The Eighteeth Book I've Read This Year.

Books James Shapiro looks at key moments in the culture war still raging in the US and investigates how they were influenced by the canon. Much of it is hair raising. We discover that the abolitionist John Quincy Adams was incredibly queezy about Othello, a point which he expounded upon to Fanny Kemble, sister of Richard, at a dinner party, day (to paraphrase) that Desdemona got what she deserved for marrying an "n-word". That Ulysses S Grant almost went on stage as Desdemona in his younger days. How anti-English sentiment caused riots during a production of Macbeth in New York. That John Wilkes Booth believed himself to be a modern Brutus when he assassinated Lincoln who himself used to spend hours quoting a discussing Shakespeare with anyone who'd listen. There are also fascinating chapters about the making of Kiss Me Kate and Shakespeare in Love, rounding out with an essay about what happened when the assassination of Caesar in the Trump inflected Shakespeare in the Park production went viral (Shapiro worked as an advisor).  Marvellous stuff.

Does it Spark Joy?

Film If the lock down has taught me anything (a hundred and sixty eight days folks) (the furthest I've been since March is the top of Hardman Street), it's that I'll never see every film ever made.  Having accepted that, what to do about selecting things when when you're quite happy to sit through anything and then have to choose what that anything might be?

How do I fight against, as the video above calls it, choice paralysis?

There have been strategies, oh have there been strategies.

Not watching anything with less than 70% on Rotten Tomatoes was a first attempt.  Except the corpus is so overwhelming old, white and male, there are plenty of films which they simply don't "get" which have fallen below the freshness threshold.  Noah Hawley's Lucy in the Sky currently enjoys a 21% from 123 reviews on there and it's really quite weird and extraordinary and has a brilliant understated central performance from Natalie Portman.  So that was ditched pretty swiftly.

Then there was working through various lists, but inevitably meant that I missed out on newer releases.

Eventually, I've ended up with a rather systematic approach which allows some flexibility but also stops me from flailing around trying to decided what to watch next. 

The following does look very involved and it is to the extent that you might wonder why I don't just use that time actually watching films.  But again, this is infinitely better than choice paralysis and doesn't involve "lowering your expectations" as the video upside offers as a solution, which just seems like admitting defeat.

Let's use some bullet headings.

(1)  Only films reviewed in Sight and Sound or Empire Magazine in their main review sections.  That means that in the main they'll be theatrical releases, although it leaves some flexibility for prominent streaming releases.

(1a)  Apart from anything I've bought and haven't gotten around to watching yet.

(2)  A year at a time.  At the moment, I'm working through 2020 and when that's completed it'll be 2019, things missed and rewatching anything which I'd like to see again.

(3)  Only in high definition unless there's no other choice.  This seems pretty arbitrary, but I'd rather wait to see a film in its best possible picture and sound quality, even if that's streaming than through the standard definition haze of a DVD copy gifted to it on home release, which even with upscaling-on-the-fly (and sometimes because of it) looks less than optimal on my large flatscreen television.  That's unless there's absolutely no other way, of course.  I still have some films on VHS which haven't appeared on any format since.

(4)  Does it spark joy?   This is the newest step but I'm finally taking a Marie Kondo approach to films.  For the most part this takes the form of these yes and not lists.

Yes list:
Sci-fi / Fantasy / Horror
Period piece
Set in a major metropolitan area
Features an actor I like
Made by a director I like
Female led

Not list:
About someone dying from a disease
Has death of a parent as a motivating factor
About poverty and degradation
Mental illness and disability
Mafia / gangsters

There's a lot of soul searching and honesty in there, especially the not list which as you can see is mostly about trying not to see films which are likely to swing my mood downwards.  

On the one hand this makes me seem and even feel weak and prejudicial, but on the other, in order so that I can be there for my loved one, I need to take care of myself.  Perhaps this could have simply been listed as "depressing topics" but pinning it down like this means I have to face up to the reality of choosing not to watch these kinds of film.

The last point is simply because I'm tired of watching antagonists with non-redemptive story arcs.  

Of course there are exceptions both ways.  These are just guidelines.  They're open to change.

The upshot is that more than ever, I'm having to think about the films I'm watching to the point that I've made special justification field on the database I'm using as a universal watchlist.  You knew there'd be a database.  There's always a database.  Here are the films I currently have access to which I'm intending to see before I head off back into 2019 with the reasons why:

As you can imagine, that list used to be much longer, but if I couldn't type anything in that "spark joy" box, even after it had been filtered through the yes/not lists then it went.  "Hollywood" as a keyword seems like it could be used a broad excuse for watching crap and you'd be right.

Having read that back through it does also seem a bit "extra".  But I assume that these are the kinds of mental processes most people go through when choosing a film and that all I've done is put them down on paper.  Or at least that's what I'll keep telling myself.

Almost Hamlet:
Ophelia (2018).

Film When this adaptation of Lisa Klein's novel was announced in 2016, it seemed initially like something of an outlier given that the cycle of Shakespeare related movies ended not long into the new century. But given the strengthening of the lead character's arc, it of course fits more properly the cycle of YA adaptations, a period take on the likes of Twilight, The Hunger Games and the Hermione Granger franchises.  This is Ophelia as self-actualised woman and a reframing of the play's revenge plot as an allegory on the destructiveness of toxic masculinity.

The film opens with a ten-year-old Ophelia joining Hamlet Snr’s court and becoming a maid in Gertrude’s household, moving up the ranks as a lady in waiting. From a young age she’s desperate to read Ovid and though she’s informed that she won’t get anywhere with men if they think she’s more intelligent than they are, it’s precisely her wit which leads to her gaining Hamlet’s attraction, the one thing which sets her apart from her bitchy court rival Cristina. Slowly events edge towards the action of Shakespeare’s play but it's quickly apparent that not everything will be as it seems.

Director Claire McCarthy and screenwriter Semi Chellis keep very close to the book (which I reviewed here).  As there, the events of the play are for the most part kept off screen, although like the book, Ophelia often hides behind tapestries and around corners so that she can witness plot points which will pertain to her own story arc, keeping everything from her point of view.  But unlike a Tom Stoppard play, they're not simply filling in the gaps or presenting parallel action, the events of the play are significantly rewritten with new characters introduced and motivations disambiguated.

As Ophelia says in her opening narration, ".. it is high time I should tell you my story, myself" which implies in this version of Elsinore, when Horatio was called upon to tell Hamlet's story, he filled in the blanks with wild stories of ghosts, portraying his friend as the hero and sidelining the female participants, who in Ophelia's case is the one to tell Hamlet, soto voce in the "nunnery" scene about his uncle's murderous betrayal.  Tonally, it's also very post-Game of Thrones retelling with Gertrude given a touch of the Cersei Lannisters which Naomi Watts clearly relishes. 

Although the novel was more generally influenced by fashions and furnishings of the late-Victorian or early Edwardian painters, the author featuring an image from W.G. Simmonds's The Drowning of Ophelia on her website, the film is instead set in world straight out of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, the opening with a recreation of Millais' Ophelia, Daisy Ridley floating serenely on the surface of the water after violently poising herself.  Ridley sports bright red Rossetti hair, and some frames seem designed to replicate a Burne Jones, Holman Hunt or most often Waterhouse's  paintings.

As with the novel, the film is perhaps less comfortable when it has to directly recreate scenes from the play as the text has to be rewritten to accommodate the cod medieval idiom of the rest of the dialogue.  Dropping Shakespeare directly into these moments would have been clunkier, but listening to a rewrite of the most famous phrases in the English language is impossible without thinking about the originals.  Polonius's proverbs in particular suffer largely because the Shakespearean has itself has so richly shaped our language.

It's impossible to be po-faced about any of this.  Shakespeare didn't originate Hamlet, his was an iteration of a much older legend and although this is closer to his play, like The Prince of Jutland (the one where Christian Bale eats a tree), everything is up for grabs, these are just story points available to be shuffled around.  Anyone complaining that Shakespeare's text is tossed out of the window won't also have come to terms with the fact that Ophelia is a severely under female role, especially in comparison to other areas of the canon.

Not unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there is a slight element of sadness that there isn't also a straight production of Hamlet with this cast also in the world.  George MacKay catches the impulsive youthfulness of Hamlet which is often missing elsewhere, and Devon Terrell brings a real sense of warmth and friendship to Horatio.  But Ridley particular seems like she would really stand out even in a full production of the play, capturing Ophelia's passion, impulsiveness and intellect, traits so often missed by directors and casts who focus on the title character's struggle.

Heinz 57.

Food Genuinely the first occasion when I heard the phrase "Heinz 57" was in relation to a mongrel dog which a friend of a friend of the family owned when I was much, much younger. It's not until later, in a supermarket filled with products covered with the wording that I realised the connection and where the phrase originated.

 In an idle moment, I thought I'd check what those 57 varieties are.

Snopes suggests that there never were 57 varieties but that Henry Heinz saw an advert on the side of a train for a company offering 21 different types of shoe:
"... struck by the concept, and recognizing that catchiness and Heinz resonance were far more important qualities for a company slogan than literal accuracy, Heinz cast about for the perfect number to use for his own company’s version of the phrase. Settling on fifty-seven, Heinz soon put the number to work, and within a week the sign of the green Heinz pickle bearing the words “57 Varieties” was everywhere Heinz “could find a place to stick it.” He soon ordered the construction of a six-story, twelve-hundred-light display featuring a forty-foot pickle; installed at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 23rd Street in New York City, this electric marvel dazzled New York residents and tourists until 1906."
But this Wikipedia page randomly includes, without explanation, a section called 1934 cookbook products which lists what the 57 varieties might have been:
"Heinz Oven-Baked Beans – Pork and Tomato Sauce
Heinz Oven-Baked Beans – Pork no Tomato Sauce
Heinz Oven-Baked Beans – Tomato Sauce no Pork
Heinz Oven-Baked Red Kidney Beans
Heinz Cream of Asparagus Soup
Et cetera. Drilling down into the reference section reveals they're taken from the The Heinz Book of Meat Cookery, a photo of which can be seen on this ebay entry, presumably to add some authenticity to the claim.  Sadly most of those products are no longer in production.  Although as Snopes says, Heinz now produce over a thousand products, so you can pick and choose which once you'd like to include.

Which answers my question.  There never were just 57 Heinz varieties.  Except there were.  Sort of.

The Seventeenth Book I've Read This Year.

Books One of those books which is so readable there's a loss when it inevitably ends, especially since, having been published in 1982, it unavoidably misses out on covering another forty-years of history. More than simply the theatrical history of what appeared on stage, Sally Beauman's RSC: A History in Ten Decades instead investigates the origins of the RSC, from its original scrappy week long annual event to commemorate Shakespeare (which for years didn't even mount a production), through the building of its various venues, its many directors, the financial wrangling between the board of directors and then the arts council, the rivalry with the National Theatre and how its on stage fortunes have been dictated by critical and academic tastes.

Despite her own association with the company (at time of writing she'd been married to one of its key actors Alan Howard for ten years), Beauman is unafraid to editorialise on the shortcomings of its key players, the text is incredibly gossipy, and the architecture of the auditoriums.  At its peak, the RSC was running six or seven different performance spaces between Stratford and London with numerous seasons of plays and transfers and if nothing else, the book has helped me to understand the provenance of the various programmes I've been collecting lately.  The moment when the book stops, just on the eve of The Barbican opening feels like an extremely exciting time as the company's reputation had reached one of its many zeniths.

You can smell the spaces and rehearsal rooms.  When Trevor Nunn succeeded Peter Hall, he wanted to create a more professional almost monastic atmosphere and to that end replaced the stage cloth, the large sheet in the rehearsal room which represented the acting space.  Over the years it had become incredibly dirty and so it was ripped out and replaced with a brand new, bright white fabric and the rule was that it had to remain that way, whatever the cost, smoking, food, drink and shoes banned from the space and it remained that way through all of his rehearsals.  Then John Barton took over to rehearse his Twelfth Night and when Nunn returned afterward the sheet was as dirty and filled with cigarette burns as its predecessor.  He realised that some things couldn't be changed.

What Is A Weblog? A Proposal.

Life Just over, my god, fifteen years ago, a friend introduced me to a book publishers who were looking for someone to write an introduction to weblogs.  The remit from them wasn't very well defined so although on reflection they might have been looking for more of a "how to" book, I offered a general overview of the, urk, blogosphere of that moment with interviews and anecdotes.

For years I've thought that just the short proposal had survived, which was already posted here back in 2016, but in the process of sorting through my hard drives, I've found the complete document, with overview, chapter breakdown and complete first chapter.  I haven't looked at this in years obviously, but still below in all of its unvarnished glory.

Obviously, it's a full on Proustion nostalgia serum injected directly into the veins. For all of us who try to intermittently keep things going, this whole world has gone now. Almost all of the blogs listed have gone, many years past either because the writers got on with their lives or simply moved to another media, probably YouTube or Twitter. Seems fitting that I should put it up here, just a year off this blog's twentieth birthday.

A chronological list of available Royal Shakespeare Company productions and where to watch them.

Theatre is ephemeral.  Records often exist. There will be programmes. Costumes kept in archives along with photographs, annotated scripts, director's notes.  But outside of the publication of the text, it's mostly fleeting, an experience between actors and audiences which mostly lives on in the memories of participants, for better or worse.

Some productions survive.  Quite often they'll be recorded by the company or theatre either on audio or video, usually with a camera filming the whole stage from a fixed point, available for future academics and practitioners to view at the theatre or connected building.  The National Video Archive of Performance contains plenty of those.

Increasingly, though, national theatres including the National Theatre are filming their productions for a commercial audience, either through cinema projection or DVD release or both.  During the lockdown many of these recordings have been made available for free or a small donation and there are now streaming subscription services containing dozens of past shows.

Britbox have recently made twenty-five of the recent RSC Live presentations available alongside their television archive for £5.99 a month and I thought it would be useful or interesting to watch them in their original seasons and recreate the thematic connections, the experience of turning up in Stratford-Upon-Avon and looking at the poster outside.  Which necessitated making a list.

Then I wondered what other Shakespeare productions across the years are available in some form or other, outside of their archived audio or video, whole shows and also excerpts either in compilation releases or television documentaries.  How much of the RSC's bard history is available to the general public either filmed in theatre or reproduced in a studio setting?

Plenty and not much.  As you'll see, from this chronology I've created over the past week, people with academic credentials have access to a number of mid-twentieth century productions recorded for BBC television through Box of Broadcasts (and the BBC Shakespeare Archive Resource).  Outside of that there are a few other similar studio bound reproductions, usually starring Sir Ian McKellen.

There are also excerpts, snatches of productions or whole acts and the sources for these are included below (records or documentaries), although I've excluded the particular Act or Scene numbers to keep the list relatively simple to read, but that's usually a click away.  The link in each title will take you to a production profile which may contain photographs.

Where possible I've also linked to somewhere you can actually watch or see these plays, either right then or through subscriptions and purchases.  There is further archive material on the RSC website, the Birthplace Trust archive (which was invaluable in compiling this list), the RSC's YouTube channel begun in 2010 and the exhibition pages at Google Arts & Culture.

A Thousand Observations on Film Art.

Film The utterly superb, Observations on film art, by film theorists Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell has reached its thousandth post. Authors of Film Art: An Introduction, the book which helped shepherd me through university and especially my dissertation, they began writing digitally in order to provide an adjunct to the limited page limit of the book. But it also allowed them to apply the principles to new releases.  The blog has since gone on to encompass all aspects of film culture, with festival reviews and offer annual reviews of films released a century ago.

Is Taylor Swift gay?

Music As I let the new Swift album roll over me in waves, I've been seeking wild interpretations of the lyrics. Come on board this Vulture deep dive into into the song betty and what Taylor might be saying about herself (sorry about the pure click bate in the title, Twitter clickers). As with the best conspiracy theories / literary criticism, there's plenty in here which seems plausible and even a mike-drop moment in relation to Karlie Kloss.  Is it true?  Perhaps like Shakespeare's "sonnets", we'll never truly know, and that's ok.  It's not really any of our business.
[Related: The Untold Story of Rebekah Harkness, the source for "the last great american dynasty"]

Dan Martin RIP.

TV The NME reports that journalist and screenwriter Dan Martin has died, he was 41. The cause of death has not been made public. That NME article demonstrates how much he was adored in the music community, but it's weekly Doctor Who review in The Guardian for which I knew him best, which he began writing at the start of the Matt Smith era in 2010 and although I didn't agree with everything he wrote, because what would be the point if we all thought the same thing, his was always the review I went to first after completing my own screed to see what I'd missed.  As Anna says of her self, he was an important part of my love for Doctor Who.  He also wrote this survey of the wreckage surrounding Torchwood's Miracle Day, which is all to the good.

"Oh I won't have it. I'm going to fight it until the bitter end."

TV BBC Archive has posted another massive collection of clips, Eccentrics, enthusiasts and other characters, featuring the kinds of people who these days are setting fire to 5G masts and holding rallies against not wearing a mask in a shop. The title quote is from a blanketed deerstalker who's dead against lamp posts, bless him. Or how about from when Panorama was more like The One Show directed by Bela Tarr, as a farther and son craftsmen discuss the various economic merits of the busts they manufacture.

Death of a Fandom.

TV Yes, I know Taylor Beyonced an album last night (or Faux Beyonce since there were only lyric videos and it was announced a few hours before), but I've only just noticed Jenny Nicholson posted one of her rare videos three days ago and been watching that instead (folklore will come later). In The Last Bronycon: a fandom autopsy, Jenny defenestrations the My Little Pony fandom, from its weird origins, to its psycho-sexual elements and its downfall in a way which makes it palatable and relatable for outsiders.

As a member of another fandom or two, there's plenty in here which feels incredibly similar: about entryism into an existing fandom; the toxicity of gatekeeping; the weirder excesses of fandoms of fandoms and the hierarchies; bad faith outsiders trying to make a profit from the fandom; licensees misunderstanding the origins of the fandom and what makes it tick and how the actual reason the fandom exists, the product itself, becomes buried or besides the point in the face of point scoring or internal grudges.

Due to the origins of Bronyism and the kinds of people it attracted, even posting this video feels like an act of bravery, especially considering some of the revelations within in which she talks about how she's added to the toxicity herself. But the comments underneath, some four thousand so far, are overwhelming positive and questioning and hopeful. If nothing else, some of it indirectly explains why Equestria Girls exists and you'll never look at a body pillow in the same way again.

The tricks to make yourself effortlessly charming.

Life This old BBC article from 2017 bubbled up to the surface of my pocket recommendations and although some of it feels like hogwash, I did find myself nodding along with swathes. The key problem I've seen is when your attempts at charm click over into creepiness. When someone is asking just too many questions and getting just a little bit too close, causing your skin to crawl.  Although that's obviously become less of a problem lately.
[Related: ‘Remember to smile with your eyes’: how to stay safe and look great in a face mask.]


Social Media The Empojipedia is a Rosetta stone of digital symbolic communication, showing how various software companies has bent their house style around various emojis. For things like "grinning face" the variations aren't too huge, but the more complex the picture being communication, the greater the variance. This array of unicorns. These athletes. A housing estate.

Drawing speed.

Art Local Liverpool artist Colette Lilley has opened a YouTube channel to showcase her skills through time-lapse photography. Her introductory video is above and you can visit the channel here.  Incredible.

"Who is the most-famous person you have a photo with?"

Life This tweet meme has been knocking around for a few days and I haven't had an answer. As a rule, I've tended to avoid meeting people of note on the basis that I like not knowing if they're a div or not. It's one of the reasons I've also sworn off Doctor Who conventions and watching most celebrity interviews unless they're on-point.

There is a shot from Speke Carnival in the late 70s of the baby version of me and Buzby, British Telecom's big yellow marketing bird, but that probably doesn't count, but the closest I could think of is this, taken by a security guard at the BBC's New Broadcasting House a couple of years ago when you could still just wander into reception off the street:

The t-shirt was entirely coincidental.  Does an inanimate object count if its portrayed as being somewhat sentient in a television programme?  Probably not, but at least it can't disappoint you in real life.

"Why couldn't it be that day?"

Film 'The world is in a state of turmoil': why time-loop movies resonate in 2020. Short piece from The Guardian about how time loop movies resonate in the current situation, which talks the screenwriters and directors of all the greats, like Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day and See You Tomorrow. When I first brought an Alexa, I set it to wake me up with I've Got You Babe. That stopped being funny relatively quickly.

Richard II in New York.

Theatre Because Shakespeare in the Park is cancelled this year, WNYC in New Tork have recorded a radio version and it's available to download here. Cast includes Lupita Nyong’o, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Merritt Janson and Phylicia Rashad.

Romola on Directing.

Film It would be remiss of me not to notice that while Romola Garai waits to play the fourteenth Doctor (or whatever - who knows how many incarnations there have been at this point), she's been directing a horror film, the really creepy trailer for which is above. Here's a short interview with Romola about directing with a "you don't look like the type who's into horror films" guy:

The film was at Sundance, so there are plenty of interviews and panels around.

Leonard Maltin!

Also a few written interviews:

Sundance 2020 Interview: Romola Garai on the Horrors You Can’t Shake with “Amulet”

‘Amulet’ Filmmakers Reveal the Secrets of Blood Effects: You Blow Into a Tube

‘Amulet’ Helmer Romola Garai Was Inspired By The Move Of “Female Filmmakers Into The Genre Space” – Sundance Studio

Sundance 2020 Women Directors: Meet Romola Garai – “Amulet”

From Dirty Dancing 2 To Director — Romola Garai’s Horror Movie Is Headed To Sundance

Eye roll on the final headline.  Not that I'm watching or reading any of them right now - I'll wait until after I've seen the thing.  But wow, this is really quite something.

Be Kind Rewind.

Video  Few YouTube channels come nicher than Be Kind Rewind which investigates the winners of the best actress categories at the Oscars, using this moment of success to talk about the film making business at that time, why the particular actress may have won that award, gender politics and race and a whole lot more besides.

BKR only posts once a month. These are authored, researched essays.  But I've learnt more about film history from these videos than many other sources.  Plus its great for seeing clips of films which time has forgotten.  Her most recent video is the longest yet, about the "feud" between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, debunking Ryan Murphy's tv series as a sham and lies.

The Sixteenth Book I've Read This Year.

Books Mark Kermode recommended this after an interview on the film review show when all Richard Dreyfus wanted to talk about was what a shit Michael Cimino had been rather than publicise his new release.  It's stunning a stunning memoir covering the production of all the films on the cover plus Convoy, The Wicker Man and The Man Who Fell To Earth.  Not just a string of showbiz annecdotes (all of which are incredibly funny and illuminating), it demonstrates in detail the role of the producer in putting together packages to sell to studios and working on set day-to-day to keep the production moving on budget and schedule.  Essential.

Ebi Obegbuna's Wind Verses Polygamy.

TV Earl Cameron and a lost play. John Wyver writes extensively about the lost recording of writer Ebi Obegbuna's play Wind Verses Polygamy.  I wonder at what point our cultural attitude to television changed from it being thought of as being just as ephemeral as theatre because it was rarely repeated and being disgusted that such items are no longer available in the archive.  When the BBC began its retention policy?  When the first domestic VHS recorders were produced?  The first commercial video tapes making some of this material available and therefore leading us to wonder what could be made available?