Scorsese, Robertson, and the Music of Shutter Island

Teddy Daniels

Mahlerman returns with a post celebrating the exceptional soundtrack to the film Shutter Island, one of many successful collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson…

The time was Thanksgiving, 1976. The place was the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and the last performance of the Canadian-American rock group The Band. It marked the start of an almost 40 year friendship between the guitarist Robbie Robertson, and the Italian-American film director Martin Scorsese.

The first fruit of that union came in 1978 with the release of perhaps the classic rock movie, a record of that memorable final concert that became The Last Waltz. But it wasn’t the last waltz for Robbie, who went on to create, produce or ‘supervise’ on a number of Marty’s films – most recently the insanely over-the-top, The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that, at three hours, didn’t seem overlong. But it was back in 2010 that the director started flexing his auteur muscles with the two hours twenty minutes of Shutter Island, a spooky thriller that I didn’t fully understand, but found myself enjoying for the unusual (for Scorsese) soundtrack, which moved from dark, to black-as-a-coal-hole-on-a-November-night.

I’m guessing, but after a long friendship, and no little success, the director must have trusted Robertson enough to allow him the freedom to find existing non-diegetic music that would not ‘describe a scene’, but would add emotional texture, and create (as it did for me) a sort of parallel universe of sound.

As the film begins we hear the ominous Gothic sprawl of Fog Tropes, for brass sextet and tape, by the post-minimalist American ‘expressivist’ Ingram Marshall. As with a lot of ‘music’ of this kind, it started life in one form, and gradually transmogrified into something more complex – in this case, from a set of field recordings of fog-horns around San Francisco Bay, made in 1979 for performance artist Grace Ferguson, it was manipulated and expanded, with added brass, into a dense neo-symphonic structure that works wonderfully well as a bleak, modern, stand-alone tone-poem, of the kind that Richard Strauss might have composed had he lived to 150 years.

A little later in the film, as the main protagonist Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck first see the forbidding island, we are treated to the striking Passacaglia movement from the Symphony No 3 by one of the giants of 20th Century music, the Pole, Krzysztof Penderecki. Written in ‘arch’ form, the composer immediately sets the tone of the piece with a repeated ostinato in the low strings, and the movement builds to a shattering climax, before subsiding into quietude. The painting, as densely packed as the music, is Painting, 1948 by the Dutch master Willem de Kooning.

Can you remember the last piece you heard by Morton Feldman? Well no, neither can I – but I have sought out the music of this Russian-Jewish New Yorker and have concluded that he should be numbered among the greatest composers of the 20th Century – but he is not. I will not attempt to describe the unique style(s) of his various periods of composition – more able writers than I have tried, and failed – but I will say that his acceptance into the mainstream has been hampered by one simple fact: his music needs to be not heard, but ‘listened to’ with rapt concentration. And who, today, concentrates on anything for longer than 9 seconds? Who is prepared (and you would need to prepare) to invest the six hours needed to perform Feldman’s String Quartet No 2 (1983)? Whatever is the polar opposite of lift-muzak, it is probably written by Feldman.

In his early years, Feldman was very much a part of the turbulent artistic scene in New York, and became close to Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and many others – and a visit to the non-denominational Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas inspired one of Feldman’s best known (and most approachable) pieces. The fourteen paintings by Mark Rothko contained in the building are site-specific, and were completed shortly before his depression-induced suicide in 1970.

Scored for, unusually, viola, celeste, percussion and choir, Robertson chose a section of the second part for the movie.

Finally, as Leonardo diCaprio stalks through Block C of the psychiatric hospital, a large orchestra depicting the opening and closing of ‘a window on long submerged dreams of childhood’ (Ligeti) intones ominously. The tone painting Lontano (1967) by the Transylvanian Gyorgy Ligeti, another neglected 20th Century giant, is again working its magic realism, as it had many years ago for Stanley Kubrick in The Shining. A marvellous union of diatonic melody, and dense, slowly shifting microtonal harmonies, this work, after many years of ‘experimentation’ (Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes, 1962) in a sense ‘made’ Ligeti into a world renowned figure.

Dabbler Diary – The Fourth Wall

I’m afraid I’ve never been able to take Wales seriously. My troubles begin, shallowly, with the bilingual road signs, which are funny if the Welsh is very different from the English (Please drive carefully – Gryywch yn ofalus) and even funnier if it is similar (Millennium Stadium – Stadiwm y Mileniwm). I can never quite shake the sense that upon crossing the Severn Bridge I am entering a sort of parody-England, a schoolboy’s piss-take of England. You think England is small? Well check out Wales’s even smallerness! You think England has a lot of rain and sheep, look at this lot! You’ve got London as a cultural and political capital, here’s Cardiff! It has an Assembly! We’ve still got a Labour government, only they’re not even New Labour – they rejected the idea of Academies and now our education is the worst in the UK! Our M4 around Newport is a mickey-take of your English motorway hell. We will charge you £6.40 to use it.

I don’t deny the egregiousness of this English superiority complex. It’s the same attitude that Londoners have to the rest of England, and that Americans have to the rest of the world. We’re the real deal, you’re toy-town.  You’re quaint. And the awful thing is that despite my best efforts I fear I don’t quite manage to hide it when amongst the Welsh. No wonder they detest us. None of which alters the fact that your Welshman really is a weird creature. The rain has shaped him, the rain and the soggy mountains. The ceaseless drizzle has rounded his shoulders and blotched his cheeks and flattened his black hair into a slick and made a pessimistic moustache sprout like a moss beneath his nose.  He is burdened by hereditary glumness. When he thinks of his lot he mumbles gloomy magical curses and dreams of burrowing underground with the trolls and dwarfs – his kinsmen – safe and far from the bleuddy inn-glish and their sharp edges.

Such a man was David Owen, who from his window watched me as I footled around in my grey English suit and brown leather English briefcase trying to find the secret door to his office in Cowbridge. “Who is this English c***?’ he doubtless said to himself, echoing Kingsley Amis on Tony Benn. When at last we shook hands and spoke he found himself caught between suspicion and an instinctive desire to ingratiate. Barely in control of himself he lurched from awkward bonhomie to clumsy bumptiousness. He saw right through my half-arsed efforts to hide my superiority complex. My praise for the picturesqueness of Cowbridge (did I accidentally say ‘Cowdenbeath’?) he dismissed as blatantly insincere. My voice became ever more shrill, brittle, cut-glass, English. Was that in my imagination or his? Glowering, framed in the dimness of his window, he watched again as the Englishman left and he muttered his bitter magic spells.

I was relieved to cross back over the bridge to a land less blighted by resentment. It is only the men of Wales; I say nothing ill of Welsh women, who are the nicest in the world.


Mrs B took the girls up north for a couple of days; my task in their absence was to paint the upstairs landing and stairwell white. That sounds simple enough. I resolved to get it all done before the Grand National at 4.15pm. For the highest corners I had taped a brush onto a mop handle, and had dug out a rusty old extra-long roller from the garage. The first three walls went well. At about 3.25pm the head of the long roller detached itself from its moorings while I was swishing it extravagantly betwixt the fourth wall and ceiling. Down it plummeted, one bounce on the sheet I’d laid to protect the middle stairs, then one two three splodgy caresses to the uncovered carpet of the lower stairs. Climbing down from my precarious position on the bannister to swear, I stepped backwards onto the upturned paint pot lid, then hopped across the landing, spreading painty footprints across more acres of unprotected floor. Tired of this private Mr Bean episode, I forced the lid back on its pot, whereupon it spat further gobs of paint onto what was left of the unpainted carpet. Before I went to Homebase to buy some WD-40 (remarkably effective for removing paint stains), I watched the National. One of my horses refused to start, the other three fell before the halfway mark. Turning off the telly, I thought of David Owen and his black magic curses, and I felt a chill in my English bones.


The house being empty, after work on Monday I decided that rather than going straight home I would pop into the Vue cinema and catch one of the last showings of The Grand Budapest Hotel. When I bought my ticket the youth asked me if I wanted to sit at the back, in the middle, or at the front. “The middle”, I said. Nobody checked my ticket so I walked straight in to screen 3. And do you know, I was the only person in the theatre. I sat and watched the adverts alone, then the trailer, then the movie, and nobody else at all came. I’ll be frank: it was a little bit spooky. I kept having to check the dark corners for humanoid movement. The adverts also took on a strangely personal quality; I got most indignant when a cure for premature ejaculation was touted. Solipsistic questions troubled me. If I hadn’t turned up, would they have shown the film to an empty theatre? If so, would it have been the same film? Indeed, watching alone, was it even true to say that I’d even really seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, or was that as meaningless as Wittgenstein’s private language? But then the film started and it was so brilliant and funny that I stopped worrying about such nonsense, and settled back into the Luxury Seat which I had rebelliously commandeered and had one of the best nights at the cinema of my life.


We’re currently enjoying the second season of House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as a villainous Democrat politician loosely based on the original Francis Urquhart. The first episode, brilliantly, refrained from using one of Spacey’s direct to-camera monologues until the very last scene, so that we’d forgotten he did it. The effect of his sudden address to the viewer was almost as shocking and pleasing a busting of the ‘fourth wall’ as Vladimir Nabakov’s “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings”, which Frank Key has praised as ‘the greatest sentence ever written’.

The only negative of House of Cards is that it plays to the prejudices of conspiracy theorists who think that a cabal of corrupt politicians and oligarchs control every jot and tittle of human existence the world over. But that’s America for you. The original Ian Richardson villain seems a bit provincial by comparison, a tale of village life in the village of Westminster.


When people talk of the ‘Westminster Bubble’ they generally have in mind the obsessive bickerings of career politicians over arcane Parliamentary matters of no import to the British public. But really, if there is a Bubble it consists of the kind of people who talk about Westminster Bubbles, which is to say, professional political pundits. Two such Bubble-blowers – Danny Finkelstein and John McTernan – appeared on Newsnight following the televised Farage v Clegg debate about the European Union. Finkelstein and McTernan were attempting to explain why Farage had so trounced Clegg in public opinion polls, with over two-thirds of viewers declaring him the winner.

I watched their analysis with mounting disbelief, and by the end I had a powerful urge to don Guevara bandana and head to London to throw crude explosive devices not at Parliament but at Fleet Street (or whatever remains of it). Because amongst all their theories (Farage exudes a sort of bluff ‘common-sense’ which plays well on television; Clegg can’t play the ‘trust-me card’ following the tuition fees U-turn; Clegg can’t play the ‘outsider-card’ he used to such good effect in the pre-election leader debates now that he’s Deputy Prime Minister; Clegg used too many scripted jokes etc), not once did either pundit countenance a theory which Occam’s Razor would surely suggest deserves at least a mention.

Which is that, whatever people think of Clegg or Farage personally, when the latter makes such arguments as that the European Union is a undemocratic superstate which has enlarged itself by stealth without reference to the public and which nobody feels they can hold accountable, or that the EU enforces too many laws on us, or that EU immigration rules mean that we have no real control over how many people enter the country, or that large numbers of immigrating low-paid workers may bring benefits but they also depress the wages of the indigenous working class and put pressure on local public services, or that subsidised windfarms benefit wealthy landowners at the expense of the poor, lots of people agree with him.


In the farm shop the farmer, John, had rigged up an antiquated record player. While his wife was selling me a sausage roll he put on an LP.  Dancing Queen by ABBA blasted out, and he instantly began leaping around with an absurd goon’s grin on his face. His wife shook her head in mock despair. “What do you think of THAT?” he demanded, pointing. I peered at the record player. It seemed to date from about 1742 and be carved from fine old English oak. “Is that an original machine or some sort of clever replica?” I asked. “It’s an ORIGINAL!” John bellowed in triumph. “Still sounds pretty good,” I said. “It’s still GROOVY!” he shouted. Laughing shrilly, brittly, Englishly, genuinely, I waved goodbye and marched into the heartwarming Spring sunshine a-munching on my sausage roll, and the daffodils were all out in clumps of gold, and the birds were shrieking with laughter and the sky was striped white and blue and all was well in England as I descended the hill towards my office. The barman is looking at me as if he’s wondering if I’m ever going to stop typing on my laptop and finish this pint.


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Dabbler Diary is taking a short holiday and will return in early May. Happy Easter all!

Dão – The Wine That Came In From the Cold

spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold-bloom-burton2Henry relects on Dão, the ‘totalitarian wine’ of Salazar’s Portugal…

I remember being chilled by John Le Carré’s The Spy who Came in From the Coldin my early 20s (recently graduated and relieved to no longer have to read another tortuous sentence by Judith Butler, it started me on a Le Carré binge which was finally brought to a halt with the disappointing Absolute Friends.) It wasn’t until much later that I saw the Richard Burton film, and a particular scene caught my eye. It’s the one where Burton’s character Leamus has been invited for supper by a colleague at the library where he works called Nan Perry played by Claire Bloom. She’s a very forward (I imagine for the time) and naïve communist. She barely knows him and yet she invites him back to her flat. Leftie floozy! I say ‘flat'; it’s actually more of a bedsit and gives you some insight into the cramped and pinched lives that would have been the norm for lower-middle class Londoners. The film was made in 1965 but it has the feel of a Patrick Hamilton novel.

A ray of Southern warmth is provided by a bottle of wine that she unveils with a little ceremony:

Dinner will be served at eight with a Portuguese wine spelled D-A-O with a twiddlle over the ‘A’ and pronounced ‘dang. . . I made Hungarian goulash I thought it would be tactful to serve a communist food with totalitarian wine.

It’s probably a little inaccurate to describe the authoritarian conservative regime of António de Oliveira Salazar who ruled Portugal from 1932 until his death in 1968 as totalitarian. Certainly he had nothing on the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe that Perry idealised. He owed his remarkable longevity to being on our side in the Cold War (not unlike the ex-Nazi working for the British secret service in the film.) Salazar was the son of a small farmer from the Dão region in Northern Portugal so would have known the wine intimately. He instituted a system in his home region where by law all grapes had to be sold to co-operatives to make the wine. There would be no private Dão wines. Hungary would have had a similar system as did many other wine regions in authoritarian hands.

This odd system continued under the socialists who seized power after Salazar’s death and only ended when Portugal wanted to join the EEC. I’ve never tried any of these co-op wines but I do remember you used to be able to pick up old Dão wines for not much money in the late 90s. Supermarkets often stocked a Dão garrafeira (similar to a Spanish reserva) for about £4.50. I remember them pale red with age, oaky and mellow, with a very lively acidity. Received opinion on such wines was that they were often oxidised and wasted the potential of this region but I spoke with Charles Metcalfe at an event and he mentioned trying a supermarket Dão from 80s recently and was amazed how it aged. He went on to say that many Dãos from the Salazar period were still going strong.

I don’t think you can buy old-school Dão anymore. All the co-ops are in private hands and no one wants pale reds without forward fruit. Or rather the Portuguese think that they don’t, there has been a resurgence in interest for such wines from their Iberian cousins. Charles did give us one Dão that had some of the old magic. It’s from Julia Kemper, the  producer who made the oaky white I liked recently. The red couldn’t have been more different having very little or perhaps no oak. Much darker and more concentrated than a Dão of old,  it had a fragrance and poise that reminded me a little of Chinon and a bit of Burgundy. Sadly I had a bit of a cold so couldn’t fully appreciate it. I’d love to try it again and also see how it ages. Corking Wines have it for £17.55 a bottle. Hardly the bargain of old but well worth the money.

When I watched the Le Carré film, I giggled a bit at her pronunciation of Dão. I’ve always pronounced it to rhyme with cow. Well turns out the idealistic Communist was not far off, it’s “downg” pronounced in a nasal fashion. So now you know.

Henry Jeffreys writes a weekly column about wine for The Lady magazine and blogs at

Dabbler Diary – Flying Low

‘One adult for The Hobbit in 3D, please,” I said, thus setting the bar pretty high for the Saddest Thing Uttered in 2014 contest. It can’t be helped: a residue of youthful Tolkein geekdom means that a part of me will always yearn for the world of dragons and pointy-eared arrow flingers.

What a weird piece of work Peter Jackson’s Hobbit is turning out to be. He has Tolkein’s mix of the cosy (inns, pipes, sing-songs by the fire) and the horrific, but, just occasionally, while gaping slack-jawed at the unfolding panoramic orc holocaust, one wonders why the horrific has to be quite so horrific. Especially in 3D: slobbering, snarling goblin-heads bulge forth, only to be swiftly lopped from their shoulders by a dwarvish axe. Split splat splot go the orcs as the goodies lay into them, severed arms and legs flying in all directions as we hurtle down a river in one stupendously daft sequence in the middle of the film. The slaughter is more or less continual, and quite why such fare qualifies as a ‘family’ film rather than an X-rated horror I’m not entirely sure (although the same could be said of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, one of the most revoltingly violent movies ever made).

The concluding scenes with Bilbo nattering away to the dragon (much as the same two actors converse as Holmes and Watson) were very pleasing, but it occurred to me as I left the Vue that The Hobbit was the movie equivalent of Nando’s: enjoyable upmarket junk with a lovingly detailed but contrived ‘authenticity’. Mind you, that analogy probably occurred to me because Nando’s is exactly where I went next, for an early tea. And like the cinema, you can just about get away with going there by yourself. ‘Table for one, please!’


With a bop and a bip and a bip and a bop, a wardrobe with three little owls on the top.

So begins Three Little Owls by Emanuele Luzatti, a current favourite book of E, and I’m sure you’ll agree that as an opening line it knocks ‘Call me Ishmael’ into a cocked hat.


My fellow editor Gaw sends me this article about Schopenhauer’s views on writing for money. The commentary rightly critiques the Buzzfeed traffic-grabbing style of so much web guff, but it is also interesting to read Schopenhauer’s thoughts in the light of the Nick ‘I only write for money’ Cohen ding-dong of the last Dabbler Diary:

There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating…

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing…. It seems as if money lay under a curse, for every author deteriorates directly [whenever] he writes in any way for the sake of money. The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

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‘I’m bringing sexy back, yeah!’ boasted Justin Timberlake in his hit song Sexyback, this inevitably popping into my head when into The Dabbler’s Twitter timeline popped a picture of 1950s pin-up Vikki ‘The Back’ Dougan, famed for… well, her sexy back. Google yields a host of shots of her showing it off. Such saucy people, those mid-twentieth century Americans, yet so discerning. Not for them the limited bodypart preoccupations of today: in those days a man could feast his eyes on such a person as Ms Dougan – apparently the model for Jessica Rabbit –  and pick out the specific erotic appeal of her back. ‘I’ve always been a spine man,’ one lounge lizard might drawl to his buddy, as Vicky makes her showstopping entrance into the nightclub, backwards. ‘Guess I’m more of a kneecap kinda guy,’ comes the cool reply. These are real men, Everything Men, know how to appreciate the female form in all its aspects. ‘Show us yer shoulderblades!’ some rube might yell from near the cloakroom, before being rightly given the bum’s rush by Italianate bouncers.

A culturo-historical study of sexy backs, encompassing The Rokeby Venus, Ary Scheffer’s Francesca da Rimini, Degas’ After the Bath, and of course Vikki Dougan, surely waits to be written. The Erotic Review would lap it up.


San Miguel de Gove has been lately vindicated on academies (you probably missed that, the BBC whispered it here), but now finds himself roundly traduced for criticizing the ‘Blackadder’ version of World War I as universally taught in British schools. They even wheeled out Baldrick to have a pop. Gove is hated for being the boy who points out that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Also for his specs and for his weird mouth which when he’s talking or even listening seems to alternate between S- and O-shapes, as if he is send coded distress signals. Yet I examine my own education and find that Gove’s aim is once again alarmingly accurate. Everything I was taught at school about the Great War came from the War Poets and, yes, we were indeed shown episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth in class. First rate poets, excellent sitcom, of course, but it was never hinted that there was more to the story than a bunch of upper class General Melchett-types callously sending ignorant men to their slaughter for no good cause. It would be tempting to conclude that we live in a sort of reverse North Korea, where British history is rewritten to show how beastly we are, but World War II education is much more positive (one came out of school with the general impression that we decided to fight Hitler in order to liberate Auschwitz, which, of course, we didn’t).


On Thursdays C has started an after-school club called ‘Fun and Famous Art’. I gather the general idea is that as well as painting their own pictures they will learn about famous artworks. So when C came home with her drawing of Mickey Mouse I was a little underwhelmed but thought, oh well, they’re breaking them in gently. ‘So did you learn who it was that drew Mickey Mouse?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ said C. ‘Was he called Walt Disney?’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes, yes he was. Walt Disney…’

‘No, Daddy,’ said C kindly, ‘he was called Andy Warhol.’


For virtually the whole of my life I have played football at least once a week, with the consequence that most of my muscle mass is in my calves. And the consequence of that is that the current trend for skinny-legged trousers is a personal disaster. It’s not just that the shops are full of skinny-legged trousers, it’s that they only stock skinny-legged trousers. When trying on a pair in the changing rooms I literally cannot pull them over my legs, even when the waist is plentiful. In fact, since waistlines are not generally shrinking but growing, I can only conclude that the sedentary 2014 lifestyle means that even as the British male’s stomach grows rounder his leg muscles are wasting away, and the country must be full of fatties tottering around on absurd narrow pins like so many Foghorn Leghorns.

Needing some new jeans, therefore, I decided to skip the tedium of trying new brands and go straight for something reliable and timeless, so I made a beeline for House of Fraser, grabbed a pair of Levi 501s and marched confidently to the changing room, where, a few minutes later, I could be found almost weeping with rage and frustration as the denim resolutely refused to squeeze past my shins. ‘Et tu, Levi?’ I cried, and, dressing furiously, did what I should have done in the first place, which was go to TK Maxx. Amongst the crowded rails of that glorified jumble sale I found some candidates, including, funnily enough, a pair of Levi 501s. And do you know, of all the ones I tried they were the only perfect fit? Not just that, but at £35 they were a full forty quid cheaper than House of Fraser’s skin-hugging imposters. Imagine my smugness as I queued to pay.

I wore the new jeans on Friday, and at lunchtime took a walk up the hill in them. It was a cold afternoon with a glum slate sky, although far across the fields a curtain of sunlight was draped over distant Somerset. Very comfy these jeans, I thought, right pleased, but at the top of the hill the wind picked up, and all of a sudden I felt an ominous chill down where it was least wanted. Reaching below, I felt the awful truth: the discount Levis were afflicted with a dodgy  descending zipper. The wind sighed in the trees. Nasty, twisted trees with trunks like tortured spines. All broken, deformed backs. Vikki Dougan is long dead and the worms have eaten their fill. One winter on this lane I came across a dead wolf, splayed and rotting in the sludge. Closer inspection revealed it to be in fact the greyed corpse of a deer, struck by some vehicle, churned up by scavengers, innards splattered about like orcflesh. Ashes and dust. Bloody TK Maxx. As I turned to go back down the hill the air was ripped open by the unspeakable howl of a warplane on exercises, which came straight over my head and down into the valley, heading for Somerset like Smaug bringing death to Laketown. Down, down, heading to blot out the last of the light, beating its wings, flying low.


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A Touch of Hollywood in Maryland

Rita celebrates an Art Deco gem in an unlikely location…

Where would you expect to find the venerable American Film Institute’s movie theater? There is one in Los Angeles of course, on the non-profit organization’s eight-acre campus in the Hollywood hills. You might expect their second theater to be in New York or perhaps Chicago. But Silver Spring, Maryland? Just another of the nondescript suburban communities that ring Washington D.C. Silver Spring at least boasts the serendipitous name that segues easily into the phrase “the silver screen.” One imagines AFI executives poring over a map looking for movie related place names, but it was actually something specific that drew them to this obscure town. Silver Spring had a hidden treasure just waiting to be discovered: an abandoned, dilapidated Art Deco movie theater, which would become the jewel in its crown.

I first knew Silver Spring when my husband began working there two decades ago. I sometimes drove to meet him after work, parking in an underground garage that looked as though it might collapse at any moment, and feeling very nervous walking the deserted streets alone. The only people out and about in the evenings seemed to be the muttering homeless. It was hard to imagine that this was once a vibrant, bustling downtown with popular stores, restaurants, and four movie theaters. Silver Spring had suffered the fate of many urban centers in the 1970’s and 80’s. People moved further out to the newer suburbs and began shopping at the new malls. Life was sucked out of the old downtowns and it didn’t look as though it could ever come back. But in the late 1990’s the trend was reversed and Silver Spring became a notable success story in urban redevelopment thanks to its flagship project, the restoration of the old Silver Theater by Montgomery County Government and the AFI.

Designed by noted movie palace architect John Eberson in the Art Deco style, the Silver Theater opened in 1938 and became a hub for the close knit Silver Spring community. It was saved from the wrecker’s ball in the 1980’s largely by the efforts of the Art Deco Society of Washington, which succeeded in having the building named to the National Register of Historic Places. But the theater continued to sit abandoned and further deteriorating from roof leaks until Montgomery County acquired the property in 1996 and formed a restoration partnership with the AFI. It required faith and vision to undertake the project for no trace of the theater’s former glamor could be seen in the water-damaged walls, collapsed seating, and debris strewn everywhere. But the Art Deco Society had preserved the architect’s original plans, so a meticulous, historically accurate restoration was possible, transforming the ugly duckling into a swan. In 2003 the historic building reopened as the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center.

I was lucky enough to attend the opening due to my husband’s involvement in the overall redevelopment project for Silver Spring. Walking into the restored theater was a gasp-inducing experience as the gorgeous Art Deco interior glowed with the rich colors and decorative details envisioned by Eberson, who wanted visitors to feel as though they were entering a luxury cruise ship. Watching a film in this environment feels far more of an occasion than going to a typical mall movie theater. And the program of independent features, foreign films, documentaries, and classics can be seen nowhere else in the area. Among the films I have enjoyed over the years are the original uncut Lawrence of Arabia, films in Flemish, a documentary about Pete Seeger which was as much social history as musical odyssey, and I think my favorite film of all, The Leopard, from the Italian novel by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa. This book is on my personal list of ten favorite novels but I had no idea it had been made into a film until I saw the AFI Silver listing. I was a bit suspicious of the idea of Burt Lancaster in the role of the Prince, especially with his voice dubbed in Italian, but somehow it all worked magnificently and the final lengthy ballroom scene lingers in the mind as one of the greatest ever filmed.

The restored Art Deco theater was just the beginning of Silver Spring’s revival. The Discovery Channel built its headquarters just down the road from the theater and suddenly this down-at-heel suburb acquired a trendy, urban vibe. Today the streets I was once afraid to walk down are so crowded with people it can be hard to make your way to one of the numerous restaurants and shops that draw crowds at all hours. One year it really did feel a bit like Hollywood. The AFI Silver rolled out a red carpet for attendees to an Oscar Night Viewing Party. Local celebrities, well mostly politicians and those aspiring to celebrity, wore ostentatious evening dress and were greeted and interviewed on TV just like the real thing!

This year the AFI Silver celebrated the 75th anniversary of the theater’s opening in 1938 with a special screening of the film that played on that opening night, Four Daughters with James Garfield making his debut. The film was definitely a period piece with Claude Rains of Casablanca fame in the very different role of an over-indulgent father. It was easy to see why James Garfield was immediately catapulted to stardom because from the moment he appeared he stole every scene, making the cast of seasoned actors look like amateurs. The original cartoon and newsreel from 1938 added an authentic period flavor to the evening.

Many long-time residents of Silver Spring have fond memories of their youthful visits to the original movie theater and now they can share them for posterity. To mark the 75th anniversary AFI Silver is sponsoring Silver Memories, a Tumblr compilation of memories and photos. One story goes that many people remember their first date at the Silver Theater, holding hands and kissing in the private darkness of the balcony. A classic case of embroidering and romanticizing our memories, for the Silver Theater never had a balcony. Like the movies, our memories sometimes require suspension of disbelief.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

Pure Unbridled Filth – Some vile things banned by the BBFC

Readers of a milksop disposition, look away now! From the archives, Frank once again besmirches the pages of The Dabbler with pure unbridled filth…

According to John Trevelyan in What The Censor Saw (1973), the following list includes some of the disgusting and morally repugnant subjects rightly banned by the British Board of Film Censors during the first twenty years of its existence:


Indecorous dancing.

Native customs in foreign lands abhorrent to British ideas.


Incidents injurious to the reputation of Governmental Departments.

Unnecessary exhibitions of feminine underclothing.

The effects of vitriol throwing.

Stories tinctured with salacious wit.

Sensual exposition of eugenic doctrines.


Criminal poisoning by dissemination of germs.

Excessive revolver shooting.

Animals gnawing men and children.

Clutching hands.


Libels on the British nursing profession.

Bolshevik propaganda.

Abdominal contortions in dancing.


Employee selling his wife to employer to cover defalcations.

Severed human heads.

Degrading exhibitions of animal passion.

Indecent wall decorations.

Dangerous mischief, easily imitated by children.

Lecherous old men.

Themes which are likely to wound the just susceptibilities of our Allies.

Comic hanging.

Breaking bottles on men’s heads.


Marriages within the prohibitive degree.

Girls’ clothes pulled off.

The Salvation Army shown in an unfavourable light.

Food in the Sixties: Len Deighton’s Making Food Sexy


A real treat for us today as Luke Honey explores the little known link between super-macho action hero Harry Palmer and fancy gourmet cookery …

Colonel Ross:  Champignons? You’re paying ten pence more for a fancy French label. If you want button mushrooms    they’re better value on the next shelf.

Harry Palmer:  It’s not just the label sir, these do have better flavour.

Colonel Ross (with sarcasm):  Of course, you’re quite the gourmet, aren’t you Palmer?

The Ipcress File (1965)

I want you to go back in time if you will, to the mid 1960’s. To the years when olive oil, famously, could only be tracked down at the local chemist, and Crêpes Suzette was a dish of mystery, savoured by the likes of the Fab Four, and those lucky diners who could afford to splash out at the more desirable restaurants; where, at your table, a fawning waiter in a maroon coloured monkey jacket would flambé a steak au poivre.


Into this culinary desert, strides an egg whisk bearing Harry Palmer, the working class protagonist in Len Deighton’s thriller, The Ipcress File, first published in 1962. Palmer is the perfect anti-hero: vice-versa, a flawed Mister Bond. While Bond holds Her Majesty’s commission in the Senior Service, Palmer scrapes the rank of Sergeant in the Intelligence Corps. Bond wears a Walther PPK, Harry Palmer wears National Health Specs. And if fussy old Bond requires his housekeeper to boil the speckled brown egg of a Maran hen for three and a half minutes precisely, Harry Palmer is far more likely to slip Mozart’s Prague on the trusty record player and whip up an armagnac soufflé.


Len Deighton was- is- a man of many talents. He studied at Saint Martin’s before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Ou Est Le Garlic? (his first cookery book, based on his weekly cookery strip for The Observer) was published in 1965. His column and books appealed to the simplistic and mechanical brains of men: technical, cartoon-like manuals on the fine art of French and Italian Cuisine. Wannabe sophisticates learnt how to order from an A La Carte Menu (the correct pro-nunc-iation spelt out phonetically), how to stuff a Chou with Tomates, how to deglaze a copper pan, prepare Caneton à l’Orange, cut a cigar correctly (paper band on or off?) and order eel from a fancy fishmonger.


“You’re not the tearaway you think you are”, smoulders sexy Sue Lloyd during the kitchen scene in The Ipcress File, “You also like books…music…cooking.”

“I like birds best”, says Harry- an unsubtle reminder to a Sixties audience that although Sergeant Palmer appreciates the finer things in life, he reassuringly bats for the home side. At the time, Michael Caine’s character must have seemed remarkably novel, a prototypical yuppy before that depressing acronym had been invented, making it quite clear that it was okay for Real Men to cook, and quite possibly not just okay, but a desirable aid in persuading that voluptuous girl in the office (the one you’d had your eye on for several weeks) to enjoy the delights of your home cooked Rôti de Porc aux Navets, and to climb in between your shiny black nylon sheets after the event.

International Men of Mystery please take note: The Action Cook Book is still available, albeit via the sinister Kindle. The art of seduction aside, it’s a brilliantly entertaining introduction to decent food, and in our Brave New World of Marks & Spencer microwaved mushroom risotto, this can be no bad thing. Even if Harry Palmer buys tinned Indian Prawn Curry from the supermarket.


You can find more of Luke Honey’s take on cuisine over at his excellent blog The Greasy Spoon, and also at his writings on the antiques business at


Musical Evenings with the Captain


A nautical theme this week, as Brit selects pieces from a great movie soundtrack…

Not only is Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Aubrey-Maturin’ series of books one of the great reading experiences available to mankind but it has also spawned a fine movie in Peter Weir’s  Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  The film, properly understood, an exploration of all the forms and foibles, strengths and stupidities, of masculinity. But more pertinently to today’s post, it also boasts a quite wonderful soundtrack. The original score by Christopher Gordon is as ominous as rolling thunder at sea, interspersed with salty shanties and reels, but today I’m going to give you the expertly-selected classical string elements. In the novels Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, the surgeon and naturalist Stephen Maturin, are keen amateur musicians, regularly convening in the captain’s cabin to murder a bit of Corelli, but here are some pieces used the soundtrack played as they should be.

The first selection is an anachronism musically, since Master and Commander is set in 1805 and Ralph Vaughan Williams didn’t compose his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for another 105 years, but what a gorgeous, soul-stirring piece of music this is. It accompanies the scenes on the Galapagos.

Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No 8 in G Minor – aka the “Christmas Concerto” is more the sort of thing that Aubrey and Maturin would have enjoyed at concerts and played at home. The soundtrack makes good use of the Adagio movement…

In an early Lazy Sunday I looked at some great cellists and included a Pablo Casals performance of the Prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. Master and Commander employs a Yo-Yo Mar rendition…

From the French-American-Chinese Yo-Yo Mar to the German-Japanese Susanna Yoko Henkel. Here she is playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G major, K. 216 (3rd movement), in Seoul with the KBS Symphony Orchestra in 2006. The movie soundtrack uses an extract, from about 3 minutes in.

I’ve saved my favourite for last. Boccherini’s sublime String Quintet for 2 violins, viola & 2 cellos in C major (“La Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid“) plays over the final scene and credits, as we see Aubrey and Maturin attack it with gusto: Russel Crowe a-strummin’ and Paul Bettany a-sawin’. I’d probably have this one on my Desert Island…

A version of this post originally appeared on The Dabbler in February 2011.

Marshy Punting


Tennyson – a keen marshy punter

Ruskin, as we discovered earlier this week, knew a thing or two about hawthorn blossom. But was he right about Tennyson’s marshy punting? And what are Spiritual Boats? Frank investigates…

In the poetry of Tennyson, boating has “a very marshy and punt-like character”. This is the view of John Ruskin, in The Harbours Of England (1856), in a passage where he claims all poets “somehow or other, express an honest wish for a Spiritual Boat”.

Now I have not read enough of Tennyson’s work to assess whether Ruskin is correct. I have certainly not been through it with a fine-toothed comb, noting down all Tennyson’s boating references and judging the marshiness and punt-like character of each, although it occurs to me that such an enquiry would actually be quite easily achieved, armed with a twenty-first century digitised e-edition of the complete works of Tennyson. Perhaps I will save that study for a rain-soaked winter’s day, or an insomniac night.For the time being, I am minded to trust Ruskin on the matter. I do not think it likely that the greatest of all Victorian writers would have said Tennyson’s boating was marshy and punt-like if it was not. And, in fairness, it should be noted that Ruskin qualifies his remark by saying that the poet’s boating “in the ordinary way [my italics], has a very marshy and punt-like character”. We might also bear in mind that when Ruskin was writing, in 1856, Tennyson was only forty-seven years old, and he lived, and continued to pour out poetry, for a further thirty-six years, dying in 1892 at the age of eighty-three. Again, I am insufficiently familiar with his work to know whether, in those post-The Harbours Of England years, Tennyson’s boating may have emerged from the punty marshes on to the wide and billowing seas. That is something else I can find out on a rain-soaked winter’s day or during an insomniac night. It is always a good idea to have a number of projects in hand, to keep the brain perky.

Perkiness is not, however, the usual sensation one experiences when punting through marshes, or even when rowing through marshes. There is a sense in which one is forced to use one’s oar more like a punt in a marsh in any case. Clean, brisk rowing becomes, at first difficult, then well nigh impossible, as one creeps further into the marsh and one’s oars become entangled with weeds. The thicker the weed, the greater the entanglement, the more desperate the rower. Sooner or later, one has to plunge the oar as near as dammit vertically, like a punt, into the marsh water, in hope of gaining sufficient purchase to push oneself free of weed-entanglement. It is difficult to think of a waterborne experience less like the Spiritual Boat wished for by all poets.

Consider, for example, the boating pickle of Dr Alec Harvey, played by Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). Dr Harvey and his soon-to-be-acknowledged-as-such inamorata Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) are not even on a marsh, but on a boating lake in a park. They are indeed perky. But by dint of what we might term “issues” with the steering of the boat, Dr Harvey is forced – as if he were stuck in a Tennysonian marsh – to stand up and plunge the oar into the water as near as dammit vertically in hope of gaining purchase to push. He falls into the lake. This is an important episode in the film, in that it immediately precedes the scene where Dr Harvey and Mrs Jesson first broach, in repressed and almost strangulated conversation, the fact that they are besotted with each other. In that sense – and perhaps only in that sense – the boat out of which Dr Harvey falls into the lake can be seen as a Spiritual Boat, one worthy of attention by a poet. I do not know if any versifier has ever composed a poem upon this scene in the film, but I for one would like to have read what, say, Sylvia Plath might have made out of it. Unlike Dr Harvey and Mrs Jesson, Sylvia Plath and her inamorato Ted Hughes do not seem to have suffered from that tendency to be “withdrawn and shy and… difficult”, as Mrs Jesson puts it. Indeed, when they first met, and kissed, Sylvia Plath drew blood from Ted Hughes’s cheek, or it might have been the other way about, I can never quite remember. Whichever it was, there is no such savage bloody kiss in Brief Encounter. In a rewritten, updated version, perhaps there could be, while the couple are in the boat on the lake in the park, before Dr Harvey falls in to the water.


A Spiritual Boat?


There is another filmic boat, or rather raft, which becomes hopelessly stuck in a marsh, or rather on a river, in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (Werner Herzog, 1972). Here we can well imagine blood being spilled, though not by kisses. And though we have a raft on a river rather than a boat on a marsh, few I think would argue that the ambience, especially towards the end of the film, is close to what Ruskin called Tennyson’s “marshy and punt-like” boating. Also, there are monkeys. Lope de Aguirre’s raft is, spectacularly, a Spiritual Boat, and would have made an ideal subject for either Sylvia or for Ted, had they once decided to turn their poetic brains towards it.



A Spiritual Boat!


Tennyson, too, might profitably have addressed the story. Though he was of course long cold in his grave before Werner Herzog made his film, Aguirre is based on real events that took place in 1561, events known about by, for example, Sir Walter Ralegh, who read about them before swanning off to discover El Dorado in 1595. Intriguingly, at the time he was preparing for his expedition, Ralegh was living at Sherborne Lodge in Devon. As Charles Nicholl describes it in The Creature In The Map (1995), “the Lodge stood on rough land above a boggy stretch of the Yeo known as Black Marsh”. Did Ralegh go boating on Black Marsh? Did his oar or punt become entangled in weed and did he plunge the oar in as near as dammit vertically in hope of gaining sufficient purchase to push himself free and, like Dr Harvey, topple out of his boat into the water? And were there, as with Aguirre, monkeys?

There is a poem to be written about such a scene.

Songs from the Non-Musicals


Some of the most memorable films live on in our affections not just because they’re beautifully shot or well acted or superbly scripted. Sometimes what really makes them stick in our memory is a song…

The right sort of song – presented in the right way, in the right place, and at the right time – is capable of heightening emotions to such an extent that it crystallises a feeling forever. In the world of cinema, it’s not just musicals that can do this; it can apply to films that just feature a song or two. The very best make the hair on your neck stand on end, not just the first time but every time you hear them.

The first example today undoubtedly falls into the hair-on-end category. It’s from what may well be the most popular film ever made, at least amongst a vast swathe of men and boys – though I struggle to understand how anyone can fail to find Zulu stirring:


Next is a song that was so successful that its fame has probably transcended that of the film it featured in, Laurel and Hardy’s 1937 Way Out West. I remember finding it absolutely hilarious as a boy. It still tickles.


More Welsh singing I’m afraid. But it’s unavoidable, isn’t it? If you watch this clip from How Green Was My Valley to the end you’ll spot a clear indication that what we’re watching is fiction: I just can’t imagine a house-proud Welshwoman, no matter how discombobulated, allowing all those dirty boots into her parlour.


Finally, something from one of the greatest films ever made, not least because of its atmospheric use of music. Wild at Heart is a beautiful, sometimes quite stunning, reworking of a number of filmic traditions. It’s a brutal film but irony has never been so affectionately deployed. Nick Cage plays an infamous wearer of a snakeskin jacket – “a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom” – and here he is rocking a number of worlds:


A version of this post originally appeared on The Dabbler in October 2010.