Popular decisions aren’t always an audience’s choice. by ROBERT BOUND
I’m in two minds about focus groups. Not in the way the punchline to the joke might go: should I listen to my gut instinct or attend to the views of a representation of a typical cross-section to see if they can help? It’s more that I just don’t know if I know, you know?
I just got back from Brazil, a place you might imagine to be the dictionary definition of free-spirited passionata tv programming. Down there, after all, telenovelas are a religion, the opium of the people, they’re what the weather is to England, what cricket is to India, what coughing is to the Chinese – novelas are the preoccupation, the conversation, the small-talk, the national habit.
A few pages back I tried to give a feeling of Avenida Brasil, the biggest novela on Brazilian tv. It’s a dramatic freight-train that has changed the viewing habits of even the most stuffy, novella-loathing middle-classes; people don’t go out when it’s on. They only allow themselves to breathe when adverts interrupt the action. So I presumed that the star writer of this drama, the “saviour of the novela”, was a tortured scribe in an artist’s garret, twitchily arriving on set with a sheaf of scripts, stained by inky fingers, the concentric circles of spilled espresso cups and, of course, blood, sweat and tears. But that’s not what happens. The channel focus-groups it. Not in an embarrassed, pr-fail way, either. They’re basically, “yeah, of course – what happens if people don’t like something and stop watching?” And I quite like the honesty of that, the acknowledgement that it’s a commercial channel with a gang of advertisers to deliver to and a drama-hungry audience to feed, too. It’s not Shakespeare.
Or is it? We giggle at the novela playing to the crowd at our peril. Knowing your audience, respecting them, clutching them to your bosom and surprising them when the time is right might just be the real skill of the writers, musicians, artists and playwrights who clog the canon of great works. So the least the writer of a tv drama can do is understand that his employers might want to check all’s well with their employers, the viewers. We make changes to this magazine every now and again, refresh it a little when we feel like a spring clean. The rest of these pages look a bit different, a bit changed-up, a little more short, sweet, snappy and zappy while other bits are longer and thematic and relaxing to write. And to read? Only you know. Excuse us for not inviting you to an air-conditioned room with a pot-plant and a large urn of weak coffee to help decide the fates of pages and stories and photographs but I think I just made my mind up. It must have been the weak coffee.
Translation is the theme of David Bellos’s marvellous Is That A Fish In Your Ear?, a book that makes light and lucid of the slippery subject of making something someone’s said in one place make sense in another. Bellos’s elegant quiver is loaded with both philosophical and practical arrows which help him hit targets you’d be amazed are even in the park. From the slant and politics of literary translation to the trust required for oral interpreting via the paraphrasing and rephrasing of international law, poetry and veracity are truly in the ear of the beholder.
The protagonist of Javier Marías’s strange, sexy and disorienting A Heart So White is a translator who finds it tough to make sense of many of the scenes in which he finds himself in Havana, Madrid and New York. There’s a lot of language in Marías’s best-known work to illustrate how words and actions often appear impossible to interpret. Ticklish uncertainty is a condition our hero shares with the inhabitants of the rest of the Spaniard’s masterful and suspenseful novels – and here’s the rub – recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. Marías’s other characters in the series – an opera singer, an academic and a ghostwriter – all live in a state where their professions and instincts keep them forever sniffing the air to sense if they are living in fact or fiction. Pinch yourself, dear reader.
Book-people ride the seesaw of fact and fiction for a professional lifetime, which is probably why the Ivory Press called its new collection of conversations with leading publishers A Crazy Job. Juan Cruz Ruiz, one of the founders of El País and a writer who’s been variously a football correspondent, a chief editor of culture and a novelist makes light work of interviewing 12 literary heads. George Weidenfeld, Beatriz de Moura, Riccardo Cavallero and others wax on the importance of publishing by instinct, being afraid of free books rather than e-books and the existential loneliness of the Spanish bookseller. The bonus (eat your inbuilt-obsolete little heart out e-readers) is that Madrid’s Ivory Press are the most beautifully bound books there are. Purchase for the scent of leather and paper alone.
Finally, the problem with translation comes full circle as our eyes are made to wander half to the television and half to the new book from the best man on it: Jonathan Meades. He’s made fact and fancy a professional balancing act for a lifetime and his view (and it is a view) that the world is a “museum without walls” is expanded, massaged and served up like a Strasbourg goose-liver. Delicious, but dare you down it all in one? In truth, Meades has been the most interesting TV persona for a generation because he’s the only writer that realises the box is a performer’s medium. His knack for translating the seen into the written word is spellbinding.
The publisher of daily newspaper Ponto Final, monthly arts magazine Macau Closer, and the mind behind The Script Road literary festival is optimistic about culture’s future in Macau.
Macau is famous for casinos, is culture an attraction too?
It’s not developing as fast as the casino industry but you have a lot of art shows promoted by the local authorities and Macau’s International Music Festival has had Chinese rock bands on the beaches of Coloane island.
Where do the arts sit in Macau society?
As in any other place, there will be complaints from the cultural sector saying that when the government puts money in, it’s not always in the right places.
But if you compare it with the past few years of the Portuguese administration, the government now is a lot more rich, so can do all this. But people quite rightly say the government is conservative. Many beautiful heritage buildings could be used by artists to create a different atmosphere around the town. That’s proved very difficult.
How does The Script Road literary festival contribute?
We want to celebrate friendship and culture between China and Portuguese-speaking countries. We have a writing contest with celebrated authors such as Su Tong and Xu Xi on the jury. The prize is to have short stories about Macau published alongside these acclaimed writers. The Portuguese, Brazilians and East Timoreans are part of the huge Chinese community here. So I feel it makes sense to do something together.
Bat For Lashes returns with a platter you’ll applaud the more you play it. The tested dreamy pop tropes are there with added reduction: it seems that with THE HAUNTED MAN, Bat For Lashes has greater faith in her songwriting than her production team. A lovely record that sits slightly outside of time.
Efterklang emerge from their Copenhagen studio for their second outing. PIRIMADA is another grow-y thing that sounds made for autumn listening: breezy synths and reflective vocals echo in a sparer record that turns down the drums to soar a little higher.
Getting higher’s the name of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s game and he’s well suited to British dance pioneers The Orb for the same reason. THE OBSERVER IN THE STAR HOUSE is a jungle of rhythm, dub, psychedelic beats and is, in a very good way, a dirty dub uncle inviting you for tea and a smoke.
A different duet are Texan husband-and-wife The Mastersons who owe something to the country tradition of the domestic duet (George Jones & Tammy Wynette, Gram Parons & Emmylou Harris, etc). BIRDS FLY SOUTH’s warm, waspish songs are also unmistakably modern, with an alt-country scuff around the edges: the pair have learnt much from their day jobs in the backing band of Steve Earle.
Mungolian Jet Set have remade some of their dancefloor-friendly SCHLUNGS album into longer, more considered electro stuff on MUNGODELICS. You’d think Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre might invite them round for tea and then slip them a poison bun for nicking their schtick. But listen again and there’s a lovely electro-folk rush to these Norwegians’ work that’s somewhere between Lindstrøm and Peter, Bjorn and the other one.
There’s a Ballardian feel to Donald Fagen’s new record sunken condos, the title stays in your minds eye as you imagine sand and coral growing outside a future world where nature has taken over. Of course, the tightest band on the planet take over for another wry trip through the universe of jazz on a pop jet fuelled by cool.
Culture cuts - Spin the globe and stick a cultural pin in it
RADIO: ANTENA 3 , the irreverent arm of the Portuguese state-owned broadcaster (rtp), is de rigueur for those yearning for the quirkiest music acts and to feast on industrial quantities of good old political satire. When in Portugal tune in to 100.3 in Lisbon and 100.4 in Porto. The rest of the world can enjoy it at rtp.pt/antena3.
1. Canções com História (A Song and a Story) – 10.40 - Pedro Costa is the presenter of this astute account on the stories and protagonists that inspired some of the best songs of our time.
2. Prova Oral (Oral Exam) - 19.00 - Fernando Alvim, a bit of a comedy legend in Portugal, hosts this one-hour slot where interaction with listeners is permanent. Political badinage not for the faint-hearted.
3. Portugália - 22.00 - Henrique Amaro brings you the very best of Portuguese music, an investment Antena 3 has been pushing forwards for over a decade.
MUSIC: Current top 5
1. DEIXAR CAIR - Salto
2. BURN IT DOWN - Linkin Park
3. NATIONAL ANTHEM - Lana Del Rey
4. HOLD ON - Alabama Shakes
5. VERDADE - Capitão Fausto
ALBUM: On his second record, ESTRELA DECADENTE the Paulistano singer and composer Thiago Pethit pulls inspiration from personas and settings ranging from James Dean to Andy Warhol’s Factory mixed up with Brazilian Tropicalismo and finds that pain is fundamental for anyone who wants to see the beauty of life. “I’m smiling while the world is crashing,” he sings in “Dandy Darling”, conveniently communicating wanton artistic abandon to listeners in both Portuguese and English.
BAND: Comprising Marina Vello (former lead singer of Bonde do Rolê) and Adriano Cintra (ex-CSS), the duo Madrid are a world away from the never-ending-teenage-party that was the trademark of their former bands. Grimey but not grumpy and only singing in English, they deliver echoes of Patti Smith with their lo-fi vocals and delicate vintage guitars and keyboards. It’s 100 per cent Brazilian but nothing like Brazilian music.
STAR: Reinventing the typical Latina actress of almond eyes, easy smile, glossy hair and year-round tan: Alice Braga, 29, is the most international of Brazilian actresses. Co-starring in Walter Salles’s ON THE ROAD, the unsalted film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s beatnik odyssey. This is Braga’s first out-of-Brazil biggie and she’s an interesting choice for a burgeoning cinematic market.
FILM: Thai filmmaker Pen-Ek Ratanaruang first made his mark with gangster comedies that recalled a gentler, more whimsical Martin Scorsese. Now his newest film HEADSHOT – about an injured assassin who sees everything upside down – is forcing comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock.
NOVELS: A meth-addled cobra. Fatalistic bar girls. A lonely Buddhist cop. Those are just some of the elements in the surprise crime sensation BANGKOK 8 by John Burdett. And other expat writers are mining Thailand’s seedy side for inspiring noir fiction.
- In Dean Barrett’s Murder at the Horny Toad Bar & Other Outrageous Tales of Thailand, strange deaths pique detective Harry Boroditsky’s interest.
- Christopher G Moore’s Spirit House introduces readers to ex-lawyer Vincent Calvino.
- Colin Cotterill’s Killed at the Whim of a Hat, the travails of crime reporter Jimm Juree.