Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Moment in Time

Like, I guess, a lot of people with a basically touristic relationship with London, I have a bad habit of thinking of the city in terms of a few square miles at the very centre. I'm aware that this huge conurbation spreads out far beyond the Circle Line, of course, and I often watch those part go past from the train, but I don't get off there much. Then something comes along and prompts me to get somewhere like the Estorick Collection, out in Islington, as I did last Saturday, and I'm reminded that I should try harder.

I'd never even heard of the Estorick before this year, but it's a small gem, perched on the edge of Canonbury Square (which itself well earns its paragraph in the guidebooks, and which features a fragment of an Elizabethan manor house, lurking like a reality shard among the nineteenth century terraces); specifically, it's a collection of 20th century Italian art, primarily but not solely Futurism. What I read about was a temporary exhibition, curated by Jonathan Miller, called "On the Move: Visualising Action", which fitted in this gallery because its theme - the attempts by artists to depict movement more convincingly in the age of photography - was something that preoccupied the speed-and-modernity-obsessed Futurists. The exhibition sits on the borderlines between art and science, drawing heavily at the beginning on the work of Victorian photographic pioneers like Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, who developed the technology to show movement as it happened, thereby showing most painters that they'd been getting stuff like animal movement wrong for centuries. Some of these pioneers saw themselves purely as scientific researchers, but some of them clearly wanted to see themselves as traditionally artistic - Muybridge tended to photograph classically-draped nudes - and yet it was artists who wanted to break with tradition, such as the Futurists, who naturally jumped on the new ideas most enthusiastically, creating paintings and sculptures which imitated the photographic imagery.

The exhibition maybe loses focus a little as it moves on from those early days, finding a lot of quite interesting technical photographic work but less in art, as painters and sculptors in the twentieth century lost interest in representing movement (or anything else very literal) too much. Still, it's full of cool stuff, and for a bonus, you get to see the Estorick's fixed collection, which includes some slightly skewed Italian variations on styles like Impressionism.

The gallery has a good cafe, too, by the way, if it's not too crass to mention that.

Anyway, once we were done there, we walked and took a bus into the centre of the city, and ended up taking a stroll around the Native American and Asian sections of the British Museum. It struck me there that some gods seem far less discomfited by being captured and hauled off to Bloomsbury than others; Ganesha handles it all with elephantine dignity, whereas the Dance of Shiva becomes just a formal abstraction.

Dinner in Wahaca; Mexican food and tequila... And no inclination to relate that to the sinister Mesoamerican stuff I'd been looking at only a few hours before. Some gods are definitely best cast down and reduced to archaeological curiosities.

I have photos of the day up on Flickr, by the way.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gabriel's Orchestra

A covers album from Peter Gabriel has to be an interesting idea, but this is, well, Peter Gabriel; he's not one to take the entirely obvious route. Scratch My Back features a dozen interesting songs (some of which I was familiar with, some not) - all accompanied by modernist orchestral arrangements by John Metcalfe, and generally slowed right down to the point where Gabriel's singing occasionally approaches simple speech.

So it ain't exactly rock and roll. But it's good, in a self-consciously searing sort of way, and well worth a listen. It did occasionally remind me of Peter Sellers reciting the Beatles' "Hard Day's Night" in the manner of Laurence Olivier's Richard III, though.

There's apparently also going to be a CD made by the various people whose songs Gabriel covered, covering some of his songs in return. That may be interesting - it should feature David Bowie, Paul Simon, the Magnetic Fields, Randy Newman, and Neil Young, among others.

The "Special Edition" version is well worth the extra money, incidentally, less for the second CD (which has remixes of three of the tracks, plus definitive proof that "Waterloo Sunset" is an absolute poetic and musical masterpiece which can withstand absolutely any sort of assault) than for its inclusion of a code that gives a free three-month subscription to the Society of Sound - which means free downloads of high-quality versions of a clutch of varied but often very interesting albums.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

First off, a digression. When one is introducing a new technology, it is wise to (a) think through the small practical details of the system so as to minimise inconvenience for your customers, and (b) make sure that the people you employ are completely familiar with the details of the new system and can perform basic maintenance and make simple adjustments with no fuss.

So, for example, with regard to (a) - if you're installing modern 3D technology at your cinema, and you decide that your customers should buy the required polarised glasses at your refreshments stand, you need to tell them so, with large, clear notices in the foyer and on your Web site and so on. You do not let them climb up two floors to the screen area, and only then have a harassed usherette tell them that they've got to go back down and queue up for the bloody things as the clock ticks. (Especially not when you're pushing a new electronic ticketing system that means they won't necessarily have spoken to any of your staff before that point.) And with regard to (b) - if there's a momentary power cut in the projector room, sure, the showing will dip out. There's no help for that sort of thing, we understand. But then you should pause the film showing, get the sound and the picture working again properly, and then rewind to the point where things stopped and start again at that point, not a minute later. You should not carry on showing the film without sound for several minutes, so that the audience misses five or ten minutes of plot (including cameos by half the British acting profession, in this case).

Stupid, stupid Cambridge Arts Cinema. Amiable amateurishness is not the name of the game.

Anyway, the movie...

I'm not, I confess, particularly a Tim Burton fan. I've got nothing against his brand of gothic whimsy, you understand, and I've greatly enjoyed several of his films; I just don't worship at the shrine. Likewise, I don't regard Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books as sacred texts. I recognise that they've become foundational myths for the modern age, mind you - distillations of surreal mathematician's logic for the age of relativity and quantum mechanics, amiable flights from reason for a world that finds reason a source of stress, anthologies of superb imagery with no excessive baggage of meaning. However, it's all too clear to even a casual observer that this film compromises both Burton's artistry and Carroll's vision in pursuit of the safe financial return that made it possible in the first place. The multiple star appearances and vocal contributions could well class as good casting (rather than stunt casting) and a sign of Burton's prestige in the business, and the decision to make this actually a "return to Wonderland" story with a 19-year-old Alice could be considered to represent Burton doing exploratory things with the myth, even if it does give us a heroine in a gauzy blue dress who can appeal equally well to small girls with a Disney-princess fixation and to their fathers. (Though it must be said that the way that Alice's dress refuses to change size when she and her underwear do could be interpreted as sleazy,  assuming it's not just a symbol of her rejection of the role into which society is forcing blah blah blah.) But the Avril Lavigne song over the end credits is just too crashingly misplaced.

And honestly, the plot is just too bloody Hollywood wrong. Carroll's small girl is on a holiday from the confusingly rational adult world through a landscape of puns and surreal symbolism; this film determinedly transforms her into a teenage victim of social expectations, achieving anachronistic levels of self-actualisation (or something) by discovering her role as the Prophesied Hero of a cut-price knock-off War of the Ring (which ends very quickly when the literal and metaphorical Dragon from yet another Carroll source dies and the arch-villain's troops all promptly switch sides - gods, was Burton seeing how many TV Tropes entries and general iffy fantasy cliches which the Alice stories don't evoke or use he could drag in?); said War, by the way, is a struggle between playing cards and chess pieces with the chess pieces as the good guys, (which I guess is appropriately Victorian), and has evidently been on hold until Alice shows up; still, it seems to have transformed several of Carroll's innocent characters into expert sword-fighters. Then, in the end, Alice escapes marriage (this is technically a spoiler, but I doubt anyone will be surprised) into the world of commerce - and proposes to set to work opening China up to British trade.

Yes, problems of dating aside, this film suggests that Alice grew up to become an architect of the Opium Wars. Thanks, Tim, but are you sure that you've thought this through?

The ludicrously over-qualified cast do their best with this farrago, although Anne Hathaway for one is clearly struggling with the silliness of her part, and Johnny Depp, given the job of second lead (because this is a Tim Burton film), adopts a Scottish accent at random intervals. Oh, and yes, this is the latest big production to explore the possibilities of 3D technology. Unfortunately, the realistic sections end up suffering from a dolls-house artificiality, and the luridly coloured dreamscape-landscapes of Wonderland (renamed Underland when the script remembers) jumped into my face a bit too assertively.

Ho hum. I actually came out of this movie quite amused by the carnival flamboyance of it, almost willing to forgive the cinema their technical cock-ups, even. But it's too easy to see the problems even while you're watching it, let alone in retrospect. If some films suffer from logic holes - refrigerator logicthis one suffers from refrigerator surrealism. I'm prepared to give Burton the benefit of the doubt and assume that the problems arise from him taking the Disney shilling, but I really hope that he doesn't repeat the mistake.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Grey Becomes Black and White (is it true what they say?)

Kettle's Yard, in Cambridge, currently have an exhibition, "Modern Times: responding to chaos", described as being of "drawing and film" from the 20th and 21st centuries. Actually, there's a fair amount of paint and other two-dimensional media involved, albeit almost entirely monochromatic, while the film too is largely black and white - short looping "art pieces", mostly I think from the inter-war era. It might have been more accurate to have described this as an exhibition of black and white art from the last hundred years. Still, and even for an art ignoramus like me, it's an interesting show.

The assorted movements encompassed by this collection of stuff - Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism - doubtless have their crucial differences, but judging them purely by what's on show, they would all seem to tend to minimalism and abstraction; the occasional almost-figurative piece is downright jarring in the context. Some of the pictures seem to verge on architectural representation, and judging by the labels, one or two of them were actually meant that way, but mostly this may just mean that a modern human mind reads "angular structure" as "building". And gosh, I do find myself going round these things trying to interpret that way... Sometimes with great pleasure, in fact. Early in the exhibition there's a big painting whose title and creator's name I forget, but it's a wonderful swirl of black and white paint that could have devoured my attention for hours. Is it a bird? Is it driftwood? Is it a wolf?

The film pieces, incidentally, look like the last survivors of a lost and stillborn art form, especially today. When a cheap computer and some software can allow anyone to cobble together mind-wrenching full-colour animations and manipulated images in a spare morning, the idea of some obsessive oddball in 1920s Berlin or wherever spending hours hunched over a collection of hand-crafted drawings, photographing them frame by frame in order to create - gosh - moving abstract pictures taking a full seven minutes or so to play out, just seems tragically quaint. But obsessive artistic oddballs having their vision eaten by the system is a theme for another post - probably my next one.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

You Bought It, You Couldn't Wait, Could You?

As some of my older friends can probably attest through gritted teeth, I've always had a very large soft spot for Magazine. This is partly aesthetic (they were, after all, one of the most important and talented bands of the post-punk era), and partly sentimental (I saw them twice in my student days in Cambridge, and the second time was one of my early dates with Angela). But Magazine were a band who quit while they were ahead, when presiding genius Howard Devoto evidently decided that life as a rock star didn't suit him and ran away to join a photo library. (His subsequent musical projects, in Luxuria and ShelleyDevoto, never seem to have been more than hobbyist exercises.) Anyway, I presumably don't count as a proper Magazine fan; I didn't get to the reunion concerts last year...

Still, I did eventually get around to picking up the DVD of one of those shows (from Wire-Sound), so I guess that I get some latent fan points. I also get a pretty good down-the-line concert DVD, simply but slickly enough shot and presented given the slightly marginal nature of the exercise. It turns out that the members of the band have lasted pretty well, absent the sadly deceased John McGeoch, as has the band's music (but we knew that). In particular. when the event kicks off with "The Light Pours Out Of Me", we are forcibly reminded that Barry Adamson provided much of the heart and soul of the band, generating bass lines that are at once thunderous and melodious. (I'm not sure about his current apparent taste for top hats, but with that talent, he could get away with wearing a tutu.) Across the stage from him, McGeoch's replacement, Noko (who previously worked with Devoto in Luxuria) provided a remarkably effective emulation of one of the great rock guitarists of the last thirty years, only occasionally slipping into conventional axe hero antics that McGeoch would surely have avoided.

But it's the man between them who counts, and who's ... not changed, indeed who looks amazing unchanged (but he always looked a bit like an ageless alien reptile), but illuminated by time - and the main thing we can now admit is what a (deliberately) funny man Howard Devoto really is. Actually, Magazine in general and Devoto's lyrics and stage presence in particular were always loaded with irony and flippant surrealism, but jokes weren't what smart post-punk rock was supposed to be about back in 1980, and Devoto's threatening songs, laden with alienated lyrics, chilly electronic soundscapes, and razor-sharp Adamson and McGeoch riffs, could seem terribly serious if you let them. Now, though, when Devoto shows up in a pink jacket and plus fours, and announces that he's reformed the band to impress a woman, the joke becomes a bit more explicit. We've all had thirty years to relax (well, I have - I hope and would imagine that Magazine have fans these days whose parents hadn't even met when I saw them at the Cambridge Corn Exchange), and we can allow ourselves a more open awareness of the ridiculous.

Which reminds me - one fannish note. "Model Worker", a love song in the jargon of Chinese Communism (yes, some of us got that joke even back then) includes the line "I know the cadre will look after me". This was widely misheard when it was first played as "that Carter", and in 1981, Devoto played along by singing "I know that Reagan will look after me" instead. In 2009, he sang "I know Obama will look after me"... The only other odd lyrical tweak I noticed was in "Permafrost"; in the first chorus, "I will" became "you want me to", and there were even mumbles about political correctness from the sofa. But in subsequent iterations, that still-chilling-thank-you chorus reverted to its original form.

Oh, and I wonder - were these the first Magazine concerts with a backing chorus line (of two)? One of these ladies - Rosalie Cunningham, I believe - took duet parts on one or two songs, and had the Magazine cool down just right, with a perfect combination of a detached gaze, a razor-sharp black bob, and an LBD - plus a tendency to sit down on stage to read a magazine when her voice wasn't needed. She deserves credit.

The extras on the disc are pretty minimal - one song from a rehearsal room, one from a different concert - and there was very little new; just a re-enactment of greatness. But no matter. Sentiment assuaged.

When I ordered this DVD, I also picked up the CD which was apparently indirectly responsible for the reunion concerts happening - keyboard player Dave Formula's new Satellite Sweetheart, featuring every surviving member of the band (and indeed featuring a McGeoch credit on one track - presumably a sample from an old recording or something), which assembly inspired someone to think that they could also do some stage shows - along with Live and Intermittent, a collection of live tracks from Magazine's heyday which Formula has recently assembled. The latter may be moderately interesting as a historical document, but it's a very rough recording; completists-only stuff, really. The former is, well, despite all those appearances (on different tracks), not really how one imagines Magazine would have evolved, even over thirty years; Formula is evidently one of those (extremely talented) rock band members who'd really, really like to be showing what he can do by playing something slightly different - in this case, something like lounge jazz, a lot of the time. Adamson has gone the same way at times over the years, to be sure, but he at least has a taste for the sinister in his atmospherics. There were times on Satellite Sweetheart when I was irresistibly reminded of Derek Smalls's excursions into free jazz, but without the thundering bass (or the stunned audience). Still, it does feature Devoto singing on "Via Sacra"...