Sunday, 17 November 2013

Blue Jasmine

One film stands out above others in my cinema-going this Autumn. Trailed as a return to form for Woody Allen, I feel that Blue Jasmine is quite simply one of his greatest films.

Much has rightly been made of the central performance from Cate Blanchett as the delusional Jasmine. She dominates the film, being both protagonist and narrator. It is her tragic descent from snooty Manhattan nouveau-riche to penniless San Franciscan wannabe that marks the trajectory of the film. Through flashback we find that her rich socialite past was funded by criminal extortion as her husband was a crooked financier, Bernie Madoff style. Then Jasmine turns up on the doorstep of her down-on-her-luck sister and proceeds to arrogantly lead her through a lifestyle makeover. What unfolds is an exquisitely sad cocktail of deliciously comic and ultimately tragic scenes.

Jasmine's arrogance is at the heart of the film. Fuelled by alcahol and prescription drugs, she always knows better than those around her and lets no opportunity pass to tell them so. At first her condescension is comic, over time it becomes grating and eventually tragic. The film ends as it begins, with Jasmine in close-up haranguing someone. Over the course of her fall from grace and her desperate attempts to regain the heights of the American Dream we see that she has learnt nothing. In the end the camera pans away from Jasmine in close-up and we see she is on a park bench talking to no-one but herself. It is self-delusion that has been driving her arrogance.

The filmmaker that Woody Allen most admires is Ingmar Bergman. This is most clear in works such as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) and Husbands and Wives (1992), where he explores human relationships in a much more serious vein than he had previously. In Blue Jasmine he has gone further, making a perfectly balanced tragi-comedy: a bitter-sweet film in which comedy blends almost seamlessly into tragedy (and vice-versa).

Moreover this is an authentically American tragi-comedy in which the core of the American Dream is itself the subject of critical appraisal. Jasmine (a girl adopted into a blue-collar family) believes in this dream and follows it to success, reaping great socio-economic rewards whilst turning a blind eye to her husbands criminality. After that failure and fall from grace she seeks to recapture the dream by hustling (lying, reinventing herself, editing out her inconvenient past). But, at the exact point of her apparent success (getting engaged to a rich upper-class man with political aspirations) she is undone. Outside the jewellers with her prospective husband she is upbraided by a victim of one of her ex-husbands scams who shatters the illusions about her former life that she had created. Even at this point of (seemingly) complete failure she cannot let go of her delusions of grandeur. The tragedy is compounded when she then walks out on her sister (the only refuge she has) and is last seen on a park bench peddling her delusions to no-one but herself.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Squat Pen

The Squat Pen is a new poetry night, hosted by myself and Ray Givans.

We wanted a poetry night with a difference. An event that would bring together written-for-the-page poetry and performance poetry, poets from different generations, poetry and music. We wanted an event with plenty of diversity that packed a lot into a relatively short (one hour) show. 

The inaugural Squat Pen took place last night at No Alibis Bookshop in Belfast.

First off, we had four great up-and-coming poets in showcase: Olive Broderick, Tory Campbell, Erin Halliday and Colin Hassard.

Then Colin Hassard played guitar and sang a couple of songs.

Next was the Desert Island Poem, selected by Paul Maddern. Which poem would you choose to bring with you to that mythical desert island? 'Song for the Last Act' by Louise Bogan was his choice.

Finally, a spirited reading from our special guest poet Damian Smyth.

It all went well, indeed very well. All of our contributors gave great individual performances. I enjoyed being the MC again, a role I hadnt performed since before my illness. There were over 40 in the audience and the feedback from them has been from good to glowing.

And best of all, David at No Alibis has agreed to host the rest of the series. So the next Squat Pen will take place there in the New Year.

Thanks again to everyone who took part and helped to make the night a great success, with particular thanks to my co-organiser Ray and our host, David.

Erin, Damian, Paul, Olive, Colin and Tory

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


Today is the ancient pagan festival of Samhain. This quarter day marks the end of Autumn and the beginning of Winter. A point at which the harvest would be completed and animals would be brought down from their Summer pasture on the hills. Samhain thus celebrates the gathering together of foodstuffs to enable survival through the darkest and coldest part of the year. It is a time of both looking back and looking forward.

Traditionally this festival was marked by special fires and feasting. A ritual bonfire would be made by a community and lit. The smoke and fire was thought to have both both purificatory and divinatory powers. Burning embers would be taken into each home to kindle the flame that would remain lit throughout Winter.

Spirits (deities and the departed) were believed to take close part in the festival and places would be laid for them at the feast table. People would also dress-up as spirits in order to invoke their powerful help for survival through the winter and for good fortune in the coming year. This signficance has led some to suggest that Samhain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Like all the main pagan festivals, Samhain was diverted by the early church into a Christian festival. All Hallows (or All Saints) Day has been celebrated on 1 November since the 9th Century and is followed by All Souls Day (2 November). These twin festivals celebrate the departed: those who have achieved sainthood and those who have yet to reach heaven.

All Hallows Eve (31 October) is now known as Halloween. Originally exported to North America by settlers from Ireland and Scotland, it has since become re-imported as a secular festival with striking pagan elements. There is the dressing up in costumes that mimic the dead, the divination of fortune (trick or treat), the use of fires and flames and the celebration of the presence of the dead amongst the living.

Tonight is also Guy Fawkes (or Bonfire) Night, a British festival with clear pagan associations which celebrates of the execution of a Catholic conspirator who sought to assassinate a Protestant monarch. Established in 1605, this sectarian festival had at its centre a community bonfire at which an effigy of the Pope was burnt. Over time the effigy became transposed into that of Guy Fawkes and later the event became secularised as Bonfire Night. Surprisingly, this festival does not appear to have taken root in NI.