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Arts in Review

Light Comedy Buffers Writers’ Hard Climb in The Durrells in Corfu

WRITING IS LIKE LYING DOWN IN THE ROAD and asking people to stop and look at you. And today, I got run over.”

A young Lawrence Durrell, played by Josh O’Connor, is feeling flattened after a reading to promote his first novel Pied Piper of Lovers collapses in episode two, season two of The Durrells in Corfu, the PBS Masterpiece series. Set in Greece in 1935 and based on The Corfu Trilogy by Lawrence’s youngest brother Gerald Durrell, the show entertains with light comedy and eccentric characters in telling the story of recently widowed British mother Louisa Durrell and her four children, as they struggle to survive as expatriates. But its illustrations of the rough road that debut novelists and other authors face are as realistic and relevant today as then.

One morning several days before the reading, Larry announces to his mother, younger sister and two younger brothers, “Today’s the day. My novel’s published in England.” Louisa is busy preparing food to sell in the market, and barely hears him. “None of you have read it, have you?” he sighs.

That evening, Louisa (a terrific Keeley Hawes) makes matters worse for her disappointed son by saying, “Larry, I’ve been thinking about your writing.”

“Well, finally,” he says. “Are you enjoying it? Are you stimulated and provoked by it?”

“No,” she says. “I was thinking: If nobody likes it, I’m sure my friend Hugh would give you a job at his olive press.”

Realizing her mistake, she later tells the rest of the family, “Let’s all read Larry’s book, and really enjoy it.” They groan.

That evening, she enters Larry’s room as he tries to write by candlelight. Attempting to lift his spirits, she says of Pied Piper of Lovers: “Let this book be the first step of a dazzling career.”

Indeed, it was. Lawrence Durrell went on to author dozens of books, including novels, travel writing, drama, poetry, essays and humor. He’s best known for The Alexandria Quartet, set in the Egyptian city on the Mediterranean and comprising the sensual novels Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1959) and Clea (1960).

Referring to his first novel, Louisa tells Larry: “The real reason that I find it difficult to read is … Well, you’re my son, so the sex makes me feel queasy.” But wanting to make up for not supporting the book at first, she hits upon the idea of arranging the reading. The family posts bills around town announcing the event, and invites everyone they know. Larry’s siblings force themselves to try and read the book, while he practices reading aloud. “I hope it goes well,” Louisa tells a friend. “It was my idea. I need it to work, or he’ll hate me.”

Just before the reading is set to begin, the family paces nervously in a room of empty chairs. Just one old gentleman has shown up. A second elderly man soon arrives, saying he’ll stay if there’s free food. In a line that will ring true for all but the most successful novelists, Louisa asks herself, “Why don’t people care?”

“Thanks for coming,” Larry tells his two attendees. “In view of the sparseness of the turnout, let’s just call it all off.” But as he sulks away, a friend comes running up with letters from England that he has collected from the mail carrier. Larry opens the first envelope and reads, “Bravo on your novel. Everyone talking about your new way with language.” The next one says, “Reviews top-notch.”

In another line that writers will appreciate, Larry says of his book: “I knew it was good. I was just worried it would be too good for people to understand.”

(Photo courtesy of John Rogers/Sid Gentle Films for ITV and MASTERPIECE)

Dark Crime Drama Sweet Virginia Set in Small Alaskan Town

“IMPERFECT PEOPLE CONFRONTING LIFE, LOVE AND DEATH,” is how director Jamie M. Dagg describes his new crime drama Sweet Virginia. The film, which had its Midwest premiere at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre Nov. 2 and goes into general release Nov. 17, tells the story of a stranger who arrives in an Alaskan town of mountainous pine forests to murder a cheating husband, hired by the man’s embittered wife.

The killer, Elwood (played by Christopher Abbott, who also stars in the 2017 horror movie It Comes at Night), is a dead-eyed drifter who speaks in a monotone grunt. He shoots the unfaithful husband in a restaurant after it has closed, and also kills two of the man’s friends who happened to be there with him. Lila, the scorned wife (British actress Imogen Poots) assures Elwood that she will pay his fee after collecting money from the estate of her husband, an entrepreneur. But when she meets with a lawyer, Lila learns that her late husband was bankrupt. “You know what will happen if I don’t get my money,” Elwood tells her.

One of the other men Elwood killed in the restaurant was married to Bernadette, a friend of Lila’s. Bernadette was cheating on her husband with Sam, a former rodeo champion who sustained too many head injuries. He now suffers hand tremors from early onset Parkinson’s disease and smokes marijuana every morning when he wakes up in the motel he runs, the “Sweet Virginia.”

Elwood is staying at the motel and befriends Sam (Jon Bernthal, above, who had roles in the TV show The Walking Dead and the movie Baby Driver), whom he recognizes from his glory days. Elwood somehow escapes the attention of local authorities searching for the restaurant killer, even after he beats up a couple of men in a parking lot.

The first half of the movie has a sluggish pace, but then Sweet Virginia finds its rhythm. Lila evades Elwood and his demands for payment, so he breaks into her house at night and assaults her, throwing her onto the stairs and pressing the muzzle of a revolver against her face. She tells him she knows where to get his money.

Lila betrays Bernadette (Rosemarie Dewitt, who played the Ryan Gosling character’s sister in La La Land) by telling Elwood about a hidden wall safe full of cash in her house. Elwood and a hired accomplice invade Bernadette’s home at night, but she fights back. The film’s climax occurs at daybreak the next morning, when Sam confronts a bleeding Elwood at the motel.

Sweet Virginia director Jamie M. Dagg, right, after a Nov. 2, 2017 screening at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre

Despite the natural beauty of the surroundings (the film was shot in British Columbia, standing in for Alaska), Sweet Virginia’s visuals are consistently muted and dark, conveying a mood of despair and hopelessness for its characters that is deepened by a groaning soundtrack. Asked why the characters’ faces were often obscured by shadows, Dagg told Moresby Press that he was influenced by the cinematography of the late Gordon Willis, who famously shot dark scenes in The Godfather films and in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, among many other pictures.

Sweet Virginia is Dagg’s second feature film, after River in 2015. A more seasoned director had told him, “Don’t wait around expecting to get the perfect script, because it’s not going to happen.” Dagg said the original script for Sweet Virginia (by Benjamin China and Paul China, British twins), started out much too long and far from ideal, but after tightening it up and introducing new ideas he was able to put his own stamp on the screenplay and become excited about it. Look for Dagg to continue developing his style and voice in more films to come.


Anatomy of a Classic Murder Scene Dissected in 78/52

“COLOR BLOOD WOULD HAVE BEEN TOO REPULSIVE,” Alfred Hitchcock says, explaining why he filmed his classic 1960 movie Psycho in black and white.

By now it’s well known that diluted Hershey’s chocolate syrup was used to simulate blood spattering and then pouring into the bathtub during the film’s legendary shower scene—in which the embezzling, adulterous blonde played by Janet Leigh is knifed to death by what appears to be an old woman but is later revealed as her son, Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. But a wealth of new insights into Psycho and its shower scene in particular emerge from the excellent new documentary 78/52, from writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe.

The documentary’s title refers to the 78 camera set-ups and 52 fast edits that went into the harrowing three-minute shower scene, which are discussed and dissected by actors, directors, writers and editors including Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Danny Elfman, Elijah Wood—and Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh’s daughter.

Through their comments, we come to appreciate the artistry of Psycho and its shower scene even more than before, further realizing the brilliance of a film which when released seemed like a strange, B-movie choice from the  director whose previous picture had been the lush, color masterpiece North by Northwest.

In one archival interview clip, Hitchcock claims that Psycho was intended as a joke. But the idea that people are not safe even while taking a hot shower, a moment when we stand naked and most vulnerable—and that the mothers of idealized 1950s America could destroy us—was made all the more unsettling by Hitchcock’s device of turning audiences into voyeurs alongside the psychopathic Bates, while also being attacked by him. To the shrieking beats of Bernard Herrmann’s classic score, the glinting butcher knife slashed not only Leigh’s body but at the camera and the audience themselves, seeming to stab straight through the screen at the screaming theater patrons in their seats. From varying angles, we become killer and victim, seeing the knife raised as if in religious judgment and coming down at Leigh and at us, again and again. In the documentary we learn that the scene’s sound effects were achieved by plunging a knife into melons and a slab of beef.

A true artist, Hitchcock defied convention and expectations with Psycho’s black-and-white film, overt sexuality, near nudity and murder of its leading lady early in the movie. The fact that Leigh is suddenly attacked and killed, and in such an intense way, has not lost its power to shock but must have been especially terrifying to viewers seeing the movie for the first time.

Among the interviews in 78/52 are people involved with the 1998 remake of Psycho, which should not have been included (arguably the new version should never have been made). Credit is given to the wide-ranging cultural impact the original film has left on movies, television shows and music. In one archival sound recording, director Martin Scorsese explains that he modeled a fight sequence in his boxing movie Raging Bull after the shower scene in Psycho.

One important point never acknowledged during 78/52 is the naked truth that the scene it celebrates involves the brutal murder of a woman. Setting aside the technical and artistic ingenuity of the filmmakers, it’s a horrible thing to witness. Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, is lethally punished for stealing money from her employer and having sex with a married man. The knife that penetrates her becomes a deadly phallic proxy wielded by the sexually repressed Norman Bates and directed by the malignant spirit of his dead mother—both of whom were extensions of Hitchcock himself.

The documentary 78/52 will leave you with a heightened understanding and appreciation for Psycho, but also a queasy sense of guilt for taking pleasure in something so horrific. But the conflicting emotions of being watcher and victim were Hitchcock’s point. As Mexican director del Toro says in the documentary, “You knew you were in the hands of a master.”

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Shadows the Sizes of Cities, A Novel


Young travelers, murder, a love triangle,
and the legacy of a father’s sins

— William Friedkin,
legendary director of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist"

"EXCELLENT ... THRILLING ... A GREAT READ" — Inside Publications




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