Saturday, November 13, 2004

Jerzy Kosinski / Being There


Inspired by Chance

Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1979)

Andrew Pulver
Saturday 13 November 2004
Author: Jerzy Kosinski (1933-91) survived the Nazi invasion of Poland (during which he apparently lost the power of speech) and became an academic in the communist regime. He emigrated to the US in 1957 and his first novel, The Painted Bird (1965), became a key addition to "Holocaust literature".

Having fortuitously avoided the Manson murders in 1969 - he was due to be Sharon Tate's dinner guest, but missing luggage meant he cancelled his visit - Kosinski completed Being There in 1970. His literary celebrity was assured - he even took a sizeable role in Reds (1981), playing a Bolshevik. However, in 1982, an article in the Village Voice accused him of plagiarism, as Being There was apparently taken from a Polish bestseller, The Career of Nikodem Dyzmy by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz. Depressed by the reception of his subsequent work as he tried to prove his credentials, Kosinski committed suicide in 1991 after taking an overdose and taping a plastic bag over his head.

Story: A modern equivalent of the "feral child" tales popular in central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, Being There focuses on the figure of Chance the gardener, raised in complete isolation, except for TV.
Forced to leave the house where he lives and works by the death of his employer, Chance is taken in by an influential financier, Benjamin Rand, and his young wife, Eve, after a car accident. Known as Chauncey Gardiner after his name is misheard, Chance becomes a celebrity after his simple pronouncements about gardening are taken as meaningful political metaphors.
Eve falls in love with him, and plans to marry a bewildered Chance after Rand's death.
Film-makers: Hal Ashby (1929-88) was Norman Jewison's editor in the 1960s, working on The Cincinatti Kid (1965) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
As a director, he became a key figure in the Hollywood new wave of the 1970s with Harold and Maude and The Last Detail, before finding popular success with Shampoo and one of the first post-Vietnam films, Coming Home. Playing Chance had been a long-term ambition for Peter Sellers. He sent Kosinski a telegram soon after the book's publication. But it was only towards the end of his life, when he was already ill with heart trouble, that he could get the project off the ground.
How book and film compare: Kosinski worked on the screenplay, and the film follows the path of the novel scrupulously. Kosinski inserts considerable embroidery and adds extra scenes, such as Chance's confrontation with the teen gang on his first day in the street.
The film's iconic sequence of Chance walking across the surface of a cemetery lake, however, was a last-minute inspiration of Ashby's. Ashby also personally edited in his preferred end-sequence - of Sellers repeatedly messing up a line - in all the cinemas showing the film on its first release after the producers refused it.
Inspirations and influences: The kind of symbiotic relationship with TV that Chance enjoyed became a popular theme in ensuing decades, from Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983), which elaborated on the idea of a viewer confusing TV and reality, to Ben Stiller's The Cable Guy (1996), in which a TV obsessive has no identity other than the one that he culls from the airwaves.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Obituaries / Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens
Booker-winning novelist whose work focused on the more disturbing aspects of human behaviour

Janet Watts

Thu 14 October 2004

Bernice Rubens had just completed her autobiography when she died, at the age of 76. She worked most days. "I feel unclean if I don't write," she explained. "I don't love writing. But I love having written." Though this was her third career - she taught English and made documentary films before she took up her pen at the age of 30 - she published 24 novels, which won critical acclaim, popularity and prestigious prizes. Her autobiography was her first work of non-fiction.
Rubens's fourth novel, The Elected Member, won the 1970 Booker prize, beating work by Iris Murdoch, William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen. She was almost unknown at the time. Though the book was a Literary Guild choice in America, at home it had been ignored by some newspapers and magazines and had sold only 3,000 copies. She did not win the prize again, although her ninth novel, A Five Year Sentence (1978), was a runner-up.

Her second book, Madame Sousatzka (1962), became a film starring Shirley MacLaine and directed by John Schlesinger; her seventh, I Sent A Letter To My Love (1975), was also filmed, with Simone Signoret; and her 13th, Mr Wakefield's Crusade (1985), was made into a BBC TV miniseries.
Rubens enjoyed the respected place she had achieved in the literary world. She was an honorary vice-president of International PEN and served as a Booker judge in 1986. She maintained close friendships with a chosen group of colleagues, including Beryl Bainbridge, Paul Bailey and Francis King. She could be combative with writers she did not like, famously disparaging Martin Amis for his backward-written Holocaust novel, Time's Arrow, both on radio and in her novel Autobiopsy (1995).
Success did not cure the insecurity that such aggression (quite convincingly) concealed, or change the wry, matter-of-fact view she took of her own writing. "Better than most, not as good as some," was her crisp verdict.
She was a compelling storyteller, weaving her novels from many strands: her own vivid experiences, her friends' and family's lives, centuries of Jewish tradition and history; above all, her remarkable and disturbing imagination. In everyday places - a suburban villa, an English public school, a home for the elderly - Rubens showed the horrors that can lie behind net curtains and cosiness, polite conversation or an unexplained wink.
Though her novels have many themes, she admitted that she really only wrote about one thing. Human relationships were the core material of her books, especially within a family. ("Everything that happens in a family is more so in a Jewish family," she said.) To this subject she brought her unsparing scrutiny, ruthless candour and a dark, unquenchable humour.
As her prolific output suggested, she was good at getting ideas for novels and fast in putting them down on paper. She only wrote one draft and she claimed she did not know what was going to happen in her ingenious plots before she wrote them. That would have been boring. But she knew her characters.
In these people lay the paradox of her fiction, which was (like them) at once intensely human and deeply bizarre. In the cavalcade of their lives - painful, funny, grotesque - death is a constant presence. A high proportion of her characters commit suicide or murder; some do both. What the others get up to may be more easily hidden, but in its own way it is no less extreme. Rubens got inside their minds, and what she found and showed there offered her readers little comfort. Fear; greed; fanaticism; cruelty; malignity (sometimes motiveless). Or the cold hell of loneliness, that itself begets monsters. She once admitted that she had lived in that all her life.
She was born in Cardiff. Her father, Eli Rubens, was a Lithuanian Jew who thought he was escaping anti-semitism for America when he boarded his ship at Hamburg around 1900. But the ticket tout had swindled him: he was shoved off at Cardiff. It was a fortnight before he realised he wasn't in New York. He married Dorothy Cohen, whose family had emigrated from Poland, and became a "tallyman", buying suits and shoes and selling them to miners for a shilling a week.
Bernice Rubens

Eli had brought a half-violin with him, and his two sons and elder daughter all became professional musicians. Harold, his firstborn, was to suffer the tragic loss of his exceptional gifts to illness; Cyril, the youngest in the family (and for Bernice, "the love of my life"), became a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra. To her great sorrow, he was the first of her siblings to die, in 1997.
Bernice, Eli's third child, refused the half-violin. She wanted to play the cello, which was too expensive. So when the extended family visited and marvelled at the other children's playing on Sundays, she sat apart, feeling an outsider.
"You are an observer," her mother told her, perhaps in consolation. Later, she did learn the cello and the piano, and played them for the rest of her life. She liked to present herself as a failed musician rather than the accomplished writer she was.
She read English at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and married young. Her husband, Rudi Nassbauer, a wine merchant who also wrote poetry and fiction, came from a family of German Jews who held eastern European Jews such as Bernice's family in low esteem. Bernice bore two daughters, taught English at a Birmingham grammar school from 1950 to 1955, then went into the film industry. Her documentaries were well received, one entitled Stress winning the American Blue Ribbon award in 1968.
Another film took her to Java, where she was appalled at the failings of the international aid agencies and developed a deep respect for the traditional wisdom. Impressed by a local medicine man's treatment of a man who in the west would have been diagnosed as schizophrenic, she asked the healer if he had heard of Freud. "Does he live in Jakarta?" he replied. It was a bright moment in Rubens' lifelong loathing of the psychotherapeutic industry, later shared by the narrator of her 2002 novel, Nine Lives, who kills nine shrinks (and one dentist, by mistake).
Her writing began as she did, with her orthodox Jewish family in south Wales. She took the title of her first novel, Set On Edge (1960), from Ezekiel: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge." She dedicated it to the memory of her father, who died in 1958. It was a success: she wouldn't have continued if it hadn't been, she said later.
Her family provided her with material throughout her writing life. Madame Sousatzka was a story about a child prodigy very like her gifted elder brother Harold. The scapegoat hero of The Elected Member, driven by the pressure of parental expectations into drug addiction and incarceration in mental hospital, replayed a desperate period when Harold suffered a similar confinement.
Despite her aversion to psychiatry, Rubens prefaced this book with a line from RD Laing, who observed that patients who were "disturbed" often came from "very disturbing" families. While withholding judgment on the efficacy of Laing's practice, she admitted that she found his ideas - on a purely literary basis - "exciting".
Her third novel, Mate In Three (1965), drew less successfully on personal experience: her collapsing marriage. Rudi left her after 23 years, having fathered a son by another woman. Her sixth novel, Go Tell The Lemming (1973), covered their divorce. Rudi's departure shattered her, but her distress melted, in time, into friendship. He died in 1997. She spoke often of her ambivalence about living alone.

In her later books, Rubens moved from family life to broader historical subjects. Though she usually denied any religious feeling, her Jewishness had a central importance to her, and the theme of Jewish identity surfaced repeatedly in her fiction. It found its fullest expression in Brothers (1983), a 500-page novel that follows several generations of a Jewish family through a fight for survival that takes them from 19th-century Tsarist Russia to western Europe and Nazism, then back to modern Russia and its continued persecution of the Jews.
She talked and worried about anti-semitism and Israel, and her growing concern came out in her social relationships as well as through such recent books as I, Dreyfus (1999) and The Sergeant's Tale (2003). I, Dreyfus is a clever reprise of the French legal scandal at the turn of the 20th century in a drama of contemporary Britain. The book's hero, Sir Alfred Dreyfus, is a "closet Jew", a type of concealment that stirred his creator's anger and scorn. The novel tells of his journey through the trauma of his conviction and incarceration for child murder into a transformed relationship with his Jewishness and the suffering of his Jewish forebears.
Rubens felt more and more Jewish as her life went on, she said towards its end. But by an irony of her chosen profession, the Jewish consciousness that was to her a personal strength seemed to some critics a literary weakness, a diminution of her proven skills in creating and dwelling in imaginary worlds into what they saw as moralising or reworking history. She didn't care. Her best book was Brothers, she insisted: "because ... what it's about matters".
Her daughters Sharon and Rebecca survive her.
Paul Bailey writes: I have many happy memories of Bernice Rubens, my good friend of 24 years, but the happiest is also one of the earliest. We were in Leicester, where we'd recently met, on a tour for the Arts Council.
One day we were invited to talk to sixth-form students at a school in the city. We were met by two teachers, a man and a woman, who charmed us by asking: "Should we know your work?" We giggled, I remember, and mumbled something along the lines of: "Well ... " or: "If you want to." The man took me into a classroom, where I talked about Jane Austen.
Every so often, I heard laughter from the adjoining room, where Bernice was obviously entertaining the boys and girls. It transpired that the teacher had introduced Bernice as Denise Robins, the blue-rinsed queen of slush who was Barbara Cartland's only serious rival. Instead of being outraged, Bernice pretended to be Denise for an entire hour. When a girl asked: "How do you work, Miss Robins?" Bernice/Denise retorted: "Very quickly." Our friendship was lastingly sealed that afternoon.
Claire Armitstead writes: At this year's Hay Festival, Bernice Rubens was on fighting form. "Have you actually read my book?" she asked, fixing me with a beady eye as we made our way to the marquee in which we were to discuss her novel The Sergeant's Tale. "Of course," I stammered, with the slightly guilty knowledge that I had galloped through it overnight. "Oh, I don't mind if you haven't," she replied. "It's just easier if I know."
On stage, she was witty, candid, shrewd - and never more so than when a woman in the audience asked if she felt dissatisfied with any of her books. Yes there was one, she recalled, which she wrote just after the breakup of her marriage. "It was good therapy for me, but a rotten novel. You should always write in yesterday's blood." I, for one, won't forget that pearl of hard-won wisdom.
· Bernice Rubens, writer, born July 26 1928; died October 13 2004.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Sweet like chocolate / Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the 1971 film.
 Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the 1971 film. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros.

Adaptation of the week

Sweet like chocolate: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Andrew Pulver
Saturday 11 September 2004
Author: Roald Dahl (1916-1990) began his prolific writing career after being invalided out of the RAF during the second world war, and being posted to the US. His first book, The Gremlins (1943), became a Disney film. In 1960 he moved back to England, and started writing in earnest, with James and the Giant Peach (1961) becoming his first significant success. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - inspired, so he said, by being used as a test consumer by the nearby Cadbury’s factory while at school in Repton – was published first in the US in 1964. A string of successful children’s books followed, including Fantastic Mr Fox (1970), Danny: The Champion of the World (1975), The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983) and Matilda (1988). He died of leukemia in 1990.
Story: Dahl’s children’s fantasy tale is set in an un-named town that’s recognisably English (and still suffering the after-effects of war and rationing). Poverty-stricken child Charlie Bucket is one of five winners of a competition to visit the chocolate factory run by the mysterious Wonka. The factory tour introduces them to a string of bizarre confectioneries (Everlasting Gobstoppers etc) as well as the Oompa-Loompas – the pygmy-sized workforce. But the fairy tale becomes a cautionary one as Charlie’s fellow competition winners are consigned to humiliation for indulging in Dahl’s pet hates - eating too much, chewing gum, being grasping, and watching TV. Charlie is then handed ownership of the factory by Wonka as the “winner”.
The film-makers: Mel Stuart (b 1928) was originally a TV documentarist, and was told about the book by his 11-year-old daughter. The $1.8m budget was raised from Quaker Oats, who were planning to market a chocolate bar around its release. Dahl wanted Spike Milligan to play Wonka, but he was considered too much of a risk for the US market. Gene Wilder, hitherto best known for his role in Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1968), was cast instead, opposite a group of unknown child actors. Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse wrote the songs.

How book and film compare: The film is first and foremost a children’s musical, with catchy tunes such as The Candy Man Can and Oompa Loompa. Though the setting remains physically similar, the film is considerably more transatlantic than the book, with most of the principal cast being American. (Augustus Gloop, the glutton, is German; Veruca Salt, the spoilt kid, is English.) The film added two significant plot elements: the sinister figure of Slugworth, who tries to persuade each child to tell him the secret of Everlasting Gobstoppers; and Wonka’s threat to expel Charlie along with the other children after he samples the Fizzy Lifting Drinks. The film transforms Dahl’s story into a classic of pop-art kitsch, with costumes, design and lettering all contributing to an extravagantly imagined work. But the author was vocal about his unhappiness with Stuart’s changes.
Inspirations and influences: The success of previous children’s musicals like Oliver! (1968) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) - on which Dahl had worked - meant that a market for this movie appeared assured. But it failed at the box office, and it wasn’t until the advent of video in the early 1980s that its bizarre stylings were rediscovered. Director Tim Burton was particularly affected: he is currently directing a remake of this film, having produced an animated adaptation of another Dahl book, James and the Giant Peach, in 1996.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Summer readings / Henning Mankell

Faro Island, The Baltic

By Henning Mankell

Sunday 15 August 2004 01.10 BST

I have always been on the move like a Scandinavian nomad in an unknown tribe, doing serious writing wherever I happened to be. When I was very young, I remember once living clandestinely in an empty apartment in Stockholm. There were no lamps in the flat. The only light I could find was when I opened the oven. Fine by me. I used the oven as a table, put my typewriter there and had all the light I needed.
Everything is possible. I still remember in 1992, writing The White Lioness in Maputo, east Africa. I lived in a small room where I was surrounded by other small rooms, and - I counted them - seven radios, playing loudly, but tuned into different music stations. It happened that I, maybe once a week, lost my temper and asked them if they at least not could choose one programme to listen to. Everyone was very understanding; they turned off the radios completely for 15 minutes and then it started all over again.

I loved my neighbours. And I wrote the novel. So I think I can write almost anywhere. I can never excuse myself for failing in my work by blaming the room, wherever or whatever it may be.

But perhaps this is not completely true. There is an exception to this rule. There is a sacred spot somewhere in the world. I spend time in this sacred spot and I must admit that I sometimes long to go there. On the other hand, I am always afraid to lose my independence. I can not fall in love too much with that little house.
North of the island of Gotland, this very rare and magic island in the Baltic, some 35 minutes' flying time from Stockholm, there is another island, even smaller. Its name is Fårö - meaning Sheep Island, and it is separated from Gotland by a firth where there is a ferry. This island has a magical landscape - it could be Ireland, the Hebrides or even the bush in north-eastern South Africa. All by itself on the eastern rocky beach is a small wooden cabin. It was originally built in the 1930s by a man who used to hunt during the winter season. Today, I can occasionally use it to live and work in. The cabin is situated some 30 metres from the sea. When the wind is strong, the salty waves almost reach the windows.

In this cabin, there is a kind of emptiness that is strange, rather impossible to explain. When I enter, I have a feeling that someone has just left, even though the house may have been abandoned for months. I am not talking about 'ghosts'; it is more the feeling that this cabin is breathing. But what is really magical about this cabin is that the mostly fictional characters I write about seem to like the cabin as much as I do. In just a couple of days, they fill the room with their voices. They share my bed, my food and they walk with me on the beach.
It took me some years to realise that this cabin is good when I have something really difficult to write. The house is a masterly servant. So I am happy that this cabin exists. And that I occasionally can use it. Among all the various rooms where I write, this little cabin is the centre that does not move, that is always there.
By the way, the owner of the cabin is Ingmar Bergman, who happens to be my father-in-law. As far as I know, he has never done any writing there.
· Henning Mankell's prize-winning Inspector Wallander thrillers consistently top European bestseller lists

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Summer readings / AS Byatt

Summer readings

Cevennes, France

by As Byatt

Sunday 15 August 2004 01.10 BST

What I need to write well is a combination of heat, light and solitude. My first experience of southern heat and light was when I was au pair to a French family in a vineyard on the hot plain near Nîmes. We now spend our summers in a tiny house in the Cévennes, not far from Nîmes, but in very different country. There is ridge after ridge of craggy mountain hillside, all densely wooded with oaks and chestnuts up to the bare stony mountaintops, where the flocks of sheep spend the summers.
The mountains were eaten bare by the sheep before the 18th century and the trees are the work of one imaginative man called Fabre, who replanted huge areas of mountainside. I like it here because the sheep and the uplands remind me of the Yorkshire moors, the magical landscape of my childhood holidays. But this is on a grander scale and it is mostly very hot and bright.

Our house is on the edge of a village. We have two bedrooms and a living room - the house is the converted carriage shed of the house opposite. When we came, it was infested up to its upper balcony with a dense jungle of brambles, nightshade and bryony. It had been empty for 11 years. We cleared the land with machetes and, after much soul-searching, cut down a 100-year-old mulberry and built a pool and a terrace in front of our door.
The terrace looks down on to our own patch of rough hillside, going down steeply to a river which moves fast and has been known to rise five metres. I sit on the terrace and write, in a kind of bowl of bright blue light, staring at the edges of the mountains, which are never the same for half an hour - sometimes vague and misty, sometimes bright green and gold trees, and at night a black silhouette against the stars, the crest of a line of conifers, the knife-edge of a ridge like a lizard's back.
I've become a creature of routine, here in the sun. I get up early, walk to buy the bread, in the grey morning, take a walk round the hillside for an hour, climbing up under trees, passing a collection of goats and geese, saying good morning to the same six or seven people. You can think writing out on foot, the rhythm is good for thinking. Then I sit at a metal table in the weather, and write furiously - longhand - until I need to stop for lunch. I have a large number of stones and a monstrous fossil which I carry out ceremoniously to hold the papers down.

The weather here is extreme whatever it is doing. If it is hot and still, you can see the heat shimmer. But there are sudden tempests of wind, which rattle in from nowhere, and pages fly up and over the edge of the terrace and whirl away in the river. I get more patient as I get older. Bad weather here is unworkable in. The storms bang in one's head, and all electric things - computer, telephone, television - have to be turned off.
We had a summer hailstorm so violent once that huge pieces of ice came down an air vent and mashed up the Collected Letters of Arthur Henry Hallam which I'd borrowed from the London Library. There is nothing to do in bad weather but endure. I sit on my bed and read Terry Pratchett and watch the trees bend and hurl themselves about.
In the afternoons, I sleep, and then I swim, and then I read, and then I walk down to the local auberge and eat dinner in a courtyard under great trees (cedars, palms, a lime.) In our early days here, we used to shop for delicious food in the local market and make meals to eat by candlelight. Now I've got it down to essentials - I've not got so long left to write books in - and I never cook. Salad and sheep's cheese and melon for lunch. Delicious mussels and omelette aux cèpes and poulet aux ecrevisses cooked by a good friend in the evening - and I can go on working over dinner. I carry a bag of books down with me and read German with a dictionary before the food arrives and then useful research books with the meal. I have my own bottle and drink a glass or two with my dinner.
I've got the solitude right too. No house parties, no visitors. We do have another small house at the other end of the village where the family can stay and cook and play table tennis and go for walks and come up the river to swim in the pool. My main problem is people feeling sorry for me when neither my husband nor my family are here. They come in and invite me to social gatherings, and I stare wildly at them with my head full of uninterruptable strings of words I must remember, and ideas I must keep hold of, and stammer that I like being alone, I need to be alone. But they don't quite believe me. They think I must be sad when I am fiercely happier than I have ever been.
· AS Byatt is the author of many novels. Possession won the Booker Prize in 1990

Friday, July 30, 2004

The Guardian profile / Woody Allen / "Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely"

Woody Allen

The Guardian profile: Woody Allen

"Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely"

If ever a film-maker represented a city, the Brooklyn boy Woody Allen represented New York. Now he's working in London. Can he achieve one more surprise and confound the legions of critics who are begging him to leave the stage for good?

Xan Brooks
Friday 30 July 2004

he 1979 film Manhattan opens with a breathless Woody Allen voiceover: "He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat ... New York was his town, and it always would be." Cue a crash of Gershwin on the soundtrack, a blaze of fireworks over the Central Park skyline, and a rash of romantic misadventures on the Upper East Side.

So far, so predictable. Through a 34-film career, Woody Allen has invariably cast the city as his chief supporting star. New York was his town. One assumed it always would be. And yet the director can currently be found at Ealing studios in west London, shooting a British romantic comedy with British money and a cast of homegrown talent.
Allen's London visit can be seen as the latest in a series of increasingly desperate manoeuvres to safeguard an ailing career. Ever since Orion Pictures folded in 1991, he has found himself shuttled nervously between studios, from Columbia Tri-Star to Sweetland Films (a consortium of foreign investors) to DreamWorks to Fox, as the box office shrank, the audience dwindled and distribution grew spotty.Despite their modest budgets, many of his recent films (Sweet and Lowdown, Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jade Scorpion) have struggled to break even.
The latest production (snappily billed as "Woody Allen's Summer Project") comes bankrolled to the tune of £9m (peanuts in Hollywood terms, but a substantial sum for a British film). David Thompson, the head of BBC Films, admits that he is taking a gamble. "What we're doing is backing a hunch that the combination of Woody Allen and the UK might be a real treat," he says. "If you're going to take a punt on anything, it might as well be someone with the track record of Woody Allen."
Certainly Allen has earned his place in the pantheon of film-makers. Born Allen Konigsberg to a working-class Brooklyn family, he wrote gags for Bob Hope and Sid Caesar before becoming a standup on the 1960s comedy circuit, where he would fumble with his glasses, gulp in faux-terror and deliver devastating one-liners with a boxer's timing.
Shifting into movies, he pioneered a new brand of romantic comedy, installing himself as an emblematic urban everyman; the nerd who gets the girl (and then usually loses her). He pursued a flighty Diane Keaton in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, romanced a teenage Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, and fell foul of the Mob in 1984's Broadway Danny Rose.
The melancholic Hannah and Her Sisters was galvanised by his turn as a hypochondriac TV producer, while in 1989's peerless Crimes and Misdemeanours he played a luckless documentary maker who laments that "the last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty".Throughout his 1970s and 80s heyday, Allen's patented blend of borscht-belt comedy, psychoanalysis and the tenets of the European art film was an intoxicating brew.
These days it seems to have lost its fizz. Critics say his films have grown complacent and overfamiliar, while a certain peevish quality has percolated his comic worldview. His public image, too, has taken a battering. Over the past decade Allen's films have sometimes played a distant second fiddle to the cacophonous noises off, be they from a protracted legal battle with his former producer and longtime friend Jean Doumanian, his messy break-up with Mia Farrow, or his eventual marriage to the actor's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
Anything Else, on general release from today, is widely viewed as another below-par effort. In the US (where it the was released a year ago) reviews ranged from the exasperated to the desolate.
According to the Village Voice, Anything Else plays as "an infinitely running spool of Allenian repetitions that could serve as entertainment in a relatively mild circle of the Inferno". For Moira MacDonald of the Seattle Times, "the title seemed like a taunt. Is there anything else, Woody? Please?" Over at the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell claimed that the man once hailed as the voice of his generation was now "increasingly out of touch with contemporary America".Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound magazine, would second that. "The last few films have been pretty disastrous," he says. "All the things we've come to expect just aren't there any more. The quality of the scripts is not as good. The comic timing is very rusty. My gut feeling is that he no longer has anyone around him who can be critical. In a way it's a King Lear moment. He's become so venerated and isolated by celebrity that he no longer connects with an audience. Perhaps it's a case of finding some new collaborators - or considering the dreaded word, retirement."
For his part, David Thompson is hoping that a change of scene will do him good. "I think that everyone is hungry to see him do something in a different key or colour palette. He has a singular voice, and a consistent vision of the world and how people relate. What's interesting is to see how that works with British characters, who are perhaps less prone to psychoanalysis, less up their own navels and more buttoned-up. So I can't wait to see his approach to that buttoned-up British way of life."
Uncharitable types, however, might suggest that BBC Films has snapped up a director who's past his prime - like buying up an ageing Premiership footballer and then shipping them overseas.
"Yes, they might say that," Thompson concedes. "To be fair, a lot of people were quite critical of Robert Altman when he came to the UK to make Gosford Park. But in the end it seemed that the fresh territory inspired him."
And in any case, insists Nick James: "Woody Allen was never a Premiership footballer. He was always an indie, art-house person. No one ever made a Woody Allen picture to make lots of money. They do it to say, 'I made a Woody Allen picture.' There's still a residual prestige that comes with the name."
For the time being, at least, Allen can take comfort from the fact that there is no shortage of actors still clamouring to work with him, often for a cut-price fee. The current Ealing production casts star-du-jour Scarlett Johansson among its British players. Other recent outings have found room for the likes of Charlize Theron, Will Ferrell and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The rising British star Chiwetel Ejiofor recently completed work on the latest Allen film, Melinda and Melinda (currently in post-production). A long-term fan of the director's work, he did not hesitate when offered the role.
"He's such a forceful character that you just want to be around him," Ejiofor says. "And collaborating with him leads to a much freer process, because everyone understands what a Woody Allen film is, so to a certain degree you just play on that. It creates an environment that's so much more fun than other film sets."
In Ejiofor's view, "Woody Allen is quite different from his public image. Having grown up with his films, I was expecting this nervous, neurotic guy who's constantly twitching. But instead he's a very shrewd and intelligent man who has a twin persona that he puts in his films. Woody Allen knows exactly what he wants. It's always been his particular strength to push the independent ideal as far as it will go, and he gets away with it because his writing is so extraordinary. He's the living proof that talent will out."
Woody Allen will be 69 next birthday. If he were to bow out tomorrow, his reputation would be assured and his detractors silenced, and we could all sit back and revere him from a distance.
Yet Allen seems ready to confound us. At an age when most film-makers have already been shunted into enforced retirement, his workrate (two pictures a year) remains as fierce as ever. He never revisits his films once he's finished editing, and is forever moving on - the jungle cat in the black-rimmed glasses racing hard against the ticking clock.
Posterity has no attraction for Woody Allen. "I don't like the idea of living on in the silver screen," he once told an interviewer. "I'd rather live on in my apartment."
Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg, December 1 1935, Brooklyn, New York
Education Midwood High School, Brooklyn; New York University (one semester)
Family Married Harlene Rosen, 1956 (divorced 1962); Louise Lasser, 1964 (divorced 1969); Soon Yi-Previn, 1997. One adopted son, three adopted daughters, one son by Mia Farrow
Career Scriptwriter and gag-writer and standup comedian,1953-64; had his debut as a writer and actor in What's New Pussycat?, 1965
Plays and films include Don't Drink the Water, 1966; Annie Hall, 1977; Manhattan, 1979; Hannah and her Sisters, 1986; New York Stories, 1989; Husbands and Wives, 1992; Manhattan Murder Mystery, Deconstructing Harry, 1997; Small Time Crooks, 2000
On comedy "Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes; comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue."

Friday, July 23, 2004

The Guardian profile / Joss Stone

Joss Stone

The Guardian profile: Joss Stone

With her astonishingly mature, emotive black soul voice the Devon teenager is an R&B sensation in the US and a talent that knocks 'reality-pop' for six. But would a Mercury music prize for cover versions add to the respect she's won?

Carolina Sullivan
Friday 23 July 2004

oscelyn Stoker, as her parents know her, made a minor bit of history this week, as both the youngest person ever nominated for the Mercury music prize and the first nominated for an album of cover versions. Therein lies the source of a debate that has divided critics since Stoker - who took Joss Stone as a stage name in her early teens - was launched last year by Virgin Records.

Her album, The Soul Sessions, crept into the chart in January and has hung around the Top 10 ever since, selling 670,000 copies in the UK and a further 1.7m worldwide. This is the sort of result underperforming Britrockers rarely achieve. But Stone is considered by some to have cheated a bit by falling back on covers; in her case, on covers of obscure old soul tunes.
Covers are deemed the lazy woman's way out, almost karaoke. "[Her nomination] detracts a bit from others on the list who spent a long time writing their album," says the journalist Hattie Collins, who wrote a story about the singer for Blues & Soul magazine. But because Stone is a trifling 17 years old (and, by happenstance, a photogenic little pixie) she has also had many springing to her defence.So for every reviewer who griped that Stone was just retreading old tunes by the Isley Brothers et al, another maintained that The Soul Sessions was a startling, almost-great, debut. The Mercury judges, for instance, excused its lack of original material, describing it as "a remarkable showcase of classic soul power".
The secret of her success - and this is where opinion is unanimous - is a voice that should not belong to a white, Devonian teenager (from Ashill, near Tiverton). Stone has somehow been endowed with the pipes of a black American 25 years her senior.
"When I found out she was white, I said, 'I can't believe it'. She was totally amazing," says "Shabs", the head of Relentless Records, the Virgin subsidiary that sells her CDs. "I've never worked with someone I've believed in so much." As his other star act is his old friends, the trouble-magnet rappers So Solid Crew, this is saying something.Stone's deeply emotional style, which compelled Shabs to drive to Devon the day after he heard an early demo, has elicited comparisons with Patti LaBelle, Mavis Staples, and even, rather overheatedly, Aretha Franklin.
On which subject Collins, who writes about British urban culture, sounds a slight cautionary note: "She is amazing, but it's premature to be comparing her to Aretha. Mary J Blige gets that, and she's been around 10 years. Maybe in 30-odd years ... "
Premature or not, Stone is currently seen as an antidote to the poison of reality-pop, which has devalued the singles chart and discredited the music industry. The only young British singer with a similarly incongruous sound is fellow Mercury nominee Amy Winehouse (William Hill's odds are Winehouse 6-1, Stone 10-1). But although Winehouse is arguably more accomplished, writing her own material, Stone has attracted more media attention.
Her camera-friendly blonde freshness has something to do with it, but she has also benefited from something looks can't buy: the respect of the black American music scene. Across the Atlantic, Stone has been welcomed as an R&B sensation. Her album, recorded in Miami and New York, was produced by the veteran belter Betty Wright, and features guests such as Angie Stone and Timmy Thomas. Wright introduced her to Stevie Wonder, who was generous in his praise ("I didn't know what to say," admits Stone, offstage the archetypal, ineloquent teenager).
Style-setting magazines such as Vibe embraced her. The upshot is that she was known in America first, and by the time Virgin was ready to launch The Soul Sessions here, the label had a fantastic back-story on which to build.
The girl from "the English village of Devon", as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, got a US recording deal, with EMI, before a British deal. This is notable because the US music business customarily looks askance at UK acts, who have a reputation, not undeserved, for being snide and uncooperative. The handful of young Brits who have been successful in the US, such as Dido and Coldplay, are those who have not been imposingly English in their dealings with Americans.
So imagine the delight of EMI America's Steve Greenberg when he came across the 14-year-old Stone via a video of her performance on a 1999 British TV show entitled Junior Star for a Night, her sole flirtation with pop cheesiness. Here was a talent young enough to be malleable - she wouldn't be pulling the typically Brit stunts of refusing to record "idents" for Midwestern radio stations, or of being narky to Des Moines record retailers - but sophisticated enough potentially to compete with heavyweights such as Beyoncé and Mariah Carey. He signed her when she was barely 15.
Shabs says of her place in soul music: "Her being white has made it harder to break her. It's very similar to Eminem doing what he's doing."
But Collins says: "I've been asked, are they putting more money into marketing because she's white? There does seem to be an awful lot of push behind her. Beverley Knight said recently that when she started, nobody was interested if you were black."
But Stone's age appears to be a greater sticking point. Can someone so recently a schoolgirl (she got three GCSEs last summer) really convey the cavernous pain of songs such as those in her opening album track, The Choking Kind? She does feel patronised by the doubters. She told the Guardian writer Alexis Petridis last autumn: "How old do you have to be to hurt? I think some people have forgotten what it's like to be a teenager."
Collins agrees: "You don't have to have experience to sing with heart. Whether or not she's had her heart broken, it sounds like she has. She might have gone out with some boy who wasn't nice to her." In fact, Stone's 22-year-old boyfriend is a Devon lad who worries that his constantly travelling girlfriend will run off with Justin Timberlake.But Q magazine's deputy editor, Gareth Grundy, who has just commissioned a lengthy Stone feature, sees her age as a positive advantage. "With the voice she has, her youth doubles the 'wow' factor. And she's done smart things like cover the White Stripes [whose Fell in Love with a Boy recently became her first hit single]. Who knows what kind of records she'll be making at 25?"
His enthusiasm is shared by Matt Mason, the editor of the urban culture magazine RWD, who ranks her as "an important artist on this scene".
"She crosses boundaries and is really inspired by old soul, but because she's so young she appeals [also] to young people. She could well be up for a Mobo [the black music awards, held in October], which would cause an outcry, but it's clearly music of black origin."
Stone herself claims she was barely aware of the singularity of her voice while she was growing up. "I don't think of myself as a great singer at all," she's said. "I only ever sang for fun, so I can't quite work out how I got here."
Her route to success involved Junior Star for a Night, which she entered "for a laugh" when she was 12. Her version of Aretha's Natural Woman so impressed the judges she won. ("God knows why, because I thought I was really shit.")
She attracted a bit of industry interest at the time, but life went on as normal for the Stoker family. Her father was, and is, a fruit preserver, and her mother, Wendy, who is now her manager, let holiday cottages. Joscelyn, who hated school, knew only that she would not mind singing professionally, but she suffered from a severe lack of confidence. Even now, on stage, she blushes, squirms and almost apologises for her presence.
After Greenberg's sighting of the Junior Star footage two years later, and his signing her up - after a five-minute audition - it became clear that Stone would not be staying on at school for long.
Although it feels as if she has only been around for five minutes, she's already preparing for the release of her second album, Mind, Body & Soul, in September. An advance press release makes a point of announcing that she has co-written nearly the entire thing.
To further ramp up her credibility, co-writers have been revealed as the venerated Motown producer Lamont Dozier and Portishead's ghostly frontwoman, Beth Gibbons.
Success has been nearly instant, as it often is in the Pop Idol era. The difference, however, is that those around Stone expect her to be a leading light of British pop when the Michelle McManuses of the world have become a mere footnote in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles.
Life stages
Born Joscelyn Eve Stoker, April 11 1987, Dover, Kent. Brought up in Ashill, Devon, where her family still live
Education Uffculme comprehensive school, near Cullumpton
· In 2001, aged 14, auditioned for the BBC talent show Star for a Night which she eventually won singing On The Radio by Donna Summer
· After being spotted by two London producers she was signed by New York record label S-Curve, run by Steve Greenburg, in 2002
· Toured the United States to rave reviews in 2003, aged just 16. Sang in Canada and at venues in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego
· Released debut album, The Soul Sessions, in January this year, and appeared at Glastonbury this summer
Stone on chart music "It's got so image conscious and boring, I didn't want to go down the usual pop route - because it's not me"