sensitivity for its victims. It deals with that old chestnut: a multi-level marketing programme of self-improvement classes that turns out instead to be a(n alleged) sex cult. Berman's book is slightly hamstrung by its structure, which promises to avoid the pitfalls of a dry chronological narrative – as well as playing to her strengths as a journalist and debut author – by presenting a succession of gently overlapping long reads, but leaves you feeling as if you've missed a few steps. Perhaps that was the case for NXIVM members too.

I mentioned earlier my fondness for transcripts, and it's those sections of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (2019) by Garrett M. Graff that are most powerful: history, unedited by memory retrieval or false narrative, unfiltered by hindsight. The logs of voicemails, cockpit transmissions and emergency calls – possessed of startling immediacy and slow-dawning horror – are as remarkable artefacts as exist of that pivotal day in modern history. Graff is also able to augment his sources with inspired editorial flourishes, including short bursts of staccato editing that cut between similar reminiscences. At its best, then, the book is chilling, desperately moving, profoundly human and subtly insightful about America's self-image. But at its worst, and it is frequently at its worst, this interminable volume is repetitive, plodding, confusing and beset by digression (it was expanded from Graff's POLITICO piece set aboard Air Force One, which isn't nearly as interesting a place to spend time as you might imagine), while permitting a handful of Neo-Con psychos to start spinning the past. Placed alongside the real-time documents, almost everything else seems post-rationalised and aloof. Then you get to the images section, and see the faces in the crowded stairwell of a tower, and wonder if certain stories are just told best by certain media, and that for the most part dry text can't get close to the centre of this one.

And I read a book about a big boat. Normandie: Her Life and Times (1985) by Harvey Ardman is a remarkably well-researched account of the art deco liner’s creation, glory days and tragic fate that sadly falls down a touch in the writing. The opening chapters are too dry – presumably a treat for hull-length aficionados and gross-tonnage obsessives, but not the casual reader – though the book’s most obvious failing is that while it gives us a detailed tour of the vessel in its heyday, it fails to truly evoke life on board or articulate what was special about the ship, beyond its size, speed and sense of opulence. More time and colour seems to be expended on the (essentially pointless) salvage operation than on those salad days. Those later sections really do sing, though. By far the best parts of the book are those that deal with the fire in New York, and the ship’s subsequent years – there is nothing eerier, after all, than luxury run to ruin, or a place that once teemed with life but is now bereft of it. While the impact is lessened by the shallowness of those earlier chapters, Ardman makes SS Normandie feel like a real person, and her sudden and precipitous decline is correspondingly moving. One curious omission: though there are countless references to Normandie in popular culture, Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Saboteur, was presumably inspired by the rumours around the vessel’s burning, and features footage of the ship on its side, and yet isn’t mentioned once. And speaking of films...

Film and music (and for some reason a biography of Stan Lee):

One of my enduring obsessions is the communist witchhunt in Hollywood. In the past few years, I've managed to crowbar the subject into features on subjects as disparate as the film Mank and the memoir of Britpop frontman, Brett Anderson. For those new to the subject, Thomas Doherty's 2018 work, Show Trial, is about as good an introduction as you could ask for – and my favourite culture book of the year. Doherty focuses primarily on 1947, and though he somewhat unconvincingly minimises the events of subsequent years, he does a fine job of explaining critical industry context that often gets overlooked: particularly the rancour that already existed between rival unions, and between different factions on the left. The author also makes vivid sketches of previously neglected players like MPAA head Eric Johnston, whose principles were always subservient to his particular brand of business-minded pragmatism, and eschews the simplicity of many HUAC books, which frequently whitewash Stalinist bullies like John Howard Lawson. Going back to primary sources wherever possible, and proving as witty and film-literate as ever, Doherty creates a fast-paced and credible study of the blacklist’s origins that’s perhaps lacking only in emotional charge and dramatic impact – which might be a shortcoming of his style, or just what happens when you replace the certainties of the usual HUAC discourse with something more ambivalent.

I also enjoyed Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-34 (1999), which deals with another of my cinematic preoccupations: the period between the coming of sound and the imposition of the censorship code, when films dealt frankly with issues like sex, social justice, queerness and addiction. Rich in detail and stylishly-written, the book covers the high spots, with plenty of political and industry context, but goes further afield too. The chapter on fakery, nudity and colonial tropes in ethnographic documentaries is properly hilarious, and if sometimes Doherty stretches too far in attempting to score Freudian points about racial unease, his thoughtful, imaginative approach does offer a fresh perspective. There are a few errors (mostly relating to film titles and restricted to the opening chapter, though some release dates later in the book are a year out), but that stuff was trickier in 1999. If you’re interested in Pre-Code cinema, it remains essential. If you’re not, then what are you thinking, you’ll hate this.

Of the books I read by or about directors, the liveliest was Edward White's The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock (2021). In his intro, White makes some bold claims about Hitch’s greatness that aren’t so much disingenuous as untrue. Hitchcock’s work spanned an unusual number of genres? Surely he has about the narrowest range of any great director. Hitch is the only filmmaker whose mythology eclipses his movies? Not only is that a perverse metric, hard to quantify, but it probably doesn’t even apply to Hitch. And anyway, what about Orson Welles? Then we get into the 12 lives and it’s suddenly terrific, full of neat connections and deep research. Only one chapter seems redundant – ‘Hitchcock the dandy’ is largely predicated on the idea that, like most people of his era and background, the director often wore a suit – and the ones zooming in on his relationships with his weight, his relationships with women and his status as a Londoner are simply outstanding. Perhaps the best thing about White’s approach is that he is prepared to fully engage, from a progressive perspective, with the difficult elements of Hitchcock the person and Hitchcock the artist, without thinking that these in any way negate the art. He's interesting, too, on the significance of the director's TV career, and the way it helped shape his public image. Like his subject, White's book is entertaining, provocative, provoking and occasionally pretentious. I only really realised while reading it that many people claim their favourite Hitchcock film is Marnie, which... well it’s not, is it. The author's gentle pisstaking about the film’s unintentional technical defects – and the way that pseuds have praised them as artistic virtues – is highly enjoyable.

Not as absorbing as any novel.

Michael Powell is probably the best filmmaker that Britain has ever produced. He is not, though, the best writer Britain has ever produced. The first half (!) of his autobiography, My Life in Movies (1986), is quite outrageously long-winded: there's more here than you could ever need to know about Michael Powell's uncles, Michael Powell's holidays, and the inner workings of a hop farm. But after a largely tedious first 100 pages, he begins his life in movies and from then on there's enough gold to make the long-winded diversions worthwhile. Powell himself is vain, arrogant, silly, trivial, brilliant, honest, intuitive, incisive and annoying, and the best way for fans to experience this book may be simply to skip to their favourite films from the index. Not only are there numerous small revelations, details and pieces of gossip (Deborah Kerr and James Mason were supposed to star in I Know Where I'm Going! only for a break-up and a squabble to scupper that), but what he chooses to focus on during his discussion of each production is fascinating in itself. While a better and more ruthless editor would have resulted in a more readable book, if the purpose of an autobiography is just to give you an unfiltered portrait of the person, then this certainly does that.

By contrast, Sidney Lumet’s book is not an autobiography, nor even a memoir, but an attempt to put down – across a couple of hundred pages – how he makes movies. Making Movies (1996) is even structured that way, beginning with rehearsals and ending with the release of the film. His writing style is functional (as if his flavourful turn of phrase is reserved purely for his few screenplays) but a bigger problem is that he has little concept of what’s interesting or revelatory, so remarkable insights jostle for space with some of the driest passages I’ve ever read in my life. One minute he’s explaining how you light, frame and edit O’Neill's Long Day’s Journey Into Night to accentuate the characters’ differing declines (for clarity, that’s the bit I enjoyed); the next he’s telling you what he likes to eat for dinner, or explaining all 64 channels in a mid-‘90s soundtrack mix. Sometimes the book seems to be for people who’ve never seen a film, let alone imagined how one might be made; at others, it’s like you’ve just started work at the lab and he’s explaining your duties. Lumet is also so averse to gossip that even gentle revelations tend to be anonymised, and he’s more of a luvvie than you might expect, albeit one driven to distraction by Teamsters and personal make-up artists. But the compensation is that he also tells you how he begins each project (theme and concept first), how that is translated into his technical approach, and how each film is then captured and refined. His insights into rehearsal, the nature of compromise and the process of editing are particularly valuable, and he offers little flashes into the working patterns of collaborators like Pacino, Paul Newman and Quincy Jones. You’re panning for gold here, really, but there is plenty to be found.

The pick of the year's books on actors was Christina Rice's Mean... Moody... Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend (2021). Though it pales alongside Rice's biography of Ann Dvorak – as I like Ann more, and so does the author – it's extremely well-researched, with characteristically crisp and witty writing. I'm not typically as interested in film fashion as many writers on the Golden Age, but here it makes total sense to zone in on those elements, since the limited, pneumatic Russell was sold as a physical product ("like a tin of tomatoes", in her words), and that was her wrapper. It also does an impressive job of unpicking the actor's considerable contradictions, like being an LBQTI+ icon and a self-proclaimed 'bigot'. I read the book in one sitting, which is a good review in itself.

Hayley Mills' memoir, Forever Young (2021), ran it close. The book's great virtue is its honesty, with Hayley merciless in her appraisal of herself (at times, you sense, rather too much so). There are moments of self-indulgence (only Morrissey ever focused more on a court case) and her writing is variable – she resorts to clichés in quotation marks, and repeatedly misuses the word “literally” – but the book is also consistently diverting, with fun cameos from figures as disparate as George Harrison and Lord Lucan, and some touching tales of minor characters from the worlds of entertainment and 'society'. The daughter of Johnny Mills, she's inevitably a bit of a luvvie, but a loveable one, and with a rare talent to which she seems largely oblivious (more of which in Review of Year: Part 2 – Movies).

My forays into the lives of three other favourite actors left me rather cold and/or bored. Body and Soul: The Story of John Garfield by Larry Swindell (1975) is a confounding biography of Hollywood’s first genuine Method actor, the busy adulterer and tragic HUAC victim born Julius Garfinkle. , fatally lacking the dynamism that defined its subject's work. Garfield's predecessor – another up-from-the-ground New York kid who changed screen art forever – was James Cagney, a fellow recipient of an extremely underwhelming biography. Cagney by John McCabe (1997) never even begins to explain the actor’s rare genius or to use his films as a key to unlock the history of the country he idealised. It's better, though, than Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake (1969), which is inescapably the memoir of an alcoholic, and one who isn't quite candid enough for it to be valuable.

Candidness has never been a problem for the living legend, Sinéad O'Connor, who is difficult, brilliant and just one of my favourite people on Planet Earth. The first third of her memoir, Rememberings (2021), is extraordinary: heartbreaking, ironic, suddenly hilarious – or else horrifying – with that striking narrative voice. The next part comprises honest, lively but disconnected vignettes, too many about farting or shit, not adding up to quite enough. The final third was written post-illness and is mostly just padding. That’s a review of the book, then. But she’s a total hero: a fearless trailblazer who ran so others could merely walk.

A brief consultation with a couple of apps tells me that while my most-listened-to artist of 2021 was the incomparable folk singer, Nic Jones, a distant but respectable second was Frank Sinatra. What came first, the incessant record-spinning or the two-volume biography? James Kaplan's Frank: The Making of a Legend (2010) starts off shakily, and leans too much on secondary sources, but it's an awful lot of fun, and Kaplan writes unusually well about the music. The rest is speculation, supposition, half-truths, Freudian leaps, diversions dealing with supporting characters, and even a few facts, bundled together in a breathless, chatty style. And where versions of key incidents do diverge, the author makes a fair go of getting at the truth. While the subject was, at the end of a day, an arsehole, he couldn't half sing, and a life of triumphs and tantrums makes for an enjoyable read.

After devouring volume one, which climaxes with Sinatra's Oscar win in 1954, I did much the same to Sinatra: The Chairman (2015) by James Kaplan. It's also gossipy, psychologically enlightening and has a real feel for the records. If I don’t always agree with Kaplan’s takes (‘Cycles’ is one of my favourite Sinatra vocals, and ‘Watertown’ – whatever the pretensions of its admirers – is just a stunning album), they’re invariably thought-provoking, enlightening and sincere. Somehow he also manages to square the apparently irreconcilable elements of his subject: the sensitive artist and the cowardly, selfish bully. But while the book is great on the man and his music it’s rather long-winded on both JFK and the mob. And though Kaplan displays his familiar tenacity when it comes to getting at the truth, as well as reining in his chattier first-person tendencies, The Chairman is also bittier than the earlier volume – especially as it progresses. It’s perhaps most memorable – and funny – when digging into Frank’s own relationship with his later work. It’s fascinating to me that the singer compromised his artistic integrity because of a terror that the world was leaving him behind, and is now largely known – both positively and negatively – for the records he hated or thought beneath him (most notably ‘Strangers in the Night’, which he initially dismissed with the words, “I don’t want to sing this. It’s a piece of shit.”). While that isn’t a unique story, it’s rarely seen to this degree.

Let's Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood (2020) is certainly comprehensive, but also a little dull. Author Jasper Rees clearly believes that the role of such a biography is to record, for posterity, what the subject was doing and when. As a result, his book can resemble a glorified bookings calendar, though there are liberal servings of Wood wit, thanks to regular excerpts from sketches, interviews and letters – most notably those to her friend, Jane Wymark, which are variously candid, charming and bitchy. Wood emerges from the book as a surprisingly but perhaps gratifyingly difficult character: a workaholic perfectionist who demanded the same from her collaborators, and turned herself from a painfully awkward shy girl to a dazzyingly charismatic entertainer through sheer force of will.
And finally: Abraham Riesman's True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee (2021), a warts-and-all biography – comprising mostly warts, to be honest – which promises a lot but delivers only a fraction of that. It’s pitched as sort of Death-of-a-Salesman-meets-Kavalier and Clay, with a stunning title, a breathless blurb hinting at some epic exploration of the American Dream, and an opening section that finds the roots of this story in a Romanian pogrom. I wish the book that I'd imagined existed, but I'm not sure Stan Lee could be the subject of it. Perhaps I just wanted Kavalier and Clay again. The first half of True Believer is hugely readable if curiously paced, skirting over entire decades then drilling down into a particular controversy for a dozen pages. But while Riesman does about as good a job as possible of untangling the disputed genesis of certain Lee ‘creations’, there simply is no smoking gun, which can't help but leave you unsatisfied. After that, the book becomes increasingly shapeless, resembling a rummage through Lee’s personal papers and financial records – augmented by some interviews – before climaxing with a lengthy depiction of the dying subject being held captive in his house by various malign forces. There are fleeting moments of excitement and scandal here, with the author neatly contrasting the cartoonishly avuncular image of Lee with the reality. But that reality is ultimately not very interesting. The portrait of Lee that emerges is of a dull man concerned largely with money and full to bursting with bad ideas.

***

Thanks for reading.