Saturday 26 January 2013


WARNING! This is not a proper post at all. There are possible only four or five people alive who will have any interest in what follows, which could be summarised as a statement of non-intent. It's a rumination not even on things I intend to catch up with here but on how often I plan to do them. (Or more accurately, how seldom.) I am not even sure that I would count as one of those people myself...

Regular readers (insert mandatory joke here) may have noticed that this blog does not exactly fit into the instant-hit, rapid-response world of the internet, where anything relating to the week before is treated as if it was a time capsule. In fact, it fits in about as well as a barge canal would if placed in the middle of the Monaco Grand Prix. Not only is it not “trending”, I'm not even sure what that word is supposed to mean.

For a film review you may well have to wait until the end of the year. Art show write-ups, on the other hand, aren't necessarily that timely. I make very well-intentioned efforts to keep track of all of this, in the pretence I will one day stumble upon a stash of time and catch up on everything.

So perhaps it's not all that surprising when my blog stats tell me that people are arriving here through googling the word “late”, and that a post entitled ”I’m Late!” is currently among my most-read items! Perhaps these folk are fans of tardiness, lovers of laggardness, foes of punctuality, who are looking for a nice non-timely report on something or other. Perhaps I should simply be giving them what they want, with entries like ’Beatles Rumoured to Split’, ‘Everything Still to Play For in the Hundred Years War’ and ’Could This Be It For the Cretaceous Era?’ Perhaps I should change the strap-line in order to attract this new audience, 'For Those Who Find the Out-of-Date Great' or something similar.

Except I don't really want to do that. But neither do I particularly desire to lead a life of work, blog and sleep. I cannot remember, for example, the last time I brought out a comic. For that matter, and for the shame of it I'm not even entirely sure of the last time I read a book. Except that it was probably related to something I was writing here.

But mostly I'm keen to resist the lure of the internet, that seems to get seemingly sensible people all trigger-happy with that 'Send' button. I have already posted things I wish I'd thought over for longer, have definitely sent over-hasty and wrong-headed mailing comments in the past and wouldn't want to slip down that slope any further. This may be the information superhighway, but the highway is not my way.

So in a nutshell my solution to lateness in 2013 is to stop worrying about it. It's the art show write-ups which tend to take the longest to write, and perhaps by consequence become the most stockpiled. Expect them to filter gradually through. Expect some to breach new frontiers in exponential lateness. Expect me to not even be sorry. Except anything so long that it's not a full-length post each and every week.

The two or three people who may remember me volunteering to review my Top Fifty albums (at the last count, forty-eight to go)... well, I'm still working on it. The precisely-one-person who remembers me offering to write about the original 'Doctor Who', I haven't forgotten about that one either. (In fact, given the loss of interest I've had lately in 'New Who', that one may even get accellerated a smidge.)

In short, watch this space.

Which will fairly often be a space.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Saturday 19 January 2013


Barbican Theatre, London
14th Dec '12 - 19th Jan '13

“The same passage read twice can double you up with laughter on one reading, and shake you with its menace on the second. The moment you decide what something means, it at once resists and seems to writhe its way out of your grasp, revealing itself as something quite different. But however stranger or contradictory, it always holds you in its grip.”
- Director Simon McBurney (from the programme)

This stage adaptation is peppered by bureaucrats or busybodies pronouncing Bulgakov's source novel “unpublishable” - despite the fact that here they stand before us. Then, very near the end, it comes to be called “unfinished”.

Which, of course, it is. The history of a work of art gets inscribed over the work itself, like a palimpsest. First contemporary history, then the response of succeeding generations... deepening like a coastal shelf. We all know the novel was never published during Bulgakov's lifetime, a microcosm of the problems he faced in Stalin's Russia. We all know it finally appeared in the Sixties and Mick Jagger wrote 'Sympathy For the Devil' after reading it. None of that is in the novel itself. But it cannot do other than permeate the book we now read, seeping through the pages like it's been left out in the weather of history.

But to stage an adaptation that tries to incorporate that expanded perspective? That's a pretty audacious step; particularly when we're talking about a work that's already multi-layered and metafictional, that isn't especially long but still feels vast, that interweaves plot strands on a scale that must have required an industrial loom. Things were, in short, pretty bloody expanded to start off with! But in fact it's made necessary precisely by the novel's meta-fictional conceits and multi-levelled structure. Of course it's unfinished, it was never intended as a closed, complete, didactic work. It's a decision which leaves us with a three-hour-plus performance, which is sometimes all too much to take in. But it's the only way to go.

Notably proceedings jump back and forth between a play, where actors playing characters interact with each other in scenes, and a performance, where figures take on roles to address the audience – even speaking into stand-up microphones like comperes.

If the expanded perspective does tend to come more through the microphones, things aren't so schematic as for one to represent the novel and the other our reading of it. But putting the two different dramatic devices side-by-side serves to remind us that both are at work.

At the same time, one blending into the other... that's part of the point too. Stage dressing is minimal enough to make Brecht blush. Rooms are created by beams of light projected on the floor, actors navigating through projected doorways like Cluedo counters. At one point a secretary tries to explain how a door opens, going through the possible options until crying in frustration “Just go in, there's no door!” Like those beams of light, everything here shifts and morphs.

Then again... I've commented before how adaptations of polyphonic works tend to unravel into one singular reading or other. It's like pulling at a thread from a jumper, you don't end up with the essence of the jumper, you end up without a jumper. Perhaps there's something inevitable in that. To pick a petty but perhaps telling example, in the novel everyone imagines the sinister  stranger Woland to be foreign - but fails to pin him to a country. In the play he must speak his lines and so choose an accent. (Though if he picks German, naturally enough it's heavily suggested he's not really German.)

This production, to be fair, offers us two threads to tug. One we might call the 'Singing Detective' reading. The titular Master is the author of the book-within-the-book. Underlined by a bookend structure, this suggests writing it has driven him crazy - and he's now in an asylum feverishly dreaming the events, a tangle of delusions where once there might have been straight thoughts in his head. Characters don't just (as in the novel) repeat and echo each others' lines, they swap actors and identities. (Chiefly, significantly, the author and the diabolic antagonist Woland.) At points there's nothing short of cacophony on stage. But as the author recovers they are reconciled, characters merge, the panoply coalescing into one another.

...which is a pretty good reading. It's probably one any writer could recognise. But I don't think it's the dominant reading here. Another one overlays it.

In the programme, Director Simon McBurney disdains the Sixties hallucinogenic reading and comments “in the Soviet Union this novel was not perceived as a fantasy at all. It was about their lives.”

All of which may well be true. At the opening of the book, Woland scoffs at the idea man no longer needs God as he can plan for himself. A contemporary audience would doubtless have seen a reference to Stalin's disastrous series of Five Year Plans.

However, when I read the novel, I was struck by how un-Soviet the setting was, how downright bourgeois the behaviour of the characters. It's stuffed with poets and writers, not workers or dissidents. Berlioz, the first character described in the first paragraph, is “well-fed and bald... neatly clean-shaven” with a “decorous pork-pie hat.”

Of course Bulgakov is not Orwell, and this book in particular is no analogue of 'Animal Farm.' Whatever he is, Woland is not Stalin. Besides, we're now in London, at a time where there's no longer even such a thing as the Soviet Union. But of course McBurney knows all that. In the opening, a Google Earth projection flashes up to shows us precisely where the setting of Patriarch's Ponds lies in Moscow. But the narrator then compares it to the more familiar Russell Square in London. Despite the dynamic visual of the first, it's the second which comes to seem more significant. McBurney has said his aim was a “questioning the dominant narratives of our time, which is what Bulgakov is doing [for his].” But in his keenness to avoid both the post-Sixties freak-out and historical timepiece, he sets himself up to step into a different snare.

The two main parallel plot-lines are Bible times (the setting of the Master's novel), and then-contemporary Soviet Russia. The production tends to emphasise the contrasts between the time of Christ's appearing and the Devil's, at a time and place where people were atheists or put on a great show of it. Electricity crackles through the production almost as much as Danny Boyle's recent version of 'Frankenstein'. Soviet Russia becomes the start of our modern era, it's electrified trams starting a lineage that leads directly to the iPhones in this audience's pockets. Soviet Russia is seen as the onset of modernity, a lightning rod for a contemporary kind of materialistic atheism. When Woland addresses the audience from the Moscow stage, it's underlined he is actually addressing us, here in this room. Microphone trumps staging.

This view of Soviet Russia is almost a refreshing change from the standard one of it as an aberration. We tend to look upon it armed with hindsight, as a lumbering anachronism which somehow just about made it into the end of the Eighties, the Neanderthal of modern times. Yet the classic Stalinist argument, that the revolution took Russia into the Twentieth Century, is on it's own terms correct. (Reader, please note that qualifying clause!)

Ultimately, despite the many good things you could say about this production, a creditable flaw is still a flaw. McBurney goes to laudible lengths to make the source material contemporary. But had he made it, as intended, universal then it would have become contemporary by default. Despite all the wacky modernist metafictional stuff, Bulgakov's novel is at root a cross between a parable and a fable – and parables tend to the timeless. In his stage speech,Woland asks “I'm not so much interested in the buses and the telephones as in the much more important question – have the Muscovites changed inwardly?” His ensuing misrule would suggest not.

The Biblical setting doesn't contrast against the then-contemporary Moscow, they even share the same Easter setting. It's more that they start out as separate stories which come to express the same timeless truth.

In one of Bulgakov's many structural strangenesses, the title-sharing Margarita doesn't show up until half-way through. Delaying her arrival until the second book of the novel may work to subliminally remind us of the New Testament. Certainly she plays much the same redemptive role as the Jesus figure Yeshua, rather than becoming corrupted by the world achieving the very reverse. (Think for example of the way both are reduced to nakedness.) Arguably her powers are still greater than Yeshua's, and she's able to redeem Woland himself.

In some ways the nearest comparison to this adaptation might be David Cronenberg's film of 'The Naked Lunch', not a film version of another unadaptable novel so much as a mythopoetic account of the writing of the book. It works as companion piece, not adaptation. Confronted by an unstageable novel the production instead focuses on everything around the book, chiefly keeping an eye out for what it might mean for us today. But for all it's virtues, all it's imagination and dazzling virtuosity, the result does rather fall between stools. 'Naked Lunch' has very little of the original book to it, and it didn't matter one whit. This production has either too much or not enough of the book, holding to it's narrative structure but then bending it to a more contemporary purpose.

Sunday 13 January 2013


Splitting Tolkien's book up into a trilogy of films like this, some have suggested a commercial motive. To which insiders have responded that those are people who “don't know Peter.” And they're right. For example, I have never met director Peter Jackson and I am suggesting that.

It's not just that Tolkien's first book was roughly a third of the length of 'Lord of the Rings'. That in itself is just an indicator of the way 'The Hobbit' was written in a very different tone. In a perhaps unusual move, Tolkien started off with a children's book then added a sequel for adults. I tend to think of it through Tove Jannson's illustrations; moody and myserious landscapes peopled by strange but cheery cartoon figures, at once otherly and homely.

Worse, take away that tone and you're left with the book's formal elements – which are uncannily similar to those of 'Lord of the Rings'. An unlikely hero joins a motley fellowship on a quest. It's quite often even the very same stops. If it's Thursday, this must be Rivendell. Oh, except instead of getting lost underground to orcs, this time it's goblins.

Plus of course it's all happening in the wrong order. I read... you read... everybody read 'The Hobbit' then progressed onto 'Lord of the Rings'. (I can distinctly remember seeing the fat one-volume edition in bookshops, thinking “one day I will be grown-up enough to read that.”) We read them in the order they were written.

Jackson's solution to that one is foreboding. (Tolkien buffs say a lot of this is stuff folded back from still-later works such as 'The Silmarillion.') Things in Middle Earth are taking a darker turn. Sinister figures loiter, Orcs are abroad, strange shadows fall. Pretty soon you won't be able to leave your windows open.

Particularly in the scene where Saruman shows up, it's hard not to be reminded of 'The Phantom Menace.' But then again, with all the problems that film filled itself, it's prequel ordering wasn't one of them. Plus Tolkien's compatriot CS Lewis wrote his Narnia chronicles out of chronology, starting off at quite possibly the darkest moment. The foreshadowing is probably quite a good idea. The problem is that this never seems a more innocent land, for the shadows to show up more starkly against. The Shire seems as provincially calm as ever. But that's precisely the way it was in 'Lord of the Rings'.

As you'd probably expect, things lurch from set-piece to set-piece like a video game. (Level 5 - Underground against Goblins. Level 6 – on a clifftop against Orcs.) Scenes can seem so overlong I'd claim the expanded director's cut has been released early, except that will tempt fate for the still-more-expanded director's cut that's doubtless to come. The warring rock giants epitomise one pole of the film. They look spectacular but add precisely nothing to the plot. They're not even overcome, really, they just do their thing and go away to leave us ready for the next thing.

But there is another pole of the film, in scenes which do seem more reminiscent of the book. (Or at least work the book into a contemporary film in a manageable way.) The Trolls are not CGI hordes but finite in number, and are (sort of) characterised. There's peril, but served with black humour. You're not quite sure whether to feel charmed or chilled. The scene where Bilbo first encounters Gollum is also effective. Notably both feature wordplay above swordplay, Bilbo battling Gollum by riddling.

But let's face it, we fans are probably making a category error to begin with. These films aren't made to be thought about. Whatever their claims to 'authenticity', they're there to go “oooh” to. A fan of the original trilogy will come away happy. The things you'd expect to happen happen. Except for the things you'd expect to happen in the two sequels. There's just enough Tolkien left in there to act as a kind of through line, to stop it becoming entirely lurching set-pieces like every other Jackson film.

It's like when Wily Coyote steps off the cliff edge, but doesn't fall so long as he keeps running. Things kind of get by on kinetic energy alone. Whether things will start to fall further in the two sequels... that remains to be seen.

Saturday 5 January 2013


At some arbitrary point this year I decided I was getting more-than-usual behind in my posting, and that something had to give. At the time I picked live music for the ejector seat, and even drafted a post that said so. (Which I never got round to posting. I was, you see, getting behind with my posts around then.)

Since when... guess what?.. I seem to have written almost exclusively about live music (alongside visual art), and almost nothing about films. Which is what is commonly known as ironic, at least in the Alanis Morrisette sense of the word. Just to rub it in, I've written less about films than last year, when I commented that I'd written even less about films than the year before.

There may be reasons for this beyond natural contrariness. Firstly, the picture isn't (honest guv) as bad as it looks. I may have only covered 'The Amazing Spider-Man', 'Alien' and 'Prometheus' here. But I have written about three... count 'em... three films over at 'FA Comiczine.' (Yes, a comics site. Someone needs to invite me to post for a film site, as that would doubtless get me writing about comics again. Or, should anyone want me to write about early modern history, a needlecraft site...)

More to the point, I'm not entirely convinced this has been that fine a year for film in the first place. Admittedly it's been such a stellar period for live music and visual art, film may simply have been eclipsed. But Brighton's Cine-City festival, whose previous instalments have almost run my life for a month, raised barely a flicker of interest.

If pressed to name a favourite, I might have cited as joint contenders Nuri Bilge Ceylan's police procedure turned existential drama 'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia', and Peter Strickland's tale on human corruptibility for Seventies movie buffs 'Berberian Sound Studio.'Though 'Mysteries of Lisbon', 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'and 'The Hunt' should also be considered among the cream of this year's crop. It's probably a blessing I never tried to capture any of them, as I'd doubtless have been reduced to a valueless set of stuttering superlatives.

As a fan of Nordic noir who somehow hadn't seen the original, I did find much to enjoy David Fincher's English-language remake of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.' It may have even made for a twist to the usual genre rules, which I tend to regard as reflecting the current crisis of social democracy in the Scandinavian countries. (Marked by events such as the Youth House demolition protests in Copenhagen.) Though the film is again centred around an unsolved crime, pushing that crime back into the past creates a historical perspective that suggests social democracy as a flower not wilted but poisoned at the roots. Not unlike the last season of 'The Killing', it's proposed solution is to get the hell out of Scandinavia.

However, any recommendation needs to be come with quite hefty caveats - one formal and the other more sociopolitical. First, it has to be said the twist ending is rather telegraphed. Secondly, while inevitably the film centres around another autistic savant woman, Lisbeth seems a fair way from 'The Killings' Sarah Lund or 'The Bridge's' Saga Noren. Ironically when she seems the one most explicitly presented as a feminist icon, the solution to Lisbeth's social maladjustment would seem to be the love of a good man. At the end of 'The Bridge', conversely, Saga may have found a more regular boyfriend, but he's not a significant character and there's no suggestion this represents some kind of redemption in her life.

Furthermore, the rape revenge scene feels like having your cake and eating it - a way to bring in torture porn while still appearing to hold onto go-girl political correctness. It doesn't feel at all true, either to the world presented in the film or the more compromised one we inhabit - particularly in a year which saw Jimmy Savile dying having completely got away with his crimes. (Having never read Steig Larsson's novel, I can't comment on his partner's claim the film has distorted the original character.)

Had I actually reviewed 'The Hunger Games' I would have had a lot of positive things to say, not least the way it would recklessly crash cinematic styles into each other as a means of portraying different social worlds. But at the same time, it still exhibited the two great weaknesses of modern genre films. Firstly, they can never actually have a finale, as the door has to be left open for a possible sequel, leaving all the disadvantages of the episodic format without ever necessarily getting round to the benefits.

Also, there's a fashion for absolute dystopias in which 'they' are in total control and will stop at nothing to stay that way. But then that clashes with that staple of genre fiction the heroic individual, and a general reluctance to send the audience home on a downer. So absolute dystopias are always being unfurled, then retreated from for the final reel. For an Exhibit B, think of the final episode of 'Homeland.' Film can't decide whether to face the world as it is, or run from it into homespun fantasy. (But then again, can any of us?)

Despite it's general soaking up of audience acolytes, 'The Artist' was not favoured by film buffs - who commented the later silents were not these charming little melodramas but had become highly accomplished - and should actually be seen as a high point of film history. Von Stroheim was not making innocent, charming two-reelers with cheery dogs.

But I disliked most the way, in a similar conceit to TV's 'Life On Mars', it allowed for an indulgent double take over the past. We can see it nostalgically as a simpler, happier time while crowing over our greater sophistication, with the disjunction carefully pasted over. The best scene by far was the magic realist moment when sound first appears - but only for some!

I did enjoy 'The Master', but still got that heretical niggle that often plagues me with the films of the feted Paul Thomas Anderson – what does all this sound and fury signify, exactly? I mean, beyond Scientology = con. Which works a little like Holocaust = bad or falling in love = good as far as movie themes go. 'There Will be Blood' remains my favourite of his films.

...and similar feelings over 'A Dangerous Method'. All very good I'm sure, as far as film-making goes. But were there any ends among those means? And those scenes of Keira Knightley getting spanked couldn't help but make me think of the old Kenny Everett line - “all done in the best possible taste.”

But it was fault-free compared to Cronenbourg's later 'Cosmopolis'. The film is in many ways fascinating, but every point of interest lies in how it manages to be such an absolute failure. The premise may be an interesting one. It's often assumed filmic analysis of capitalism must be either a documentary or in a realist style, which doesn't necessarily have to be the case. But this attempts to hold a distorting mirror up to capitalism, which already requires such a distorting mirror in order to keep seeing itself as the fairest of them all. Making the stretch limos bigger simply isn't going to do it.

It seeks to portray a capitalist trying to escape his own world, in an era when that has been deemed formally impossible. But it ends up seduced by it's own target. The image bloats monstrously on the screen but never cracks. It's summed up by the endless analysts studying currencies like they're holy texts, a concept it's not sure whether to treat as keen insight or absurdist satire. At times it seems keen to incorporate it's own failure into the picture, an idea which comes across as more intriguing on paper than the screen. As the line about “money talking to money” suggests, it simply becomes a feedback loop of garbled information.

And inevitably the only proletarians who aren't bit parts are inverted capitalists; destructive nihilists, feral rats or both at the same time. Joe Strummer said it all years ago - “I don't want to know what the rich are doing.”

Trend-watchers, alert! Not one but two movies which suggest the stretch limo somehow sums up the modern condition. (Get it? We're like pampered but itinerant, innit?) I might have felt more favourably about 'Holy Motors' had others been less exultant about it. (In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw called it “a genuine surrealist movie... unfettered by logic and common sense.”) To me it all felt neither-nor, the individual sections not strong enough to stand in their own right, the over-arching stuff with the actor in the limo never much more than a framing device, despite the heavily underlined stabs at symbolism. Ultimately it felt self-celebratorily weird, like surrealism played by session musicians. Perhaps significantly, by far the best section was with the father and daughter, the most naturalistic and the most stand-alone.

I'd imagine 'Room 237' would disappoint only those actually expecting a documentary on the making of 'The Shining.' For the focus here is clearly the obsessive fan, for whom no detail can ever be the result of chance. (Check out some of their theorising here.) As so often, it's simultaneously inspiring and crushing to see so much human creativity at work, only to be marshalled into absolutely no purpose whatsoever.

The most horrific thing in the world is of course not ghosts or axes or overacting, but the notion of that world defying all rational analysis – which essentially reduces us to powerless children. Kubrick was doubtless toying with us in his film, setting up readings like breadcrumb trails only to gobble them up again as soon as we started to follow them. There's a reason things end with a man lost in a maze.

But of course, more than anything else, ambiguity is the one thing the obsessive fan cannot cope with, so he keeps coming back and back again to impose his coherent reading on the madness. (And it always is his singular reading. The idea that the film may be tapping into, for example, guilt over the Native Americans and Holocaust disgust... well, no-one even considers that.)

There's absolutely no doubt that Haneke's new Palme d'Or winner 'Amour' is immensely powerful and affecting. And there's absolutely no doubt that it's leading characters are the sort of folk who almost never turn up in films – an old couple who have had a long and happy marriage, and now tend to potter about at home a lot. The near-opening shot which stays fixed on a concert audience, never the figures on the stage, seems a statement of intent.

Yet in another sense they're the sort of folk who always turn up in this sort of film. Art movies aren't just colonised by middle class people, but by music teachers or concert performers with grand pianos in their over-large Parisian lounges. It's not just the exclusion of other classes which galls, it's also the way this reflects the middle class's cultured self-image. After all, we're being told, we're a bit like these people we've come to see, aren't we? We haven't gone to some multiplex to gawp at CGI and chew popcorn with with the chavs.

Yet the majority of middle class people have tedious commercial careers, which they bore other middle class people about at parties. A true film about the middle classes would be populated not by grand pianos but by spreadsheets. This seems doubly disappointing after Haneke's earlier 'Cache', which focused on a similar subject group but dug into their nature to dredged up their repressions. Here their status is naturalised. The epitomising moment comes when the husband gives the sacked nurse a wodge of Euros from his wallet, without having to worry unduly about the change. It's simply taken for granted that those notes are there.

'Coriolanus' admittedly overdid the “making the Bard contemporary” business something rotten, reaching that particular nadir with Jon Snow on a current affairs TV show spouting blank verse. But if... big if... you could overlook that, things started looking a whole lot better. I may have been more pulled into it by not previously knowing the play.

I was quite taken by 'In Darkness', but cannot think of anything wise or clever to say about it now. Cult expose 'Martha Mary May Marlene' held within itself a promise I am not entirely sure was delivered on. Alas, slowness and/or ineptitude on my part meant I missed a string of things - 'Cabin in the Woods', 'Lawless', 'The Angel's Share', 'Rampart', 'Looper', 'The Hunter' and 'Sightseers'. My loss, doubtless...