Thursday 31 December 2009

FILMS OF 2009 (Part One):

Time was, when I seemed to do nothing but review films here. This time, I find I’ve only previously written about three the whole year long. So perhaps an end-of-year catch-up is timely. This will be done in reverse order, in the vain hope of generating some kind of excitement. This time, those films I have ranked Tin-Plated and Not-Even-Going-To-Say-What-Substance. Coming soon, The Bronze, closely followed by The Silver and then The Gold!

Please note, if I seem to have more to say about some films than others, that shouldn’t be taken as a measure of appreciation but just the way the words came out.


Broken Embraces

I either end up persistently seeing the wrong Almodovar films or else he’s quite absurdly over-rated. But this was almost definitively a ‘meh’ movie. The film-within-a-film they keep making is often played as a joke, yet it seems so much more alive than the film we’re actually watching.

Che (Parts 1 & 2)

The great thing about the old Cold War films about Cuba, whether pro or anti, is that they’re so impassioned. Even Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, so insistently a tale of non-involvement, is ferventlynon-involved. By contrast, these two films feel almost un-involved. It’s like the difference between a speech by a political campaigner and a dry broadsheet analysis, stuffed with diagrams and tables. They’re like a project, another weighty topic to research and add to your film-maker’s CV.

Admittedly I would be less harsh on this two-parter if comparing it to its contemporaries rather than predecessors, and the second part is more involving than the first. And it was a lot better than...


The Baader Meinhof Complex

aka The Baader Meinhof Simple As reviewed here.

Public Enemies

After seeing the trailer, I was actually looking forward to Michael Mann’s presentation of John Dillinger’s life of crime. That trailer didn’t lie, particularly. In fact you could stick together pretty much any scenes from this film to engender the same sense of excitement. The problem is when you stick them all together. There’s no take, no engagement either with Dillinger’s life or his public image. There didn’t necessarily have to be insight, but some kind of through-line might have helped! All we get is a shopping-list of (apparently well-researched) moments from the mobster’s life transformed by a crew of professionals into event movie-making. It’s like picking nice-sounding words and calling them a sentence.

But even that was better than...

Il Divo

A great artist can take a complex subject and present it to you simply, memorably and with great clarity. This film does the reverse. It’s not even that it’s gimmicky and expensive-looking. It just looks expensive-looking. Somebody could make a fantastic black farce out of the current state of Italian politics. (Whose stinky goings-on seem even more egregious than here in Britain.) Hopefully, somebody still might.

But even that was better than...

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The risible low-point of my filmic year. I can’t believe David Fincher... yes, the man who made Fight Club... was behind this sickly-sweet slice of Oscar bait! If anything surfaced that was worse than this, I simply don’t want to know about it.

What really sums the film up is that bloody humming-bird, so clearly signposted as ‘symbolic’. But doesn’t a symbol have to be a symbol of something?, not just some slo-mo arthouse stand-in for redemption. Or transcendence. Or rejuvenation. Or whatever. I don’t know which, and neither does anyone who made this overlong indulgence. It was like eating sugar from the bag whilst a tuxedoed waiter compliments you on your “excellent choice, sir!” No it isn’t.

Friday 25 December 2009

CINE-CITY 2009 (Part Two: Wojciech Has retrospective)

Apologies for the late arrival of this second part of my Cine-City retrospective. A third part was originally promised, but that no longer seems current now. Perhaps I should be wary of making such rash promises this time of the year. I have at least kept up my tradition of always posting something on Christmas Day.

THE NOOSE (1958)

Perhaps the prevalent view of the Polish director Wojciech Has is summed up by Wikipedia, that he “was independent of the over political themes that dominated the prevailing Polish (Film) School.” In fact it could be possible to push this line too far. Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, often regarded as the very definition of the Polish Film School, is itself very much an ‘inner’ story of a conflicted individual - a Hamlet not a Julius Caesar. Yet the issues which beset this individual are very much social and political. Conversely Kuba, the central character of The Noose, wears his alcoholism like an existential curse. He makes no excuses for drinking, along the lines of poverty or unemployment. It’s much more one man’s way of dodging life’s central question ‘what is a man to do?’

There’s also more than a hint of the Sartrean concept that ‘hell is other people’. Take for example the recurrent emphasis on windows and mirrors, and indeed characters often become windows and mirrors to each other. Tellingly, the inevitable noose of the title is made from a telephone wire – the mechanism by which others assail him.

The film follows the ‘faux unities’ of time, as we follow him for a day trying to stay clean and sober. (There must be a term for this ‘compressed real time’, used in films like High Noon, which I don’t know.) Reflecting it’s psychological themes it’s quite a theatrical piece, indeed too much so during some of the scenes when he’s alone in his flat. Yet, for a cracked portrait of so flawed a man, that is surely it’s only failing.


Though only made later that same year, this couldn’t be more of a contrast. It’s a historical film, covering a wide span of time. But despite this emphasis on the crushing weight of history, in its way it’s as much a chamber piece as it’s predecessor. Though not entirely made up of interiors, it feels dominated by them. There’s a great importance attached to where characters are staying, from the young runaways early in the film onward. Only at the very end do the events of history actually intrude. (Particularly odd is the reduction to a passing reference of a character’s imprisonment in Auschwitz.)

The theme is the decline of titled families between and (especially) after the wars. Not a single character welcomes the Soviet invasion, the reactions range only between fear and indifference. In this way it’s closest cousins would not be the Italian neo-realism which so inspired the Polish Film School but its’ immediate successors, particularly Visconti’s The Leopard or The Damned. (Though intriguingly this film predates them both.)

Though The Noose was also based on a novel, Farewells betrays its literary origins more, and (for all its grander themes) is the lesser of the two films for it. Just as it’s span is greater, it’s grip is weaker.


This later film takes the historical span of Farewells, but uses it more successfully. It is also the only one of the three to place a woman in the lead role. (Though her life is given to obsessing over a man, and she is much more similar to the supportive surrogate mother in The Noose than the more independent woman from Farewells.)

Though the Polish School never subscribed to the restrictive connotations ‘realism’ might imply, here is the point were any such notions are actively attacked. Set among actors, it uses their world to question reality rather than just portray it. Indeed the central event of the film occurs off-screen and is left ambiguous, with several different explanations given for it. The ending actually copies what had earlier been a false rumour.

Character voice-over is used, but to enhance ambiguity rather than clarify it. The protagonist’s thoughts are more stream-of-consciousness than ordering; at one point she even becomes drunk and the voice-over itself becomes incoherent. At another she veers off-script while recording a drama, seemingly preferring her own words better. In this way it almost becomes a synthesis of the two previous films, despite their first seeming so far apart.


This, perhaps Has’ best-known film, marks a major break from his earlier realist works. Though there are links for those who go looking (such as his interest in psychology) it’s hard to think of another director from the era who so completely changed their style. Compared to Has, even Fellini remained in the shadow of neo-realism.

It’s most commonly said that Has moved from realism to surrealism. Indeed, he claimed himself that he ”was brought up on surrealism.” Yet, though this was often cited by Bunel as his favourite film, pedants might debate just how surreal it is. After all, it’s based on a pre-surrealist book from 1815 (by Jan Potocki). Though supernatural events occur, it could be argued that it is actually closer to folklore.

The film’s fascination comes from its byzantine structure – it’s not merely a portmanteau but presents nested and even overlapping stories, as if they are coagulating together. Yet the frame story device is primarily a literary conceit, and in a way the film fetishises the book object as something with almost magical powers, drawing in the reader in an almost literal sense. Which all makes for an engrossing film, but weren’t the surrrealists one of the forces who encouraged film away from literary traditions?

(NB: I didn’t actually see the film as part of this festival, having watched it only recently beforehand.)


This, the only film Has made in the Seventies, must surely count as his magnum opus. This time based on a Bruno Gans collection, if it is not surreal then surely nothing is! It’s hard to comment on after seeing only once, the viewing experience being so overwhelming. (It often fascinates me how, even in the pre-video era, so people made films which demanded multiple viewings.) You emerge feeling some strange combination of intoxicated and travel sick, split between the desire to see it all again and the wish to have a good lie down. There’s a repeated motif of a wave of activity, one character entering a still setting which leads to it erupting into activity, though I’m at a loss to explain this apart from that being the way the film feels on your mind.

Much of its style comes from incorporating a standard trope of neo-realism, deep field photography, but thrusting it into a surrealist settings – resulting in a kind of baroque surrealism. (Has’ influence is all over Gilliam.) Each scene seems so crammed with detail, but you are only able to take in any of that for a minute before being whisked off again. Like Saragossa Manuscript it tells a family story through employing disdainful approach to time. Scenes are rarely linked naturalistically but juxtaposed, the protagonist impossibly leaping and lurching from one place and time to another.

Here’s something I wrote last year, about Wajda, the other great ‘Polish school’ director, following last year’s Cine-City.

More about Cine-City here.

Sunday 13 December 2009



This new Jim Jarmusch movie has proved controversial in many quarters, generating a lot of baffled resentment. As a longtime fan of his work, I have to tell you it looks, feels and sounds absolutely great – in particular with some fantastic photography. More than any previous Jarmusch film, it is surely challenging Antonioni (in particular The Passenger). The soundtrack (by drone outfits such as Earth, Sunn))) and Boris) is so superb you wonder if all films should have such a soundtrack by law. You feel such music as much as hear it, it has a subliminal effect upon you as if creeping beneath the radar of your critical faculties - the perfect soundtrack music.

Some commentators have despaired of the way this espionage story doesn’t have any literal kind of resolution. Yet even classics of the genre, such as The Big Sleep, had supposed ‘plots’ which even the makers couldn’t follow – without it mattering much. Indeed, such an absence may even count as an improvement. As the comics artist Eddie Campbell has pointed out of this genre, “the solution is often a pin that lets the air out of the balloon, dispersing forever anything that was there in the first place.”

You would in any case need fairly hefty blinkers not to recognise that proceedings here merely use the form of an espionage film to get you watching in a particular way. As Jarmusch has commented:

“This is not a neo-neo-realism style of film; it’s fantastic in a certain way. I didn’t want to make a film that people had to analyze particularly while watching it. I really wanted to make a film that was kind of like a hallucinogenic in the way that, when you left after having seen it, I hope the audience will look at mundane details in a slightly different way. Maybe it’s only temporary, maybe for only 15 minutes, but I wanted to do something to… I don’t know, just trigger an appreciation for one’s subjective consciousness.”

The film mostly follows nameless ‘Lone Man’ as he undergoes a series of encounters, which may or may not be full of clues. Each individual he encounters seems to embody some discipline – film, music, science. There’s something almost Gnostic about it, the scenes are structured as if he’s being imparted knowledge but the sense of them is more that he’s becoming steeped in a worldview.

More neatly still, Jarmusch achieved this effect mostly through improvised filming, turning up to locations with only the most minimal script to see where the journey took him. One way to read the title is that ‘Control’ is a conventional shooting script, insisting reality conforms to it.

This is of course a great idea for a film. It’s surely no accident that one of the great blockbusters of our time was called Titanic, while it’s successors have become increasingly obsessed with gargantuan disasters. Hollywood feels virtually the last Fordist industry left, oversized, clumsy, it’s projects impossible to resteer once they’re set out on. What better counter than to make a film more like an improvising troupe?

And if it didn’t have a hallucinogenic effect on me, it did bring back to my mind the spy games we’d play as kids. We had nothing in particular to say in those messages we’d elaborately code, nor anyone to hide them from. But this very lack of function gave them their significance, the medium was the message. We wanted so much to talk to each other it wasn’t enough to just say things, new languages had to be invented just so they could be used. So much effort was put into the form, the content was rendered important.

But does this cool idea actually come off? First, there’s a formal distinction to contend with. Unlike music or theatre, film doesn’t happen live before the audience; we never see the process, only the result. So when we see, for example, a black helicopter at the start then again at the end – in a sense it was already present at the end, the film exists for us in a kind of simultaneity of time.

But worse, rather than counter this tendency the film instead enhances it. The character we follow doesn’t extemporise on what he sees (like say in Fellini’s 8 1/2), he follows what appears to us a pre-set arrangement of clues which take him to a denouement. The end result is not impressionist but deterministic; we don’t make sense of the world we are thrust into, we soak up these clues and wait for their sense to be made manifest to us.

This is reinforced by the style of the film which (though arresting in itself) is not freely associative but rigid and almost minimal. At one point, in the art gallery, a big painting behind the Lone Man’s head carries only a big cross, as if marking the spot where he should sit. It’s surely no co-incidence the camera here seems so in love with architecture and design. If it was a painting it would be by Ed Ruscha, with it’s sterile yet numinous empty urban spaces, not a Dadaist collage or teeming Futurist street scene. Objects arrive almost labelled as clues, like some cerebral kind of video game.

I am also unsure whether there is the connection between imagination and the figure of the secret agent which Jarmusch seems to be implying. A character like James Bond is clearly an agent of chaos, breaking into the clockwork order of the secret base in order to disrupt it. But is chaos the same thing as imagination? (Crucially, the hero here is explicitly not sexualised.)

Admittedly, I may have been weighted against the film by being wrongfooted by it. Early on, I assumed that this heady stew of significance somehow existed only in the lead character’s mind. He’d see paintings in a gallery which he’d later translate into encounters. Yet something I always responded to about so many previous Jarmusch films (including the direct predecessor, Broken Flowers) was the way the protagonist would be not so much an unreliable narrator as a hopeless one – the last person who was ever going to reach an understanding of the world he was in.

But the biggest weakness of all is the denouement, which spells out the antagonism between imagination and control and in the process lets all the air out of the balloon just as surely as if the caretaker had dunnit. Though, as Jarmusch has indicated, the title references Burroughsian control he doesn’t really honour the concept. Bill Murray’s American is really just The Man, a one-dimensional authoritarian Aunt Sally. Try comparing the ending here to the face-off against Number One in the final episode of The Prisoner. Both endings employ genre conventions to subvert them more deeply, but The Prisoner. The Prisoner’s subversion is deeper, a much more challenging and ambiguous sequence which tantalises the viewer with easy answers yet ultimately deprives them. And with such a view of Control, the film itself cannot help but feel limited. Imagination good, Control bad. That’s not actually very imaginative. Just as The Baader Meinhof Complex wasn’t really very complex, The Limits of Control is ultimately rather limited.

Conversely, perhaps the problem with this character is that he is all too tawdrily accurate. Against widespread speculation that the American is a thinly veiled stab at Dick Cheney, Jarmusch has responded:

“It’s not pointed at the Bush administration. That’s a great example. But it continues; it’s continuing now. Who is telling us what world economic/financial structure are we trying to repair? Are we trying to prop it up, are we trying to patch up its wounds? It’s something that’s already dead; the structure is the problem.”

But by being so perfunctory and one-dimensional the American fails to represent any such structure but becomes almost the perfect description of Bush or Cheney – whose role on the stage of history was only ever as bad melodrama villains. Brecht referred to Hitler diminutively by turning him into Artuo Ui, a Chicago gangster with designs to control the vegetable trade. But a fictional biographer of Bush and Cheney, attempting to make them into characters deserving audience interest, would be forced to do the opposite - magnifying their dimwitted scheming and elevating their grasping into something grander. As the old New Model Army song went: “Not foolish and brave, these leaders of ours/ Just stupid and petty, unworthy of power.”

I’m finally torn between two responses to this film. In some ways it left me feeling as I did with I’m Not There, a success in it’s own refreshingly idiosyncratic terms, but not ultimately terms I favour. Or perhaps it was simply a failure, a brave and noble failure but nonetheless unable to live up to it’s own intentions.

NB: The resy of my Cine-City write-up is coming shortly. Honest, guv. Would I lie to you?

Saturday 5 December 2009

CINE-CITY 2009 (Part One: New Features)

Coming Soon! Features on the documentaries and Wojciech Has retrospective from Brighton's Cine-City Festival.

This is quite definitely not another entry in the burgeoning genre of theme-park apocalypse porn, whose excessive budgets and rampaging levels of tedium must surely be hastening the destruction they ostensibly warn us about. In fact not since Children Of Men has a dystopian future been so convincingly realised on screen. Present at the screening, director John Hillcoat described it as “a love story between a man and his son, with an apocalypse in there too.” Indeed you could almost see the movie as an extreme form of one of those lovers-versus-society films, like Betty Blue. Yet while others do intervene they have little to fear from society – no such thing is left.

Perhaps what’s smart about the film is its ability to permanently skirt horror movie territory without ever tipping into it. Which is of course what makes it so genuinely horrific, it’s appalling credibility. Hillcoat also smartly used real locations, depriving the viewer of that glossy sheen that accompanies CGI and tips the wink to the viewer that all is actually allright. It becomes quite compelling to watch these two tiny figures perpetually lost against such a vast landscape of ruin. What few objects they have (bin bags, a shopping trolley) take on an almost fetishistic importance.

True to Hillcoat’s description, the apocalypse is very much taken as read. However it is still something literal. This film isn’t akin to Godard’s Weekend or Haneke’s Time of the Wolf where the ambiguity of the apocalypse turns it into something metaphysical. (With the combination of forever occluded skies and the father’s continual coughing-up I assumed that Cormac McCarthy’s source novel had specified a nuclear winter, which Hillcoat had assumed rather than described so as not to foreground. But according to Wikipedia the book is similarly ambiguous.)

Unfortunately, like those crumbling bridges, the film has a fracture line running right through it. Inevitably, as it follows its foraging leads, it falls into something of an episodic structure. But this structure requires a strong ending, something to tie everything together into some sort of perspective. Unfortunately the ending we are given is quite banal, and strangely out of place. If apocalypse porn is a theme-park ride, this becomes an instillation piece – giving us a taster of how such a bleak non-future would pan out, but sadly nothing more.


Some of the imagery in Miyazaki’s new animation is rich enough to turn Pixar green around the gills! (The opening scene itself is little short of stupendous.) And yet you can’t help but feel that something of the taint of Disney lies around things, as if his western distribution deal with them was enough to cause some degree of contamination. (I later read that he had been inspired by their Little Mermaid.) This feeling was probably exacerbated on my part by watching the dubbed version, while I normally go for the subtitled.

Now an old man who has come back from retirement more than once, it’s even possible that Miyazaki’s prodigious talents are now in decline. This is not the equal of Howl’s Moving Castle, itself no match for Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Yet even a below-par Miyazaki turns out to be well worth turning out for. Still present is his archetypical insistence that the aim must be balance not victory. (Even if the resolution here is rushed and neat.) The film is filled with images of things frothing over, even a can of drink from a fridge. Yet though the swelling sea unsurprisingly represents the unconscious, it neither stands for a twee belief in fairies nor a vengeful id, but is something strange and otherly. Much of what happens isn’t simply unexplained but feels convincingly inexplicable.


Those who like to cling to their cultural stereotypes may be surprised to find a Korean film so far removed from vampires, extreme sex acts or other manifestations of ‘extreme cinema’. However, the programme’s comparison to Iranian films such as The Apple surely misses the point. While Iranian films always have a beguiling quality, So Yong Kim’s film is much closer to social realism. It’s success lies in conveying the way children perceive the world without degenerating into kitsch. The way the young girls take what the adults say so literally is often simultaneously charming and heart-rending. It’s also notable what a women-centered world the girls live in, male characters are at best marginal and those that do have a strong effect on the plot tend to be shown the least. (In one case, not at all.)

I wondered if it might be perceived differently in the West, whose cinema so often indulges in a saccharine feelgood “belief” in childhood. Though we see the girls get poorly treated, it’s theme is clearly their reaching a kind of rapprochement with adulthood, including the importance of chores! Thematically it might be similar to the otherwise worlds-apart Spirited Away.

I have no idea about the title! Is there a Korean saying about the treeless mountain being hardest to climb?


It’s difficult to talk about this new Jim Jarmusch film without going into the ending, and seems a little pointless to give plot spoilers on films before they go on general release. So I shall be holding fire on it until then...

Friday 27 November 2009


This is the wrap-up part of my imagined new direction for Doctor Who, a response to Andrew Hickey’s tag game of reworking established characters. It has been held over till now in classic cliffhanger style. To take it from the top, click here.

The Conclusion:

Finally the Doctor is ‘rescued’ by UNIT, who it seems have been looking for him all along, and separated from Isobel. He’s taken to their head, at which point his sonic screwdriver starts beeping. The Doctor firmly states this identifies him as “trouble.” But he takes the screwdriver, correctly identifies it, and explains you can reset its dampener field and range. He sets it at short range, holds it near himself and it beeps again. He then holds it near the Doctor – again it beeps.

He explains that they are both Time Lords and he is in fact the Doctor’s brother. He won’t tell the Doctor his name, he’s sure in time his memory will return and he will then remember it. As superior beings, their task is to intervene, improve and correct history. Have not the Doctor’s own adventures showed him how poorly the humans handle their destiny? But to offer this guiding hand they need their Tardis. He has managed to find it, but only the Doctor has the key.

They step into the Tardis. The Doctor comments it’s bigger on the inside. The head asks him to go out to get the sonic screwdriver, which he claims to be a necessary component, and then locks him out. He explains himself to the Doctor over the monitor, but has the speaker turned down so he can only see the Doctor mouthing back at him.

He reveals himself to be the Doctor’s old adversary - The Monk. He scorns the Doctor for believing they might be brothers, and contemptuously explains they were enemies. Abandoned on Earth from 1066 to the present day, he has spent all this time working himself into positions of power and trying to track down another Tardis. But in all this intervening time he has become embittered against the Earth, no longer the gamer of history, and he now wants to use the Tardis’ power to press humankind into servitude – he’s no longer meddling, but megalomaniac. The feeling of his boot upon the Earth’s neck is the only thing which can satisfy him now. He will return with the Tardis made an arsenal of every deadly space weapon he can get his hands on. He only regrets that he could not have fought again with the Doctor as he was then – a worthy adversary, not this simpleton, barely more than one of the humans he once took as pets.

The Doctor finally just waves at him, like a child saying bye-bye. He laughs disdainfully at this, cries “now it’s me who’s in the driving seat” and triumphantly presses the big red button...

...but this sequence then just repeats over and over again.

Cut to oustide the Tardis. The Doctor and Isboel are now both there, the Monk’s phrase repeating over the speaker. The Doctor raises the sonic screwdriver to switch it off. The Doctor had grown to suspect him, particularly the way he kept the Doctor away from Isobel in order to tempt him the easier. So the Doctor had already secretly entered the Tardis, regained his memories and constructed a time loop to trap him in, set to trigger when he pressed dematerialise. If a thousand years wasn’t long enough for him to learn the error of his ways, time was no benefit to him and he may as well live the same few seconds over and over. He’ll be happy that way, forever at the very moment of his triumph. Let him have what he wanted.

The Doctor explains to Isobel that the whole affair had the opposite effect upon him to the Monk. Before he would flash past places like a tourist, hurtling from one grand event to the next, always looking up, never around. This time he has lived among humans. He’s been to Gallifrey and Metebilis 3, but his favourite place of all was a service station just out of Auchterlounie.If you want to find the extra-ordinary then the place you need to look is in the ordinary.

Isobel asks if he can now fly the Tardis, and he replies suitably evasively – it will probably all come back to him. He assumes she’ll be entering the Tardis with him, but she refuses - insisting that he’s the Doctor again, and no longer needs a Nurse. Besides, she has a ticket to Thailand, for which she isn’t entitled to a refund. Laughing, he tries to tell her the Tardis could take them there without any queueing, not even aything to carbon offset. But she explains she had been putting back the date of her flight, always by a few months at a time, but for the past few years. There was always some reason why she couldn’t go just yet. Now she will go - she needed all this just to walk through the same passport control that thousands do every day. The Doctor becomes more desperate to persuade her, boasting that the Tardis is bigger on the inside, a plane isn’t bigger on the inside. She replies “aren’t we all?”. As she leaves she comments it’s a shame she already got the ticket, as she’s thinking of changing her name. After she’s gone, he silently enters the Tardis and it dematerialises.

Postscript:After reading Andrew’s take I sent him a mail pointing out that the amnesiac old man was part of an early draft for Doctor Who, that he was taking the show so far back to its roots he’d reached a point before it even sprouted. Though Andrew replied this was at most unconscious, he seems such a fan of the early show it must surely be an influence. (His New Doctor is an old man, like the First, for example.) But while Andrew won’t even watch New Who, my impetus was very much to fix what-has-seemed-broken about the show recently. (Though I was also inspired by the way films such as Resident Evil used amnesia to throw you straight into events and then teasingly drip-feed backstory. You can also see some of The Thirty Nine Steps in there if you stare for long enough.) It’s probably too much of a departure to ever stand a prayer of being made, though I would also insist it contains some of the back-to-basics approach as well.

Tuesday 24 November 2009


This is a response to Andrew Hickey’s tag game of reworking established characters, in particular his take on Doctor Who. The supposition seems very much to be that most such characters have lost their way, and need re-finding it as much as they do reinventing for our age. It is weird in many ways to find myself back to writing what’s essentially fanfic! I suspect I was galvanised to respond by already having formed some very similar ideas myself, just through watching the show.

Where we come in:

NB: At the time of writing, I am assuming this is how the current run of the show will end, bases upon what’s happened or been hinted at so far. Of course only time will tell whether this is my reading, or whether I’ve actually rewritten it without knowing it.

First, some retro-continuity is revealed. To defeat the Daleks in the Time War the Doctor has to enlist the Time Lords, but then it comes to be that his only chance to kill the Daleks off means wiping out the Time Lords as well. Traumatised by slaughtering his own species, he suppresses this memory in his mind. He also leaves himself unable to do anything similar again, inserting a kind of mental circuit-breaker in his thought processes. (This is why he is unable to set off the bomb he himself assembled in ’Parting Of the Ways’ claiming “coward every time.”)

But this conditioning starts to break down, and the Doctor becomes more megalomaniac about his powers over time. Perhaps partly as a result of this, this suppressed memory reawakens. (Perhaps he is also forced into a similar position again.) This time the Doctor responds more radically, both regenerating and developing fully fledged amnesia.

The new series – the opening:

A hallucinogenic montage scene of lights and starfields. This gradually morphs into something more violent -  an aural fever dream of explosions, voices and cries from previous shows, Daleks chanting “exterminate” etc.  (No actual clips, but snatches of dialogue over near abstract visuals.) A voice arrives much more loudly over the top of it, shouting repeatedly “Doctor Doctor!”

A man suddenly sits bolt upright. He’s in pajamas on an old metal-frame bed, in a small and spartan-looking room. A woman is shouting “Doctor, Doctor!” down the phone, finally realises the connection is lost and crossly slams the phone down. She looks around and is astonished to see him awake. Figuring he awoke to the word “Doctor” she calls him that. For his part, he remembers nothing.

She explains she is called Isobel, that they are on a remote Scottish island. He was found on the shore and she has spent several weeks caring for him. (She doubles as the island Nurse, but as it lacks a single hospital bed she has had to do this at home,) She had been trying to get through to the GP on the mainland, the lines are normally bad but seem significantly worse whenever she tries to call him. But, she adds brightly, she got a call through to the Police who are coming from the mainland to interview him, in a day or two. They might be able to tell you something.

She shows him what was in his pockets, a Tardis key, a sonic screwdriver (neither of which he recognises) and a plane ticket to Thailand. She remarks on the co-incidence, as she was shortly to travel to Thailand herself. He shows her the ticket back, commenting it’s just a blank piece of paper. Concerned, she immediately checks his eyes for damage. (Of course it’s psychic paper.)

Character of Isobel
Isobel is Scottish but not native to the island, her hippy traveller parents settled there after a long time roving – a clapped-out camper van still stands beside her house. Despite growing up with stories of all their adventures, she’s never even been to the mainland very often and is now excited about her trip to Thailand. Exotic-looking posters of Thailand adorn her otherwise simply functional home. She’s level-headed and practical, as much Matron as Nurse. (A running gag is how many different jobs she does on the island.) She’s also something of a rallyer, good at getting people to do what she wants. But she is also frustrated at this ordering side of herself and would like more chaos in her life. She comes to see in the Doctor the freely associative wild card she needs to play.

Character of the New New Doctor
This Doctor is a mystery to everyone, including himself. He constantly says things which surprise even himself. He’s not talkative, charismatic or tricksterish like the Ninth, he’s more spectral and spaced out, forever on the borderline between breakdown and revelation, always saying something between gibberish and insight – a figure like Syd Barratt, David Bowie in Man Who Fell to Earth, or perhaps Fiver in Watership Down. People are always underestimating him, including himself. But when in danger his old survival reflexes come back.

Given his condition, his dependence upon Isobel is greater than with any previous companion (except perhaps with the First Doctor and Susan). He’s continually forgetful and impractical, which tries her patience. (She continually complains at him that she gave up Thailand for this.) Yet one moment he’s burning the dinner, the next demonstrating some flash of genius.

Like in The Avengers the gender roles become reversed, when what’s required is fisticuffs then it’s left to Isobel (who turns out to be a keep-fit freak).

Continuing the set-up...
The Police arrive, taciturn and robotic, something which stands out against the island’s face-to-face society. They take one look at the Doctor and announce he’s immediately to be taken back to the mainland. Isobel protests, he’s still so weak, and finally insistant. At this they forcefully shove her back. Then when they’re about to put him on the boat they find she’s rallied other islanders to his defence (though some are clearly more fearful than her at the prospect of this). They use a piercing siren device to incapacitate everyone, clearly some kind of alien technology.

Isobel (somehow) rescues the Doctor and escapes the Police. Fearing a manhunt on the island will now ensue, they take a small boat to the mainland, landing on a remote beach.

She searches for ‘The Doctor’ in an internet cafe in a nearby town and discovers all the Who lore. She rushes back to explain to the Doctor he is part of “it all” He’s at first confused by this explanation (“all of what?”), then dismissive of the whole idea (“you can’t believe what you read on the internet”), but to her it seems to explain much.

The series formula

From that point, they’re forced to go on the run. Authority figures are always after them, and it becomes there is someone who wants the Doctor who is both powerful and clearly knows who the Doctor is – the only person within the series who knows this. With the Doctor not even knowing what the Tardis is, all these adventures happen in Britain. It would be something of a cross between the Pertwee Era, (dare I say it) Torchwood, The X-Files and The Fugitive. Like The Fugitive, their constantly having to move on will propel into fresh adventures all the time. (The otherwise inexplicable Sonic Screwdriver turns out to beep when in the vicinity of alien technology, like a geiger counter of alien-ness, drawing them into story situations.)

The theme would be modern paranoia and technofear – the conspiracy theories that all new technology is actually alien etc. Technology would always be a step ahead of what you suspected, governments and authorities just fronts for shadowy institutions never up to any good. Unlike the different-alien-invasion-every-week of the Pertwee era, alien influence would be more indirect – more akin to Quatermass.

Despite this throughline, each adventure would itself be standalone and comprehensible in isolation. (If always expounding upon the theme given above.) However, moments would allude to the throughline. For example, they could come across an old Police Box in a museum. This triggers a memory in the Doctor, who even tries his key in it. It doesn’t fit, and Isobel chides him for wasting time. Or alien dialogue would be incomprehensible, then switch into English when the Doctor entered the room.

With them travelling everywhere by normal means, the feel and pace of the show would be correspondingly slower-paced, much less frenetic. They would steep in situations rather than just charge through them. There could be scenes of trying to get an emergency shelter put up hiding out in the rain etc. The whole thing would be more ‘grounded’, the viewer should feel the earth beneath their boots. There’d be no magic maguffin solutions to problems, but instead a renewed emphasis on teamwork, on their winning the day by forging friendships and alliances with the people they run into. Isobel is but the first of these occurrences.

Similarly, music and sound effects would be less invasive, and ‘spacey’ only when accompanying something alien.

Sample episode:

A green energy company is promising to solve the earth’s energy problems with an inexhaustible and nonpolluting supply of energy – if for a price. This secret source turns out to be from a UFO they have discovered and are tapping it’s power source, but without understanding it – once the whole power source is switched on it will surge, and blow up everything in a wide vicinity. The aliens have all died upon impact, so do not actively participate in the story, but the initially altruisitic become possessed by the power (in both senses) this will give him. The power source is triggered by thought power, so the company chief must put on a (somewhat symbolic) crown-like device to use it.

Advantages to this approach:

Advantages of this new direction would be the firewalls it would create against some of the problems of the old series recurring:
i)              The ‘Lonely God’ stuff is now literally written out of the memory of the show. Added to which, the New Doctor is much humbler and unsure of himself.
ii)             A whole house of get-out-of-jail-free cards had been stockpiled, dampening development of any dramatic tension, which would now be knocked down. These are toys the show has behaved so badly with up till now that they need confiscating. So now no-one now knows where the Tardis is, the Doctor has his sonic screwdriver and psychic paper but no knowledge of how to use them – they are clues not devices.
iii)           While the previous series didn’t suffer overly from continuity obsession, this format would insist that anything referred to from a previous series, even the most recent ones, would need explaining – making for a better jumping-on point. At the same time, with for example the Police Box scene above, the old viewer would recognise the Tardis but nothing within the show would expect the viewer to do so. To the new viewer, it would merely add to the mystery – a mystery which would be fully explained later.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

COLOUR OUT OF SPACE 4 (Part Three: Malcy Duff’s Comics Workshop)

NB: There is no particularly good reason for the late posting of this final installment, covering the Colour Out Of Space festival!

As anyone with ears will know by now, I’m a fan of the left-field comics of Malcy Duff so when I heard this year’s Colour Out Of Space was running a comics workshop by him, I excitedly signed myself up

After some warm-up exercises, it transpired that Duff was not aiming to overexert his charges during the workshop – in fact our task was to complete one single panel. But there was an inevitable twist! Duff handed out copies of an already-drawn two-page strip, Blue Peter style, but with one panel on the second page left blank for us. Our instructions were, and I quote:

”Find an object which may appear at some point in this action and use the [blank] panel to present it. The panel should look nothing like any of the other panels, so it sticks out immediately, it catches your eye first.”

In fact, even the object had already been found for us – and was in fact a cauliflower. Our task was simply to work out how to present it. Typically, Duff was thinking of something which could only be done in comics. When we see a double-page spread our eye cannot help but cast itself over it, before our brain tells it to pull back and stop reading at top left. This means that anything unusual-looking will be taken in during this first glance, but semi-subliminally. We will assign an importance to that object without really knowing why. When we reach it through reading, we’ll stop at it like at a landmark on a trip.

Duff showed us various experiments he’d already made, including with collage or expanding the panel so it overflowed around and behind those surrounding it. As, for the main part, characters in the strip were side-on and in semi-long-shot, I experimented with a sudden leering close-up of a cauliflower seller – the equivalent of someone in the street leaping out to eyeball you, then being gone. (A whole sequence of actions you can simulate just by juxtaposing three static images.)

The beauty of it is, you can think about if for a few minutes and find your own. You don’t need to be an accomplished artist or knowledgeable about comics history, you just need your imagination. What’s in the panels is always secondary to how they connect.

Another notable feature of Duff’s strip (one he didn’t mention during the workshop), is that it’s structured around a character posting a letter – yet not a word is spoken throughout! We don’t even get to see the writing on the envelope. Ironic, with the frailty of communication so much one of his themes, that Duff is able to run such an involving workshop!

Tuesday 10 November 2009

COLOUR OUT OF SPACE 4 (Part Two: Fabio Roberti’s talk)

Above: a video run-through of some of the artists, many mentioned by me last time.

Fabio Roberti, DJ at a non-commercial radio station in New Jersey, led this talk and discussion on ‘Failure and the Technology of the 21st Century’. As he spoke, and quite improbably, a vintage car rally on their way Brighton seafront chugged to behind him! Who knows, perhaps the organisers cunningly planned it that way?

Roberti’s argument was that ‘technology’ was but a ruse for corporations to short-change us into formats of ever-worsening quality – from vinyl to CDs and finally the degredation of MP3s. Worse, their attempts to capitalise on music devalued it in other ways, for example MP3 players which encourage listeners to non-stop shuffle without ever actually listening to anything.

Though he underpinned this argument with strong examples, it’s possible to criticise. For one thing it all seemed to rest upon an all-embracing notion of ‘corporate power’, where their scheming is always one step ahead and we are but patsies. (Asserting for example that they knew from the beginning the lackings of the CD format, yet persevered for marketing reasons.) Yet are things actually so linear and monolithic? As the cartoonist Larry Marder once said, he got a job in advertising expecting everyone to be a diabolic mastermind, and was rather disappointed to find out they were all actually stupid and greedy and mostly preoccupied by not getting fired. As one example, net piracy may prick against the musician struggling to give up the day job but it also torpedoes the profits of those very same music corporations – it is scarcely their creature.

And as one attendee pointed out, “the elephant in the room here is capitalism.” Making such arguments against the music business, in isolation, is never likely to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of it. It’s like looking so hard at the fist you fail to see the arm and body it’s attached to. If songs are sold like soap powder, that is because they inhabit a world where everything is sold like soap powder.

But more to the point, as another attendee mentioned, when you’re at an alternative music festival surely the question is how such changes affect you. The way the internet is used to disseminate music might well be problematic, but surely the point is that it is already used in ways completely beyond it’s Cold War origins. It can change and morph, it can be used in a multiplicity of ways. And for a scene which tends to spawn high interest from low numbers, surely something pan-geographical like the net offers advantages.

But perhaps the real point was made by Ed Baxter of Resonance FM, that there has always been a symbiotic relationship between music and technology. For two famous examples, blues became electrified partly to sound the better on the emerging juke-boxes while Phil Spector based his sound on what sounded best on car radios. (I always fancy today’s R&B to be related to MP3s, with its skittering rhythms attempting to avoid the need for a deep bass sound. Whether there’s anything in that, however, would require someone who knows more about that music than me.)

But the real real point is going to be made by me. New media rarely kill their fathers, more often their getting up and leaving home gives their fathers a new lease of life. As the comics critic Tom Spurgeon once remarked: “The emergence of every new medium forces existing ones to retreat to their fundamental strengths.” The classic example of course, is the way photography freed painting from having to mimic or duplicate the world. Now we can hear music free from vinyl crackle or tape hiss, those sounds are suddenly thrown into relief and become interesting. We don’t necessarily have to take things as far as Reynols when they released Blank Tapes, a CD entirely composed of tape hiss. But we can look at those media the way an artist would paper or canvas, seeing what strokes sit the best upon them. Technology is not our enemy. Novelty, fashion and designer obsolescence are our enemies.

I’d have said all that but I was distracted by those passing classic cars...

And we still have that comics workshop to come...

Sunday 8 November 2009

COLOUR OUT OF SPACE 4 (Part One: Performances)

“But tonight, it is Halloween...”

Yep, ”Brighton’s annual festival of cross platform sound experimentation and art” hit it’s fourth digit last weekend! Rescheduling things slightly later in the year left less chance of hanging out in the venue garden, but had its upside. Halloween of course has its roots in Samhain, the Celtic festival where our world was nearest to the spirit realm - surely the perfect time to hear such music! (A sense perhaps best conjured up by City Hands’ ethereal set.) People even turned up to the Saturday night in Halloween costumes. (Though ironically to see what was probably the least strong line-up of the three nights.)

The big formal innovation this year was to combine the festival with an exhibition by its participants, hence the use of the term ‘art’ in the description above. Despite this leading to the adoption of the gallery as the second venue room (for which it was inferior), this was generally to the good. After all, as someone who argued last year for more of a visual element, I could hardly say otherwise! Two things about this exhibition were obvious. First, the creative attempts at packaging (particularly tape packaging) far outshone the paintings, drawings and hangings. Second, that while the works were as varied (in style and in quality) as the performances there was a recurrent attempt to evoke the spirit of outsider art. Many pieces had that lurid kitschness, where the familiar is co-mingled with the eerie to end up somewhere vaguely threatening. (Apologies, but I can’t remember who the example below is by,)

Two years ago, we’d joked how ‘feral’ had become the word of the festival. This time, it was ‘outsider art’ which seemed to keep cropping up. During the cartoon workshop, (of which more anon) as we attempted drawing alternately with our eyes shut and our left hand, someone joked we should call ourselves an outsider artist group. My flatmate was going to see Daniel Johnston the same night, and was playing his latest CD before leaving. I thought it sounded awful, a generic rock album with Johnston’s voice merely stuck on top. My flatmate countered by commenting that had been Johnston’s ideal all along, not to be mired in lo-fi but to sound like the Beatles. At which point it hit me: “I’m off to see a bunch of rich-kid Berlinners expressing their alienation by banging things and screaming, while you’ll be watching an actual outsider-artist who just wants to sound mainstream!” You can’t help but be reminded by the famous Half Man Half Biscuit lyric:

”My life is comfortable,
But I don’t want that image for my band,
Inside, I’m reasonable,
But I’ll make out they just don’t understand”

And of course such a yearning is in one sense absurd; you can’t take up outsider art as a style, like jazz or reggae. On the other hand, by this point we have so much of a musical tradition that it’s often helpful to find ways to unlearn it all. (Or else music will sound like... um... the way most music sounds.) Perhaps the best way to proceed is with a sense of humour, and with it an awareness of the potential pitfalls.

So in this spirit I welcomed Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarrsson’s solo set (above), which I took to be a Dadaist provocation against the scene’s worst excesses. Sigmarrsson staggered from side to side, made angsty-Munch faces and... that was about it really, all culminating in a snatch of cheesy dance music at the end. For this first night no-one had seemed to figure out how to dim the Gallery lights, a general irritation elsewhere that actually worked for the better here. Passers-by sometimes stopped to stare at this throng gathered to watch one man stagger - some amused, some confused. Others just quickened their step.

So it was somewhat ironic to see Sigmarrsson go on to his duo with Leif Elggren which epitomised the angst-into-attack model – even down to Sigmarrsson screaming at the audience whilst making devil signs! However, despite all that, it must be said the set was splendid! With it’s crackly, cut-up array of sounds and snatches of radio broadcasts it gave off as Burroughsian sense of information overload to the point where any content is rendered meaningless, of communication breaking down and nothing being left from the recordings. Signal vied with noise, with no clear victor in sight. Perhaps the duo were using modern means to react to the modern world, not merely slamming teenage doors.

As an indication that ‘angsty laptopper’ should perhaps be treated as a genre like any other, with a variety of things which can be done inside of it, Damion Romero did an equally intense set which was quite different in content – a series of drones rising in pitch and intensity, intercut with other shards of sound. As these huge sounds welled, Romero sat almost entirely still, like Biafra’s “kid at the back of the room.” It was like the audial equivalent of someone staring you out. Only enjoyable. (Well I enjoyed it anyway.)

But before it starts to seem that it was all noise and fury, let’s rush over to look at someone else.  While some had brought along an array of wires and gizmos to power their sets which must have stripped catalogues bare, its perhaps ironic that Audrey Chen (above) was able to conjure so much tonal variety from just her own voice, a cello and some minimal electronics. Her set ranged from Diamanda-Galas-style screeching to moments of quiet serenity and back again, moving so effortlessly through quite different movements you wondered if there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. Before starting she commented how much she’d enjoyed the previous night’s storm and indeed her music had some of that wild elementalism to it, the way a storm will rise and fall in fury while remaining part of one experience. A true highlight. (Yet, contrary to all outsider art notions, Chen is apparently classically trained.)

Here’s a video of Chen performing in Poland.

And yet, by contrast Mechanical Children were another highlight precisely because of the narrow nature of their sound. As their name might suggest, it was like they were working with heavy machinery as much as instruments. It seemed inexplicable that they should remain in the room through the set, so surely did their low moans and rumbles simulate the sense drilling down to the centre of the Earth. Passers-by from the street stopped to listen at the window, then pressed their hands to the glass in order to feel what was going on.

But their magic was that, just when you started to think they’d just hit on a compelling sound, your ears started telling you the opposite. By setting the parameters so narrowly, they just made small shifts in sound so much bigger in context. It was like stepping into a lowly lit room, at first it all seems featurelessly black but as you stay more and more shapes become distinct.

Another ‘virtuous contrast’, where both options of an apparent dichotomy were shown to best effect, was between Kodama and Tomutonntu. For Kodama, Michael Northan played (mostly) electronics and processing while Hitoshi Kojo set about a collection of folk and ungainly-looking home-made instruments. The point was how smoothly the organic could merge with circuitry, the drones of the folk sounds blending with the electronic until you could no longer tell one from the other. It was transporting but rooted, never flighty. It was like looking at a towering totem pole, one end buried deep in the earth, another pointing to the stars - but all one seamless pole. The two even affected a ceremonial march-on to the stage while playing, a perfectly appropriate gesture for the sounds they were conjuring.

Tomutonntu, conversely, sought to rub folk tunes and electronics up against one another until sparks happened. Taking more the catchy, proto-pop side of folk, he would allow snatches of melody to appear within the overall electronic fuzz, always about to resolve themselves into fully-fledged tunes, but never quite managing it. It was this tension that perpetuated the piece, the tunes alone would probably have been trite. Beset by equipment problems, he was forced to break off early. Still, superb stuff!

You’ve heard the rest, now try the best. This was the first time I’ve seen Morphogenesis, legendary free-impro troupe of some twenty-five years standing and offshoot of the Scratch Orchestra. I particularly loved the way the three others sat at some serious-looking electronics, while Adam Bohman’s table appeared to be more of a bric-a-brac stall – adorned with glasses, jars and egg boxes. I also enjoyed the figure who marched up and down before the stage with a kind of electronic shopping trolley, manipulating things and sometimes yelling. I think he was part of the troupe, but wouldn’t swear to it.

The only possible criticism I could make was that a set, which started of as sublime and ridiculous, possibly went on a bit long – they’d surely got to Morpho-Exodus before they finally exited. This may be simply down to me, but I find it hard to listen to such structureless music beyond a certain duration. Still, it was abundantly clear why they have such high standing in their field.

The closing set by Ju Suk Reet Meete and Oblivia of Smegma was memorable because of the strength with which I reacted against them. Several other acts either failed to take off, or simply served up supposedly ‘alternative’ cliches. But, for all their sound and fury, there seemed to me a post-modern barren-ness to Smegma. As they played snatches of old records and plucked at instruments, it was like they had come from some future culture-apocalypse where meaning had collapsed and all that was left had become detritus. Where Ellgren and Sigmarrson had used that very concept as both meat and railing point, there felt something diffident to Smegma’s reaction. They weren’t like the finale, but what had been left from the other acts swept up. Like zombies from a Romero film, their hands passed over once-familiar objects with only the faintest trace of knowing them. It reminded me of the opening line in Vaneigem’s ’Revolution of Everyday Life’, that we have become like those cartoon characters who race over the edge of a cliff, with only their mechanistically pumping legs keeping them aloft.  

I have one over-riding plea regarding this music. If it doesn’t sound like your thing, that’s fine by me. But what isn’t okay is to treat it as a sampling source for mainstream music, duplicating moments from it in diluted form as gimmicks on pop singles or TV commercials. Of course rock music is in general black music stolen by white people. But this is one step worse, slaying the host in order to plunder its innards. Festivals such as this make it clear this isn’t “experimental sound” in some dry lab-coat way, making discoveries which can then be streamlined for mass production. It’s more like the wild man coming back from the desert to tell us what we all need to hear. These guys are creating music, which can have an effect on the listener as great or greater than any other style.

As you’d expect from a three-day event featuring over forty artists, there was much other good stuff here – this is really just the greatest hits. Best thing you can do – wait a year and go and see it yourself!

Coming soon(ish):  The talks and workshops!

Some handy links:

A Flickr page of Festival Photos (from which most illos here were pinched!)
Words and Music have done a good write-up of the festival in these three instalments.

Thursday 5 November 2009


“99% of women kiss with their eyes closed, which is why it’s so difficult to identify a rapist.”

In today’s Guardian, Jimmy Carr defends this and other similar jokes he’s made. “It’s not a discourse on rape. I do jokes to get laughs. I happen to think the construct... is funny. It’s not really about the act of a serious sexual assault... I’m just an entertainer.”

Of course a lot of people, hearing that joke, will say “it’s not funny.” Of course it’s true that rape itself isn’t funny, except to the quite seriously disturbed, as Carr concedes himself. But as to whether the joke is funny... that’s really missing the point.

Part of the problem is our double use of the term ‘good’. In one sense, the Berlin Wall was a good wall. When it was finally knocked down, it took a large group of people quite a while to do it.  But that’s an entirely separate question from whether building it was a good idea, and I don’t think many people would confuse the two.

So why then should it become part of the equation that Carr’s joke was well constructed? (Which may well in itself be true.) Isn’t that like the defence “yes I did shoot him, but I used a nice gun?” Surely a good, well-made joke can be put to a bad end, just as a wall can.

But there’s a worse element to Carr’s defence, it’s the sound of something being lost. Once he’s said “I’m just an entertainer” in this context, he can’t then take it back in another. Once you have decided comedy is powerless, there it must remain.

In his book ‘Comics, Ideology, Power and the Critics’ Martin Barker noted that most writing about comics was structured around an axis of ‘harmful’ vs. ‘harmless’. To him, it was not that one end of this axis was more convincing than the other, but that to see comics in those reductive terms was inherently disempowering. It was like driving your car along a road made up of two cul-de-sacs. Barker was writing about comics the medium not comedy, but the point transfers perfectly well.

Ironically, only last night I went to see Cristian Mungiu’s new film ‘Tales of The Golden Age’, a portmanteau of funny stories told surreptitiously during Ceaucescu’s dictatorship of Romania. As one of the episodes demonstrates, Ceaucescu’s hold over the media was obsessively overbearing, to the point where word-of-mouth stories and urban myths became one of the means of keeping a contrary viewpoint alive. Of course there are obvious limits to this levelling power of humour. A gag can’t get you out of a gulag. But if humour is powerless, mere “entertainment”, why did this and so many other totalitarian regimes put so much effort into keeping it suppressed? Humour can act as a corrosive to power. You can’t be feared and a laughing stock.

But if this works, it has to work the other way round. Isn’t this why a racist or sexist joke always sounds worse than a straightforward insult, because we recognise that it intrinsically has more power? Hence the reaction “that’s not funny”. A reaction we often have not because it isn’t but because we don’t want it to be funny.

Well done, Jimmy. That was a good joke.

That’s why you should stop telling it.

Sunday 11 October 2009


 ’Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959–2009’, Serpentine Gallery, 29 September ~ 8 November

i) Like a Photograph of a Glass Half Standing

”We take art out of the art galleries and museums. The artist must destroy art galleries. Capitalist institutions. Boxes of deceit.”

With those words, from an Auto-Destructive Art manifesto Metzger wrote in 1962, this retrospective gets off to a less than promising start. We are after all in an art gallery, one even located in a leafy park – a long way from the world where came these smashed cars and boxes of rubbish we see on show. Worse, it seems redundant to even criticise something from this angle, about as pointless as Metzger’s railing against the “fucking cigar-chomping bastards” of the art circuit. It’s not like this is information we didn’t have before we set out. Why not go into a bank and complain that they’re making money?

If Auto-Destruction is dead, if all we have here is its detritus, we should simply ignore it and move on. It’s like digging tunnels out of a prison camp, if one is found and filled in you don’t waste time lamenting the fact – you start digging faster at another. But worse, such criticism can suggest that these works are vital totems now captured by the enemy and paraded in ‘their’ galleries like prisoners paraded in a glasshouse. Such veneration of the past will simply blind you to it. People seem to like to pretend radical art movements are pure and unsullied, until the villainous cigar-chomping bastards move in to corrupt them. But corruption enters movements the way it enters anything else, through internal weaknesses. Venerate the past and you will find yourself repeating it.

The first of Metzger’s ‘historic photographs’ further punctures any sense of promise. A wall-size blow-up from the first Reclaim The Streets party in Camden Town (in 1995), where kids dance atop a smashed car, has an actual smashed-up car stuck in the foreground.  It’s true that this piece makes a formal error, in duplicating something already inside the picture. (A later ‘historic photo’ of the Warsaw Ghetto is stuck behind a pile of rubble, an element not in the photograph, and works much better.) But behind this error is a more systematic failing.

Incorporating the real car is obviously supposed to grant the photo a vivacity, literally and metaphorically bringing it out at you. Yet even if the ‘real’ car had been the one in the photo (which it isn’t), the real car would still be the one out in the street – even if it only enters the gallery via a photograph of it. That car blocked an actual street, fulfilled a function for a political event. The car in the gallery is just a token, a context-free copy. Metzger needed the event to unfold in order to create his artwork, but what do the participants need him for? As he says himself (from the same manifesto as above) “the appropriation by the artist of an object is in many ways a bourgeois activity.”

At such points you feel thrown back upon your worst prejudices about ‘agit-prop’ art. As you wander the gallery you find yourself muttering the old Tankie slogans; “all art is inherently part of the commodity production system” and the like.

Worse, there is a problem with the tone of many of the pieces. In the trees planted upside-down and chanting children’s voices, there is a genuine playfulness in evidence. But there’s also a sense of high-minded seriousness, the numerous pieces which just collect discarded packaging are more sanctimonious than a ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ poster. As the notation tells us, Metzger “fervently encourages us to take ethical responsibility in a world that is under permanent creation.” So, a big hit at parties then.

One Historic Photograph epitomises this paradox; laid out across the floor, you have to venture beneath a giant sheet to see it. Not catering to the gallery-goers but forcing them to crawl around to see the work is charmingly absurd. But it also thrusts the picture in your face, as if screaming “look at it!”

ii) Like a Film of a Glass Half-Smashing

And yet destruction is always a process. As soon as we get past the photographs to the moving pieces, a transformation occurs - we find them as exhilarating as the static works were staid. (Disclaimer: the videos were actually threaded through the exhibition, I separate them out here for schematic reasons.) Two pieces in particular stand out; the 1963 video ‘Auto-Destructive Art’ where, instead of painting on canvases, he scorched through sheets of nylon with acid. (A process he called “acid painting.”) The artist leaves the frame and we’re left with a beautiful, abstract film of the sheets corroding.

Second, in what is in both senses the centrepiece of the exhibition, is the 1965 instillation work ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ (pictured up top). At first the five projector screens changed states so slowly I almost failed to notice them doing it, but they would also suddenly break into phases of rapid switching. The full effect was so mesmerising that I felt I had stumbled into a bewitching room from a folk tale, and I would never actually be able to leave.

This ‘environment’ was apparently used as a backdrop for bands at the Roundhouse, and the version we see here a recreation for a Tate Liverpool exhibition of ‘Art of the Psychedelic Era’. Nevertheless, I contend that we best appreciate this work by distinguishing it from the psychedelic light shows of Sixties ‘happenings’. Those shows were designed to simulate the disintegration of form, as part of a concerted attempt to stimulate a ‘loss of self’ in the participants. Metzger’s ‘Environment’, conversely, is about the impossibility of permanence. He spoke of it himself in terms of “perpetual flux”. Shapes do not necessarily blur into one another, but fade in and out, or even flicker colour. (Think of a Pollock painting then try to add animation to it.)

The musical analogue here would not be acid rock but the minimalism of Reich and Glass, where the smallest changes can become transfixing. Indeed, the piece even had it’s own inadvertent minimalist accompaniment. As tempos changed the sounds of the projectors would change with them, building up to a whirring frenzy then settling into steadiness again, creating an uber-minimalist click track.

Ironically, as soon as he stopped trying to mimic or duplicate political action, Metzger comes up with a fresh perspective upon it. The gallery lobby had been looping a video of anti-war protests by schoolchildren. As you watched their fluid movements escaping the rigid Police lines, teeming but then suddenly moving as one, you realised that it was not just the content but the very form of their protests which inspired - suggesting the roots of a self-organised society. Metzger’s endlessly shifting video works displays this very same form, merely in the abstract. We didn’t need that surplus packaging after all...

iii) Choose Your Own Conclusion

The glass, then, is both half-smashed and half-standing. But what does this tell us? I’m actually torn between two responses to Metzger’s work as shown here, so I shall set down both and let you the reader choose between them. In the first, Metzger’s process-bound works cannot easily be made to fit inside the freeze-frame of the gallery system. One piece shows a dead plant in a glass case, attached to a pipe. A label explains that Metzger had stuck this tank atop a car, then fed exhaust into it as the car was put to its regular use. But the work as it stands shows only the inevitable result, what we needed to see was the process - either a fast-motion display of the plant withering or a series of snapshots.

Secondly, and a little more radically, it’s arguable that its Metzger himself who fails to understand his own work. There were perhaps two dimensions to his conception of auto-destructive art. In the first, he attacks the concept of permanence in art. Just as John Cage’s 4’33” exposed the impossibility of the insisted-up silence in the auditorium, Metzger ridiculed the idea that art could withstand time. Art is assigned a special category in capitalism, with its permanence as one indication of this. We would be shocked to hear, for example, that the Mona Lisa was decaying, yet we expect cars and washing machines to break down and be discarded as soon as the extended warranty expires. By exposing the myth of art’s intransience, he punctures its aura and reconnects it to our society.

But Metzger also associated the (then ever-present) threat of nuclear war with the built-in obsolescence inherent to capitalism. For him, litter in the street and the threat of nuclear fallout were two manifestations of the same problem – a destructive society will end up destroying itself (As he said in ’61, “Man in Regent Street is auto-destructive.”) Auto-destructive art merely exposes this truth.

There are two obvious rejoinders here. First, confronting society with it’s own suicidal nature seems less effective now Hollywood churns out further entries in the ‘apocalypse porn’ genre, with films such as The Day After Tomorrow.  Today we see the spectacle of our own destruction, but it doesn’t get us up out of our seats. But also, like many forms of ‘anti-art’ this approach may comment more easily on art than on wider social matters. Metzger’s commitment to anti-capitalism was quite genuine, even seeing him arrested as part of the Committee of 100. But was it effective? Was his art at root less a critique of commodity production, and more concerned with entropy?

This is partly confused because people tend to misconceive his work, as soon as they hear he coined the term ‘Auto-Destructive Art’. They then tend to think of an art which is dynamic and explosive, a style more associated with his successor Jean Tinguely. Worse, they know Pete Townsend’s claim that it was studying under Metzger that inspired his guitar-smashing antics. (A claim I’ve always suspected to be spurious.)

But the form of destruction which fascinates Metzger is always decay, never dynamite. He tended to dream up grand plans for giant sculptures, too grandiose to ever be realised, which would then corrode and decompose over the successive years. Even his Acid Paintings are merely decay speeded up. Metzger may not have even believed in destruction at all, seeing entropy as but a change in state – not an end.

It may be that entropy was actually his rosebud, and it was sheer co-incidence that he was born into a capitalist era. Justifiably sickened by the society he then saw, he attempted to turn his art against it. But he was only ever able to unleash the acid against the privileged role of art in society, not that society itself.

Perhaps tellingly, Metzger divided the two key works here into the “auto-destructive” acid paintings and the “auto-creative” Liquid Crystal Environment. Yet this does his own work a disservice. The Liquid Crystal Environment is, of necessity, destructive, each new state ‘destroying’ the last in order to supplant it. And the acid paintings are creative, transforming some old sheets of nylon into something exquisite. (As Wikipedia comments “the work was simultaneously auto-creative and auto-destructive”.) Destructiveness is not a feature unique to capitalism. In Bakhunin’s famous dictum, “the urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”

Gallery information here