Tuesday, 30 September 2008

These are Lean Times. . .

And more Coward! God, I'm loving this city right now. Cinematheque Ontario has a great David Lean retrospective playing in October and November. I'll definately be seeing Brief Encounter on the big screen - it's one of my favourite all-time movies and I'm excited to see the restored print. Other movies associated with Noel Coward that are screening are Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed and In Which We Serve. Yep, I've got tickets to all of them - plus I can't resist seeing Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen as well.
This film series was previously shown at the British Film Institute in London. One of my favourite film critics, David Thomson, wrote an appreciation of Lean in the Guardian, that you can read here. In particular, he raves about two of Lean's lesser known early films (which are not available on DVD), The Passionate Friends (also with Trevor Howard!) and Madeleine. Both look fascinating and I'm so excited to get the chance to view them.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Bookstores Around the World - Spadina Road Books, in my own back yard. . .

While I try to support independent brick and mortar stores when buying new books, there' s nothing like the internet for finding rare and out of print books. Still, it's nice to occasionally browse a new (to me, that is) used bookstore. I had received an online catalogue via e-mail from Spadina Road Books and phoned them up to inquire about a book that intrigued me. Since I was in the area, I dropped by today during my lunch hour. They have a very nice fiction section and a whole bookcase devoted to books about publishing - many of them from the period of this blog's focus. I have a small collection of these and am always looking to add to it. The books have been well taken care of; protective covers envelope most of the dust jackets. I also love a bookseller with a sense of humour. Here's how the store describes a 1957 edition of George Moore's letters to Lady Cunard in very poor condition. I love the final selling line.

Ex-library copy. Boards and endpapers have extensive adhesive stains from where the dustjacket had been taped down. Library stamp on the copyright page, circulation card on rear free endpaper, circulation pocket on rear pastedown. The dustjacket has complementary adhesive stains along the flap edges, rear flap is mostly missing, dustjacket is rubbed and edgeworn and there is a location label on spine. In spite of the wear to the dustjacket and boards, the text is clean and intact, of course, since according to the date due slip, this book was never once taken out of the library. Worth owning as an exemplar of the librarian's destructive craft and the lack of interest on the part of the reading public.
Nope, wasn't tempted. But you can't blame them for trying. And it did give me the best laugh of the day.

Of course the sign of a good bookstore is when one goes in with the intention of picking up one specific book and comes out with five instead. My target book was a tiny collection of letters from the publisher Martin Secker to D. H. Lawrence from 1911-1929. But I also picked up Publishers on Publishing, a 1961 anthology edited by Gerald Gross; a reprint of John Middleton Murray's 1936 collection of essays on Shakespeare; a Modern Library edition of e.e. cumming's amazing WWI novel The Enormous Room; and The Lost Library: The Autobiography of a Culture by Walter Mehring which looks to be a fascinating read. From the jacket flap copy:

The Lost Library of the title is that body of books which bade fair, up to the fatal year of 1914, to stand as the bulwark of a permanent, ever-growing tradition of enlightenment and progress. . . Mr. Mehring has built the tragic history of Western culture upon a semi-narrative framework, as the refugee narrator reassembles the books of his father's library after receiving them in exile. . .as book after book is unpacked and re-examined, it seems as though the story of the last hundred years in Europe, as revealed in its literary history, were retelling itself.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Coward's Tonight. . . Next Summer!

I am OVER THE MOON! The Shaw Festival announced its 2009 line-up and what a terrific one it is. In particular, they are putting on ALL 10 short plays of Noel Coward's Tonight at 8:30. All of them. All in one season! I saw a production of Still Life at the Shaw a few seasons ago as their lunchtime play, but to see the whole series! I am in awe and so excited. They are the perfect company to tackle this.

From the press release:

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell officially announced the Shaw Festival’s 2009 season today. In 2009 The Shaw takes on a monumental and historic project with full productions of each play in Noel Coward’s famous Tonight at 8:30 collection. The Shaw’s 2009 productions represent the first time all ten short plays have been performed in repertory by a professional company since they were first produced by London’s Phoenix Theatre in 1935-36. The plays will be performed in sets of three, one on each of the Festival’s Niagara-on-the-Lake stages, with the tenth, the rarely produced Star Chamber, being the lunchtime production in the Royal George. And to celebrate this idea for the event that it is, on two separate occasions, we will present all ten in one day – an event we are appropriately naming “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”.
Ms. Maxwell said of the collection: “As the idea of doing all of Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 came to me, and as I reread the plays, I was struck that each one is a brilliant jewel – like the best short stories – some well known, some not. As is typical of Coward – who was always pushing the envelope in both form and content – the ten plays vary hugely. There are out-and-out comedies, heart-wrenching dramas, fantasy musicals and historical tales. Coward is a brilliant miniaturist, a master storyteller, and any group of these plays, seen together, is a truly satisfying evening at the theatre. The experience of seeing them in one fell swoop, for those who are game, will be thrilling indeed.

Oh, I'm game. I'm game.

The rest of the season also looks great - Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, O'Neill's A Moon For the Misbegotten and Osborne's The Entertainer among others. You can read about the full line-up here.

I have watched part of the BBC's production of Tonight at 8:30 in the Noel Coward Collection, which I own. But quite frankly, it stars Joan Collins who was absolutely ghastly in the few bits that I saw. Her portrayal of Mrs. Bagot, the owner of the station teashop in Still Life, honestly made me nauseous. Which is not to say that the DVD set is not worth owning for the other productions on it. In particular, I liked A Song at Twilight with Deborah Kerr and Paul Scofield. And there are a number of radio plays on the discs, including Post Mortem, Coward's rarely performed play about a soldier returning from the dead in the 1920s to find that the society that came out of the war wasn't worth his sacrifice. The extras also include some wonderful Coward interviews.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Gender in Modernism and the Movies. . .

I've just gotten my hands on two big, meaty anthologies that promise hours of interesting reading (and will probably lead me along the path to many more books). Gender in Modernism edited by Bonnie Kime Scott is a companion piece to her earlier anthology The Gender of Modernism, which is practically a bible for anyone studying modernist writing (check out her web of intersecting lines near the front of the book, her "tangled mesh of modernists" showing how all these amazing writers were connected to each other - absolutely fascinating stuff). This new book - all 872 weighty pages of it - has excepts organized into 21 different parts, each selected and with an introduction by a different academic in the field, many of whom I have previously read and admired such as Julia Briggs, Suzanne Clark, Janet Lyon and Claire M. Tylee. The topics are far-reaching and international. Lots of pieces on activism and suffragism, and the impact of the First World War, which includes an extract from Virginia Woolf's holography of "The Prime Minister" - an early draft of what would become Mrs. Dalloway, focusing on Septimus Smith's post-traumatic stress disorder. Another particularly interesting looking section is entitled "Mediumship, Automatism and Modernist Authorship". And there are extracts from the drama of the period, and essays on dance, painting and film.

The final section of Scott's anthology, "Cineastes and Modernists: Writing on Film in 1920s London", leads me straight into Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema edited by Antonia Lant and Ingrid Periz - another 800 plus page doorstopper. I've been salivating over the selections in this collection, many by some of my favourite writers. Here are essays such as "Why I Go to the Cinema" by Elizabeth Bowen; "The Wanton Playgoer" by Djuna Barnes; "The Mask and the Movietone" by H.D. and "The Film Gone Male" by Dorothy Richardson. Under a section entitled "Cinema as a Power" are essays by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Marie Stopes, Rebecca West, and Anita Loos. Wearing "The Critic's Hat" are Louella O. Parsons, Colette, Janet Flanner, Katherine Anne Porter and Bryher. I'll certainly be reading the section, "In the Shadow of War" in its entirety. And along with analyses of the impact of cinema on culture and society, there are also pieces by actresses, and women directors, cinematographers, and screenwriters. Emily Post even gives advice on how to politely make your way across a row filled with people to your seat in the middle:
Remember also not to drag anything across the heads of those sitting in front of you. At the moving pictures, especially when it is dark and difficult to see, a coat on an arm passing behind a chair can literally devastate the hair-dressing of a lady occupying it.

Delicious, simply delicious.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Ah, Paris. . .

A nice write-up in Maitresse on this new book by David Burke - Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light. As she writes:

Burke's book fills a certain niche on the shelf of books written about literary Paris: not only a walking tour of French literature, or of Paris in letters, Burke has produced a geographically organized catalogue of writers' writings on Paris. The reader is led street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, as Burke tracks the ghosts of writers past, pinning down what happened where in the long history of literature produced by Parisian writers, punctuated with citations of great Parisian moments in French literature.

It looks like a very interesting study. The most recent book I've read set in Paris was Zola's The Ladies' Paradise about the rise of a huge department store told through the stories of its visionary owner and a poor sales clerk who he falls in love with. It was fascinating on late 19th century consumerism and marketing ideas and gender, class and work issues, if the story was somewhat awkward and unconvincing.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Four Firth Films. . .

It was a week of Colin Firth; after Easy Virtue, I also saw him in Michael Winterbottom's new film, Genova which was a rather disturbing movie to watch - Firth plays a father who takes his two girls to Genova for a year to recover from the recent death of their mother in a car crash. The focus of the story is on Mary, the younger eight-year old, who feels guilty for having caused the accident and who believes her mother still appears to her when she's alone. There's a constant unease that permeates the movie as Mary gets lost among the dark, narrow, twisting streets of the old city, and a scene set amidst the noise and confusion of ten lanes of traffic is also harrowing. It reminded me a little bit of Kate Winslet movie, Hideous Kinky. I could appreciate what Winterbottom was trying to do with the movie, but having recently been rear-ended myself (fortunately no one was hurt - I was just a little shaken), this was probably not a good movie for me to see right now.

To shake it off, I saw two more Firth movies that have recently come out on DVD. Helen Hunt's directorial debut, Then She Found Me, has Firth also playing a father who has been abandoned by his wife and though he loves his kids, he's frustrated and angry that he has had to take sole responsibility for them. He falls in love with Hunt's character whose life is in turmoil - husband has just left her, her adoptive mother has died and her birth mother has suddenly appeared in her life. And she's pregnant with her husband's child. It's quite a sweet little film exploring themes of abandonment, longing and family and Firth is once again given the type of romantic lines that would seem corny delivered by any other actor, but somehow come across as sincere from his lips.

My fourth Firth was a filmed stage production of D.H. Lawrence's play The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, starring Zoe Wannamaker, Stephen Dillane and Firth, who plays the brutish, alcoholic coal miner husband. Not the best acting I've ever seen from him; his Northern accent was not terribly convincing and he spent most of his time thumping tables and shouting. However, he made a lovely, almost angelic corpse, even covered in coal dust. The DVD also comes with a version of Lawrence's The Rainbow, starring Imogen Stubbs, which I haven't yet watched but will soon. And I have a hankering now to dig out Ken Russell's movie Women in Love. Haven't watched it in ages, but I loved Glenda Jackson in it. Oh dear, I certainly don't often get into a D. H. Lawrence mood.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Mad About the Boy. . .

The only decent shot I managed to get from my perch way up in the balcony and Colin had to blink! Last night I was at the Toronto Film Festival world premiere of Easy Virtue, based on Noel Coward's 1924 play. From left to right in the photo is director Stephan Elliott (best known for directing the fun and campy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and stars of the film Ben Barnes, Jessica Biel and of course Colin Firth. Kristin Scott Thomas who also stars was alas, unable to make the screening.

Glamour aside, it was a very good adapation and well worth seeing when it hits theatres. The story remains essentially the same as the play - John (played by Barnes) unexpectedly brings home his older, more sophisticated wife Larita (Biel), to his staid and shocked British family. Larita then wreaks havoc with her wild and decadent ways but in the ensuing battle, particularly with her formidable mother-in-law (played wonderfully by Scott Thomas - a cross between the Maggie Smith character in Gosford Park and Emma Thompson's recent Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited), she's oppressed and stifled by her new environment and decides to escape - but not before one last defiant gesture. As you'd expect from material dervived from a Coward play, the dialogue is witty and frothy, but Elliott has added many new scenes with some very polished and comic gags and there is some intriguing camera work (watch for a terrific shot of Scott Thomas looming on the shiny surface of a black snooker ball as it rolls towards her and the audience). Some of the characters have been expanded (especially the father played by Firth, who becomes a disillusioned war veteran with survivor guilt). The ending has also changed somewhat, but I don't think anyone will complain - it's rather delicious. Firth fans will also be extremely happy with this film - there's a wonderfully sexy scene where he dances the tango with Biel. Gasps escaped from the hundreds of female fans in the audience - me included. It's not often that a film can improve on the original source material, but this one really does it. I had a marvellous time.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Glorious Claude Cahun. . .

This how one's library grows. I first became intrigued by the surrealist photography of Claude Cahun when I saw one of her self-portraits gracing the cover of Mary Ann Caws's book Glorious Eccentrics. I know Caws as an author from some of her previous books on the Bloomsbury group, Dora Carrington (another obsession of mine) and painters and poets of the era. So I had to buy the book, which is a collection of portraits of seven women who influenced Modernism. It's very good. So then I read about Cahun's longterm relationship with her partner Marcel Moore and how the two women moved to Jersey and subsequently became involved in the Resistance movement when the Germans occupied the island during the Second World War. And I found don't kiss me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. And bought that. Okay, I haven't had time to read it yet, but I have looked at all the photos. They are stunningly unique and compelling. She was obsessed with her own creation - changing her looks and dressing up as other characters, not to be someone else, but to explore different aspects of her self. She also played a lot with gender roles and androgny along with different photography angles, mirrors, etc. Her work is beautifully strange, and thought provoking. It's mesmerizing.

And then The Literary Saloon pointed me in the direction of the latest edition of The Quarterly Conversation which had an essay by Lauren Elkin on her literary work, which happened to mention that MIT had recently translated one of her books, Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions, which is described as an anti-memoir. It sounds so interesting. So I think I need to get a copy of this as well. Elkin's essay is well worth reading and gives a good biographical overview. So many amazing women artists in the first half of the 20th century. Such incredible life stories.

In my fantasy bookstore I picture a very white wall with white plate rails stacked horizontally up to the ceiling where I'd display face out all the books I could find either by or about the surrealists, that had black and white covers of either artwork or photography. It would look stunning. Maybe behind the fantasy cash register.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Easy Virtue at Toronto Film Festival. . .

I'm going to try (and will most likely fail - sigh), to get tickets to the movie version of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue that is playing at the Toronto Film Festival. It stars Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas. Good enough for me. Hopefully it won't take too long for the film to be released in the cinemas. No trailer available online yet, but you can read more about it here. Firth was also in the film of another Coward re-make - Relative Values, starring Julie Andrews, who, love her as I do, just wasn't right for the part. Still, I own the DVD and it's a pleasurable way to pass an hour or two. And Sophie Thompson is terrific in it.

UPDATED: Whoo-hoo! This thing has been sold out, but someone must have returned a ticket because while checking the website this morning, the Gala screening was up for grabs! And I grabbed. I don't know if Colin Firth might be in the audience.... I'll report back. I'm so excited!