Category Archives: Writing

Review of “Duke of Burgundy” for FACT Liverpool

Submission, domination and control: Phil Kurthausen takes a look at this Spring’s unlikely cinematic theme played out in The Duke of Burgundy, Catch Me Daddy and Still Alice.

The_Duke_of_Burgundy_UK_Poster

In the fecund surroundings of an isolated house somewhere unnamed and out of time in Europe, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Borge) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna, Berberian Sound Studio) play out a complex ritual of domination and submission in the lushly filmed, saturated colour of Director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy.

We are drawn into an entirely female world where the dynamics of this supremely erotic, twisted and yet sweet relationship are bent back and forth by the quest for domination. On the surface this is played out in kinky role playing involving the cleaning of boots and lingerie with elaborate sexual punishments for any infraction. The real battle for control and submission is going on elsewhere though, down amongst the damp undergrowth where the bugs and grubs that appear so often throughout the movie live. This is a beautiful and witty film, supremely sexy and filmed in a way that will have movie buffs squirming in their seats with pleasure at the filmic references.

This dynamic, the struggle for control, the skirmishes, battles, victories and ultimate acceptance and surrender can also be seen manifested in intriguing ways in Still Alice and Catch Me Daddy, two other films with similarly strong female leads.

In Still Alice, Julianne Moore gives a nuanced and beautiful portrait of a linguistics professor diagnosed at 50 with early on-set Alzheimer’s. Alice is a realist and accepts that the disease will, by its natural progression, come to dominate her and subsume her personality. The tension lies in Alice’s attempt to assert control over the disease and its progression while she still can. Alice sets herself questions on her phone linked to instructions with what to do in the event that she can’t answer them. This is her construct of control, her refusal to submit to the disease. But like The Duke of Burgundy, what appears to be one form of control is actually only the surface drama. The touching scenes at the end of the film show us what’s left when the illusion of control is finally gone.

Catch me Daddy (Daniel and Matthew Wolfe’s debut feature) considers similar themes of submission and domination in a modern Western set in West Yorkshire. Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, streetcast for the film), is holed up in a caravan with her white Scottish boyfriend (Aaron Connor McCarron, star of 2010s Neds) smoking dope and listening to music. Their illusion of control is barely maintained by the use of codeine and music, (great use of Patti Smith’s Land here), whilst they await the arrival of two groups of thugs hired by her father.

Patriarchal and cultural dominance are seeking submission here and a violent cat and mouse chase begins that is only leavened by Robbie Ryan’s beautiful cinematography making the Yorkshire moors and industrial mill towns a spectrally striking backdrop for the prowling viciousness to come.

Control; it may be an illusion, but when it’s dealt with as truthfully and with such great female lead performances as this, it can certainly be a beautiful one.

Book tickets for Still Alice and Catch Me Daddy, both currently showing at FACT.

Full review at FACT can be read here

 

 

So I see a guy. on a red carpet..and he reminds me of a short story I wrote years ago

Say hello to my little friend

‘ Say hello to my little friend

 ‘Awards’

By Phil Kurthausen

 

Dave took a last, lingering look in the mirror.

 

Not bad he thought, not too shabby at all.  This was the first time he had ever worn a dinner suit.  He had asked the man in the rental shop to show him how to tie a bow tie.  Dave could have asked Mother, but he didn’t want to do that. No one helped get him to this moment and he didn’t want anybody else sharing his glory, no, not even Mother.

Something was missing though.  He looked the part but it needed something else, something individual. Dave’s limited wardrobe did not throw up any immediate possibilities.

 

Dave pulled out drawers and emptied the contents onto his bed.  Suddenly there it was, and as soon as Dave saw it he knew it was perfect.  It felt like it had been waiting for him.  A blood red, Paisley patterned handkerchief.  It had been given to him by Mother when he was six years old.  She said it belonged to Dave’s Father but Dave had no way of knowing whether this was true.

 

Dave picked up the handkerchief and folded it carefully into a triangle before inserting it into the lapel pocket of his jacket.  Now he was ready for the red carpet.

 

A car horn sounded from outside.

 

Dave made his way down the stairs.  He stopped in the hallway. From behind the closed living room door he could hear the television.  Mother would be watching her favourite soap.  For a second, Dave thought about walking in and telling her where he was going, she might be proud.  He made a movement towards the door and then thought better of it.  He walked out of the house.

 

Dave asked to be dropped off around the corner from the theatre.  He wanted to have a quick stroll and savour the moment.  He had put on an overcoat so nobody would spot his dinner jacket and realise he was a ‘Celeb’.

 

The streets were busy.  People were walking up to the theatre.  Many had notebooks or magazines they wanted signing by one of the stars attending.  The event was being televised.  Dave wondered if after it was shown on TV, and people had seen him, would he be asked to give his autograph?

 

Dave thought he would have to adopt a ‘star’ smile if this happened. An open and welcoming smile.  He saw a young couple coming the other way.  He decided to try out his new smile.

 

The girl caught his eye and Dave felt the new smile crawl up his face.

She smiled back.  Dave couldn’t remember the last time a girl had smiled at him.  Not if you didn’t count Mother and to tell the truth he couldn’t remember when she had last smiled at him.

 

The girl’s smile filled Dave with a confidence he didn’t know he possessed.  As much as he was looking forward to the ‘People’s Awards’ and his overdue recognition, a lingering doubt remained that he would just choke in front of all those people.  That when he saw the eyes of the crowds on him, his knees would buckle, his mouth go dry and people would start to laugh.  Now though, the girl’s smile had made him strong.

 

Dave turned a corner and there was the theatre.   A swollen crowd surrounded the red carpet.  In front of the crowd were the Paparazzi.  Dave made a mental note to start referring to ordinary people as ‘civilians’.  Dave thought ‘ordinary’ was just about the worst thing anybody could be.

 

He stood at the back of the crowd.  No-one noticed him.  All eyes were on the celebrities who were being disgorged from limousines at regular intervals.  They were beautiful, shiny people.  They belonged under the arc lights, with their bright skin, dazzling smiles, happy, fulfilled lives.  The crowd ‘ooooed and ahhedd’ at expensive frocks and went into dizzying fits of hysteria when a celebrity approached and graciously exchanged a few words with the ‘civilians’. Night was turned into preternatural day by the strobe effect of a hundred flashes.

There came a gap in the procession of limousines. Dave took a deep breath.  This was his moment.  He took off his overcoat, put it over his arm, and walked around the crowd to the roadside gap where the limousines had been dropping off their precious cargo.

 

Dave straightened his back and walked onto the red carpet.  The crowd fell silent.  He took a couple of tentative steps along the red carpet.

 

The flash photography died to an occasional flicker.

Dave heard the voices begin to grumble.  ‘Who is he?’  ‘I don’t recognise him from the telly!’

 

He stood there, an ordinary person.  Someone threw a half empty drinks carton it bounced off Dave’s suit.  Dave looked down, the cola had left a brown stain on his paisley handkerchief.

 

A limousine pulled up at the kerbside and the passenger door opened.  The most famous soap star in the country stepped out of the car.  Normally, seen on TV as a dowdy pub landlady, here, she was dressed like a magnificent sun princess. She moved slowly, clad in a tight golden dress.  Dave turned and was transfixed by her shining glory.  There were gasps from the mob and then the photographic strobe lighting exploded all around her.

 

She smiled and waved.  And then she noticed Dave, stood still in the middle of the red carpet.  A momentary look of confusion crossed her face.  She smiled at Dave.

 

Her smile broke Dave’s trance.  He reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew the gun.  He pointed the gun at the sun princess and pulled the trigger.

 

Dave was on the floor, pinned down by men in dinner jackets.  Blood pooled near his head.  He couldn’t move.  A camera was shoved in his face, the flash burning his eyes.

 

The last thing Dave saw before he blacked out, was a hand, thrust out from the mob. It held an autograph book.

A short story: ‘Time Gentlemen Please!’

Time Gentlemen Please’ by Phil Kurthausen

The fact of the matter, and I’m not proud, and well as you’ll see, I’m rather condemned by this, the fact of the matter was that I just didn’t want to go home. There, I’ve said it and I’ll have to live with that decision for ever. Having said that I can’t help but feeling that the cat had something to do with it as well.

In my defence it had been a bitch of a day. Jerry had been at me all day about my bloody billing figures. They hadn’t been good, I’d be the first to admit it, but there were extenuating circumstances. SHE, the bloody witch, had been making my life hell the past month. And all because she found a receipt for a meal for two at La Caprice. I had explained to her, at great length, and with recourse to times, dates, and my diary, that this had been a perfectly innocent meeting with a client but would she listen, would she buggery! The fact that her suspicions were correct and I had been meeting Elena from accounts payable, for, and let’s face facts here, some well deserved rest and relaxation, was beside the point. In a court of law there would have been no evidence to convict me so why should she be justified in making my life miserable? It was like we never signed the bloody Magna Carta. It was positively un-British.

After the day from hell, I was jalking, you know that half jog, half walk, you have to engage in when you are desperately trying to make your commuter train. I checked my watch and cursed as I looked down at a bare wrist, I must have left it at home. Still, I’m sure that I would have made the damned train if, and I swear it was out of bloody nowhere, a skanky black cat hadn’t run in front of me causing my beautiful new, and therefore still slippy soles of my Church Oxfords, to skid on the pavement and send me tumbling to the floor.

I landed on my posterior and sat there for a second looking at my assailant. The bloody feline even stopped and seemed to look me up and down, and this was probably just a fancy brought on by the shock of being dumped on my backside, but I swear its eyes were twinkling and its sharp little mouth seemed stretched it what, I would if placed under oath, say was a grin.

Before I could get to my feet and give it a kick it scurried off through the forest of legs of my fellow city workers, none of whom it has to be said, made any effort to help me up.

I got to my feet and stood there cursing my luck, and wishing more than anything, I didn’t have to go home, back to that house filled with cold stares and silent accusations. And anyway hadn’t SHE said she was having her bloody evil friends over, three women hunched around a bottle of Pinot Grigio gossiping or whatever it is they do. Jesus, was it any wonder I didn’t want to go home. And that’s when I noticed it.

I must have passed it a thousand times on my walk from Waterloo Station to the steel and glass building that housed my law firm but I couldn’t remember ever seeing it before. Mind you it was normally bloody raining , the immediate street level view blocked by the points of eye seeking umbrella spokes, and I was usually either lost in miserable thoughts about going to work or trapped in dismal contemplation of returning home. So, it wasn’t entirely unexpected that I hadn’t noticed the pub before. And it has to be said, I’m not a ‘pub’ man, they tend to be a bit 1970’s, northern, gritty working class dives or some retro, gastro, anything ending in a bloody ‘o’ type of places full of people with beards dressed like lighthouse keepers, and that’s just the women, ha ha, talking about ‘start ups’ and ‘seed capital’. No, I’m definitely not a pub man. Give me a smart bar with cocktails, attractive women in dresses for God’s sake, and networking opportunities.

But, I really didn’t want to go home and a drink seemed so attractive right now.

The pub was an old building, really old in the way that American tourists get gooey for, yellowed leaded windows which may as well have been concrete, and cracked wattle and daub walls. The door of the pub looked like it was made of wood dragged up with the Mary Rose.

It was jammed between a newsagents whose window was adorned with Union Jack everything; I even spied a Union Jack kilt, and a Mobile phone shop. It looked warm and inviting, and it seemed to almost glow in the late evening greyness. At that moment I wanted to go in more than anything I had wanted in a long time.

There was a sign hanging above the pub. It showed a chicken with a smiling man’s head. The pub’s name was written underneath in some old gothic font:

‘Time Gentlemen Please!’

An unusual name for a pub I thought but at least it wouldn’t be full of those bloody hipsters and their satchels.

I pushed open the door of the pub and stepped inside.

The first thing I noticed was the warmth. It was hot in here; it was like when you get off the plane in the Caribbean after a long flight from a wintery England.

It wasn’t very well lit but I could make out the bar running the length of the pub to my left and a few scattered tables around the room. There was a man sitting at one of these tables playing solitaire and another man stood at the bar looking down at his glass half full of whisky with the intensity of a Chemist staring into a microscope that held the cure for cancer. They appeared to be the only patrons.

There didn’t seem to be an obvious source for the heat, no blazing log fire or radiators that I could see. It must be coming from underneath the floor. I took off my Aquascutum coat and draped it over my arm. I cursed as I noticed that there was a tear in the arm of the coat. It must have happened when I fell.

I walked to the bar. The man staring into the whisky didn’t look up from his glass.

The barman was conspicuous by his absence. I considered asking the man at the bar where the barman was but then I had second thoughts. I don’t like asking strangers for directions. If you can’t make your own way in this world then frankly you don’t deserve to be in this world.

I banged the bar and shouted ‘barkeep!’. I liked doing that; I had heard someone shout ‘barkeep’ in a TV show, Game of Thrones I think. I liked the weight of it, it made me feel important, a person of note. I tried it again, ‘Barkeep!”. No one came.

The other man didn’t look up from his drink. I turned my back to the bar and leant on it.

My eyes were more accustomed to the gloom now and I could make out my surroundings more clearly. There were paintings and posters on the wall of the pub. One of them was a picture of Einstein; you know the famous one, all white hair and goofy grin. I used to have the same picture on my wall as a kid, I was obsessed by physics before I decided to switch to law and earn some big bucks. I sighed, there’s no use crying over choices you made, they were paths taken and you couldn’t go back in time and make different ones, that’s all there is to it.

SHE said that my choice had chewed me up from the inside like a demon chewing on fat until I was nothing but an empty vessel. I hadn’t liked that and I’d told her that that choice paid for her jewellery, her fancy house that apparently just had to be built on a bloody ley line or whatever and that I didn’t love her anymore and that if it wasn’t for me she’d still be what she was when I met her, some down at heel new age hippy with a sideline in making lucky heather, or working in that bloody circus, and wasn’t it about time she had a child It was a lie, I did still love her, and us not having a child was just the way things were, but she needed to understand who was the boss. She hadn’t liked me saying that. I knew because she had smiled at me but it was a smile that had sent shivers down my spine. Was it any wonder I didn’t want to go home?

The man at the table slapped down a card. There was something almost familiar about him, his moustache, the suit, the slicked side parting. I chuckled as it came to me, he looked exactly like Lord Bloody Lucan. Turns out he’s been hiding in a pub near Waterloo Station. I nodded towards the Lucan Lookalike but he ignored me. That’s fine I thought, he probably had a difficult wife at home too and just wanted some peace on his own.

Behind me someone cleared his throat. I turned around and came face to face with the barman. He was a jolly looking fellow with large rosy, almost blood red cheeks and a smile nearly as wide as his round face.

“Pickled egg?” he said and nodded towards a large jar of what seemed to be oversized boiled eggs floating in a yellow vinegary sea.

I nearly gagged at the sight of them and instead ordered a large glass of whisky.

The smile grew wider, almost wrapping around his face.

“Coming right up.”

Something caught my eye in the corner of the room. It was that bloody cat laying on one of the tables, how had it got in here? I could hear its purring even though it was on the opposite side of the room, it sounded like a bloody motorbike engine.

The barman returned and set down a glass of whisky.

I didn’t look at it because I was too busy staring at the Barman’s wrist. My insides seemed to twist like a hog on a spit. He was wearing my watch. I knew it was my watch because there is only one like it in the world. It’s not a particularly rare or expensive watch, it’s an old Rotary but what makes it special is the band of crocodile skin and my Father’s initials, MH, which he had printed on the white face of the watch by a local watchmaker, the day he bought it in 1969. It came to me then, I had set the watch down the night before on the bedside table like I did every night, and this morning when I came to put it on, it was gone.

The tip of the barman’s smile seemed to be near his ears now.

An image of four middle aged women sitting around a table upon which a bottle of white wine was set with my watch hooked over the neck flashed into my mind. The women were chanting softly. I knew then that I would never be going home.

I felt my head sink and my eyes drawn towards the glass of whisky on the bar. The cat’s purrs were as loud as a jet engine.

From a million miles and a thousand years away I heard the barman speak.

“You know Sir, this is the best pub in any world. You know why? Because I never, ever, call time.”

 

 

 

Between the chimes

Between the chimes

That moment before you wake, the land between dreams and what we think of as real life, that is where stories are made and magic can be found.

“Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door, let’s go.” – E.E. Cummings