Saturday, September 29, 2012
Monday, September 24, 2012
History Marred – BBCs History of the World
British TV suffers from a serious, chronic disease; an epidemics of costume dramas. So nostalgic are we as a nation that we are fed an endless stream of big frocks and mannered dialogue. Of course, we’re not that nostalgic, as hardly anything goes back beyond the rise of the 19th century novel. We like our drama but only when the fashion looks interesting. We love the Tudors with all their red finery but most of the first two thousand years of our history is immune to TV drama - Roman, Anglo-saxon, Norman, whole of the Middle Ages and all Royal houses apart from the Tudors - we ain’t that bothered. My theory is that the costume departments got stuck with growing collections in just two eras, Tudor and 19th c, and so that’s what gets commissioned.
We do, however, do history quite well. From Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation to Mary Beard’s Meet The Roman, experts explain, by pointing to real things in real context how and why things happened, through enlightened narration. Within this genre, however, lurks a horrible parasite – the TV journalist as presenter. Whenever I see Angeal Rippoff, Trevor Macdonald, David Dimbleby or any other newsroom cast-off, fronting a history programme, I know I’m getting someone who is ‘pretending’ to know something.
Andrew Marr is a good political journalist. Academic or historian he is not. So when it comes to the History of the World, he’s about as informed, even less informed, than you or me. Step in an army of consultants, scriptwriters, animators and TV folk, who sit in committees and design ‘set pieces’ that eat up enormous budgets but tell us very little.
So in this first episode, that covers 70 thousand years, we ignore the stone axe, cave painting, the Diamond’s (not Anne) geographical reasons for the spread of agriculture, war and disease, in fact all explanation, in favour of infantile TV set pieces. The ‘caveman’ sequences were more Flintstones than stone age. An early tribe trudge, endlessly, through a small gorge then cross a ridiculous CGI rock bridge, clearly inspired by Tolkein until ‘mother’ gives birth. This is a badly executed visual metaphor by lazy TV bods, not an explanation. The role of needle is the only interesting, and for many new, piece of information but it ignores so much more. It was literally a needle in a haystack.
It’s no use sticking Marr in front of a half-baked tableau and hoping for the best. He has no real gravitas in terms of the subject. In fact, his cheeky, chimp expressions and exaggerated gestures work badly here, honed as they were by standing outside parliament and in studios. So what we get is an unconvincing presenter in front of unconvincing teableaus presenting superficial, unconvincing history.
Friday, September 21, 2012
Brighton Cinema - the reel deal at the Wellsbourne Society
‘Clayton and Bramwell’ sounds like a make of jellied jam but they’re actually the eponymous, cheeky chappies who run the Wellsbourne Society, a regular night devoted to celebration of Brighton. Far from being some dry, nimby lectures, this is a stand-up, club event with plenty of irreverence, chat and drinking.
First up was Sarah Tobias, who gave us a great run through (with pics) of Brighton’s early cinemas, from the small, flimsy studios in the 1890s to the picture palaces of the 30s, 40s and 50s. There were, at one point, 48 cinemas in Brighton, 1 seat for every 7 residents. Great talk by a real expert, although a touch of nimbyism crept in when she (wrongly) claimed that the old Rex cinema was now a block of flats (it’s a friend of mine’s art studio) and attacked a local developer for wanting to sell the Astoria. Sure, he wants to develop the site but to a badly needed media hub with a café and community rooms. It’s an asbestos ridden building that is impossibly expensive to restore. She then had a swipe at his Stanmer development, where he’s resurrected an underused building to create a restaurant, café and badly needed housing. Didn't detract too much from her great talk though.
Mathew Clayton then told a remarkable tale about his Aunt Dora. I won’t replay the whole thing but it started with a sudden death, developed as a love story, had a bit of history and detective work, and ended as a tragedy. He can spin a good yarn can Mathew.
Dr Bramwell delivered an even weird story about Brighton’s co-joined Hilton Sisters, Daisy and Violet, who were sold by their barmaid mother in 1908 to the landlady of the pub and went on to make huge amounts of money in vaudeville in the US. They came back to Brighton in 1933 to find their real mother but she had died in giving birth to her fourth child. Poignant story with a nice ending – the twins have been remembered by having the No 5 bus to Patcham named after them. Only in Brighton! I won't even begin to explain his later anecdote about his ex-girlfriend, Roy Harper, sex and sibling rivalry!
A guy called Frank (sorry missed his second name) reeled out two talks on the history of Brighton Cinema. Loved these as he presented a series of clips, while explaining where they were shot, the false continuities, along with some fascinating backstory detail. What comes across on these nights is the genuine love and enthusiasm the speakers have for their subjects. Frank had oodles of this.
Can’t recommend this highly enough as a great, cheap night out (only £5 entry) and it was great to meet Sarah Crisp and her partner Ben, who just happened to be sitting at the next table. I’ve known her brother for nearly 30 years!
Next Wellsbourne Society is on 20th October at The Latest Music Bar in Manchester Street and the theme (I think) is 'Dirty Weekends'. Guaranteed saucy fun.
Monday, September 17, 2012
Bronzes – heavy metal at the Royal Academy
Remarkably roomy for Saturday morning blockbuster at the Royal Academy. I can only guess the usual crowd see anything other than painting as beneath them. Sure, the theme is a bit oblique - the use of a single metal (strictly speaking a range of copper-based alloys) in art, but with 5000 years of art, from many cultures, there’s nothing third rate about Bronzes.
The first piece, and arguably the finest, was a 3rd C BC Greek satyr, found in a shipwreck. The audacity of the sculptor, especially in that austere classical climate, is impressive. The figure flings himself forward, hair flying. This is the sort of Dionysian art that Nietzsche saw as the origin of great art itself, still free from cooler, Apollonian rationalism. So good old metal can produce remarkable lightness of touch and movement? Well maybe.
Next up was the ‘human figure’ room with a huge black copy of Cellini’s Perseus holding Medusa’s head, looking coolly down at her dead body. He’s a hero but a killer. Next to him are three colossal figures of John the Baptist, a Levantine and Pharisee by Rustici. The curiosity and scepticism of the figures is brilliantly executed in the poses and expressions. This is where things got interesting as the medium (bronze) starts to influence the art. These are fabulous sculptures but you feel that the metal does nothing to soften the concepts.
Where you want to show safe, solid status, such as the local bigwig Lucius Mammius Maximus, found in the ash that engulfed Herculaneum, the medium is suitable austere. Look at me. I’m the man. Even Rodin’s figure, in its familiar dark brown, varnished patina, lacks lightness of being. Interesting to compare the bronze Lacoon in this show with the marble original (some think it’s a fake) in the Vatican Museum. You’d imagine that bronze would give it more life but it doesn’t. Marble enlivens the figures, bronze deadens and leadens the effect.
The Renaissance takes the classical tradition and puts its own Apollonian spin on bronze statuary. Even when Hercules is clubbing a centaur or Dionysius is sitting astride a panther, they are cool and restrained. It’s as if the cold metal forces a calm on the subject by keeping them frozen as objects. The problem is that the medium sometimes influences the message. In portraits, bronze is perhaps not as light as marble or stone in showing character and personality, apart from those hard-nosed bastards from history, such as the Bulgarian King, who looks like the psychopath he evidently was.
One room has a menagerie of animals with an astounding piece that completely dominates the room - a wild boar. It says it’s life size but this is one big boar. It sits there on its haunches and looks cute but again the beast seems tamed by the metal and lacks killer instincts.
The bronze inlaid table from Egypt looked too metallic and dense for its purpose. It was an expensive functional object that has lost touch with its use. The bronze Buddhas, far from annihilating the ego and reality confirm its physical reality. The Chinese seem to have avoided the use of bronze for figurative work and stuck to bells and vessels. In many ways this is a more honest use of bronze.
Take Jeff Koons basketball, tucked away but within hand’s reach it made you want to try to lift it. Koon uses the metal effect to good effect in making its matt blackness suggest weight. Jasper John’s Ballantyne beer cans were similarly rooted to the table. These guys know that a medium automatically infers qualities, separate from the work itself. Other modern pieces make the pieces look unintentionally heavy.
The one fabulous exception to my hypothesis is Remington’s masterpiece ‘Off the range’, four cowboys fly forward on their galloping horses. It’s four guys whooping it up at full pelt on their trusty steeds, shooting off their guns and leaning back and forward on their saddles. This is back to the Dionysian spirit that metal sculpture can inspire, as there’s no way this could have been made in marble. Only six of the sixteen horses legs are on the ground, the others suspended by the strength of the metallic structure. This is a man who saw that structurally, the strength of bronze could enhance his vision.
OK was anything missing? Sure, I’d have liked to have seen some bronze age axes, surely the real origin and rise of bronze objects was worthy of inclusion. I’d also liked to have seen more Greek masterpieces. But quibbles aside, there is a problem in just juxtaposition. A little expert exposition on why some cultures made full size, naked figures and others pots and bells would have been welcome. Each room and theme needed a little more relevant and enlightening explanation. Suffered from a little metal fatigue at the end but only because I spent so much time gawping.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Greece, greed, Timon of Athens and a Miliband moment
Fresh from Greece with a head full of observations and thoughts on the Greek catastrophe, I went to see Timon of Athens at the National Theatre. Amidst all of the puffery around Shakespeare and the Olympics, especially the misconceived 37 plays in 37 different languages, it was good to see a political play, brilliantly staged, that is relevant to our current crisis. I’ve had enough of art being a soft chaser to the hard liquor of Olympic sport, it’s far more important.
Let the play begin
The Occupy tents before curtain up, hooded protestors, Timon’s employees carrying out their cardboard boxes Lehman’s style; were perfectly pitched, not too pushy. This lightness of touch was exactly what was needed, as it would have been easy to be heavy-handed on the Greek thing. This approach leaves the audience free to use their imagination and to read their own significance into characters and events, and believe me opportunity knocked in almost every scene.
The play’s about people, not places, and the eternal human drivers of status and that ever-present, insidious monster– greed. Beware of men in suits and ties (another nice touch), the professional politicians, government officials and above all, the titled oligarchs and the rich. Greed and mutual back-scratching keeps their boat afloat but also lurks like a shark just below the surface and consumes anyone who shows weakness. When Timon sinks, he is tossed overboard.
In a stroke of genius, the opening scene shows Timon at a wine and canapé opening of a special wing in an Art Gallery named after him as benefactor – ‘The Timon Room’. Later, during a party he introduces two dancers who do a macabre ballet scene, a reference no doubt to the corporate sponsorship of high art. Quite brave I thought.
Money, money, money...
Greed manifests itself as money and the Director does a great job here with luxury goods, jewellery, coins thrown about the stage and, as if pulled from the underworld, gold bullion. The misuse of money leads, in the end to violence and revolution. Before then Timon spends like a madman, caring not how it will all be paid for, the suits take the banknotes and want more and more. It’s all take and no give, so the state, and Timon, become bankrupt. Money affects the mind. In Timon’s case it leads to misanthropy and madness. Unsurprisingly, Marx used the play to tease out the economic consequences of the misuse of capital.
Not a problem
This is usually seen as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ and weak on structure and plot. I disagree. It’s a dagger of a script that plunges right into the heart of money and greed. It doesn’t wander off and back again, no tangents and asides, just the relentless pursuit of personal gain at the expense of the public good. It seems, oddly, to be a play of two halves. This has been seen as a weakness, I think not. It’s a catastrophic fall where a man and a state collapse through the mismanagement of budgets and the failure to control greed. This is no 50 shades of grey just a black and white tale of good versus evil.
We got two returns at the last minute which turned out to be almost the best seats in the house, bang centre, right at the front of the stalls. Curiously, at the end, I stood turned round in my seat to go, and there behind me, was Ed Miliband, in a suit, of course. There was a man behind him with his hand on his shoulder – Miliband looked as though he wished he had never come.
Sunday, September 02, 2012
Is Zizek the first YouTube philosopher?
Profligate in print but his works are largely esoteric, often opaque and many unread by all but the expert in philosophy. Live on ouTube, however, he speaks like Socrates, straight from the lip/hip. Like Socrates he’s a bulky, bearded man, oblivious to fashion and self-grooming, then there’s the lisp and lots of fidgety ticks. You can’t keep your eyes off him as he’s always the most articulate buffoon in the room.
Above all, he has a domineering style, spitting out metaphors, anecdotes and quotes. Once you’ve seen him a few you realise that he’s a crowd pleaser, a sort of intellectual ‘stand-up’, who has a stock of jokes and recycles them in live shows. Unfortunately, if you play this game on YouTube, as he does, you suffer a slow death through exposure. Your little scripts and internal narratives are seen as gags. You become the ‘emperor with no clothes’ one of his favourite analogies. His performance with Tsiprasin Athens was masterful, keeping the debate away from the reality of real economics, real debts, real taxes and reality itself, with a string of jokes and metaphors. The two main parties are Pepsi and Coke, Tom & Jerry cartoon. He also used his overused coffee/cream film snippet, where he invokes a dialectical double negation. He claims that the double negation of what is said should be taken with what is also not said. This is just a string of rhetorical jokes.
As a film critic he is more than a critic, he is a film theorist. It is not his job to provide reviews, he brings intelligence, political analysis above all, and insight and intelligence to this important medium. His critique, not review, of The King’s Speech as a deeply reactionary film is magnificent. It’s a film about a man who is intelligent enough to be nervous about the whole King thing, but is made stupid enough by his Australian coach to see himself as a King. Now that’s a ‘critique’ not the mere work of a critic.
As a philosopher, however, he’s of no real significance, his head stuck in Hegel and an obsession with the remnants of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism. Hegel accidentally fostered the obsession with dialectics, warped dialectically into dialectical materialism by Marx and Lenin. Throw another false split between the ‘conscious and un-conscious’ of Freud and you’re forever stuck in throwback theory. He likes to use the three pronged trident of Hegel, Marx and Lacan, but ends up pushing concepts around the plate with nothing more than a blunt fork.
The left does has neither a leader nor theorist in Zizek, as he’s too esoteric or too much of a showman to be practically useful. It’s the old oppressors versus the oppressed, rather than the subtler and practical work of Althusser and Gramsci. And if the riposte is the usual ‘live with the contradictions of ideology’, then this is very old Marxism dressed up as rhetoric.