Archive | July, 2015

Arrakis me quick: my four Guardian features on the 50th anniversary of Dune

18 Jul
Baron Harkonnen by Sam Weber, for the Folio Society's 50th anniversary edition of Dune

Baron Harkonnen by Sam Weber, for the Folio Society’s 50th anniversary edition of Dune

When I was a kid, I packed a book in my lunchbox every day: always science-fiction or fantasy. To this day when I smell bananas I think of spaceships. I’d get so wrapped up in a book I’d read it not just on the bus, but walking along the street to the bus, like people do now with phones. I got through so many sci-fi books that one day I found I’d read the library dry. I just went back and started re-reading them all.

Recently, I found a purpose for all this useless knowledge: the Guardian commissioned me to write a series of articles about Dune, for the Folio Society’s special 50th anniversary edition. I hadn’t just read the book five times as a kid – I’d won a Mastermind-style contest at prep school with Dune as my special subject. So writing the intro piece, about how Frank Herbert had initially been rejected by 23 publishers, was a blast.

I also had to compile and review 25 top works of sci-fi and fantasy. I found I had read all but two of them (and with those I had seen the films), which simplified research somewhat. Nice to have my misspent youth coming in handy.

But my favourite piece was an idea I had, that they weren’t sure about until I wrote it: a travel guide to Dune, written as though for the discerning intergalactic traveller of the future.

Throw in a picture gallery and interview with Sam Weber, the amazing illustrator of the Folio Society’s prestige edition, and you have one of my favourite commissions of recent times.

I’m only sorry I didn’t get to write about the Dune film. But I did interview David Lynch a while back, and you can read that here.

If you’re a Dune fan, I hope you enjoy these articles – just click the links above. If you’re not – why not?!

“I’m not beautiful”: Audrey Hepburn at the National Portrait Gallery

16 Jul

Catalogue_coverIt’s telling that Audrey Hepburn, subject of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and one of the world’s most photographed and adored women, did not think of herself as beautiful.  Her son Luca Dotti said recently that the best Audrey could say about her looks was that she had “a good mixture of defects. She thought she had a big nose and big feet, and she was too skinny and not enough breast. She would look in the mirror and say, ‘I don’t understand why people see me as beautiful.’”

If even Audrey Hepburn can’t see herself as beautiful, where does that leave modern women, with another half a century behind them of commercial propaganda pushing unrealistic beauty standards? But what’s interesting about the exhibition is how Hepburn used what she had. Seeing so many portraits of her by so many of the world’s top photographers, you begin to notice a pattern. She holds her head up, to diminish her nose; elongates her neck; uses her ballet-dancer-trained poise to graceful effect.

“She was very much in control of her own image,” the exhibition’s curator, Helen Trompeteler, told me when I interviewed her for Where London magazine. “Edith Head [the celebrated Hollywood costume designer and model for The Incredibles’ Edna “E” Mode] talked of fittings with her which took hours – Hepburn knew exactly what worked for her and how she wanted to appear. She worked closely with photographers, knew what angle was best for her, saw all the contact sheets.”

Where LondonBut there’s more to it than that. Because she didn’t feel she could rely just on her looks, Hepburn always worked hard, and was, quite simply, nice to people. “Obviously she was extremely talented and beautiful,” says Trompeteler, “but she was modest about her achievements. My personal fascination with her is that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the roles of women were changing so dramatically, she was able to respond to that and create a distinct look for herself – that timeless Hepburn look that has so much currency today.”

Hepburn ended her days working tirelessly for disadvantaged children around the world on behalf of UNICEF, a charity which had helped her family, along with many others, in a Holland starved and ravaged by the second world war. Did the film-going public fall in love with her just for her looks, or for her personality? I think the latter.

The photographer and essayist Cecil Beaton, who later won Academy Awards for his costume designs on Gigi and My Fair Lady, attempted to convey her appeal in an article in Vogue in 1954: “She is like a portrait by Modigliani, where the various distortions are not only interesting in themselves but make a completely satisfying composite… She is a wistful child of a war-chided era, and the shadow thrown across her youth underlines even more its precious evanescence. But if she can reflect sorrow, she seems also to enjoy the happiness life provides for her with such bounty.”

Or as Cary Grant more succinctly said, after filming Charade, “All I want for Christmas is another movie with Audrey Hepburn.”

Curiouser & curiouser: Alice in Wonderland exhibition

15 Jul
Bryan Talbot's Jabberwock, from Alice in Sunderland

Bryan Talbot’s Jabberwock, from Alice in Sunderland

Come down the rabbit-hole with me, to the Cartoon Museum’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition. It opens today in celebration of the book’s 150th anniversary, and the press launch was last night.

The most striking part of the show is what a gift Lewis Carroll’s creation has been to political satirists. Not all are wildly original: there are five books in a glass case all weakly punning on the title – Adolf in Blunderland, Malice in Kulturland, Wilson in Wonderland, Alice in Wonderground and Alice in Plunderland! They might have added Russell Brand’s TV show Ponderland, and the current kids’ TV fantasy spin on that, Yonderland.

They are in good company, however. There are two Punch cartoons by the definitive Alice illustrator, John Tenniel, parodying his own work: Alice in Blunderland (1880) derides the erection of the Temple Bar Memorial, and Alice in Bumbleland (1898) attacks the bill to divide the County of London into 28 metropolitan boroughs. I guess you had to have been there.

And there are a few really clever ones. My favourite might be the Vietnam War-era cartoon by Robert O. Bastian, with Lyndon B. Johnson as the Duchess and Chairman Mao as the Cheshire Cat. It’s captioned: “Speak roughly to your little boy, and beat him when he sneezes/ He only does it to Hanoi because he knows it teases”!

An honourable mention, too, to Victor Weisz of the Evening Standard in 1961, when strike action by teachers led to school closures: “That’s why they are called lessons,” he quotes from the Gryphon, “because they lessen every day.”

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is, of course, a gift to political illustrators, but the best use of Humpty Dumpty must be Les Gibbard’s in 1988. It portrays the ovate Mr. Dumpty toppling at the feet of Edwina Currie as Alice, after Currie’s comments about salmonella had wrought havoc in the British egg industry.

The ad industry co-opted Alice, too, particularly Guinness, who have a series of poorly pastiched poems on posters around the Cartoon Museum, of which one good line stands out: ‘Off with its head!’ cried the Queen. ‘Nonsense!’ replied Alice. ‘Guinness keeps its head.’”

The rest you’ll have to find out for yourselves. Look out for Ralph Steadman’s striking Patty Hearst trial illustration, and the great comic writer/artist Bryan Talbot tackling Tenniel head-on in his wonderful graphic novel Alice in Sunderland.

Kudos, by the way, to the magician in a Mad Hatter’s hat who performed close-up tricks. I was also rewarded with a story for gallantly giving up my seat to a lovely lady who turned out to work for the Museum. The seat in question was a toilet seat, for which I had been first in line, at which she directed me to the upstairs loo: “It’s said to be haunted, so most of the staff refuse to use it.”

Intriguing. Clearly JK Rowling was on to something with Moaning Myrtle.

A flight of films: eight recent reviews from Chappie to X+Y

5 Jul

I love travelling. It’s not so much the exotic food, the stunning landscapes, the interesting people – it’s the seven hours of uninterrupted films on the flight, with even more time now that airlines have started allowing the in-flight entertainment to run before take-off and after landing. I’m just back from Canada with British Airways, which allowed me to catch up on several movies I missed at the cinema. Here’s what’s worth your time – and what’s not:

chappieChappie ***: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was pretty awesome, coming seemingly out of nowhere; Elysium a lot less so. Chappie falls somewhere in the middle. A police robot is given an AI programme and becomes sentient, sadly with a cutesy baby voice at first and some annoyingly twee attempts at learning about human life from the low-rent gangstas who co-opt him into a heist. But though it lays on the sentiment with a builder’s trowel, enough of it sticks to get to you in the end.

ex-machina-movieEx Machina ****: All those years of writing for Danny Boyle have paid off for Alex Garland in his directorial debut: Ex Machina is not just a thoughtful and intelligently written addition to the AI canon, but the performances are first-rate. Like Moon or Her, Ex Machina is a sci-fi film of ideas rather than action scenes and explosions – it shows you what Garland’s Sunshine could have been like without the stupid tacked-on climax.

ExodusExodus: Gods and Kings **: Watching this big-screen spectacle on a seat-back screen, there’s really very little left to enjoy in Ridley Scott’s epic. Christian Bale, as too often these days, seems to have no handle on what kind of movie he’s in. After an hour, I found I was distracting myself by imagining the cast breaking into a song-and-dance of “Moses supposes his toeses are roses/ But Moses supposes erroneously/ For nobody’s toeses are poses of roses/ As Moses supposes his toeses to be”. I switched it off then.

The GamblerThe Gambler **: I love films about gambling. In theory. But in practice, with the odd honourable exception such as Rounders, most of them are witless and clichéd (yes, Runner Runner, I’m looking at you; and Focus, you scrape a “C” on the leads’ charm alone). Sadly this Mark Wahlberg movie, though reaching for something metaphorical, falls into the latter camp. And how can you watch a guy who doubles in Blackjack on 18? And then hits a 3?

gethaGet Hard *: Will Ferrell as a privileged rich white financier being trained by Kevin Hart to withstand being everyone’s bitch in a maximum-security prison? This actually sounded like good brainless airplane fun to me, and I fired up a couple of Bloody Marys in expectation.  It is so, so not. Fun, that is. Brainless, yes. Also abandoned after an hour.

insideInside Out ****: Pixar have done it again. Directed by Pete Docter, the man behind Up, this takes a hackneyed conceit – there are mini-people inside our brains controlling our actions, like in the comic strip The Numbskulls – and gives it heart. There are, apparently, five key emotions warring for supremacy: foremost among them, in a young girl’s life so far, is Joy. When the girl reaches hard times in her teens, Joy discovers that Sadness also has its place, and is better embraced than shunned. Simultaneously simple and deep.

while we we're youngWhile We’re Young ***: I wasn’t sure I liked this for most of the film, but it improves as it goes. A fortysomething couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, both less annoying here than they can be) meet an arty-party young couple who turn their lives upside down. Along the way, it becomes an interesting meditation on truth in life and art. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach.

X+YX+Y ***: A lovely little film about an autistic teen savant who enters the Maths Olympiad. When I say Sally Hawkins plays the mother, you’ll know exactly what kind of film it will be. Asa Butterfield, who was so watchable in Ender’s Game, plays the troubled young genius who finds the trickiest equation of all to solve is love.