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A review of Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir by Gore Vidal

Jan. 14th, 2007 | 06:00 pm

All images in this review are copyrighted material belonging to the copyright holders, and are reproduced here for strictly non-profit making and critical purposes and can be removed on request.

Although it may be somewhat predictable to cite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line that "there are no second acts in American lives" when reviewing an American autobiography, Gore Vidal vividly proves there are occasions where there’s enough for a second volume, let alone a second chapter. Palimpest, Vidal’s first set of recollections, ended in 1963, covering the writer’s initial success, his forays into Hollywood script writing, and his first attempt to get into Congress. This second volume ostensibly covers his life and career from ’64 to the present, when Vidal returned to novel writing, became an established political commentator and all-round divisive US intellectual, revered and reviled in equal measure. Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir is far more than that, however, as Vidal for the most part reins in his (admittedly entertaining) excesses, to write what is an effect an elegy for liberal America, currently culturally occupied by Neo-conservatives, the Religious Right and an asinine and spineless media.

Gore Vidal

This dominating taste for nostalgia does not mean that Vidal the radical has become some kind of embittered ‘Leftie’, as he has always championed progress and recognises its benefits. The decline of the popular novel and the cultural placement of the household novelist is met by Vidal with ambivalence if not apathy, as he boldly states the key and central role the Hollywood movies of his youth had in firing his imagination and his intellectual appetite – quite an admission for such an avaricious autodidact (Vidal, surprisingly, never attended a university). His novels set in the classical world were fuelled just as much by a youthful exposure to Boris Karloff in The Mummy as they were from reading Cicero. Rightly he pours disdain on those who cynically straddle the two disciplines of scriptwriting and novel-writing (step forward Dan Brown), as one would expect from Vidal despite his background in both fields. But it is refreshing to have a mind such as Vidal's move with grace and general appreciation from low brow to high brow without condescension. But Vidal clearly identifies us living in a ‘post-Gutenberg’ age:

Recently I observed to a passing tape recorder that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, that I was still when known and read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me personally but of a category to which I once belonged that has now ceased to exist. I am still here but the category is not. To speak of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun. How can a novelist be famous – no matter how well known he may be personally to the press? – if the novel itself is of litte consequence to the civilised, much less to the generality? The novel as teaching aid is something else, but hardly famous.

For Vidal, it’s not so much the means of communication but what is being communicated. Throughout these memoirs, the US media is taken to task, especially the print media with particular venom reserved for The New York Times, who blacklisted his books from its reviews section throughout the 1950s and early 1960s due the homosexual angle to his first novel, The City and The Pillar. However, Vidal clearly fears the loss of the individual and critical voice in the mass media:

Today, where literature was movies are. Whether or not the Tenth Muse does her act on a theatre screen or within the cathode tube, there can be no other reality for us since reality does not begin to mean until it has been made art of. For the Agora, Art is now sight and sound; and the books are shut. In fact, reading of any kind is on the decline. Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for president – the same half?

Vidal though is happy for himself to straddle media. In Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, he ruefully recalls how he inadvertently invented the press junket in the early 60s as he ends up talking about his novel Julian on a chatshow while trying to advance his poltical career (a tale told with such insouciance, you believe him), and devotes a whole chapter on reflecting on a thesis called How to Be an Intellectual in the Age of TV. It's telling that the subtitle of the thesis is The Lessons of Gore Vidal.

Vidal in Fellini's Roma, the recording of which is described in Point to Point Navigation.

Whether or not you consider Vidal a real intellectual, what is truly remarkable about him is how much he lived the American Twentieth Century, his real education having been there as and when it happens, whether at the epicentre or on its fringes. Point to Point Navigation reflects on his sideman role in Kennedy’s Camelot (he was related to the soon-to-be Jacqueline Onassis), his friendships with Tennessee Williams, Saul Below, Federico Fellini, Princess Margaret, Sam Spiegal, Rudolf Nureyev, Orson Welles, Tom Driberg, Grace Kelly and Graham Greene, and his childhood that was dominated by his Senatorial grandfather and his aviator pioneer of a father who had a key role in FDR’s 30s administration.

Even before puberty, Vidal was casually coming across people such as Clark Gable and Amelia Earhart. He merely carried on as he begun, and Vidal (for the most part) namedrops with a purpose, revealing telling vignettes of these well-know faces, either accentuating popular perception or debunking myth in the process. He is charitable with his enemies as he is vicious of his friends, and there are well-rounded portraits of people such as Barry Goldwater, which comes as a genuine surprise although his demolition of Barbara Cartland is a true joy to behold and one that wont be ruined here. As with all his writings, Vidal captures the flavour and the mores of the time he describes.

Gore Vidal today

Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir is just as meandering as Palimpest, eschewing chronology for thematic reminiscence. While just as acerbic and gossipy as its predecessor, Point to Point Navigation is more pointed and elegiac. Despite the perception of his critics as remorseless self-promoter and mischievous-but-aimless provocateur, Vidal comes across here as a rounded, cogent individual, tempering remorse for his partner and for time gone by with his critical faculties alone. As would be appropriate for someone who has chronicled so much of America history either through his fiction or political commentary, Vidal strikes you as a true patriot aghast at the liberties being taken against Liberty by the current US Administration.

All memoirs are self-serving, so it comes as no surprise, although a disappointment, that Vidal does not address some of the more recent and controversial causes that he has been involved with, such the correspondence he struck up with Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh or his more choice comments on 9/11. Also, a sour note is stuck by the repeated pilloring of his biographer, Fred Kaplan, whose inaccuracies seem relatively trivial and of more interest to Vidal than the reader of this memoir. These faults do not detract from Vidal the man or this entertaining, revealing book that is essential reading for those interested in Vidal’s work or the higher echelons of the American establishment in the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir is published in hardback in the UK by Little Brown, priced £17.99.

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In Praise of Battlestar Galactica

Jan. 10th, 2007 | 11:26 am

All images in this review are copyrighted material belonging to the Sci-Fi Channel (US) and Sky One, and are reproduced here for strictly non-profit making and critical purposes, and can be removed on request. There are also some minor spoilers in this article.

No, no, no… come back. You don’t understand. You really don’t. We are not talking about robot dogs. We are not talking about some lazy Star Wars rip off with Face from The A-Team. We are not even talking about the usual formulaic and hackneyed episodic America TV Sci-Fi this reviewer has spent too many wasted hours slumped in front of.

No… we are talking about the new Battlestar Galactica, a TV drama that can hold its own against any prestige production HBO or the BBC can produce. At its best, the new Galactica is the perfect marriage of human drama, social commentary, political allegory, taut action, blockbuster production values and soap opera. At its best, it is perfect and, so far, it has seldom been off-form.

Trailer for the original 2003 mini-series of Battlestar Galactica.

For those who are not familiar with either series, the plot effectively takes its cue from the Book of Exodus – a persecuted people are in flight from an oppressive military force, looking for sanctuary in a fabled holy land. The original series used this premise in quite a simple fashion, a fusing of late 70s trends – Buck Rogers, disco and Star Wars, so much so that George Lucas threatened legal action (Gloria Gaynor’s response is not recorded). It looked increasingly cheap as the series went on, it was cheery, and is best viewed as a ten year old after Grandstand on Saturday with the weekly treat of Fish and Chips.

Given that the first episode of the new series culminated in a suicide bomb attack in a scenario that was meant to clearly evoke the current situation in Iraq, it is safe to say that BBC 1’s prime time schedules will not be bothered by this latest, and best, in 70s nostalgia driven resurrections. Obviously, this could lead the show to accusations of sensationalism or pretentiousness, but such is the calibre of the script and the performances, the show carries off its narrative with conviction and without embarrassment (unlike so many of its Sci Fi compatriots).

The cast of the new Battlestar Galactica

Galactica succeeds in having a well developed set of characters to draw on, and is not afraid to wrong foot the audience, with major characters being offed if the plot requires it, without hesitation or concern for fickle audience recognition of characters. Meanwhile, characters glimpsed in the background occasionally come to the forefront, becoming major players in their own right. Galactica is truly an organic show – it grows according to the needs of the narrative or the whims of the scriptwriters, not according to actors' salaries or egos.

But what a cast… Edward James Olmas plays Admiral Adama, the most senior military figure left after the humans' planet is wiped out in a brilliantly realised nuclear apocalypse in the revival’s original mini-series (first shown in 2003). Possessing a pock-marked Easter Island face and the voice of Clint Eastwood, Olmas makes Adama a more fully-rounded character than the usual ‘military=fascist’ caricature that these programmes normally resort to. Adama has to lead the last vestiges of humanity in Dunkirk fashion towards a fabled planet called Earth. The fleet is an ill-sorted, ill-equiped mish-mash of ships, protected solely by the eponymous Battlestar Galactica, and Olmas is superb in conveying the tensions and dilemmas he faces by masterful command of minimalist gesture or a subtle emphasis on a line. Traditionally, sci-fi tends to resort to a clichéd grandstanding speech to signpost the plot or the allegory to a bovine audience a la Captain Kirk.

Olmas: Easter Island face, Clint Eastwood voice

Off-setting the solid-yet-conflicted authority of Adama, a whole host of characters revolve, putting different pressures and perceptions on humanity’s plight. We have Colonel Tigh, the flakey, alcoholic bosom buddy of Adama, played to fatally flawed perfection by Iain Duncan Smith look-a-likey Michael Hogan. Once the fleet is off and out of immediate danger, humanity demands democracy, and there is soon an elected president, former school teacher Laura Roslin, played by Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell. Roslin is effectively Nancy Pelosi before Nancy Pelosi, so liberal she makes Gore Vidal look like Peter Hitchens. This leads, somewhat inevitably, to tension between Adama and her, which forms the crux of the first two seasons (although Galactica wrong foots the audience as Roslin goes Billy Graham, causing all kinds of havoc and quandaries for the fleet).

Away from the higher elchelons, we have the military grunts; Apollo, the idealistic son of Adama; Starbuck (a woman in the new series) who’s the rebel of the series with baggage and attitude to boot; the compromised Chief Tyrol, who is the moral conscious of the fleet while also (in some ways) its Achilles' Heel.

So who are they running away from? Well, viewers of the original series will remember the iconic Cylons, who looked like the bastard lovechildren of Darth Vader and the car from Knight Rider. Well, they are still present and correct, but given an aerodynamic make over. To add to the series’ underlying feeling of threat, paranoia and persecution, some Cylons now also look like, and are virtually indistinguishable from, humans. Giving a Mephistophelian backdrop to the humans plight, is the stunning ‘Number 6’, played with coquettish sophistication by former model Tricia Helfer. She’s the malign Harvey in the life of dodgy scientist, Gaius Baltar, who is inadvertently responsible for leaking the defence secrets that resulted in the holocaust, which happens at the start of the series. Baltar is played by Brit actor James Callis, whose portrayal gets increasingly reminiscent of Tony Blair at his most oleaginous as he rises up the ladder in the new post-genocide order. The series toys with the idea that Baltar may be in fact mad, and that Number Six exists only in his head, a guilt driven psychological manifestation, which is played out in some genuinely funny and witty scenes, that offsets the general unrelenting seriousness of the show while still advancing the ongoing story.

Callis as the Blair-esque Baltar along with the Mephistophelian 6

Galactica has the good grace to credit its audience with a modicum of intelligence… the writers know we have seen this kind of thing before, and is also aware of all the other prime time quality dramas that captivate an audience, and they rightly take the line that just because you’re writing in a science fiction medium does not necessitate a slacking off of standards or an automatic contempt for the audience (which was the natural default position for the makers of the various Star Trek shows for the last five years of that franchise, as it slowly ground to an inglorious halt).

And it's not all Ingmar Bergman on the USS Enterprise. The action sequences are physical and gritty in the style of the Jason Bourne flims and 24, while space battles are wonderfully rendered, with mock ‘handycam’ direction, as if Tarantino were directing the last 20 minutes of The Return of the Jedi. This show really does have it all.

If one were to level a criticism at the show, it would be that it only fully rewards the loyal viewer. It’s a serial not a series, and to truly enjoy it you have to watch it right through. The quality is sufficiently high to immediately arrest the casual viewers, and the editing deftly weaves in past backstories and flashbacks to signpost some of the more obscure narrative for the less committed, but ultimately it is not enough to get the most out of this beautifully crafted programme. If you want to really enjoy the show, start at the beginning: the 2003 miniseries (which can be picked up on DVD for £5 at most HMVs and Virgin Megastores these days).

Trailer for Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica - minor spoilers.

The third season of the show has only just started broadcasting in the UK at 9pm on Tuesday evenings on Sky One. The first two episodes show no sign of the series losing its edge, its guts or its way, but reports from the US indicate that the series gets increasingly grim and bleak as it goes on, losing some of the aforementioned humour. This is a real shame and a risk if true, as any programme that takes itself relentlessly seriously runs the risk of ridicule – let’s hope that the show can, like its protagonists, hold onto its humanity as it truly boldy goes where no science fiction series has gone before.

Official sites:
Sky One's Official Battlestar Galactica microsite.
Sci- Fi Channel's (US) Battlestar Galactica page.

Unofficial sites:
Battlestar Wiki

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Doctor Who - The Runaway Bride (Christmas Special), BBC1, 25 December 2006

Dec. 31st, 2006 | 10:04 am

All images in this review are copyrighted material belonging to the BBC, and are reproduced here for critical and non-profit making purposes, and can be removed on request.

The Doctor and The Bride

It’s amazing how complacent and conservative people can quickly become, especially your radical creative types. When Doctor Who was brought back by the BBC in 2005, it was entrusted to TV tyro Russell T Davies, who, publicly at least, was more renowned for dramatising premature ejaculation than premeditated extermination.

And although the new Who was sexed up, it remained within the norms of pre-watershed television, but with a new found emotional core that was deeply submerged if not completely repressed in the original series. It was, on the whole, disciplined, well-scripted, with a committed central performance from Christopher Eccleston as a war-weary, if not damaged, refugee seeking humane meaning and order in a chaotic, vicious universe. Episodes such as Dalek, Boom Town and Parting of the Ways reimagined Doctor Who for a modern audience, while staying true to the fundamentals of the series’ basis and a gentle, but not overbearing, affection for 30 odd years of continuity that preceded the revival.

New Doctor Who was a complete and unmitigated success, reaching levels of popularity unimagined by the old series even at its early 60s and later 70s peaks. On occasion it even overshadowed the cornerstone of all BBC1 programming, Eastenders. But when is huge commercial success ever artistically liberating? Maybe for the successful, garroulous author, who is happy to chuck commercial reward on a bonfire for gauche literary immortality (which is never assured). But for a television series, that has a production crew of hundreds and is expected to remain a popular draw for a Broadcasting Corporation that is always trying to justify its existence to a hostile government? Never.

The Runaway Bride is a case in point. Within two years of its miraculous rehabilitation from having been a national cultural laughing stock, Doctor Who is solidifying once more into a mild formulaic embarrassment, transforming from a subtle, subversive family drama (that no other mainstream broadcaster in the world would make) into a rehash of former glories, laden with clichéd Hollywood tropes delivered with a leaden predictability.

For this reviewer, the true litmus test for a Doctor Who episode is whether one can watch it in polite company (those who remain resolutely neutral to the show), and The Runaway Bride fails miserably in this regard. Having convinced a family member that there is nothing wrong with his 30 year old son following such a series by showing him some of the highlights of the previous two years (including last year’s Christmas special and the aforementioned Dalek), this reviewer experienced a sudden rush of blood to the cheeks several times during the episode’s exceedingly long 60 minutes.

So what was precisely wrong? Well…
  • It was a complete rehash of the previous year’s Christmas special, hitting the same narrative beats to the same pace and to the same resolution, but with less originality and genuine flair. Last year's special was stylish and self-assured, where as 2006's Christmas episode was neurotic and narratively timid.

  • Doctor Who, like all good science fiction, works best when it is layered – you can enjoy it on many levels. The Runaway Bride was monothematic and mono-toned, a madcap childish mishmash of loud, brash, confusing CGI strung together by tenuous plotting with the odd attempt to inject a sense of poignancy about a character who left in the previous series, and who would be a total mystery to any potential new viewer.

  • It was not really self-contained. Any TV series should be accessible in terms of plot and dialogue in a self-contained episode. Plot arcs can be built and continued, characters can evolve and be developed, but at its heart an episode should be able to explain to the new viewer what is going on and be thematically interesting in itself. Did we care about any of the characters? No. Were we engaged with their plight? No. Was there any genuine tension? No. Was there any point to the whole proceedings apart from simplistic thrills and bangs? No.

  • The episode was too in love with its own special effects. Having spent three decades trying to portray the vast expanses of all time and space with a ball of string, some bubblewrap and a quarry, the BBC are overjoyed with the possibilities of affordable CGI. However, accomplished as they are (and they are not always good as the production team think they are), the need for spectacle is beginning to dictate plot in precisely the same way the constraints in effects limited the original series. Just because you can replicate a car chase from The Matrix Reloaded doesn’t mean that you have to do so, especially when it is ineptly crowbared into the plot. Dramatic tension combined with sympathetic, stylish production values retain audiences far more effectively and affectionately than a Primark version of a Jerry Bruckheimer film.

    Nice effects, but where's the script?

  • Fan wankery. It preached to the converted. Russell T Davies and his team of writers are fans of the original series in rather a big way, having written numerous spin off novels between them during the 1990s when the series was off air and unloved. When the series returned, one got a sense that they were maintaining a tremendous self-discipline to keep the show to the basics, and not literally turn off new viewers with a convoluted continuity that only appeals to those who get an Asperger’s-esque thrill from obscure and ultimately meaningless references to what has gone on before.

    There were nods in the first season that were painful, but the whole enterprise was trying to put the “Who?” back into Doctor Who. In The Runaway Bride (and in the last full series of the show) the mask slipped, and pointless namechecking of the Doctor’s planet Gallifrey and the rather tedious cross-platform promoting of the spin off show Torchwood meant that the programme was solely talking to the converted, playing off old riffs, like a jaded 60s rockstar touring soulless stadiums with no new material of worth.

  • THE MUSIC WAS TOO LOUD. The BBC Symphony Orchestra of Wales now records the soundtrack for each episode, and one imagines that this is not cheap. This does not mean that they have to be playing the entire time, crudely signposting what the audience is meant to be feeling at every single moment, like Steven Spielberg/ John Williams collaborations at their worst. The sound mix was all wrong, drowning out the admittedly witty dialogue (from what I could hear of it) and smothering any attempt at subtlety. Murray Gold, the composer, is capable of writing and arranging some lovely scores (last series’ Doomsday being a case at point), but he, like the production team are trying too hard to mimic the worst of Hollywood blockbusters rather than retaining the series’ own quirky charm, which they have done so well on the whole over the last two years.

  • The villain was a rather naff giant spider played with camp, panto relish that recalled the series' late 1980s nadir. One supposes, given that young children could be watching the show, that the makers had to allieviate the horrific elements of such a character, but every time the character was on screen a certain sense of shame washed over me as if I really was too old to be watching such nonsense – the villain offered no interest to the adult viewer, whereas, when the show is at its best, the makers can develop the threat so it works on different levels for different age groups. Instead, we got OTT acting thrown together with a somewhat confusing and nonsensical motive and plot (which will not get taken apart here).

Catherine Tate - saving the show as well as the day

In its defence, the thing I was most dreading turned out to be the episode’s saving grace: Catherine Tate. Although not particularly familiar with her own comedy sketch show, this reviewer initially thought that the casting was a touch too populist and odd as the temporary replacement companion to the surprisingly good Billie Piper. However, Tate played the role well, injecting comedy touches at the right places while not making her character a caricature. If anything kept me watching, it was Donna’s (Tate’s character) plight and reaction to this new universe but this element (which surely was intended as a way in for new viewers) was drowned out by the overblown production and set pieces.

David Tennant turned in his usual performance as the Doctor, which is animated but ultimately bland, although there were one or two moments that allowed him to shine. Rumours are that Robert Carlyle will be taking over in the role in 2008, and this may inject some new life into the show if the forthcoming Season 3 (to be shown in March 2007) turns out to be as much as a turkey as this year’s Christmas special.

Formerly Christopher Eccleston, soon to be Robert Carlyle?

Although important, it is never just the actor in the role that defines Doctor Who – it’s the intention of the production team. This review could be seen as over critical, but it is so because the intelligent audience is aware that the current producers and writers are capable of so much more, and this Christmas they were caught going through some overly simplistic motions. Let’s hope they can raise their game with the new series in March, as otherwise 25th December 2007 will be one doctor’s appointment I wont be keeping.

Past Peter Crispin Doctor Who Reviews:
Doctor Who - New Earth

Official Site:
Doctor Who (BBC Site)

Unofficial Fan Site:
Outpost Gallifrey

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Rent - Pet Shop Boys

Dec. 14th, 2006 | 04:47 pm

The third single from the 1987 Pet Shop Boys album Actually and with a dark, cynical and typically opulent video from Derek Jarman (who always, in fact, shot on a shoe string), Rent stood out from the 80s Stock Aitken & Waterman Hi-Nrg pop that dominated the pop music charts at the time.

While U2 were busy being profound by hanging around deserts, the Pet Shop Boys actually got on with commentating on what was going on in most Western societies, namely the commercialisation of relationships and personal values, all the while doing so in an entertaining and accessible manner.

Official websites:
Pet Shop Boys
Derek Jarman

Relevant Wikipedia links:
Profile of the Pet Shop Boys
Profile of Derek Jarman
Information on the Pet Shop Boys' album Actually

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Saving Private Lion (The Adam & Joe Show)

Dec. 2nd, 2006 | 06:00 pm

From the brilliant yet defunct The Adam & Joe Show, which was first shown on Channel 4.

Official websites:
The Adam & Joe Show
Adam Buxton

Relevant Wikipedia links:
Information on The Adam & Joe Show

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Jacky - Marc Almond

Dec. 1st, 2006 | 06:00 pm

A superb rendition of an old Jacques Brel song, which Almond originally recorded for his Tenement Symphony album.

The OTT arrangement was by Trevor Horn, who was, arguably, solely responsible for Frankie Goes To Hollywoood's success, and then later on when to sprinkle his fairy dust over Grace Jones and the Pet Shop Boys.

Jacky - Marc Almond

Official websites:
Marc Almond
Trevor Horn

Relevant Wikipedia links:
Profile of Marc Almond
Profile of Jacques Brel
Profile of Trevor Horn

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Bob Geldof's Concert for the Cure for Death (Time Trumpet)

Nov. 30th, 2006 | 06:00 pm

Another brilliant clip from Time Trumpet. This sketch says all there is to say about Live 8.

As befits a satire on Geldof, this clip has lots of swearing so it is not necessarily office friendly.

Official site:

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