This remarkably candid memoir from the then junior senator of Illinois revealed not only a literary talent, but a force that would change the face of US politics for ever
Robert McCrum Monday 29 February 2016 05.45 GMT
n the run-up to the 2008 US presidential election, that rollercoaster primary season in which Hillary Clinton was expected to play a starring, and possibly triumphant, role, I was commissioned by the Observer to review the campaign biographies of the principal Democratic and Republican contenders, a slate of candidates that ran the gamut of implausibility from John McCain and Mitt Romney to John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Biden. Dismal as these politicians appeared to be on the campaign trail, their collected works made an even sorrier catalogue. All the books under review turned out to be either ghosted by party hacks, or “As told to”. Every last one of them was a farrago of wonkishness, insincerity, and cliche, polemical half-truths and bits of old stump speeches, mashed-up press releases and policy statements, reheated for popular consumption in some of the dullest American prose imaginable. Was it possible that none of the candidates had even read these books, let alone written them?
There was, however, an exception, a shaft of clarity and brilliance in the prevailing murk. One of the Democratic outsiders, the junior senator from the state of Illinois, a certain Barack Obama, had not only written his own book some years before, he had also executed an affecting personal memoir with grace and style, narrating an enthralling story with honesty, elegance and wit, as well as an instinctive gift for storytelling.
From his opening line, “A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news…”, it was clear that Dreams from My Father was something special. It had a voice, and an unmistakable authority. Indeed, at the point at which I picked it up, Obama’s memoir had been published for about 12 years, and was belatedly becoming a US bestseller on the rising tide of support for the candidate’s winning and optimistic “Yes We Can” campaign.
Back in 2007, among many millions, I had never heard of Barack Obama, though I was vaguely aware that he had made an electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic party convention. Now, not only did I begin to follow his campaign, I suggested in the Observer that a presidential candidate with such literary and rhetorical gifts deserved to be in the White House, and predicted that, against the odds, he might prevail. Anyway, a year later, it had all come to pass. Hillary Clinton (shades of 2016) had been passed over by the voters. “Yes We Can” had become “Yes We Did”.
The story narrated in Dreams from My Father is every bit as remarkable as Obama’s rise to power, and displays an acute sensitivity to the persistent trauma of the American political settlement: race. This is the issue that had troubled Thomas Jefferson, as he once put it, “like a fire bell in the night”, and it becomes Obama’s starting point. As an African American, Obama declares an ambition to “speak in some way to the fissures of race that have characterised the American experience”. Race, for many, remains one of the most contentious issues in contemporary America. Obama’s presidency has been haunted by race relations. His own occasionally uncertain response demonstrates how difficult a subject it remains.
Beyond this, Dreams from My Father is a remarkably candid portrait of a young man facing up to the big questions of identity and belonging. As the son of a black African father from Kenya, and a white American mother from Wichita, Kansas, the young Obama had to make a crucial psychological odyssey, fraught with many conflicting emotions. At first, he traces the movement of his mother’s family from Kansas to Hawaii, and thence to Indonesia. One of the many distinctive qualities to the book is Obama’s natural and fearless way with dialogue. He animates countless scenes between his young self, his mother and his grandparents with scraps of well-remembered, or possibly well-imagined, conversation that give the narrative a delightful informality.
As the book grows in confidence, young “Barry” finally travels to Kenya to address the painful truth of “the old man”, his father’s life, and become reconciled to his inheritance as an American of African heritage. Once his parents divorced, he was on his own. “In an improbably short span,” he writes, “it seems that my father fell under the same spell as my mother and her parents; and for the first six years of my life, even as that spell was broken and the worlds that they thought they’d left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been.” Here he movingly evokes his “troubled heart – the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds”.
It is, he repeats, an attempt at “an honest account of a particular province of my life”. As “a boy’s search for his father” there is inevitably less of a focus on Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham. Her absence is perhaps the most telling feature of Obama’s recollections, raising many questions about his relationship to the American component of his identity equation.
Many commentators have rhapsodised over Dreams from My Father. Toni Morrison was one of the first to recognise “his ability to reflect on this extraordinary mesh of experiences that he has had, some familiar and some not, and to really meditate on that the way he does, and to set up scenes in narrative structure, dialogue, conversation – all of these things that you don’t often see, obviously, in the routine political memoir biography....” She concludes, powerfully: “It’s unique. It’s his. There are no other ones like that.”
More prosaic, according to Time magazine, Dreams from My Father is “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician”. In the New York Times,Michiko Kakutani described the memoir as “the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president”. At the end of his time in office, it certainly raises many expectations for the retired Barack Obama’s presidential autobiography. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant remains a hard act to follow.
A signature line
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. In those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life.”
Michael Haneke was born in 1942 to an Austrian mother and a German father. He spent his adolescence in Wiener Neustadt in the care of his aunt and grandmother before leaving for Vienna to study psychology, philosophy, and drama. It would be some years before he made his first feature film. Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent) (1989) tells the story of a young, well-to-do family and their dreams of immigrating to Australia. Predictably—in retrospect, for viewers familiar with Haneke’s work—that never happens. They flush their money down the toilet. They kill the goldfish and, next, themselves.
Since then, Haneke has maintained impressive consistency both in his choice of topics and in the stark, unflinching visual language of his films. This has earned him critics and admirers of equal ferocity. He is, depending on whom you ask, the minister of fear, a master of horrors, Europe’s greatest auteur, or simply a sadist. Although his films are considered violent, nearly all the physical violence occurs offscreen. His camera omits the brains-on-the-windshield clichés and torture porn of Hollywood. It lights, instead, on the everyday cruelties to which audiences are not yet numb: the petty acts of bullying, the failure to listen, the delusions of class and privilege.
Haneke’s early films, such as Benny’s Video (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) (1994), largely escaped the attention of international audiences. Then, in 2001, La Pianiste,his adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes, affording Haneke worldwide exposure. The next years saw the release of Caché (2005)and the American remake of Funny Games (2007), Haneke’s most severely cynical work, whose Austrian precursor had been released in 1997. For both Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon) (2009) and Amour (2012), he received the Palme d’Or at Cannes; the latter also won him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In addition to his work in cinema, Haneke occasionally directs opera and teaches at the Filmakademie Wien.
Most of this interview was conducted in Haneke’s vast study in the Vienna apartment he shares with his wife, Susi, an antiques dealer. Over
the next ten months, he patiently fielded my follow-up questions: curtly via e-mail, exuberantly on the phone. In person, Haneke was an impeccable—if occasionally strict—host. He floated vague promises of wine on the first night, only to deny me a glass: “We must work, Frau Zielinski!” On the second night, however, I arrived to a bottle of Mayer am Pfarrplatz Wiener Gemischter Satz. We finished it.
Wine or no, Haneke is a spirited conversationalist who carefully weighs his bons mots and can send himself into fits of giggles. He speaks in the drawl of the Viennese haute bourgeoisie, which to Prussian ears sounds opulent and somewhat impenetrable—necessitating, as Haneke quipped, a double translation of this interview, from Austrian into German into English.
When you were young—say, a teenager—did you ever imagine that you would become a filmmaker, or was your focus on other arts?
Like everyone in the throes of puberty, I started writing poems. But originally, I wanted to drop out of school to train as an actor. I’m from a family of actors—my mother was an actress and my father was an actor and director. One day I even decided to skip school and flee Wiener Neustadt for Vienna to audition at the Max Reinhardt Seminar. Everybody there knew my mother, and I considered myself amazingly gifted—it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t take me. But that’s what happened. I was livid. In the end, I did have to get my high school diploma. Then, as a student, I became more serious about writing. I also worked for radio and various magazines as a critic—I ended up reviewing literature and films although I didn’t actually know all that much.
Creed review – new Rocky movie is a split decision
The end is original and exciting, but whether you want to put yourself through the ponderous rest of the movie depends on how much you like punishment
In Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone’s Italian Stallion devises a strategy to defeat Mr T’s Clubber Lang. He endures a devastating beating in the earlier rounds, which frustrates and exhausts his opponent. Just when he can take no more, Rocky springs to action at the end, and with powerful, dextrous blows, he finally knocks the baddie on his ear. Creed, the seventh film in the Rocky series, but the first neither written nor directed by Stallone, works in a similar manner. Its opening act is staggering in its inelegance, but the film keeps pounding through the predictable set-up and storyline until finally, when you think it can fight no longer and will have to throw in the towel, it charges back with some scenes of originality, pathos and, in ever-so-swift jabs, excitement. If you want to put yourself through this punishment, it’s probable you’ll come out the other end finding some merit.
While very much a two-hander, we don’t even see legendary Philadelphia bruiser Rocky Balboa until the 20-minute mark. Our lead is Adonis Johnson, played with great confidence by Michael B Jordan, re-teaming with director Ryan Coogler, with whom he made the vastly superior Fruitvale Station (newcomer Aaron Covington shares writing duties with Coogler). Johnson, an orphan in and out of juvie and group homes, was rescued at the age of 10 by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of Rocky’s friend, foe and canvas soulmate, Apollo Creed. It turns out this lonely boy, prone to getting into scrapes, is the result of Creed’s marital infidelity, and is fated for greatness.
Mary Ann raises Adonis (called Donnie) in great wealth and, when he comes of age, he’s working in the financial sector in Los Angeles by day, but sneaking to a boxing circuit in Tijuana by night. Though it means breaking his adopted mother’s heart, he decides to find his destiny and look for a trainer who knows how to mould him. He comes to Philadelphia, looking for Rocky.
But Rocky has put boxing behind him, since his wife Adrian and his best pal Paulie have both died. But Donnie’s tenacity eventually wins him over, and, at the 45-minute mark, we’re treated to our first of several training montages, as Rocky agrees to take Donnie under his wing.
So much of what made the first Rocky film a success was rooting for the gentle giant who slurped raw eggs, reluctantly broke thumbs for the mob and was sweet on the socially awkward girl from the pet store. Man, that Rocky, he sure was a character. Donnie, as written, really isn’t all that interesting. He’s a kid with drive, but wrapped up in a lot of vague “I must reclaim my name” psychology. Far more interesting is neighbourhood girl Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a kind, earthy musician suffering from progressive hearing loss. (Her hearing aid is a throwback to the one Rocky’s old trainer Mickey wore.)
Bianca isn’t the only one with physical woes. It’s during a late-night spar that Rocky topples over, races to the hospital and learns that he has cancer. As a widower with all of life’s trophies behind him, Rocky declines treatment – but you know that decision isn’t going to last. “You fight, I’ll fight,” he agrees, and as Donnie hits the heavy bag, Rocky kneels over the bowl, vomiting from chemotherapy.
Donnie’s big shot is an out-of-nowhere dream, a mirror of what his father offered the unknown Italian Stallion in the first film. This time the title holder is a nasty, hot-headed Englishman (boooo!) named Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). Conlan can’t even be in the same room with a challenger without throwing punches, but he wants to end his career with one more big win. When word gets out that Donnie is a long-lost Creed, it makes for the perfect showdown. And what better way for an old white man and young black man to join forces in these racially troubled times than in a symbolic recreation of the American revolution? (No offence to the British ticket-buyers, I’m sure.)
The family that emerges between Donnie, Rocky (whom Donnie calls “Unc”) and Bianca is a portrait of working-class sweetness. They live humbly and eat ice cream on a worn couch under a ratty blanket. Stallone’s self-deprecating humour is better than ever now that he has achieved complete sagaciousness, with the real-life Philadelphia statue of Rocky making an in-world cameo. The script may feature numerous wobbly passages in which everyone eerily states precisely what they are thinking (an unfortunate tradition that runs throughout the series) but if anyone can sell it, it’s Stallone and Jordan.
The big fight (and a shorter one beforehand) is indeed quite intense, mixing brutal hits and elegantly choreographed long takes. No, it’s not Raging Bull, but boxing once again proves to be the most cinematic of sports. It’s just unfortunate that so much of the lead-up is painfully hackneyed and overwritten. There are numerous cuts to television talking heads, awkward freeze-frames with printed stats, and endless chatter during the bout. The acting is good enough on its own and the material is hardly that complex. We do not need the yammering voice of God to express what Donnie and Rocky must be feeling with each landed blow.
Even more embarrassing is when the drama screeches to a halt after the match, as an interviewer shoves a microphone in our duo’s faces so they can tidy up their character arcs. In the original, this exact moment led to Rocky ignoring public spectacle for private drama, bellowing “Adrian!!!” from deep within his heart. With this one it sounds as if he’s telegraphing studio notes.
There’s an interesting theme in the film, in which Donnie puts aside his desire to do everything on his own as a Johnson and accepts the legacy of being a Creed. It’s as if Coogler realises there’s only so much he can accomplish with this story without settling into the groove established back in 1976. It’s not a knock against him; it’s when he’s harmonising with the past that the film works best. But Coogler is selective with his memories. Art museum steps – yes; slabs of frozen beef – no. Does Bill Conti’s triumphant theme make it onto the score? I’ll leave it to you to make the wager. My overall assessment of Creed is something of a split-decision, but there are a few instances where it’s a knockout.
Room review: Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay escape confining adaptation
Director Lenny Abrahamson seems uncertain of how to translate Emma Donoghue’s novel to the big screen – but his cast appear more confident
Nigel M Smith Saturday 5 September 2015 07.58 BST
mma Donoghue’s novel Room was a literary sensation soon after its publication in 2010 – and rightfully so. Told from the perspective of Jack, a five-year-old boy who knows nothing outside of the small room he and his mother have lived in for his whole life, it’s an unsettling story of survival that’s life-affirming without being overtly manipulative. The triumph of the novel lies in how deftly Donoghue enters the psyche of a sheltered young boy – no easy feat.
Lenny Abrahamson is the man behind the inevitable big screen adaption, and while the film boasts exemplary performances, it fails to register on a level as profound as its source due to its director’s sometimes shaky grip on the material. The script, meanwhile – courtesy of Donoghue herself – distills the essence of the book without foregoing its elemental power.
Relative newcomer Jacob Tremblay is a startling revelation as Jack, a long-haired boy completely oblivious to the everyday struggle his mother goes through to find the will to live. In the lead role, Brie Larson registers as numb to the pain she’s been forced to endure since being kidnapped and held captive by a menacing man Jack only knows as Old Nick.
There’s no way around it: on paper, the subject material is grim and unforgiving. But seen through’s Jack’s eyes, their shared everyday existence is oddly whimsical and intimate. After all, it’s all he knows.
That factor is what made Donoghue’s novel a pleasure not a chore. But on film, the overall effect can be cloying, largely thanks to a superfluous voiceover, as well as an overwrought score that’s more annoying than affecting.
Abrahamson also unwisely cheats the child’s perspective to allow more breathing room for Larson’s character and their captor, Old Nick. In doing so, he removes the wonder and dread that made Donoghue’s story so compelling and unique.
Brie Larson and Lenny Abrahamson attend a screening of 'Room' during the BFI London
He exhibits more confidence behind the lens in Room’s second, more involving, act, when the action shifts to outside the shack that Joy and Jack call home. Jack’s inability to connect with his new environment is devastatingly rendered, aided tremendously by Tremblay’s remarkably credible performance, and Larson’s palpable pain. Joan Allen and William H Macy lend stellar support as Larson’s bereaved parents.
If anything, Room proves Abrahamson as a master actor’s director. The overall vision, however, is muddled.
“I cannot recall a time when I did not know I was special,” writes Jeanette Winterson at the beginning of her fictionalized autobiography Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And, indeed, the facts of her life have supported that view. Born in Manchester in 1959, Winterson was adopted by Pentecostal evangelist Constance Brownrigg and her husband, John William Winterson, a factory worker. From her earliest years she was groomed by her mother and church to be a missionary, and her first forays into the world of letters were the sermons she began preaching at the age of eight. Her awareness of herself as different from others was heightened when she attended Accrington Girls’ Grammar School, a place that her mother dubbed the “breeding ground” because it put young Jeanette in contact with the ordinary girls of the industrial Midlands, who were more interested in embroidering platitudes on samplers than in saving souls at tent meetings.
At fifteen, Winterson had a love affair with a woman that was discovered and condemned by her church, leading to her expulsion from the community and to her leaving home to support herself. Working variously as an ice-cream van driver, a funeral parlor make-up artist and a domestic worker in a mental institution, she studied at Accrington College of Further Education and then went on to obtain her B.A. in English from St. Catherine’s College at Oxford in 1981.
Between 1981 and 1987, Winterson worked at the Roundhouse Theatre in London and then in publishing. During that time she wrote her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), a semi-autobiographical account of coming of age as a lesbian and a writer, interwoven with elements of the mythical and the fantastic.Oranges earned her the Whitbread Award for a first novel, and in 1990, when Winterson adapted it for television, the series won a number of international awards, including BAFTA Best Drama and the Prix Italia. In 1985, she also published Boating for Beginners, a light revisionist romp through the Book of Genesis that she now categorizes as a “comic book.”
In 1987, with the publication of The Passion, Winterson began to support herself as a full-time writer. The Passion, an intricate tale, loosely set in the Napoleonic era, garnered the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize. The reiterated phrase of Henri, one of the two narrators, crystallizes Winterson’s vision of the indissolubility of fact and fiction: “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
Sexing the Cherry (1989), with its time-transcending characters and fairy-tale magic, won the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Written on the Body (1992) challenged readers’ traditional assumptions about gender and identity by refusing to categorize the narrator as male or female.
Winterson’s experimentalism as a novelist has continued in Art and Lies (1994) and, most recently, in Gut Symmetries (1997). In 1995, she published Art Objects, a collection of essays—part art criticism, part manifesto—in which she applauds risk-taking as a measure of greatness: “The riskiness of Art, the reason why it affects us, is not the riskiness of its subject matter, it is the risk of creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking.” According to Winterson, “The rebellion of art is a daily rebellion against the state of living death routinely called real life.”
This interview took place on a brisk autumn London day in an editor’s office at Granta. Over the course of several hours, Winterson responded to questions with unflagging intensity and polish. Her speaking presence conveys the kind of quiet magnetism that would no doubt have led to spectacular conversions had she pursued a missionary path.
Why did you leave London?
I didn’t want to live there anymore. It became untenable for me in all sorts of ways. After having two very bad experiences with the press, both with Written on the Body and Art and Lies, I just didn’t want to be in the fishbowl. I thought, I want to get away from here because it’s not going to do me or my work any good to stay. So I went and hid myself in the woods.
Inside Out review – a buoyant and sweet-natured comedy from Pixar
While it might not challenge their greatest films, this is a smart and visually inventive piece of entertainment
Peter Bradshaw Monday 18 May 2015 13.18 BST
ete Docter’s new animation, Inside Out, does not deliver that shock of the new that was so stunning in the Pixar heyday of the last decade — all the dazzling technical spectacle of detail, colour and light that had us gobsmacked, and which we now take utterly for granted. This movie is a sweet-natured coming-of-age comedy, a kind of tween-transition crisis, though with a fundamentally sunny, Disneyfied worldview. It hasn’t anything as genuinely emotionally devastating as Up, or the subtlety and inspired subversion of Monsters Inc and the Toy Stories, which it certainly resembles at various stages. But it is certainly a terrifically likeable, ebullient and seductive piece of entertainment, taken at full throttle. There is that sheen of pure professionalism that I associate with its executive producer and presiding deity, John Lasseter
Like the earlier movies, Inside Out is about the secret imaginary quasi-adult figures who are the unseen, unsung guardian angels for kids. Riley (voiced by Kaitlin Dyas) is an 11-year-old girl who has had to leave behind all her friends in Minnesota when her parents move to San Francisco, where her dad is precariously setting up as an entrepreneur. But the move is making her depressed in ways that her parents have not fully appreciated — we appreciate it, because we are taken inside the mission control headquarters of Riley’s mind, perhaps a very U-certificate version of a similar idea in Woody Allen’s sketch for Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex. Riley, like every other human being and indeed animal, is controlled by five different mood-entities: the upbeat Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), the cringing Fear (Bill Hader), the ferocious Anger (Lewis Black), the fastidious Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the miserable Sadness (Phyllis Smith).
They are in charge of creating glowing little memory balls which are stored in the control suite for the day and then, when Riley goes to sleep, dispatched to be warehoused off site with all the other long-term memories. This infinite memory-ball library is situated in a huge, Daliesque alien-planet landscape, which includes vast identity islands symbolising various aspects of her personality: honesty, love of family, etc. It all runs perfectly until Riley spirals into unhappiness: Joy and Sadness somehow become locked out of the command centre, leaving Riley in a disastrous state of emotional illiteracy and confusion. Her identity islands of childhood are crumbling and Docter shows that it is a cross between a Three Mile Island meltdown and a bad LSD trip.
As ever, with this kind of symbolism, there is potential confusion. When these mood-entities are effectively humans themselves, what does it mean in terms of drama or logic when Anger calms down, or when Joy becomes sad, or when Sadness cheers up? Well, of course, you just have to go with it, as it all part of the general lesson that Sadness is actually important: the primacy of Joy at the controls could be a problem. Unless Sadness is acknowledged and is permitted to take the wheel, there can be no happiness and no growing up.
It is tremendously buoyant and watchable, with some great visual invention. There is not much in the way of irony: Inside Out does not want to send itself up, except right at the end in the wacky gag-reel over the closing credits, as Docter unleashes a torrent of jokes which seem to have been pent up over the previous hour and a half. No great leap forward, this: but slick, smart and funny.