Saturday, 26 June 2010

Faye Fornasier reviews Electric Hotel

Do you remember the little blue box at the end of Lynch's Mullholland Drive? Hold that thought.

Electric Hotel is an open-air spectacle set against the last remaining Victorian ironwork Gas Holder, in Kings Cross, in a set that develops towards the sky, rather than on a stage. The spectators are required to wear headphones and plunge into the seductive role of Peeping Toms, only somehow, underwater. From the sounds, perfect yet suspended and surreal, to the hotel itself, reminiscent of big aquarium tanks, everything alludes to oneiric, underwater imagery.

The inhabitants of the Electric Hotel are visible through the windows at nightfall; each with their own obsessive behaviours, mysterious visitors, phone conversations and daunting dances to sensual Jazz, much like Audrey Horne’s dance in Twin Peaks – am I back to Lynch again? The parallel runs on.

On the Sadler’s Wells website it is explained that ‘some time ago, an unspeakable incident destroyed the reputation of the five star Electric Hotel’, we are given some kind of a plot, but the mesmerized, open mouthed faces of the spectators crowding around the hotel show that the fact that there isn’t a plot per se isn’t a problem, in fact, nobody misses it – we are content with the low and ebb of repetition, dances and moves that seem unrelated and suddenly synchronise the occupants revealing a communal umbilical cord between the cells of the womb-like hotel.

Water is not only perceived here, it’s also an obvious component of the show, another occupant. The rooftop pool introduces and closes the show, marking the beginning of each cycle as the pregnant swimmer emerges from it over and over. Water invades several rooms in different ways over the course of the night, making the passage from room to room fluid and natural.

The closing scene is an apotheosis of references and imagery that really set my mind in motion. A disturbed child wearing red Indian headgear, just like Audrey Horne’s brother in Twin Peaks, meets jelly-like dark figures, which move like seaweed, immediately reminding of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle’s evil guards, or Spirited Away’s river spirit, or even the daemons taking over the wounded animal spirits in Princess Mononoke. The jelly-like figures take over the hotel, breaking through the walls like a tsunami, sweeping away the occupants and changing their lives. In the meantime, in the roof bar of the Hotel, a jellified Nick Cave-like singer sexily croons over electric sounds –the party unaware of the revolution happening below – much like the Llorando moment in Mullholland Drive, or any other lynchian performance moment.

Until the mysterious blue box gets into the right hands and is finally opened.

Satisfyingly electric, mind teasing and breathtakingly beautiful. You’d love your stay at this hotel.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Emma Gibson interviews talented new writer Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize in 2009, with her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, a powerful tale of loss set against a richly depicted Australian landscape. She was also shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers 2010, and it was at a celebration of this prize at the Southbank Centre that I was first captivated by her lush, evocative prose style.

I catch up with Evie on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall, where we grab a coffee and settle down to talk about the writing process, gendered writing, and what it feels like to become a published writer.

EG: Did you come up with the idea for After the Fire, a Still Small Voice whilst studying for the MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths?

EW: At university I focused on short stories, and there was one particular short story that I wrote about a man going to Australia from England, half chasing, half just looking for his girlfriend who’d left him, and I think that was the starting point with Frank, because he’s in this relationship with Lucy that has all gone wrong, and I think that there are strands of him in that. Apart from that, no. I got an agent through having a short story on the Goldfish website and she just asked me to write a novel, it was as mercenary as that! But I really didn’t have any plans as to what it was going to be about, I just started with a voice.

EG: So how did the ideas develop and become the novel that they are now?

EW: Well, without wanting to sound like ‘I found it in the woods under a willow tree’, it felt much more like I was developing the characters and then just following them. I started with Frank being on his own in the shack and then tried to work out why he was there, and that seemed to involve his family, and it just sort of kept on, a bit like a kaleidoscope, just going back and back… Writing my second novel now it’s a relief that I had no idea what I was doing with the first one because I have no idea what I’m doing now. I just hope it works the second time round, just following and not trying to get anything too black and white too early on.

EG: Do you usually plan to the end of the book? Do you know the ending before you get there?

EW: No, not at all. I’d find that really difficult. I think it’d be a little bit like reading a book you’ve already read. It’s really exciting writing a book because you don’t really know what’s going to happen, but there are elements there, and maybe I had an idea that three or four things would happen along the way, but I didn’t know which one was going to be the main crescendo. I didn’t really know how I wanted the characters to be by the end. I think I did decide on the ending a few times, but they were all completely different endings, which didn’t work, and you just have to muddle through. There’s so much muddling through!

EG: And what about the physical process of writing? Do you stick to a schedule? Are you very strict with yourself?

EW: No, I’m not very strict with myself at all, I’m rubbish! I try to come here whenever I have a free moment, because it just gets you away from things like housework, and telephones... even just staring into the fridge! I normally come here three days a week and work in a bookshop two days a week. The bookshop is called Review and it’s a really small independent bookshop in Peckham, where I live.

EG: At the Orange Prize discussion the term ‘gendered writing’ was highlighted, and I just wondered how you feel about it, personally. Do you feel that you’re at a disadvantage as a female writer?

EW: Working in a bookshop I know that people do tend to buy men’s novels more. I’ve never seen a woman come into the shop and pick up a man’s book, realise it’s by a man and then put it down, but you do get men doing exactly the same thing. Someone actually came in once and complained that they’d bought M J Hyland’s book assuming that because it had murder in it that it was written by a man. She actually came in and said she was horrified to discover it was written by a woman, and she stopped reading. I think it’s quite similar to the weird belief that women aren’t as funny as men, I think it’s tied in with all of that sort of stuff… but I write as two men in After the Fire, a Still Small Voice.

EG: Was it a conscious decision to have male protagonists?

EW: Before I wrote the novel I had written quite a few short stories as men and it really hadn’t occurred to me that it was an unusual thing to do. I don’t know if that’s because when I was finding my feet I read a lot of what you might call ‘masculine novels’. I was always interested in really fun, action books and writers, such as Chuck Palahniuk, so it didn’t occur to me that I was making a statement; I still don’t think I was.

EG: Being quite a new writer yourself, do you have any advice for new writers? Maybe you were given some valuable advice yourself?

EW: I’d say the main thing, and this just sounds so trite and obvious, but just keep writing and don’t take offence at rejections. It’s really hard but try to take it on the chin and actually listen to what people in publishing and the agents are saying, because they’re not against you. I’ve met a lot of people who are potentially fantastic writers but have stopped at a certain level because they’ve decided the thing to do is to self-promote before they’ve got their book to a level where people will accept it. If they just spent an extra six months working really hard, instead of doing all the stuff they’ll do anyway once the book’s published, they’d be much more successful. Yes, so just take it on the chin and keep trying.

EG: I’m sure all our readers and writers would love to know: how does it feel to be a published writer?

EW: Very nice! I sold the book two years ago and it still hasn’t really sunk in. I won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize and that was amazing, and really led to so much incredible stuff, like Woman’s Hour, so yes, it’s amazing, and I never would have imagined it etc etc!

EG: And how do you feel when you see your book in a shop?

EW: Really smug! Especially with the Orange Award for New Writers sticker on the book, and being in the 3 for 2s at Waterstones. As much as I’m very much firmly on the side of independence, it’s very exciting seeing your book with a sticker on!

EG: Your novel is set in Australia. Do you find it easier to write about somewhere that you’re not? And are you tempted to go to Australia and write about England, or London?

EW: Yes, whenever I go over there that seems to be what happens, which is really odd. I was thinking about this today. I think that sometimes, when you’re faced with the reality of something, it’s quite difficult to get over the fear that what you’re writing or painting or whatever is not exactly what’s in front of you, so I think it can be a bit of a hinderance sometimes. Also, because I’m half Australian, when I’m over here I miss Australia, and when I’m over there I miss England, so I think I slightly work out of a sense of homesickness. And, well, if you’re in Peckham it’s quite nice to imagine you’re on a beach in Australia.

EG: You mentioned that you’re working on a new book now. Can you give anything away?

EW: Well so far, which is very early days, it’s set between Australia and coastal towns in the UK, and it’s about a very tall woman… that’s about it so far… and sharks!

Evie Wyld is currently the Writer in Residence for the Booktrust. You can read her weekly blog here:

For more information visit her website:

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is out now and is published by Jonathan Cape.

Monday, 14 June 2010

James Bower reviews The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

Dir. Werner Herzog, USA, 2009, cert. 18, 122 mins

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit

Imagine Joaquin Phoenix’s confusion as, some years ago, Werner Herzog famously dragged him from the upturned wreck of his car. How must that feel?

Probably very similar to watching The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. It’s dark and frightening. Everything's upside-down and back-to-front. But there’s a serendipitous German to help put things right.

Is this what it takes to coax a decent performance out of Nicholas Cage? There’s no wonder then, that we don’t see it more often. The Bad Lieutenant is arrestingly peculiar. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans. A crazy cop. A junkie cop. A scathing critique of drug culture? More like Requiem for a dream starring Frank Spencer.

Oh yes. It’s a comedy. You’d be forgiven for expecting something different. The Bad Lieutenant is not an easy film to market. Because it’s crazy. Crazy like a fox!

A clown who’s swapped his custard pie and giant hanky for gun and a crack pipe, Terence is obscene and pitiful. He may once have been a good lieutenant, but his bad back has led to an addiction to painkillers. Then to other drugs. All of them. But despite his flaws, Terence is no chump. His state of mind seldom brushes the outer reaches of lucidity, but somehow

he’s playing the entire world for a fool. The flooded shell of his life is held together by a fragile and oddly beautiful network of lies. His captain (a hilariously naive spin on the Angry Black Sarge) thinks he’s the best cop on the force and he’s dating Frankie (Mendes), a beautiful drug-addled hooker. Tasked with solving a multiple homicide, Terence sets out to paint the town red and blue.

In the post-Katrina apocalypse, up is down, black is white and The Bad Lieutenant is a buddy cop movie; Terence’s ‘buddy’ is Big Fate (Xzibit), a local drug lord with whom he plans to build holiday homes. It’s also a family comedy. Terence finds himself on a road trip with a sulky teenager (somebody call Ice Cube!) and the dog from Marley and me. And it’s a nature documentary: a hallucination causes Terence to see invisible reptiles in the middle of a stakeout. As the wobbly camera gazes lovingly at a blinking iguana, the soundtrack croons ‘Please release me’ and a blurry Cage stands in the background, glancing towards the audience and smiling awkwardly. It was at this moment that I mentally cast him to star in a big-screen adaptation of Alan Partridge.

Cage is funny as hell. He delivers his second great performanc

e in a year, tapping a reservoir of talent I thought he’d crapped in long ago. Or maybe he’s simply flipped. I couldn’t tell. Wracked with back pain, Terence lurches around the topsy-turvy big easy like an angry scarecrow, scouring crime scenes for anything he can swallow, snort or smoke. His drug addiction may be competing with his gambling problem for control of his shattered body. But when he mumbles threats though his permanently clenched teeth, you damn well better take this joker seriously. Despite telecommuting from another galaxy, Terence still brings in more than his fair share of bad guys. Is he the world’s cleverest, most tenacious junkie? Or is he a genuine supercop with an unfortunate powder problem? It’s never totally clear, but Cage’s truly bizarre turn keeps you guessing right to the end. Which is one big, awesome twist.

The Bad Lieutenant has ‘cult classic’ written all over it, and will most likely do for Cage what Lebowski did for Bridges. Tempered with just enough sobriety to keep it from tumbling headlong into a smirking parody, it’s well-shot and the weirdest thing you’ll see for quite some time. Herzog turns a mundane tale of bent cops and co

ke into an almost British comedy of embarrassment. Terence is a hypnotic creation made up almost entirely of tics and quirks. Eyes rolling in his skull like a fruit machine, Cage is rivetingly unhinged, and seems to realise that in Herzog he has a director who will actively encourage his lunatic side.

Bad lieutenant. Good film. Excellent iguana.



Wednesday, 9 June 2010

F is for Fiction

Not yet out of his teens, Rock Tiller is already regarded as Hollywood hot property. The heart-throb romantic lead in the hugely successful Sing-Along-a-Schoolathon blockbusters, and then the too-dreamy-to-believe love interest in Vince Walden’s 2008 remake of the 70s classic Blonzy, Tiller is set to break the mould in his next role. Rumours abound about the teen star’s religious upbringing, his contractual obligation to retain his virginity. Disney has relied upon his squeaky clean boy-next-door-image since he first appeared on our screens aged 9 in Super Summer as the adorable little brother of teen bimbo Summer Solstice, played by Tamar Lovejoy. In his good-looking, good-hearted portrayals of the All-American boy, we have watched him sing, dance, shoot hoops and hit home runs, walk with his arm around the shoulder of the right kind of dozily flirtatious girl, his sports jacket folded carefully over the little puffy armlets of her prom gown, corsage in view, right up to her doorstop, to chastely kiss in the full admiring glow of her adoring parents, before soberly driving home to help his disabled brother do math.

In the new independent release, F is for Frenzy, Tiller plays Franz Bollinger, a troubled, dope-smoking outcast, trying to find a way to deal with his violent urges to rape and maim, the voices inside his head, and the lifetime of abuse he has suffered at the hands of his alcoholic parents and disturbed older sister. Need it be mentioned the contract with Disney came to an end last year, and though they bid big money to keep him on until he turned 25, the statement from his agent suggested that though he was very grateful for all Disney had done for him, ten years was long enough.

Tiller is in London, on a promotional tour for the film, which itself has been rather frenzied. “It has been non-stop since I got here,” he says. “I’m kind of wiped.” But he doesn’t look wiped: his famed blue eyes sparkle out at me across our knees, and though I am twice his age – more than twice his age – I feel myself blush when he smiles at me. I’ve come to meet him in a place about as insalubrious as they come, a titty bar, downstairs from an institutional-looking cafeteria in Dalston, which you enter via a spangly curtain of metallic ribbons. Neon signs reading Physical Emotion! and Girls! grimly light the black walls of the bar. In the section we are sitting, a skewed sticker on the mirrored walls lets us know we’re in Champagne Corner. This comes as a surprise: I would have attributed the stickiness on all the surfaces to almost any other kind of spillage. The carpet, where there is carpet, is spongy underfoot and slopes muggily towards the toilets. The darkly empty dance-floor is almost gluey – more spilled champagne? Why here? I ask.
“Back home the reaction to the film has mostly been shock,” he says. “People have been outraged; distribution’s been pulled in Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia. There’s talk of a projectionists’ strike in Mississippi. And that’s my home.” He fixes me with a wide smile, his eyes look surprised and resoundingly innocent. “To my mind, it’s an overreaction. I’m proud of this movie, I’m proud of the part I’ve played in it. I think it’s a story that needs to be told and I think Lawrence [da Silva, the movie’s director and executive producer] has done a great job. I think people are shocked because of the parts I’ve played before. But this was a huge role for me, a break from playing myself. The audience hasn’t wanted to see the Rock they know disgraced. But I don’t feel disgraced,” he explains, with a shrug, “I feel like a real actor now. I’m me, and playing a part doesn’t change that. But I want people to know that I know how the world is. I know strip-joints exist.”

I ask him how the response in the UK has been. “Everywhere in Europe had accepted this film, accepted my part in it.’ Accepted is an understatement: the film won the prestigious Prix du Jury at Cannes this year, but was panned at Sundance. “The critics over here have been really kind. Not kind – compassionate. They’ve understood the drive of the movie and they’re saying it's well made. I think it says something dark about the States, that it still can’t accept what lies beneath the surface. The States doesn’t want me to grow up.”

How about your parents, your family, I ask. He looks away, focuses his gaze on the stage at other end of the bar where a girl in tassels is titillating the lone customer. It is 5pm. Rock and I are sitting very close, on high bar stools that were difficult to mount and which swing cheaply, and now as he turns away, our legs interlock at the knees and we turn left and then right, trying to disengage. He laughs. I blush hotly. “My folks aren’t too happy about how I’ve been treated,” he says. “But we’re close. They support me.”

Despite his reticence, it’s impossible not to know about his severed engagement to Natalie Luana, his co-star in the Sing-Along-A movies. The tabloid press have been printing teary-eyed snapshots of her for weeks; in the last week there has been a plethora of photographs of Natalie with Jot Toberman, son of the staunchly Republican Congressman Abraham Toberman.
When I ask about America’s new premier, Rock says he’s never taken much of an interest in politics, but that despite the seeming swing to the liberal that Obama’s Democratic presidency represents, in theatre audiences, at least, America is still fiercely conservative. His single-mindedness in talking about the movie is surprising; he talks of it as if it awakened him to art, and to politics, as if, in acting the outcast for the first time in his life, a social conscience was born. There is something of the eighteen-year-old activist in him; of the white girls with dreadlocks and the trustafarian boys who parade banners about the approaching end of capitalism on anti-war marches. Yes, he is smiling magnificently, and yes it is with a certain debonair charm that he addresses me, and our photographer Geoff, and the sour looking barman and his agency’s British representative, Carlotta; but even ordering his coca-cola (“Hold the rum’” he quips), I can see that this is a boy in pain.

His childhood was happy, he tells me, but the family order was strict, and unlike his ex-fiancée’s family, who are portrayed as pushy Hollywood types, his family were firmly against his move into performance at such a young age. Tiller grew up on his father’s small dairy farm, outside of Picayune, Mississippi. His mother was a god-fearing home-maker, his father was a hard-working Methodist, stern and irascible. Rock stands up smoothly from the bar stool, which swings impertinently having lost him, and pulls his wallet out from his back pocket. He flips it open to show me, in the seedy lighting, a picture of perfect America. The family stands between the swinging seat and the two rocking chairs on the porch of a largish farmhouse, placed to catch the evening sun, which slants artistically over the kids. They are ranged in height order, and the beam of light matches it exactly, spotlighting each sandy head, each freckly face, leaving their chests in shadow. There is a screen door. To the far left of the shot I can make out a picket fence; and yes, it is painted white. The boys, two big and one little, are holding out a baseball bat, a baseball, a catcher’s mitt. The two young girls are dressed prettily in flowery dresses and grin cheekily towards the camera. Mom and Pop stand behind them, their faces beatific in the glow. He is small and wiry, she - buxom and grey. They look far too old for these children, but full of energy. “This isn’t really your family,” I say. “Disney put this together for a remake of The Waltons.” He laughs at my joke, and then winks at me coyly. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” he says. The third of the five children, Rock is the only Tiller to have flown more than half a mile from the nest. Eldest brother Bud took over management of the farm from his father Harrison two years ago, and lives there in a small house he has built on the land. Second brother Junior is working on a small-holding not far from home; the two girls are finishing off high school and are thinking of teaching for a few years before marriage. But from a young age Rock wanted something different. He says it was a nativity play that sparked his love of performance: Christianity was – and is – central to his life. “I love Jesus,” he says without a trace of irony, which is a shame, because I guffaw immediately at his American sincerity. “I pray every day. But I’m growing up.” I ask him – what about the virginity? “I’m a young man,” he says, “I’m almost 20.” I’ve got no idea whether this is supposed to affirm or confound the rumours, but I find myself unable to speak for a moment, because Rock has casually laid his hand on my knee, ostensibly to whisper something to Carlotta. I am pretty sure he squeezes.

“Have you seen the movie?” he asks turning back to me, and gently removing his hand as if he never knew he had laid it down. I have seen it. It is cuckoo, crackerjack, f for effing amazing. It is neither indie tongue-in-cheek nor cutesy dark humour; it’s not cartoonish, its not horror blood and violence. It is the quiet intensity of sitting on the end of the bed as your son cracks up; crying as he babbles and raves. It is Bergman, reborn an American in the time of Dubya, Eminem and Dancing with the Stars. There is a gripping stillness to the movie; it could almost have been a play. He nods “The writer, Mike Orly, started writing it as a play, but Lawrence got hold of it and insisted.” [Da Silva and Orly go back a long way: they met in the off-off-Broadway circles in the early nineties and have been friends ever since.] “Its because of the dreams – he insisted the dreams would only work on film. And the voices.” The voices, those that Franz ‘Frenzy’ Bollinger hears in his head, are terrifying and strangely compelling. They seem to be speaking from inside Tiller’s head. The camera watches the breeze in his hair compulsively, and yet it is somehow understated, somehow heart-breakingly subtle.
I tell him how much I liked the film, and he smiles eagerly throughout my compliments, and thanks me. But then his smile drifts away. His face takes on a bitter look. “You know I’ve received hate-mail because of this. I’ve been spat on. I’ve…’ He looks at Carlotta and abruptly stops talking. I follow his gaze, but her face looks calm, unperturbed. He continues, tentatively. “They don’t seem to get that…”
“F is for fiction?” I offer. He comes back quicker, sharper than I would have expected: “F is for farce.”

The outcry in America, however, is concentrated around the fact that this movie may not be fiction at all. Franz Bollinger may be a fictitious name, but Johan Doolethey, the man whose life Frenzy is alleged to follow, is not. You may not remember the name, but it’s unlikely you will have forgotten the Thanksgiving Murders, four of the most grotesquely sterile slaughters ever tried in America. On November 22nd 2001, Leonard and Cynthia Doolethey of Avalon, Georgia were gathered for Thanksgiving with their daughter Gabriella Sheers, her husband Steve, and their two daughters aged 6 and 8. Johan, their 23 year old son, was long estranged from the family and had not been invited, so it must have come as a surprise when he rang the doorbell at seven that evening, bearing a pumpkin pie as an offering and expensive presents – a new bicycle and mini-scooter - for his nieces. From the stony faces and the stiffness of the poses on the photos taken that night on Leonard’s new digital camera, all signs point to an unhappier-than-average family reunion over turkey, yam and plenty of greens. The last few photos are of the two girls, whippet-thin in pink chenille, trying out their new toys in the yard. What we know happened next takes a dark and disturbing turn. The girls found that they were locked out of the house. They tried the front door, then went round to the back. The doors wouldn’t budge. They made their way around the side to see that all the curtains were closed. Unsure what was happening, they pushed their scooter and bike up the road, to the house of their grandparents’ friends, Deon and Celeste Williams. Deon soon came out to investigate, and suspecting something was up, put in a call to the police. But he was second in line in making the call - Johan had already turned himself in.

The scene in the house was described by police reports as ‘shocking and macabre’. Doolethey first poisoned his victims - the pumpkin pie he had brought for desert was laced with large doses of a mild sedative - then they were rolled and sealed in polythene bags, and stabbed once each, a kitchen knife straight through their sternums. The photographs of the scene make it seem surreal in its cleanliness. The blood from the knife wounds had spilled and eddied within the plastic wrapping but none had leaked. The four bodies, laid out neatly in height order, in their reddish, bubbly shrouds appear like vacuum-packed joints of meat.

This is no spoiler. None of what I have described above appears in the movie. And yet Bollinger is as close to the real Doolethey as ‘real-life characters’ come. Where is the link? And why does the movie not feature these murders, gory, and terrifying and dramatic as they are?

The Thanksgiving Murders were big news, for a week or two. During his trials, Doolethey was featured in the press all over the south eastern states. A pop psychologist chatted with Oprah on a segment entitled Bloodbath, the inside story of the Thanksgiving Murders. When he was sentenced to death at Georgia’s State Prison, a number of highly-publicised suicide attempts kept him in the papers. It was the attempts on his own life that drew the young playwright, Mike Orly’s, attention: "He suddenly realised, he knew this guy," Tiller tells me. He knew him? I ask, knew him personally? "No, I don’t think so. But he felt like he knew him – he felt – this is a man I know – so he wrote him. And Johan wrote back. And then they kept on writing." The full correspondence between Orly and Doolethey, Death Called to Me, is being brought out later this year by HarperCollins. It is, according to the press release ‘a stunningly beautiful and empathic account of death row and the life that lead there.’ Four of the letters will be printed in tomorrow’s Observer to coincide with the release of the movie in the UK. It was their publication in The New York Times last month that precipitated the uproar in America.

The selection of letters featured is comprised of Orly’s first letter to Doolethey from January 2002, Doolethey’s bewildered, heartfelt response, and then two more letters from the death row inmate, dated 2005 and 2008. Orly’s letter is a powerful tract of recognition.
‘Dear Johan Doolethey,’ it begins. ‘You may well receive a hundred letters like mine, and I’m certain you won’t have the inclination to answer them all. But I write to you because your story speaks deep to my gut and my gut is a cruel master whose demands I can’t ignore. I can’t be sure, but my sense is that you have similar troubles with your gut too. I would like to understand – and that’s all. I’m not interested in the way you killed your folks. I want to know why you had to do it. Because if your gut is anything like my gut, you only did it because you had to. And I’m only writing to you because I have to, and I hope that’s clear.’

The three of Doolethey’s letters selected for pre-release, reveal a mind that works at breakneck speed: there is the sense in Doolethey’s writing that he is sprinting after his thoughts, panting, trying to catch up, and sometimes achieving it. The letters span his lifetime in jail, from the ‘excruciating hollowness, the living death, of life in the can’ which his first letter describes, to the last letter he penned before his execution, which ends, heartbreakingly: ‘Mike, Mike, my truest friend. I’m sorry. Thank you. And goodbye.’

But it is the second of the letters around which the storm of hatred for the movie has whirled. Described by the Facebook group F is for Frenzy Must Be Banned as ‘the work of patent sanity masquerading as gross madness,’ this letter is being portrayed by the right in America as a cynical and pointed attack, and along with the movie and the book, is considered as a major weapon in the arsenal of the Campaign for the Cessation of Capital Punishment. I ask him, was it Mike Orly’s and Lawrence Da Silva’s intentional that this movie was a political protest? "I don’t think it was the aim. That makes it sound so cynical. This is a homage to their friendship,’ he says. "I didn’t know Mike back then, but when Johan died? It was really bad. He told me he was drinking, he could barely get out of bed, it’s like his life was going off-track. He told me that the only way he started to get better – started to deal with this loss – was by continuing to write." And what started out as more letters to Doolethey, became a fictionalised version of his early life, and then a play – and finally the film as we know it now.

So what’s the fuss about? "As far as I get it, it’s that the movie doesn’t feature the murders, or death row. It’s that it’s a compassionate look at a guy who’s been really cruelly treated and about how that affects him when he’s young. Also, from this movie, there’s no doubt he’s not well… I mean, this guy is very sick. He wasn’t in touch with reality. There are moments in the letters when he’s clear as a bell, but other times… Mike got to know him as a person, and he managed to understand that sickness a bit, and he was completely convinced that they would win the appeals. It’s not legal to execute people who are insane, right? So he appealed – Mike was there, helping him out, all the appeals you can do from death row, and the judges just kept on loop-holing the psychologists reports which said that he was psychotic and whatever else. So now all this shit storm is about the fact that the movie portrays him as mad, which the courts say he wasn’t. It’s like – when did America become a country when an artistic endeavour can’t criticise the authorities?" He pauses, looks down at his hands. There’s something of the undergraduate about him now, the way he seems to be watching his own naïveté spin him in circles. He looks up at me, and asks "Or is that what it’s always been like?"

Helena Michaelson

Monday, 7 June 2010

Romanticising wrecked bicycles..

Nothing reminds me of my grandparents like bicycles, all for completely different reasons. On both sides of my family there was a net split between cyclists and walkers. Incidentally the one who wouldn’t cycle wasn’t much into driving either – which makes me think of a character trait rather than simple disinterest in two wheel joy.
On my father’s side the cyclist was my grandpa. He had lots of bikes in the garage at the back of his enormous garden. They were all strictly gentlemen’s bikes, Michelin mostly, black or racing green, with the gear levers on the frame rather than on the handlebar, some with rod brakes. He had been cycling up and down the mountains throughout the war, sometimes even 95 miles at a time, to go and visit my grandma before they got married. He would hop on and off with the elegance of the gymnast he was, stepping on a pedal to gain speed and lifting his other leg high over the frame to get on – I watched him and learned, much to the dismay of my grandma who was very proper and ladylike and disapproved of almost anything I could possibly learn from him – whistling, absailing, tree climbing and daggers-throwing to name but a few. In her opinion, girls should not cycle, definitely not mounting and dismounting like that! But grandma was a little bit extreme on the what-girls-should-do front: she never in her life wore trousers, or a pair of flats, and she wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus.
On my mother’s side of the family things were reversed. Grandpa wasn’t about speed and hated having his hair messed up, so no windswept look for him. He was an artist, a patient portraitist and would rather play checkers, go fishing or make beautiful sand sculptures on the beach. This he would do with the aid of an ice lolly stick, he would get down to the beach early and start digging ballerinas, ice skaters and mermaids out of the sand, he even got in the papers a couple of times because of it. So you can see what kind of a man he was.
Grandma, on the other hand, hated the seaside, the sun and the heat. What she did like was playing cards for money, drinking cappuccino, smoking a million cigarettes and cycling to church with me standing on the rack behind her, singing hymns together at the top of our voices. She’d always wear her flowiest skirts on the bike, and so did I. We had great times together on that bike – and it was a great ploy to get me to go to church. She was clever all right.
So really what I associate with my grandparents are old, noisy bikes. The metallic rattle of the pedals, the accidental, joyous ringing of the bell over potholes, the repetitive groan of a wonky wheel rubbing on the brake pad… my bikes always have these characteristics. I can only ride battered bikes, hopeless time warpers that might not get me to my destination but always get me traveling back in time. Living in London I see fancy new bikes all over the place, and yes, they look really cool and I’m sure they go really fast but where on earth do you need to go in such a hurry? And although I get the Shoreditch trend for minimalist super customised bikes – I did, after all, install a coaster brake on my 1980s Raleigh Caprice – why would you spend more on a bike than on a holiday to Morocco?
Anyway, I guess each of us is allowed to indulge in their chosen obsession. I’m sure someone somewhere on the web is blogging about people who spend more on underwear than on Moroccan breaks so I can shut up about bikes already.
With Boris' efforts to make London as cycle-friendly as Paris, and with the help of a few sunny days I am certain I'll see the number of bicycles on the road multiply, what I will do, then, is keep an eye on the pavement and see if I can spot some beauties to put on the blog.
A tribute to my grandparents, cyclists or not.