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Dartmouth Park Avenue Film Club, February Meeting Part 3: A Canterbury Tale

(Further Elucidatory notes from the first meeting of Dartmouth Park’s second best film club).


A Canterbury Tale

Dir: Michael Powell





On the other hand, there is plenty to say about A Canterbury Tale that hasn’t been said, as it is to my mind one of the great unrecognised masterpieces of British cinema.  The problem is with it is how to describe something that is functionally indescribable.  One of the best essays I’ve read on it is by Kim Newman, the Empire critic.  The fact that this essay was part of a series on Extreme Cinema, more focussed around directors like Cronenberg, Lynch, Miike and Chan Woo-Park shows you just how extraordinarily odd the film is. 



Like Touch of Evil, it isn’t perfect by any means.  The wonderful I Know Where I’m Going is the nearest comparison among Powell’s other films, but where that film reins its sense of awe at history, location, nationality, nature and the potential of cinema into the form of a charming, shaggy romantic comedy, ACTis, for much of its running time, essentially plotless.   What plot it does have (a US soldier seemingly incapable of getting a few miles down the road, and the search for an extremely odd public nuisance) gives “paper-thin” a bad name; the central performance  (by Sgt John Sweet, an actual American soldier touring in a US Army production of Our Town, who gave his entire fee to the NAACP) is charming in that is so amateurish; and the moral lesson it apparently hands out just before the final, Canterbury section of the film is ambiguous in the extreme (to the extent that Archers stalwart Roger Livesey refused to take part in the film). 



Films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes have a much more orderly and accomplished sense of brilliance to them. But what distinguishes  A Canterbury Tale is a sense of unrestrained, mystical lyricism that is literally unlike anything else in film.  It’s a soaring hymn to England by a man living at a time when all that it represented to him was under threat.  Although despised as pretentious and ridiculous (both of which it is) at the time, it now seems to make a case for the country as a place worth fighting for more profoundly and more powerfully than any other – certainly more than the far more respected, successful, US-made Mrs. Miniver. 


Sitting at the hitherto-unimaginable nexus between Ealing comedy, The Wind in The Willows, neo-realism, post-modern literature (Darkmans by Angela Barker  has striking similarities), romantic poetry, Hammer horror, German expressionist cinema, conceptual art, folk music and carpentry, it is a inspiring one off, and a film that has enormous influence today (on, for instance, Days of Heaven, and as a result the far inferior There Will Be Blood).  And it has a falcon turning into a spitfire, what else do you want?






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Dartmouth Park Avenue Film Club February Meeting Part 2: Touch of Evil

 (A copy of notes distributed for the edification of all at the inaugural meeting of the Dartmouth Park Film Club, February 2nd 2008.  SJF curating, CNAG, NA, J (“TLOK”) L in attendence )

 Touch of Evil, (1958 )

Dir: Orson Welles






There’s very little to say about Touch Evil that hasn’t been said a million times.  The opening crane shot, which is rightly famous (and also, incidentally, the perfect example of Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: if you watch a board meeting and a bomb goes off, that’s a thrill.  If you see a bomb attached to the bottom of a boardroom table, then watch a board meeting take place, that’s suspense). The general air of weirdness, best summed up by Charlton Heston playing a Mexican.  The incredible performance given by Welles himself, and the riveting sight of the boy wonder in physical decline. The decision to make a great film out of the worst script available. The brilliant last line. The studio interference. 


What I’ve always found interesting about the film, apart from all of the above, obviously, is that it seems a film out of time.  With its almost oppressively flamboyant air of directorial flamboyance, technical brilliance, obsession with the auteur figure, love-hate relationship with genre, narrative implausability (pretty much to the point of being downright incomprehensible), spinning moral compass,  almost comic air of sexual and social perversity and combination of grandeur and self-loathing, Touch of Evil is basically the earliest example of 1970’s cinema.  It’s a Jim Thomson novel adapted by Paul Schrader and shot by Coppola, with Altman on sound.  Which is, y’know, A Very Good Thing. 


Interestingly enough, Welles himself put his problems with the Hollywood system (in particular on this film) down to the amount of time he took editing, which repeatedly resulted in final cuts being taken out of his hands. We can only imagine what we might have produced if he’d been born twenty years later and indulged even half as much as Altman, Malick, Coppola or, terrifyingly, Cimino.




Perhaps the most interesting parrallel, though, is with a Sam Peckinpah film, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia.  Both present the US/ Mexican borderland a kind of spiritual vortex, corroding those who are in contact with it for too long, but what is more interesting is that both films are the last testament of Hollywood outsiders.  Bring Me…has been called “a self-portait in black” – it’s a howl of despair by an artist who sees himself as a bartender in a whorehouse, humiliated by his need for cash.  Welles has never struck me as one for a howl of despair, much less nihilism, but if their was ever a triumphant smirk of despair, Touch of Evil is it. It’s a film about corruption, but also (as most films featuring Welles are) about Welles.  And the result of that math is Quinlan, the apex of the noir anti-hero (and, incidentally, still living in the character of Tim Willocks’ Captain Clarence Jefferson in the tremendous Bad City Bluesand Blood Stained Kings) a brilliant man so far from civilisation for so long that he inspires nothing but disgust in anyone who isnt as corrupt as he is, morally and physically (and let’s face it, half the thrill of Quinlan is the physicality: Welles doesn’t hide his matinee idol-turned-Kurtz in the darkness to spare him the self-loathing (as Coppolla did with Brando), he puts the spotlight on him glories in it.  And it’s himself).  


Finally, it’s all about Welles, and I’ll avoid the temptation to end cheesily on Marlene Deitrich’s famous description of Quinlan here, but instead quote Janet Leigh, who said of the making of the film, in what could have been a description of Welles career and life:


“Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn’t want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes.”

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Dartmouth Park Avenue Film Club February Meeting Part 1: Opening Remarks.

Transcript of a speech given by Mr. SJ Fish at the inaugral meeting of the Dartmouth Park Avenue Film Club, Saturday February 2nd 2009.

Attendees: Mr C Avrille-Gothard, VSOP.  Mr.  N Auld BSO, RCA.  Mr J Levison (“The Lion of Kabul.” of music hall fame).

 (Some moments pause while devilled kidneys, champagne and strong tea is served).

picture1 Mr Fish:

Good afternoon, Gentlemen, and welcome.   This afternoon’s presentation is a double bill, comprised of Touch of Evil” (1958 ) and “A Canterbury Tale” (1944)



(roar of approbation, to the accompaniment of Mr Levison’s batman O’Doon playing an Irish reel on the Jug)

Superficially, these films have very little in common other than the fact that they were both disasters for their creators, later recognised as masterpieces .  Touch of Evil is a hyper-seedy noir set in Mexico that seethes with ambiguity, marks the path to 1970’s cinema and – despite a quite shockingly stellar cast – emphatically rammed a nail into Orson Welles’ Hollywood coffin by being re-cut (as usual) by the studio and released as a B movie (bottom of the bill to The Female Animal, a film which has subsequently failed to trouble cinema historians overly).  A Canterbury Tale is a wartime oddity, which is pretty much unclassifiable; lyrical, philosophically complex, and has a quite obvious amateur actor in the main role.  It was, as a result, the first critical and commercial disaster of Michael Powell and Emmerich Pressburger’s careers together and was only available in a bowdlerised US re-cut until the late 1970s.  The versions we have today are as close to the original cuts as possible, though unfortunately Welles’ original version was never actually completed.

That said, there’s a bit more to the selection of these two films than the fact that a few of you haven’t seen them and I really fancied watching them this afternoon (although I really wouldn’t underestimate that as a factor).   Unlike many films, even great films, both A Canterbury Tale and Touch of Evil show a real understanding of the potential of cinema as an art-form rather than a medium. Which could explain their poor initial reception, to be honest. Both of them are the work of geniuses at the top of their game. And, luckily, both of them are in my opinion loads of fun.  As a side-point, both of them have absolutely ROCKING first scenes.


On which note, gentlemen, charge your glasses, sit back, and prepare to be taken on a journey from the hell of the mexican border to the heaven of the Kent countryside, from Marlene Deitrich to Dennis Price and from a ticking bomb to a performance of JS Bach. I give you: Touch of Evil and A Canterbury Tale.


 (Mr Fish sits, to the sound of hearty shuffling of order papers and a round of rambunctious hear hears)









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Second Hand Books: A Love Letter.


 (Note to the unsuspecting reader:  This week’s post contains even more pretension and floaty prose than other instalments of our weekly serialised adventure.  You thought it wasn’t possible!  But, WE PROVED YOU WRONG….) 




I love books.  I love everything about books, not just their contents.  I know I’m not alone in this, but it’s my dime so I’ll continue. 


If I’m honest, I think that to really love books (books, mind, not the contents), you have to love second hand books.  New books are fine, obviously.  They’re great.  There’s a kind of clean, still expectancy from all of them when you are wandering round Waterstones in Picadilly, or wherever else you stock up on your three-for-twos, and the arrival of a pre-ordered book, pinned down cleansided and fresh against the inside of an Amazon box, would in any sane world (which would of course be run by Wodehouse or Jerome) be celebrated by law with the opening of a bottle of champagne, but new books….well, inescapably, they’re just…new, aren’t they? And a new book, like winning the league with Chelsea, is just somehow, fundamentally, missing the point. 



New books

New books


To put it another way, new books are like Catherine Deneauve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  Old books, on the other hand, are like Catherine Deneauve in The Hunger.  Which is a simile I’ll leave there, rather than embarass us all any further.   



Old books

Old books

 I love old books.  This we have established. I love the shape of them, or the fat, fanned out or sort-of-casually-bundled non-shape of them. The various formats of them, how they’ve changed down the years.  The higgedly-piggeldy variety of shapes and colours that sit on my bookshelves and refuse to be uniform.  Their trends in production and marketing: now square, now high-gloss, now fashionably uncoated and roughcut.  The different prices marking the eras (75p for a copy of Ragtime?!  PRP?!). Cover-design memes metastatising across whole genres.  The traditional endpapers with ads for books forgotten like mildly forlorn but strangely exotic lonely hearts ads :


Life Class

Ludwig Bemelmans



The experiences of a first generation American who worked as a waiter in New York (1s 6d). ‘An artist in both line and words.’ – The Observer


a tradition now sadly replaced with the crisp New Labour-era bourgeois pretension of the Note on Font (we’ll see how long that lasts. In a year or two, no-one’ll give a toss what the font is, as long as the bloody thing goes well with sautéed rat).  The late 70-‘s/early 80’s ones with covers that all seemed to be modelled on the opening credits of Tales of the Unexpected.  Insert spooky theme music here.

The raw, Madison Avenue ballsiness of a copy of “Million Selling!!!” The Naked and the Dead with a cover illustration that could have been a poster for a Howard Hughes film. The sad, crisp modernity of all those remaindered copies, second hand before their time, sitting in stacked, repetitive piles of Julian Barneses and Ian iphone-pics-008Mcewans (and I defy you not to find a copy of Atonement in any second hand book shop, stinking the place out and tripping you up as you try to snag a copy of Zorba the Greek, or one of David Niven’s autobiographies or iphone-pics-003something similarly worthwhile).




I love the idea of them, and others who loved the idea of them. All of them are there, every time you rummage through a stack.  Whenever I see an old Penguin (and when I see one I usually try to buy it) I get one of these quick flashes: Allen Lane, overseeing a production line of books uniform and beautiful and full of life like anti-bullets, smoking a cigarette that came from a pack that costs as much as each of the orange-striped copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (or New Zealand Verse, or The Odyssey, or What Hitler Wants) before him.  




Allen Lane, when not changing the world.

Allen Lane, when not changing the world


Second Hand books are packed with the histories not just of the characters, but the people who made them; tweedy commissioning editors in the Garrick in the 60’s, unionised typesetters, suit-wearing graphic designers and the GI Bill-educate Angry Young Writers tucked in those end pages. 

And of course the people who read them before you. The people who dogear the pages and leave blood orange thumb prints halfway through, who use train tickets to Croydon as bookmarks, occasionally have a fetish for underlining words and, and of course here’s the holy grail, aren’t the type of freaks who write their names in EVERY BOOK THEY OWN (why? why would you do that?  No, seriously, why?), but are the type of people who write comments like “C – I can’t say how sorry I am. J.” in the inside cover of Bel Canto.  





What I also love, perhaps as much as the things themselves, freighted with big heavy meta-textual significance as I’ve just made them sound, is the buying process.  If there was a God (and again, in any sensible world this would likely be either Wodehouse or Jerome), second hand bookshops would be his places on earth: sitting on side-streets or in ridiculously out of the way places just breathing time and knowledge and silent accidentally recorded events in and out, in and out. 






 They are usually run by blokes with a liking for Radio 4 and a disliking for being interrupted by anything as trivial as  customers; books seem to arrive there by accident, and certainly without the help of anyone who would actually want to come in and hand some over (with one notable exception).  In the best cases the opening hours are designed specifically to minimise the chances of anyone actually being able to enter the establishment


They are the opposite of shops, utterly random, utterly unreliable, stocked with items that have – by definition – proved unworthy of purchase.  You go into them expecting to come out with something you never actually wanted.  Something like Resentment, by Gary Indiana, or The Knowledge of Angels by Jill Patton Walsh, or your third copy of The Big Money (but this is a square, blue, illustrated 1961 bargain edition, so it’s excusable).  They don’t sell products, they sell ragged, square, dirty bits of accidental time. They make no sense at all, really,  and when The Big Man comes back, they may well be the only reliable proof that we haven’t been pissing around quite horribly for the past 2000 years.  I’d very much like to own one myself, but I suspect they’re actually handed over rather than sold or established.  Probably by dying men at fogbound railway stations at midnight, the key pressed between the pages of a worn copy of The Kraken Awakes.


 Undeniably Excusable



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What we talk about when we talk about: A Change is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke.

Welcome to the unedifying sight of me jumping onto the Baraxploitation bandwagon by shamelessly using today’s inauguration as an excuse to batter on about one of my favourite songs, recorded by one of my heroes. 






One of the more impressive elements (among many) of the Obama campaign, to my mind, has been its capacity to strike an almost-perfect balance between a long-standing narrative (the Civil Rights movement) which was both vital to his candidacy but potentially deeply divisive, and a “new” narrative (post-race, post-culture-war politics) that was incredibly inclusive.  (Think of it as the political version fourth series of The Wire, if you want). 


Key to this was ability to manage iconography that delivered against both objectives, often simply by exploiting the imagery of a black man playing the role stereotypically taken by a white man:  Obama not as MLK, but JFK; Obama as Lincoln, Obama vs Jesse Jackson, Obama the iceman intellectual.  More subtle than this, though, has been the capacity of Obama the man, and the Obama organisation, to condense the semitotics of both these narratives into one set of images that is equally relevant to the constituencies of each. (check me out…)  There’s an excellent article (from the beginning of the year, and consequently chock-a-block with unintended irony) here, which shows in detail how this was achieved in the rhetoric of the campaign.


Interestingly, Raban’s article focuses on the idea of Hope, which is very convenient, as what I’m going to talk about (yeah, you heard me, going to, I’ll get there eventually) is Change – a pillar of the Obama campaign which is often considered by critics  to be a New Labour-style  cipher, that can be picked up and used by anyone.  



Sam Cooke fan, and all-round Good Egg.

Sam Cooke fan, and all-round Good Egg.



Actually,  it’s a concept freighted with specific meaning, relating mostly to one song: “A Change is Gonna Come”, by Sam Cooke.  Don’t believe me?   One of the more rapturously received passages of Obama’s victory speech was the following:


“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”  


There are two things I love about Obama’s delivery of that passage.  First, it’s a beautiful example of his mastery of mode: always sounding exactly like himself, but  somehow getting a little bit country in the phrasing of “bin” and the dropping of the “g” in comin’.   Second is the classic set-em-up-knock-em-down structure: dangling the reference out there – teasing the audience with the prospect of an open acknowledgement of the reference by a man who had been so careful to (openly) present himself as beyond the shibboleths of the civil rights movement – then hammering home the emphatic delivery of the final clause.  It’s old school, almost shameless stagecraft, and it’s possibly a moment as vital in sealing the inclusion of the Civil Rights generation in his victory as Obama’s repudiation of Jeffrey Wright was in bringing white America to the polls. 


It’s possibly the most care and attention that has been paid to delivering a lyrical reference in political history.  Which is only right, as “A Change is Gonna Come” (I told you I was getting there) is a masterpiece by a genius who not only ruled two different fields of music and enormously influenced every singer who cites soul or R and B music as a reference, but also redefined what it meant to be a black musician, and then threw in the great anthem of the civil rights movement for good measure.  And he was pretty good looking as well, rather annoyingly.


Proactive Change-Agent

Proactive Change-Agent



The first thing about Sam Cooke (and if it was the ONLY thing about Sam Cooke, people would still be talking about Sam Cooke) is the Voice.  Jerry Wexler called Cooke “the best singer who ever lived, no contest”, and I’m not about to argue with the man who made Dire Straits sound good (among other things).   Christgau puts it well by saying that Cooke’s voice has “its lucid calm, its built-in smile”, but that (and his argument about Cooke’s “shallowness”) ignores the passion he could express, particularly in his gospel singing, and in “A Change….”.   It also ignores how that voice, and the amazing rasp it produced, would go on to prove influential not only to sweet crooners like Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Smokey Robinson, but white RnB singers, particularly in Britain in the sixties.  Listen to “What’s goin on?” or “ Maggie May”, and you’re hearing people grasping for that voice.


Talty  argues that Cooke’s gospel singing had “joy without reverence”, and I think that’s a very accurate description.  I’d disagree with him, though, on whether that made him secular (at that time).  Cooke just seems to be singing to an entirely different god to rest of the Soul Stirrers, or any other gospel singer. A more joyful, less judgemental god who would probably be better company in a bar and perhaps not entirely averse to stealing your girlfriend.  Listening to Sam Cooke sing about his God is, like much great religious art, almost enough to make you wish you had one yourself.


Cooke could do it all, and he did.  He had the clarity and richness of Sinatra, but sang religious songs; he was the most popular gospel singer in America by 26, then spent the following years becoming a pop legend by reigning his voice in; and when he was established as a pop star he let the voice go again and tore the roof off the Harlem Square club with a performance that is one of the best ever recorded.   All of this while setting up his own label and managing and producing himself and others. He’s been called the black Elvis,  but imagine (if you will) if Aled Jones has turned into Frank Sinatra, then gone electric at Newport, managed the Beatles and written “Blowin’ in the wind”. It’s a push, I know.  But Sam managed it, over the course of more than 120 recorded songs alone.


Blowin in the Wind Tv appearance

Blowin in the Wind Tv appearance


The “Blowin’ in the Wind comparison is particularly apt, as it was a direct inspiration for “A Change is Gonna Come”.  Cooke was, by repute, astounded both by the song itself, and the fact that it had been written by a white man.  Deciding that just covering the song wasn’t enough (though he made a pretty good stab at it ) – famously following an incident at a whites-only Louisiana motel in 1963 when he and his band were arrested for disturbing the peace when attempting to check in – he wrote his and recorded his response in 1964. 





It’s an extraordinary record, opening with Rene Hall’s “spooky” lush orchestration wrapping round the most beautiful howl of anguish you’ll ever hear, and ending with a note of the cautious optimism that Obama placed the seal on in Chicago in November.  In the intervening 3 minutes, Cooke’s voice tears into a first-person account of racism and despair, transforming the famous melisma of songs like “You send me” into something between a roar and a sigh before bringing home, through the Hall’s “anthem” ending, the prospect of what Jeremiah Wright calls, in Raban’s article, “Great Joy…coming in the morning”.   


The record was broadly ignored as a commercial entity at first,  finally released as the B-side to “Shake” two weeks after Sam Cookes death in December 1964, and its highest recorded chart position was at No.9 in the black singles chart in 1965. It’s fair to say that it had considerably more influence than that chart position may suggest.  It was, among many other things, the song Rosa Parks and her mother played when they heard Martin Luther King had died.


I was brought up believing that Cooke hadn’t died arguing with a prostitute and a motel about payment, that he hadn’t been shot down while trying to break into a locked motel lobby containing two (admittedly probably grifting) scared women.  It’s not a story many people want to hear.  It’s much more palatable to assume that this was somehow a cover story for a martyrdom – Sam as a victim of race and ignorance, not lust.  The more I read about it, however, the less this would appear to be the case.   Sam Cooke was undeniably a great man.  He was also, undeniably, just a man.  The incapacity of any man – no matter how seemingly-bottomless their potential for greatness – to be anything more than human, might well be something we want to bear in mind as a good man tries to tidy up after the worst president since James Buchanan.



(If you want to hear anything of Sam’s, I would suggest, as a starter “Portrait of a Legend”, which is a good greatest hits compilation, and “Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers” which is excellent for the gospel recordings, which are vital.  His best actual albums are probably “Night Beat” and “Live at the Harlem Square Club”.  A good recounting of his life and influence is covered in “Sweet Soul Music”, Peter Guralnick’s classic book on Southern Soul, and expanded on enormously in “Dream Boogie: the Triumph of Sam Cooke”, which I haven’t yet read.)


(PS – I’m painfully aware that this may be blindingly obvious to many people.  But I wrote it down anyway.  God bless you, wordpress.) 



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Pretty nice bally-hoo


In the interests of keeping your mind from the five distressing points below, feel free to distract yourself by opening this door (well, alright, clicking on the link in the picture) and entering the world of Orson Welles’ wonderful fourth-wall-breaking trailer for Citizen Kane.  Though less well known, it’s obviously an influence on, and in my opinion better than, the legendary (and still brilliant) Hitchcock Psycho trailer.  It’s still extraordinary that, at about the time this was made, Welles was still being briefed by his personal assistant and Greg Tolland  about the difference between an establishing shot and a close-up. Sit back and be comforted by two portly geniuses making great, form-challenging art…in order to advertise two works of great, form-challenging art…

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5 Things to DEFINITELY NOT think about today.

In tribute to the fact that today is officially the most depressing of the year, we proudly present the five things you’re really better off not considering while being rained on, trapped on a tube which is obeying “The Rule” –apparently a reference to not moving – or sitting at your desk feeling the cold from your feet slowly infect the joints of your knees.




5. The universe is “one billionth part matter to one billion parts velvet nothingness”.  Given the amount of matter it takes up to make up your what you laughingly imagine to be a meaningful existence, imagine how much else there is(n’t) out there, frankly entirely fucking indifferent as to whether that gobshite in the office spoilt the episode of “Hunter” you Sky Plus-ed last night, or, by extension, whether you live, die, achieve happiness, or are wiped out in a freak time-travelling incident by some similarly indifferent future chrononaut which means you never existed in the first place.  This is, of course, sophomoric pseudo-nihilistic posturing of the worst kind: welcome to the universe.





 4. I once spoke to a man who fell out of a plane.  He actually is the guy for whom The Chute Didn’t Open.  His key take-out from the experience was this:  You know when doctors tell you people don’t feel the impact?  That they go into shock or die from a heart-attack or lose consciousness?  That they, in short, fail to experience fully the nightmare of a collision at terminal velocity, preceded as it must be by the even more terrifying Approaching Prospect Of A Collision At Terminal Velocity ?  It’s bollocks.  And that shit goes on all the time.





 3. People actually tell each other “There’s always someone worse off than you” to cheer each other up.  







 2. That girl you used to go out with is actually, y’know, really happy.  Even though he hasn’t got as good a job as you.  In fact, that’s better, because he’ll be able to spend more time with the kids, when they decide the time is right.  Someone had to tell you, dude.






 1. Today is being referred to as “Blue Monday”, which is a very good song by New Order.  New Order rose from the ashes of a spectacularly depressing band, reforming themselves into a fairly depressing band with good beats.  Neither of these bands, nor the song Blue Monday, nor your life, can in any way manage to live up to the spectacularly baroque misery of the song Gloomy Sunday by Laszlo Javor and Reszo Seress. 


Aside from having the privilege of being the Billie Holiday song people find more depressing than Strange Fruit, the song has a cornucopia of depressing urban mythology attached to it, of which the most upbeat example is the story, related in Thomas Keneally’s brilliant Schindler’s Ark, of a band of inmate musicians playing at a Nazi function in a concentration camp, who repeatedly play the song until one of the officers present retires to the balcony to place a Luger bullet into his brain.  You see, you can’t even do miserable properly.  Have a look at yourself, will you?


Here’s a picture of a kitten and a sunrise.






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