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Our Free 'Happy Christmas' Subscriber Presents

words Liz Ann Bennett

21st November 2014

This year, we've made a limited number of small presents for our Christmas subscribers. Four of our favourite photographs are inside, a snowflake charm and a secret challenge. 

Order any subscription before Decemeber 16th to get one posted to you or a lucky friend. 

Open Brief: Stories of Lost and Found

words Alice Simkins

21st November 2014

The theme of our next issue is 'Lost and Found', and we’re looking for fun or touching narratives inspired by these three words. How you interpret them is really up to you.

Have you ever come across an interesting item and made a project out of trying to find its owner? Found photographs from a bygone era, or stumbled upon a letter from your past? Maybe you've been lost in a strange city, or reunited with an old friend against all odds.

Whatever 'Lost and Found' means to you, we want to hear your experiences. Tell us your story in under 250 words and it could be featured in our next issue. Email your story to rosanna@ohcomely.co.uk, before the 4th December, with the subject headline 'Lost and Found.'

Photo: A lost property tree by Jason Rogers

Life Itself: An Interview With Director Steve James

words Jason Ward

13th November 2014

Roger Ebert was perhaps the most prominent American film critic of all time, known not just for the 46 years he spent writing reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times but also for his popular and enduring television programme At the Movies. After complications from cancer treatment necessitated the removal of his lower jaw, Roger spent the final years of his life unable to eat or speak, and yet his writing diversified and flourished during this time. In Steve James' absorbing new documentary Life Itself, based on Roger's memoir, the film-maker explores his extraordinary story while filming him during what turned out to be the last few months of his life.

Ahead of its release in cinemas, Steve sat down with us to talk about the film's complicated road to production.

When you're making a documentary about a man who co-hosted a television show for decades, published scores of books and reviewed almost every film that came out over nearly half a century, where do you start in your research?

The memoir itself was the template. It was an incredible bible for the film, and inspired in so many ways. It helped to organise his life and tell me what was important to him, which guided me towards who to interview. He devotes chapters to significant film-makers like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog but also Bill Nack, his friend from college, and John McCue, his newspaper buddy. That said, he doesn't really talk about his film criticism in the book. He excerpts some of his profile writing, but not a single review. He doesn't talk about his show much either – there's just a simple chapter devoted to it. So there were things that I wanted to do more on and in that regard it also led me to other sources. There was a lot to get my arms around.

In addition to being a prolific writer, Roger also had a storied life. How did you decide how best to weigh your coverage of it?

After I read the memoir I knew I wanted as much as reasonably possible for the film to be a comprehensive biography of Roger's life, taking account of his critical place in cinema, his impact and what he contributed, as well as his remarkable personal life and journey. I wanted it all, but we weren't going to make a three-hour film or a mini-series, either of which we could have easily done. Instead, I wanted it to be no longer than two hours and as comprehensive as it could be in that time. That meant picking and choosing. There were lots of things we could have dealt with that we didn't, but I feel good about the choices we made. I think we hit most of the significant milestones in his life, but hopefully not in a scattershot way.

One of the most affecting things about Life Itself is how you show Roger handling the prospect of death with dignity and grace. Was that important for you to capture?

Absolutely. When we started the film we had no idea that he would pass away four months in. That just wasn't in our thinking. His health was more unstable than it had been and he was growing increasingly fragile, but he was otherwise fine. The memoir is written from the perspective of someone late in life who has been through a lot and is reflecting, so I loved the idea of going back and forth between the present and the past and finding interesting ways to do that. I wanted to film Roger going to the cinema, writing, travelling, seeing friends – even though he could no longer speak he'd still throw dinner parties and sit at the head of the table. I was going to show what a vigorous life he continued to live despite all he'd been through, and in that we would get some sense of his perseverance, his courage, his good humour in the face of everything. All of that is in the movie, it's just we didn't get to film it. We ended up shooting him largely in a hospital and a rehab institute, but those earlier things became far more poignant because you know that he is dying.

There's a moment in the documentary where Roger writes that it would be a major lapse if you didn't depict the full reality of what he was going through, but was there anything you were personally worried about showing on film?

I was initially concerned when I first got to the hospital. If you look at any pictures of Roger in public after the start of his health problems he was either wearing a black turtleneck or a white scarf wrapped around his neck. He was always very stylish, but it was strategic as well. When I walked into the hospital room for the first day of actual filming he was asleep and his jaw was hanging down. There was nothing there. It was quite pronounced and I remember thinking, “I don't know how people are going to handle this.” But I filmed it, he woke up, smiled, and his eyes lit up. I put that early in the movie to let people see what he was going through and allow them to feel that inevitable discomfort. My hope was that they'd have the same experience I had where it stops being shocking – you see past the illness and see him. You're looking into his eyes, not down his throat. For a man who was dying, he made this easy. He was remarkably co-operative and engaged.

Memoirs are usually adapted for the screen as fictionalised accounts rather than as documentaries. What did you think a documentary could express about Roger's life that might have eluded a scripted feature?

Biopics are particularly hard to do because there's a tendency to want to tell everything, and trying to tell too much can work against the inherent drama of the storytelling. It can feel like a connect-the-dots presentation of a person's life – you're never in one place long enough to feel the deep significance of that moment in their life. You have the same potential hindrance in a documentary, but one of the advantages if the subject's alive is you have them there in flesh and blood, so who they are is communicated as much by their presence as by their important milestones. For example, if we were making the scripted biography of Roger's life, we probably wouldn't spend as much time as we did on his daily travails and him coping with his condition. You're not going to give up screen-time to illness when you could be showing him when he adapted Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, hanging out with Russ Meyer and big breasted women. But in a documentary you can get so much from observing simple moments in someone's life: the way they answer a question, or how they look at their wife.You see how they live.

Life Itself is out in UK cinemas today.

An Interview with Valene Kane

words Words Tamara Vos, Photos Liz Seabrook

13th November 2014

As crime-drama The Fall begins its second series today, we caught up with Irish actress Valene Kane, who plays the part of Rose Stagg in the series. 

Textured knit and green chiffon layer dress both by Avelon

You've been acting for most of your life - do you remember your first role? 

My first proper role in film was for The Fading Light, an improvised film directed by Ivan Kavanagh. It was the hardest but also most fulfilling experience of my life. It taught me so much about responding to other actors, and being truthful and honest to a role. 

Tell us about your character in the Fall. 

I think Rose is pretty conflicted about her ex-boyfriend Paul Spector (who plays a serial killer in the series). She can't forget the abusive relationship they had, but there's a part of her that somehow still has feelings for him. And because of that she feels guilt - the same sort of guilt that rape victims might feel. I think that's why she never reported the abuse at the time, and why she wants to ignore it now.

What do you like most about playing her? 

Being at home in Northern Ireland playing a role in my own accent and working with local actors is very rare, so I love that. 

Ultimately though it's the relationship you have with the script. Working with good writing is such a joy and Alan writes women particularly well; I felt safe both with his writing and his direction. Feeling passionate about a script and then finding you can have a short-hand with the director is what I really love about any project.

How difficult is it to resume a role after a break between seasons? 

That's completely down to the writing. If the transition is written well and makes sense, it comes back easily because you've already done a lot of work on the character before. As long as you focus on the script and take clues from that, I don't think you can go too far wrong. 

Issue 23 is themed The Great Indoors. Do you have a favourite indoor spot? 

My home in Ireland. The TV room there. Being with my Mum and Pop and my two gorgeous nieces who I adore. 

The Fall is airing on BBC2 at 9pm tonight.

Grey cashmere roll-neck by & Other Stories, trousers by Osman.

Check knit by Peter Jensen, grey trousers by Cos.

Prince of Wales shirt by Cos, coat by & Other Stories.

Photos: Liz Seabrook
Stylist: Hayley Nunn
Hair: Amiee Hershan, Stella Creative
Make-up: Andriani Vasilou, Stella Creative

Tamara's Tea Break: Toffee Apples

words Tamara Vos

7th November 2014

There's a lot that's happened in the last week that's called for the presence of toffee apples. Halloween. Bonfire Night. And a good report from the dentist giving me the green light to chew my way through perilous amounts of toffee (or that's how I interpreted it anyway). 

I was nose-deep in apples after the glut from my back garden, so I thought there was nothing for it but to cover them all in sugar and hand them out to friends like a wacky aunt giving out lollipops. The method is simple if not slightly sticky, and makes your kitchen and hair smell like candy floss. 

You Will Need: 

Six apples (double the quantities if you want to make more) 
200g caster sugar
175g golden syrup
175ml water
A few drops of red food colouring
Lolly sticks

And Now...

One. Twist the stems off the apples, and insert lollipop sticks into the tops. Get them lined up and ready on a tray of greaseproof paper. 

Two. Put the sugar, syrup and water in a saucepan and simmer to a gentle boil. Heat until a small amount of syrup dropped into a cup of cold water turns hard and brittle. Remove from heat and stir in food colouring. 

Three. Take an apple, and roll it around in the syrup until it's evenly coated. 

Four. Line them up on the tray and leave until they're hardened. 

The Words in My Head: A Donkey's Wisdom

words Tamara Vos

6th November 2014

"It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily. 

"So it is." 

"And freezing." 

"Is it?" 

"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said, brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately." 

The quote I've chosen is rather a childish one, taken from The House at Pooh Corner. It's quite self-explanatory really; Eeyore focuses on bad things until he cheers himself up with the fact that the worst hasn't happened. 

I love the simple logic of Eeyore's thinking; it reminds me not to over-worry and remember the bright side. It also reminds me that it's alright to think like a donkey sometimes. 

Illustration by EH Shepard

Women in Clothes: A Review

words Maggie Crow

6th November 2014

I really didn’t expect to cry the first time I opened Women in Clothes, the personal style anthology edited by Sheila Heti (How Should a Person Be), Heidi Julavits (The Believer) and Leanne Shapton (Swimming Studies). But there I was, choking back tears at six in the morning while I waited to board my flight at Heathrow. The section was entitled “Mothers as Others” and in it, contributors provided captions for photographs taken of their mothers before they were born. Reading one after the other and poring over the photographs to try to see what each woman had described about their mother’s character was profoundly moving. It isn’t often that we get to consider and appreciate our mothers in this way – outside of their assigned role, as women that we admire, perhaps in spite of our personal conflicts.

Women in Clothes was initiated by Heti in a moment of bookish frustration. Unable to find a reference book about why women dress the way they do, Heti enlisted Shapton and Julavits to help her create one. The three came up with a survey designed to get women to think more deeply about personal style. They received thousands of responses, commissioned essays, interviewed hundreds of people, and continued to ask one another questions like: “What are you trying to achieve when you dress?” and “Are there any clothing items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?” and finally “In what way is this stuff important, if at all?”

Coming in at 515 pages, Women in Clothes is a tome. Like a yearbook, it feels both collaged and structured, which allows the reader to delight in stumbling across one-off projects, most often essays or illustrations, while being comforted by the recurring features like the photomontages of various collections (bobby pins, striped tops, clogs). Its breadth is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The book contains a wide range of voices but inevitably there are a number of conversations that resort to old clichés - where contributors use vocabulary soaked up from advertisements and fashion magazines, where discussions feel banal and tedious - and this is where I find myself skipping pages, looking for the next essay or photo feature that has something more to say. Thankfully, these aren’t hard to come by. The photo series of actress Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna from Girls) imitating poses from women’s magazines across the years is a wry commentary on female representation, particularly with the tongue-in-cheek nod to ancient Greek sculpture. In keeping with the book’s spirit, the photo series invites us to think differently, and to think more, about women in clothes.


The editors, from left: Sheila Heti, Leanne Shapton and Heidi Julavits. 

art

From Iceland to Ecuador: Perfect Strangers Across the Globe

words Tamara Vos

5th November 2014

The Perfect Strangers parcel-bonanza is starting next week, and here in the Oh Comely office the excitement is mounting; we've all signed up and cannot wait.

We've been absolutely bowled over by the number of you who've signed up from all four corners of the world. So bowled over in fact, that we've put together a little map of who's swapping from where. 

From Iceland to Ecuador, Trinidad to Japan, you can now see exactly how many people have signed up from each country. Take a look, spot your country, and get your airmail stickers ready! 

Photo by cutiepie company