Sunday 20 October 2013

Picasso by Patrick O'Brian

What prompted me to read this biography of Picasso was the fact that it was written by Patrick O'Brian. In case you haven't heard of him — O'Brian, that is — he wrote the marvellous Aubrey-Maturin series of naval adventures. They are beautifully written and highly intelligent and if you haven't encountered them, seek them out. (I suggest you don't start with the first book in the series, Master and Commander, which I think is the dullest. Perhaps try The Nutmeg of Consolation instead.)

O'Brian is not only a fine writer with a deep knowledge of art, he also had the benefit of personally knowing Picasso, so his biography of the man is uniquely advantaged. It's an absorbing book and brings its subject emphatically to life.

Indeed, it even got me off my ass and down to the Courtauld Gallery in the Strand on a bright wintry morning to see an exhibition of Picasso's early paintings, for which I'm duly grateful.

Picasso's life was an eventful one, marked by love and war. When France fell to the Nazis in May 1940, thanks to incompetence of the French high command, Matisse likened the Generals to the hidebound French art establishment and said, "If everyone did his job as Picasso and I do ours, this would not have happened." 

But in many ways Picasso remained unmoved by the currents of history, a rock in the middle of a river. He lived for his work, which he turned out at a prodigious rate. O'Brian brings his extraordinary talent to life on the page, and it's clear that he regards the artist as something unique among human beings — if not something more than human — and he communicates this admiration to the reader.

O'Brian offers thoughtful commentary on Picasso's works of art, from famous masterpieces like Guernica to the metal sculpture of a goat which originally featured a rubber bulb you could squeeze to emit a farting noise... and the monkey-mother whose head is formed from a toy car that belonged to Picasso's son (see left).

But the writer never takes his own commentary too seriously, adding "This is mere interpretation."

By the 1950s Picasso had become about as famous as it's possible for a man to be. Yet, if anything, that fame grew in the following years, as did the desire of just about everyone to have a piece of Picasso. O'Brian ironically recounts how Franco's government came begging for Guernica in 1969, when they were the very same people whose atrocities had inspired the painting in the first place.

Picasso's tremendously productive life was also impressively long and healthy, perhaps because he followed his doctor's prescription for  "Plenty of sex and red wine."

Although Picasso was often a difficult and even a brutal man, he was more often a kind and likable one. One of the surprises in the book is his love of animals. The sculpture of his pet Afghan hound Kabul can be seen here in Chicago's Daley Plaza (below right), and it's wonderful.

O'Brian's excellent book does full justice to his subject. I suspect it's unsurpassed as a biography of the great man and may remain unsurpassable.

The only thing that could improve it would be a lavishly illustrated edition (the book, frustratingly, has no pictures) or, better yet, an electronic edition where you could just click on the title of any of the art works mentioned and see an image of it displayed on your screen.

(Image credits: The 1907 self portrait at the top of the post is the cover of the edition of O'Brian's book which I read — search as I might I couldn't find this cover anywhere on the world wide web, except for a miserable postage stamp sized image, quite unusable. Grrr. Anyway, this self portrait is from Graphical Gods. The sculpture of Kabul the dog is from Dog Art Today (!) which has a nice article on Picasso and his pooches. 

The blue nude ('Women of Algiers') is from SFMOMA. The lovely tomato plant — grown in his Paris window when food was scarce during the Nazi occupation — is from Feedio. The monkey and her baby is from AC Grenoble. The ravishing full face sketch just above of Sylvette David, the striking blonde with the pony tail, is from a Picasso website. The full face photograph of Sylvette to the right is from Pinterest. The profile drawing of her further above is from Site VIP. The blue abstract profile of her is from Picasa. )

Sunday 13 October 2013

How I Live Now

How I Live Now was a bestselling novel aimed at the young adult market. I'd never heard of it, but I'm keenly aware of it now, in the wake of the memorable film adaptation.

Hampered by a slightly dodgy trailer, the movie of How I Live Now doesn't seem to have made much impact at the box office, but I urge you to see it before it vanishes from the big screen. It's a masterpiece.

Simply put, it's a tale of teenagers surviving World War 3. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is the obnoxious American cousin visiting her family in England and who is there when London gets nuked and the war begins. The kids are safe out in the countryside, but nonetheless the impact of the distant attack is brilliantly evoked and immensely chilling.

What ensues is a nail biting story of love and survival, with romantic and elegaic intervals set in a rural paradise. I was astonished at what a fine film it is. Unbearably suspenseful, terrifying, moving and very beautiful. Director Kevin Macdonald seems to have studied the early work of Nic Roeg, especially Performance (particularly in the performance — no pun intended — of the little girl Laranie Wickens, which seems to be echoed in Harley Bird's performance in the new film). 
As with Nic Roeg, the use of imagery is stunning and unforgettable (the cinematographer here is Franz Lustig) — as is a harrowing sequence of foxes skulking around an apparently deserted military installation. I doubt I'll ever get that out of my head.

The cast is first rate, especially Saoirse Ronan, of course. I like to think she got her experience using a gun from Hanna, another classic movie she starred in.

The excellent screenplay for How I Live Now was by Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner.

Go and see this film.

(Image credits: The poster is from Ace Show Biz. All of the stills are from Saoirse Ronan Info.)

Sunday 6 October 2013

Werewolves & Ferris Wheels: Ben Hecht

Who was Ben Hecht? Probably the finest screenwriter who ever lived. His credits include such masterpieces as Underworld (the greatest silent gangster movie — for which he won an Oscar); Scarface (the greatest early sound gangster movie); His Girl Friday (based on Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play The Front Page); Notorious (Hitchcock's finest film of the 1940s) and The Thing (the best horror/SF film of the 1950s and one of the best of all time).

He made uncredited contributions to A Star is Born, Stagecoach and Gone With the Wind — but Hecht never worried too much about credit, so long as he was handsomely paid. Which he was — earning more than any other screenwriter of his time. And deservedly, because his material was brilliant. He worked solo, in collaboration, and often invisibly.

Hecht was the ultimate rewrite man, so it is only fitting that his stage play The Front Page was rewritten by George S. Kauffman. Kauffman's contribution was modest — mostly in the form of some cuts. But he did come up with that wonderful title. Hecht wrote plenty of thrillers and suspense films, not to mention science fiction, love stories, historical dramas and even contributed to a Bond movie. He worked with great directors like Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg and John Ford. He also worked with the Marx Brothers, more than once.
He had a particular and spectacular gift for comedy. Screwball comedy was a speciality. One of the greatest of these was Nothing Sacred, directed by William A. Wellmann, which features the classic line where one character is referred to as "a cross between a werewolf and a Ferris wheel." To my mind, one of the most wonderful bits of descriptive dialogue ever penned.

Hecht is very much in my mind because I'm reading an excellent biography of him by William MacAdams. I am a Hecht fiend and I would have bought this book years ago but, stupidly, I was put off by some wildly inaccurate negative reviews on Amazon. One such review castigates MacAdams for referring to Winston Churchill as an American novelist. Sure enough, on page 23 of the Hecht biography the author says "the American  novelist Winston Churchill." This is because there was an American writer of that name, born before the British statesman, and in his day far more famous.

The moral to this story: never pay attention to Amazon reviews by dullards, and if you're interested in Hecht get this book.
A final word. Assigning authorship of dialogue in films is tricky. Even the werewolf and Ferris wheel line could be by Dorothy Parker who did an uncredited polish on the script after Hecht. But of course this cuts both ways. And since Screen Writers' Guild records show Hecht made a significant contribution to the dialogue of Gone with the Wind,  it's quite possible he was responsible for one of the most memorable lines in film history: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." 

(Image credits: The French Scarface poster is from Doctor Macro, a very useful site. The Polish poster is for Nothing Sacred. I couldn't resist it, even if it doesn't give any credit to Hecht. It's from the Movie Poster Shop. I also couldn't resist the horizontal Underworld poster from Silent Sternberg. His Girl Friday is from Popcorn Dialogues.  Gone with the Wind is from Wikipedia. The Thing is from Cinemasterpieces. Casino Royale is from Tiki Lounge. The MacAdams bio cover is from Hardy Books.)