Saturday, 1 October 2016


Fabrica Gallery, Brighton, Thurs 8th Sept

“Metaphysical splatter movie” 'Begotten' has been cited as the twenty-third most disturbing film ever made. (Though I have heard that others consider it only the 27th or even the 28tj.) Though it is graphically violent... in fact it's pretty much perpetually graphically violent, to the point that if we started with trigger warnings we probably wouldn't be able to stop, 'disturbing' is the most fitting term. Certainly more accurate than 'horrific' or 'visceral'.

Though sometimes described as Surreal, this film has no relation to Pop Surrealism with it's glossy pictures of eyes superimposed upon candles. It more took my mind back to the 'Undercover Surrealism' exhibition at the Hayward. (I was about to say 'recent', but seems it was a decade ago!) This is Surrealism with the Freud and Nietzsche turned up to eleven. A soundbite description might be the savage opening of 'Un Chien Andalou' extended to film length.

Inevitably people search for meaning in all of this. But the best place to look is actually on the surface. As Greg Smalley comments: “what gives 'Begotten' its staying power is its unique look… the 'meaning' of the film is contained in the moving image itself; the experience of the film is itself what it is 'about'. To reduce 'Begotten' from image to language would be a mistake. The film begins with an incantation rebuking the 'language makers': 'you, with your memory, are dead, frozen'. It immediately invokes a different sort of language, 'the incantation of matter'.”

Certainly, without this look the film might well descend into mere torture porn. Director E. Elias Murhige spent months achieving those filtered, distressed effects, including such devices as running the film past sandpaper. In fact he was so keen on achieving this that one minute of film could take up to ten hours to process. Combined with the film being silent, it creates something literally timeless - almost impossible to pin to an era. Nor are there any signifiers within the film - the bleak landscape looks some strange combination of post-industrial and pre-natural, bare trees and bare pipes, broken-down houses. It could even hail from the glory days of Surrealism themselves, were it not so unconstrained by censorship. (The actual date is 1990, which seems refreshingly arbitrary.)

In fact, it results in a film that's very hard to pin to anything. With the contrasts so strong it's less in black-and-white than is black-and-white. It somehow looks simultaneously unremittingly graphic and strangely elusive, like you're no more sure what you're looking at than how to take it.

And it feels timeless even as you watch it. Scenes play out to an almost absurd length, past any narrative point which they might be expected to convey. The point is less narrative than experiential, like what we're watching is a ritual.

The end credits give post-hoc names to the characters, which acts as a kind of retrospective key to proceedings. That figure in the opening commits slow ritual slaughter through repeated self-stabs, we come to know he's God Killing Himself. (A great entry for an actor to have on his CV.) Yet the result of his slow suicide isn't the end of things but the begetting of another figure, Mother Earth. She and her son, Flesh and Bone, who appears to be in a perpetual state of catatonic tremor, are then repeatedly assaulted by hooded figures. Those figures would seem to represent humanity (you know, us), but are entirely anonymised and undifferentiated. Its the divine victims you follow. (Even if you can't really say 'identify with'.)

God kills himself through stabs to the stomach, which seems an image of sexual penetration. Mother Earth then impregnates herself with his semen. While disembowelling also seems associated with pregnancy. The images being only semi-decipherable also mitigates against the sense of separation which you think of as being inherent to film. These should be a strong difference between seeing a figure self-harming and a group beating and torturing another. But here there isn’t really. Mother and Son do not resist their fate at the hands of the humans, but largely bear it without even expression. And the humans are in somewhere between a state of ritual trance and workaday drudgery – slaughter as labour. It adds up to signify a world at war with itself.

What's this a film about? I'd be tempted to glibly answer - about four months. That part of the year where Winter passes into Spring, where (at least in times past) our survival was at its most difficult and our ravaging of nature was at it's harshest and most desperate. At the end of the film, we see vegetation start to sprout. Remember the old Coil lyric “kill to keep the world turning”? That about covers it.

But it's simultaneously cosmogenic, particularly with the opening scene of the self-harming God. The title literally explains Mother Earth and Son, but it also alludes to how we all came to be here. And that recurrence, the duplication of events at different scales like mandelbrots, is a common feature of mythology. We're reminded of our visceral begetting with each passing of the seasons.

Through the Judeo-Christian tradition we have become used to external creators conjuring our universe up out of nothing, magic words making matter. But that's a relatively recent development. Creation myths are more commonly based around the primacy of sacrifice, either of the self or another. The material world is sometimes held to be the dead body of a cosmic being, slaughtered at the start of time.

Commentators often spend their time trying to pin this film to a particular myth or myth system. All they are really doing is showing off their reading list. The point is that it's not based in a myth so much as in myth, in it's totality.

One reason, beyond all the obvious ones, for this film not being better known is that Murhige is keen for it to be seen only in cinemas. I suspect he's right. The way to see it is in a public showing, not just for the big screen but for the sake of ceremony. Certainly it was a rare experience to see it in the 'right' way.

The live soundtrack came from the presumably bespoke band the Begotten. If the film has an anti-narrative, the soundtrack was an anti-composition, aimed at creating mood music for the screen – and all the better for it. It started very slightly with the 'singer' (if that's the word) emitting the eeriest of vocals while hidden in the Church pulpit. The other players processed onto stage some time later, well after the film had begun, dropping and dragging chains as they went. Though guitar and bass were involved they rarely played conventional sounds, and effectively were mixed in with the electronics.

If the film shouldn't really be watched on-line, perhaps the trailer's okay...

Caroline of Brunswick, Brighton, Fri 15th Sept

It's been four years since Mystery Dick last played Brighton. In fact, as I learn on arrival, it's been four years since they've played. But their sound has moved on considerably in the meantime, even if no-one's heard the interim steps.

It's still the hum of Sixties-style electric organ. But the previous outing was like the soundtrack to some long-lost black-and-white B movie, which you might have seen years ago on late night TV or may have just imagined. Whereas this time it was more taking from Sixties popular music. (Symbolised nicely by the CD from the last gig being packaged in a 7” single sleeve, see below.) Albeit a pretty unusual take.

Sixties music often sounds in retrospect like the edict hadn't yet gone out that you could go beyond song form, and you can hear players straining against the walls. So imagine taking the mini-breaks permitted in those three-minute singles, then using Kool Herc's DJ trick of repeating to extend them. While combined with Photshop's ability to go close up to 400%. And done live.

Ed Pinsent played a series of increasingly agitated organ stabs, like some long forgotten twenty second keyboard solo had continued in the echo chamber of an alternate dimension until it was played out. Which segued into Harley Richardson swapping his organ for guitar feedback, the classic way to end one of those singles.

That I figured must be the climax, but they went beyond my little mental schema to break into a whole new section. Whereas previously, one had always led they now both contributed to a much more meditative piece, which was soon to prove my favourite part of the set. It was admittedly a slightly uneven performance. The recited vocal parts in particular seemed too 'art happening'. And it needed time and a little audience indulgence to unfurl it's wings. But when it did it was off.

So, after the Static Memories, this marks the second time I've gone to see Mystery Dick and ended up preferring another act on the bill. I expect I will be thrown out of their fan club any day now. After Yoaf had done their thing, someone cried the name Coil. A cry not made in vain, for there was the same sense of players being less musicians than sound mediums, tuning into and channelling uncanny forces of some description.

Their weapons of choice were strings and springs. One took to the strangest of spring-sprung devices, looking like one of those things you find in old junk shops which you can't play after midnight, and when you go back the junk shop isn't there any more. (You know the sort of thing.) While the other played a long plank of wood strung with strings, a steel guitar for the most lo-fi of lo-fi enthusiasts, which he'd bow or even attack with a hammer. Other instruments were employed along the way, all either found or home-made.

Perhaps unusually for an impro act, one normally took the lead – striking up the eeriest of rhythms, but rhythm nonetheless, for the other to play around. Though the baton passed so effortlessly back and forth between them they scarcely fell into assigned roles. Initially playing along to a loop they were able to build their set up quickly, then pulled the loop to turn to sparser more etherial sounds, breaking the standard model of instant composition that the sounds build up over time.

The standard duo (of Tim Yates and Tom Fox) were augmented by a guest (whose name alas now escapes me). His mumbled, intonatory vocals ostensibly contributed the least, and he even stood downstage of the others with head bowed – less frontman than backman. Yet it was hard to imagine their sound without him. Perhaps we are used to vocals being a recognisable, even explanatory element of music, so to defamilarise them takes our handholds away.

Despite hailing from London, this is apparently the first time Yoaf have played Brighton. The audience was admittedly small, but appreciative. So hopefully they will be persuaded back.

Some Mystery Dick...

...and a little Yoaf...

Coming soon! Yes, I'm a bit behind on these posts again. Blame it on my summer holidays...

Saturday, 17 September 2016


Music-and-sound-art-festival-held-in-fort attending adventures (part of a series)
Newhaven Fort, East Sussex, Sat 3rd Sept

So one night I happen to be watching a documentary on Miyazaki making 'The Wind Rises'. Or more specifically on how he was motivated by the contradictory feelings of being avowedly anti-war while attracted to the aesthetics of militarism. And of course back in the day I was attending antinuclear marches while almost simultaneously listening to industrial music, pretty much militarism for the ears. So I knew the feeling.

And what do I do the very next day but attend (and I quote) “an expansive multi-disciplinary music and arts festival held in the evocative spaces of Newhaven Fort in East Sussex”?

All those stories which reached us from the continent, of people squatting old Car War bunkers to turn them into venues, this must be the nearest to that I've seen. Except it didn't just repurpose the fort but take advantage of it's layout, take it's nest of nooks and crannies and create a spontaneous sound art happening around every corner. Despite it being a mere half hour ride from Brighton I'd never been to the place before. Which made the experience only the richer as I ascended ramparts, descended vertiginous stairwells and traversed corridors so narrow as to resemble some strange Surrealist film set.

There was a programme but in true festival spirit it seemed more appropriate to drift, trusting to run into something you weren't expecting, following the sound trails like some Pied Piper child. At one point, following sounds along a long underground tunnel I eventually realised that rather than some act lying tantalisingly ahead of me they were coming from a string of hidden speakers. I'd gone from Pied Piper child to White Rabbit chaser! (When I did get to the end there was some woman reading earnest poetry while naked. You don't win 'em all...)

The choice of setting was doubly inspired. Music venues are built around old showbiz schematics which map relatively easy to rock and pop music, so we normally don't think to question such basics as darkened auditoriums and spotlit stages. But music such as this comes from a wholly other tradition, which works its magic better in a wholly other environment.

And improvised music (which much of this line-up was) is always site-specific, always based around the mood of the moment and the acoustic properties of the space. I certainly shan't forget Inwards emitting electronica from inside a bunker, viewable only through a narrow slit like the world's most secure DJ booth, while we musical eavesdroppers hung out oustide.

The day was a mix-up of performances, film showings and sound installations. The amount of stuff on offer made for almost an embarassment of riches, and I did find myself passing through the installations rather than letting them sink in, keen not to miss the next happening – resulting in their playing something of a second fiddle.

But at the same time there was an appealing absence of any neat dividing line between installations and performances. For example Alice and Luuma's Self-resonating Feedback Cellos (handily pictured) was “a durational droneduet for elctro-acoustically modifed cellos and no cellists”, essentially self-perpetuating cello feedback. While Hakarl's eight hour performance was in it's way an installation which merely used live musicians rather than mechanisms. As the string trio played slow and repetitive lines from inside a gun emplacement, making for a surprisingly natural auditorium, I watched a passanger ferry slowly emerge over the horizon and pull into town – it seemed part of the thing. (I also liked the way one player sported a Taylor Swift T-shirt.)

Seijiro Murayama's set was a classic case, as it would not have worked so well in a more standard setting. The bare lighting, the way we casually sat around him on the floor matched his stripped-down performance – one drum, one cymbal and one voice. He'd often pause unhurriedly between sections, eyes remaining closed, unconcerned with providing a steady flow of entertainment, doing merely what he was moved to do. I know I always say this stuff is analagous to shamanic ritual. But honestly, I say it because it's true!

There were a couple of acts I found disappointing. Of course there were the inevitable outbreaks of frenetic jazz rock and the like, but as there were multiple opportunities at any one time I just made my way elsewhere. I mean here stuff I sought out, then felt afterwards I'd backed the wrong horse. (And remember I was mostly avoiding stuff I'd seen before, feeling the day was about encountering something new.)

I was keen to see Audrey Chen again, after her enthralling set at Colour Out of Space. (Now some seven years ago!) In that time she's ditched the cello and now relies only on her voice. Perhaps tonsils are simply an easier item to pack, when travelling from one international festival to another. And the sounds she could conjour from those vocal chords, with no need for effects or filters... it was impressive. But those possessed-sounding voices have become something of a genre of their own, while the cello gave her something more unique. Best points were when she sounded the possessed version of a soul singer.

I was equally eager to see Carla Bosulich, and equally disappointed. While I can't claim to know her music well I like it when I hear it – like bluesy songwriting and lo-fi freakery got double-booked but somehow managed to get along. Like a more volume, less laid back Califone. Here, for the first half of her set she kneeled over a guitar which she scraped with found objects while pressing pedals. The second half grew more song-based, marked by her throwing back her hoodie and even taking to her feet. But the result was rather neither-nor, like whichever half we were in was the wrong one – too loose followed by too constrained. It was too much like what a rock star does when they're not doing a set-list set.

But more happily and more often, I stumbled across other things I previously knew not of and was wowed by. John Chantler's electronica set was something like a chauffeur-driven rollercoaster ride, being expertly taken through the most vertigious twists and turns. I especially liked the way he'd skid in and out of beats. Too often when electronica artists turn to beats it's like the fun stuff is over, and the set becomes constrained within their tramlines. Whereas Chantler was their master, not their servant.

When you watch electronica artists hunched behind a line of jack leads, they can seem as remote and arcane as sorcerers casting secret spells. Conversely Pierre Bastien (also handily pictured) took the 'demystifying' approach of the post-punk days in a new direction. He'd built a meccano construction, projected up on the screen above him, around which he'd loop tapes. He'd play along while triggering samples, often accompanied by a video of their making. His enthused stage persona was part mad scientist part children's entertainer, infusing music-making not just with the sense of accessibility but of fun.

At the other extreme, Ewa Justka was lit only by the glare of a flashing white light. She emitted a fusion of electronic noise and dance music for the end of time, the pumping beats giving a discipline over the usual self-indulgent howlaround. By fortuitous scheduling she followed some dippy New Age act, less like night following day than truth winning out over platitudes. In fact as the set went on I came to think of it almost as an antidote and corrective to the blissed-out all-hold-hands feelgood of dance music, uniting us all but by pulverizing us into our constituent atoms. Remarkably, she was able to keep the sonic onslaught up for some forty-five minutes without losing any of it's impact. We staggered out and somehow got the train home.

More of my photos of the day over on Flickr.

You can see photos of the Fort in all it's at the event's website.

A brief write-up and some cool photos of the events at Cutlasses.

That set by Seijiro Murayama...

...and Ewa Juska, though from Warsaw...

… while this short film's of the predecessor event. Which alas I didn't attend, but gives you a good flavour...

Saturday, 10 September 2016


...but takes some last lingering shots of the Scottish isle. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Proper post next week!

Friday, 2 September 2016


The Dance of Machines

Back in the early Nineteen Tens, David Bomberg was pretty much the bad boy of British Modernism. An East End roughneck, it had been his undeferential attitude towards his tutors which had seem him “asked to leave” the prestigious Slade school. But that was pretty much analogous to his approach to art. Typically, the lesson he brought away from the experience was to take things further. He had soon fallen into the company of the Vorticists, self-styled as the most avant garde group in Britain. (Whose antics we looked at here.)

For reasons we'll come onto, the show skates past this early era. But one paintings it does provide is 'The Dancer' (1913/14, above), a classically Cubo-Futurist agitation of lines and shapes in the place of of a fixed image. (On the continent Cubism and Futurism were not just separate but pretty much opposing art movements. But often in Britain, as with Russia, their arriving together meant they were taken as one.) Perhaps what's unusual about the image is it's more muted palette, with that salmon background, and - despite the title – the way it's almost fully abstract. This is Bomberg absorbing his influences, not yet painting like himself.

His most celebrated work, 'The Mud Bath' (1914, below), isn't included here. But it was in the Tate's Vorticist retrospective and now part of the permanent (and therefore free) collection at the Tate Britain, so let's cheat and drag it in. It's hard not to speak of. Not only was it the best of his works from this era, almost everything else subsequently seemed seemed preparatory towards it. And sometimes this was quite literally true, with works like 'Vision of Ezekiel' (1912) and 'Bathing Scene' (1912/13) pointers on the path of reduction which led to it - each time a bit more boiled down. After all, as Bomberg said at the time “where decoration happens it is accidental. My object is the construction of Pure Form. I reject everything in painting that is not Pure Form.”

Famously, it was exhibited on the street outside his first solo show, as if the gallery confines couldn't contain its explosive force. He always maintained it stopped the traffic. (Or scared the horses. The two still overlapped in those days.) With it, Bomberg didn't just reach his apogee but semi-abstraction reached its epitome. (In the same way that Munch's 'The Scream' is the epitome of Expressionism.)

That black column might initially look incongruous. In fact it's literally and figuratively central. It's like the monolith of Modernism, the totem pole of the dance, reducing (or raising) the dancing figures into an undifferentiated geometric mass of angled limbs. And this is perhaps emphasised most of all by the boldly reductive use of colour, that block of bright red, the strikingly solid lines of white and blue. And if it looks coloured rather than painted, like he could have handed the job to a sign-writer, then later artists would do precisely that.

The foot of one figure remains planted on the ground (in the lower right), an attachment leading to it casting a shadow. It probably won't be there for long, soon it'll be caught up in the whirlygig along with everything else. But its inclusion is important. The painting evokes the loss of self that ecstatic frenzy can induce, but seems pitched at the last few seconds before that sense was extinguished.

In has striking similarities to Matisse's 'La Danse' (1909/10). However, it's probably the differences between the two which are more instructive. It's more than Matisse's figures being more humanised. Not just holding hands but twisting their bodies in line with the gesture, the separate figures form a circle - become one. (It's the companion to a piece titled 'Music', reinforcing the idea of the figures as notes in a composition.) 

And with Bomberg the figures also cease to be separate parts. But at the same time they are reduced to separate parts within themselves – limbs detaching from torsos. While instead of being rounded and semi-shapeless they're geometrically precise. They're become like components of some greater mechanism.

Modernism championed the machine as the epitome of the age. This is a dance where the machine is setting the beat. And 'Mud Bath', not about finding the individual in a portrait but reducing the human body to a set of parts, makes that manifest. Bomberg had said “I want to translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery into an art that shall not be photographic but expressive”.

And if he'd given semi-abstraction it's perfect form, his experiences of the Great War were similarly archetypical. Not long after exhibiting 'The Mud Bath' he'd enlisted. The painter of such striking colours was no shrinking violet. From the wrong side of the tracks, Jewish in an anti-semitic era, he'd frequently respond to racist abuse with his fists. But his battle experiences, including at the Somme, understandably affected him profoundly.

And not least artistically. Yes, Modernist art had matched its times. Better than anyone had thought. But that now became the problem. Reducing the human body to parts had once seemed audacious and thrilling, now it too closely matched what machine gun fire had done for real, in a war where men had been merely components and collateral. In short war had proven the machine's greater efficiency extended to the act of slaughter. As I said on encountering 'Mud Bath' in the flesh for the first time at the Tate's Vorticist exhibition, “it’s depersonalisation is simultaneously seducing and alarming”. Modernism's success had become its failure.

The Great War had acted like an accelerator on the conveyor belt of human progress, whether artistic, social or technological. But what hastened the pace of art shortened the lifespan. When it was over the conveyor belt suddenly stopped and artists were thrown off the end, tangled up in themselves, unsure what to do next. Solutions usually involved some combination of 'back' and 'out'.

The Desert Years

At the Slade Bomberg had been part of the 'Crisis of Brilliance' group. Having been told by their tutors to stay away from those continental Modernist exhibitions, the bright young things had taken that warning as an invitation. And, to varying degrees, the War induced the same crisis in all of them. And once it was over, they all went somewhere new. (Though for Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer that “somewhere new” was the English countryside.)

Bomberg went to Palestine and took up landscape painting. Given his previous avant garde reputation, these works were at the time dismissed by critics as a retreat. Figuratively, he was out in the desert. The bold blocks of colour, the quest for pure form – all seemed gone. They even abandoned those evocative titles for flatly descriptive names. (As a rough and ready comparison, think of when Dylan swapped electrically charged iconoclasm for crooning Country standards.)

But are they as conventional as this suggests? 'The South East Corner, Jerusalem' (1926, above), a sedate, recognisable landscape, is not an obvious successor to 'The Mud Bath'. But then look at the way it is painted – quite literally with broad strokes. While it is clearly of somewhere, there is no effort at all to disguise the fact it is made up of marks upon a canvas. It's only the way the composition is so light in palette (as the opposite of bright), and made up of gradations of tone, which initially obscures this.

We all know that 'Mud Bath' was inspired by life, it was a scene from public baths. But we know that because we've been told it. The resulting work is universalised, sanded smooth of any localising signifiers, part of a movement which saw itself as internationalist. Whereas this post-war turn, as the title of the show suggests, is back towards art which evokes a sense of place.

And that place can be seamless. 'Jerusalem, Looking to Mount Scopes' (1925, below) places at patchwork of terracotta roofs in the lower foreground which are then echoed in the patchwork of fields in the upper background – the city effectively blending into the landscape. (The roofs' triangular formation virtually points up at the fields, with only a couple of verticals in the composition as a counter-measure.)

While alongside place comes moment. There's an attempt to capture time of day reminiscent of the Impressionists. Look at the long shadows running alongside the figures and down the building on 'Outside Damascus Gates' (1923, below). Early morning, late afternoon and bathing moonlight became his favoured times.

These works have been reappraised in more recent decades, a process of which this show would seem a part. Some then take this talk of place further, and suggest the Jewish artist was returning to his homeland. (A question the show does not weigh in on.) It may have been a factor in his choosing Palestine, when others in his group picked Paris or New York. We're told he had even originally planned a series of 'Jewish return' works. But these were abandoned. The figures in 'Outside Damascus Gates' are rare, and even they are reduced to incidental blobs and ciphers.

The truth is simpler. He simply painted what he saw. And what he saw most, as ever, was what was unfamiliar to him. Which explains the works' fascination with light. He'd joke that, after an East End upbringing, it was something new to him. Palestine was to Bomberg more muse than homeland.

”The Spirit in the Mass”

In 1929, Bomberg visited the Spanish mountain town of Toldeo. The show suggests this became his new 'place', and by 1935 he'd moved to Andalucia. Certainly it precipitated what Alexander Graham Dixon, in a BBC documentary shown in the exhibition, called “a whole new phase in his art”.

Take 'Valley of La Hermida, Asturias, Spain' (1935, up top). It's not just that the vibrant colours are back. If 'Mud Bath' was pure blocks of colour and the desert paintings made up of an elegant sufficiency of marks, the brushwork here is a flurry of frenzied strokes. This can reach such a fervour that the works almost become semi-abstract all over again, take for example the blur of marks in the lower half of 'Ronda Valley' (1954, below).

If the desert paintings in some ways referred to the Impressionists, this time we're right back with the Romantics and their evocation of the sublime – nature experienced as an overwhelming force. And if the last great Romantic to get a British show was Turner, then there seems something of a similarity. See for example, 'Sunset, Mount Hilarion, Cyprus' (1948, below).

Except a frequent feature of Romanticism is vertiginous scale, often achieved by incorporating diminutive human figures. Whereas Bomberg leaves the works as unpopulated as the desert paintings, while they are not physically large (particularly compared to his often gargantuan early pieces). Which then throws the emphasis elsewehere, onto the power of nature as a set of forces. These forces are present in Romanticism too, but they’re often depicted transiently – as Turner's sea storms, and so on. Whereas Bomberg paints forces which are inherent, and therefore unabatable.

If the distilled essence of early Bomberg lies in the quote about “pure form”, there's another which sums up this era - “our search is towards the spirit in the mass”. What Bomberg really does is paint solid objects as though they're not. Because of course they're not. Look again to the hillsides of 'Valley of La Hermida', they're not painted as something stable or steady, for walkers to plant their boots upon, but by vigorous downward strokes.

David Sylvester, one of the first critics to rediscover Bomberg, commented “the scene under our eyes… shifts about as we watch it. And we realize, with a sort of transport, how intuitively true this is of landscape. It is not still. It has its own weird anima, and to our wide-eyed perception it changes like a living animal under our gaze.”

If the desert paintings are about capturing a moment, tied to a time of day, these take things which seem solid and immutable to us (as in expressions such as 'solid as a rock') and portray them as convulsive and ever-changing. And those geological forces are never at rest, they only seem solid to us because we are so fleeting. Bomberg said at the time that he found the past and the present indistinguishable.

And in this way, even if Toledo did act as a kind of muse, they're not about place. Or at least only in the sense that nature has to be instanced through place. Place implies a presumption of permanence, somewhere that could be departed from then returned to, which is being over-ridden here. Bomberg only left Spain when the Civil War drove him out. But he subsequently painted across Europe, notably visiting the Romantic hotspots. In Britain for example, his favoured locations were Devon, Cornwall and Wales. And the results are remarkably similar wherever he roved.

It's easy to see how those concerned with notions of linear progress in art, a frequent pitfall of Modernism, would have been as tempted to overlook these works. Furthermore, the Modernist notion that we have changed the world, or even that we could, lies buried beneath his brushstrokes. But chiefly, Modernism set itself the task of becoming universal, a global reach whose spread left it uninterested in time. It's defining value was 'now'. The longstanding genre of history painting was effectively brought to a close. Cubism, as mentioned a huge influence on the young Bomberg, was about flattening time into a single image - as if taking to it with a blacksmith's hammer.

The past was gone, and I'm not sure Modernism was all that concerned with how history would perceive it. Some of its movements, such as the Futurists, explicitly stated their fervent wish was to be supplanted by the still-more-modern, and then forgotten. Whereas from Spain onwards, all of Bomberg's work is about the inescapable force of time.

'The Mud Bath' could be described as a hit single - a combination of “the most purely distilled essence of something” and “the one everybody knows”. But musicians will tell you a hit singles can become an albatross, and indeed it came to overshadow Bomberg's later work. Few thought to ask what the bad boy did as an adult. In this way, it's an advantage it's absent from this show. An audaciously large work, it would dominate over the others even physically.

Perhaps the desert paintings are not as exciting as his early years, rating a very good rather than a great. But with the 'spirit in the mass' works Bomberg finds a whole new direction which is fully compelling. Alas, no-one at the time thought so. He died in 1957 virtually forgotten, sidelined by Wyndham Lewis in the Tate's Vorticist retrospective, none of his works in national collections, his plans to resume art tutoring come to naught. Badly malnourished, he effectively died of poverty. Only gradually was his work rediscovered, first – perhaps inevitably – through Vorticism and then the later years. Which in a sense is fitting. 'Mud Bath' struck people there and then. The rest took us time...

Saturday, 27 August 2016


Plot spoilers ahead!

Part-way through this film Deadshot (played by Will Smith) stumbles on one of those top secret folders (you know the ones), and discovers what's really attacking New York. Turns out it's the Enchantress, who used her original enlistment into the Suicide Squad as her chance to go rogue. In other words, the action of recruiting the Squad generated the enemy they now need to face. It's a neat irony. A flashback handily confirms all this.

Except the 'flashback' almost entirely reprises scenes we previously saw in real time. Which kind of scuppers the surprise element a little.

And things are often like that here. Expert critics have spotted that this film is thrown together in an often haphazard way. But then so has everyone else. The rest of the Squad, bar Deadshot and Harley Quinn, occasionally up and do something significant-seeming, in the firm belief they're adding to their backstory. Not in this movie, they're not. (Diablo comes closest, and luckily his back story is so predictable it doesn't need much screen time.) 

And it bizarrely manages to combine repeat load-tipping of info dumps with the assumption the cinema viewer will know their comics lore. Some things we're told twice, others not at all. Harley jumping into the chemical vat, those not familiar with the Joker origin story find that a particularly mystifying moment.

(Me, I'd have started the film with the conference room scene, where the Suicide Squad project is first announced. The aide to Walker, the Black Ops boss, would then have manifested as the Enchantress to the audience the same time as the Generals. Then the rest of the Squad could have been introduced, one by one. All of whom within their own unique personalised holding cell. But I digress...)

Critics (and everyone else) rightly point out the way the soundtrack sounds so slapped on they might as well have stuck an i-Player on shuffle. And that Cara Delevingne might look the part of the spooky Enchantress, but acts just like a model. Which becomes a particular problem in the finale, where instead of commanding proceedings she gyrates like she's in a really bad music video. And when your cast is all bad guys, you need to a pretty good antagonist to up the ante of evil on them.

While Deadshot is projected as the primary protagonist, getting the nearest there is to characterisation, it's Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) who really dominates. It's hard to find a publicity image where she's not centred. If he's intended as the heart of the film, she's its face.

She actually gets a back story. Trouble is, it isn't just bad, it's about as bad as it gets. As if the career woman who throws it all in for the bad guy wasn't bad enough, the scene where the Joker tortures her into her new identity is effectively a euphemistic rape scene, so we even have the 'conversion through rape' trope.

Much of this has been said already, and ably enough, so let's make just one further comment. Notably, both Deadshot and Diablo are conflicted over their bad guy status. Deadshot is shown sniffing gunpowder like a crackhead with a pipe, yet at the same time he's motivated by love for his daughter. That's some... not much, but some indication of an inner life. Whereas both Harley and the Enchantress are simply split, the well-behaved good girl (Harleen Quinel and June Moone respectively) alternating with the sexy bad girl. Not depth but appearance. Times two.

And Harley leads us on to the next common criticism of the film, the way the Joker is reduced to such a cameo role. (See for example this YouTube review.) Most likely, this is another thing down to poor structuring and edit wars. Actor Jared Leto has confirmed he not only shot a whole lot more scenes, he was less than pleased to find how few made it to the finished film. (Asked if any of his scenes were cut, he's responded by asking if any weren't.)

But actually, that's one thing which works in the film's favour. Had the Joker been onscreen more, Harley would have once more been relegated to his girlfriend and sidekick – the Batgirl of the crime world. As it is, his being remote from the plot but forever trying to force his way back in all but reverses things. He comes to represent her desire to be out there, driving recklessly round town rather than being stuck in boring detention. In short, the essential nature of Harley necessitates that the only way the Girl Joker can dominate the film is to keep the Boy Joker at arm's length.

But then again, that's what they do. It doesn't atone for the egregiousness of her origin story, of course. But when we complain about superhero films being so concerned with the heroes, and the heroines always shunted into supporting roles, isn't this something to cheer? (Me, I'd have given Harley none of the unnecessary backstory, and almost no scenes together with the Joker save the brief moment where her rescue seems to be working. But that's probably another digression.)

The conceit underlying both characters is that crazy counts as a kind of super-power. It leaves the wielder so unconstrained by social norms, so ready with the unexpected it becomes an ability akin to the ability to set light to things or be a crack shot. (Neither has any particular powers beyond this.) And then, just to throw you even further, they toss in the notion that crazy might just be an act after all, there to distract you while they get on with their scheming.

And this is accentuated with Harley, who also delights in playing the part of the bimbo stripper. On release her very first action is to toy with the guards' minds, leaving them unsure whether she's lunatic or player, goofy simpleton or corkscrew-minded schemer. Her costume is less the... well, the harlequin image of the original cartoons and more a cross between the peeling facepaint feral joker of 'Dark Knight' and the punk kinderwhore look - both of course designed to sew confusion among those they encounter. And she pretty much keeps up that act throughout. It's her not Deadshot who dispatches the Enchantress, a victory she achieves through cunning and deception.

The one time we see her without the make-up, so to speak, is when she believes the Joker died in trying to rescue her – and we see her crying in the rain. But only we see this. By the time the rest of the Squad have walked up, the act is back on. (Admittedly for this to be true you have to disregard the risible scene where the Enchantress tempts her with the fantasy of becoming a stay-at-home mom. But then you have to do a whole lot of mental re-editing with this film.)

All of which is sold by Robbie's performance, which could without exaggeration be called scene-stealing. It's everything Delevingne's isn't. As she repeatedly sidles up to other characters, they can never be sure whether she'll screw with them, try to snog them or stab them.

And here we've hit the upside. When it works, which in fits and spurts it does, the film treats you just in the same way Harley does. No wonder she's the face for it! You're never quite sure what it is, what it will do to you next, what angle it will come from - dark or comic, dramatic or surreal. The film itself behaves like a lunatic let loose from the asylum. That may well be because the film doesn't really know itself what it is. But it can still press that into service.

And there are times where it does seem to froth with deranged invention. The Joker's henchmen conduct a raid in ludicrous fancy dress, one machine gunning guards in a panda costume. And shouldn't it be like this? if superhero films try to up characterisation, they're still going to be lagging behind in the Academy awards. They're simply not playing to their strengths.

And the concept of a motley collection of bad guys is actually a pretty good one. It's often said the strength of a superhero title is the strength of it's rogues gallery. So why not have just the rogue's gallery? “Let's do something fun”, asserts the Enchantress early on. And something fun does sound a more inviting prospect than another two and a half hours of sour hero grimdark. This ragbag army follow a very crooked path indeed, sometimes doubling back on themselves, at others leaping blocks ahead. A route map they're not. But at least they're moving in the right direction.

Sunday, 21 August 2016


The Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 19th August

Featuring both the guitarist and drummer from Bo Ningen, pyschedelic noise purveyors and Lucid Frenzy fave, Xaviers might seem their side project. But they're dominated by the keyboards of Kenichi Iwasa, the guitar lines often as metronoic as the drums. In fact for the one section the guitar takes to the fore he immediately switches to secondary drums.

To this day, there are those who associate space rock with prog. Yet his child's-play stabs couldn't have been further from their sophisticated swooshes, a buzzing biplane against a Red Arrows display. His cheap, insistent and off-kilter lines lead the band through one long improvised number.

They're strongly Krautrock influenced, never a bad thing in my book. And Krautrock of course can mean either the propulsive rhythms of Neu!, so much a forerunner of the repetitive beats of dance music, or the deranged freak-outery of Faust. Except Xaviers somehow manage to cover both of those styles at the same time. It's a set which lurches forward like a drunken robot. Imagine the clanking castle on chicken legs of 'Howl's Moving Castle' combined with the humanising imperfection of Wall-E. (This analogy is handily pictured.) You were never quite sure whether it would be able to keep going, while it actually assaulted your senses for a full set length with none of the longeurs impro can lead into.

From listening you'd have no idea how proficient the musicians were or even if they had any idea themselves how it was working. It might have been propelled by sheer forward motion for all we knew. And it's refreshing to see such a safety last approach to taking to the stage. The band name comes, I would assume, from the psi powered head of the X-Men. And they certainly seem possessed of advanced telepathic powers.

An earlier, and less keyboard-led, set from London...

Saturday, 13 August 2016


...on the west coast of Mull. The nearby Calgary Art in Nature trail was also encountered. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Saturday, 6 August 2016


NB This review boldly goes into plot spoilerific territory (as surely as it splits infinitives)

If I haven't written much about the Star Trek movies so far (only a brief response to the first one here) it's partly because I felt responses were hard-coded. It just came down to have much of a classic Trek fan you were. Hardcore fans of the original series hated the reboot with a vengeance, whereas I... well I was never that much of a fan, so was more amenable to change. Which suggests at different perspectives, rather than different analysis. Which would make any debate purposeless.

It's true, for example, that the the original series was powered by the Kirk/Spock/Bones triangle. But that seemed effective because of the chemistry between the three actors, the way some bands can only work with a classic line-up, making it something of a fool's errand to try and reproduce. Better to vary from it. Admittedly, they strayed too far, and made films too much about Kirk and his supporting cast. But it's better to go in the right direction and overshoot than the wrong.

This time the script conspires to divide the crew into twos, but is only interested in the effect of this on Spock and Bones. And it's actually handled reasonably well, Spock suddenly finding a joke funny and Bones worrying he's become delirious, Spock attempting to say he'd always assumed their relationship to be based on an underlying respect and Bones firmly insisting it doesn't need saying. It's reminiscent enough to work, without being trapped inside imitative.

And when Kirk's two-hander with Chekov yields nothing similar that's probably just as telling. Kirk's job is to move the plot along, and anyone with him is an audience or sounding board. There's some feints to give him one of those 'atonement-with-the-father journeys' out of Scriptwriter's Basic, but that tends to lurk around the film trying to find some sort of purchase. And, surprise, his 'arc' is his considering giving up being a starship Captain only deciding to stay one after all – meaning he comes out of the film just the way he was on the way in. Phew, that was close!

We're clearly intended to connect to him by him being coded as connected to our era. So much so you half wonder if there's a director's cut scene where he wakes up in the future, Buck Rogers style. Perhaps what's significant is how this is played. He's a rock'n'roll Starship captain, riding a motorbike round an ancient planet to distract the enemy, and later seizing victory by blasting the Beastie Boys at them.

If these moments are annoying, rather than goofily charming as they seem intended, it's most likely because they're so absolutely unearned. At the close he tells another character, now enlisted with Starfleet, she doesn't have to obey all the rules. Because, you know, he said so. There may well have been eras before ours which had lower levels of personal freedom. But the gap between perception and reality, the idea of how free we are compared to the way our lives really function, that must be unprecedented. Short of some truly dystopian turn in history, nobody is going to look back on us and say that was the time you didn't have to obey all the rules. And consequently our heroes have become coping strategies, ways by which we can lie to ourselves.

And the flashy, frenetic direction of the film (by Justin Li, who's previously directed things like 'Fast and Furious' sequels) makes the perfect accompaniment for Kirk. As it leaps, giddyingly and unrelentingly from one set-piece to the next, its almost a trailer extended to film length. At times the flash-cutting is so unfollowable you end up just guessing what must have just happened, and you're normally right.

That said, the set-piece scene where the swarm attack the Enterprise, effectively slipping under the radar of its mighty weapons to literally dismember it, is genuinely effective. It's almost like the opposite to the classic opening of 'Star Wars', where a great big spaceship is shown to be chased by an even bigger one – this is death by an army of minnows. The scene's even given a neat fillip later, when it's revealed that their peer-to-peer inter-ship communications jammed the Enterprises' in themselves rather than through a deliberate plot, like they attacked us with their very unlikeness.

It's one of those classic moments where you can watch a Hollywood movie and root for the bad guys without having to rewrite much in your head. In fact it's virtually Negri and Hardt's theory of multitude versus empire, laid out on the screen. (Not, it must be said, a theory that's particularly convincing. In fact it's quite possibly no more than rock'n'roll autonomism the same way Kirk's a rock'n'roll Captain. But for all that it's fun to see it on the screen.)

And of course at the very same time the film seems cheerily innocent even of the concept that the 'bad guys' might portray positive features. In the standard clash-of-values conversation with the villain Kraal, he snarlingly mocks their “unity” as a “weakness”. Yet not only are his crew as unified in purpose as Kirk's, they are defeated precisely by having this unity disrupted.

Even if we weren't already expecting a plot twist over Kraal, Uhura is given a line to tip us off that one's incoming. And the way it's delivered is effectively handled, suddenly fixing on a clue which has been hiding in plain slight just as we've been looking elsewhere.

Yet it's this twist which truly scuppers the film. It turns out... I said there'd be plot spoilers, didn't I?... it turns out Kraal was himself a Starfleet captain, who wound up marooned on a distant planet, became convinced he was dumped there and consequently got a little embittered. And okay, aliens in science fiction are never going to be truly alien. That would make them beyond imagining, and then no-one would be able to imagine them. They're always going to be our shadow selves in some form, us at our worst so our best can get in a fistfight with them.

But there's a question of degree. Making them our literal shadow selves and no more turns them from disturbing shapes into mere reflections. It's taking those shadows and wringing the darkness from them, it robs them of any element of alienness. Historically as the Earth became delineated to the inch by spoilsport cartographers, the edge of the map was pushed further out and finally space became the place for the weird and inexplicable. This is more less what lies behind the rise of science fiction as a popular medium. It's where the strange can still be strange, where the unknown rears up at us. If you don't honour this then the science fiction becomes just a setting, a desktop background interchangeable with any other.

And this fault line is blown wide open by the ending. In'Into Darkness' we returned to Earth for a final battle with a terrorist bad guy intent on blowing up stuff. And here... okay, it's the futuristic city of a space station, but that's pretty much the same thing. And it's worse than repetition, it's even worse than the nagging sense we never really went anywhere, it runs counter to the most basic premise of 'Star Trek' – the bit spelt out up front about boldly going. Significantly that fabled opening monologue is now relegated to the end of the film, like the franchise is permanently being thrown off course and trying to get back on track. This film should really be called 'Star Trek Back Again'.

Because Star Trek is inherently about frontiers not home bases. Roddenberry's well-known original pitch for the show was “Wagon Train to the Stars”. Starfleet can be referenced, but needs to be kept in the background of a story. Kirk should land on an alien planet like a Marshall bringing law to Dodge City, explorer and policemen simultaneously. In short, this film is not without it's moments. But it's reached the point where they made Star Trek so unlike itself, that even a non-fan like me thought of throwing in the towel.