Archive | October, 2013

Blatant Theft – The Cure for Writer’s Block

25 Oct

Blog Pic

It’s never nice to be accused of plagiarism. I’ve only had it happen once or twice, and never in the serious, “We’re-taking-your-ass-to-court” meaning of the word. Rather, it was suggested that I’d borrowed one or two elements from someone else’s work. The first time was when some character on a Doctor Who forum claimed I’d lifted – word for word – a lengthy bit of dialogue from an episode of Red Dwarf – an episode which, funnily enough, I hadn’t seen. The second time was when someone pointed out similarities between a script I’d written and a popular video game… one that was released a good 6 years after I last owned a games console.

It was one of these bad boys. I shit you not.

It was one of these bad boys. I shit you not.

In both cases, what it boiled down to was coincidence, similarity, and nothing more. In a similar way, I once asked (*NAME-DROP KLAXON*) Steven Moffat whether Borges’s The Library of Babel had influenced Silence in the Library, only to have him look at me like I’d belched in his face. He’d never even heard of Borges, let alone read the story. Again… Coincidence. If enough ideas are floating in the ether, more than one writer will grab them and use them to their own ends, resulting in similar stories by authors ignorant of each other’s work.

"You know nothing of my work. Oh... You actually know nothing of my work?" - Jorge Luis Borges

“You know nothing of my work. Oh… You actually know nothing of my work?” – Jorge Luis Borges

But while being accused of theft is a little upsetting (after the video game one I flew into a blind panic for several days), there are times when outright, blatant theft is a good thing.

Pictured: Not the kind of theft I'm talking about.

Pictured: Not the kind of theft I’m talking about.

So when is it OK to steal? Well, I’m talking about those times when you’re trying to come up with an idea, but you hit a brick wall. My advice, in this situation, is that you turn to a source – could be ancient mythology, the collected works of Shakespeare, or an author whose work is now in the public domain – and you pillage it for all its worth. If that idea plagues your conscience, and you think it sounds like cheating, don’t take my word for it. Here are some popular works whose stories seemed oddly familiar…

aka 'Hamlet... With Lions'

The Lion King, aka ‘Hamlet… With Lions’

aka 'The Odyssey... With Folk Songs'

O Brother, Where Art Thou… aka ‘The Odyssey… With Folk Songs’

aka 'Romeo and Juliet... With Jazz Hands'

West Side Story… aka ‘Romeo & Juliet… With Jazz Hands’

aka 'The Tempest... In Space'

The Forbidden Planet… aka ‘The Tempest… In Space’

And that’s just the films. Joyce’s Ulysses is – quite brazenly – The Odyssey, stripped of deities and updated to Dublin. Stephen King admits that the starting point for Salem’s Lot was “Dracula meets Peyton Place”. In his introduction to The Magus, John Fowles suggests that it was modelled – albeit subconsciously – on Dickens’s Great Expectations.

The trick, when stealing a story, is to use only its core ingredients as your starting point. Pitch it to yourself by giving it a different setting, and see how far you get. I’ll come up with one right now – I promise, this will be off the top of my head – and we’ll see how far we get with it.

The Odyssey, but set in a garage.

So how would that work? It might be difficult – but fun – trying to adapt the earlier parts of the Odyssey to the confines of a garage, so perhaps we should stick to the later parts, when Ulysses returns to Ithaca and finds his wife, Penelope, beset on all sides by a small army of suitors, eager to take his place. Perhaps our Ulysses – let’s call him Bob – is a mechanic, the previous owner of the garage. He’s been away some time (prison?), but now he’s back, only to find that some other man is trying to usurp him. As well as taking over Bob’s business, perhaps this man is making overtures to his wife, and has become a father figure to his son, our modern-day Telemachus?

Sequences like this may be harder to adapt.

Sequences like this may be harder to adapt.

Already, it feels like it could work as a kind of Get Carter-ish crime thriller, or a straight-up drama with a bit of gangster movie bubbling underneath. Actually, if anything it feels a little like an episode of Eastenders, which – given the show’s wild fluctuations in quality over the years – is neither a good nor a bad thing. Maybe you think this story is a terrible idea. Doesn’t matter. What matters right now is that you have a starting point.

Obviously, this method won’t always work, and it’s always worth checking to see if someone already had the same idea as you (there are so many gangster Macbeths), but as “writing exercises” go, it’s a pretty good one, and a great means to blow away the cobwebs.

“Iris has left the building…”

14 Oct

Iris Prize

So another Iris Prize Festival has come and gone, and now I’ve got that day-after-Boxing-Day feeling – a combination of extreme lethargy and mild melancholy.

As always, I spent my five days at the festival writing the website’s official blog, which you can read right here, but there were a few films I wanted to mention here, in the Forest of Beasts.



The Iris Prize itself – the opportunity to shoot another short film, with a budget of £25,000, in the UK – went to Gorilla, from Australian director Tim Marshall. It was a surprise choice – my personal favourites were The Last Time I Saw Richard, a quasi-horror-movie set in a psychiatric institution, and For Dorian, about a father’s dawning realisation that his teenage son – who has Down’s syndrome – might be gay. That said, the very unusualness (unusualosity?) of the decision is kind of cool, and demonstrates more than a little “thinking outside the box” on the jury’s behalf.

From Gorilla.

From Gorilla.

The award for Best British Short went to My Mother (pictured, top), from Cardiff-based director Jay Bedwani. If you get the chance to check out this 10 minute portrait of a San Francisco drag artist, please do. It’s warm, intimate and beautifully made, and the subject, Gustavo, is just so frank and endlessly fascinating. Though there were only two UK films in competition this year, My Mother would have been a deserving winner any year.

The features programme included Silent Youth, an excellent German drama about the burgeoning relationship between two inarticulate young men. Inarticulacy is a really difficult thing to pull off in film or literature – the temptation for many writers is to make their characters so much more fluent and confident than anyone in real life, and rendering your characters virtually mute can make them boring – but this movie was utterly gripping and handsomely shot on location in and around Berlin.

From Silent Youth.

From Silent Youth.

Elsewhere, there were more candy-coloured delights to be found in Israeli director Eytan Fox’s Cupcakes and US teen comedy GBF, both of which were very funny and endearing. (Cupcakes went on to win the audience award for Best Feature.)

Possibly the most interesting – or, certainly, the most controversial – feature on show this year was James Franco and Travis Matthews’s Interior. Leather Bar. This is the pseudo-documentary in which Franco and Matthews, playing themselves, set out to recreate the “missing 40 minutes” from William Friedkin’s 1980 movie Cruising. The film is surprisingly funny – much of it is played for giggles – but also very explicit.  However, those expecting out-and-out porn are likely to be disappointed (I’m fairly certain I heard the bored squeaking of leather chaps from those who’d turned up expecting non-stop bondage). Instead, it serves as an interesting essay on movie censorship, and the hypocrisy of a system (mainly, in this case, the MPAA) that is tougher on scenes of intimacy than scenes of barbaric violence.

Pictured: Interior. Leather Bar and Saw 3D. Also: Hypocrisy.

Pictured: Interior. Leather Bar and Saw 3D. Also: Hypocrisy.

Overall, the standard of films this year was another step up. LGBT cinema has come on in leaps in bounds in the 6 years since Iris began. You still get an abundance of “coming out” stories, of course, as you might expect, but these seem to make up a smaller fraction of the programme with each passing year. There will always be room for stories about coming out, for as long as people feel the need to come out, but the onus is on the filmmakers to find new and interesting ways to tell that story.

Shortly before this year’s Iris a friend – who is gay – asked me if I thought there was a specific need for festivals like Iris, or London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, or LA’s Outfest, and – though I know I’m hardly impartial – I replied that there is. Many cinema chains and distributors work along on a principle of “That’s your lot” when it comes to queer cinema. So this year, for example, we’ve had Behind the Candelabra, and it did very well in cinemas, but can you name one other film with gay or lesbian protagonists that played your local multiplex this year? If you live in the States, you didn’t even get to see the Liberace biopic on the big screen.

You were, however, treated to these fucking abominations.

You were, however, treated to these fucking abominations.

Film streaming sites like Netflix – which has a pretty good selection of recent LGBT films – are making it even easier to access queer cinema in the comfort of your own home, as are LGBT interest labels such as TLA in the US and Peccadillo Pictures in the UK, but thanks to a combination of market forces and distributor over-cautiousness, you won’t see many of these titles in the cinema. Niche festivals can give those films a showcase that’s both practical and commercially viable, and which ultimately can appeal to those outside the “community” too. (30% of the audience members at Iris, for example, identify as heterosexual.)

What’s more, in a world where LGBT rights are taking massive, retro-steps toward the Dark Ages in places such Russia, Cameroon and Iran, anything that offers a public platform for LGBT voices from around the world has to be a good thing.

“Hoots, mon! Where’s ma heid?” – ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the WMC

6 Oct

Maria Stuarda

And so to the final installment in Welsh National Opera’s Tudor Trilogy, Donizetti’s trio of operas based on Tudor queens. Last week we had the stylish but musically limp Anna Bolena, about Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife; then, on Wednesday, it was the turn of Elizabeth I in the truly showstopping Roberto DevereuxLast night the stage was taken once again by Elizabeth I, squaring up to her nemesis and cousin, Mary Stuart, better known as Mary Queen of Scots.

Chronologically, in terms of both story and order of composition, this is the middle chapter in Donizetti’s Tudor epic. Here, Elizabeth is a younger queen, but just as prone to bitter jealousy as the older, more brazenly villainous character seen in Devereux. Maria Stuarda forms a kind of spiritual bridge between Bolena – in which Elizabeth’s mother Anne is a woman (to borrow a Shakespearean turn of phrase) more sinned against than sinning and Devereux, in which Elizabeth proves to be every bit her father’s daughter when it comes to the ruthless elimination of former flames.

In its first half Stuarda performs a kind of seesaw between Elizabeth and Mary, the first few scenes focused almost exclusively on the Elizabethan court before the action shifts to Mary’s incarceration at Fotheringhay Castle. Even so, Mary is a constant presence. Madeleine Boyd’s set – again using the same plain black background as Devereux and Bolena – is dominated by two large, cuboid cells. One, dressed with ornate, mahogany-like panels, belongs to Elizabeth; the other, identical in size and shape, is its bare, skeletal twin, representing Mary’s prison cell at Fotheringhay.

Maria Stuarda

As we’ve already seen in both Bolena and Devereux, Donizetti couldn’t even count the number of fucks he gave for historical accuracy on one finger, so it’s no surprise that he has Elizabeth and Mary meet. That said, this is a common feature in many dramatic portrayals of the story, with the two squaring up to each other in just about every movie and TV series based on them, from Mary of Scotland (starring Katherine Hepburn) to Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton).

Where Donizetti goes one further than his TV and big screen successors is in doing away with much of the political and religious turmoil behind the cousins’ bitter rivalry, reducing it to its basest – and most historically inaccurate – elements. You see, according to Donizetti, Elizabeth hated Mary not because she was a Catholic who plotted against Elizabeth’s life but because she was having an affair with Elizabeth’s favourite – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

"Hold the fucking phone..."

“Oh no she di’in’t.”

The midpoint confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary, in which Mary – who has had it up to here with Elizabeth’s trash talk – turns the tables on her captor, calling her a “whore” and a “vile bastard”, was enough to make the WMC audience gasp in 2013, and over 150 years earlier saw the opera more or less banned throughout much of the 19th Century. It’s certainly dramatic stuff…

But no. This Footballers Wives-like confrontation didn’t actually happen. Nor, when Mary was about to climb the scaffold, did Leicester draw a semi-automatic handgun and shoot himself in the chest. This addition – which caused some of those sat near us to giggle – is more the work of director Rudolf Frey than Donizetti, and was one of several baffling notes in the production, alongside Lord Burleigh’s strangely anachronistic clip folder and the impromptu fag break that Mary and her servant Hannah take when no-one’s looking.

Now, I know what you’ll say. You’ll say, “Hey, didn’t you enjoy Roberto Devereux? And didn’t that involve the queen riding around on a giant mechanical spider?” And yes, you’re right on both counts, but with Devereux, a certain, expressionistic visual licence was present from the get-go. Here, no visual or artistic justification is given for these  flourishes – the production doesn’t earn them – and so when they appear they simply seem a little silly.

Though it's still unlikely to win the coveted "Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013".

Though it’s still unlikely to win the coveted “Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013”.

This is a shame, as out of all three operas Maria Stuarda has perhaps the most well-rounded and sympathetic protagonist, and comes closest to feeling like a genuine tragedy – rather than a brutal spat between jealous, sex-mad aristocrats. Donizetti’s use of the chorus here is at its strongest, and – save for a single bum note fairly early on – Judith Howarth’s performance as Mary has been a highlight of the whole trilogy.

The device of the two boxes, mirroring one another, works splendidly in some scenes (the moment when Mary plays “reflection” to Elizabeth, only to have her throat “cut” with a daub of paint, was a visual stand-out), but in others leaves the main cast and chorus with far too little space to move around, pushing them awkwardly out to the periphery. The production, on the whole, doesn’t feel quite as tight as Devereux or Bolena, both of which were directed by Alessandro Talevi. That said, the opera’s climax – Leicester’s gun-play aside – is every bit as gripping as – and possibly more moving than – its stablemates’.

Maria Stuarda

All in all, the Tudors Trilogy has been a pleasure, and a success. It goes on tour next week, and will visit Swansea, Oxford, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Llandudno, and Southampton. Though it’s certainly worth seeing all three operas, if you can only make it to the one, I would recommend Roberto Devereux, for brevity, eccentricity and all out, balls-to-the-wall drama.

When Slacktivism Isn’t Enough – A few thoughts on the destruction of Newport’s chartist mural

4 Oct

Chartist Mural

So Newport Council have only gone and done it. They’ve taken a 35-year-old mural by artist Kenneth Budd, commemorating the city’s 1839 Chartist uprising, and driven a bloody great big JCB right through it. Its 200,000 pieces of coloured tile (the mural took the form of a vast mosaic along an underpass) are now a far less artistic pile of rubble.

To say this move went down like a turd at a pool party would be an understatement. There have been protests and petitions, and both Twitter and Facebook were aflame with outrage – certainly in this neck of the woods.

I must confess, though dimly aware that this was in the pipeline I hadn’t really followed the story until yesterday. I was disappointed Newport Council were planning to do this, but hadn’t involved myself. When the first pictures appeared, yesterday afternoon, of a gaping hole in the middle of the mural, I asked if, perhaps, they’d considered taking it down and putting it up again somewhere else, such as the open-air Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans. This is what happened when the Vulcan Hotel, one of the most perfectly preserved old pubs in Cardiff, was bulldozed to allow for an additional 3 or 4 parking spaces in one of the city centre’s many car parks.

Vulcan Hotel circled in red. As you can see from the chock full car park surrounding it, they really needed those 3 or 4 spaces.

Vulcan Hotel circled in red. As you can see from the chock full car park surrounding it, they really needed those 3 or 4 spaces.

I was told that when this idea was floated, Newport Council came up with a figure of £600,000. That’s how much it would cost, they said, to take Budd’s mural apart as carefully as they could, because it was fixed to a load-bearing wall. As yesterday’s images testify, this was clearly bullshit. The mural was fixed to a surface 6 or 7 inches from the load-bearing wall. Newport Council must have plucked that six-figure sum from thin air, or fed false information to whoever quoted them that figure.

Pictured: Why Newport Council are full of shit.

Pictured: Why Newport Council are full of shit.

Even allowing for the council’s philistinism, however, a nagging thought persists. Though I don’t doubt that the organisers behind the Facebook page Save Our Chartist Mural put a lot of time and effort into their campaign, was there ever a point when anyone suggested raising the money to save the mural from destruction?

Petition, Twitter page, but no crowd funding page, so I'll assume the answer is "No".

Petition, Twitter page, but no crowd funding page, so I’ll assume the answer is “No”.

Now, OK, with a figure like £600,000 being bandied about by the council I wouldn’t imagine the 2,546 people who “liked” the page could have raised that kind of money themselves – it would have meant an average donation of £236 each. Even if you were to canvass every person living in Newport and get them to cough up the cash that would still mean a sum of over £4 a head. But that doesn’t mean it would have been impossible.

Of all the political parties, you might expect Labour to show at least some interest in the mural, with it symbolising an important event in the history of social activism and democracy in Britain. The party has 216 peers in the House of Lords, and I can guarantee many of them aren’t short of a “bob or two”. Did anyone write to any of them, asking not for their support but their cash? If not, why not?

This isn’t an exercise in finger-pointing, because really, when it comes to bitching about Newport Council demolishing this mural but doing nothing whatsoever to stop them, I’m as guilty – if not more so – than anyone else, and my great idea – to brow-beat wealthy lefties into opening their wallets – only occurred to me once the mural was destroyed. But the impotent dismay with which people have met this latest depressing move by a local council speaks volumes about how ineffectual so-called slacktivism is.

"I really wish I'd stayed at home and written an angry blog post for HuffPo instead."

“I really wish I’d stayed at home and written an angry blog post for HuffPo instead.”

The fact that this was a mural celebrating the Chartist uprising – during which people actually died for their beliefs – only highlights this even further. In slacktivism world the Chartists would have signed a petition and expected their overwhelming sense of indignation to exert some mystical, unseen force on the powers that be. In 2013, we sign a petition and like a Facebook page and square up to a body as mindless, blinkered and uncaring as a local council armed only with sentiment and good intentions. We ask that the things that mean something to us are saved, preserved and protected in perpetuity, without ever suggesting how this might be achieved.

Whether or not you agree with this dismal and depressing “Age of Austerity”, it’s our present reality. Petitions are all well and good, but they carry far less weight than cold, hard cash. As vulgar and ugly as many left-leaning folk may find the idea of private wealth, it makes a far more effective weapon when you’re dealing with penny-pinching, commercially minded councils than a Facebook page with over 2,000 “likes”.

Kiss of the Spider Queen – ‘Roberto Devereux’ at the WMC

3 Oct

Roberto Devereux

Having been mightily impressed by the staging – even if I wasn’t blown away by the music – in the WNO’s Anna Bolena, I jumped at the chance to watch the next part of Donizetti’s loose Tudor-themed trilogy, Roberto Devereux. 

This opera is the shortest of the three, and chronologically the last installment, and it brings to a close the Tudor dynasty, ending with (SPOILER ALERT) Queen Elizabeth I abdicating and handing her throne over to James I.

"Say whaaat?"

“Say whaaat?”

“Erm,” I hear you say. “But didn’t Elizabeth die before James became king?”

Yes. Yes she did. And do you know what Gaetano Donizetti says to that? “Fuck you and your historical accuracy,” is what he says. Followed by, “I’m Gaetano Donizetti, bitch.” You see, as already mentioned in my previous post, Donizetti’s approach to British history was more than a little cavalier. With the real life Elizabeth dying an inconvenient 2 years after the real life Earl of Essex, the composer and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano decided to throw the history books out of the window and just make that shit up.

So, instead of a nuanced tale in which Devereux – Earl of Essex and Elizabeth’s favourite – incurs the wrath of both his queen and the privy council by getting a bit big for his boots, we have a tawdry love quadrangle in which Elizabeth loves Devereux, but Devereux loves Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, wife of the Duke of Nottingham… whose real-life counterpart married women called Catherine and Margaret, but never a Sara. To which Donizetti would no doubt say, “What the fuck did you expect me to do? Ain’t got no Wikipedia. This is the 1830s. And besides… I’m Gaetano Donizetti, bitch.”

He's played here by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul.

His attitude is just the worst.

Similar licence is taken by the WNO. Like Anna Bolena, the costumes and sets here are – on the whole – kept to a minimum, with the chorus and supporting cast dressed in black, quasi-Elizabethan get-up, the backdrops painted matte black with the occasional – and often sinister – use of an opaque screen. Whereas in Anna Bolena we had to wait for the opera’s climax for the introduction of colour, with the doomed Anne donning a red cloak before marching off to the scaffold, here her daughter Elizabeth (Alexandra Deshorties) is clad in Vivienne Westwoodish red from the start. In Anna Bolena the cloak symbolises blood; in Roberto Devereux we have a queen already drenched in the stuff.

If this understated, ahistorical approach to costume offends the purists, I’d love to know what they make of the giant mechanical spider. Yes, you read that correctly. At a particularly dramatic point in the opera, with Devereux’s fate hanging in the balance, Elizabeth climbs onto her large and decidedly spindly looking throne – which proceeds to stalk after him like a giant spider.

Roberto Devereux

It’s a startling image, matched – thankfully – by the composer actually growing a pair.

In Anna Bolena any moments of high emotion, whether it was melancholy, passion or terror, are undercut time and time again by Donizetti resorting to bizarrely inappropriate rum-ti-tum-ti-tum motifs, as if he thought anything more furious or emotional would be uncouth. Here, in an opera composed only 3 years later, he occasionally dares to take off his gloves. This is heard, from the word go, in the overture. Whereas Anna Bolena’s is pleasant but a tad bland, Roberto Devereux’s is what would happen if God Save the Queen (the anthem, not the Sex Pistols tune) was reworked by a firework-obsessed ADHD sufferer, and it really sets the tone for what follows.

It’s understandable, then, with the opera consisting of increasingly (melo)dramatic set pieces, that director Alessandro Talevi should choose to give it such an eccentric, almost David Lynch-like treatment, with Deshortie’s terrifying Elizabeth a cross between Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond and a velociraptor in a frock. The touches of Grand Guignol toward the end were much appreciated too, and helped add a little punch to Donizetti’s music, which – despite his growing a pair and taking off his gloves etc. – still keeps well away from emotional extremes. The sudden flash of light revealing a forest of severed heads on spikes was particularly heart-stopping, as was the stark silhouette of the Queen against blood red lighting at the beginning of Act 2.

Roberto Devereux

Where the opera fails is again down to a combination of Donizetti and real life, rather than this particular production. His Devereux – despite some great work from (the very easy on the eye) Leonardo Capaldo – remains an unconvincing tortured hero, even after he’s given his own “woe is me” prison cell aria, and knowing just how scheming and arrogant his real-life counterpart was doesn’t help matters. What’s more, both he and the Duke of Nottingham (David Kempster) are written as hot-blooded and phlegmatic in a way that seems more Mediterranean than English… but perhaps it wouldn’t have functioned as opera had Nottingham responded to his wife’s infidelity in the manner of John Le Mesurier.

"Having an affair with the Earl of Essex, you say? Oh, well. Can't be helped."

“Having an affair with the Earl of Essex, you say? My word…”

If, after two installments (I’m seeing Maria Stuarda on Saturday) I’ve learned anything about Donizetti, and about the WNO’s Three Queens Trilogy, it’s that the trick is simply to let go, to stop harking after the emotional turmoil of later Verdi, and to forget everything you’ve read about the Tudors, and treat them as surreal and tragic melodramas with singing. Then, they make for a very entertaining experience.