Monday, 31 December 2007

2007 RETROSPECTIVES PART 1: FILMS

Nothing so neat or arbitrary as a Top Ten here, I’m just going to list things that feel worth listing until I run out. The list goes on awhile, I’m pleased to say, before it runs out.
GHOSTS/ BATTLE FOR HADITHA
I was never much of a fan of Broomfield’s straight-on documentaries, but his forays into the often precarious world of drama docu I’ve found surprisingly effective. Battle for Haditha reviewed here.
INLAND EMPIRE
I will of course shortly be publishing my rigorous account which explains clearly and meticulously everything you need to know about this, Lynch’s craziest film since Eraserhead (and perhaps his best since then). Of course I will…
THE LIVES OF OTHERS
One of the upsides to deserved veneration is that everyone else will go on about this, so I won’t have to.
SUNSHINE
Boyle’s most audacious and challenging film since Trainspotting, at times feeling more akin to the science fiction of 2001 or Solaris than Alien or Star Wars. But highly flawed, stylistically over-egged and seemingly losing the courage of its convictions before the end.
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER
The last and (in honesty) the least of Zhang Yimou’s wire-fu trilogy. But even the least will be better than the most of most others. Macbeth-like family feuds and intrigue, with more scheming and double-dealing than you can shake a samurai sword at!
THIS IS ENGLAND
Shane Meadow’s superb examination of skinhead culture in the early eighties. Reviewed in the old print days of Lucid Frenzy. Maybe I should upload that one…
ZODIAC
At first I was worried Fincher was just re-making Seven with this examination of the Zodiac serial killings. I needn’t have been. It’s not really about the killings at all, which are presented as some kind of inscrutable mystery, so much as human obsession. At least that’s how I read it…
GOLDEN DOOR
Unlike The Lives of Others, not nearly enough fuss was made over Crialese’s splendid fable of Sicilian migration to America, with magic realist undertones frequently breaking to the surface.
THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
Okay, it’s just a bunch of Simpson’s episodes woven together with vamped-up animation. That’s still pretty good, isn’t it?
CONTROL
As reviewed here.
EASTERN PROMISES
Despite the hyperbole, 2005’s A History of Violence never really convinced me Cronenburg had crossed over from genre to ‘proper’ film-making. To my mind he fared much better with the lesser-rated efforts – 2002’s Spider and this examination of the Russian mafia in London.
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS
As reviewed here.
PERSEPOLIS
Reviewed (of sorts) here.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSEE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
As reviewed here

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

SEDUCED: ART AND SEX FROM ANTIQUITY TO NOW

Barbican Gallery, 12th Oct '07 - 27 Jan '08



1. Ligatures A Go-Go
The first thing you notice about these two floors crammed with erotic artwork is the typeface.

If you want an x-ray into the intentions of a movie, shut your eyes and listen to the soundtrack. The fact that we’re not supposed to do that means that’s where all the subliminal hijinks are actually located. Similarly, when looking at any kind of product, focus on the typeface.

Typefaces in museum signage are always sans serif (like the typeface used here), functionally maximizing readability, anti-ostentatiously pointing away from themselves to the exhibits. But this typeface is serify to the max, thick with twiddly bits and ligatures a go-go. It stands out partly through being such a contract to the Barbican’s standard blocky look.

Partly this is reminding us that sex goes beyond mere function; in fact you could argue that sex is almost the opposite of work, the ultimate thing you’d do for its own sake. However, there’s more. In typography serify fonts are considered ‘classical’, thereby tasteful and tend to get appended to luxury products. Boxes of chocolates or perfume tend to be serify, bin bags less often.

So do the serifs tell us this show will just turn out to be art as luxury product, some self-congratulatory “risqué” and “transgressive” attraction, despite all the sexualized billboards we walked past to get here, something to brag about seeing in a Soho wine bar that evening? Or, more hopefully, will it actually tell us something interesting?

2. Opening the Once-Locked
The first actual object we witness is a giant figleaf, built by Victorians to cover up Michelangelo’s David. (Allegedly to “spare the blushes” of Queen Victoria.) It represents, we’re encouraged to think, everything we can now throw off. The second section,titled ‘Under Lock and Key’, makes more of this feeling. It shows us artifacts from the ‘Secret Cabinet’, scenes of a sexual nature excavated from Pompeii but hurriedly locked away. But what's interesting here is that they weren’t hidden or destroyed but put into a kind of early ‘private shop’, viewable via appointment by gentlemen – and of course not by ladies or those of the lower orders. However, the underlying point is missed. This separation was not merely hypocritical but definingly modern, emphasising the emerging division between private and public spheres.

Instead of this, isn’t another schema afoot? Aren’t we not only being invited to distinguish ourselves from those stuffy Victorians, but assume that liberty and libido are intertwined, that sexual freedom is always a litmus test of political freedom? It might be inconvenient to point out, but Rome was a military dictatorship for most of its history and never less than a slave-powered, male empire. It would be a peculiar conception of liberty that would take Rome as its hallmark, even if they did carve statues with their willies out. (The show continues to have a similar, if less pronounced, blind spot over Eastern empires. And its perhaps curious why the clock stops at antiquity, when so much prehistoric art was eroticised.)

3. Eastern Promise Honoured
Another major weakness is given away by the opening line of the catalogue notes: “Sex is one of the great givens of human existence.” This seems a partuclarly peculiar statement for an exhibition selling Foucault in the bookstore. While the sex act could be considered merely a given, sexuality emphatically is not and to consider the aesthetics of sexuality as merely a given is absurd. The erotic is always culturally specific. 

But with such a line of enquiry ruled out, the show either categorises (gay sex, hetero sex, hermaphrodism etc) or measures via the blunt tool of explicitness. We’re told, for example, “the graphic arts of the Far East relished an explicitness” which ours lacked. Well Hustler magazine is pretty explicit too, but I wouldn’t particularly rate it for aesthetics.

This seems particularly a shame when the examples of Eastern art are so fabulous. Against them, those Roman marbles could be locked away forever for all I’d care. The Karma Sutra pages from India do look merely diagrammatic, but then they were intended more as instructional aid than artwork. But the Chinese and Japanese prints steal the show from everything else in the historical section, and possibly just from everything else. This superiority of erotic art from the East is something I’ve never heard convincingly explained, but there seems little doubting the evidence.

It’s interesting to contrast the Japanese examples against the Chinese. Both are eroticised not merely by their explicit nature but their sinuous linework. With those elegant, endlessly overlapping contours it’s often hard to tell one set of limbs from another – a neat visual analogy for the loss of self that comes with sexual release. The couples look like they’ve become single creatures, multitudinous and self-pleasuring. (There’s even an early example of the infamous genre of tentacle porn.)

Those contoured lines then continue outside the figure, rather than hiding their copulators away connecting them to nature. The Japanese are normally indoors, but by an open window or similar to allow a nature scene to be fitted in. But while they dominate their frame, the Chinese locate their figures in gardens; shrunk and de-centered, your eye doesn’t necessarily go to them first. And their environment is often rendered in more detail than they are themselves; trees don’t erupt phallically but sinuously flow across the frame, bark and leaves filled in with almost fetishistic detail.

The figures come to feel like creatures of their garden, as much like lovebirds upon the branches as human intruders. While nature's filled in so fully, they’re depicted with open lines and given stylised, almost inexpressive faces – the sheer opposite of the gurneying that normally indicates passion. They are kept as open as cut-outs so we can fill them in, project ourselves into them.

The Chinese pictures often contain an element of formlessness, not separated from but bordering and merging with the other elements - like something out of Ernst. In one case this was an elaborate delta-like arrangement of dripping candlewax, in others I couldn’t pin it to any explicable origin at all. If the interwoven figures were steadily losing themselves in each other, representing foreplay, this tipping point into the abstract stood for the orgasmic.

Of course there’s one figure that doesn’t get to disappear off – the viewer. These prints often featured observers, shocked servants innocently walking in on their amorous masters and the like. (Though oddly we’re not shown any examples of these. Maybe our own presence, clomping round the gallery, was supposed to be enough.) In a more effective example, a Medieval engraving shows a satyr creeping up on a fawn. Peering out the frame, he shushes us. Centuries before we tend to imagine it even being discovered, here the Fourth Wall is effectively blown down and we are implicated in his amorousness.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine erotic art existing without associations of voyeurism. You can enjoy a performance of Macbeth even if you’re lacking any inclinations to commit murder or seize any crowns. But erotic art is more functional – like a dance song it has to, at some level, stir in you the feeling to do something similar. 

Moreover, the voyeurism has an erotic charge all of itself. The downside of all this stuff about sex being a natural and normal act is that it stops it being such fun. As Tracey Emin asks in the show: “is legal sex anal?” We’re told (if not shown) of a Duchamp he created which was viewable only through a keyhole. After tearing off the figleaves and throwing open the locked rooms, we now feel the desire to lock them back up. Voyeurism liberates us from the need to always feel liberated about the erotic, and allows us to indulge in feeling pervy all over again.

4. A Touch of Form
But let’s go back momentarily to trace the linework of those Eastern prints. We’re told at one stage drawings made for better erotic art than paintings, as they were more suited to private enjoyment. Later we’re told how photography took over from drawing, as it offered a sense of faux realism. Particularly today, in our broadband-connected world, non-photographic porn seems almost quaint. Few websites offer porn novels on subscription. Nevertheless, and while I would say that, I would argue cartoons and animation are the media which can portray sex the best - for precisely the same reason. While as said above there’s nothing wrong with the merely voyeuristic, painting photography and film always struggle to get past that. As Duchamp (quoted in this very show) puts it, painting only shows “the surface of things”. Yet when photography liberated painting from record-keeping, it fell into its old cell. Cartoons are less bound to reality, and freer to show what sex feels like.

Reflecting on the superiority of the Japanese prints the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones comments: “European art from the Renaissance into modern times was obsessed with the delineation of reality in space and time. Japanese prints are instead decorative explorations of shape and colour: this makes for a much more tactile art.” So much sensation is encoded in the line that a good enough cartoonist could probably eroticise a rendering of a hoover. And the stages we see set up simultaneously in the Chinese prints could be sequential in an animation; figures could become more and more intertwined, then finally melt right into one another.

It’s of course equally true there are cartoonists who use their powers for ill, for example the fashion in Image comics for women whose physiques would literally leave them unable to stand up. But of course cartoons are not over-represented here, even when the candidates they offer are obvious. Jones goes on to ask: “why exclude sexually obsessed cartoonist Robert Crumb?”

However, the blinkers do not block off other directions. Perhaps its being part of a wider arts complex, but the Barbican does seem more willing to escape the fetish for canvas you find at the Tate. (When the Tate recently showed Dali’s films, it did so via often spurious points of comparison to his paintings.) The Voice of Sex area contained nothing but taped readings, none annotated, with instructions just to listen to the sound of the voices, to “explore another aspect of seduction: the sensuality of words and of the voice.” Unfortunately this splendid idea was poorly executed, the sound intrusively bled into surrounding rooms, then when you arrived you were merely in  a throughway with no inviting space to stop – so few did. 

Also, if a listening room why not a ‘feeling’ room – where you could put your hands through slot holes to stroke different textures? It could even reverse the standard signs you see in exhibitions – please do touch.



5. Everything’s Allowed Nowadays
At the Barbican’s recent Panic Attack show, (reviewed here) I successfully guessed the weakness before attending – the artists more removed from the punk milieu would be less interesting. At the earlier Future Cities show (reviewed in Lucid Frenzy’s ancient print days) I again intuited the weakness – as it progressed through time it would become progressively less interesting. I expected the very same weakness here – and I was wrong.

There’s low points, of course. But for example I’m now disappointed I didn’t go to see Noboyoshi Araki’s solo show (see his post-Bunel image above). And even when what might sound overly familiar comes up, it seems capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. A classic example is the Surrealist section, which contains a Sixties Sadean ‘happening’ which involved urinating on the audience and nearly saw its instigators locked up. (With the state of my memory I can remember the names of none of them now.) I also don’t remember Hans Bellmer’s drawings from the recent Undercover Surrealism exhibition, though that may merely be my poor memory as well.

Perhaps the downside of the contemporary works is they’re not particularly erotic, and consequently ill-placed to seduce you. (Or rather the examples that attempt the erotic are the least interesting… calling Marlene Dumas or Jeff Koons.) Given the period the works tend to the conceptual and, while the erotic is of course at root cerebral, conceptual art tends to the intellectual – quite a different thing. Duchamp’s presence is telling, while it’s always great to see some Duchamp it’s also a little odd to see so much of him in an erotic show. But the same remains true of the less conceptual works, Bacon for example paints more in the tradition of Munch than of Klimt.

But this downside is simultaneously the upside. There’s little Sixties-style revelling in some imagined sexual freedom, either in our ‘permissive’ society or in the liberated role of the artist. Often there’s quite the opposite. Thomas Ruff, for example, deals in blurry blown-up photos. They look ‘artistic’, the sort of thing metrosexuals would choose to go above their bed decks. Only when you read the serify notes do you realise they’re taken from porn sites, screwing with our easy distinctions ‘twixt tasteful art and sordid commerce. (Ruff does pull off a slight cheat, however. The notes suggest the blurring is but a side-effect of enlarging the images, a Duchamp-like minimising of the artist’s intervention. But unlike photos, such images pixellate when enlarged – quite a different effect.)

It’s not mentioned anywhere in the exhibition, but its notable how modern art and rock music are so associated with sex in the popular mind. Both are created by bourgeois-bohemians, and are never assembled by labour but always unleashed –exemplifiers of the spurt of ‘free’ uninhibited expression. They represent the ‘true self’ against the ‘uptight’ - of which sexual license is always the chief signifier. Of course such absurd notions merely lead to their very opposite. Rather than slip the restrictive shackles of dominant culture they then become loaded with so much baggage their backs cannot hope not to break. Fifty years past rock music and over a hundred past modernism, about now would be a good time to get over all that nonsense.

Perhaps Nan Goldin’s slideshows come in here. Slideshows inherently juxtapose images, but Goldin’s static shots are more inter-related than most films. Her simple uncrafted Polaroid-like images follow the lives of friends of hers; sometimes with children, sometimes cuddling together on sofas. They then break with the polaroids we are used to seeing by including sexual activity, part of the continuum of human relationships but rarely part of its recording. It’s more striking when they indulge in less ‘mainstream’ sex acts, with none of the surrounding iconography.The effect is similar to the famous scene in Roeg’s 'Don’t Look Now', when shots of a married couple making out are intercut with scenes of them dressing for dinner. In the sheer antithesis of faux-bohemiansim, you’re given a sense of sex as part of an overall relationship. In an era of internet porn and endlessly sexualized billboards, maybe that’s what’s become transgressive.

Gallery info here

Thursday, 20 December 2007

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD


Despite the telegram of a title this film review really does contain Plot Spoilers, y’heah?

Bundling in a bonus, Brighton’s Duke of York’s cinema started the programme with a short interview with director Andrew Dominik. Dominik quietly but audaciously compared his film to a pearl-string of fin de siecle Western classics such as Heaven’s Gate or Pat Garrett, then topped the whole thing off by adding Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon!

Not only does Dominik beat the odds and pull off these comparisons, I’m going to up the absurdist ante and liken proceedings to Pasolini’s Medea. Filming both the myth of and the sordid truth behind Jason and the Argonauts’ exploits, Pasolini didn’t so much juxtapose them as superimpose one on top of the other. Similarly Domink will portray the James gang as an agglomeration of squabbling kids, his inlaws swaggering under his big brotherly protection, while simultaneously pushing the James myth of romantic outlaws to centre stage. The paradox centres on the second, lesser-known name from the title – how much does Ford by the end believe in the James myth, and how does he imagine himself relating to it?

The judgementalism fixed into the title is hung up like a signpost in the wind, to be battered and swung by the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time. The Jesse James song (the one most of us know via the Pogues) is used in a similar way. Ford takes a not unexpected umbrage at being so described but, in a delicious moment of ambiguity, insists there were only “two, not three” James kids his gun left hungry. Told in advance to expect the title’s single act, we contend to try and read meaning out of it. In fact the film contains a recurrent motif of characters spying on or observing one another, lying on mattresses or in bathtubs, like everyone’s perpetually trying to figure one another out.

“Jesse groomed Bob as the man who would kill him” asserts Paul Whittington in the Irish Independent. Certainly, by the point James presents Ford with a handgun his mind’s made up, and he’s figuring he may as well make sure to get it from a decent shooter. However, to read that throughline back throughout the film seems overly schematic, when a film as languid as this needs more nuances. James’ mind seems rarely made up, but as volatile and extreme as Amin’s in Last King of Scotland, veering between jocular gang pappy and paranoid schemer – sometimes in the space of a sentence. He plays mind games with the others, and also with himself. James riding up could mean anything from your share of the loot to a calm but lethal bullet to a psychopathic rage, and maybe he hasn’t decided himself till he pulls up.

We view him through the somewhat imperfect lens of Ford, as something as inchoate and inscrutable as the moody Missouri skyscapes that fill the screen. A devotee to the point of being a groupie, Ford memorises trivial details such as James’ shoe size as a displacement from his inability to get into James’ head.

Moreover, though Ford may serve as our protagonist, he’s scarcely any more cohate than James. If James is subject to wild mood swings, Ford is barely formed – hence the youth’s desire to cling to others like flotsam to a rock. Even after taking the mission to kill James, even after accepting the gift of the murder weapon, Ford wanders James’ house like a stalker – drinking from the glass on the dresser for no reason other than James did. (However, when James asks “Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?” it strikes a rare bum note. It feels far too expository, spelling things out for the cheap seats.)

Nevertheless as James sees his Old West habitat disappear, and as he serially dispatches everyone from his gang, his own death-wish grows and his mind does fix on displaced suicide. (The films full of late Autumn/ Winter settings, as if everything’s coming to a close.) However, in doing so he outsmarts Ford one final time. By presenting the kid with the easy target of his back, he condemns Ford to be forever associated with him – but only in the way the film’s title directs. (Though ironically, “back shootin’” seems James’ favoured method of execution throughout.) Even when we see Ford stagily re-enacting events before a theatre crowd, he doesn’t dramatise or alter these squalid facts. Ford only finally becomes like James when facing his own assassin, he stoically accepts his bullet. That’s the only ending this story has in it.

The film’s critical plaudits are largely deserved, but Whittington’s opening castigation of the popcorn-eating crowd strikes at something that worries me more than the usual snobbery. By watching a film wherein the West ends, where James or Billy the Kid bite the dust, they imagine by some act of sympathetic magic the Western as a genre will be brought to a close. It reminds me of the ‘death of the superhero’ hyperbole that swept comics criticism after Watchmen, something that wasn’t true either. But it’s still more absurd here, as the act of faith asks us to forget how many times we’ve been here before. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was released in 1962, after which a whole host of old-time outlaws have been gunned down without ever staying dead. Like cowards in adages, the Western can die a thousand times if it needs to. These days, (in Whittington’s phrase) “anti-Westerns” seem almost as common a sight as straight Westerns.

Nevertheless, there has been a shift of which this film is a part. Liberty Valance sparked a host of elegiac swan songs, to a splendid era now over. (Its famous phrase “print the legend” didn’t mean the Old West was a mere legend.) Time was, men could be men. Its only now they can’t. Here the mood is not elegiac but melancholic. When Ford exults over the pulp accounts of his exploits, James casually dismisses then as “all lies”. Here there was no era of gentleman outlaws, just a whole load of trouble getting stored up. Ultimately the film’s focus is not history but identity, where a self-perpetuating legend is merely identity taken to grandiose excess. Whichever side of the Ford/James equation you pick, the picture’s no rosier. One builds his own cage, the other steps inside it anyway. When James tells Ford “look at my red hands and my mean face... and I wonder 'bout that man that's gone so wrong”, how much is he setting Ford up and how much is he giving his last confession to his chosen recipient? For Sartre hell was other people. Here it’s yourself.

(Nerdy postscript. After seeing Casey Affleck as Ford, I’m convinced he’d make a much better Spider-man than Toby Maguire.)

Saturday, 15 December 2007

TIME TO STOP CONSUMING!

An argument in favour of the rationing of art
Repeat zone! This literary equivalent of the ‘slow food’ manifesto was penned for the old print version of Lucid Frenzy. But I’ve been inspired to reprint it here by Murray Ewing’s posting ‘On Re-reading Books’, and being struck by the overlap. (See here for Murray’s post.)

Admittedly there’s one big difference – Murray is practising what I preach! Murray: “I tend to regard reading a book for the first time as merely an opportunity to decide whether it's worth re-reading — the re-reading bit being, for me, where the fun really starts. I tend to only keep books if I plan to re-read them at some time.” Me: “I tend to let my living quarters pile up with books in the foolhardy hope I might one day give them a first reading.”

PS Before you ask, I am not reprising this piece because I consider it to be worth re-reading in itself!


“Information will become a weapon to be used against us, as notions of value and meaning are ridiculed in a storm of confetti. Silence is the only adequate response.” – David Thomas

When we were younger, of course, life seemed simpler and we knew what we wanted from it. We craved immediacy. We wanted the three minute instant hit of the pop single over the slow release of the symphony, we wanted the pithy bite-size novelette over the Victorian tome. (Or better the still more compressed comic strip, which made the same points in lesser time by juxtaposing word and image.) The scene which summed up our attitude the best is from Godard’s Band Apart - where our heroes race through the Louvre in record time, kicking up the dust, trampling the crushing weight of history, feverishly upping the ante of the pace of consumption.

Back when printing technology was in it’s infancy, books were still something of a luxury product and even the well-to-do family would only have one or two of them about the house. The reader, forced by circumstance, would have an intensive not extensive relationship with the words he read and re-read. But printing sped up like machines are wont to do, the novel arose and things got themselves in a hurry. Nowadays we not only have a bewildering array of books flying at us but multi channel TVs, the internet and atop all that text messages to beep and interrupt us while we try to deal with it. As the adage goes, first one extreme, then the other.

During any of the recent wars I’ve felt not starved of information or even fed fake information, so much as bombarded by the wrong kind of information. It was like a kind of ack-ack fire of diagrams and column inches, smokescreening itself over whatever was actually going on on the ground. After a while I realised this was just the way I felt all the time anyway, times of war just made it more obvious. Often I come out of work and find myself still in work mode, multi-tasking input, crossing off items from my in-tray of reading and watching in order to drive better results.

There’s something of an irony here. Just as automation in the workplace was supposed to grant us increased leisure time and instead just left us working all the harder, much of this technology was introduced to us as something which would empower us to become more contemplative in our leisure time. When we could all own a copy of a book, we could re-read it any time we chose. Later the VCR was supposed to place movies under our controlling thumb, open to being re-watched as often as we chose.

Perhaps there have been more films since then that sought to cut up time in a jigsaw fashion, thereby rewarding rewatching, though that may be more to do with the all-pervasive influence of Tarantino than the technology of video playback. For the most part the day is ruled by dumbass twist endings you could only endure once, or randomly appearing ghost-train shocks (all telegraphed in the trailer anyway).

Ludicrous ‘twists’ were once a staple of comics (particularly mystery comics). They were unguessable only because they were uncredible, nonsensical and basically absurd. They happened because those comics were considered disposable, it didn’t matter if there was merely a passing ersatz frisson for you before you threw that comic away. But the nonsensical ‘twist’ has not been banished but spread through other mediums like an infection. If we watch them again it’s only for reassurance, like kids being re-read their favourite bedtime stories.

The technology works in reverse! By allowing us to go back to it any time we choose, it empowers us not to! If that old film you loved was being shown as a one-off midnight showing, you’d cross town to see it or know you might not get the chance again for years. Now the DVD of it sits on the shelf next to your chair, endlessly within reach, why would there ever be a reason to break that shrink-wrap? The bounded, as Blake used to say, is loathed by its possessor.

If we’re going to be living in such an enlarged and well-stocked vinery from now on, we need to be better at telling the good label from the bad and the still-better from the good. But it’s more than just upping the ratio of swine to pearls, it’s something more insidious.

What we really need to demand now is the right of return. As each new release replaces its predecessor on the conveyor-belt of modern life, we need to throw a spanner in the works and take our own sweet time about things. Good art, like good food or wine, can be shovelled down as quickly as anything else. You can even do it quite happily, as the action makes you oblivious to what you’re missing. But what you’re really missing is the point!

A lot of this desire to over-consume comes from the fear of missing out. Not having heard the latest release or seen the new director’s cut, what will you find to talk about on your e-mail discussion groups? Well of course if you don’t see something new you do miss out. But it’s equally true to say that re-rereading something is a fresh and expanded experience, and not to take that experience is to miss out on something as well. Life is about making choices. But it’s better to choose carefully and then stick to those choices than it is to skitter between a thousand samples and end up not really tasting anything. Take the colours too fast and they only run to white.

Think what it was like in your early teens when you owned only a handful of singles and not that stack of CDs you do today. Wasn’t your relationship to those few thumbed records more intense and personal than that groaning, semi-ignored shelving unit with which you cohabit today?

Some complain that spend too long and they may start reading more into a work of art than the artist ever actually put there. I say – so what? Would you move into a house and want to live in it only in ways devised and foreseen by the architect? When you feel yourself starting to take over the artwork from the artist that’s a sign it’s starting to work for you, and a pretty good signal to keep going.

I’m not suggesting this will be an easy habit to break. In many ways consumption is a habit as hard as any junkie’s. Maybe we need to wean ourselves slowly from the teat. Maybe we need to set up support groups throughout the hemisphere. I’ll stand up in the first one and announce “my name’s Gavin and I’m a consumer!”

We demand a slow-down in the pace of consumption!
We demand the rationing of art!
We demand the right of return!
We want to move off Quantity Boulevard, and back onto Quality Street where we were happier!
We hereby announce the world’s first consumer strike!

Monday, 10 December 2007

CINECITY 2007 - THE LAST PART



PERSEPOLIS Satrapi & Paronnaud, 2007

My initial doubts about adapting Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed autobiographical comic into an animation are summed up by one panel. Told her Uncle has been decapitated by the Iranian regime, her child’s mind immediately pictures a doll pulled apart. The naïve drawings, flat and often verging on hieroglyphics, portray her child’s perception of events that couldn’t be more adult. Moreover the story is told in an episodic fashion, almost deliberately anti-seamless, just in the consequenceless way events can imprint themselves on a child’s memory. All that adds up to a fabulous comic, but doesn’t sound much like the making of a movie – even an animated one.

It’s an understandable sensitivity. We’re used to ‘mainstream’ (ie superhero) comics being treated merely as an incubator for Hollywood blockbusters, keeping characters kicking over in copyright until they catch some mogul’s eye. Worse, you can see the same submissive relationship happening to alt comics and indie cinema, with the portentous language of ‘art cinema creeping into comics. (If something happens slowly it means it’s profound etc.) The notion that comics are their own form and might have their own language seems to grow dimmer and dimmer.

Happily this animation (co-directed by Satrapi herself) knows exactly when to be loyal to the comic and when to take its own approach. The naïve style, which might have been too limited for a an hour and a half animation, is given a little more of the third dimension, a touch more style and finesse - but never so much as to be entirely lost. In a trivial yet telling detail, white-on-black borders in the comic are depicted with thick wedgy lines. In the film they become neat white pencil lines, making objects look like they’ve slipped into negative.

The film is also happy to play fast and loose with the comics continuity; reshuffling scenes, expanding, compressing or excising them as the new medium sees fit. Scenes often morph into one another, making the vignettes feel more linked and flowing. Moreover, the animation feels no compulsion to become more ‘realist’ than the comic. When the child Satrapi has Iranian history explained to her, we see it acted out with flat puppets on sticks. Her continually moving house in Vienna is depicted by her leaping from rooftop to rooftop, toppling buildings like dominoes as soon as she lands upon them.

And better still, films get noticed more than comics even these days. The Iranian regime officially complained about the way they’re depicted here – a badge of honour if ever there was one.

PROFIT MOTIVE & THE WHISPERING WIND, John Gianvito, 2007

Of course some seem to see America’s place upon the map as something akin to Mordor’s in Middle Earth. Not a place with it’s own histories, complexities and contradictions but a beacon from where pure evil is transmitted. Partly it’s simply to annoy and confound such people, but I’m always drawn towards anything which endeavors to unpick America’s own radical history. So Gianvito’s documentary, on this very topic, grabbed at my interest.

It’s an “essay film” which visits the graves and monuments of progressive political types, to film the plaques and inscriptions without further comment. There is something poignant in seeing these weatherbeaten monuments surrounded by the signage of modern corporate America, ignored by passers-by (in one case ridden with bullet-holes), forgotten but not gone.

But we got all that from Miller’s Sacco and Vanzetti documentary (already reviewed here); indeed, it gave us that quite incidentally, without striving for effort, merely by revisiting locations such as the scene of the robbery they allegedly took part in. Do we really need this rubbed in for nigh-on an hour? And let’s be honest, reading those endless plaques… doesn’t the repetition ultimately make for a plain boring viewing experience?

The film finally cuts from those windswept tombs to the Infernal Noise Brigade at a lively modern-day demonstration, clearly making the link between past and present. But it’s not history we’re shown here, it’s heraldry. If Sacco and Vanzetti spent too much time on their personal quirks and too little on their political milieu, this film does neither. The people in those graves were real people who led real lives, and what we need is a real relationship to them. That would include examining what they did, celebrating their successes but also acknowledging their mistakes. The worst thing we could ever do would be to elevate and venerate them, by comparison even forgetting them would be a better option. To make a more local comparison, you could stand all day in Highgate Cemetery but the experience wouldn’t teach you much about Marxism.

Perhaps it’s just a side-effect of living in Brighton, surrounded by stone plinths supporting eminent Victorians, but I don’t even particularly like statues – at least not the commemorative kind. Don’t they always look better after some drunk’s stuck a traffic cone on their head? Isn’t there something inherently stuffy and officious in them, something ossified in their frozen poses? I always enjoy seeing footage of a statue being pulled down. (Even the propaganda pics of Saddam’s statues getting leveled after the Iraq invasion had their appeal.)

The fact the ‘left’ want their ‘own’ statues and memorials in some ways serves to confirm the notion they’re just a poor reflection of dominant society, keen to burden themselves with their own bureaucratic bodies holding procedure-bound meetings. Some inscriptions here seem deliberately intended to mitigate that effect, with not only calls to arms (“don’t mourn, organise”) but unexpected humour (“don’t iron when the strike is hot”). It left me wondering how many of those grave’s occupants were turning in them at this content-less essay, this pious and dull movie. My feelings ultimately lie closer to the Redskins.

“The first act of freedom
All over the world
Is to topple the statues
Kick the bosses over!”

If it was a mixed year at CineCity, that’s only to be expected from a film festival – and there were undoubted highlight.s In some ways it gave me refound faith in film festivals. 4 Months, 3 Weeks won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, while Perespolis shared the jury prize. (Then again, its co-winner was Silent Light so maybe film festival juries don’t know so much after all.)

My only complaint would be that the increased number of premieres are taking the festival away from its own theme – how is Silent Light, for example, in any way a “city film”. That might just be my fixation, one of my interests has always been the relationship between modern art mediums and the urban environment. (Yeah, I’m a hit at parties…) And worse still, without this connection the festival could fall back upon promulgating the absurd Council-inspired myth that Brighton is now a City.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

CINE CITY 2007 - THE THIRD HALF

As we reach the third but not final 'half' of my reviews of Brighton's CineCity festival, perhaps it's time I learnt to use the word 'part'. Anyway, it allows us to look again at Joy Division via this previewed documentary...

JOY DIVISION, Grant Gee, 2007
“After a Tony Wilson film (24 Hour Party People) and an Ian ‘n’ Debbie film (Control), the idea someone might make a Joy Division movie about Joy Division now seems remoter than ever.”

…or so I argued here, back in October, reviewing Corbijn’s Control. Little did I know that elsewhere in Brighton Grant Gee was putting the finishing touches to this documentary on the band. (Actually I did know, I’d just forgotten but that doesn’t sound so neat.) It works not so much as a counterbalance to Control but a companion piece, like a right speaker to be set alongside a left one. Despite the fact Gee is yet to even see Control, by a series of almost uncanny co-incidences every character on the periphery of the film is put centre stage here and vice versa. (Curtis’ widow Debbie doesn’t appear, citing overload after her involvement with Control, but agreed to the use of extracts from her book.)

However, the generic name of this documentary is in some ways telling. Despite Jon Savage being enlisted as ‘writer’ (read ‘creative consultant’), this is not the opinionated essay that might lead you to believe. There’s some attempt to set the context, with references to Thatcherism, Manchester’s sewers collapsing etc. (Plus some best-ignored bookending hyperbole about the band marking Manchester’s transition from an industrial to a ‘post-industrial’ city.) But mostly, while the film is solid, well-researched and even entertaining, the tone is straightforward and literal - at times skirting the prosaic. The meat of the film comes from the band interviews where they (Hook in particular) happily concede they just lucked into what they were doing and never bothered thinking about it much. There are occasional overlaps, for example Sumner commenting how little “beauty” you saw growing up in Sixties Salford. But mostly you glean the context from the archive film, very similar to the trick played by Control but you expect a documentary to tell you stuff where a film can imply.

In fact, while record titles like An Ideal for Living suggest a plan or at least a considered aesthetic, the whole story seems so casual as to be hilariously lackadasical. Curtis was hired over the phone without an audition. While everyone has commented on how Saville’s sparse sleeve design matched the music, we learn here he only ever heard them after delivering his first load of artwork. (He tried to get out of hearing it at all, then was surprised to find himself liking it.) Of course like some twist on schadenfreude, hearing how hopelessly casually history can be put together does become a kick in itself – I certainly always enjoy such stories. But lackadaisical doesn’t mean lacking, the fact the band didn’t think about what they were doing doesn’t mean they weren’t doing it. The band just aren’t the best equipped people to tell their own story, that’s all.

Almost by default, emphasis falls onto what has clearly been bugging the other band members ever since – could they have done more to prevent Curtis’ suicide? They played a gig the night after his first attempt, picking him up from the hospital, something they clearly now feel incredulous over. This is actually more than confession porn. Indeed it does sound incredulous, from a gang of guys at such a remove from ruthless careerism. As Gee suggests during his Q&A, the most likely explanation is the truculent Northern male syndrome of the time – being able to express themselves through amplifiers didn’t mean they could express themselves through their own mouths.

It’s human, of course, to wonder what you could have done. But could they have changed events? We have in many ways moved between extremes – from a reticent, stiff-upper-lipped society to a touchy-feely psychobabbly one. But a group hug, alas, doesn’t necessarily cure all ills. And as many have commented, Curtis became an expert at masking his feelings. The band confess they never even listened to Curtis’ lyrics, let alone connected them to his mental state. But in her book Debbie recounts that she did confront Curtis over this, leading to “a one-way conversation”.

While Control got hazy over what triggered Curtis’ downward spiral, here Sumner claims the anti-epilepsy drugs he started taking gave him extreme mood swings. (Quite possibly exacerbated by the band’s career starting to rocket just when doctors were advising him to take life easy.) Sumner also mentions, despite Curtis’ deranged persona on stage, he never took drugs – it just appeared with the music. But perhaps this means the mood of Closer was inspired by drugs – merely prescription drugs obtained on the NHS.

The one figure who remains insufficiently acknowledged is producer Martin Hannett, who contribution to the band’s sound places him second only to Curtis in order of importance. Hannett sadly died back in ’91 so isn’t available for interview. However, Wilson does discuss his strange working habits plus we get a brief audio clip of an interview he gave to Jon Savage – has this ever been released? Similarly Sumner and Morris at least developed much of the band’s sound (ahead of Hannett’s involvement), but again this rarely reaches the surface. The band’s transition from a guitar to a synthesizer-based sound doesn’t seem to get mentioned at all.

Something more conceptual that’s absent from both here and Control is the band’s refusal to give interviews. (In fact in Control their agreement to give an interview to Annik Honoré, suggesting quite the opposite.) With punk so tied to fanzines, manifestos and general ranting this insistence on silence helped draw a line between punk and post punk. Of course this may well merely be down to them having nothing particular to say, but it would still be interesting to see how it arose.

One absence from the film I’m not convinced matters is Curtis’ notebooks. Gee didn’t gain access to these, but enthused over what light they might shed someday. Of course this is possible, but it carries the connotation we are encountering something encoded which requires locating the decoding book. What matters is what was released, and the recordings are there for anyone who wants to hear them.

As Gee said himself during the Q&A this is the story of Joy Division served straight but what we need now is something to examine and critique that story. Within those workmanlike parameters, his documentary is successful, a great story well told, and would probably serve as a better introduction to the band than Control. The camera gets pointed in all the right places, but too often it just points – it doesn’t enquire. Ultimately it strays close to being a Wikipedia article when we really wanted a poem…

Sunday, 2 December 2007

CINE CITY 2007 - THE MIDDLE HALF



More reviews of films from Brighton’s CineCity festival. A ‘middle’ half might sound like the Hollywood exec who wanted to make the fourth film in the trilogy. But the reviews seemed to be getting longer and in more need of spacing out. They also seem to be appearing out of chronological order, for reasons unknown at time of press. Expect the final installment shortly.

BATTLE FOR HADITHA (Nick Broomfield, 2007)

At one point in his infamous Fahrenheit 911 (2004), Michael Moore shows some US troops in humvees - recklessly charging across the desert while listening to stadium metal, jocks in uniforms. Then later he shows us an injured trooper, invalided out of the army then left to rust. So are they bullies or victims? Both scenes might well be accurate in themselves. But Moore holds the two thoughts apart, keen not to confuse our poor little heads. As if by co-incidence Broomfield’s film contains almost exact duplicates of these two scenes. But his more courageous instinct is to push the two together as hard as he can, then resolves to film whatever sparks ensue.

At one point the marines may seem mere killers, executing bystanders when they can’t find the real insurgents. Yet at another we’ll recognise they’re mere kids sent to do an impossible job, and completely overstretched. In this way Broomfield’s undoubted liberalism can actually work to his advantage. It’s like he continually wants to ask “can’t we all just get along?” but knows we’re already far beyond that point. (In the post-showing Q+A he spoke of the “the entrenchment of suspicion and hostility”.)

My only criticism would be the (non) treatment of Al Quaida. Its certainly true Iraq has a long secular history, and that many insurgents are Iraqi patriots with little liking for Al Quaida beyond marriages of convenience. But here we only seem to see Al Quaida through their eyes, as sinister shadowy figures. Yet if the motives of the US top brass can be rendered explicable, surely so can theirs. Of course some will suggest this might risk engendering sympathy for their fanaticism, when the precise opposite is more likely true.

VAL GUEST RETROSPECTIVE

Keen to take in as much as I could of this retrospective after recently seeing Guests’ splendid direction of The Quatermass Xperiment (see my comments here) I managed to see (in descending order of importance) The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Jigsaw and Hell is a City. As Steve Chibnall pointed out in his excellent introduction, all three share Guest’s trademark approach to filming thriller material in documentary style - real locations, deep-field photography, overlapping dialogue etc. – which generates a kind of best of both worlds effect, dramatic yet not distanced by feeling unreal.

With it’s global warming theme telegraphed in the title, Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) night sound highly contemporary. However, here the earth first tilts on its axis then heads towards the Sun. The melting ice caps are even specifically ruled out as geologically insignificant! Though the ecological catastrophe angle is interesting, it’s actually very much a Cold War era film. It feels poised between the post war shock-of the bomb films such as the Boulting's Seven Days to Noon (1950) and the world-weary apocalypse cynicism of later Sixties films like Planet of the Apes (1968). The problems start with the Soviets testing a bomb at the North Pole and the Americans the South, neatly giving themselves joint responsibility. There’s even a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally. (Though the 'beatnik riot' scene is more memorable due to being sheer bonkers!) But perhaps the most significant moment is enabled by the flashback structure. We cut between our reporter sitting alone in an empty newsroom, waiting to see if the world will end, to the pre-disaster newsroom – teeming with life and incident.

The weakness of the film is the emphasis placed upon the hackneyed romance subplot. Unusually the journalists in the film remain journalists throughout, reporting on events rather than putting down their notebooks and heroically coming to shape them. (Journalists in films are normally all Clerk Kents itching to become Superman.) The authorities fix the world’s problems with (yes really) another bomb to correct things, while the Daily Express merely file this as a story. The romance subplot therefore gives the jaded reporter protagonist a journey, finding a reason to live just as life seems most precarious (etc).

But it would have been far more effective if the film had pushed in the other direction, towards an greater documentary feel. (As in Jigsaw where we never see the policemen’s private lives, but only hear them reported in conversation.) Interestingly the film was originally intended to end openly, with two editions sitting ready to print (‘Earth Saved’ vs ‘Earth Doomed’), but a more feelgood ending was imposed. (Complete with church bells.) An ending which somewhat jars with the running commentary throughout the film on how foolish our leaders are, or the emphasis on their boys-club secrecy.

Jigsaw (1962) is a splendid police procedure thriller making fine use of its period Brighton setting. Apart from a nonsensical denouement, its only drawback is its salacious tone. We contrast the clean-living policemen with the sexually deviant suspects who make them “want to take a bath”. Ultimately we are expected to act like the neighbour washerwoman who spies upon the victim, decrying her antics while eager to learn more about her.

The difference between Jigsaw and Hell is a City (1960) is all in the name. While in Jigsaw we watch the police’s detective work, laborious and leading down blind alleys but always relentless, Hell is a City is much more of a melodrama - as if attempting to fight Hollywood on its own terms. In the dramatic but unlikely entanglement of relationships the police hero not only went to school with the villain but even launches into a shootout with him in the finale. (This being Britain, he has to borrow a gun.) But the melodrama also had something of the Victorian about it, with a villain seemingly modelled on Bill Sykes.

http://www.cine-city.co.uk

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

CINECITY 2007 - THE FIRST HALF


A few comments on the films I managed to catch during the first half of Brighton’s annual CineCity festival. Expect more to follow in due course…

LUST, CAUTION (Ang Lee, 2007)
NB Mild spoilers
Ang Lee’s latest starts out impressively as an espionage set in Japanese-occupied China, with an added theme about the impetuousness of youth. Then, just when all is looking well, it gives all that up for a kinky S&M story in the mould of 91/2 Weeks. And, as Ben Grimm was wont to say – “what a revoltin’ development that is!” What is it with art movie audiences and S&M? They way they find it simultaneously so titillatory yet so self-congratulatory audacious? It’s like having your bodice-ripping cake and eating it. But more to the point, when are they going to shut up about it?

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (William Dieterle, 1948)
It’s not giving too much away to say this has the plot of Girl in the Fireplace minus the clockwork robots. In fact, one of its weaknesses is the time it takes the protagonist to figure out the premise – clearly he doesn’t go to see many movies. With themes of impoverished artists, otherworldly muses and impossible love, it unsurprisingly became a favourite of the Surrealists. It’s perhaps not the classic that endorsement might suggest, but presents an endless array of colourful characters portrayed in exquisite black and white photography.

SACCO AND VANZETTI (Peter Miller, 2007)
A well-made documentary on the notoriously rigged trial and murd… sorry, execution of two Italian-American anarchists hauled in during 1927. While ostensibly charged with a robbery, they were clearly on trial for their politics; harangued about it during cross-questioning, and even the real culprit owning up doing nothing to stem the prosecution! However this seems to expose the chief weakness of the film – a focus on the minutiae of the case against them at the expense of any real examination of the political milieu they were part of. For one example, we’re told solidarity actions occurred for them as far away as China – yet we never stray outside the courtroom long enough to look at these in any depth. At its worst it could be accused of counterposing ‘good’ anarchists (noble innocents given to taking in stray animals) against ‘bad’ ones who post letter bombs. Maybe there are other options…

SILENT LIGHT (Reygadas, 2007)
NB Fair to middling spoilers
You couldn’t ask for a film more beautifully composed than this, but I couldn’t help feeling there was something of the emperor’s new clothes about it. A man from a conservative religious community pondering leaving his family for another woman – we naturally expect him to “follow his bliss”, right? Okay, here he doesn’t. But is there anything more here that that straightforward, almost schematic reversal of expectation? We never learn how the experience transforms their relationship, any more than we learn what was wrong with it in the first place. Ultimately the characters stay like their silent prayers – outside and beyond us.

(Expert opinion was also divided over the single magic realist movement, a pivotal turn that ain’t for spoiling here. A friend was insistent one such moment alone in a film can only ever be considered a cheat. I found myself going with it, perhaps because the whole film portrays events in such a numinous way it didn’t feel so much of a wrench.)

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS (Mungiu, 2007)
“Enjoy the film” finished the guy doing the introductions, then caught himself. “Well, that’s maybe not the term…” Indeed this bleak naturalist drama about the perils of backstreet abortions in Soviet-era Romania isn’t exactly ideal first-date material - but it is compelling viewing. Filmed in (near-on) real time and often deliberately scuppering your expectations of film narrative, it so neatly captures a sense of verite it often becomes hard to work out just where its strong style is coming from.

During post-show questioning, the introducer (a Romanian critic whose name I now embarrassingly forget) seemed to dislike comparisons to fellow Romanian Puiu’s 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, emphasising one was set during dictatorship and the other after. Nevertheless, the counterposition of the sick and fragile human against the remorseless weight of bureaucracy does seem similar to our foreigners’ eyes. In some ways what’s so horrific isn’t the travails the girls must endure but the stoic way in which they accept them – as if such is but the way of life. Let’s hope Romania can become a home to a realist cinema that’s vital rather than just worthy.

(The festival also showed Mungiu’s earlier Occident, made in 2002. Conversely this was a farce-like comedy, albeit a pretty heavily black farce. This played well with interweaving and overlapping its characters, but couldn’t really compare against its successor.)

QUINTET (Altman, 1979)
NB Proper spoilers!

Every now and again an unfairly overlooked gem is rediscovered and restored. But with increasing frequency the corpse of a turkey is dug up for another flogging. Of course Robert Altman made some great movies, but I defy anyone to spot his handiwork on this klunker. It’s most reminiscent of Zardoz (Boorman, 1974), presenting a human race laid low not by external disaster but its own feeling of ennui. It’s a film about people who have lost the will to live… and the rest of the review almost writes itself from that point.

The premise is the jaded ensemble have had nothing to do but play games for so long they have resorted to playing a killer game. Which is actually a reasonable premise, except you get neither any sense of the game’s strategy nor any reason to care much who lives or dies. In fact you end up waiting hopefully for the next bumping off, just because each one brings the end of the film closer.

Throughout I kept wondering just what the new ice age setting had to do with anything. (Admittedly it does provide the sole saving grace – some cool sets, filmed on location at Montreal’s crumbling Expo site.) The general consensus seems to be this is a Cold War metaphor. Except this ‘metaphor’ (everything’s gone cold and no-one likes each other) is absolutely unilluminating on its subject. It’s more like a pun than a metaphor, except puns are supposed to be funny.

While Zardoz is often the subject of ridicule, I must admit to a sneaky soft spot for it. It’s absurd, incoherent, gimmicky and pretentious, but with all that ceaselessly inventive. Quintet shares all its failings but develops none of its saving graces. It was best left out in the cold.

http://www.cine-city.co.uk/2007/
(Yes it’s CineCity everywhere else but Cine-city on the website… what would Super-man and Spiderman have to say?)

Saturday, 24 November 2007

HERE COME THE DALEKS!

NB In a futile bid to keep things timely, I’m posting this precisely one day after the anniversary of Doctor Who’s first transmission but more importantly two days after the unfortunate death of producer Verity Lambert. I’m also writing a companion piece on early Doctor Who in general, though I wouldn’t like to promise when that might appear.
Tributes to Verity Lambert here


(Plot Spoilers: C’mon, you must know the plot of this one by now!)

Pedantic Preamble: If you’re about my age you’re probably used to this series being called 'The Dead Planet'. They didn’t give the stories titles then, Dead Planet came from the first episode. But somewhere along the way it came to be called 'The Daleks', a generic title used in precisely none of the episodes, but a convention the BBC have followed with this DVD reissue. Now we all know what a Dalek is, that’s probably come to be the more saleable title. Personally I prefer 'The Dead Planet' as it captures more of the series’ mood. But onwards…

…whatever you call it, the key is almost casually thrown away. First the Daleks tell the Doctor the Thals are post-war mutations. We immediately assume their little green fingers are crossed inside their metal casings, and what they’re telling us is porkies. But he’s later shown Thal records and it turns out they are mutations. War mutated them from aggressive brutes into blonde, noble pacifists.

The Daleks are mutated by war too, but differently - literal personifications of the bunker mentality, trapped inside metal shells which are themselves trapped inside a metal city. (In this first story, they can’t leave the city which powers them.) They spend their time spying through long range scanners, or peering paranoid at people through their eyestalks. Driven quite mad, they throw away their chance of peace and reconciliation with the Thals. (Personally I’d have tweaked the plot to have the Daleks assuming the Thals are out to betray them, and deciding to get their retaliation in first. As things stand, the Daleks have physically mutated too far, cures just poison them and so events almost drive them to confrontation.)

It’s surely no coincidence the most popular Dalek story, 'Genesis of the Daleks', returns to their wartime origins and yields an even greater literalisation of the bunker mentality. But overall this sense of the Daleks trapped in their own folly gets steadily lost. Here we not only have the famous rubber-gloved glimpse of the ‘thing’ inside the box, but Ian ‘drives’ a Dalek canister like it’s just a vehicle and they’re even compared to dodgem cars! Yet as time went on the Daleks would become their metal casings, and with it the embodiment of unadulterated evil. And absolute expressions of evil tend to the absolutely uninteresting.

But the Thals are a different kind of trapped; scarred by war they’ve retreated into a pacifist ideology. This dead planet is of course a liberal Englishmen’s metaphor for ravaged post-war Germany; the remnants of Nazism locked inside their fanaticism but the good, blonde Germans driven too good – demilitarised, reluctant to take up their role in contemporary conflicts. The Thals even have their own Neville Chamberlain, who reads peace into a piece of paper and gets exterminated for his efforts. They were even originally intended to have more Germanic sounding names such as Stohl, Vahn and Kurt but before transmission these became Temmosus, Alydon and Ganatus. (See www.shannonsullivan.com/drwho/serials/b.html) Admittedly, the change to these ‘classical’ names was probably more aimed at engendering audience sympathy than disguising this metaphor.

But there’s enough nuances to stop it getting too schematic. Despite the somewhat underwhelming ‘final battle’, the last line is a nice touch. No-one slaps Ian on the back for being right; instead they look round at the pile of corpses and lament “if there had only been some other way”. We’re reminded what the Thals have not forgotten, that it was such conflict which ravaged their planet to begin with. The series has commendably kept this insistence that victory rarely comes without a price, and a refusal to accept easy resolutions. But it’s not a note you’ll hear played often in other modern dramas. There’s a post-war bleakness to everything, which makes it bizarre to think that Terry Nation was previously known as a comedy writer. (Turning the story into a comedic matinee adventure, as the 1965 film does, is somewhat like a Shostakovich concerto being covered by a popular beat combo.)

The Daleks doesn’t just live up to its rebranded title and deliver the Doctor’s most popular foe, it’s the start of ‘proper’ Doctor Who. The opposition of bad, city-based overlords to noble simple peasants (the Thals are farmers) will recur again and again. Previously distrustful of each other, the TARDIS crew stage a mock argument, but then work together to disable their Dalek guard. Though it achieves it by Maguffins, the script doesn’t allow them to leave until they’ve healed their environment - something which would become a fundamental rule of the show.

The one exception is the Doctor himself. He’s suitably outraged at the Dalek’s amorality, even offering up the TARDIS as a bargaining counter to slow up their plans. But its still Ian who saves the day, not only teaching the Thals to fight but rescuing the Doctor and Susan. If less self-serving than previously, the Doctor is still remote and irascible. At one point his insistence on facts and logic leads him into a big argument with Susan, only reconciled by Barbara’s intervention. His curiousity drives him to trick the others into visiting the Dalek city, and his fascination with its gizmos gets him and Susan captured. (A moment played not for drama but as a fait accompli.)


Of course with deadlines then so hasty, what we see on the screen is simultaneously launch and dummy run. The Daleks had originally been intended to have grabber hand next to their exterminator, but time and budget restraints left them stuck with the now-familiar sink plunger. Somewhat hilariously, the script was obviously left unamended and we see these plungers employed for all sorts of unlikely tasks, passing bits of paper between them and – perhaps best of all – carrying trays of food. (While the film version gave them grabber hands, the series stuck with the sink plungers. The daft objects now seem so lodged in popular perception, even the souped-up Daleks in the souped-up relaunch didn’t get grabber hands – just souped-up sink plungers!)

The downside of watching this 1963 show today isn’t its cheapness, though the production values are often so shoddy as to make you laugh about loud. (Its hilarious to consider the BBC all but cancelled it at this stage because it was getting too expensive!) Perhaps this is partly down to my generation, but in my youth an appreciation of science fiction involved accepting out of necessity the hairdryer spaceships and plywood sets - as signifiers rather than the signified, triggers for your imagination. The petrified forest on the screen is just a peg to hang the petrified forest of my mind; which looks something more like Ernst’s famous surrealist painting Europe After the Rain (below), a bizarre mix of the barren with the mutated. And the Dalek city of my mind looks more like… um… a city. Similarly the science fiction I would read required a similar effort, as it tended to grand, mighty ideas delivered in the most leaden prose. It was like reading an art book which was actually full of rough sketches. (But please note this is not to entertain the notion that special effects somehow stunt the imagination. This oft-heard but absurd argument is merely a repositioning of the old saw that reading comics or watching films somehow stunt the imagination – an argument which has been defeated but regrouped many times. If anyone wants to argue that '2001' stunts the viewers’ imagination while Doc Smith’s novels enhance it, please let them go ahead.)


No, the real obstacle is in the slowness. An important plot point is told you two or sometimes three times over, and there’s so much padding that at times you feel you could watch it on fast forward and miss nothing. (The cave episode, tellingly titled The Ordeal, seems particularly endless.) Though completely different in tone (not to mention hugely inferior), the 1965 film manages to cover every major plot point here and come in at 83 minutes.

But even here it can feel like a necessary counterbalance. If these seven episodes should have been three or four, today they’d be one or (if we were really lucky) two. Of course as soon as we clap eyes on the Dalek city we know we’re going to end up there. But here there’s sufficient space where that doesn’t happen straight away, and we have time to wonder what might be in there. When Ian is punishment exterminated, he can’t walk for some time afterwards. Today he’d be either alive or dead. Somewhere between William Hartnell and David Tennant, there lies a happy medium.

That aside, this story not only kicked Doctor Who into gear. Production history tells us it was nearly shown much later in the season or not made at all… concepts which now suggest an alternate universe. It not only established much of the furniture it also enabled a series willing to tackle challenging issues, and unafraid to pretend they had easy resolutions. More importantly than inventing the pepperpot, this story set a high bar. Whenever things started to go wrong, this would tend to be the template people would look back to.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

THE IMAGINED VILLAGE

Brighton Dome, Sat 17th Nov


“It’s not about authenticity, it’s about identity. I’m not interested in people listening to this record searching for authenticity. But there’s a lot of identity there… This is what I am. I’m rooted and I’m English.”
- Simon Emmerson

Now a Singing Revolution might sound the sort of thing that only the more earnest folkie would dream of, with nothing ever coming of it bar dribble in his beard. Except one actually happened less than two decades ago – in Estonia during 1988. On (I kid you not) September 11th of that year, the crowd at a big music festival collectively launched into songs banned by the Soviet rulers. The event led to street demonstrations where participants continued their songs, until (to cut a long story short) independence was won four years later.

It would be charmingly romantic to imagine that we could have so personal a relationship to English Folk, as if its tunes were woven into the fibre of our beings. But, despite Emmerson’s quote above, we can’t. Perhaps for us it feels too close to celebrating nationhood, fine if you’re Estonian but not quite the thing for one of history’s great reformed bullies. Perhaps we’ve had to contend with too much faux-rustic claptrap and TV-advert Harvest festivals. (Though of course there’s been no shortage of awful Celtic ‘music’ either.) More likely there’s been some deathly combination of the two.

Nevertheless I cling to my contention that folk’s one of those either/ or types of music (alongside soul or country) - if it works well it works very very well, it’s only when it doesn’t work its horrid. So, despite not particularly expecting the evening to lead to any revolutions, I journeyed down to Brighton Dome to see Simon Emmerson and a big gang of his mates perform tracks from The Imagined Village.

There’s been talk lately of a folk revival, in which context it’s interesting to see so cross-generational a stage ensemble - from Sixties folk stalwart Martin Carthy through Eighties figures like Emmerson and Billy Bragg even down to some young ‘uns. But Carthy’s presence raises a question I can only speculate over. When there was so much great English folk about in the late Sixties (of which he was such a crucial part), how come there has been so little since? Where were the English music equivalents of the Pogues or REM? Perhaps the classic example are the Mekons, who in embracing rootsy music also decided to decamp to America. The Men They Couldn’t Hang are perhaps the exception that proves the rule. (NB If anyone is thinking “The Levellers” here, please could you leave the room quietly?)

Like today the Sixties felt a futuristic era, as if the future was bursting in all around you, and this doubtless proved part of the appeal in looking back. But then the future was something to be embraced not feared, so perhaps a rooting in the past did not automatically imply an escape into nostalgism so much as an emphasis on continuity. (Then again, against any notions of era-localism, it should be noticed Carthy’s daughter Eliza was also on stage and accounting for herself splendidly – perhaps folk does lie in the blood after all!)

But also, now popular music is less about claiming generational identity than it has been for fifty years, could a great barrier to folk’s cry for tradition and continuity be down? Of course some might argue this merely exposes a bigger still barrier to folk – its whiteness. Even if whiteness isn’t actually politically suspect surely it’s unsexy. After all no-one ever offers to put on some badass white music at a party, do they? Bragg seizes this elephant in the living room at one point, saluting “that much maligned of groups – the white working class.” And he has a point. As the Pete Poselthwaite character puts it in the film Brassed Off, on the pit colliery band forced to close with their mine, “if this lot were seals or whales, you'd all be up in bloody arms. But they’re just ordinary human beings!”

However Bragg (who can frankly be something of a plonker) then has to throw patriotism into the mix, even going so far as to have written a book called The Progressive Patriot. This seems absurd. As fellow stage-hog Chris Wood puts it on the band’s own website, “traditional music has never adhered to the constructed boundaries of a governing class. Nor should our sense of ourselves.” As another old beardy guy put it, the working class has no country. Moreover, it’s specifically in the context of folk music where this makes not more but less sense. Beyond the simply geographical ‘English folk’ is actually something of an oxymoron. Its original pre-industrial participants would have only held the haziest sense of themselves as English, like their music their identities would have been much more localised. Some folk traditions slip these boundaries altogether, such as the Cornish whose music more resembled the Bretons of North France. Yet, if taken geographically alone, we can talk of ‘English folk’. ‘Progressive patriot’ is the oxymoron.

Moreover, despite Bragg’s battlecry, the performance ultimately tries a little too hard to lose the whiteness tag and with it sometimes embraces a debased, multiplexy form of multiculturalism. Bragg’s introductory song, England Half English, is clearly intended lightheartedly but its insistence on equality through eating curry the one night then bubble and squeak the next feels irritatingly tokenistic. Buying a curry is merely consuming a culture, not interacting with it. Moreover, while the band were clearly chosen for their musical chops not their skin tones there was something of the ‘photo-op multiculturalism’ about the look of them and their mixture of ethic instruments – something slightly too reminiscent of Father Ted’s Anti Racist Slide Show.

Similarly, as seems to happen often at folk gigs, I found there to be far too much talking. This is something I normally find, but it’s normally confined to the audience. Of course you want folk gigs to be chatty and informal, but all the blather here puts you in mind of a nervous suitor on his first date. (Perhaps significantly, the Carthys talked the least and also played the most.) And the banner title, The Imagined Village was an ungainly mouthful which sounded suspiciously and unappealingly like a project. All of this seemed to dispel the very feeling they were trying to conjure. If this really was the music of our roots, our misplaced identity, why would we need an introductory essay to explain all that to us?

Something else I sometimes found cringey was the attempt to ‘update’ some of the old songs. This often reminded me of the more desperate devices by which schoolteachers would try to ‘reach’ their classes; “Hamlet was a Prince, which was like a Pop Star, only in the past” etc etc. Of course we don’t want folk music reverentially preserved, a task better given to embalmers than musicians. And apparently similar approaches can (and did) work well. Writing about contemporary subjects in the folk idiom can create an interesting frisson. For example, there’s Chris Woods’ song about a yuppie buying up a Cotswold’s cottage because it’s “quaint”, his 4x4 intruding into the folk idiom as his Gucci shoes do on the cottage floor. And adapting the essence of an old song into a new idiom can bring surprises to both, as Benjamin Zephaniah proves with Tam Lyn. But Bragg’s version of Hard Times of Old England ‘updates’ it by dropping contemporary references (Tescos, closing post offices) into an otherwise intact old folk number, and loses – in quite a literal sense – its integrity. It creates a disorienting kind of verbal collage best played for surreal or comic effect, like Pete Kennard cartoonishly sticking cruise missiles in Constable’s Haywain. (Oddly the only time this approach is attempted is for the CD cover/ gig poster image - see above.)

But all of that is to look at the flagon of ale as half-empty when it was equally half-full. Perhaps any gig with Martin Carthy aboard will have high points, but for every song that stumbled there was another which cut a rug. And as each new Starbucks opens it comes to feel more and more important to remind ourselves of a diverse landscape beneath such corporate uniformity. True, too many times that tradition has come to feel like faerie gold from one of the old tales, disappearing as soon as grasped. But I would contend it’s more like an irregular seam of gold - buried deep then shunted by subsequent events into an inaccessible seam, but real gold you can bite into.

The two opening songs demonstrated all we wanted with aplomb. For the first track, against spectral drones a recording of the old folkie John Copper lamented the “ ’ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses” which now cover so much of the Sussex Downs. The band immediately then launched into an inspired version of John Barleycorn Must Die. The effect was enhanced upon your host who had previously been so gormless as to fail to get this song! Indeed on the surface it is another‘ rebel martyr’ song, akin to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or the like. Repeatedly “they hired men” to assault Barleycorn in a myriad of ways, until you start to feel half of Sussex must be enlisted - but he mystifyingly seems to survive it all.

The point to John Barleycorn Must Die is that he cannot die, for he represents the barley in the fields – and ultimately nature itself. Whenever he appears dead he merely regrows a line or two later. Man may be predatory upon nature, but this very relationship paradoxically makes him dependant upon nature. The song has been played as a drinking song (the assaults he suffers mirror the stages in making beer, something contemporary audiences would doubtless have known), a rebel song (with him standing for the agricultural worker against the sent “hired men”), or for that matter as a rebel drinking song.

But today the song can have a meaning beyond those originally intended, with the beset-upon Barleycorn standing for the folk tradition itself. It’s a tradition they’ve tried to “bury beneath the ground” underneath those “ ’ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses”, and one “served most barbarously” by its own supposed adherents - sapping the thing they loved through their perverse desire to ‘preserve’ it. But, like the song says, “no man’s been born that could best John Barleycorn, for he’s suffered many pains.”

I’m agnostic over talk of revivals, suspicious of notions of identity and frequently frustrated by how hard it can be to access the essence of folk. But I don’t think it’s dying off anytime soon.

http://imaginedvillage.com/

Sunday, 18 November 2007

THE ANTITHESIS OF MASS PRODUCTION?

Is Impro the primal musical mode?

“This music is always inherently political, because it’s about absolute freedom at all costs.”
- David Keenan

David Keenan is a name that’s been reverberating of late. I first heard him interviewed about his free folk outfit Scatter on Radio Three’s late lamented Mixing It. Later he sprung up last September to give a talk about the spirit of impro at the Colour Out of Space festival of “exploratory sound”. Then there he was again, in a recent Guardian feature on how hardcore punk was colliding with free jazz.

In the Guardian he continues: “once you go beyond the avant-garde, you’re back to being absolutely primitive…The first time music was ever made, it was improvised – yet to me, a lot of the improv that came out of free jazz became impossibly cerebral. What we want to do is return improvisation to its role as the primal musical gesture.” In other words, while the Guardian was writing about punk and jazz Keenan’s heart was more in folk. He’s even written a piece on this for the Wire entitled ‘The New Weird America’, and no I can’t claim to have read it so please bear in mind what follows is my interpetation! (Bizarrely, whilst writing up this piece I went to see the ‘Imagined Village’ folk night, in which programme Shelia Chandra comments “I like the way old singers never sing a verse in the same way, a tradition I feel I belong to.”)

In a more fulsome mode when given mike-time at the festival, he started from the assumption that rock music appears to offer freedom – but as soon as you start playing it, it becomes like going to work. ‘Popular’ music to Keenan becomes a ceaseless tug of war between the musicians and the marketing men. The spirit of the music comes from freedom, the escape from the drudgery of repetition, but in order to be sold it must become regularized, commodified, bottled. New developments in music ceaselessly reassert their free nature only for their proponents to sacrifice it for music biz careers- starting with folk but also blues, continuing through acid rock, hip hop etc. How can you sell someone a gig ticket if you’re simultaneously telling them you can’t be sure what they’re going to get? Isn’t that like a supermarket telling you there might be milk in that bottle, and it might not be off? Keenan waxed particularly lyrical on the question of time. To him keeping to the beat was factory time while improvisation was the antithesis of mass production.

Even the act of recording becomes problematic. In rock music the recording is the primary thing, fans dutifully buy gig tickets on the understanding they’ll get to sing along to what’s on the record. But for free music the primary thing is the live event, recordings are like snapshots you take of a holiday, triggers to remember what being there was really like. Moreover, music critics tend to side with the moneymen. Largely students of cultural studies disguised as music fans (tracing Hendrix’s guitar lines to napalm bombs in Vietnam etc), they’re always trying to frame music - take it out of the moment to pin it to some overall trend. (Amusingly, Keenan singled out Simon Reynolds as an example.)

Such theories perhaps have a particular resonance for me. I got into music later than other things, clinging to Marvel comics and science fiction paperbacks long after my classmates had succumbed to buying pop singles. And as a writer I inevitably got into it through the words – words were the hook that led me into song structures. I quickly warmed to things like the first Velvet Underground album, where the music’s main job is to illustrate the words like a sound artist. (Just as Reed sings of taking a hit of heroin, so the music speeds up and careers into simulating the effect.) But the all-engulfing soundscapes of their second album, frequently erupting to drown out the words, left me headscratching. Which of course meant that when I finally got absolute music, when I grasped that music didn’t need labels or literal functions any more than a painting needed to be representational, I got into it with a vengeance. I had the zeal of the converted.

But for all that, and even allowing for the fact that Keenan’s such an impassioned polemicist, it seems to me there’s much to commend itself in what he’s saying. It’s interesting to note that improvisation presents such a phobia for so many people. It’s understood how someone can learn the guitar, by sitting down and practicing chords. But if the same guy gets up to play those chords in an un-predetermined order everybody is astonished he could do it. Yet unlike guitar playing improvisation is something we are all doing in our daily lives, on a petty level pretty much all the time. We simply don’t notice we’re doing it.

Several members of Keenan’s panel compared predetermined music to going to work. (Perhaps partly influenced by the fact that impro musicians don’t get to give up the day job very often!) And work is of course a classic example of somewhere where we’re expected to behave like the appendage of machines. For example, call centre staff are often given lists of answers to likely questions, which they’re expected to regurgitate without deviating from. But call centre staff often do deviate, not just to relieve the monotony but because the script of standard answers never turns out to be as universal and all-embracing as it was trailed. In general at work, we quite routinely reassure our boss all is going to plan, while extemporising madly. Improvisation is not a bizarre mystery indulged in by artistic types, nor the last resort of the desperate. Improvisation is quite simply a contingent part of being alive.

“We’ve faced emergencies before! We can improvise, adapt, in the shortest possible time!”
- Quatermass Experiment

There’s an old jazz adage “improvisation is just composition speeded up”, but it’s not the saving time which interests me. It’s the way improvisation forces us to make choices before our conscious minds have had time to even absorb them, making us live by our instincts for a bit. Improvisation can be a way by which we tell ourselves something we already know, but are unaware we know.

On the other end of the scale to a call centre job, the time I saw Terry Riley’s In C performed live it did strike me as (pseud’s corner entry coming up) a model for a perfect society. By not constraining the players through time but uniting them by key, Riley devised a means where each person could be themselves yet simultaneously add to the overall group. The result was a fluid amorphous thing, not necessarily tidy but always far more than the sum of its parts. It was a thousand miles from many free jazz nights I’ve endured, where every band member seemed clamouring to be the front man in a momentous clash of egos.

Moreover, now might seem a good time to start improvising. Krautrock stalwarts Faust always insisted their records should look like bootlegs, to enhance the idea they were works in progress not final statements or definitive editions. Yet the economics of the time meant those ‘bootlegs’ had to be released on major labels. Nowadays a combination of CD-Rs, internet-ready sound files and much more have made musical micro-publishing (in essence becoming your own bootlegger) far easier. Some such as Damo Suzuki (another Krautrock stalwart) have given up studio recordings entirely in favour of bootlegging their own gigs. Others have gone so far as to suggest that micro-production will become the default distribution method for all music, whether improvised or otherwise. Moreover, all this is happening inside a culture where we can communicate more quickly (if not always instantly), where waiting for the definitive composition to be finally released is coming to feel more and more antiquated.

“He’s making it up as he goes along!”
- Heckler in Life of Brian

But if there’s much to commend in Keenan’s stance, if you take it to the max his ‘total freedom’ shtick will turn out not to be a skeleton key but a blind alley. Perhaps it’s just my natural moreishness, but I can’t see improvisation vs. composition as an either/or choice. It’s more of a balance which needs to be realigned. Take Terry Riley’s afore-mentioned In C, which gave its players much space in which to improvise but did so within the framework of game rules and guidelines. Or take Can, who would improvise wildly for hours but then play the tapes back and reduce them down to what seemed to be working the best. In a similar way we all live by the rule of gravity, which leaves us unfree to bound tall buildings. Yet the dancer or acrobat can use gravity in his performance, turning its forces to his own ends. Constraints can enable too.

A similar rule applies to words or song structures. During the whole three-day festival, out of a raft of performers, few used words as anything other than a sound source. Yet if the urge to innovate is innate in us, then so is the desire for stories. Folk music, the very wellspring of Keenan’s argument, is awash with stories. The idea that stories have or must take a single definitive form dates only from print, just as the same idea in music does from recording. David Thomas’ antics with the 2 Pale Boys are a case in point, a classic example of freeform storytelling married to improvised music.

Keenan’s argument also rests upon some more philosophical underpinnings, which again might appeal but taken in their most absolute form turn out to crumble. Firstly the suggestion that improvisation could be a talisman which could keep the money-men out of our temple sounds a little naïve in this day and age. If it moves they’ll try to make money from it, and if it stops moving they’ll try to sell it. But more widely, like the Surrealists, Keenan seemed to conceive of a ‘true self’ - locked away inside us from years of social conditioning but re-accessible through a series of ritual steps. It’s a charmingly romantic notion, but there’s no reason whatsoever to believe it. The Surrealists merely replaced the bourgeois fetish for consciousness and reason with their own for the unconscious. But the point is to combine the two.

Similarly the idea that free music can take the cultural studies away is reminiscent of the modernist mirage that art can somehow be purged of culture to be left pure and universal. Sounds are prized over chords, and chords over words for this very reason. But art is made by people so it will always be a form of social engagement, whether we choose to admit it or not. Denying this will not dispel it.

In short, Keenan was saying much that was worth saying. Improvisation is contingent to creativity, and we should embrace it not shut the door on it as soon as we can while fossilising what it sent us. His voice is necessary but a necessary corrective, by which we might realign ourselves. But at the end of the day he was serving up a malt when what we really need right now is a blend.

PS I absolutely adored Scatter’s version of She Moves Through the Fair played during his interview on Mixing It, which I (whisper it) taped off the radio and have replayed frequently since. But I found his performance in The Tight Meat Duo a pointless meander through the most tedious of free jazz byways. You pays your money and you takes yer choice!

Handy weblinks:
http://arts.guardian.co.uk/filmandmusic/story/0,,2207301,00.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Keenan
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Weird_America
http://www.colouroutofspace.org/