Archive for Jonathan Romney

Film Club 2: Film Club Breeds Contempt

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by dcairns

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It’s 00.31 here and I’m posting this early so maybe there’ll be some comments in the morning before I go to work…

Side-note: it’s weird how some titles are known in translation and some in their original languages. In the case of Godard’s LE MEPRIS, that’s what we call it in the UK, even though we don’t generally know what that word means, and in the US it’s always called CONTEMPT, which makes more sense, I’d say. Anyhow –

This is a film that I sort-of knew, in that received wisdom kind of way, and having seen lots of clips and maybe having caught half an hour or so of it here and there. Which is NO GOOD. So Film Club serves a valuable function, for me at least, in nudging me into actually watching the damn thing. Thanks to David Ehrenstein for the suggestion.

My Jean-Luc Godard issues: I think as a kid, getting into films, I probably caught a mixed bag of his movies, some of which intrigued but some of which alienated, and not in a good way. My attempts to build up a resistance are only now paying off. I always liked ALPHAVILLE, I now like BAND A PARTE and UNE FEMME MARIEE, and a few others. And I sort-of like WEEKEND and SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and a few others. Recently, his episode of TEN MINUTES OLDER was really strong. And I’m intrigued to re-see some of the stuff that put me off. If I can remember what it was. The stuff that was like slide-shows, you know.

But CONTEMPT isn’t like that — critic Jonathan Romney has called it the only Godard film you could possibly shed a tear to, which seemed like it could be interesting, engaging and possibly so atypical of JLG that I won’t get any closer to liking him as a whole, but I like a good weepie, so here we go (rolls up sleeves) –

The opening shot shows a camera sliding towards us on tracks, “exposing the mechanisms of cinema” in a way that’s not too Brechtian really, since the movie is about movie-making, so the camera’s appearance is narratively “legitimate.” Love the way the camera turns to face us with its cyclopean eye, the widescreen matte-box around it forming a frame within the frame. It’s echoed by many more frames-within-frames, like this –

Georges Delerue doesn’t get the love he deserves, I feel. His score for this film is typically lush and emotional, only slightly counterbalanced by Godard’s tendency to repeat it until we become rather more aware of it than would be normal. And the theme obstinately refuses to develop, so we’re on the verge of some catharsis with these unbearably gorgeous strings playing, but we never quite reach it. Somehow that makes it even more paifully moving.

Also, spoken word credits — I always approve of these. Welles, of course, has the best, aided by the fact that he’s got the best voice to deliver them with. It’s unfair, really: nobody else can compete. In FAHRENHEIT 451, Truffaut uses spoken credits because the written word is outlawed. Here, the movie is based on a book (Alberto Moravia — anyone read it?) and the hero is a writer, so the absence of onscreen text is more allusive and mysterious. It might be something to do with the powerlessness of the writer in this world of images…

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Godard then wisely proceeds directly to Brigitte Bardot’s naked ass, thus ensuring at least some of his audience will stay to the end. Jesus Franco once used the example of the nudity in this film, and the fact that JLG said he’d included it for commercial reasons, to basically justify his entire career. I do like some Franco, but his argument does not entirely convince me. As to this nude scene, what’s unusual and fun about it is the way BB is talking about her body while the camera shows it: nudity is redoubled. It’s kind of a titillation/sexploitation scene, but her aimless prattling does have enough naturalistic value to give it another quality: it’s like a gentle parody of how women do sometimes talk. (Is this going to get me in trouble?) The most affectionate scene in the film.

Perhaps feeling that the scene was too simple, Godard spices it up with heavy colour filtration, which clicks off midway, leaving natural skin tones and a sudden renewed sense of nudity. It’s been said that Godard marks each part of the filmmaking process: his art exposes rather than conceals art, drawing our attention to script, performance, composition, lighting, design, editing, music and sound. This may be why so many filmmakers love him — he exploits the beauty of the unfinished, using rough edges that normally only the maker gets to see. And yet, Godard’s work has another kind of beauty, directly opposed to the first –

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Off to the screening room! A particularly pleasing one, with its blue chairs. Why does Godard use such lovely bright hues? I’ve never read an attempt at explanation of that — we can simply accept it as being just the kind of thing he likes, and agree with him that the intense slabs of flat colour make for beautiful graphics, but I’d be very interested in a theory that added to that. Minnelli being the filmmaker most referenced here, in the dialogue about SOME CAME RUNNING and the film’s relationship to TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (I think Godard’s referred to it as his sequel), we could draw on Minnelli’s decision to make SCR look like “the inside of a jukebox,” but I don’t feel like JLG is trying to create a visual critique of society in this way: it would be more accurate to say he’s making the world look beautiful the way he wants it to.

But perhaps the colours have symbolic value? Again, theories welcome. We might produce a colour chart to hand out with future copies of the DVD. Red certainly = violence, as in the car crash, whereas the cool blue of the sea takes on tragic connotations…

Jack Palance and Fritz Lang and Giorgia Moll. Palance and Lang’s first scene is possibly their best. Palance using a film can as a discus is a nice moment, and his moronically gleeful reactions to the sight of a nude “mermaid” in Lang’s footage are priceless. Moll is charming but contradictory: she exchanges literary quotes with Lang, but allows Palance to sign a cheque on her back. Godard’s objectification of women — and the word is peculiarly accurate with him — is one of the things that’s creeped me out about him in the past. The body-part portraiture in UNE FEMME MARIEE is beautiful and rather tender, but the headless shots of a nude Bardot that come later on in this film seem glossy but brutal. Moll is part character, part plot function (translator) and part furniture, it seems.

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Feminist theory might call this shot dehumanizing. But that’s definitely a human arse. But it’s certainly depersonalizing, and that’s something Godard has been guilty of a lot. But not consistently — Bardot’s character is also a character, not just a shapely figure. She’s mysterious, which I sometimes feel is a get-out clause for directors who don’t regard women as people, with comprehensible motivations the same as men, but it’s also a legitimate response to the problem of communication: other people are unknowable. LE MEP definitely falls more on the legitimate side of this divide.

Moll’s interpreter character was apparently Godard’s device to stop the Americans dubbing the movie: Moll repeats what Palance says in English, in French, and what Piccoli says in French, in English. The distributors dubbed the film anyway, so Moll now became a strange person who follows people around repeating or rephrasing whatever they say. Godard’s Parrot. I’d love to see that version.

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Palance, whose presence evokes Hollywood and THE BIG KNIFE, is a pretty broad caricature of the vulgar producer. LE MEPRIS was co-produced by Joe Levine, who made his fortune with the Steve Reeves HERCULES. Palance plays Jerry Prokosch, producer of THE ODYSSEY.

Lang, as gracious and stately as most people found him in later life (he was much less of a gentleman when actually directing movies, by all accounts), is the film’s August Presence, the representative of art — we don’t gain much confidence in Piccoli as a writer, Palance represents the ugliness of commerce, Bardot is a typist, but Lang’s genius is to be taken as read. The shots we see from his movie (they’re already shooting it? The production process here doesn’t seem to make sense) are not actually Langian, and they’re certainly the kind of artsy stuff that would have got any director on a Greek myth sword-and-sandal epic shown the door, but they’re very pretty. When Godard cuts in shots of the Greek statues later on, interrupting the story of marital breakup, the effect is poetic, mysterious, and slightly chilling.

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Back to that colour: the film has no credited art director, but do we believe that JLG bought all the coloured chairs and props and towels himself? The design is certainly his in conception, and you can see it expressed in his other movies, very consistently, even in their credits. But somebody must have helped. The IMDb lists one Pierre Guffroy as production designer (uncredited) on PIERROT LE FOU, which has a matching Technicolor look (remember Belmondo’s painted face at the end?), perhaps he should be investigated?

Outside the cinema, Palance offers Bardot a ride and Piccoli urges her to accept it. There’s a slight sense that he’s pimping her out, or at least trying to curry favour with his new boss. Bardot appears reluctant, Piccoli insists, and for the rest of the movie she resents him. The question of what actually happened during the half hour when Piccoli and Bardot were apart is never answered, making this one of the most important and infuriating narrative ellipses in all cinema. It’s vaguer than the Marabar Caves scene in EM Forster’s A Passage to India. (They should have put that on the poster. “Vaguer than Forster!”)

Love the fast cuts of Bardot, jumping from scene to scene — this seems to evoke memory and Poccoli’s character’s subjectivity more strongly than any other scene. JLG is basically inventing Nic Roeg here.

The big sequence in Piccoli and Bardot’s half-furnished flat is the bit that apparently drove The New Republic‘s Stanley Kauffman berserk, as he imagined Godard’s fans gasping: “‘That film must cost so-and-so many thousands of dollars a minute! Any commercial hack would be concerned to make each minute count for something. But Jean-Luc doesn’t care!’ The hidden referent here is not aesthetic but budgetary bravado.” It’s always dangerous to imagine what a film’s fans are admiring and then attack it for that — it puts a filter between critic and film that’s even thicker than Godard’s red gel.

In fact, while the protracted semi-breakup in the apartment is challenging in its duration, there are no dead moments in it, and it’s all informed by the drama of Piccoli’s plight and the mystery of Bardot’s behaviour. Piccoli’s behaviour is pretty obnoxious, but more straightforwardly motivated. After The Mysterious Event in the Marabar Caves, he leches after Moll, as if to revenge himself for Palance’s presumed depredations. Bardot catches him, and for a while he assumes that’s what she was mad at. But her frostiness towards him predates that infelicitous discovery. He also assumes the problem has to do with money, and the flat they’re buying and decorating. But we get no sense that he’s right here.

Piccoli slapping Bardot is a nasty moment, and a problematic one (but with Godard, “problematic” = interesting). I’m reminded of my friend Simon’s remarks, after viewing TWO FOR THE ROAD (a considerably lesser sixties relationship movie, I think we can agree) that Albert Finney’s character was incredibly obnoxious and arrogant. “But men were like that then,” his mum informed him. I don’t get any sense that Godard approves of Piccoli’s bit of domestic violence, but he sees no reason to step in and offer his editorial judgement on it.

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Bardot dons wig. If we associate red with aggression and Palance, her choice of apparel may be telling us something here. But Piccoli, despite being a playwright, isn’t adept in the interpretation of toweling. He needs a towelomancer.

Richard Brody, in his much-criticized JLG bio, seems to suggest that many of Godard’s films are not only direct commentaries on his relationship with partner and sometime star Anna Karina, but actual admonitions to her, attempts to keep her in line, or something. The rather unsympathetic portrayal of Piccoli in this film would seem to argue against that, unless we’re going to accept Godard as an insensitive clod who thinks the Piccoli character is actually behaving well. While I’m willing to believe bad things about JLG, I don’t buy that one.

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Split-screen effects created by architecture of flat seem like a clear influence on LAST TANGO IN PARIS. Bertolucci may have symbolically “killed” Godard in THE CONFORMIST, but the influence lingers. Godard’s widescreen enhances his ability to break up the frame like this. The wide-angle lens causes some rubber-walling distortion which gets in the way of his graphic flatness, but it’s not a significant issue. The white walls bounce the light around which helps them film on a location with real daylight as source. Reflected light is not flattering to the complexion, but when you’ve got somebody as smooth as BB (like porcelain yet more elastic) you can get away with it.

Weirdly ugly (in this ravishingly beautiful  film) scene in a barn-like Italian cinema, reverberant music, which Godard jump cuts around the conversation. Cinema screen is brown. Afterwards, Lang quotes Berthold Brecht, calling him “BB.” An acceptable in-joke which could pass in a regular movie, but the fact that Bardot laughs at it is genuinely Brechtian — her character is called Camille, it’s the actress herself who’s known as BB.

Incidentally, isn’t BB good in this? Here and in Clouzot’s LA VERITE you see a very capable performer playing two very contrasting characters with the same set of distinct physical qualities, but her pouty beauty counts for something different in each film. The moment here where she aggressively shoos Piccoli out of the bedroom when her mum calls is a favourite: completely naturalistic and kinda funny. Piccoli also disappears into his role with unshowy grace, but he’s not as cute.

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Capri! Where Palance’s villa, a bizarre structure, has a set of stairs that allows Lang to craft some genuinely Langian compositions. Again Piccoli urges BB to take a ride with Palance, this time by boat. Discussing Palance’s moronic “re-imaging” of the Odyssey with Lang (Ulysses takes ten years to return to Penelope because he’s just not that into her) Piccoli, perhaps by accident, hits on what may be the truth about Bardot’s attitude to him (which she has now given a name: Contempt). By refusing to eject the suitors, Ulysses emasculates himself in Penelope’s eyes. So then he has to kill them. Lang tells him that that would solve nothing.

The subsequent death of Palance and Bardot in a car accident seems like a flat narrative contrivance — this movie may have more of a conventional story than most Godards, but it’s still not his primary interest, I feel — but all is redeemed by the unbelievable lovely end shot, where Godard’s camera intersect its path with Lang’s, a sort of reverse-angle of the opening shot where the two lenses met and “kissed.” Godard/Lang stare out at the infinity of the sea, as a sinister voice pronounces “Silencio,” through a megaphone. David Lynch makes a mental note.

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Out Where the Buses Don’t Run

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2009 by dcairns

(Please consider this your Intertitle of the Week, since I haven’t seen any silent movies this week, and anyway the film does feature intertitular chapter headings, saying things like CHAOS REIGNS and PAIN. I don’t have frame grabs of them though.)

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Well, I let you down. Enjoying my ass off with Roger Corman’s crimson-soaked social commentary flick BLOODY MAMA, I missed the Anthony Dod Mantle interview conducted by Seamus McGarvey (one master cinematographer interrogated by another) so I’m still none the wiser about the current location of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s prosthetic clitoris. I had dreams of uniting it with Nicole Kidman’s leftover nose from THE HOURS (now in McGarvey’s possession). Eventually, we could have assembled an entire artificial woman (“That should be really interesting!”) We could call her Kate Bosworth.

But I did see Mantle’s latest film as DP, Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, and took part in the Q&A afterwards.

The movie begins with stars Willem Dafoe and Gainsbourg coupling in the shower, extreme closeups of their body doubles’ genitals interlocking as water droplets fall in mega-slo-mo and Handel plays on the soundtrack. The love scene morphs into suspense as their little son heads for the window, and the whole sequence resembles a TV advertisement crossed with a Brian DePalma set-piece. “Parts of it are extremely beautiful, but it’s beauty on the level of kitsch,” critic Jonathan Romney had told us. Yet I might give Lars the benefit of the doubt here: as we find out later, all is not well in this family, and this is not the story of happy normality shattered by tragedy, it’s more like the tragedy unlocks a pre-existing malaise. So using the imagery of commercials seems like an interesting way to suggest a false surface. The nature of the malaise, unfortunately, remains completely obscure and incoherent.

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As the film goes on, the opening b&w stylisation is replaced by another version of LVT’s dogme-esque “trashed aesthetic,” with harsh cutting and handheld movement, interrupted by more lush and lyrical landscape scenes. Therapist Dafoe tries to cure his wife’s grief, and if you can overlook the banal and idiotic dialogue (I know it’s not Lars’ first language, but he really needs help from a native-speaker) this first half is a reasonably dignified and interesting study of grieving and therapy and love. The fact that Dafoe has completely submerged any grief of his own sews some seeds of anxiety, and certainly at some level the film is an attack on psychotherapy, which is something the neurotic LVT actually knows about.

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Retreating to their cabin in “Eden,” (although dedicated to Tarkovsky, the film might as well own up to the influence of Sam Raimi’s first two EVIL DEADS as well) this modern day Adam and Eve work through the early stages of grief, anger, and pain — and then the movie takes off into horror-trash carnage. Dafoe finds his wife’s psycho-gallery, where she’s stuck dripping images of witchhunts to the wall, and Gainsbourg abruptly gets medieval on his cock, battering that helpless organ until it shoots blood, then drilling a hole in his leg and bolting a large whetstone to it. Poor Willem spends the rest of the movie dragging a Flintstones wheel around on his shin. It’s all very MISERY, with a bit of HOSTEL’s hardcore horror.

The torture porn vibe is augmented when Charlotte snips off her clit in graphic closeup (reviewers always mention the rusty shears, but I didn’t actually spot any rust and I wonder where they’re getting that from). Lars cuts to a startled deer.

Willem makes good his escape, dragging his stone shin, and Charlotte freaks out. “Where are you? You bastard!” she shrieks, about eighteen times. I think I’m the only one who laughed at the deer, but a few of us are laughing now. Charlotte is too posh to swear convincingly, and there’s something absurd about her resenting hubbie for running, or rather crawling, away.

Willem hides in a foxhole where he digs up a crow, of all things, which caws at him, repeatedly (Lars is always big on repetition), threatening to give him away. Willem punches the crow. Several times. It keeps cawing. He keeps punching. It stops cawing. Then it starts again. He punches it some more. This goes on for, I don’t want to exaggerate and I don’t have accurate timings, but I want to say about two minutes.

I think there’s something inherently comic about a man punching an animal. A small animal is arguably funnier than a large one. And I’ve tried, but I can’t think of an actor/animal combination that’s devoid of comic potential. Ed Asner thumping a llama would be amusing. Ashton Kutcher bitch-slapping a gerbil would be hilarious. Sam Neill karate-chopping an anteater would at least raise a smile.

Now I did ask — I did ask — the cinematographer if any of this was meant to be funny. Mantle swears it isn’t. Lars was suffering from depression before and during the shoot — here I sympathise, that illness is a horror — and was not his usual cheeky self. Perhaps that meant he was ill-equipped to judge if something might be a bit ridiculous. Mantle more or less accused me of using humour to disengage from the film, and while I don’t think I did that as a conscious or unconscious tactic, I have seen that happen and I don’t totally discount the possibility.

In EXCALIBUR, director John Boorman seems willfully blind to the fact that Monty Python had only recently done their own version of Arthurian lore, and that his film often resembled the pre-existing spoof. And he doesn’t seem to care that some of his costumes, notably Helen Mirren’s Flash Gordon breast-plate and Nicol Williams’ tinfoil skullcap, have a kitsch quality that invites amusement. There’s actually something commendable about a filmmaker pursuing their own particular brand of beauty and not caring if anybody laughs. It’s courageous.

I do think there may be a point where that becomes folly, and that if we allow humour to have a role in our lives at all, there are some occasions when the only response possible is laughter. If a filmmaker presses those buttons unintentionally, he or she is making a mistake, however brave.

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That’s probably secondary to the major problem, which is the film’s shrill, empty-headed incoherence. There’s some debate about grief, therapy, and misogyny, but none of it goes anywhere. LVT has spoken of using his dreams in the film, and purposely avoiding story logic, plot and resolution, but the trouble is what we have is an unsatisfactory narrative rather than a non-narrative experimental film. Bergman’s PERSONA might hint at what’s being aimed at here, and Altman’s THREE WOMEN similarly took its cue from the director’s dreams, but wisely neither of those films tries to put forward some kind of didactic point, which LVT certainly seems to be trying for here. Long stretches of the film are NOT dreamlike, intense audio-visual experiences. Long stretches are talkie chamber piece in which characters fire ill-thought-out philosophies at each other. If it were a parade of visuals aiming for abstract poetry, the movie might be OK.

The charge of misogyny is being flung about, but one of gynophobia is more germane. Von Trier doesn’t necessarily hate women, but Dod Mantle admits he doesn’t understand them, and probably fears them. “I don’t think women or their sexuality is evil,” says Lars in the press notes, “But it is frightening.” To which I ask, to whom? The answer’s obvious, but the problem is not that Lars is projecting his anxieties outwards upon the world, nature and women, and then making art out of that pathetic fallacy. The problem is that he doesn’t realise that’s what he’s doing, as that sentence makes clear. His anxieties are childish and irrational, which doesn’t automatically make them uninteresting, but he’s holding them aloft as if they were great insights. In other words, he’s a fool.

Festival Round-Up/Fatigue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2009 by dcairns

Edinburgh!

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PAPER SOLDIER: Alexey German Jnr’s intense snapshot of the early Russian space programme. Epically visionary style, like Tarkovsky fed through Fellini and dusted with Jancso. Apple juice with Jonathan Romney beforehand. He says it contains his favourite recent subtitle: “Why did you pour soup on that poor dentist’s head?” He’s right, it does.

INUKSHUK: As recommended by Shadowplayer Zach Rosenau, this short animation has a striking graphic style without losing characterisation, and a beautiful sense of cartoon gravity — it’s not the kind of gravity where Wile E Coyote runs off a cliff and stands in mid-air for a second before realising the problem and plummeting to the canyon floor. It’s new. It’s gravity with a graphic logic behind it — a giant whale vaulting overhead draws a little Inuit kid up into the air by force of its large and dark bulk.

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DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE FOREST: Mark Cousins has turned a local church hall into a kind of Indian movie temple for a celebration of Bengali cinema. The iconic Sharmila Tagore was there to introduce this movie, which she made forty years ago with Satyajit Ray. Ray phoned up and she said yes without thinking, then realised she was making another feature at the same time. The lesser director had to shoot all her scenes in a studio and match them to his location shots. “He wanted to kill me.” Sharmila is still breathtakingly beautiful.

AN EVENING WITH DON HERZFELDT: Don makes dark and touching and funny short animations. Oh, and terrifying. He’s in town, selling his DVDs. I must have one. You should buy one too. A unique voice! Here’s a single-frame sample.

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Now imagine several thousand of these frames, all different. Some only a little different. Some very different. That’s a Don Herzfeldt film.

FOLLOW THE MASTER: Debut feature from occasional Shadowplayer Matt Hulse. Matt and his girlfriend and their dog go for a walk. It doesn’t sound like much of a narrative, but he packs a lot in. An interweaving of documetary/journal with experimental film.

WIDE OPEN SPACES: Edinburgh’s own Ewen Bremner (Spud in TRAINSPOTTING) stars with Ardal O’Hanlon (Dougal in Father Ted) in a comedy by Ted scribe Arthur Mathews. Two debt-ridden losers take work in an Irish famine theme park. A lot of good jokes and performances, although not everything comes together to make this the new WITHNAIL AND I, which is what it ought to be by rights. Truly awesome performance from Don Wycherley though. I didn’t know him before this.

Sat next to my friend Travis Reeves during the screening. Travis did all the gravel in this film. Next to Travis was the chap who did all the wind. And there is a lot of both those things in this film.

John Cobban, who mixed the sound, wants me to say that the sound system at the Cameo Cinema is inadequate.

Bumped into Sarah Bremner, sister of the film’s star. Sarah was art director on my film CRY FOR BOBO, and is a champion forehead wrestler.

Keep seeing Peter McDougall, whose TV work from the ’70s is being retrospected. McDougall has the world’s most powerful moustache. If he were in the Wild West, strong men would build him a temple.

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SHIRIN: Abbas Kiarostami’s minimalist film of an audience watching an unseen film, had its own audience rapt with attention, even through to the very end of the end credits. I did wonder if it would be more stimulating to turn around and look at my audience watching his audience, but decided against this.

Get home and try to kill spiders in the bathroom at 00.34am.

Fiona: “What are you doing?”

Me: “Trying to kill spiders in the bathroom.”

Fiona: “We’ve got spiders? More than one?”

Me: “Three.”

Fiona: “Three? Are they breeding?”

Me: “Don’t think so. They’re a bit too far apart.”

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