<![CDATA[Culture]]> <![CDATA[I ain’t afraid of no girls: why the all-female Ghostbusters will be good for Hollywood]]> Maybe it was the fever, or my older cousin’s grave warnings that the movie would be too scary for me, or my best friend chasing me around his house with his toy Slimer, but one of the worst childhood nightmares I ever had was about the Ghostbusters. Still, whatever horrific twist on the franchise my virus-addled brain turned out, it never messed with the Ghostbusters’ sex: even through the haze of flu, I knew that when it came to stories, men did things, and women hung about on the fringes either having things done to them or necessitating the doing of things by men. Watching Ghostbusters with my own daughter, then, was bittersweet – because yes, both the films are beat-perfect funny, full of blissful lines and riotous mischief with the kind of characters you’d like to be friends with, but also there’s not very much to look at as a girl and say, “That’s me”.

The 1984 Ghostbusters cast.

Sigourney Weaver is great, obviously, but her job is mostly to roll her eyes at Venkman and then need rescuing. Annie Potts is the secretarial broad with a crush on the boss – not much doing there, Bechdel-wise. There’s also a female ghost who haunts Dan Ackroyd’s penis for a spectral job, and apart from that, being a woman in the Busterverse had little to offer. But! This is the 21st century, and the previously impossible has become the actually imaginable in the pitch meetings of Hollywood. Yes, we will get an all-woman Ghostbusters, and yes, the cast confirmed by director Paul Feig is a perfect match for the ’80s line-up: we’re promised Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. Like the original cast, Feig’s choice of actors is strong on Saturday Night Live talent, meaning the easy camaraderie of improv should flow through the new film; and with one black actor and three white (including one fat-and-white), they’ve been cast to match their predecessors perfectly.

Melissa McCarthy. Photo: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/AFP/Getty Images

Not everyone is happy about it, of course, because when is everyone ever happy about women getting an even break? And sadly, one of the not-happy contingent is Ernie Hudson, who played Winston in the original films: “All-female I think would be a bad idea,” he said (in a view that is maybe-not-entirely uncoloured by his own professional disappointment at missing out on the chance to appear in an original-cast sequel). “I love females,” he chivalrously conceded, “I hope that if they go that way at least they’ll be funny, and if they’re not funny at least hopefully it’ll be sexy.” You’d think “funny” would be the least to expect of a comedy remake, and sexy is a strange second best given that the Ghostbusters’ hotness was never a driving force in the first place, but I guess that’s one view of females for you: just not quite as good as men, but with the option to boost their bangability quotient to make up for their deficiencies.

Zuul preserve us from Victoria’s ’Busters strutting around in their pants with proton packs instead of wings. Here’s what I think we’ll actually get: a film that is a lot like the 1984 Ghostbusters, with women in it. That’s it, and in a year when barely any of the best picture Oscar contenders has a female character worth writing home about (never mind two that talk to each other), this is about the most exciting thing cinema could do. Depressingly, films like this are still groundbreaking. Feig’s 2011 film Bridesmaids (which starred Wiig with McCarthy in a supporting role) got a whole lot of column inches of the “gosh, women really can do comedy” kind – which surely shouldn’t have been news by then. Tina Fey’s sitcom 30 Rock started in 2006, and Amy Poehler’s Parks and Rec began in 2009: both handed plumb roles to female performers and let them occupy space of their own, rather than hemming the women characters into the selvedge around men.

Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation. Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

But what Bridesmaids showed was that if you put a bunch of women in a film and let them goof around pretty much like real people do – a bit nice, a bit messy, a bit control-freaky, a bit horny, a bit (in the case of the bad-Mexican grossout scene, which went past my “lol” reflex and straight to “gag”) faecally incontinent – people will show up to the cinema, and when they get there, they’ll laugh their tits off. Because while women hanging out with women happens less often on-screen than a Liam Neeson gun brawl, it’s just plain old real life for the women in the audience – as ordinary as air and every bit as necessary. There will, inevitably, be a male contingent that doesn’t want to see this, men who might claim they ain’t afraid of no girls, but for whom any suggestion that women are actually people is the spookiest thing in the world. And an all-female Ghostbusters is the best way to exorcise some of that lingering Hollywood sexism.

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<![CDATA[The producer vowing to film E M Forster’s “unfilmable” novel]]> When Adrian Munsey was an undergraduate student at King’s College, Cambridge in the mid-1960s, there was a strange wooden panel on the wall of his bedroom. “The novelist E M Forster lived here in 1897,” the panel read, which was odd, because E M Forster still lived in the building, in a room on the floor beneath Munsey.

Forster was by then 88 years old, living on support from King’s and doing very little. It was over 40 years since the author of Howards End and A Room with a View had published any fiction.

“Every morning he would walk across the front court,” Munsey told me recently over a hefty winter lunch at a café on the Farringdon Road, London. “I’m pretty sure most people thought he was dead.”

Munsey himself is now 67: a bright, charming and open individual whose career has taken him from teaching in art schools to directing, composing and producing for TV and film.

“Forster had written about India and his father died when he was very young; I’m half Indian and my father died when I was ten. I don’t want to get too psychological about it but there was something that drew me to his work,” he says.

After switching from history to English, Munsey tore through the Forster canon, avoiding A Passage to India, “because of my father”, which eventually led him to The Longest Journey, probably Forster’s least popular novel. It’s a difficult, allusive coming-of-age tale about a lame-footed boy named Frederick Elliot, known as “Ricky” or “Rickety”.

“I wanted to learn about other people’s inner lives,” Munsey says. “It sounds a little corny but I just couldn’t put it down. Here was this person struggling with ideas of how they should be, but feeling, quite literally, crippled. I saw Forster every day on the way to breakfast, so one morning I plucked up the courage to speak to him. I told him The Longest Journey was the best book I’d ever read and asked if I could buy him a drink.”

“I’m so pleased you’ve said this,” Forster replied. “It’s my favourite of my books. It’s so much based on myself.” The pair went for a glass of white wine. “You know, you’re the first person to ask me to go for a drink in 30 years,” Forster said.

The Longest Journey begins in Cambridge, in rooms which, by further coincidence, Munsey would occupy during his third year of study. Its protagonist fails to realise his artistic ambitions. He moves to rural Wiltshire and becomes a harsh schoolmaster, while his wife mourns for a previous love. Ricky fails to have the “truthful relationships” he so desperately wants – until, that is, he saves his alcoholic half-brother’s life shortly before his own death.

Last year, Munsey spent three weeks in hospital with a suspected heart condition. When he was given the all-clear, he became determined to see the only Forster novel that had never been adapted appear on the big screen.

“James Ivory told me it was too depressing to be made into a film, but I disagree . . . It doesn’t matter if you’re 20, 50 or 70 – the question of redemption is always contemporary.

“The book has been a warning to me against diffidence, dishonesty, being ‘rickety’ in my relationships with others,” Munsey says. “I think I’m the only producer who can make the film.”

He is now in pre-production for an adaptation of Forster’s unloved, unfilmable book. “He was so keen to show how personal it was,” Munsey recalls, “he just blurted it out. It felt to me like a moment of . . . well, connection, I suppose.” 

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<![CDATA[Why do we care about anachronisms in films?]]> There’s a frustrating solitariness to noticing temporal errors in movies, literature and art that elude most others. Just like the kid in The Sixth Sense who sees dead people, I – as, I imagine, are many others – am condemned to spot anachronisms. They’re usually not terribly harmful to the narrative but they burrow into your mind and stay there. And unlike with the lifeless baby cradled by Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, there is no broad community of sniggerers to join with you in your accursed attentiveness. I imagine I was not the only person to spot in Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, set in the aftermath of May 1968, a bottle of Chimay with a present-day label or a coffee served in dainty black espresso cups that became a feature of French cafés only a decade ago, but if others did notice them, they too are suffering in silence.

Neither am I sure how many people noticed the following egregious anachronism in Lynne Ramsay’s debut film Ratcatcher (1999): set on a Glasgow scheme in the late 1970s, the film features at one point a snippet from BBC’s Final Score, where the legendary Tim Gudgin reads out a result from the Scottish Cup: “Stirling Albion 20 Selkirk 0” (Gudgin repeats the scoreline for any incredulous listeners). The problem is, I know that that match took place in December 1984, because I was watching Grandstand that afternoon, as I did every Saturday in that pre-Sky Sports age, when you had a finite number of opportunities to catch the results of the day. Admittedly, this is a particularly arcane example but less so would be the Portuguese film I saw recently set among Angolan immigrants in Lisbon in 1980, where CDs appear on a market stall – most people of my generation would instantly smell a rat, knowing that the compact disc did not come into the world until three years later. Other people, more observant still, have cried foul at the appearance of Rubik’s Cubes and Walkmans in suburban America in 1979 in the movie Super 8 (though, given these were marketed very shortly afterwards, I would be inclined to be more indulgent).

Among several liberties with historical fact taken by Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, an army vehicle bearing a number plate of a type which was not introduced to Ireland until 1987 is fairly innocuous. But Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, another film set in Ireland of roughly the same era had far too many anachronisms for me to be able to believe in it. This is no doubt because I grew up about 25 miles from where the film, about the expulsion of local socialist James Gralton in 1933 as an “undesirable alien”, is set and filmed. I initially found the presence of industrial sliced bread in the west of Ireland in the 1930s jarring but it appears to have been first introduced to the UK around that time so it wasn’t inconceivable it crossed the Irish Sea soon after. What I found impossible to digest, though, were the improbably metropolitan names of some of the minor characters, such as Chloe and Christian, that would never have existed among even the most socially ambitious families in 1930s rural Ireland. Some of the accents in the film were also clearly from the more well-heeled suburbs of contemporary Dublin, which even today would sound out of place in Leitrim. And don’t even get me started on the dialogue – are we really expected to believe Irish villagers in the 1930s said things like “on the wrong side of history” or “on schedule”? Of course, most people watching the film would not have spotted these things and Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty would scoff at the notion of such trivial flaws overpowering the film’s central theme of social injustice (though, it must be said, anachronisms are far from the only things wrong with Jimmy’s Hall). Even so, it does go to show how an accumulation of minor flaws can undermine the credibility of a film for some viewers.

In historical films and novels anachronism is something writers strive to avoid at all costs but it is ultimately unavoidable – the best you can hope for is to keep them to a minimum and noticeable only by a tiny coterie of demanding experts. One of the more amusing moments in Michael Winterbottom’s meta-textual Tristram Shandy adaptation A Cock and Bull Story was a weaponry consultant played by Mark Williams decrying with great fervour the lack of historical accuracy of the artillery in films such as Cold Mountain. Most goofs of this sort remain invisible to the average viewer though heightened exposure brings its own risks, as the plethora of blogs devoted to anachronisms in Downton Abbey demonstrates. Anachronistic dialogue is one thing any good writer should be able to weed out but one hardly needs to go the whole hog and recreate pristine period language, as Mike Leigh did so wonderfully in Mr Turner. A “neutral” antiquated idiom is often sufficient, taking care to avoid anything that might be egregiously contemporary.

A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)

Nor is it terribly important to strive for absolute historical accuracy. Does anyone really care that Cassius and Brutus mention a clock striking in Julius Caesar, even though Caesar died twelve centuries before the invention of the first mechanical clock? Does a reference to “popish tricks and ceremonies” by Aaron in Titus Andronicus, set in classical Rome, fatally compromise the play? Like most of his Renaissance contemporaries Shakespeare did not worry too much about anachronisms. Judging by the now well-established trend for staging and filming his plays in updated contexts (in recent years Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and Coriolanus have all got such treatment), neither do most Shakespeareans.

Literary readers might be more demanding (think of Philip Hensher’s criticism of Eleanor Catton’s use of “hello” in The Luminaries) but film audiences are accepting of the diegetic universe of a film being an elaborate artifice. Even casual filmgoers understand that what goes into a movie is at one or two removes from reality and historical films are no different, even if they might seem more authoritative than those set in the present day. These fictional conventions are so strong and understood that they can be broken without disrupting a narrative too much. Mel Brooks’ satirical Western parody Blazing Saddles overspills onto a modern day Hollywood backlot in its final act but it doesn’t exactly erase the memory of what has gone before. In Peau d’âne, Jacques Demy’s 1970 adaptation of Lamartine’s fairy tale, the Blue King and the Lily Fairy arrive at the medieval wedding via a jazzed-up helicopter.

Peau d’âne (Jacques Demy, 1970)

Walker (Alex Cox, 1987)

Alex Cox’s Walker, a biopic of a 19th-century filibuster (played by Ed Harris) who named himself president of Nicaragua, uses cars, helicopters and copies of Time and Newsweek to highlight the parallels between the historical past and the political present – Cox made the film in Nicaragua at the height of the US-funded Contra war against the Sandinistas. Anachronistic music, largely pioneered by Baz Luhrmann (though Pier Paolo Pasolini did it as far back as 1964 by including Odetta and Blind Willie Johnson on the soundtrack for The Gospel According to St Matthew), is also gaining increasing acceptance in films, such as Django Unchained, Marie Antoinette and most recently Selma.

Anachronisms can also give rise, in however inadvertent a way, to enduring ideological constructs. An Elizabethan interest in the Tudors’ Welsh heritage gave rise to a “British” identity that had been forgotten for centuries by the English and which laid the cultural groundwork for the modern British state. The Frankenstein’s monster of the popular imagination is now almost exclusively conceived of as the creation of James Whales’ 1930s films, which has no basis in Mary Shelley’s novel. Renaissance art was almost as a rule anachronistic in its portrayal of biblical themes (ironically, it was a piece of anachronistic costume that helped expose one supposed Renaissance painting in the National Gallery as a fake) and one of the most notable of these anachronisms is the portrayal of Christ and his contemporaries as white Europeans. It is highly unlikely that Jesus and most people living in the Middle East at the time looked Caucasian but we have not exactly shaken off the “white” iconography – only last year Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (itself wilfully anachronistic) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings both presented an overwhelmingly white biblical Levant. Proof that, if some anachronisms are big enough and rooted enough, they will continue slipping by audiences for ever.

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<![CDATA[Wallace no more: Ed Miliband seems to have a plasticine “cameo” in the new Shaun the Sheep film]]> A hundred years from now, what will we remember of Ed Miliband’s tenure as Labour leader? The accusations of fratricide that dogged his ascent to the top?
The wild popularity of predistribution? That time he ate a bacon sandwich?

No. Chances are, it will be the frequent and not always favourable comparisons that have been made between his face and that of a British cultural icon: Wallace, from Wallace and Gromit. Even this mole’s own esteemed publication has not been immune to this:

Wallace’s heart has always been in the right place (and he certainly is a skilled inventor – he built a rocket that went to the moon and back, after all) but he does frequently need to be rescued from scrapes by Gromit – an element of the comparison that various political opponents have gone out of their way to tease out.

But now, Wallace creators Aardman have gone one better. They appear to have actually given Ed Miliband a plasticine cameo in their new film about beloved W&G spin off character Shaun the sheep. Here he is:

It’s a shockingly good likeness. Shaun himself rather captures our reaction when we first saw it:

Here he is again, just in case you weren’t sure the first time:

Judging by the trailer, “Ed” is a waiter in a restaurant that the cunningly-disguised sheep frequent while on a trip to the big city. He’s obviously going to steal the limelight, to Shaun’s despair:

David Cameron, who has long enjoyed throwing the Wallace comparison in Ed’s face, is clearly going to be delighted. In fact, he probably did a happy dance just like this pig when he first heard about it, this mole imagines:

Aren’t election campaigns fun?

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<![CDATA[Sooty and sweep: how the Victorians cleaned up the country]]> Dirty Old London: the Victorian Fight Against Filth
Lee Jackson
Yale University Press, 304pp, £20

In 1849 the journalist Henry Mayhew visited the “cholera district of Bermondsey”. There, he met a barber in his shop. The man had survived typhus twice, but his child had died of cholera and his wife was in the workhouse with the same disease. And no wonder, “. . . for as the man sat at his meals in his small shop, if he put his hand against the wall behind him, it would be covered with the soil of his neighbour’s privy, sopping through the wall. At the back of the house was an open sewer and the privies were full to the seat.”

Filthy old London, its streets covered with the dung of 300,000 horses which stuck to your feet because it was mixed with melting macadam. The air was soot and smoke. The Thames was full of shit and therefore so was the drinking water; the graveyards were overflowing. Yet this was the century of Victoria, a time famed for sanitary achievement. As Lee Jackson demonstrates persuasively, our historical assumptions are sometimes as dense as a peasouper. The great Victorian sanitarians existed. They schemed, in a good way. But often they were less successful than history thinks, or succeeded far more slowly.

Jackson, “a noted Victorianist”, has put in time in archives all over London, as one can see from the depth and breadth of the book’s detail. We plunge into the workings of vestries (local boards), parishes, reports and committees, each better named than the next. (I can’t decide whether my favourite is the Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor, or the Society for Superseding the Necessity of Climbing Boys. The Victorians didn’t do snappy.) His thematic chapters cover a spectrum of London’s filth, from dust (rubbish) to sweeps (exploiters of those poor climbing boys, child sweeps, deformed into an S shape by a short life spent in chimney flues).

The trajectory is often similar: initial efforts in the early part of the century, then better efforts in the 1840s, the decade of the Public Health Act and of Edwin Chadwick, the best-known sanitarian of all. Jackson likes Chadwick, the “barrister and penny-a-liner” who stormed his way through the obstinate Bumbledom of vestries and vested interests and into positions of power. But then, usually, the reforming zeal faced difficulty and obstacles for a few decades until proper reform happened in the latter years of the century.

To cleanse London involved cleansing the poor. This was agreed, although Chadwick was no humanitarian, wanting instead to reduce how much money the poor were costing the Poor Law unions with their illness and death and trouble. And my, there was trouble. Jackson’s opening chapter on dustmen is his least compelling, so let us fall instead into the stinking graveyards, privately run by parishes and profiteers. Once a metal rod could be sunk easily into a grave, the dead were dug up, chopped and sometimes burned. A resident near Spa Fields burial ground saw “what appeared to be mash, which seemed to me to be the bowels of a corpse, which the gravedigger attempted to gather up in a shovel”. By the end of the century, garden cemeteries on the city’s outskirts became a pleasant burial alternative for the middle and upper classes, but the poor were still forced to pay a fortune to be buried. And they still are.

Present-day London is not as clean as we think. Sewage runs through the book, but two chapters concentrate on it, introducing us to the artist John Martin, who devised a plan to instal a great system of sewers into the metropolis, and to the more renowned Joseph Bazalgette, whose sewers still run under London’s streets, though now so overloaded and fragile that Londoners are paying £4bn for a “supersewer” that will probably last only a hundred years. Bring back Bazalgette. And Chadwick. And the Cheap Trains Act of 1883, while we’re at it.

Other peasouper-puncturing revelations: George Jennings’s public toilets at the Great Exhibition of 1851 neither gave us the phrase “to spend a penny” (as most of them cost only a ha’penny) nor immediately brought in a great age of marvellous public conveniences. Instead it took another few decades before public toilets, once moved into acceptably discreet underground quarters, became standard. (Sanitary improvements would often run into objections from vested interests, such as slum landlords, who did not want improvements in slum housing. Only bathhouses and swimming pools seem to have met no resistance.) Yet in clean new London, 50 per cent of public toilets have been shut down in the past decade.

There are many riches in this book – the Times, for instance, commenting on one ref­ormer’s efforts by saying that “Mackinnon’s Smoke Prohibition Bill has ended in smoke, just as his Interment Prohibition Bill ended in its own burial”; smog providing cover for “love in the fog”; and the Beckwith Frogs, a family that performed wonderful skills of “natation” as swimming pools multiplied.

Yet there are curious absences. Where is John Snow? From his blog, I know Jackson thinks Snow’s influence on sanitary history is overrated, as his discovery that cholera was waterborne was ignored for decades by the prevailing miasmatists, who thought that disease came from smell and air. But for such a magnificent epidemiological milestone to be reduced to a sentence in the epilogue seems perverse. Another puzzle is cholera itself. We are told repeatedly how powerful a trigger it was for change, yet we are given no sense of why it was so feared. How many did it kill? In what manner? The answer is: many hundreds of thousands, and rapidly and horrifyingly, because you could eat your breakfast happily and be blue and dead by supper. To confine these facts to endnotes is surprising.

By the end of the century, much had been sanitised. Sewers took London’s sewage away to the sea (though dumping human waste in the ocean is now banned). Cesspools and child sweeps were gone. Drinking water was no longer black and turbid, containing leeches and tadpoles. The poor could now wash their clothes and themselves affordably. Cholera was under control, and typhus diminished. Even so, despite all these eminent Victorians and their cleansing ideas and zeal, when the Chinese ambassador visited London in 1899 and was asked his opinion of this magnificent city, the jewel of a vast empire, “He replied, laconically, ‘Too dirty.’” 

Rose George’s books include “The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste” (Portobello)

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<![CDATA[Critical Distance: This week in videogame blogging #3]]> Critical Distance is proud to bring to the New Statesman a new weekly digest of its popular This Week in Videogame Blogging feature, which promotes the best, often little-known, incisive criticism and cultural commentary on interactive media. This week, we discuss the role of formalism as an analytical tool in game studies and follow up on Spawn on Me’s #BlackLivesMatter gaming marathon.

Games scholar Frank Lantz went back to the well on formalism, an academic lens with a long history in games studies. His argument is that mechanics can and should be formally discussed without painting people who do so as a conservative gatekeeper. Heather Alexandra responded with the argument that it’s not so easy to separate mechanics from anything else without implicit value judgments. Daniel Joseph drew on some past arguments to add context to the formalism debate in games.

Maybe the real problem that the advocates of ludoessentialism are worried about is a hegemony of thought, much like what Brandon Keogh criticized in his journal article last year. I responded by contextualizing the historical context of the various disciplines that make up game studies. I thought the problem wasn’t so much that there were authoritarians telling us not to conduct close readings of videogames in academia, but that the institutional cultures of our various disciplines alongside the political economy of the university was more the culprit here.

Continuing in an academic vein, The Journal of Games Criticism has released its newest issue, offering up articles ranging from hermeneutics in games criticism to pedagogy and tangential learning through games.

Mary Lee Sauder goes into art history, and derives the term “gamerliness” based off the term “painterliness”:

If you’ve ever studied art, you may have heard of the term “painterliness” used to describe works of art that derive meaning from drawing attention to the fact that they are just paint on a canvas or clay molded by human hands. “Painterly” art doesn’t try to look realistic – instead, it uses its unique aspects as a constructed object to its advantage.

Lastly, a couple articles continuing the conversation on representation in games. Shonte Daniels discusses race in games through the lens of Spawn On Me’s recent #BlackLivesMatter gaming marathon. Meanwhile, Adrienne Shaw discusses the outcomes of her research on representation in games, and addresses common criticisms of advocating for representation.

There is much more available in this week’s full roundup at Critical Distance! Tune in again next week and be sure to follow us on Twitter @critdistance for all the latest and greatest games writing from around the web.

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<![CDATA[Robert Webb on Kate Gross’s Last Fragments: a beautiful act of resistance against cancer]]> Late Fragments
Kate Gross
William Collins, 256pp, £14.99

Kate Gross died on Christmas Day 2014 at the age of 36. She had worked as a civil servant – she was private secretary to Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown – and was the founding chief executive officer of the Africa Governance Initiative, a charity set up to provide practical advice and support to post-conflict African states. She left behind her husband, Billy, their five-year-old twins and this beautiful book.

Late Fragments, like the blog that preceded it, is Gross’s reaction to her terminal cancer. From her introduction: “I began to write straight after my diagnosis . . . Every­thing I wrote was a gift to myself, a rem­inder that I could create even as my body tried to self-destruct. And I wrote as a gift to those I love.” Unsure how much time she has, she finds herself “full of fears that I will have to stop before I can write down all the things I want to tell my boys when they are 35, not five. Before I can tell them who I am, and what I know, and the stories that make up my life.” So this, among other things, is a mother’s account of what life and her imminent death had taught her, for the benefit of her sons. As such – and with a different author – the book could easily have been unbearable. Instead, what we have here is a joy; indeed, a joyful act of love.

How do we criticise an act of love? We don’t. That’s not to say we have to put aside all objectivity because someone obviously very likeable just died. I would feel well disposed towards Kate Gross (pronounced to rhyme with “moss”) and her family even if she’d written a lousy book. As it happens, this is a very good one. Yes, she is communicating with her boys, but the general reader is more than just a collateral beneficiary. It helps that she writes so well. That sounds patronising but the suffering contained in the “Cancer Canon”, as Gross calls it, does not inevitably translate into insight. Here, it does. She makes a conscious decision that it must. She quotes a poem by Jane Hirshfield:

I moved my chair into sun

I sat in the sun

the way hunger is moved when

called fasting.

And she moves us into the sun with her.

Her tone is often witty, always serious, but rarely solemn. Her prose is grounded, unshowy and blessed with a casual poetry. We are spared the hours of chemotherapy (“a particularly inept vigilante marauding through my body”) and we don’t follow her down every twist and turn of her illness. To put it glibly, Gross simply doesn’t have time for the boring bits. No memoir is improved by the 12-page tribute to the subject’s parents’ courtship and Gross doesn’t trouble us with that either. I start to make a note that the chapters describing her careless childhood, self-loathing teenage years and self-rediscovery at Oxford make up less than a quarter of the book but then the pencil freezes in my hand as I realise that these years account for more than half of her life.

Just as well, then, that Gross was out of the blocks like a ramjet when the rest of us were still tying our shoelaces. At 26, she was briefing the prime minister for PMQs (I was tearing tickets in a local theatre) and at 30 she had founded an international charity, raising £20m to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world (I was thinking about buying a flat). With the change of prime minister in 2007, she was immediately responsible for advising Brown on the Haymarket and Glasgow Airport terror attacks: “I was notionally in charge . . . But by that point I had faked it enough times to know I could make it in the grown-up world.” No gentler figure than Damian McBride (Brown’s former Headbanger-on-Earth) remembers the same meetings on his blog: “She was utterly brilliant, almost mesmerising in her command of the facts and of Gordon’s brain, and reduced the rest of us – the supposed experts on working with the man – to stunned silence on the sidelines.”

If we are tempted even for a moment to withhold sympathy from such a kick-ass megastar, the feeling vanishes in the light of her own focus: on love, on finding wonder in the everyday, on the life of the mind, on empathy for others. Years of dealing with the nitty-gritty of public policy (“Those I admired . . . seek out messiness and complexity over neatness and order”), as well as her extensive travel and wide reading, have left her with a respect for our interdependency: “Yes, the threads that bind us together are fragile, easily ruptured by ties to self, to tribe, to race . . . But that they are there at all is reason for unconquerable gladness.”

To read this book is to learn what can be snatched back from death even as it takes everything else. Although Kate resists beatification – the book is nothing if not bloody-mindedly, almost dementedly honest – her attitude is worth the sky. The auth­or died ten minutes before her sons woke to unwrap their Christmas presents. Her book remains. It is vividly, beautifully alive. 

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<![CDATA[Beyond Clueless: a giant campus of candy-coloured teen life]]> To the Prince Charles Cinema last week for a preview of Beyond Clueless, a documentary analysis of the modern teen movie. The tone of this debut from the 23-year-old filmmaker Charlie Lyne is best described as half-love letter, half-biopsy. A series of montages divided into chapters guides the viewer through common themes in high-school movies—chief among these being the pressure to conform, seen at its most extreme in Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers 90210. The conceit is that the several hundred movies from which Lyne has harvested excerpts all inhabit the same world, aesthetically and thematically. Clueless gives way to Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That to 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls to Disturbing Behaviour, all the clips cut together so that they seem to be happening on one giant campus.

The pinnacle of this sort of visual essay, which works as the cinematic equivalent of a word association game, would be Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, which comprises screen representations of LA, or Christian Marclay's 24-hour video installation The Clock, constructed from visual representations of time in film. Beyond Clueless is a modest piece which makes no claims to be in that class but it shares some key DNA. It recognises the sparks that can be generated, the insinuations made, when one piece of film is placed next to another in defiance of its creator’s original intentions.

In the Q&A after the screening, hosted by Adam Buxton at his wryest, Lyne invoked the word “exorcism” to describe the process of picking over in detail the films which had bewitched him as a teenager. And there is the sense in Beyond Clueless that the authorial voice is asking not only “What did these films do to me?” but also, incredulously and at times angrily, “How could they?” The slant of the film suggests an adult interrogating those who wronged him as a child.

Or those who wronged her. Though Lyne is the writer-director, one of the keys to the picture’s effectiveness is the dazed voiceover by Fairuza Balk, the actress whose career began on the electro-convulsive therapy table as the young Dorothy in the disturbing 1983 prequel Return to Oz. Her presence on the soundtrack of Beyond Clueless is highly symbolic: she was one of the stars of The Craft, the 1996 thriller about a coven of high-school witches. Balk (she is perfectly named: balk is exactly what you do when you see her intense, unnerving face) introduced an element of danger and unpredictability into The Craft, and she brings that also to parts of Beyond Clueless. She offers both an American ratification of this British film—she’s an actual escapee from the teen genre, called back from adulthood to deliver its last rites—and the perfect, Mogadon-fogged delivery for a picture that seems to be emerging from its own movie rehab.

Sometimes the wooziness blurs into wooliness. There is slightly too much recourse to the synopsis format in which we are shown a condensed version of a film’s plot (though it helps that some of these—Bubble Boy, starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal, and the teen horror Idle Hands—are unfamiliar). The analyses are not always as sharp as they might have been, relying on the sort of connective tissue that will be familiar to any writer who has ever struggled to link two unrelated paragraphs. That becomes most apparent during the best sequence: the commentary on 13 Going On 30 matches so precisely with the excerpts we are shown that we may wish the rest of the movie had that degree of acuity.

As a rule, Beyond Clueless works better the blander the clips are. When a film with real vision and scope of its own intrudes on its scrapbook world, even for a moment, there is a sudden imbalance. A mere ten or 20 seconds of Rushmore or Y Tu Mamá También can easily pull us out of the homogeneous teen world; they have a visual immediacy that jeopardises the candy-coloured spell and interrupts the parade of geeks and jocks and cheerleaders.

But a good filmmaker knows that cinema is not merely a visual medium. Music can knit everything together and in this respect the score by the British band Summer Camp is an eerie, delicate triumph. (Check out the track “Swimming Pool”, which accompanies one of the movie’s creepiest sequences and can be heard on the trailer.) Beyond Clueless may be messy in places but it’s also strange, occasionally disorienting and full of flashes of madness. Not unlike adolescence itself.

Beyond Clueless is on release from 23 January.

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<![CDATA[In the Frame: the Creme Egg controversy]]>

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<![CDATA[A little less conversation: Remembering Elvis with Priscilla Presley]]> Remembering Elvis With Priscilla Presley
BBC Radio 2

A word about the West End theatre impresario Bill Kenwright’s interview with Priscilla Presley (15 January, 10pm). I say interview – but Priscilla scarcely spoke, so keen was Kenwright to establish that he was not just The King’s number-one fan, but famous throughout the country for being so. “Eighty per cent of the British population will know how thrilled I am to be here because I’m a well-known Elvis fanatic,” he assured his guest. “So thank you from me, and thank you from Britain!”

Priscilla demurred politely, as any sane person might. The last time I looked, Presley’s child bride (now 69) did look a little . . . singular, astrophysically speaking. Curiously detached in a trance-like way, brown eyes swivelling in an otherwise entirely motionless face, she resembles a wrongly convicted village wench caught inside an iron maiden – albeit one standing at the bottom of a sweeping staircase and about to pour a glass of Tanqueray over Bobby Ewing.

And yet whenever Presley was permitted to speak she sounded perfectly modest and normal, even when Kenwright advised her that, in the interests of evoking a stunned sense of epiphany, she really ought to rewrite the end of a recent Vegas tribute show to include the scarcely used line: “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building!”

Priscilla listened respectfully, made a few noises that connoted a general sense of restrained but negotiable negativity, and then assured Bill that she would take the sug­gestion to her associates and try, even in the teeth of opposition, to push it through to the top.

This, Kenwright – a former judge on Any Dream Will Do – took as his due.

“I want to ask you something, Priscilla,” he started; but then immediately returned to the subject of himself.

“The legend is that He sang you three songs on your first date and actually one of those songs I started my radio series a few weeks back with and I said to listeners, ‘Why was this record never a hit?’ because I was just thinking that I . . .”

Wonder and vanity conjoined. One imagined Presley wearing her quiet, unreadable smile as he talked, hugging memories of her Memphis bumpkin to herself.

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<![CDATA[Welcome to Oscar season — Oscar Isaac season, that is]]> A Most Violent Year (15)
dir: J C Chandor

Ex Machina (15)
dir: Alex Garland

I’m a sucker for Oscar season. Oscar Isaac season, that is. When I failed to recognise him last year in Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January it occurred to me that this Lonely Planet compendium of a man (he has Cuban, Guatemalan, French and Israeli branches in his family tree) might be a born star. In that sun-kissed Patricia Highsmith adaptation, it was tantalisingly unclear whether his true designs were on a chirpy young bride or her shady older husband. Where had this matinee idol sprung from? It was as though the film-makers had travelled back in time and kidnapped Ramon Novarro.

I’d seen Isaac only a few months earlier in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. He looked entirely different with his inky beard and his curls like black lianas; his sleepwalking presence as a forlorn folk minstrel was spellbinding. The magic is in those coolly insinuating eyes, not so much “Come to bed” as: “Come back to bed, we haven’t finished yet.”

It transpires that Oscar Isaac amnesia is a common ailment. At the premiere in Cannes of the Coens’ film, reporters wondered if he was a real folk singer. All memory of him as a smouldering jailbird in Drive had been erased. (His turn as a piano-playing security guard in Madonna’s WE had also been forgotten, which was probably a blessing.) Now Isaac has arrived, as proven by his presence in two new films and the next instalments of X-Men and Star Wars. But do the movies know what to do with him?

The answer, in A Most Violent Year, is: sort of. He plays Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman whose rise as New York City’s leading fuel supplier in the early 1980s is threatened by competitors. His drivers are being ambushed and his fuel stolen. Still he never raises his voice above a soothing rumble. Stalking the concrete plains of the city’s waterfront, all weeds and warehouses and crumbling walls, Abel is like a magnificent lion in his desert-coloured, box-shouldered camel-hair coat. What a pity that his pronouncements – “I like to own the things I use”; “I will not allow the weaknesses of others to affect me” – make him sound like a capitalist fortune cookie.

Imagine a New York version of The Long Good Friday and you’ll have some idea of where the plot is heading. Jessica Chastain, as Abel’s brassy mobster wife, even seems to be channelling Helen Mirren. Unfortunately, the writer-director, J C Chandor, extinguishes drama at every opportunity. When he isn’t resorting to ponderous wide shots of men exchanging briefcases under the gaze of the grey Manhattan skyline, he is filling the screen with tasteful images of the Morales family home; this tale of crime, corruption and soft furnishings resembles a Sunday-supplement Scorsese. Abel has two young daughters who pop up only when the plot needs them (one finds a loaded gun; the other has her birthday party interrupted by police) but there’s not a toy to be seen in the house. These lives don’t look lived-in.

A Most Violent Year draws any potency it has from its leading man. His strongest scene, when Abel is teaching the sales team to captivate customers (“Hold the eye contact longer than you’d like – you see what happens”), is like an Oscar Isaac acting masterclass. Ex Machina also exploits his unique charisma and mutable appearance. He swaps Abel’s sleek hair helmet for a shaved head and a beard like a hairy nosebag; his face seems to be on upside-down.

Isaac plays Nathan, a billionaire who is developing artificial intelligence at his remote mountain hideaway. He invites a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) to spend time with his synthetic creation (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she can pass for human. There are sweeping helicopter shots and chic cinematography but this three-hander isn’t cinema: it’s a Ted talk shot in a boutique hotel, with ideas about consciousness and evolution itemised rather than dramatised. Isaac delivers a detailed study in derangement, whether breaking into a dance routine or experiencing perverse delight as the megabytes hit the fan (“This is fucking unreal!”). But if it’s complex female characters you want, stick with the Fembots from Austin Powers.

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<![CDATA[Eimear McBride announced as judge for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize]]> Eimear McBride, whose debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, has been announced as a judge for the 2015 prize. She is joined by Jon McGregor, the award-winning author of If Nobody Speaks of Unremarkable Things; Leo Robson, the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer; and Josh Cohen, Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths and author of The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, who will chair the panel.

The Goldsmiths Prize, which rewards “fiction at its most novel”, was launched by Goldsmiths, University of London, and the New Statesman in 2013. McBride – whose uncompromising, stream-of-consciousness novel was rejected by all the major UK publishers before it was eventually picked up by the independent imprint Galley Beggar Press – went on to sweep the board, winning everything from the Desmond Elliot Prize to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Last year the prize, established to “celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”, was awarded to Ali Smith for How to be Both, a book that – in the words of the chair of judges Francis Spufford – “confirms that formal innovation is completely compatible with pleasure – that it can be, in fact, a renewal of the writer's compact with the reader to delight and astonish.”

The Goldsmiths Prize is making a dent the literary landscape. At an event at the Cambridge Literary Festival last year McBride revealed that her unexpected success had prompted several editors to return to submissions that they believed had substantial literary merit, but were deemed too difficult to market and unlikely to sell. Of winning the prize, she said: “After many years in the literary wilderness, receiving the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, with the kind of work it was established to support, felt rather like a surprise invitation home.” Ali Smith described it as “about the thing closest to your heart if you work with the novel as a form”.

The shortlist will be announced on 1 October and the winner on 11 November.

Goldsmiths University are hosting a series of free events linked to the prize:

28 January 2015: Ali Smith
25 February 2015: Adam Thirlwell
11 March 2015: Will Self

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<![CDATA[Margeret Forster's My Life in Houses is an inspirational reflection on eight decades of home]]> My Life in Houses
Margaret Forster
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £14.99
 

Inevitably Margaret Forster’s account of the houses where she has lived serves as an alternative memoir. The 76-year-old novelist and biographer is suffering from metastatic cancer, so there is a valedictory quality to aspects of her book. She quotes Leonard Woolf: “Looking back on my life, I tend to see it divided into sections which are determined by the houses in which I have lived.” In Forster’s case, these sections resonate with happenings, feelings and people, but the houses remain central.

At one point she appears impatient of her deep-seated habit of regarding her home as an active player in her life: she describes this impulse as “pushing emotion on to what was just a pile of bricks and mortar”. Were she proof against such a tendency, with its suggestions of anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy, she would not be the writer she is and this book could not exist. Her admission, partway through her account, that “surroundings had always mattered to me”, is entirely superfluous.

Such close engagement with a house is, she acknowledges, a particularly writerly preoccupation. To illustrate, she cites authors whom she herself has examined as biographical subjects, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier. For all three women, a house is a universe in miniature, ideally ordered to suit its occupant – like an item of bespoke clothing, as Forster describes it. It reflects and reassures the writer at her (housebound) desk. Its qualities are affirmative; it offers solace, inspiration.

Forster’s focus on the spaces she has inhabited over eight decades, and the extent to which they in turn inhabit her, is consistent. She resists any conventional autobiographical impulse. Her husband (Hunter Davies) and her children are sketchily drawn; she does not reflect at length on her highly successful career as a writer, her books or what her writing means to her, nor are we often reminded that Forster’s homes have been cradles not only to her own writing but that of her husband, too. Instead, she explores a very personal emotional and imaginative bond with her living spaces, some of them permanent, others – including holiday homes in Britain and abroad – temporary or little used. My Life in Houses is exactly that; and as a result, perhaps, it is simultaneously less moving but more universal than it might have been. Forster’s spaces are specific to her and in this very specificity lies their value to her. Few of us have not felt at some time the womb-like tug of a favourite room.

Margaret Forster was born in 1938 in a newly built council house on a model estate put up by Carlisle County Borough Council on an expanse of poor-quality grassland to the west of the town, 12 houses to the acre, green spaces remaining. There were two bedrooms to the Forster home in Orton Road but no indoor loo or basin, and rudimentary heating in the form of a black iron range that required assiduous attention. Looking back, Forster describes herself as “a lucky girl”, an assessment intended as much for her younger self as the reader.

She lived there with her parents and siblings until she was 14. By the age of seven she had already begun to dream of a different home, a different aspect; she wanted distance from the rowdy corner pub, flowers in place of potatoes in the garden, and a view of garish colours rather than the predominant grey of outhouses, coal sheds, dank privies. Her childish cravings were for space, quiet, prettiness and, like writers before and since, a room of her own. She explains this reaction as not “any rejection of my own family, just a natural desire to have the chance not to be forced to be with others all the time”: that is to say, not snobbery, but the bookish child’s longing for a desk and the possibility of reading undisturbed. As Forster recounts it, that desire, natural or otherwise, became a significant dynamic of her life. Until her purchase in 1963, with Davies, of the house in Boscastle Road, London NW5, which remains her home today, Forster was a woman constantly – perhaps unusually – focused on settling satisfactorily the question of her living arrangements.

Since 1987 Forster and Davies have divided their year between Boscastle Road and a house in the Lake District. Now, given her illness, she anticipates a final move, to a hospice. That threatened severance spices her love for her home of 50 years. In truth, this sensitive and inspiring writer has always been passionately attached to the homes where she has lived. 

Matthew Dennison’s latest book is “Behind the Mask: the Life of Vita Sackville-West” (William Collins)

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<![CDATA[Pale riders: Adrienne Mayor's "The Amazons" shows how a myth developed]]> The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press, 536pp, £19.95

The Amazon of classical mythology retains a powerful presence in contemporary culture. As a warrior woman, skilled in archery and equestrianism, who rejects patriarchy and lives free from male control, the Amazonian archetype has inspired and provided a point of comparison with countless powerful or unconventional females, from Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great to Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

These mythological warrior women were also among the most omnipresent figures in the art and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Scarcely a classical temple did not feature a sculpted scene of battling Amazons, dressed in patterned leggings and felt caps with ear-flaps. Amazons feature in almost every account of ancient war, both mythical and historical, from the plains of Troy to the Athenian Areopagus, from the Trojan Aeneas’s struggle to conquer Italy and found Rome to Alexander the Great’s farthest eastern campaigns.

Ancient historians tell elaborate stories about the Amazons, especially those in Scythia. Sometimes they are presented as living apart from men in matriarchal communities that routinely killed off most baby boys; at other times they were said to fall in love with their neighbours the Scythians, or to have been tamed into submission by hypermasculine Greek heroes. But they were not imagined to be lesbians, and one other prevalent modern notion about the Amazons has little foundation in reliable ancient sources: that they cut off one breast to aid their archery. This idea originated in a false etymology of “Amazon” from a Greek word for breast (mastos or mazos); in fact, the name Amazones originated in a non-Greek ethnic label – perhaps Scythian or Iranian – of great antiquity.

If Adrienne Mayor had merely applied her rigorous scholarship and poetic charm to documenting the shifting image of Amazons in classical, medieval and post-Renaissance European culture, she would have written an important contribution to ancient history. But she has achieved much more. By painstaking research into the literature, folklore and ancient traditions of the myriad peoples between Greece, Russia and China, especially the Kyrgyz, the Azerbaijanis and the Circassians of Caucasia, she has broken down the often impenetrable walls dividing western cultural history from its eastern equivalents. Mounted female heroes, fearless and at arms, feature in the stories of all these cultures, even though only a few, such as the Chinese lyrical heroine Mulan, have ever been introduced to the west. Armed women still ride with their menfolk all over the steppes; in Kazakhstan they engage in dangerous competitive races and games on horseback. Mayor documents the fascinating story of the early-modern travellers who saw such horsewomen and, sensibly enough, deduced that they were descendants of the celebrated Black Sea Amazons, of whom classical authors had so much to say.

In the 19th century, early anthropologists such as J J Bachofen used the Amazon myth as part of their evidence for the hypothesis that world patriarchy had been preceded by an Ur-matriarchy. Engels accepted this hypothesis in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) and it remained popular for some decades. But as Marxism ceded ground to Lévi-Straussian structuralism in the 1960s and 1970s, a new orthodoxy came to prevail in the classical establishment: the Amazons were a fiction, invented by the ancient Greeks in order to help them define aspects of their own culture, which was ruled by men. Indeed, ancient Greek civilisation lay at the misogynist end of the patriarchal spectrum. The Greeks defined marriage in terms of patrilinear succession, the physical transfer of women’s bodies and their attached property between men of different households, and the policing of female sexual activity, motviated by an extreme concern for natal legitimacy.

The Amazon, according to this view (which was happily adopted by most feminist classicists), was an emanation of the Greek male imagination which defined the behaviour of her antitype – the “proper” Greek woman, controlled by her husband, averse to fighting, and definitely not prone to roam open spaces, unsupervised and astride a swift horse. The existence of the story of the Amazons, whom Greek men liked to imagine personally impaling on long spears, or raping, encouraged these men to rein in any wives, sisters or daughters who exhibited Amazonian tendencies.

Yet in the past three decades an extraordinary series of archaeological discoveries has proved incontrovertibly that there were warrior women among the nomads of antiquity. They were indeed archers and they fought alongside their menfolk in battle. In the 5th century BC at Ak-Alakha, high in the Altai Mountains, the Pazyryk people buried, together, a man and a young woman as well as their weapons, horses and trousers. In 1984 at Sampula in north-western China, researchers discovered the skeletons of 133 male and female nomads in a mass grave of the 1st or 2nd century BC. They had been killed in combat and were wearing colourfully patterned trousers. One trouser leg was decorated with a centaur blowing a war trumpet that looks just like those blown by Amazons and Scythians in Greek art. The headgear of these nomads featured ear-flaps resembling those on the caps of classical Amazons. Such material, graphic and plentiful finds made it impossible for anyone ever to claim again that Amazons were a figment of any imagination.

The historical Amazons would have been encountered by the ancient Greeks who travelled and traded around the Black Sea and fought in Alexander’s campaigns in Bactria. The discovery of “real” Amazons’ graves, supplemented by anthropological fieldwork among the remaining nomadic peoples of the Caucasus and Eurasia, suggests that the Greeks were filtering eye­witness accounts through a myth-making lens, just like the bards of the Caucasian Nart sagas and Chinese epic narratives.

Mayor opens up new horizons in world storytelling and feminist iconography. Her implication is that we need more Amazons in our own storytelling. She describes how, in ancient Athens, young girls would be given an Amazon clay doll (there’s a collection in the Louvre); she was brightly painted and wearing a war helmet, and her arms and legs were articulated so she could be dressed and undressed like a feminist Barbie. Another ancient doll, this one ten inches high, was found in eastern Turkey. She is dressed in the Amazon uniform of tunic and studded belt, with long curly hair, and she once held arms and armour. We even know the name of the doll-maker, Maecius, who was proud enough of his work to mark it with his signature. There may not be Amazon dolls in today’s toyshops, but a good substitute would be to read this wonderful book with your children and show them its pictures, especially before sitting down with them to watch The Hunger Games

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<![CDATA[Nervous breakdown coming on? Time to burst into song]]> The movies of Pedro Almodóvar frequently flirt with becoming musicals – think of the mile-high flight attendant production numbers in his 2013 aviation comedy, I’m So Excited! – and now the relationship has been consummated. His farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has come to the Playhouse Theatre in London in a song-and-dance version radically revised from the one that disappointed on Broadway.

Sitting in the stalls at the premiere on 12 January, the Spanish film-maker certainly could not complain that the dramatist Jeffrey Lane had ditched much of the cinematic narrative. Pepa (Tamsin Greig), an actress who suffers the indignity of being famous for advertising voice-overs and dubbed movies, is dumped through an answerphone message by her thespian lover, Ivan. Unaware of this, his estranged wife, Lucia (Haydn Gwynne), is still seeking revenge on Pepa, while the actress’s best friend, Candela (Anna Skellern), has become involved with an Arab terrorist. House sales, tranquillised gazpacho, police raids and shoot-outs ensue.

Even in translation the script is funny and clever – and that is the show’s biggest problem. Interviewed in the programme, the composer-lyricist David Yazbek says that the first question about turning an existing property into a musical is: “Why does it sing?” This smart remark explains why musicals of, say, The Importance of Being Earnest and Glengarry Glen Ross are an unappealing prospect, with the songs either replacing dialogue or ruining it. “A handbag?/Are you mad?” trills Lady Bracknell.

Yazbek does, however, make Almodóvar’s film sing very inventively. Pepa’s first work after Ivan leaves her is to record her half of a song for which her ex-lover has already laid down his “ghost” track. Her agonised efforts to croon endearments with the voice of a man she now detests create a truly unusual love duet. “Model Behaviour” is what you might call a telephone number, incorporating 27 messages left by Candela on Pepa’s machine. And the Act I finale, “On the Verge”, must be one of few entries in the Broadway songbook that has nine women singing together.

Indeed, the sound of the show is its greatest innovation. Female characters in musical theatre are naturally associated with soprano parts but one of the unusual aspects of this production is that both leading ladies bring distinctively darker and deeper tones. And because, unusually, Gwynne and Greig are high-class speech actors, their stresses and expressions give the script as much punch as the lyrics. Gwynne is magnificent as a sort of Miss Havisham of Madrid, clutching her wedding dress as she hopes for her husband to come back 19 years on.

Yazbek’s score combines jazz with ominous Sondheim-style shivers and flamenco. Almodóvar’s painterly eye for the shade and arrangement of colours has influenced the sets by Anthony Ward and the costumes of Caitlin Ward, so that the stage often resembles an incandescent abstract canvas.

Two elements are unsettling. Although few male writers have focused so often on women as Almodóvar, his feminism at times seems oddly dependent on female stereotypes – vengeful, depressive, impossible, frigid, left by men – common in misogyny. A more temporary problem is that a chilly silence fell on the audience at the revelation that one of the women was involved with an Arab terrorist on the run: evidence of the cultural impact of the Paris massacre. But bleak political periods and the winter months create demand for feel-good entertainment and the wit and pizazz of Women on the Verge could serve that purpose now.

Modestly shuffling on to stage during the press-night curtain call, Almodóvar seemed to call for the UK’s category of best-loved culture-makers to be expanded to include the category of International Treasure.

The art of indifference

Visitors to Tate Modern come across a wallet lying on the floor but their discussion of this minimalistic critique of capitalism is interrupted when a gallery-goer picks up the item he has just dropped from his pocket. At another gallery, cleaners sweep away scattered piles of fags and crisp packets, unaware they have just destroyed an expensive installation by the British debris artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

In these popular but probably apocryphal anecdotes, the wallet-watchers represent the pretentious suckers who fall for the con of contemporary art, typified by practitioners whose work, in the moral of the second story, is literally rubbish. So what do we learn from a genuine incident? The artist Bruce Asbestos has a show called “A/B Testing” running in the café of the Hayward Gallery (on until 1 March). Flat-screens on the walls, with earphones available, play video works. But each time I’ve dropped by, all the coffee drinkers have seemed to be ignoring the work completely. Is this because they know it’s contemporary art, or because they don’t? The Asbestos website promises that the displays will be changed to reflect the public response to the show. If so, how will he deal with people behaving as if the café telly is on the blink? 

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