Imagine: Marlon Brando, BBC 2 – On the Waterfront, director Ella Kazan, 1954 and Steve Riley’s award-winning documentary, Listen to Me Marlon.

brando.jpg

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08bfww6

I spent three and a half hours with Marlon Brando, which is quite a long time for an old buddie like me without falling asleep, especially on a Saturday night, when there’s football on, and I’ve not got a beer in my hand, but I don’t feel that it was time wasted.

I’ve watched On the Waterfront before. Don’t ask me when, or what it’s about, that’s a bit like asking me if I’ve read a book, and I say yeh, and then can perhaps pick out some detail that has sellotaped two neurons together with sufficient force to constitute working memory. In this case, it’s Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) telling his brother ‘I could have been a contender.’ There’s universality about that line that sticks, an everyman truth that if we did the right thing and stuck at it, we’d get our just rewards. It’s a morality play and the American Dream, writ large on Malloy’s face and nothing and no one is going to stop us.

The film is black and white, but that’s not what makes it dated. Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) is mobster that runs the docks and what he says goes and without him no ship gets unloaded. He’s corrupt because unions are corrupt and, with kickbacks, stop people from working for a fair’s day pay. Yankee Doodle I say to that, because I remember mobsters, I even remember unions, but this notion of a fair day’s pay that really was an 1950’s invention. Offshore tax free havens for money laundering such as the British Virgin Isles, Jersey or London hadn’t even been invented. All right then, London had been invented.  Shoreman lining up for a job, if their face fitted, they got a job, if it didn’t they never. No change there, as far as I can see. I ask myself who the villains would be now? Ask yourself that question too.

Then there’s the question of loyalty and ratting on your friends. Johnny Friendly tells Terry to go and spy on those that want to do things differently, the disgruntled masses that don’t want to pay kickbacks to workshy loafers in their chapel that give nothing back but take everything. Strangely familiar too. That’s not ratting, or grassing, because you’re really for us or against us, and these people are different. That was a theme Ella Kazan was all too familiar with. In Arthur Miller’s marvellous autobiography Timebends he tells how Kazan was asked to appear before the Hoover inspired witchhunt House of UnAmerican Activities to talk about his friends, associates and work colleagues. Someone like B-part player, Ronnie Reagan was delighted to do so. As did Kazan. Miller, his former friend and associate, didn’t. Kazan’s knowledge about ratting and stool pigeons came first hand.  (http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/navasky-chap7.html)

I get it, I really do, and Marlon Brando, the youngest actor to receive an Oscar for best actor got it too. Hollywood was open for business and Marlon Brando was the new star and the bright young thing that offered something different from traditional male leads. He was lucky. ‘I arrived in New York with the clothes on my back,’ Brando tells the listener. ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight,’ Guys and Dolls. Brando was hot as Sarah Palin in snow boots. Watch him being interviewed by two young and attractive presenters. It makes your toes curl with embarrassment. But a magazine cover asked ‘Could there have been an Elvis without Brando?’ Another way of putting this is could there have been a John F Kennedy without Brando? JFK didn’t even like wearing hats, that’s how hip the first Catholic president was.

Brando sought a new self, away from the razzmatazz of Hollywood in Haiti. There wasn’t just a Mutiny on the Bounty. He found that the old self didn’t go home. The old self was home. ‘Give me the boy and I’ll give you the man,’ is the Jesuit epigram in Apsted’s 7-UP series.  Luck isn’t always a Lady. A son that kills his half-sister’s boyfriend and is convicted of manslaughter and his daughter that commits suicide.

Brando’s life becomes what he says he most hates – a soap opera. If he didn’t become an actor he claims he would have made a good conman. The world’s greatest actor. Imagine how he felt having to audition for roles such as that in The Godfather. That’s like Muhammad Ali, being called Cassius Clay, and  having to audition for the boxing ring. Then I realized that Ali did have to, when he came out of prison. Brando supported King and the black right’s movement. He was an activist for social justice. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine what he thought of Donald J Trump.

Actors come and go. Brando’s tapes include him boasting about being paid $14 million for twelve days work on Superman. Then, there’s Macbeth’s soliloquy, all actors seem to have it in their portfolio, even the best actor in the world but if you want to hear the real thing then listen to Anthony Hopkins sending up his Shakespearean friends on Parkinson, most notably that other best actor in the world Laurence Olivier. Even the mad Conrad’s Kurtz, in Apocalypse Now would recognise the sentiments.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Imagine. Antony Gormley: Being Human BBC 1, 10.35pm

gormley angel of the north

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06nrc0g/imagine-autumn-2015-2-antony-gormley-being-human

Like Antony Gormley, best known for Angel of the North, I can imagine being human. I can imagine lots of things. As a wee boy I imagined what it would be like to live in a sweet shop, to slay a dragon, or right every wrong. There were lots of things I wouldn’t admit to imagining. Like Antony Gormley I came from a big Catholic family, big on Catholicism, five kids and a few near misses. There was seven children in Gormley’s family, he was the youngest. Like me Antony Gormley hitchhiked to Lourdes, the Disneyland of Catholic faith, and had a look around. Lots of clerical big wheels, plaster cast Virgin Mary with doe eyes, and lots of people that should have been working and not kneeling about, scrounging and claiming supernational benefits. I hitchhiked to Biaritz, where women showed their tits. Antony Gormley had to go one better. He went to India for two years. Discovered a skill he developed as a kid, his inner guru, how to meditate and connect with that inners space that makes each person different but the same. I’ll let you decide tits, or the meaning of life? Antony Gormley channelled his search into a career as a sculptor and artist that has lasted forty years. I’m still slaying dragons.

Could I slay the Angel of the North? Aye, if I’d a sword big enough. I guess I’m one of those Neanderthal Northern wankers that shouted ‘fucking wanker’ at him when he unveiled the Angel. One of those like Yosser Hughes in Boys from the Black Stuff that claimed, I CAN DO THAT! All I would have needed was a gigantic pair of wings, like mega-aircraft wings, and a human model. A person rolled up neatly in a spider’s web, much in the way that Gormley encased himself in plaster to create casts from his body of the universal everyman, but also something more than human, gigantic and intimate, like the Angel. I’d have been one of those spitting mad, flinging bottles as his installation in Northern Island during the Troubles and seeing it as gigantic waste of public money. And I’m ashamed. Because all art is a waste of money, a luxury good, an added extra. So begins the choreographed championing of ignorance. The burning of books and those that write them. Nice things only for the deserving rich.

But I’m not wholly penitent in sackcloth and ashes. His Florence installation, cuboid and classical Gormley figures still leaves me cold. And I’m with those marvellous Italian cleaners who separated the chaff from the wheat, the cigarette douts for the bins and recycled glass and binned a modern art installation. Tracey Emin’s unmade bed needs spin washed. When a warehouse containing her ‘artwork’ burnt down, you can imagine how gutted I was. Tens of millions in insurance compensation paid to the ‘artist’ just wasn’t enough? Art has always been about fashions. The next big thing. Marketing more important than the product being marketed. Take bottled water. Anyone that buys it in Britain (and in Scotland in particular) should have mug tattooed with Indian ink on their forehead. That’s my opinion. Arts different from other commodities, but quantified and given monetary value, it isn’t.  It’s only human to think the Emperor has no clothes. Well, sometimes, he or she hasn’t.

Imagine…Richard Flanagan: Life After Death. Interview by Alan Yentob

richard flanagan

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b063lywk/imagine-summer-2015-5-richard-flanagan-life-after-death

I didn’t know it but I like Richard Flanagan, even though I’ve not read any of his books. Grandson of illiterates and descended from criminals transported to Tasmania, his father revered books but to be an author was not something he expected. A drowning accident in which he seemed to understand for a moment the interconnectedness of all things changed that. He continued working, but knew at a deeper level his real job in this life was to write.

I’ll rectify not reading any of his books. Order The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Man booker prize in 2014. I know I’ll love it. Flanagan talks about his dad taken prisoner during the Second World War by the Japanese and forced to build the Burmese railway that inspired, among others tales about Hellfire Pass and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Flanagan talks about visiting Thailand were the railway passed through and also visiting one of the guards in Japan that had tortured his dad. ‘The Lizard’ beat one of his father’s friends to death, with two other guards, in front of 300 prisoners, who were forced to stand impotently and watch. Man’s inhumanity to man. The Lizard, now an old man, Flanagan describes him as affable. But he wanted to experience what it was like for him, the torturer, to be in the Japanese army of Emperor Hirohito, where senior soldiers beating junior soldiers was a common form of control. Other races such as the Chinese were seen as inferior. In the Rape of Nanking of 1937-38, for example, an estimated civilian population of between 100 000 and 300 000 were killed and mutilated with up to 100 000 woman raped. Soldiers such as the British and Australian, including Flanagan’s father, who despite superior numbers surrendered Hong Kong without much of a fight were also seen as inferior. At the bottom of this chain of command was the prison guard, a level above other guards not racially pure such as the Koreans, but miles above the men they were guarding who were regarded as expendable.   He got the Lizard to slap him across the face. A ritual form of humiliation. Yentob asks Flanagan if he found it difficult to enter into, indeed empathise with, people like the Lizard. Flanagan’s answer that he didn’t find it hard to find the monster within, which is wisdom and a watchword when the evil twins of indifference and inhumanity are let loose are they so often are in contemporary society.

Flanagan himself experienced corporate and state-sponsored hatred and persecution. In 2007 he published an article, Gunns: ‘Out of Control’ in The Tasmanian Times showing clearly the links between state and corporate interests and pollution of Tasmanian forests in which the company Gunns, which did 85% of tree felling, benefited a few select shareholders but at a devastating cost to the community and his country. His fictional account The Unknown Terrorist has its roots in that dark period in which he told Alan Yentob not only was it a terrorist offence to challenge corporate interests, but reporters reporting on those arrested for such terrorists offences could also be arrested as terrorists. Sometime fact can be stranger than fiction – and you really couldn’t make it up. Ted Genoways The Chain made similar claims about the way factory food is farmed and produced and protected by state interests in America –all in the name of jobs- but with devastating environmental and social impacts. The gagging of those involved in uncovering the hidden costs is also treated as a terrorist offence. I’ve went off track, but Richard Flanagan down under is on top of what it means to be human.