Here's what I've been consuming of late:
Huey Long by T. Harry Williams (1969) – This is a political biography of rare brilliance: a heavyweight chronicle of the life of Huey P. Long, one of the most extraordinary figures of the American century. A humble-born native of Louisiana, Long found work as a travelling salesman and a lawyer before entering politics and proceeding to dominate the state like no-one has ever dominated a state. By the time of his assassination in 1935, the senator for Louisiana was one of the most popular – and reviled – figures in America, and preparing to run for president on a radical platform of wealth redistribution.
Williams’ epic, Pulitzer-winning biography, two decades in the writing and clocking in at 900 pages, is a work of uncommon clarity, insight and poetry, drawing on 275 interviews, archive memos, newspapers and private letters, and painting a rich, vivid portrait of the man. Williams dismantles claims of fascism, despotism and racketeering, but his clear-sighted analysis does acknowledge Long’s egomania, vindictiveness and increasingly erratic decision-making, while illustrating at length the brilliance of his subject’s mind, the quality of his oratory and the sincerity with which he went about changing the lives of the state's – and the country’s – poorest and most vulnerable people. It’s also a work of stunning breadth, detailing the unique character of Louisiana, establishing its political scene and examining the context that made Long’s rise to prominence possible, while leaning on the ‘great man’ theory and maintaining that while someone would have come along to grasp this mantle, it did not have to be a Huey P. Long.
Beyond that, it’s also an extremely funny and entertaining work, not only in its recounting of the innumerable colourful stories involving Long – from greeting foreign dignitaries in his pyjamas to threatening a rail company with exorbitant taxes unless it gave all LSU students cheap passage to a football game and his fabled stump speech about ‘High Popalorum and Low Popahirum’ – but also thanks to Williams’ wonderfully dry sense of humour, his prose peppered with ironic commentary on the hypocrisy of both Long’s supporters and his nemeses. The overall effect is astonishing and enveloping, placing you at the scene of some of the most remarkable political happenings of the 20th century, from filibusters on the floor of the Senate to deals in smoke-filled rooms and the devastating assassination that naturally closes the book. By the time it comes, you’re so invested in Long, and in his programme for change, that you can barely turn the pages.
There’s no question that Long was a great man, but what surprised me is that he also comes across as a good man. There are times when he oversteps the mark – threatening a newspaper editor with blackmail, trying to utterly destroy (rather than just beat) his rivals and leaning occasionally on race prejudice (though Williams makes it clear that he did less of this than any of his Southern contemporaries) – but it’s also true that he’s one of the few left-wing leaders in the Western world who, when faced with the pitiless onslaught that faces anyone trying to change things for the better, fought his foes with everything at his disposal, until they were nothing but dust. There are times in 1934-5 when his local power-grabs and recourses to martial law are utterly contrary to democracy, and I found that disillusioning and difficult to swallow, but Long really was trying to change the lives of poor people for the better, he was just greedy for every bit of credit that went with it. His story is astonishing, inspiring and also critical to understanding the Roosevelt years, for without him, FDR would never have been dragged so far to the left, and become – for many, myself included – America's greatest president. (4)
Expect that to figure prominently in my books of the year round-up, one of three review collections coming up, as ever, at the end of December (the other focus on films and live events).
CINEMA: Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016) – A film about emotional violence, cruelty and revenge, as disquieting and unpleasant as any mainstream Hollywood movie I can remember, and for that reason both an experience that I can’t recommend and that I must. It’s a collision of three stories, three universes: an antiseptic art world, where curator Amy Adams and her Tom Ford glasses live a cool, detached life contorted by compromise; a headily romantic Hollywood film in which her younger self flirts with old acquaintance Jake Gyllenhaal and then flirts with giving him up; and a horrifying slab of Southern gothic – rendered by the current day Gyllenhaal, in which his ‘weak’ husband is run off a Texas road by mutton-chopped psychopath writ large, Aaron Taylor Johnson.
The start of its horror thread – long, unflinching and uninterrupted – is particularly arresting: hypnotically, seductively awful; a harrowing, caricatured journey into man’s dark heart, a panic attack in film form. But this strand isn’t new. None of them are. Where this dazzling, dizzyingly surefooted movie astounds is in its outlandish, hugely ambitious juxtapositions: an ingenious, incisive structure; a combination of the cerebral, sentimental and utterly visceral that tosses you about the theatre like a ragdoll. At first you wonder if Ford can tie these threads together properly, if the knot will be tight enough without pulling the individual stories out of shape. He can: the cumulative effect is far greater than the parts, three stories of one dimension adding up to a whole that’s in three.
Where the film does fall down is in hitting its emotional and dramatic zenith a half-hour from the end – while its final five minutes are haunting, certainly the gothic part plods onwards for some time after it’s become submerged in lacklustre familiarity – but it’s an extremely unusual and refreshing reworking of genre clichés, novelistic but also invigoratingly cinematic. It’s a model of how to utilise cinematic grammar (particularly abrupt, busy but restrained editing) to tell a story, and to layer that story so densely and virtuosically that it embeds itself in you. The performances are great too, with Johnson fine in a big performance that doesn’t slip from showy dynamism into hamminess, and Shannon absolutely superb as the intense, taciturn and unsmiling sheriff called into action by Gylenhaal’s tale of terror.
Don’t miss it, and don’t come crying to me after you've been. (3.5)
The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015) – An audacious, counter-intuitive and richly entertaining polemic about the financial crisis, its raw anger cooked up into a fun old caper movie, studded with vividly sketched characters, sourly profane dialogue and a heap of meta gags: a few of them overdone, but most melting in the mouth before leaving an aftertaste akin to charred vomit. McKay knows what he’s doing, and even if he’s sometimes doing it too loudly or just with tits, it’s ultimately worth it.
It’s the story of a one-eyed maths whiz (Christian Bale, superb), a smarmy, roguish narrator (Ryan Gosling), a bereaved, self-loathing fund manager (Steve Carell, never better) and two naïve kids trying to get onto Wall Street with the help of a gloomy neighbour (Brad Pitt) – all of whom see the financial crash coming, and start betting against the market.
A few left-leaning critics have questioned its morality, but that’s such a blinkered, reductionist view. If you make a film about a poor guy losing his house or a morality play condemning bankers, you might win an award, but you won’t find a mass audience. The Big Short made over $133m (Inside Job, the brilliant, Oscar-winning documentary dealing with the same story grossed under $8m) – and in that context it’s pure dynamite. The punters may be so wowed by the shiny, Ryan Gosling-patterned paper they won’t realise they’re holding a textbook, but the film is nimble enough to make its viewpoint clear. It’s like The Wolf of Wall Street if it wasn’t a nasty, incoherent shambles.
More than that, though, it’s intellectually daring. Like Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, it trades not in heroes or spoonfeeding, but in ideas and shades of grey. Oddly, this is actually McKay’s second stab at a financial crisis comedy. While The Other Guys is my favourite Ferrell film and probably the funniest mainstream comedy since Team America, its attempts at social comment were hapless, with only the end credits PowerPoint landing any blows at all.
The Big Short may be playful but it’s pointed enough to draw real blood, asking you to question your preconceptions and priorities – while being ferociously funny and quite ludicrously fun. (3.5)
West of Memphis (Amy Berg, 2012) – A powerful, polemical documentary about a notorious miscarriage of justice, in which three eight-year-olds were murdered, turtles nipped at the bodies, and ambitious, blinkered public officials ill-equipped to deal with the case decided that these injuries could only have been caused by satanists, robbing 14 years from the lives of three teenage outsiders: damaged Damien Echols, softly-spoken Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, a mentally handicapped young man whose ‘confession’ formed a key part of the case.
For anyone gripped by Making a Murderer, this is more of the same, but ahead of the fact and without the same doubt in your mind: these three were knowingly fitted up by the state, and that should chill your blood. Unlike Making a Murderer – and indeed the first two Paradise Lost documentaries previously dealing with this case – it’s all told in retrospect, so it becomes a clear-sighted indictment of the American legal system, rather than the campaigning piece needed so desperately in previous years.
As a film, Amy Berg’s condensed account is fast-moving and often forensic, though with an eye for an entertaining aside or celebrity angle – among the campaigners interviewed are Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins – as it paints a complete picture of the case, and posits a highly credible theory of its own (though if you think about it, that's pretty hypocritical!). It’s also, ultimately, an oddly uplifting film, as well as a gruelling and horrific one, as it depicts the selflessness of the West Memphis Three’s champions: including the girlfriend of Damien Echols, Lorri Davis, who took up his case after watching Paradise Lost.
Some people still think these three dunit, but when their evidence is things like “known history of mental illness”, it makes you wonder what the fuck. I have a known history of mental illness and have never murdered any children.
A chilling postscript is that Echols later had to meet Piers Morgan, surely more awful than any experience he endured in prison. (3)
My Scientology Movie (John Dower, 2015) – This is an amusing but infuriating documentary, in which Louis Theroux fails to speak to any Scientologists, except to explain that he has a filming permit and doesn’t see why he should leave. That’s the problem with making a film about an incredibly powerful, secretive cult. Sorry, religion. Sorry, obviously cult. If you don’t know anything about the subject, I suppose it’s mildly insightful – with various reenactions, interviews with ex-Scientologists and archive clips of Tom Cruise being weird and frightening – while Theroux’s façade of amiable bumbling makes for some funny encounters, but like his fellow posh, shambling English documentary-maker, Nick Broomfield, he thinks that being asked to leave somewhere is investigative journalism in itself. (2)
Brothers in Law (Roy Boulting, 1957) – A below-par legal satire from the Boulting Brothers that starts promisingly but gets sidetracked by broad, lazy set-pieces and bits of ‘business’ that surely someone must find hysterical, though I’ve no idea who. If you’re the kind of person who finds a nervous Ian Carmichael bumping into people funny, then get ready for the greatest night of your life. He’s a recent graduate of the bar trying to find his feet in the legal world of London, who finds an unlikely ally in selfish Dickie Attenborough, a powerful sponsor in Miles Malleson and a girlfriend in the charming Jill Adams, but bumbles haplessly through his first few cases and – in one interminable, laughless sequence – incurs the wrath of judge John Le Mesurier while playing golf.
Carmichael’s relationship with his parents, particularly his warm, proud father (Henry B. Longhurst) is delightful and touching, Malleson is quite amusing, and now and then there are some intelligent sideswipes at the law – particularly when Attenborough tries to avoid leading questions and cocky criminal Terry-Thomas enlists Carmichael’s assistance – but it’s too often unfocused and unfunny, without the teeth of the Boultings’ best comedies (the more I see of their later work, the more I wish it was all like Heavens Above!), and replete with irrelevant story threads that exist only for their unsatisfying and obvious pay-offs. (2)
SHORT: Come Together (Wes Anderson, 2016) – Anderson’s H&M advert (sorry, ‘new short film’) is droll, tender and really rather magical, with that undertug of disconnected, Keatonesque melancholia blossoming into selfless humanity that makes his films so deceptively substantial. It’s otherwise extremely straightforward and almost self-parodically designed, harking back to The Darjeeling Limited in its setting – a stylised, late-running train dominated by sad-eyed conductor Adrien Brody – and telling a Christmas story of impeccable (and arguably insulting) simplicity. One complaint, though – and I know my class warfare may be showing – must the kids in his films always look so preppy and spoilt? I appreciate that all children deserve a nice Christmas, and money isn’t necessarily a signifier of a life easily lived, but on the whole I can think of worthier subjects than some prep school Tarquin in his designer blazer. It’s still affecting, though, and one to pop on the list of brief festive films worth visiting and then revisiting: not a patch on The Snowman, Jolly Snow or Star in the Night – that miraculous Tex-Mex Nativity story directed by a young Don Siegel! – but blessed with a certain seasonal something. (3)
King Lear (The Old Vic, 19/11/16) – Glenda Jackson makes a triumphant return to the stage in this sparsely-staged version of one of Shakespeare’s most long-winded and inaccessible plays. The set is all white screens and functional tables, the effects done with lighting and a proliferation of bin bags, and across it Jackson rampages or creeps, dynamic and desperate as the king “more sinned against than sinning” as he loses his authority and his mind. There are great moments, and the acting is a treat – with a surprisingly effective Rhys Ifans as the Fool, and Sargon Yelda, Simon Manyonda and Karl Johnson putting bigger names Jane Horrocks and Celia Imrie to shame with nuanced, sometimes hilarious performances – allied to an energetic and bawdy reading of the text, but so much of it is just mad people shouting nonsense: if I wanted that, I’d just open my Twitter notifications. (3)
Thanks for reading.