Thursday, 29 July 2010

BEFORE I SLEEP

A highly subjective account of a site-responsive promenade performance by DreamThinkSpeak in the old Co-op Building, Brighton


“We struggle to change life so that those who come after us might be happy, but those who come after us will say as usual it was better before, life now is worse than it used to be.” 
- Chekhov
“The question is whether in creating new things that we want, we also destroy things that we need.” 
- Performance programme

A first has occurred. This is the first time Lucid Frenzy has reported on something late deliberately. When the performance company DreamThinkSpeak took over the empty old Co-op building on Brighton’s London road for a “site-responsive promenade performance”, it was initially for the Brighton Festival in May. But popular demand extended this not once but twice, and it finally finished on July 4th. Moreover, as you emerge from the events a notice requests you not to spill the “secrets” of what you’ve seen. (In fact even the programme contains no images from the performance itself.) So this piece couldn’t have been written until after the much-delayed final night! (If anyone points out this means it could have been posted any time from July 5th I will become all tetchy...)

You may be wondering what a “site-responsive promenade performance” is all about, or guessing that it’s probably a way of saying “high-concept but vacuous piece of arty crap.” Normally I would share such healthy cynicism. Yet trust me, for once it is misplaced...



The old Co-op was transformed and mutated into a fresh environment, in a hybrid of performance and installation piece. Rather than take your seats and watch a set sequence of events get underway, you were admitted in small groups at staggered intervals. At points you would obligingly follow set paths, at others find your own route. There’d be times when you’d interact with proceedings you encountered, and others where you’d merely observe them.

The piece’s twin bases were in Chekhov’s ’Cherry Orchard’ and the Co-op building itself. But you didn’t really need much foreknowledge of either. As Dominic Maxwell wrote in 'The Times', it “honours Chekhov, builds on Chekhov, but needs no knowledge of Chekhov.”

Analogy corner: It was like a remix of Chekhov’s play, the way linear pop songs get spliced and rearranged, little phrases magnified by recurrance until they start to take on a whole new meaning. Alternately, it was like one of Dali’s works where he’d reprise and mutate myths from more classical paintings. Figures, scenes and images would constantly recur in new forms and arrangements; sometimes life-size, sometimes as models or rooms in dolls’ houses, sometimes video projections. Most recurrent, apart from the titular orchard, were the aristocratic couple awaiting service at their table and the elderly servant bringing a tray to them - a simple image of the ordered old world unaware of what was in store for it.



Plays commonly have a three-act structure; the performance countered with a three-floor structure.  (‘The Cherry Orchard’ actually has four acts, but let’s not allow that to spoil a good analogy!) You first enter through the basement, a subterranean realm which represents our past and the character’s present. They often stop at our approach, gazing in surprise and irritation at our ill-mannered intrusion. They reply indignantly in (presumably) Russian, making communication impossible. We see them only through patinas; behind sheets of semi-frosted glass, by looking down at models or peering through slots, or through water-lines. (The recurring motif of the diving costume comes in here, suggesting the past is another world to ours just as the underwater environment is.)

But when we enter the ground floor we burst into a brightly lit department store, where an array of salespeople appear to greet us. The juxtaposition is like crossing a dimension, with the new dimension of course the present. While the past had spoken a foreign language each of the salespeople patters in a different language. (Even though you are aware they are acting, you feel the familiar awkwardness of being abroad and trapped within your own tongue.) Of course the babble of languages represents globalisation. (Some pedants might object that, far from multiplying languages, globalisation is reducing them to a Newspeak of a debased American English. But are we that kind of men?)

The past was progressed through by a linear path, lit by oil-lamps or candles. But in the present a shadowy maze of corridors break off from a bright central room, many of them merely leading back to the same room. You become almost apprehensive, trying to find your way away from the sales floor but forever being returned to it. Rather than escape routes, these sub-rooms and corridors feel something like the Freudian id, mere repressed reflections of the main arena. One darkened room was full of massed mannequins, another dead orchard.

As fresh parties of punters arrive on the sales floor behind us, and the sales staff recite the same babble-greetings, we become aware the actors are doing the same thing over and over. Theoretically we know this to be true of every theatre performance. We even talk to friends who saw the same show on different nights, expecting their experience to be identical.  But during the show we switch the information off to enjoy the moment. Here that awareness is an essential part of the piece. The effect is quite purgatorial, as if there’s no escape or release.

Now the past is over, experience no longer occurs in groups. As soon as we entered the sales floor, with it’s maze of offshoots, I immediately lost the people I had been admitted with. The general audience now becomes visible, milling around. But this very addition reduces you to an individual within a crowd, just as you are when out shopping.



When finally reached, the final, upper floor must almost by definition be the future. It would be almost glib to call it post-modern, it feels almost post-apocalyptic. For the first time there are no human actors, just an array of video screens in empty rooms. There’s no longer language barriers because there’s no longer language. Some attendees complained of the comparative emptiness of the top floor, yet this barren-ness hits as hard as the babbling busyness before, and has its own meaning. One vast room is filled with Max Richter’s mournful score (riffing of Berber’s ’Adagio For Strings)’, while you focus on what’s not there - a life-size but cut-down cherry orchard filling a room. As the programme notes, “the overriding sense is that we are witnessing a world in collapse rather than renewal.” Even when you run into other punters it doesn’t seem to matter much, it feels just as deserted. Earlier we ran into ghosts of the past. Now it’s as if we’ve become them.

The videos at first look cyclic, but aren’t. In one the servant wanders a forest, proffering a cup and saucer with no-one to take it from him, a function now nothing but an empty gesture. The camera pulls back from this tangled forest to reveal he’s alone on an island. This moment seemed to sum up the whole environment, in both theme and tone. The servant is the most-seen figure, a man marooned by time, adhering to old ways where all that is left is absence. The image is humorous but (particularly given the cumulative effect) strangely moving.

Yet the performance actually ends with an unexpected image - a cherry tree back in bloom, an arresting sight in the middle of an apparently derelict urban building. It’s types of time which have been vying all along. The old, cyclic time of the cherry orchard is replaced first by the linear time of the industrial world, then the multi-tasking tangled time of modernity (characterised by the overlapping sales soundbites), then the seeming death of time (the mournful musical refrain looping almost in parody of cyclic time).
 



In analysing something, you inadvertently break it into its component parts. Yet it’s often only when those parts are put together that its purpose becomes discernable. Here, alas, we have talked of the “promenade performance” before moving onto the “site-responsive”. But it’s crucial to the piece that the building was not some architectural canvas, on which to hang their works. To quote again from the programme, “we strive to design scenes that respond to and sit within the host site, as if they have always belonged there.”  While wandering, the quicker you stop trying to figure what’s a prop and what’s an actual part of the environment, the more the two blend into one and the faster you feel like you’re getting it.

This site-responsive effect was enhanced for me by two factors. First, if somewhat prosaic-sounding, I used to shop in the Co-op! (While the director mentions buying his fridge there, I picked up some saucepans. But now they handle’s broken on one and I can’t take it back.) After I’d seen the show I’d sometimes pass by on London Road, and see it’s activity through the windows. Transforming such an everyday space into something so numinous is part of the magical effect.

But its also a reminder that the closure of the Co-op, most likely to be replaced by an arcade of branded stores topped by yuppie ‘apartments’, is itself a chopping-down of a world just as the cherry orchard was. Yuppification is a huge problem in Brighton, as career-chasers elect to move to somewhere ‘artistic’ and price all the artists out. Perhaps the way the performance extended through word-of-mouth (and certainly many people were talking about it), suggests it did trigger some local sense that the Co-op should have a wake.

Yet for me such department stores always had something numinous about them. Back in my Seventies youth they were still common, and Saturdays would see my family shop in them. The performance brought back how monumental they seemed to my child mind, how I’d sneak away to explore them alone, vast arenas full of sofas, cathedrals to beds, a gargantuan contrast to the small bungalow we called home.

It could be argued that the sheer scale and ambition of the piece set itself a bar which was then hard to reach. And it’s true some parts were more memorable, and more pertinent to the overall themes, than were others. Yet this scale was important in its own right, in immersing you in its atmosphere. Cinema-goers sometimes comment that they “felt inside” a particularly involving film. Yet with this piece you were inside it, rather than merely looking in. You were completely immersed in another world for a good couple of hours. And, while different film viewers might notice or respond to different elements in their own ways, here audience members could at times quite literally go different ways. When you walked out afterwards it took time to readjust.

Given its site-specific nature, it seems unlikely this piece will ever be repeated. However the company will hopefully be up to bold new explorations. If their future adventures can equal this, they will certainly be worth seeing. Coming to a disused shopping centre near you..?

The shop window photos are mine. The reflections symbolise the performance’s interaction with its environment, and are nothing to do with my witless inability to take the shots without them. More here.



Coming Soon! Stuff that’s still more hopelessly late...

Sunday, 25 July 2010

SAFE FROM HARM? HENRY MOORE AT THE TATE

At Tate Britain until 8th August



Corporate Sculpture?

Think of the celebrated scene in ’Fight Club’ where initiates are commanded to “destroy one piece of corporate sculpture.” And of course all we need is those two words to conjure up visions of such ghastly artifacts – big and ostentatious as the buildings they masthead for. Their semi-abstraction is both ostentation and figleaf. They’re supposed to represent the ‘modernity’ of lumbering institutions well past their sell-by-date, while their ‘abstraction’ masks what would otherwise have to be a grasping hand or slamming fist. You watch that film sequence with only one question - why stop at one?

Perhaps more than any other Modernist artist, Henry Moore is seen as the midwife of corporate sculpture. Even the largely derided Impressionists are dismissed as kitsch wrapping paper, while Moore is seen as a worse thing. Much as the punk generation said of the Rolling Stones, he’s seen as tame masquerading as wild. His few innovative gestures have long since lost their currency, his sculptures are now safe as a rock and ideal for entry lobbies everywhere.

But is this dismissal simplistic and historically reductive? Bryan Robertson has curated this exhibition, and enlisted a back-up BBC4 documentary (‘Henry Moore: Carving a Reputation’, shown on 20th March), to argue just that. Using the gallery walls to quote no-one less than himself, he claims Moore’s work to be “grim, and on occasion tragic. There is no easy reassurance to it.” Perhaps Moore is really akin to Francis Bacon, another artist to have recently received a Tate retrospective (reviewed by me here) – not soft and reassuring but edgy and experimental. (Disclaimer: This comparison is not Robertson’s but mine.)

Virtually the first sentence used by this show is as follows: “After the Great War, ‘primitive’ art offered universality, permanence and integrity as a welcome alternative to the brutality of modern civilisation.” It’s of course an irony that the roots of Modernism are always in the ancient. But few were quite as influenced by the primitive as Moore. Looking through the introductory ‘World Culture’ room, you could readily believe it to have been his only influence. And, though his art modified as it went along, Moore seems peculiarly aloof from the fads and factions of Modernism. You can see the thumbprints of the Surrealists, plasticating his Thirties figures into Dalian twists and distortions, but little else. Similarly he has no interest in psychological or biographical readings of his works, which he gave only the simplest of titles. The primitive was his furrow, and he pretty much kept ploughing it.   

Moreover, Moore’s tight fist of fixations arrived early. The mother-and-child combinations, the reclining figures, both were there before the end of the Twenties. But it’s with the next decade that the killer app of his art kicks in – his simultaneous move to larger forms and landscape sculpture. This is also associated with a move away from already-stylised representation into “sensuous undulating surfaces.” As his work moved beyond human scale, it did the same for human form.

As sculptures, his mother-and-child works never look like separate figures. You’re always aware that they’re of the same block, and you think of them as still somehow conjoined. Similarly, his reclining figures never quite look raised from the landscape, and seem to be already blurring back into it, shoulders morphing into hillslopes. His trademark holes, the gaps through which the actual landscape is spied, seem as important as the stone. In fact Moore collected stones and pebbles, whose forms suggested works to him.  


In one of the film clips that accompany the exhibition, someone comments that you accept the works as simultaneously blocks of stone and figures. The material isn’t polished into some blank-slate state of neutrality, like in Classical sculpture, but remains present. That seems key to Moore, and quite possibly Modernism in general. As Bacon said, “the image is the paint and vice versa.”    Behind Moore would seem to lie the ancient fantasy of the autochthonian, that we were born from the ground. (We learn Moore’s father was a miner, which may be one for the psychologists.)   

His early work gains its effect not by merely duplicating the forms of ancient art, but also it’s eeriness, its savage eye shorn of sentimentality. There’s none of art’s sense as a separator of the human from the natural, nor any easy divisions between life and death, joy and sorrow, or even inside and outside. (Check out works such as 1953’s ‘Internal/External Form’ for his interest in layers and innards.) Instead such things are in some ambiguous, shifting symbiosis.

...none of which sounds much like the stuff of corporate lobbies. And in fact Moore was insistent his art should be shown amid nature. In another film clip, of an earlier Tate show, he rejects the idea of his work shown outside the front of building, as part of the urban environment, but takes to the idea they could go in a garden.   

And yet at times Robertston doth protest too much. Moore is frankly not an existential artist like Bacon, intent of freeze-framing on the impossible escape from form. (Itself a modern idea.) To suggest this Robertson has to fixate upon a minority of his works, such as 1953’s ‘Mother and Child’, where the two figures become snapping, fractious forms. Robertson writes of how “heads twist and look away, bodies are kept at arm’s reach and the gaze of mother and infant is rarely met” – an electrifying description but one which turns the exception into the rule.   



Giving Shelter?   

The centre of the exhibition is given to Moore’s wartime ‘shelter’ drawings, figures huddled in Tube stations to escape the London bombings. As I’ve already suggested the Earth itself as Moore’s rosebud, it may be no surprise that these drawings are my favourites of his works. (Alternately, you may want to argue I am more primed to appreciate illustration than sculpture.) The figures aren’t delineated through outlines but built up by amassed contour strokes, thick and still, filling the frame with claustrophobic effect. (The trademarked holes are not in evidence.)

What’s notable is that, though drawings of such an immediate event, they have almost no contemporary context to them – no iconic London Underground signs, no tracks, no trains. The very elements the Futurists focused on, as part of the new world they saw emerging, are here expunged.    

Moore described the scenes as “hell” but (ironically for the arch-Primitivist) they’re actually suggestive of something more Classical – the shade-populated underworld of ancient Greece. Figures which seem some pale echo of life line the walls of what might as well be caverns. While his sculptures exist as forms, with no need of faces, 1941’s ‘Woman Seated in the Underground’ parades her absence of a face, as if she had been dehumanised.   



(Ironically, though none deny conditions in the Shelters became sordid, many at the time saw them as an eruption of people power. The authorities were not keen on the stations being occupied, but feared to act against it. One woman in the films asserts she “made a lot of friends”, and that they were “one big happy family.”)      

There’s an accompanying series on Miners I was previously unfamiliar with. Though stylistically similar, its’ notable that these do use contextual elements – we see miner’s lamps, picks, beams – even tracks! Both series might make for an interesting comparison to the other great British modernist sculptor – Barbara Hepworth, with her NHS series. (One example here.)

I occasionally toy with the theory that Modernism was inextricably bound with War, the extremity of the World Wars burning away the old world, driving art to more radical reactions, creating an urgency where art and politics could not be separate. If it’s true Moore’s initial impetus to ancient art came from the First War (as Robertson attests), it’s perhaps significant that the Second War brought out of him his finest series...   



Scale Becomes Comfort

 ...and certainly the post-war years lead to a Moore as his detractors tend to think of him. Before you’ve even looked around the later rooms, you’re already reading how he was commissioned to work with the New Towns movement and your heart is starting to sink.    Certainly the ‘Elm Figures’ show his art as its most reassuring. On occasion, this reassurance is tragic, but not in the way it used to be.

He’s quoted as saying “trunks of trees to me are very human”, a quote which rebounds. It’s single-edged precisely where Moore used to double - once the human form was simultaneously very landscape. But these are people writ large, blown up to tree size to dominate the landscape, like Tolkien’s Ents striding in like the Cavalry to save the day. Okay, so they don’t belong in corporate lobbies. But for urban gardens or country estates they’d be (if you’ll forgive the term) a natural.

This feeling is accentuated by the way they’re displayed, with four large figures given their own room to sit astride and occupy - which may well be deliberate. The website calls these figures “highlights of the show.” Yet it’s notable that the bulk of the exhibition is focused on the early years, by a factor of five rooms to two. The previously mentioned ’Carving a Reputation’ BBC documentary goes further, suggesting Moore became the ‘prisoner’ of his mentor – the art critic Kenneth Clark. (Not to be confused with the current Lord Chancellor, who ends his name with an ‘e.’) It suggests that a desire to impress Clark drove Moore back into the arms of Classicism.

Of course it would be inadequate to dismiss Moore’s whole career for its later years. The decline in his work followed almost exactly the trajectory of the more celebrated Bacon – becoming bigger in scale, more grandiose and imposing, more empty. And of course Modernism was overall a failure, in all the tasks it set itself.

But the decline had a catalyst in Moore’s case, his almost insistent fixation upon the primitive becoming first his asset then his curse. While his primitivism was arresting and surprisingly convincing, it could be said to remove one of Modernism’s keystones – the (ahem!) modern bit. The Shelter drawings, though Moore’s triumph, also display his lack of interest in the contemporary. It might also be true this fixation led to Moore’s narrow stylistic range. Compared to a polymath like Picasso, it was perhaps inevitable that Moore would face a sharp decline. 

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

CRACKS, LEVELS AND MARMITE - SOME LAST THOUGHTS ON STEVEN MOFFAT’S DOCTOR WHO (2)


I and he and you and she and we are all together in proclaiming Steven Moffat’s approach to ’Doctor Who’ as fresh and new. Remote Amazonian tribes made their first contact with Western Civilisation to say they found the ‘fairy tale’ approach more fitting for the show. Japanese soliders have been found on remote Pacific islands, insisting the War was still ongoing and that the irascible, fallible detective was more Doctorish than the lonely God with the magic wand.

And yet there’s a paradox. Everyone has simultaneously written about the Marmite reaction to the season. Andrew Rilstone felt he couldn’t write any further about it without an American equivalent to this term. (Which incidentally means “love/hate reaction.”)) How can this be squared?

It might sound banal to say “it depends on the way you look at it.” But what counts is the level at which you look at it. This series looks at its best as a series, viewed overall, or from moment to moment, in micro-close up. Moffat’s overview and sense of direction was in many ways exemplary. The Doctor should be alien and fallible, super-smart yet socially awkward, not noble and tragic. He should bump into the furniture then work things out, not point magic wands at them. Individual lines were often richly quotable yet simultaneously sounding fresh and spontaneous, never composed or devised. Take when the Doctor cries “I escaped! I love it when I do that!” It’s something which you could perfectly imagine him saying, not just a snappy line for his actor to read out.

But the series was at its’ weakest in medium view, at episode-by-episode level. And this remains true even if you factor in Moffat’s own episodes. He wowed us all with his original trilogy way back when he started – ‘The Empty Child’, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ and ‘Blink’. But it was his last Davies-era script, ’Silence in the Library’ which set the tone for what was to follow. Abigail Nussbaum has commented that Moffat does structures in the place of plots. Yet this hit trilogy was all perfectly coherent, and of an even tone. It was his later storylines, while often great on a moment-by-moment basis, which broke into bits as soon as you tried to frame them as episodes. They had a tendency to lurch between incident, from one tone to another, a mere sum of parts except for that “sum” part. It was like Moffat was too clever to be coherent, his brain too active to merely follow any through-line, forever thinking up tangents and enticing side-alleys to explore.

The Vortex Manipulator and predestination paradoxes seem to rather sum this up. ’Blink’ contained a predestination paradox too, but only one which was saved for the very end - when Sally Sparrow hands the Doctor the transcript. The final episode here, ’The Big Bang,’ contained very little other than predestination paradoxes. It was like the whole thing was made of several different cloths and needed such a zapping thread to stitch it all together. One thing doesn’t follow logically or seamlessly to the other, but just lurch into it? There’s your answer, sitting on the Doctor’s wrist. (Perhaps for that reason the final episode was the least coherent. ’Beast Below’ was probably the most.)

So it’s perhaps not surprising that it was in episode view that the Marmite reaction was most pronounced. Mike Taylor commented “Gavin Burrows’ reviews seem to like all the episodes I don’t and vice versa.” On Beyond the Sofa, despairing of ’The Lodger’, Neil Perryman merely posted a picture of kittens rather than reviewing it. Andrew Rilstone took two posts to expend his enthusiasm. My review would have been one word – “filler”. (Or, if more copy was required, “ever-more-desperate filler.”)

Of course there’s nothing new or unusual about fans disagreeing about episodes. (Some people even affect to like ’Earthshock’, from what I hear.) In fact, it’s all part of the fun. But what’s odd is that, after everyone agreeing on how Moffat brought a new vision to the show, how familiar the episode line-up actually was. How recognisable is this?

- A Daleks-are-back story
- A historical guest-star (thinking here of Churchill in the Dalek story, not Van Gogh, for reasons I gave at the time)
- A lightweight romp inserted half-way through (Or at least that’s what I think ’Vampires in Venice’ was supposed to be)
- A pastiche of ’Old Who’ (which feels like a tradition but actually only dates to ’The Sontaran Stratagem’.)
- A comedy of manners story where a couple get together despite the impediment of excessive nerdiness
- A heavily foreshadowed closing two-parter, where the fabric of the universe is in peril, unless the Doctor does some life-risking stuff very, very quickly which very nearly does for him
...in addition, the Celebrity Guest Writer now seems an extra tradition. After Richard Curtis, next season brings Neil Gaiman.

(Even ’Amy’s Choice’, one of the biggest audience-dividers, wasn’t a million miles from the previous companion-focused ‘Turn Left’.)

...a line-up which often induced in me no more than weary resignation. It seems a shame the opportunity wasn’t taken to break the mould, and toss some of those clich├ęs down some handy Crack in Time. In all honesty, the only non-Moffat story I could claim to enjoy was ’Amy’s Choice.’

This slightly generic feel was reinforced by a lack of decent villains. In fact there were very few new villains at all. (Space Vampires hardly count as “new” here, nor giant chickens as “decent”.) Unless you count the Smilers (which we don’t), all we really had was the Dream Lord - a great adversary but only ever a one-off.

I am also less than keen on the way monsters have been psychologised, and with it individualised. It’s significant that the one new villain worth speaking of turned out to be but the projection of a character’s mind. The Daleks once represented the totalitarian drive, enmity for the unlike, the Cybermen conformity. But the best new enemy here, the Dream Lord, was pure personal antithesis. If we no longer have monsters which reflect us, instead of merely me and you, does that not suggest we have become more like monsters?

During his spirited defence of ’The Lodger’, Andrew Rilstone patiently explains that the Doctor’s “real mission, the real subject of the story, is to appear normal while living with Craig... That is why anyone who focuses unduly on the nature of the top-of-the-stairs thing has probably misunderstood the episode.” This almost uncannily duplicates something I wrote in response to Iamus after the first episode. Guys, I get what’s going on. I just think we’re swapping something grand for something petty.

As the documentary-maker Adam Curtis said in an interview with ‘The Register’; “What people suffer from is being trapped within themselves - in a world of individualism everyone is trapped within their own feelings, trapped within their own imaginations. Our job as public service broadcasters is to take people beyond the limits of their own self... What is sitting there potentially is a vast world that will take people out of themselves.” Alas that potential remains unrealised.

Possibly what has changed most is the stylistic variety. Davies made a point of saying Moffat was the one writer he wouldn’t script-edit, rather suggesting that he did edit all the others. And certainly under him everything seemed to bear his imprint, to belong under one vision. The results may have varied in quality, but we agreed on what the measure was. People preferred ’Family Of Blood’ to ’Fear Her,’ ‘Dalek’ to ’Boom Town.”

But comparing ’Amy’s Choice’ to ’Vampires in Venice’ is like comparing chalk to cheese. Or for that matter, two episodes from ’Old Who’, which often didn’t feel like episodes from the same series at all, merely neighbours on a schedule. Wildly differing reactions therefore ensue. (Quite possibly including posted pictures of kittens.)

But then what of the celebrated Moffat vision? Of course it did not exist at that point, on that level, on that scale. It informs what the Doctor is doing right now, what he is saying and how he is saying it. And it is riddled right across what you must nowadays call the ‘story arc’ - the Crack, Amy’s marriage and so on. (Though even here Moffat’s rewritten rulebook was unevenly applied – think of the sonic screwdriver reverting to a magic wand in’The Hungry Earth’.)

Between those, writers were free to do as they felt. And with rare exceptions, what they felt like doing was more of the same. If only those differing reactions had led to a clutch of unique experiments, each boldly going where no episode had gone before. Had each episode dazzled with it’s own unique glow, our attention would hardly have been upon the through-line. ’Vincent and the Doctor’ was perhaps the sole exception. Despite it’s deep-rooted and numerous faults, all of which I spelt out at the time, it was at least trying to do something else.

The Crack, the predestination paradoxes, ultimately all these were not the icing upon the season but symptoms of it’s inner fault-lines. Viewed through the right magnification, so much was done so well it seems like carping to point all this out. But the problem is a deeper one than there just being some sub-par episodes. Look into those episodes and it simply does not cohere, it was like being handed a bag of ideas, a collection of scenes instead of a script. Moffat’s own scenes were at least interesting in their own right. Less so for most of the other authors...

Coming Soon! Stuff that’s not about ’Doctor Who’

Coming Shortly After That! More stuff about ’Doctor Who’

Saturday, 17 July 2010

GIG-GOING ADVENTURES BELATEDLY ACCOUNTED: ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE/ SPLITTING THE ATOM/ SUBWAY SECT




ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE & THE MELTING PARAISO UFO
The Engine Rooms, Thurs 27th May

If you’ve not heard of them before, my handy sound-bite description of Acid Mothers Temple would be “the Japanese Hawkwind.”  (Though founder Kawabanta Makoto describes them as “extreme trip music.”) However, these johnny-come-latelies weren’t formed in the classic acid rock era but in 1995 – which actually gives them something of an advantage. While you can feel indulgently happy about the fact that Hawkwind are still going, let’s face it you wouldn’t rush to attend any of their recent gigs. Consequently, AMT are the band I’d insist someone see if they dismiss all hippie music as “mellow”.

Another difference may be that, while Hawkwind had many different eras, Acid Mothers Temple throw up many parallel incarnations.   (Wikipedia lists ten!) For the gen on these, you have to look to the second half of their name. In this very venue, I’d previously seen them under the suffix The Cosmic Inferno. As a rough and ready comparison, they were then most like Hawkwind’s New Wave era (the ’Quark, Strangeness and Charm’ or ’PXR5’ albums). They balanced free-form jams with spiky songs, and featured a crazy girl drummer (Pikachu Makoto) who leapt up half-way through and took over as front-woman as if the idea had just occurred to her.

The Melting Paraiso UFO, conversely, are all free-form jams, with no song structures and scant vocals. Now some may back away when I say that these jams did stretch. But stretching is not the same thing as meandering, or trilling about goblins. It’s not the music’s weakness but it’s strength. I can’t even remember the last time I listened to Radio One through choice. But Pop culture is still so insidious and all-pervasive that, no matter how much alternative music you listen to, a timer in your head expects a track to fade out after the regulation three or four minutes. But here the extended duration is essential in feeding the sense of derangement, the all-enveloping feeling that you have no sense of the track ever ending. If you’re going to get lost in the music you need some space to get lost in. It’s the difference between a hippie backpacking barefoot across India and a package tour to Goa.

Yet for all that, I’m not sure I didn’t prefer the Cosmic Inferno version. Partly, the song elements give the jams something to kick off against, like a taste of earth before you go floating in space. But mostly I feel free-form psychedelic jams work best in the environment which spawned them, hippy ‘happenings’ or curfew-free free festivals. Just as the appeal of each track is its sense of endlessness, the set should appear as unconstrained, the environment open. That doesn’t fit quite so well in a regular venue. (And, for a scuzzy pisshole, The Engine Rooms is obsessively anal about curfews.)
 
But to put this carping into perspective, what we’re really comparing here is ‘great’ and ‘even better’. You’re best off seeing the group in any incarnation which comes along. One thing they won’t be is “mellow”...







 

SPLITTING THE ATOM
The Hydrant (formerly The Hare & Hounds), Sunday 30th May
 
There’s actually something of a thriving free music scene here in Brighton. Colour Out of Space doesn’t just spring up from nowhere. I don’t tend to blog about it much partly because I don’t end up going as often as I’d like to, and partly because there doesn’t always seem that much to say about it. Some of it is great, other bits promising, large parts terrible. That’s a local music scene for you, of whatever stripe.
 
But at this all-dayer (actually more of an all-eveninger), two sets almost co-incided which made for a handy juxtaposition of something. (I have to say “almost” because between them two girls did an electronics set whilst clad in full burkas, at one point treating us to the sight of burka disco dancing. It was that kind of a night...)

On first, The A Band launched into some free impro. At first it sounded like each player was merely testing out their instrument, seeing what it could do in the acoustics and against the other instruments, and soon things would start to gel. After a while, the realisation sunk in that this was it. It wasn’t even that they weren’t throwing the six to start, they were tossing the dice oblivious to where it might take them. Breaking out of the strictures of regular musical structures is all very laudable, but these were rebels without a clue.
 
They might contend that they intended to be playful. But in fact it highlighted the negative aspects of child’s play, the frenetic inability to resolve on anything combined with the “look-at-me” attitude, while lacking the unhinged invention. It might have been bearable had it been just bad, but it reeked of a smug “freak out the squares” attitude. At an alternative music night in Brighton. They were actually squaring out the freaks...
 
 
Ironically, I don’t think of Bolide Awkwardstra as one of my favourite Brighton bands. I tend to like them when I see them, but don’t seek them out. They’re too based in free jazz to really excite me. (Albeit a kind of free jazz that sounds like it’s been reconstructed from Magic Band recordings – a good thing in my book!) But put them on against the superficially similar A Band, and what they can do suddenly starts to shine. However crazy the surface of their music gets, there’s guiding forces beneath it. They play together. their sets naturally cycling between sections.
 
It’s reminiscent of the Germaine Greer quote which opens the Sinead O’Connor album ’Universal Mother’. We could, she contends, “make politics irrelevant by a kind of spontaneous co-operative action, the like of which we have never seen, which is so far from people’s ideas of viable social structure that it seems to their mind total anarchy but what is really very subtle forms for inter-relations which do not follow hierarchical patterns.”
 
If at times Bolide seem to be speaking an alien language, that’s still a language! Go abroad and hear a new language to your ears, and at first all the unfamiliar elements leap out at you. Yet give it a while and, even if you can’t yet follow it, you start to catch its cadences. You sense it’s making some kind of sense, even if it’s workings as yet elude you.
 
Yet many stop at that first step. Most simply give up there, and pronounce it “just a noise.” But others embrace it for that reason, and start trying to duplicate it. Some thought they could sound like the Sex Pistols, just by swearing loudly on stage. Some thought they could draw like Eddie Campbell by scribbling down their last night’s pub crawl. And some take up free music just from what they hear taken out of it, insisting there’s “no rules, daddy-o.”
 
Bolide Awkwardstra are speaking an alien language. The A Band are simply doing baby talk.





VIC GODARD’S SUBWAY SECT
The Albert, Fri June 18th
 

”In the end, the idea of Subway Sect proved more potent and influential than the few records they released... in their under-achieving lifetime.”

- Simon Reynolds, ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’
 

It is difficult to read Simon Reynolds or Clinton Heylin without deciding to base your life on Vic Godard’s teachings. A devout contrarian, he devoted his musical career to the theory that the most punk thing to do was always the most un-punk thing to do. Briefly managed by the Clash’s Bernie Rhodes, Subway Sect were told their new drummer had to have short hair (the requisite punk look), “so we hired the first bloke with hair down to his arse.”
Someone at this very gig tells me about seeing the band back in the day. After the Birthday Party had shrieked and howled their way through the support slot, Vic stepped up and entertained the leather jackets by crooning his way through old Dean Martin numbers.
< Of course in summary this meant he devoted his music career to not having a music career, and pretty soon he’d become a postman. But, as is the way of these things, now he’s back.
 
Which immediately raises a problem, which Reynolds’ quote above hopefully pinpoints. Lydon was the legend who sang ’Anarchy in the UK’, Iggy the legend who sung ’Search and Destroy.’ Godard is just a legend. It didn’t really hit me until I was there how few of his songs I actually knew. A couple of the oldies I only recognised from reading the words in Reynolds’ or Heylin’s books. (Something I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear.) But if he does something contrary now, outside of and after the fervour of the first punk wave, he’d only be doing what we expect. Yet if he just treats us to the oldies, that would be expected as well.
Wisely, Godard circumvented this problem by ignoring it. Most of the songs I’d reckon to be new. With no other old Secters present, the backing band were sharp-dressed musos, in sharp contrast to his ungainliness. Notably, one of them had to tune his guitar for him. But somehow they gave the set a picture-frame effect, framing and emphasising his bumbling, gentleman amateur status. The one problem they did face, the bass drum not staying fixed, was ironically solved by him standing with one leg pressed against it - happenstance forcing him into a fittingly awkward pose. And at one point during a tune-up, someone cried from the audience “this is irrelevant!”, so perhaps the old spirit isn’t dead after all. It was like, rather than live up to his old reputation, he was trying to do a regular set - but this was the closest he could come. He couldn’t sell out if he wanted to, and he may well have been trying.
 
The set was admittedly patchy, but had highlights. Oldies came up later on in the evening, but didn’t dominate. Perhaps it wasn’t the greatest gig of the year, but then it was never lining up to be. It was quirky and eccentric. It was a Vic Godard set.
 
This was the third gig I’ve seen this year (after Wreckless Eric and Viv Albertine of the Slits) where old punks decided to do something new,which reflected their lives now, rather than squeeze back into the bondage trousers. The results may be uneven, but then everyone forgets how uneven punk was back in the day, before it was filtered into compilation CDs and “remember when” features. Which is as it should be. Life is too short to spend it trying to recapture your youth.
 
I’m not sure, but I think that’s the back of my head persistently getting in the way in this video...
 


Coming Soon! Gig-going adventures of even greater belatedness...

Sunday, 11 July 2010

ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A FAIRY TALE WHICH KNEW ITSELF - LAST THOUGHTS ON STEVEN MOFFAT’S DOCTOR WHO (1)


“I’ll be a story in your head. That’s okay – we’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one. Cause it was, you know. It was the best.”

When decriers of ’Old Who’ jeer about “wobbly sets”, what are they really saying?  Perhaps they consider it a fool’s errand to make a science fiction show on such a limited budget. The alien planets would always look like sand quarries, the spaceships like hairdryers and the result an inevitable shambles. But... surprise, surprise... they didn’t understand what they mocked. Its makers were abundantly aware you couldn’t build a convincing alien civilisation on thruppence ha’penny and some sticky back plastic – and so they didn’t try.

It’s significant that stories would often occur in the Land of Fiction or similar. The series wasn’t metafictional, exactly, but it was aware that it was in a sense always set in a land of fiction. Its storylines were like little fables which weren’t really attempting to sell Skaro as a believable setting, any more than they were police boxes as a feasible form of time travel. Instead it was allusive, a way of bringing up issues and concerns from an oblique angle. Refererntial names abound, Skaro itself is surely a riff on “scar” – emphasising the deadness of the Dead Planet. The show’s style was more similar to theatre than the ‘realism’ of TV; by it’s nature theatre does not try to convince you that you are looking at the actual Royal Court of Denmark or Roman Senate. Rather, the stage is a magic transporting space which is unconstrained by geography and free to allude elsewhere.

Frank Collins quotes Bakhtin in the context of ’Doctor Who’, “the use of the fantastic... to create extraordinary situations, for the testing of philosophical ideas.” Fables are not neat analogies, equations where one side always equals another, but throw themselves open to interpretation, like spurs to thought. (Okay, at other times it merely served up endless Nazi analogies. We’re really talking about the old show at it’s best here.)

This may be part of what lends ’Who’ to be written about. There’s plenty of other stuff that I enjoy as much, if not more, than the good Doctor. But it always seems to be ’Who’ which clocks up the column inches. (And, it would seem, the readership stats.) The sense that is always about something outside of itself, without ever quite specifying what, makes it a cup which will never run dry,

Davies’ ’Who’ took a slightly different tack – it was more of a cosmic soap opera. The Doctor’s line in ’Army of Ghosts’, “I’m burning up a sun just to say goodbye”, perhaps sums this up the best. Unlike the old show Davies seized science fiction’s scale, it’s opportunity to blow up events to a cosmic level, but then marshalled that imagery to bring something down to earth. We don’t know what it’s like to watch a sun die, but we do know what it’s like to say goodbye for the last time and how gargantuan that can feel. The burning sun is but a metaphor to show how much the Doctor wanted to see Rose again. It’s like watching a summer storm, which appears to be just a show in the sky, then being struck by lightning.

Of course the histrionic, convoluted world of soaps is unlikely to resemble our lives, and if it did those lives would be so frenetic that there’d be no time for watching the soaps in the first place. Yet, in the reverse of ’Star Trek’ soaps ask us to buy into the notion that they are in some way about life as we know it. Social themes (such as death or divorce) or issues of the day (such as gay adoption) are reflected, albeit through a monstrously distorting glass.

The peculiarity of Davis’ era was that he simultaneously leapfrogged the fable element and went for fully-fledged metafiction. He’d draw attention to something like the rules of coincidence which power a genre season, such as the Doctor and Donna meeting again. Yet, as the genre most coded as close to ‘real life’ soaps embrace metafiction least of all. (As in the famous dictum that no-one ever watches Eastenders on ’Eastenders’.)

It could be argued Moffat tried to square these. As just about everybody noted, he saw and sought to play up the fairy story aspects of the show. (Let’s not concern ourselves here with the distinction between fables and fairy stories.) He started his run with a little girl talking to her imaginary friend, a pretty hefty indication of the sort of thing that lay ahead. His stories are stories, and don’t feel the need to disguise themselves as anything else.

His characters don’t try to approximate psychological depth, they go more for breadth. Rose worked in a shop, Donna was an office temp. Yet Amy is a kissogram, in defiance of the fact that they don’t even make kissograms any more. (Even her other half gets a stripper for his stag do.) She dresses up and plays for a living. She’s the one who fixes things on her very first adventure. She takes to the Tardis like she was meant to.

But Moffat also incorporated a great deal of metafiction, albeit dressed up as time travel. Few modern dramas pay attention to the old Aristotelian unities of time and space, they flash-forward and back again, they intercut, they compress time. But the characters within them are usually innocent of this. The ’Doctor Who’ scripter may think how to get his hero out of the inescapable trap he’s just shoved him into, and hit on the idea of him passing his sonic screwdriver to an aide beforehand. He may then scroll back on his script, and insert that scene earlier. Or, to keep it a surprise he may instead use a flashback. Or he may have his hero use time travel to do it. Through this time travel motif, Moffat emphasises that his stories are doing things only stories can do – to both us his audience and to his characters.

This metafiction is most clear in the Davies-era ’Silence in the Library’, which I’m starting to think of as the start of Moffat’s second phase. There, a character becomes aware her apparent life is a fiction through the elliptical way that it passes. (The same story even features two guys named Dave, deliberately flouting the famous rule of drama that two guys named Dave can’t appear in the same story.)

But is there a downside to all this? In the old days, time travel was just a means to get the characters places and the show started. It had the same role as shaking a six in a board game. But then fans came to write the show. And fans have the same attitude to subtext or plot mechanisms that schoolboys have to farts – better out than in. If there is, for example, unresolved sexual tension between two characters in a show, fans will immediately want it played out – not stopping to think that the tension might have been more compelling than the resolution, that in is sometimes better than out.

The Doctor’s comment “you know fairy stories” becomes double-edged. It’s not just that we’re familiar with them any more, these days we are knowing about them. We tend to associate the two things because things happen in fairy stories which could only happen in fiction, and serve to remind us we are reading fiction. Yet within fairy stories, everyone accepts these rules without comment. When Sleeping Beauty succumbs to the Wicked Witch’s curse, no-one asks “how can such a thing be possible? As much as this story takes place in any genuine time or place, it is clearly centuries before cryogenics.” Instead they wail “who will break this terrible curse? Some way within the conventions of this sort of thing, that would be good.” We’re not the first people to notice those rules. We’re just the first people to think they need to be commented on.

Okay, the new show must do things the old show did, or else it isn’t the new show. And it must also do those things better, or at least more sophisticatedly, or else it isn’t new. And I like the way it's doing that, honest I do! But even so, haven’t we become rather hung up on sophisticated? Wouldn’t it be better to just make it like a fairy story? Do we really gain very much by perpetually being told that this story is actually a story? Didn’t it work better the way it was? Would ’Planet of the Spiders’ be a better story if the giant arachnid at the end started saying “by the way, Doctor, I’m a manifestation of your ego. It’s all quite clever really...” As Tyler Durden so memorably said: “Being clever, how’s that working our for you?”