I’ve been producing a series of posts on my personal cultural highlights from 2017. They have covered things online, music, books and artworks. Last in the series is a list of highlights. These are some of the one-off events or publications that particularly stood out for me in 2017, and against which 2018 will have to measure itself. I hope it will do its best to do so.
I went to the theatre quite a lot (for me) in 2017. I particularly enjoyed Mary Stuart at the Almeida, the Bob Dylan/Conor McPherson musical Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic, and Tamburlaine at the Arcola. But head and shoulders above all was the production of Miss Julie at the Theatre By the Lake in Keswick (subsequently transferred to the Jermyn Street Theatre in London). I’d not seen any play by Strindberg before now, and was expecting something severe and rather musty. Instead, and aided greatly by a free and fluid translation by Howard Brenton, I was transfixed by an outstanding production without a single false note. Charlotte Hamblin as the aristocratic Julie and James Sheldon as the servant Jean that she seduces were perfectly in tune with one another, as line after line followed with pure logic throughout. The audience clapped politely but looked a little stunned. So that’s what theatre is about – seeing people in the raw.
I saw lifetime favourites Slapp Happy in concert in Cologne at the end of last year, as noted here at the time. But I saw them again over two nights at the Café Oto in London, close enough that I could have rested my feet on the speakers, and certainly intimate enough to allow me to chat to each member of the band. They struggled with sound problems, but played divinely, with a paradoxical combination of wry worldly wisdom and guilelessness that makes them unique. I was never so charmed by a concert as I was that weekend.
How Netflix works
Of course, I read many articles over 2017. Such a great number of those were about how the world might be made into a better place, everyone of which left the world exactly as it had been beforehand. Instead, my favourite article of the year was one that just explained how something works. Mayukh Nair’s ‘How Netflix works: the (hugely simplified) complex stuff that happens every time you hit Play‘, published via Medium, is an astonishing read. It’s not just how it explains clearly how a worldwide online video distribution network operates, but what it tells you of human ingenuity. Somebody had to conceptualise this, then find the money for it, build and sustain it. Those worrying over the state of the world (though they have every reason to do so) might have a read and just marvel at what we can do and where we have got to.
Helene Schjerfbeck 150 vuotta
My birthday present to myself this year was a catalogue of the works of artist of whom I knew nothing before I came across her work in the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki. Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is an artist of singular vision and quality. The chief characteristic of her works is clear, seemingly simple, faces (usually women’s faces), in which you clearly sense the skull beneath the skin. Over her life as an artist she moved from a gentle naturalism to a haunted abstraction, while always maintaining perfect line and mysterious insight.
C’eravamo Tanto Amati
My film of the year was an Italian production from 1974 and I’d never heard of it until it turned up among the titles I was judging for a film restoration competition. It didn’t win, but as a film in itself I thought it was fabulous. Directed by Ettore Scola, C’eravamo Tanto Amati (known as We All Loved Each Other So Much in English), is the story of three male friends who fight for the liberation of Italy during the Second World War, then each experience very different lives in post-war Italy. It’s the exuberant style ithat makes the film so special. It applies every trick in the book, and makes each one work. Characters address the camera, action is frozen while one person voices their thoughts, a scene from Of Human Bondage seen in a cinema has Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak speaking (in Italian) the thoughts of two of our characters sitting in the cinema, and the film switches from black and white to colour and back again, always appropriately. Oh, and it recreates the filming of the Trevi fountain scene from 8½, complete with Fellini and Mastroianni playing themselves. It’s great fun to watch, while also having plenty to show about post-war Italian society and life’s disappointments. It ends with an ideal self-referential joke, as one character concludes things with the words “I dunno”, and the others then argue over whether this is an appropriate ending. Shandean cinema.
Moe Tucker, I Feel So Far Away
My album of the year was released in 2012 and is a compilation of recordings from 1974-1998. Moe (Maureen) Tucker was the drummer with the Velvet Underground, known for her stand-up style of drumming and her charming, unvarnished singing on the songs ‘After Hours’ and ‘I’m Sticking with You’. Her solo work has been obscure but tremendous, particularly in the early years when she recorded unpolished numbers with just herself and an electric guitar, which sounded like they had been recorded in a rather small shed. In later recordings she was joined by assorted alternative artists who clearly were living the dream by playing with someone from the Velvets, and something of the innocence is lost. Most of her fabulous first album, Playin’ Possum (1982), is on this two-CD set, though sadly not her matchless, almost but not quite tuneful, version of Dylan’s ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’. It does have her perfect version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Around is Around’, which is more fun than practically any other recording that I can think of.
Better Call Saul 3
I didn’t do so well with box sets this years. I finally got round to watching Mad Men, but gave up halfway through when it turned into soap opera. Fargo 3 was a huge disappointment, ineptly handled from the start – after three episodes I could stand no more. Narcos and Mindhunter were interesting for how the drama had the unevenness of reality because both were based on actual stories, but maybe it was the lack of artifice that meant that I gave up caring for either. But Better Call Saul, now in its third season, only gets richer and deeper and more confident itself. The story of the warring brothers appears to be what is keeping you compelled, but really it is all in the pacing. Better Call Saul lets things happen in their own time, or appears to do. It is so beguiling. Season 3 had the added attraction of plot elements and characters that we can see will lead to Breaking Bad, but it suffers from the prequel curse of featuring actors patently older than the younger version of their characters that they strive to portray.
100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012
And finally, the cultural event of the year is something that it will probably take quite a bit of 2018 before I have got through it all. Criterion’s boxed set of the restored official Olympic films made since 1912 is a video production of unprecedented ambition and scope. There has been nothing like it before now; there is unlikely to be anything like it ever again. Across thirty-two discs, the set covers almost every summer and winter games of the past 105 years (there were no official films made in 1920 or 1932). It ranges from the silent era, when filmmakers were still working out the rules for filming sport, to the high art of Leni Riefenstahl in 1936 and Kon Ichikawa in 1964, to the corporate efforts of the IOC’s filmmaker of choice, Bud Greenspan. There is so much to discover here – a whole film history in itself, and a history of the paradoxes of idealism. Above all it is a triumph of film restoration, masterminded by Adrian Wood. I shall be writing about it, somehow, through 2018. Let the Games begin.