Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds (2014)

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Thank heaven for BBC4.

Last week I was channel surfing and came across a handsome young guy in a nifty suit talking about be-bop in New York in 1951.   There are worse things to stumble upon.  The young guy was Dr James Fox (who I’d never seen or heard of) and the programme in question was the last episode in a three-part series called Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds which tells the stories of three cities in three pivotal years.  Through the wonders of catch up TV, I got to see the series in its entirety and, it has to be said, it’s a great reminder of the wonderful programmes that the BBC can make when it puts its mind to it.

I confess that I had not seen Dr Fox’s previous series, although no doubt I will watch should they get repeated – and, in the days of mult-channel TV, that’s highly likely, I’m sure.  Ironically, the whole premise of this series is a little dubious.  Vienna was discussed with regards to 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.  It’s likely that those same cities could be focussed on in different years and a similarly worthwhile programme could have been made, but that’s hardly the point.  If you’re happy to put that small problem to one side and go along for the ride, there is much to enjoy and learn here.

I saw the series out of order, but that doesn’t seem to make too much difference, although perhaps the first programme was the best of the three.  With great skill, the viewer is taken on a joyride through Viennese culture in the early 1900s, from art to music to science to politics and back again – and cleverly underpinned with the reminder that Adolf Hitler was also persuing an artistic career in the city at that time.  Each segment based on a key figure cleverly manages to encapsulate the key elements of their work, but manages to do so without sounding like a list of “key points.”

Fox’s presenting style is energetic and enthusiastic without being gushing.  Perhaps most importantly, in all 180 minutes of the series, he educates without becoming either condescending or too intellectual, and certainly never becomes dull.  He seems slightly less confident during the section on the music of Arnold Schoenberg – a novice to the notion of atonal music is probably none the wiser by the end of it – but if that’s the biggest complaint about the series, then it’s fair to say it’s pretty damned good. And it is pretty damned good.   It’s clear Dr Fox has learned from the best.  There are moments when he’s discussing a painting by Klimt or Jackson Pollock in the same hushed tones and barely concealed enthusiasm as David Attenborough explaining the mating habits of a lizard found in the Amazonian rainforest. In a good way.

The Paris episode is probably the weakest of the three, but the one on New York more than makes up for it as it stunningly pulls together a number of disparate elements from advertising to baseball to Thelonious Monk and somehow makes them into a coherent whole which results in a rather mesmerising sixty minutes of TV.

In a sense, it’s a shame that the series was shown on BBC4 rather than BBC2, where it probably would have garnered a bigger audience.  What it does show is just how good the BBC still is at this kind of stuff.  The range of material we get from the BBC is still remarkable, and the quality is still better than any other channel.  Channel 4 used to give the Beeb a run for its money when it came to making documentaries but, while they’re now delighting viewers with semi-offensive crap like Benefits Street and documentaries about One Direction fans, the BBC are providing fine documentaries on the arts and remarkable seasons of programmes such as the BBC3 It’s a Mad World season from last year, probably the first season of programmes in the world aimed at young people about mental health conditions.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds is still available on the BBC iPlayer at the time of writing – and here’s hoping that a second series appears in the future.

Spider-Man 2 (2004): A Treatise on Grief in the Most Unlikely Place

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On Sunday August 24th (today, if you’re reading this on the day I post it), I shall be heading to the stage in a village hall for what has become a yearly concert.  They were twice-yearly once, but that’s not possible these days.  It’s been a weird year since the last one.  There have been the highs of passing my PhD and the lows of a really shit time with bipolar.  When I hit the stage (“hit” makes it sound a little more dynamic than it actually is) this time I shall be singing some old favourites for the first time since my Dad passed away two and a half years ago.  It’s odd singing songs I know he loved, and strange knowing that he won’t hear or see them – not even on videotape.

The day before the show is always a case of “killing time” and not being able to settle to anything constuctive.  So, I sat down in front of the TV and watched the blu-ray of Spiderman 2 from 2004.  The excitement of my Saturday nights hold no bounds.  It’s not exactly a great film, it has to be said, lacking the pace of the first one in the series, just plodding on from one set-piece to another.  However, I did find it interesting given the fact I had been thinking about my Dad, for the film, rather surprisingly, seems to be more honest than most about grief.

The film is set two years after the first, but Peter Parker and his aunt are seen still mourning the loss of his uncle.  It’s an oddly moving element of an otherwise rather vacuous film, not least because of the genuine and touching way in which these scenes are portrayed.  All too often, grief and mourning is dismissed in a film or a book or a play as something very temporary.  Someone dies, people cry, the funeral takes place, everything returns to normal. In a space of two weeks life is back on track.  That, of course, is bullshit.   It’s not the way it works.  Things never really go back to how they were.  We get back into a routine, for sure.  But it’s not the same routine, because there’s always someone missing from it.

Film, at least popular, commercial film, very rarely acknowledges this.  And neither does popular TV or fiction.  When was the last time you watched Midsomer Murders and saw someone really grieving?  It’s hard to tell why such basic human emotions are missing.  After all, most of us like to be able to “identify” ourselves with the character on the screen.  Of course there are arthouse films that are all about grief and mourning and loss.  But there are certain subjects that are avoided in more commercial ventures, it seems, simply because the makers don’t really know how to deal with them.

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been much discussion about mental health issues on TV and the social media.  These are issues that, again, we rarely see portrayed in TV or film dramas.  Like mental health issues, it appears that death and grief is still a taboo – something that people feel remarkably uncomfortable discussing.  And with both of these issues, it’ s  a highly individual experience.  No two people grieve in the same way.  But, if we were to go by Hollywood filmmaking, people just don’t grieve at all.  They wake up one morning, about a fortnight after the event, and everything’s fine again.  It’s not. I miss my Dad now more than I did in the weeks after he died over two years ago.  Is that normal?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  It’s my normal.

Is it wrong that these emotions are absent on our cinema and TV screens?  I’m not sure about that, but it certainly seems to be an easy option – and something we don’t necessarily notice until we’re suddenly, and unexpectedly, confronted with these scenes in the most unlikely film.  And Spiderman 2 is, certainly, the most unlikely film to deal honestly with the fact that we miss those no longer with us for the rest of our lives and not just until the funeral is over.

Mental Health: Don’t Forget It

depressionA man died this week and suddenly a discussion of mental health issues has started.  There is an outpouring from twitter users, as they retweet messages about depression.  Statuses of support for sufferers of depression are being shared over and over on facebook.  There’s even a multitude of new videos on YouTube on the subject.  The problem is that, last week, most of these people didn’t give a fuck about depession.  And, after the funeral of a well-loved celebrity, the furore over how sufferers are let down by the system and by society will die down to a quiet murmur once again. 

Depression, bipolar and other mental health conditions DO need to be talked about, not least because the lack of understanding about these issues is so severely lacking amongst many members of the public – and it is that stigma that prevents many from seeking treatment or admitting they have a problem.  There is something of a backlash about comments made on TalkSport radio by Alan Brazil (I have no idea who he is) in which he said he had “no sympathy” for Robin Williams.  Shep Smith, a newscaster on Fox News in America, referred to Williams as a coward.  Both men, bizarrely, still have their jobs.  The truth of the matter, though, is that many members of the public have the same lack of understanding of depression as these two men – and twitter and facebook have shown that too in the last few days. 

Suicide is thought to be the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  Mental health issues affect 1 in 4 of us at some point in our lives.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, around 30% of sufferers will attempt suicide, and it is thought that around 10-15% of sufferers die as a consequence of the condition. 

A 10-15% fatality rate.

So, what are we doing about it?  Well, we’ll talk about if for a few weeks and then forget it.  Public figures and politicians will tell us that support has to be given to sufferers.  However, mental health budgets in the UK are being slashed.  For example, six weeks ago the BBC reported that the budget for child and adolescent mental health services at Birmingham City Council were cut “from just above £2.3m in 2010-11 to £125,000 in 2014-15, a drop of 94%.”  Mental health trusts have had their budgets slashed by 20% this year.  NHS England has cut budgets for mental health by 2%. 

There has to be a link here between the lack of education on the subject (and thus its perceived seriousness) and the cutting of budgets.  It’s still thought people can “snap out of it” or that it isn’t a “real” illness.  If the condition had the word “cancer” or “disease” at the end of it, we would all be looking at in a very different way.  It is as real as diabetes or heart disease.  The fact it doesn’t show up in a blood test robs it of that reality. 

What I’m trying to say here is that, for a few days or weeks, mental health issues will matter to more people than ever before because someone they liked on the telly has died as a result of it.  But those deaths (and attempted deaths) are happening all the time.  It’s a reality that people and governments need to wake up to.  More than ever it is time to educate, talk, support and treat. 

In the four minutes it took you to read this article, six people will have attempted suicide in the USA alone.  Five of them will have had a known mental health issue at the time. 

Un jour d’été (One Day in Summer) (2006)

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I first saw this made-for-TV film about five years ago, and I confess that I was rather mesmerised by it.  Having seen it again just yesterday, I have to say that I still find it a remarkably  fine effort – despite the various reviews of it elsewhere.

The plot is simple.  Almost non-existent.  There are two teenaged friends.  One of them dies after being hit on the head by a goalpost.  The other one struggles to cope.  That’s basically it.  There are various subplots about the family of the dead boy and whether or not the goal post was in some way defective, but these subplots are as inconsequential as the main narrative.

In many respects this is a film that came at the tail end of a cycle of similar french movies about confused teenagers:  Presque Rien, Les Roseaux Sauvages, A Toute Vitesse, Le Dernier Jour.  And perhaps this is why the film has caused some reviewers to scratch their heads a little.  These films all feature homosexual teens as their lead characters or, at least, teens who are sexually confused and that confusion is the driving force behind the narrative.   That isn’t the case here.  Sure, it appears that Sébastien may have feelings for boys, but that’s never made explicit.  It’s hinted at, but nothing more.  Apparently, though, the film was shown at LGBT film festivals in the UK (and was picked up by a DVD distributor specialising in LGBT-themed films) and that has caused more confusion within audiences than within the central character himself.  I can understand that to a certain degree, but this is where the term “queer” really comes into its own.  It may not be a gay-themed film, but it’s certain a queer film.

Anyone who wants to watch this because they think it has gay content will, indeed, be disappointed.  But that’s a shame, for Un jour d’été has so much to offer.  It is, essentially, an elegy – a cinematic study of mourning and loss, and the effect grief can have on family and friends beyond the obvious.  After the funeral, things slowly get back to normal – but, somehow, they are never quite the way they used to be.   This is something rarely portrayed in film, a medium where mourning and grief is so often portrayed as lasting a few days and then everything’s hunkydory.  Un jour d’été portrays quite the opposite of  this in a quiet, plaintive, unassuming way that is both mesmerising and moving without being overly morbid.

Strangely, Baptiste Bertin, who plays the lead in the film has done little movie work since.  This is a shame, for he puts in a stunning performance here as the confused, bemused, sometimes troubled teenager at the heart of the “story.”  His performance alone is worth looking around for a second-hand copy of the DVD (not as easy as it sounds).

In the end, the film has come into criticism in the past because it refuses to be pigeon-holed.  That the boy at the centre of the film is sexually confused and yet that isn’t what he obsesses over day and night seems very hard for some people to understand.  Had the “gay” angle been developed more, it would probably have been received better outside France but, at the same time, it would have lost much of its appeal and much of its power.  The film is as unassuming as its title, but well worth taking the time to watch.

OUT NOW. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide

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I am pleased to announce that my book “Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide” is now available – at least in Kindle form!  The paperback will catc up and be along later in the week!

The links for the Kindle edition can be found below.  I have listed the US and UK links, but it should be available in Kindle form at all Amazon’s by now.  The paperback will, alas, be only available within the US, Canada, UK and European Amazons – one of the restrictions of self-publishing, alas.  The picture with this post is of the actual cover.

US Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/ELVIS-PRESLEY-LISTENERS-Shane-Brown-ebook/dp/B00MDVQT3G/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1407108118&sr=1-1#reader_B00MDVQT3G

UK Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/ELVIS-PRESLEY-LISTENERS-Shane-Brown-ebook/dp/B00MDVQT3G/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407107717&sr=8-1&keywords=shane+brown+elvis

ELVIS PRESLEY: A LISTENER’S GUIDE (BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT)

elvis book 6

ELVIS PRESLEY: A LISTENER’S GUIDE

By Shane Brown

July 5th, 2014 saw the 60th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s first commercial recording session, the night on which he cut That’s all Right, the song that would launch his career. Less than six months later, on January 8th, 2015, will be celebrations for what would have been Elvis’s 80th birthday. Since Elvis’s death in 1977, hundreds (probably thousands) of books have been written about Presley, but very few concentrate on the most important thing: the music.

When I first became interested in the music of Elvis Presley as a teenager back in the early 1990s, the first book I bought was Elvis Presley: A Study in Music by Robert Matthew-Walker.   It was hardly a hefty tome, but it did what I wanted at the time – it gave me some guidance through the minefield of Elvis’s legacy which was then being issued, slowly but surely, on CD. In 1995, Matthew-Walker updated his book, calling the new version Heartbreak Hotel, but much of the new material centred of details of Elvis’s life, rather than his music. In fact, even in this extended work, the author managed to discuss individually virtually all of Elvis’s recordings within less than one hundred pages. As far as I’m aware Matthew-Walker’s book(s) are the only one to discuss the merits (or otherwise) of all of Elvis’s music literally on a song by song basis.

Matthew-Walker’s A Study in Music was/is an important book, and it seems rather strange that other full-length works of a similar nature did not follow it.  Bearing this in mind, I hope that Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide will manage to be a rather more thorough critique of Elvis’s music. Working through from 1953 to 1977 one session at a time, one song at a time, the book discusses the remarkable (and yet often frustrating) legacy that Elvis left behind. All recordings released during Elvis’s lifetime are discussed, as well as those released posthumously where appropriate.

Why do we need a new critique? Well, times change and opinions change with them. Our views on Elvis’s music are still based on what critics wrote forty or more years ago. Of course, the critics who panned Elvis in the 1950s were quickly proven wrong as the years passed, but the accepted view of the 1960s and 1970s recordings is still based on contemporary reviews, often from rock critics who somehow couldn’t see how or why Elvis was recording material outside of rock ‘n’ roll. As I discuss each session, therefore, I make reference to, and quote from, those contemporary reviews from the 1950s to the 1970s – around 170 of them – in order to put into context my own evaluation of the recordings.

This is not primarily a book of facts or figures – there are plenty of other works on the market that can supply those. What there isn’t on the market is a “listener’s guide” to Elvis’s music, in which each and every master recording is discussed. I haven’t written this because I think people should agree with my evaluations or thoughts but because, as we approach what would have been Elvis’s 80th birthday, it seems important to take a fresh look at the one thing that seems to be ignored most: the music.

Elvis Presley Song by Song: A Listener’s Guide will be available in mid-August, 2014. The paperback edition will be 6in x 9in, and will contain approx. 320 pages. A Kindle version will also be available.  

The “gay cake” row.

cake

The “gay cake” row has been rumbling on for a few days now.  The BBC website states the following:

“A Christian-run bakery that refused a customer’s request to make a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage could face a discrimination case in court.

Ashers Baking Company declined an order from a gay rights activist, asking for cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie.

The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called “Queerspace”.

The cake was ordered for a civic event in Bangor Castle Town Hall, County Down, to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia”

The arguments on the web over the issue are becoming heated, which is rather surprising considering this appears to me to be a clear cut case of discrimination – just as in the case of the B&B that refused to allow a gay couple to share a room a few years back.  However, not everyone agrees.  Tina Calder of “News Letter” website write the following:

“While my personal opinion is to live and let live and I support everyone’s right to choose I have to say that includes the bakery.

I may think it is wrong for the bakery owner to refuse to make the cake but the solid facts of the matter are that this business proprietor had an absolute right to decline any order they didn’t want to service.

Surely serving a customer is at the discretion of the business owner?

If we are going to insist on fighting for equality then it’s important that we extend that right even to those we don’t agree with.

We may not believe in the same ethical principles as one another but it is important to respect people’s right to hold their opinion or beliefs.”

So, Miss Calder, the “serving of a customer is at the discretion of the business owner?”  Would you feel the same way if the cake owners had a sign in their window saying “no ethnic minorities?”  Would you feel there was anything wrong with that?  After all, it’s up to the discretion of the business owner who they serve, right?

Bollocks.

Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail (ever the voice of reason!) have rather exaggerated the issue:

“The challenge to the Christian-run Ashers Baking Company is the first likely legal case in which anyone has been told it is against the law to refuse to take part in gay rights publicity campaigns.”
Errr, that’s not strictly true.  They were being asked to provide a cake – that they were getting paid for.  That’s hardly the same as holding them at gunpoint and making them walk down the street in drag with a rainbow flag.

Steve Doughty of the Daily Mail goes on (and on…):

“Mr Lee was turned down not because of his sexual orientation but because of the provocative nature of the cake he wanted baked.”
Hardly provocative given that we are living in 2014.  We are talking about two characters from Sesame Street here.

Of course, the Daily Mail article has the backing of the “news”paper’s readers. “Daffodil” suggests that:

“the answer is ,,,Bake the cake and charge ‘em £ 1000.00. that should do it .”

This might be a great decision.  The bakery could then donate the £1000 to “Daffodil” so that she could go to evening classes and learn how to use full stops, commas, and capital letters.  A win-win situation.

Meanwhile, “Papillon” writes states that the situation is:

“forced tolerance. makes a lot of sense. I feel so guilty to be a white heterosexual male. I must be the bad guy.”

Well, Papillon might well be the bad guy.  He does, after all, have an avatar of a man cocking a pistol (oh, the irony).

“F2″ asks the following question:

“Should gay bakers be forced to make cakes with “Oppose Gay Marriage” slogans?”

Whether we like it  or not, that is a question that needs to be asked, even if the scenario is as unlikely as being asked to bake a cake with a slogan on it supporting gay marriage.

What seems most odd, however, is why a certain group of people believe that rules do not apply to them because they believe in a man in the sky.  Yes, they have a right to believe what they want – and I have no argument against that – but if they run a company (whether a B&B or a bakery) designed to serve the public, then that is what they should do.  The law that states that business owners have a right not to serve people at their own discretion is archaic and needs to be changed.   This may well be a test case for that if it ever gets to court.

The key thing here, though, is that religious beliefs should not be used as a valid excuse for discrimination.