Friday 28 February 2020

Loudon Wainwright III interviewed

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Loudon Wainwright III Opens Up About The 'Exes & Excess' That Inform His Music
Wainwright's music centers on family, and how we hurt and heal each other. He spoke to Fresh Air in 1992 and '17 about his life as a husband, father and son. His new Netflix special is Surviving Twin

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Nicolaes Maes at The National Gallery 2020

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The Idle Servant, 1655

Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the dark art of everyday intrigue
National Gallery, London
This quietly captivating exhibition reveals the depths of the Dutch Golden Age artist whose paintings are as rich in hidden drama as any theatre

Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
Fri 21 Feb 2020

The young woman painted by Nicolaes Maes in the 1650s, resting her elbow on a cushion on a window ledge while she meditatively cradles her chin in her hand, looks like she is independently reaching the same conclusion as René Descartes just a few years earlier: “I think, therefore I am.” Maes’s masterpiece Girl at a Window shows her surrounded by solid things. A wooden window covering has been flung open to show its planks to us in perspective. Bright apricots bulge over decaying plaster and brick. And yet, as the girl contemplates the physical world, a black void opens behind her. It is the cavern of consciousness in which all she can be sure of is cogito ergo sum.
Girl at a Window, 1653-5

Maes was a pioneer of one of the world’s most beloved art styles – the humble realism of the Dutch Golden Age. The paintings in this quietly captivating exhibition lay down elements that his contemporary, Johannes Vermeer, would refine – women working in rooms, domestic mysteries, secret glances. He pulls back the curtain on a private realm. In one of a series of variations on the image of an eavesdropper smiling complicitly at us while she listens in on household secrets, this is literally true – there’s a curtain rail across the front of the picture with a green silk curtain partly pulled back to half-reveal a domestic row. The ordinary middle-class Dutch home, suggests Maes, is as rich in hidden drama as any theatre.
The Eavesdropper, 1656

By the 1670s Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch would take this art of everyday intrigue to exquisite heights of luminous detail but Maes is mapping new territory. Which brings us to his maps. In almost every one of his “genre” scenes – as paintings of day-to-day life were dismissively called by traditional connoisseurs – there’s a detailed map. Most of these wall decorations display the proud geography of the Netherlands, including its fragile coastline won from the North Sea. These omnipresent maps are analogies for Maes’s own art. He’s discovering interior worlds just as cartographers chart the outer world.
A Young Girl Threading a Needle, 1657
Like a map with regions marked Here Be Monsters, his precise recordings of Dutch homes have corners of mystery. In another version of his hit theme The Eavesdropper, a woman stands at the bottom of a spiral staircase with her finger to her lips, looking at you, urging quiet. To her left is a map, half-visible in muted daylight. She casts her shadow on the wall above a sleeping cat. Below her, on the other side of the stairs, lovers have been caught at it in the cellar, revealed by a servant’s lantern.
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The Eavesdropper, 1655

This basement scandal looks like a little Rembrandt, all reds and yellows in the enveloping dark. That’s no coincidence. Maes was Rembrandt’s pupil. The trouble was, he – like Rembrandt’s other students – couldn’t come near his teacher in mysticising the Bible or portraying profundity. Maes’s An Old Woman Dozing is a banal version of Rembrandt’s Mother. His religious scenes are dreary – except the Adoration of the Shepherds, where he gets fascinated by the ruinous stable.
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The Account Keeper, 1655

This exhibition shows Maes overcoming the crushing influence of Rembrandt by mainlining reality. It was the scientific revolution, after all – and the age of Dutch global commerce. The Account Keeper shows a woman asleep at her ledger. Above her hangs a map of the world. Is she doing the books for a merchant house with interests in Mughal India and Japan? The big houses Maes paints are surely those of just such merchants. His sharply lifelike portraits include that of Jan de Reus, a director of the Dutch East India Company.
The Old Lacemaker, 1656

It might be tempting to pigeonhole Maes as a coarse materialist who gave the Dutch elite what they wanted. But this exhibition reveals his depths. His paintings of everyday life are little novels or silent films. They take us into houses where everyone is spying on everyone else. Far from complacent celebrations of Dutch capitalism, these interiors are haunted. The Eavesdropper pauses at the bottom of the stairs. Above her those steps spiral into uncertainty. She’s caught between mind and world, listening in the dark. I spy, therefore I am.

•Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age is at the National Gallery, London, from 22 February to 31 May.

Sunday 23 February 2020

Wednesday night's set lists at The Habit, York

Ron Elderly: -
Just My imagination
Dead Flowers
I'll See You In My Dreams
Suspicious Minds
Here, There And Everywhere

Da Elderly: -
You've Got A Friend
Once An Angel
Old Man
I'm So Tired
Midnight On The Bay

The Elderly Brothers: -
Things We Said Today
You Really Got A Hold On Me
No Reply
Walk Right Back
I Saw Her Standing There

The Elderly Brothers returned to The Habit on a damp night in York. There was a decent crowd to start with, but only a few players; so we got 3-song sets and went round for a second time. A young chap gave an excellent reading of Dylan's Just Like A Woman complete with harmonica accompaniment. There were calls for Beatles' songs, so we responded both solo and in our closing set. By that time the bar was full and there was a great atmosphere at the close. Good to be back!

Wednesday 19 February 2020

James Taylor interview 2020

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‘I was a bad influence on the Beatles': James Taylor on Lennon, love and recovery
The singer has written many beautiful songs – and was a muse for Joni Mitchell and Carole King. He reflects on his relationship with Mitchell and overcoming childhood trauma and heroin addiction

Jenny Stevens
The Guardian
Mon 17 Feb 2020

James Taylor looks out at the sprawling London skyline. “This is where it started,” he says. “The moment.” He made his first trip here in 1968, playing for Paul McCartney and George Harrison and becoming the first artist signed to the Beatles’ record label, Apple Records. This was before he moved to Laurel Canyon with the rest of the denim-draped California dreamers who defined the sound of the late 60s and far beyond. Before he met David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Before he and Mitchell fell in love. Before he wrote his pivotal album Sweet Baby James during a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Before his marriage to Carly Simon, which opened up his personal life – including his long battle with heroin addiction – to public consciousness. Before he sold 100m records, performed for the Obamas and the Clintons, and then, decades later, appeared on stage with one of the world’s biggest pop stars, Taylor Swift, who is named after him.

It has been quite the trip, he admits.

Taylor is in a reflective mood when we meet, and says he is always like this. “I’m a very self-centred songwriter. I always have been. It’s the personal stuff I like, for better or for worse.” He is here to promote his 19th album, American Standard; a covers album of the old standards and Broadway show tunes he was raised on. He says there was a period when his generation wanted to distance themselves from this music, but he now recognises it as “the pinnacle of American popular song ... It was sheet music, anyone would sing it, so the songs had to stand on their own. It’s what informed me as a songwriter, and others of my generation; Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman, Elton [John] and Bernie [Taupin], Paul Simon ...”

He has also released an audio memoir – Break Shot – which takes him back to his turbulent early years, finishing with that first London trip. He is anxious, he says, about how the memoir will be received. It covers his father’s alcoholism and his brother’s death from the disease, as well as his own drug addiction, all of which, he worries, could be sensationalised. But the memoir is mostly about the shattering effect that early childhood trauma, addiction and grief can have generations later. It’s a subtle exploration of the “ripples”, as Taylor puts it.

Born in Boston in 1948, Taylor was, according to his memoir, “brought up devoted to progressive politics, self-improvement and the arts”. His father, a doctor, moved the family to the south when he became the dean of the medical school of the University of North Carolina; his mother didn’t want to go, and fought against the politics she found there. She saw the north-eastern state of Massachusetts as a “lost Eden” and would spend her days doing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, on protests, and hauling her five kids to Martha’s Vineyard every summer to “restore our Yankee credentials”. Not long after moving the family to North Carolina, Taylor’s father was assigned to the navy. He spent two years on an expedition to the south pole, where he held the keys to the liquor cabinet of 100 men. He went to the bottom of the world and returned with a serious drinking problem.

“There’s a mysterious energy to someone who lives with a tragedy like this,” Taylor says of his father. “It’s like when you take your report card home from school and you know that if you hand it to him before he’s had his first drink, you’re going to get one response and if you hand it to him after his first drink, you’ll get another.”

Was his dad abusive? “No,” he says firmly. “My father was a remarkable and powerful and beautiful guy who self-medicated with alcohol ... But he was by no means an abusive or stumble-bum or knee-walking or ditch-sleeping drunk.”

Still, an unpredictable parent is rarely a recipe for a stable adulthood. “Sure,” he says. “But complacent happiness is not a gift of the gods, either.”

Taylor began playing guitar in his teens, strumming along to his parents’ record collection: Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Judy Garland, Lead Belly. Fingerpicking became his vernacular as much as his lyrics. His first big hit, Fire and Rain, about the suicide of a friend, includes the themes that came to define his songwriting – the precarity of our emotional lives, happiness as something to be treasured and the natural world’s capacity for renewal. The line “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,” prompted Carole King to write You’ve Got a Friend for him in response.

It was during high school that he and his family began to unravel. He was admitted to the McLean psychiatric hospital at 16 with what we would now probably call depression and anxiety, staying there for nine months. Two of his siblings followed him there. “When I jumped the tracks and went to McLean, it’s like they thought: ‘Yeah, that’s right, we need this help.’ It became an option.”

When Taylor left hospital, the fund set aside for his university tuition had been spent on his treatment and he decided to go to New York to pursue music. He formed a band, the Flying Machine, and developed a heroin habit. “To be able to take a juice that solves your internal stress ...” he trails off. “One of the signs that you have an addiction problem is how well it works for you at the very beginning. It’s the thing that makes you say: ‘Damn, I like my life now.’ That’s when you know you shouldn’t do it again.” His wasn’t the addiction of rock mythology, chaotic and glamourised. Taylor says mostly he used the drug to “get normal”. Taylor’s breakout second album, Sweet Baby James. 

One day, his father called him in New York. “He said: ‘James, you don’t sound too good.’ I wasn’t.” Taylor was strung out, broke and still very unwell. His dad drove through the night, arriving at his West Side apartment the next day. “It’s a cynical thing,” he says. “But, you know, a mother really has to be there. But a father? Well, you can construct a father out of a few good episodes.” It was on that long drive home that his father warned him opiates were like kryptonite to the Taylors. “As a kid, his uncle said to him: ‘If you’re a Taylor and you touch an opiate, you’re finished. You can just kiss your entire life goodbye.’” His father’s family had owned a sanatorium, the Broadoaks asylum in Morganton, North Carolina. “After the civil war, there was a huge opiate problem. A lot of the business in the sanatorium was treating addiction – a lot of mental health problems were secretly addiction problems,” he says.

Taylor boarded a flight to London shortly after New Year’s Day 1968. His friend had given him the number of Peter Asher, the brother of McCartney’s then girlfriend Jane Asher; he had just been hired as a talent scout for the Beatles’ new label. Asher liked Taylor’s demo and arranged an audition with McCartney and Harrison. “I was very nervous. But I was also, you know, on fire,” he laughs. “In my sort of mellow, sensitive way.” He played his song Something In the Way She Moves (a line Harrison pinched for the opening line of his song Something) and they signed him then and there to make his eponymous first album. At the time, the Beatles were making the White Album. “We intersected in the studio a lot,” says Taylor. “They were leaving as I was coming in. I often came in early and would sit in the control room and listen to them recording – and hear playbacks of what they had just cut.” Did you hang out together? “Yeah,” he says. I ask if the band was unravelling by that point. “Well, it was a slow unraveling, but it was also an extremely creative unravelling.”

Heroin and other opiates were very available and very cheap in London at the time. “I picked up pretty soon after I got here,” he says. “I started by …” he pauses. “I shouldn’t go into this kind of stuff. It’s not an AA meeting.” Then he continues. “But you used to be able to buy something called Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, which was an old-fashioned medication. Essentially, it was a tincture of opium, so you’d drink a couple of bottles and you could take the edge off.” Was it hard to kick the habit, given the circles he was moving in? “Well, I was a bad influence to be around the Beatles at that time, too.” Why? “Because I gave John opiates.” Did you introduce him to them? “I don’t know,” he says. Lennon, by many accounts, picked up a heroin habit in 1968 that contributed to an unhealable rift in the band.

A year later, after being released from his Apple contract, Taylor went to a rehab facility and moved to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, a deep-green crease that runs through the Hollywood Hills – which was becoming a haven for the young, politically aware and creative. It was, he says, a rare instance where something heralded as a golden age really was one. A new generation of singer-songwriters came up through the Troubadour nightclub, their work focusing on the internal and domestic, and borrowing from the roots of American song: country, bluegrass, folk.

“It really was a perfect moment, that Laurel Canyon period,” Taylor says. “Carole lived up there, Joni and I lived in her house there for the better part of a year. The record companies were relatively benign and there were people in them who cared about the music and the artists – it hadn’t become a corporate monolith yet. There was a sense of there being a community: myself, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Crosby, Stills and Nash. David Geffen was in the mix a lot. Linda Ronstadt, Peter Asher, Harry Nilsson. You know, it was pretty much what they say. Things really worked well.”

While in rehab, he had written most of the songs for his second album, his breakout, Sweet Baby James. He enlisted King to play keyboard; he then played on her 1971 album Tapestry. His relationship with Mitchell lasted a year, much of it on the road: she was composing the songs for her classic album Blue – he, meanwhile, was writing his third album, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, including the gorgeous You Can Close Your Eyes, written for her. But behind the scenes, their relationship was struggling. As Taylor’s career took off, his addiction dragged him down again. Mitchell mourned their split on her album For the Roses in the song Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, a devastating eyewitness account of a person “bashing in veins for peace”. I ask Taylor if he is able to listen to Mitchell’s music from that time. “Blue, oh yes,” he says. “And she sings so beautifully on my songs.” What about Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire? He goes quiet. “It’s not like listening to me,” he whispers.

What is it like? He hangs his head for some time, silent. “I’m not able to listen to it,” he says.

I ask if he’s still in touch with Mitchell and his face lights up for the first time. “We’ve continued to have a friendship and, well, I recently sort of re-engaged with Joni, and that’s been wonderful. She came to a show of mine recently, at the Hollywood Bowl, which was an unusual thing for her to do.” Mitchell has been recovering from a period of ill health after a brain aneurysm in 2015. “But she’s recovering, she’s coming back – which is an amazing thing to be able to do – and I wonder what she has to tell us about that.” When you say “coming back” does he mean she’s making music? “Yes, I think she’s coming back musically ... It’s amazing to see her come back to the surface.”

Taylor has four children: two with his first wife, Carly Simon, whom he married in 1972. And two with his third wife, Kim Smedvig, whom he married in 2001. Given the experience with his own dad, is he critical of himself as a father? “God, yes, definitely,” he says. “You know, my kids actually say to me: ‘You’re not your dad, you know? You can relax. You’re in no danger of repeating it again. For one thing, you’re sober, and for another thing you’re here and paying attention.’” He was 26 when he married Simon, who was four years his senior. He talks about their marriage very rarely. But she devoted most of her 2015 memoir to unpicking it. “I was very young,” he says. “And I would be an addict for another 10 years. I mean, you marry an addict, you just have no idea who this person is, and he doesn’t have any idea who he is either. It’s terrible.”

In 1983, Taylor got sober, attending AA. But it is an ongoing process, getting clean. He took methadone to address his heroin usage, and that became a “powerful addiction” in itself. “It really lives in your bones; I mean, it just takes for ever to get over it.” It helped to see addiction as a “physical disease”, too. “You’ve trained your body to accept a substance when you feel stress, but that help doesn’t last for ever. It has a negative progression. That’s the only reason people get better. And so you’re left with a feeling that when you encounter stress, you feel it physically, and it feels like withdrawing. It’s a nasty way to feel. And the only advice I give to people who are recovering from addiction is that physical exercise is the only antidote to feeling like you can’t stand being in your own skin.” Is that how it feels? “It’s terrible. It’s like you don’t want to be here,” he says, motioning to his body. “But in here is where you live.” For 15 years, Taylor exercised for hours every day: running and rowing. “It set me free,” he says.

He hopes this year to perform to help get out the vote ahead of the US presidential election. He met Donald Trump once, “in an airport. I just thought of him as a frivolous, minor player. It drives me crazy how unworthy he is of our attention and how much of it he has.” He is rooting for the Democratic candidates Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren – both from Massachusetts, where he now lives. “But at this point, I’d be happy to see pretty much anyone in – the bar is so low. Because the very worst person possible that you could think to be heading the thing is there. It’s like the Confederacy has won the civil war.”

As the interview ends, Taylor gets up and shakes my hand. I thank him for his honesty, and tell him his experiences – and the thoughtful way he talks about recovery – are doubtless helpful to other addicts. He leaves the room, comes back and shakes my hand again. Then he leans in and gives me a long, warm embrace, before heading off to be photographed, walking into the light again.

James Taylor’s new album American Standard (Fantasy Records) is released on 28 February

Saturday 15 February 2020

Picasso and Paper at The Royal Academy - review

Femmes à leur toilette, 1937–38

Picasso and Paper: the doodling genius who loved a scrap – review
Royal Academy, London
From a cut-out dove Picasso made aged eight to the sketches that led to Guernica, this spectacular show displays a relentless creativity on any paper that came to hand

Adrian Searle
The Guardian
Monday 20 January 2020

Wherever he went, whatever he did, Picasso left a paper trail of sketchbooks, studies, oils and gouaches, pencil and ink, crayon and charcoal drawings, prints (woodcuts and linocuts, lithographs, etchings, engravings) and other works on laid and wove papers, Japanese papers, watermarked Arches paper, embossed papers, newspaper, wallpaper, hotel headed notepaper, menu cards, wrapping paper, napkins and any old scraps and bits of card that came to hand. He accumulated paper, squirrelled it away, and never threw anything out. He was a hoarder.
Head of a Woman, 1962

Every kind of paper has its qualities – even the most disposable, or the nastiest wallpaper pattern. All of which Picasso was alert to, a connoisseur of the cheap and mass produced as well as the handmade and the specialised, as he folded, glued together, cut and tore, basted in ink and washes, drew on and rubbed into. Paper for him was a medium (just as was paint, clay or plaster) to be manipulated. And as he worked he was always finding, losing and refinding his subjects, whether it was a fish or a faun, a woman or a guitar, a portrait or a skull. The multiple transformations he performed in his art evidence his unnerving vitality, his recklessness and confidence, his altogether too-muchness.
Seated Woman (Dora), 1938

Picasso and sculpture, Picasso and photography, Picasso and the theatre, Picasso and ceramics, Picasso and Matisse, Picasso’s Picassos … is there no end to the ways in which the artist has been re-examined, in exhibition after exhibition, study after study, both during his long career and even more since his death aged 91, in 1973? And let’s not forget the biopics, the Guernica souvenir key-rings or the car that bears his name. You might imagine that the artist would be buried under all that evaluation, all that adulation, all those analyses, not just of his work but also of his personal life, all those relationships, all that cruelty and monstrousness and machismo and all the ephemeral junk, never mind all that art. And now Picasso and Paper, filling the Royal Academy galleries.
Self-portrait, 1918

All that said, there is always more to be said, so much to look at. What this exhibition provides is but one more overview, whose backbone is his entire career, a rehearsal of movements and moments that takes us from his very earliest cut-out paper figures of a characterful, squat little terrier and a dove, made when he was eight or nine, to a skull-like self-portrait, drawn the year before he died. Hanging alone on a white wall, an urgent hurry of black-and-white crayon, it looks back at us at us and everything we’ve encountered through room after room, filled with both major and minor developments in his art.
Violin, Paris, 1912

Somewhere along the way those earliest, cut-out little creatures return, in scissored paper shapes cut by an adult: a cuttlefish, a feather, light bulbs and a fishing float, and nasty little paper faces and skulls whose eyes and mouths have been burned through the paper, most likely with the tip of a lighted cigarette. He made these last, gruesome shreds in Paris in 1942. They stop me short, a sort of human litter, a deathly confetti.
Bust of Woman or Sailor (Study for 'Les Demoiselles d’Avignon'), 1907

The variety of the works here, their registers and application, range through all the periods of Picasso’s development. Each section of the show is accompanied by key paintings and sculptures of their times. A life-sized reproduction Les Demoiselles d’Avignon takes the place of the real thing, while the scale of Guernica (itself a kind of drawing as much as it is a painting) is indicated by Dora Maar’s series of black-and-white photographs of the painting in progress, wedged at an angle in the big loft space where Picasso painted it. Picasso filled 16 notebooks, as well as making innumerable individual studies, in his preparation of Les Demoiselles, and Guernica was subject to almost as much preparation and revision. We are apt to forget how much thinking went on in the lead up to many of his paintings and sculptures.
Pablo Picasso, Study for the Horse Head (I). Sketch for ‘Guernica’, Paris, 2 May 1937 Pencil on paper, 21 x 15.5 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid Archivo Fotográfico Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid © Succession Picasso/DACS 2020 FAD MAGAZINE
Study for the Horse Head (I). Sketch for ‘Guernica’, 1937

He took his own photographs too, notably here of the huddled buildings on the lower river Ebro, one of the formative places where he began to develop the idea of cubism. As much as cubism is rich with the atmosphere of Paris bars, a glass of wine and the newspaper and the urban everyday, it was also the product of the tightly packed jumbled buildings in Horta de Ebro, in Cadaqués and the high Pyrenean village of Gósol. Cubism was also an art of collage and bricolage, the found and the invented coming together.
'Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe' after Manet I, 1962

While each section of the exhibition alights on a major theme – cubism and neo-classicism and surrealism, with Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, the war years and his later re-engagement with Manet and Delacroix – the pleasures of the exhibition are in individual works, in all their variety of touches and tempos. The wonderful tiny card and string guitars, delicate confections made with twine and card sewn on to a discarded pharmaceutical packet, those little cut-outs, drawings of mad faces, a plaster cast of a crumpled sheet of paper, like a gigantic mollusc or a loaf, the overdrawings he did on Vogue fashion spreads and pin-up shots, cartoonish figures and the closely observed all come together here; it is clear that drawing and its manipulations of edges and spaces, volume and flatness is at the heart of everything for Picasso. Even his poems are drawn as much as written. He couldn’t seem to stop himself.
Pablo Picasso drawing in Antibes, 1946 (by Michael Sima)

There is a story that once, in a cafe in the south of France, the patron asked if Picasso might do a little doodle, on a paper tablecloth or the menu as a memento. The artist shrugged and said he’d just like to pay for the meal – he didn’t want to buy the restaurant.

Picasso and Paper is at the Royal Academy, London, 25 January to 13 April

Friday 14 February 2020

John Boorman interview

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The Emerald Forest

John Boorman: 'You think the holy grail is lost? No. I have it on my piano

The director of classic Hollywood films including Excalibur, Point Blank and Deliverance lives alone in a giant house in rural Ireland. He talks about his career, growing old – and his obsession with the trees in his garden

The Guardian
13 Feb 2020

Last summer, John Boorman embarked on what may prove to be his final film production. The location was the garden of his big house in Ireland. The cast were the towering trees that stand around it. During the 11-minute span of Tree Poems, Boorman tells us about the sycamore, the willow and the monkey puzzle he used to drape with Christmas lights every year. The director comes shuffling up the gravel drive, leaning on his stick, an old man among giants. When he turns back towards home, he vanishes from the frame.

Death, he admits, has been on his mind lately. Dead friends and forgotten films; successes and regrets. He turned 87 a few weeks ago, so it is small wonder he spends most of his time walking in nature and peering hard into the rear-view mirror. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” he says. “But there’s always the nagging sense that I could have made more, I could have done more. And that’s what sometimes keeps me up at night.”

The director has just written a book, Conclusions, in an attempt to exorcise these ghosts, or at least direct them towards some higher purpose. He wanted to write something that was part memoir, part instruction manual; a series of observations and life lessons. Except he now worries he didn’t quite bring it off, he says. The book is too scattershot and inconclusive. He jokes that he ought to have called it Confusions instead.
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Point Blank

It’s the dead of winter when I arrive at the Glebe, his secluded home in the Wicklow mountains. Boorman is bundled in a knitted jumper, his hair platinum as if from the frost. There is a daily allocation of pills on the table, a walker at his elbow and a stack of Oscar screeners (Hustlers, Booksmart, The Irishman) on the coffee table by his knee. When I ask how he is, he briskly lists all his ailments: hearing loss, failing eyesight, neuropathy, the works. “Old age is a series of giving things up. I can’t swim, I can’t run, I can’t drive a car or ride horses. I take a daily walk up the drive and back. Break the journey on a wooden bench.” He laughs shortly. “It usually takes me about an hour.”

If Boorman risks pushing himself too hard, that’s surely because he’s a natural-born drill sergeant; his own harshest critic. In the case of Conclusions, I think his doubts are unfounded. The book’s a lovely miscellany, loose and limber, juggling film-making tips (“Don’t make the script too good”) with gossipy recollections of 60s and 70s Hollywood. Back then, Boorman could hardly turn a corner without running into the likes of Marlon Brando, Billy Wilder, Akira Kurosawa or Cary Grant. The existential Point Blank (1967) got him noticed; the mighty Deliverance (1972) made him a star. The way Boorman tells it, there was no master plan. He bounced from the bedsits of London to the BBC to a lucrative film-making career overseas.
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The Hollywood years were good while they lasted. But, by and large, he says he preferred independence: less money, more freedom. Boorman was always happier in the mainstream than Nicolas Roeg or Ken Russell, his closest contemporaries. But his work has a similar cockeyed abandon, a similar whiff of pagan mysticism. Films such as Zardoz, Excalibur or The Emerald Forest feel borderline malarial, on the brink of overheating. You watch them nervously, concerned for their safety.

He shrugs. “Well, I have a different relationship with different films. When I see Point Blank again I think: ‘How on earth did I get away with that?’ And Deliverance is very compelling. The craftsmanship is good. And as for Zardoz, I don’t know what the hell it is. But I think they’re all bold films, for better or worse.”

Then there are the ones that got away. The hits (such as Rocky and Alien) he turned down because the scripts left him cold. Or the passion projects he was forced to abandon. Boorman estimates that he spent more time on the films that didn’t get made than on those that did.
Image result for john boorman zardoz

In the early 70s, for instance, he corresponded with JRR Tolkien about a screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, a full 30 years before Peter Jackson brought it safely home. Boorman wanted to shoot the whole saga as a single three-hour picture. “I saw it as this big dystopian story,” he says. “And in this house, upstairs, we papered the walls with each scene. We’d look at it, stare at it and try to get some sense out of it. And I had all sorts of solutions. I was going to cast nine- or 10-year-old boys as the hobbits. Put them in makeup; beards and things. And then dub them with adult voices.”

Jesus, I say. It would have been a disaster.

“Yeah well,” he chuckles. “It might have been.”

The director released his last feature film – the gentle, semiautobiographical Queen and Country – in 2015. Some days he thinks he would like to make another. Mostly he is glad to have put all that bother behind him. He has spent the bulk of his life at cinema’s beck and call, simultaneously loving it and hating it, like Ulysses lashed to the mast of his ship. It’s a blessed relief to be cut down at last.
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The General

This reminds him of a story. In 1997, he made The General, a superb true-crime drama about the Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. On the eve of production, a doctor told him that he could drop dead at any second, and needed a heart bypass right away. “I’m shooting a film!” Boorman snapped back. “And that’s much more important than life or death.”

Happily for him, the diagnosis turned out to be wrong. It was a false negative; his heart was clear. Even so, what an idiot, right? “Looking back at it objectively, it was a ridiculous thing to say and do. Your life is at risk, and you go shooting a film? But that’s honestly how I saw it – as something more important than reality. I don’t any more.” He frowns. “I don’t think that I do.”

It’s cold in the room; Boorman reaches for a blanket. Probably the house has grown too big for his needs. The Glebe is a former rectory, built on the old monastic lands of Glendalough. His neighbour on one side is a 96-year-old hill farmer who still gets up for work every day. His neighbour on the other is Daniel Day-Lewis, recently retired. “Given up,” the director says. “The process made him exhausted. He felt all hollowed out and depressed. So I think in the end, he had just had enough.”
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Hope and Glory - shamefully not mentioned here...

Boorman bought the Glebe in auction in 1969 and it went on to become the perfect family home, a base camp for adventure. Conclusions recounts boozy dinners and festive get-togethers. One night, Lee Marvin sat drunk at the head of the table; on another, Sean Connery spun tales of childhood poverty back in Scotland. Now Boorman has the entire place to himself. He is twice-divorced, and the kids have flown. He looks forward to visitors, but breathes a sigh of relief when they go.

“At my age, so many of my friends are dead that I have a feeling of being marooned,” he says. “My generation is nearly gone. So I just have to accept that’s the way things are. One thing after another disappears. You get more and more isolated. And, finally, you die.”

He suspects he has become something of a hermit. But that’s not so bad; he enjoys his own company. The only time he feels lonely is when he wakes in the night and needs to pee. He’ll creep half-asleep out of bed without turning on any lights to avoid waking his wife, and only twigs that the place is empty when he is picking his way blindly along the upstairs landing.
With Excalibur

We sit in the living room, variously gazing out at the trees or up at the bookshelves. I ask which possessions in the house are of particular value, and he points out the bronze cast of the hands of his eldest daughter, Telsche, who died of ovarian cancer more than 20 years ago. He also has Excalibur propped in a corner of the room – forged especially for the film by Wilkinson Sword. I pull it from the sheath; the blade is heavy and bright. Boorman’s humid account of King Arthur knocked me for six when I saw it as a kid in 1981. Brandishing the sword, I feel like the star of my own private mock-epic.
“Oh, and one other thing,” the director says at my back. “You think the holy grail is lost? Well, actually, no. I have it on my piano.”

Making films was always an escape for Boorman; a distraction from the inevitable. “When you’re shooting a film, you can convince yourself that death does not exist. I suppose that’s true of a lot of other activities. Sex or work or whatever it is. But it’s about being so busy and so focused that all thoughts of death just fall away.”
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Thinking about it now, he reckons he has always been much braver on set than off it. “Oh definitely,” he says. “I’ve done stuff in films that I wouldn’t have dared to do in normal circumstances. In my life, in my family, in my relationships, I’ve been cowardly. Whereas if I’d been presented with the same kind of problems on a film set, I feel that I would have been very brave and decisive.”

We prop the sword back in its corner and retreat to the kitchen for fishcakes and white wine. The director accepts that the sensible solution would be to move out of the house. His daughter, Daisy, has a small flat in London where she would like him to live. But so far he has been resisting. He says the very thought makes him claustrophobic. On top of all that, it would mean saying goodbye to his trees. He suspects that the trees still have something to tell him. He would like to learn how they manage to communicate with one another, or the process by which sap travels up a trunk.

Boorman has spent the large part of his life in a romantic entanglement with the movies. He seems to be ending it infatuated by trees. That’s quite the violent change of gears. I can’t imagine there’s any connection there. “Well, you see,” he says. “I think perhaps there is. Because when you’re making a film, you are trying to find the essential truth of it. You’ve got the script and the actors. But what’s underneath that, and where is it going? And all the while, the film is changing and growing around you. You’re trying to hold on to a vision, but at the same time you have to go with the flow. And that’s the way I look at trees. You plant them. Lots of them die. Some of them are eaten by other animals. And some of them survive, grow and become these great giants.”

The director nods at the window and the wintry garden outside. “I bought this house 50 years ago,” he says. “So I’ve seen the span of the trees on the land. A lot of the trees that I planted, I’ve now outlived. The rest of them will outlive me.”