On the bedside reading table

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I’ll be honest, I don’t read for long in bed. As much as I’d like to get through whole chapters, my eyes often start to feel heavy after ten minutes and I switch off the light. Somehow it doesn’t feel quite right just to get into bed and not read anything though which is why I have a small pile of books I can dip into. Here’s the current selection:

Edward Thomas – Selected Poems and Prose.

I don’t read enough poetry but Thomas was a genius in his descriptions of the English countryside and nature. It’s nice to go to sleep thinking of long walks along country lanes and woods.

The portable Dorothy Parker.

A terrific mix of stories, poems, letters and articles. Dorothy Parker is famous for her brilliant wit but she was also an excellent literary critic and writer. This edition also has cut pages and a beautiful cover which makes it very inviting to pick up.

Permanent Californians

I love visiting graveyards when I travel, which is something my friends and family aren’t too keen on. I have never been to LA couldn’t hope to see all the ones included in this book so it’s the next best thing. So interesting reading about the lives of old Hollywood stars and musicians, plus people I’d never heard of.

Joseph Brodsky – Less Than One

I became fascinated with Brodsky after seeing the film about him and his parents, A Room and a Half. Exiled from Russia, he wrote many beautiful and fascinating essays in English and did so better than most native speakers. Sometimes sad, sometimes funny but always amazing in their depth and scope.

 

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On Fridays we watch film noir: Where the sidewalk ends (19500

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After working together on Laura in 1944, Otto Preminger reunited with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney for this 1950 masterpiece. Andrews plays Mark Dixon, a cop haunted by  the criminal activities of his father. He’s not a bad guy, but his violent behaviour with criminals gets him into hot water with his boss who gives him a final warning. When he accidentally kills a suspect, Dixon covers it up and gets rid of the body, fearing it will end his career. He hopes to pin it on local crime boss Scalise whose presence is enough to send him into a rage. Things get complicated though when Dixon falls for the dead man’s wife (Gene Tierney) and her father is accused of the murder. Can Dixon really let him take the rap? Will he lose the girl if he comes clean? This film is not so much a whodunnit as a study of moral ethics. Although not as hard-boiled as Humphrey Bogart or Glenn Ford (although Dixon’s obsession with Scalise reminds me of Glenn Ford’s lone quest in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat), Dana Andrews has the tortured expression of a man desperate to shake off his past, longing to find a connection with someone but whose very actions only serve to alienate his friends and colleagues. He and Gene Tierney seem very comfortable together and there’s great chemistry between them. You can’t help feeling they could have helped one another if they’d only met in different circumstances. The searing music is used infrequently, notably for the opening credits when it’s whistled and again later to increase the dramatic tension. Where the sidewalk ends is as gritty as Laura was glossy; a city of seedy bars, crap tables and glistening streets, beautifully captured in Joseph LaShelle’s brilliant photography, where two bit hoodlums gather on the corner.  It’s a true masterpiece from a director in perfect control of his art.

One week in Berlin

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At the Max Liebermann villa, Wannsee

 

Four years after I packed my bags and moved away from this wonderful city, I finally went back there last autumn. It’s strange to return to a place where you lived for so long, whose streets are so familiar, you can trace them with your eyes closed. In many ways, it felt as if I had never left. The only thing that struck me was how crowded certain spots have become – heaving crowds at Hackescher Markt, waiting in line for the Siegessaeule to open, the grime and seediness of Kottbusser Tor replaced by large groups of tourists, wandering from bars and restaurants where everyone automatically speaks English. But it’s still one of the few cities where you can find space to be alone and find your own way, where eating out is cheap and the bread is to die for. A week wasn’t nearly enough to see all the friends and places I wanted to – a perfect excuse to get back there again soon.  In the meantime, here are some moments to share with you.

IMG_9655The beautiful garden at the Max Liebermann villaIMG_9663WannseeIMG_9661LunchIMG_9680Early morning view from the Siegessaeule, direction Brandenburg GateIMG_9684View over the Tiergarten towards Potsdamer PlatzIMG_9651Café terrace at Zoologischer GartenIMG_9702I also went on an amazing tour of Tempelhof airport – so many interesting things to see!IMG_9703A raisin bomber – the only plane allowed to remain at the airportIMG_9710The check-in desksIMG_9739The famous eagle outsideIMG_9727

IMG_9754Finally made it to the Pfaueninsel – Peacock island – accessible via a short ferry ride. It was such a magical day.IMG_9756

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IMG_9778Home made plum cakeIMG_9785I turned a corner and discovered a fountain among the palmsIMG_9786One last look at the peacock and then time to head home.

Home cinema choice: The Maid (2009)

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Be careful who you let into your home. The struggle for power between masters and servants has been dealt with before, notably in Joseph Losey’s film The Servant. Sebastián Silva’s film focuses on the story of a maid, Raquel who has devoted much of her life to looking after a wealthy, middle class family. The film opens with an awkward birthday celebration when she is asked to join them  at the table for presents and cake (I’m also reminded of the Christmas dinner in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander when those working below stairs unhappily mix with the family). The family are fond of her but she is clearly not one of them. Raquel has no identity outside of her work as a maid; even on her day off, she shops at expensive boutiques and buys clothes like those worn by her employer. But when she becomes ill and the family call in additional help from outside, Raquel is determined not to let anyone threaten her position and does everything she can to subvert authority. It’s a fascinating study of how dependent the family is upon her and how unable they are to control her outrageous and often hilarious behaviour – there’s a touch of Buñuel in the way the bourgeoisie are ridiculed with humour.

There’s a poignancy too though in seeing how much Raquel has neglected her own life by caring for them – little contact with her mother, no friends or children of her own. The ending is surprising and also touching. With a star turn by Catalina Saavedra as Raquel, this film is highly recommended.

 

 

On Fridays we watch film noir: Point Blank (1967)

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I thought as it’s Lee Marvin’s birthday today, we’d choose this as our neo noir by the great John Boorman. He plays Walker (we never learn his first name), a man double crossed and left to die by his best friend Mal (the wonderful and underrated John Vernon. It’s also worth mentioning Angie Dickinson providing excellent support as Walker’s sister-in-law later on) on Alcatraz during a money drop. He returns to San Francisco years later to get back his 93,000 dollars, an amount repeated so often which becomes almost mythical. The first few minutes are difficult and fragmented, making it hard to work out what’s going on but stick with it – this is a remarkable, hard boiled noir that only Lee Marvin could play and in my opinion, it’s his best role. It’s worth noting that despite the violence in the film, Walker doesn’t kill anyone, he’s just a lone man taking on the big players. A raw and haunting film with a fantastic score and amazing photography, reflecting the paranoia and sense of alienation of the late sixties.

On Fridays we watch film noir: Rififi (1955)

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François Truffaut said this was the best noir he had ever seen. This masterpiece of French cinema was made by Jules Dassin after he had been blacklisted in the US and out of work for years. The plot deals with four gangsters planning the perfect heist on a jewellers in Paris. In spite of a flawlessly executed crime, human weakness will betray them. Justly famous for the 28 minute heist scene with no dialogue which notches up the tension to an unbearable level, it’s also a fascinating glimpse into the clubs and dark alleys of ’50s Paris.
It’s gritty and tough and everything a crime film should be.

 

On Fridays we watch film noir: The Narrow Margin (1952)

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Forget the remake with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer, Richard Fleischer’s film is one of the all-time great noirs and probably the best B-picture ever made. Police have to escort the widow of a mobster (Marie Windsor, just as fabulous and sexy as better known film noir dames) as she takes a train to the coast to testify before a grand jury. Charles McGraw plays the officer assigned to protect her. The journey is full of twists and nobody can be trusted. There’s terrific suspense as well as razor sharp dialogue between Windsor and McGraw and top notch acting from all involved. Just 70 minutes long but a hell of a train ride.