Category Archives: - Stuff that inspires me

Stuff that inspires me: # 5 Gil Scott-Heron

The revolution will be no re-run brothers,
The revolution will be live.”

Words, heart, politics, anger, clarity. Teacher. Leader of a revolution. And most importantly, soul.

He began as a poet. Then he put beats to his beats.

He sung about things that mattered… politics, race, addiction, war… but he spoke to inspire not to incite hatred. He often spoke with sadness, but also with optimism. He inspired a generation, or two, and he also inspired me.

With a voice so rich and smooth, so wise and full of wit, I’ve always found it easy to be in awe of Gil Scott-Heron. And his final note was a perfect one. ‘I’m New Here’ (2010) was recorded just a year before his death. It floats and it rolls, it looks back and draws strength from hardship, and is as relevant and beautiful as ever. At only 28 minutes, it doesn’t need to be a minute longer.

“Home is where I live / inside my white powder dreams,
Home was once an empty vacuum / that’s filled now with my silent screams,
Home is where the needle marks / try to heal my broken heart,
And it might not be such a bad idea if I never / if I never went home again.”

- From ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’, Gil Scott-Heron

Stuff that inspires me: #4 Beasts of the Southern Wild

At the start of this week I went for a job interview. The final question put to me wasn’t exactly what I was expecting: what was the best film I’d seen in the last year? I didn’t pause; I didn’t have to think; it was an easy choice. Beasts of the Southern Wild is actually the best film I’ve seen in a few years.

Miraculous and magical are the words that most readily come to mind. I’m guilty of over-using the phrase ‘like poetry on the screen’ for movies that I love but, in this case, I think it’s absolutely justified.

The setting is the fictional community of The Bathtub, which is clearly a hall-of-mirrors reflection of the population that lived on the edge of New Orleans during the floods. It’s a bleak, derelict, backwards corner of society and is home to the tough-as-nails Hushpuppy, who survives in a mystical world that exists largely in her own head, and her dad, Wink. As they struggle to survive, we become as intimate with nature and as confused about the boundaries between reality and fantasy as Hushpuppy – but the film is never anything but brilliant and beautiful. And despite having a dream-like quality, it feels grounded and authentic thanks to it’s stunning novice cast.

Everything comes together here. The soundtrack (by Dan Romer and director, Benh Zeitlin) reflects and drives the film. Whenever I now listen to it, wherever I am, I’m transported to a different place… back to Hushpuppy’s world.

This film is touched by genius and I’d urge everyone to see it.

(Go on, click above for the trailer)

Stuff that inspires me: #3 Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001 apaocalypse

I always adored movies as a kid – from Dumbo to Mary Poppins (still one of my all-time favs!), from Ferris Bueller to Rocky… but it was seeing Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey in the space of a month when I was 15 years old that changed the way I looked at films forever. My first proper film crushes!

To be honest, I didn’t entirely understand either film at the time. When I watched both again a couple of years later they opened themselves up to me (a bit). But at 15… they were beautiful… no, somewhere far beyond beautiful. Poetry on the screen. They were epic in every way. They did more than just go from A to B to C: they communicated some sort of profound meaning and story that I couldn’t quite grasp but that felt really, really important. I think the fact that I felt I was missing something definitely helped me to become completely consumed by them – I mean, we all want to feel as if we’re appreciating something slightly above our heads, right? Especially as teenagers.

2001 is a story about the evolution of humankind via a black, alien monolith that we are first introduced to at The Dawn of Man, as it’s appearance on earth seems to stimulate apes to use tools and weapons. The rest of the movie essentially follows mankind’s quest to understand it’s own origins and future through a search for the origin of the monolith. It’s gripping and tense and exciting – but rather than creating thrills or relateable characters, it is primarily focussed on being quiet and patient and intent on filling us with wonder. Yeah, wow-erama.

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Apocalypse Now, set during the Vietnam war (but very far from a typical war film), is about a mission of one soldier (Willard) down a river to hunt down a decorated war hero (Kurtz) who has ‘gone native’ and may have caused horrific atrocities. Behind this framework, it is a story about the reality of war – the horror – not so much about Willard finding Kurtz, but discovering what Kurtz himself discovered. It is dark but beautiful, operatic and horrific, and it reaches in to some very dark places of the human soul.

However, it wasn’t just that I was young that made me love these films. The directors, Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola, were ahead of the rest of the world with what they were putting on screen. It is genuinely impossible for me to pull out favourite scenes from either film because pretty much every scene in each is a classic. The imagination and the skill required to make art like this is almost beyond my comprehension. Big love. Big, big love for these movies being awesome and showing me the very limits of what cinema can do. I’m not sure that either has ever been matched.

Book review: Canada by Richard Ford

canada

I’ve never written a review before but I just finished reading this brilliant, masterful book on the train home and wanted to share some of the love.

The novel is narrated by Dell Parsons, who looks back at the experiences of his 15 year old self in a small town in Montana in 1960. The bare bones of the storyline can be summed up in the opening passage:

“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”

I’m a big fan of Richard Ford but the plot of this novel is probably the strongest he’s written in terms of page-turning. However, if you’re looking for a thriller then you’ve come to the wrong place – as engrossing as the plot is, it’s less important than the writing itself.

This was the book that inspired my series of posts about authors who look like their writing: at the time, I called Ford’s style elegant, languid and wise. Sometimes, writing this beautiful can give the illusion of being wise and full of insight – but there’s no illusion here… every page is full of a rich voice that feels as if it may be teaching you something new about the world and the people who live in it. That’s not to say that you need a dictionary to get through the book. It’s that Ford uses language so simply to do such complex things that is his genius and, for me, his only equal in this regard is Cormac McCarthy.

Canada is a novel about the strange turns that normal people’s lives can take, it believes in looking forwards and seeing what’s in front of you instead of always looking for hidden meaning in what’s already gone, and it understands above all about human fragility. As you can tell, I would absolutely recommend it. I find it impossible to read a book like this and not be inspired… well, partly inspired and partly accepting that I’ll never be able to write quite that well.

Stuff that inspires me: #2 Murmur by R.E.M.

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Everything is open to interpretation. That’s the beauty of things. There’s no right way or wrong way; we take what we can from what we experience. This series of posts is about the stuff that inspires me. I’m not trying to convince you – I’m just brain-dumping some fanboy love on to the page. Not everyone will agree. That’s ok.

This is one from back in the day – but it’s the ones that stick with you that can have the biggest impact. First off, try to put aside any preconceptions (misconceptions) you may have about R.E.M. This was their debut album back in 1983 and a record I first heard many years ago but after the band had reached global mammoth-ness with Losing My Religion.

The reason it’s so important to me isn’t just that I love the music and that it hit me at an important time of life – I also love what it represents. This is a true indie album. Produced by I.R.S. Records in Atlanta, Georgia, I think it stands up against any of the great indie debuts and, as the music scene has evolved in the last 30 years, I actually think it may have gained even greater recognition if it was released today instead of back in the 80s.

That’s not say that it was ignored at the time – released in the same year as Thriller and U2’s ‘War’, Rolling Stone Magazine still nominated it as their record of the year, which was pretty unusual for such a ‘small time’ release.

The band members were all around 20 years old. They lived, worked and studied in Athens and, like a lot of kids, all wanted to be in a rock band. But great musicians? Not really. Lead guitarist, Peter Buck, was such a novice that on many of the tracks Mike Mills actually plays ‘lead bass’ to make up for it. Buck learnt to play once he was in the band, not the other way round.

And Michael Stipes’ distinctive vocals that are intelligible, save for the odd recognisable phrase… was he intentionally distorting his voice? It seems as if he’s too shy to let his words ring clear and true: at this stage he’s the opposite of a confident, brash frontman. In the words of Mitch Easter, the producer:

“We put him in in front of a microphone and that was the sound he made.”

However, what they were saying was less important than how they said it. They had a raw urgency and edge that I don’t think they ever reproduced and I think few bands have achieved, while turning out such great songs too. Just like looking at a painting that you don’t entirely understand but that speaks deeply to you nonetheless, Murmur gets you on a subconscious level and doesn’t let go. Even 30 years later.

Stuff that inspires me: #1 Paul Thomas Anderson

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Everything is open to interpretation. That’s the beauty of things. There’s no right way or wrong way; we take what we can from what we experience. This series of posts is about the stuff that inspires me. I’m not trying to convince you – I’m just brain-dumping some fanboy love on to the page. Not everyone will agree. That’s ok.

For me, Paul Thomas Anderson is a writer/director who is absolutely dedicated to film-making as art. That doesn’t mean that he makes pretentious, inaccessible films (well, not to me) but, in a world in which movies have too often become disposable, brainless and fit for the lowest common denominator, Anderson produces work that strives for greatness. I love the scale of his ambition and that he paints on huge canvasses – although he handles big set pieces and under-stated gestures with the same skill.

Yes, he’s flawed… of course he is. Of Anderson’s most recent film, The Master (2012), Roger Ebert said, “In its imperfections… we may see its reach exceeding its grasp. Which is not a dishonourable thing.” I think I liked The Master more than Roger did, however I do agree that it’s ‘reach exceeded it’s grasp’. That’s undoubtedly a fault – but it’s actually something I also love. I always want a film-maker (or any artist) to risk failure, to strive to produce something brilliant and better and better and better than to settle for mediocre or safe… or worse.


Part of this is the way that his stories don’t only live through characters or styling or location but through the framework he uses to tell them. In Punch Drunk Love (2002), he told a story about the craziness of being love by making a film that was itself insane and disorientating in every way. There Will Be Blood (2007) is a movie about greed and power, based around the volatility of California’s oil wells at the start of the 20th Century, which rumbled along with a frightening build-up of tension and energy before gushing to a raw, unpredictable finale.

I think that actors like working with him because of these things but also because he clearly treats all of his characters with care and tenderness. This doesn’t only shine through in those that we can more easily root for, such as the naïve, eager-to-please Eddie Adams in Boogie Nights (1997) but also in characters like Daniel Plainview, the tyrannical, power-thirsty oilman in There Will Be Blood. Each is crafted, looked after as they grow and sent out in to the world with love.


That’s how he managed to pull Tom Cruise’s career-best role out the bag in Magnolia (1999) – which is a great, great film. He gave us the unexpectedly brilliant performance that it now seems Adam Sandler was always destined to deliver in Punch Drunk Love, and he brought us back a great Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights.

Anderson is a painter, poet and storyteller. His work is brave and ambitious, it’s epic and intimate, he makes me question things I thought I already knew and he makes me want to do better, better, better myself. When I walk out the cinema having watched a Paul Thomas Anderson film, I feel as if there really is a genuine opportunity to do what Neil Gaiman told us to always do: Make. Great. Art.