Archive for July, 2009
My heart sinks at the trailer for Tron Legacy. Apart from purely commercial reasons, why would you want to create a futuristic aesthetic based on something that might have looked interesting twenty years ago but was still highly flawed?
I’m not against retro-styled futurism per se. The Edwardian look in parts of David Lynch’s Dune worked well, as did the 1940s styling of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but they were both conscious attempts to create something new that was influenced by the past. Both, too, had major weaknesses, but they felt like genuine attempts to try something different.
The Flash Gordon film was a more self-conscious tongue-in-cheek echo of the 1950s, and suffered as a result. Perhaps we’re due a 1960s based vision next? Then we’ll be back to the 1970s and Space 1999, which is currently being broadcast on ITV4 and looks badly dated.
I wrote the other day that a lot of people have been talking about It Felt Like a Kiss, but I was still surprised to hear Jonathon Ross describe it to the nation on his Radio 2 programme on Saturday. (I tried to provide a link to it on the BBC website, but it doesn’t appear to be among the Listen Again options.) Presumably he tweeted about it too. So this is what it feels like to be on the crest of the zeitgeist…
I like this TV Dinner animation, but I think I like it particularly because, for a brief while, Chloe deigned to allow me to look after him (yes, I know the genders don’t tally – there was a fundamental error early in his life, poor chap), and I recognise many of Chloe’s traits in the film.
The main reason for going to the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh recently was to hear a lecture by the neo-classical sculptor Alexander Stoddart. I’m still digesting his talk, so instead I’ll write about what else we saw in the complex. First was the exhibition Raphael to Renoir, which has some beautifully simple drawings. I preferred the earlier work, as some of the later pieces have a knowing, arch quality to them, though I’ve no idea what it is which conveys that idea. I was fascinated by the contrast between initial sketches and the finished paintings, as the completed work wasn’t always an improvement.
We also looked at Robert Adam’s Landscape Fantasies. In developing fantasies, Adam was free to manipulate the landscape in ways that are not available to more realistic depictions. He created some beautiful ideals of castles and their surroundings, but his techniques are repetitive and manipulative. Small human figures are often hidden in the darkened foreground that contrasts with the light falling on the castle walls, which contrast also with the distant hills.
Finally, we saw The Three Graces, jointly purchased for the nation with the Victoria and Albert Museum and now residing, presumably temporarily, in Edinburgh. I’ve never seen marble look so like skin.
I finally overcame my reluctance and went to see the Ecce Homo Tesco exhibition at the airspace gallery yesterday, and, as usual, I am very glad that I did so. I was reluctant because everything about this exhibition is off-putting: the image and text used in the promotional material, the work in the gallery window and the exterior of the gallery itself. I don’t know how else the gallery could have promoted the exhibition, though, because this work is not visually pleasing. It is not designed to entice or pamper the casual viewer.
On one level, it is a single joke, which is a slim conceit for a whole exhibition. It is a future history, a display of archaeological finds from our future but displayed in a style that you might find in a museum today. The central hypothesis is that, as a species, we will evolve to have very long forearms, the result of carrying heavy shopping bags. Skeletons are on display with these adaptations, set in vaguely-suggested dioramas involving shopping trolleys or similar accoutrements.
These are backed up by supportive elements – a panel explaining the development of the adaptation, and an extremely grainy monochromatic film of a man in an ape mask clumsily using tools, as though he is a Neanderthal but the tools are from our time. There are conscious echoes of real archaeological discoveries, the development of theories of human evolution and the Piltdown man hoax, as well as swipes at museum displays, which I can’t help taking personally, even though I have nothing to do with the displays where I work and indeed would agree that many of them leave something to be desired.
Underlying the joke, however, is the serious proposition that Tesco, and presumably major supermarkets and chain store retailers in general, have an overly-powerful position in our society, to the extent that they distort the economics of production and consumption, the layout of roads and towns and our general ways of living. The fact that the cleared land behind the gallery has been waiting for many years for a new development by Tesco is merely further ammunition.
The exhibition was due to close tomorrow, but has been extended for a further week.
Sure enough, the next task involves a comb. As soon as someone in the group picks up the comb and applies it to a mannequin’s head, a dark figure bursts through the gloom weilding a loud buzzing chainsaw that he brandishes at us. We each have to make a dash for it past him, as he is between us and the exit. From then on, it’s chaotic. We pass through turnstiles that only let so many people through, so we’re split into smaller groups, each taking a different route through the maze. Another attack by a chainsaw weilder, then more filtering turnstiles, and suddenly I’m on my own, half walking, half running down a dark, twisting corridor. I feel a tap on my shoulder. I jump and turn round, to find a masked man behind me. I run. I have no clear memories of the remainder of the building, but there isn’t much more, and soon I’m outside, heart beating fast, breathing heavily and feeling slightly silly. One or two of the others in my groups are also outside, but we walk off in different directions, not acknowledging each other or what we’ve just experienced.
Around the corner, I pass Terry Christian. I don’t realise it at the time, but he’s probably on his way to see It Felt Like a Kiss, prior to his appearance on the Culture Show. Even more bizarrely, further down the road on the way to the train station (and remember, this is about 7.30 on a beautiful Sunday evening), I’m stopped by a long procession of hundreds of people in zombie make-up. Some have made only a token gesture, but a few have made a real effort and lurch appropriately. One person even vomits fake blood on the pavement in front of me. I think of all the blood I vomited for real last year and smile.
So what do I conclude about It Felt Like a Kiss? That, of course, is the hard part. I’ve been manipulated by the fast editing of the documentary, I’ve been herded by the carefully mapped out route and turnstiles. I’ve been subject to the same story-telling that the production complains of in America, and part of the effect is achieved through cheap schlock horror. So, yes, the reviewers who complain of this have legitimate grounds, but that, as far as I can see, is exactly the point of this production. One of the guests on the Culture Show said he felt it would have been more effective if he’d had a more passive role, but that misses the point too. We voluntarily enter the ghost train, we pay the theatre company to scare us, we allow the story-tellers to weave their fabrications, even if we don’t always realise how much of it is lies. Who is lying to us now?
People leave the cinema when the film reaches the point where they entered (or, presumably, when they’ve had enough), so from that point on, you’re on your own, wandering through less specific scenes – a hostel for homeless people, streets piled with rubbish. Then things turn really bizarre.
There’s a recording studio leading to a huge model village where tiny lights come on as the sun sets, and a hospital ward with very dated décor. You’re given a clipboard and some questions to answer. The first sheet asks for personal details, while the second gives two options for each question. Presumably you’re supposed to choose whichever you agree with more, but to me many of them seem equally inappropriate, so I scribble, “I refuse” across the sheet. The third page has a logic problem, and states that only independent thinkers can solve it. I’ve seen this one before, so it doesn’t take me long to work out the answer.
After a while, someone comes along to take the clipboards away, and leads you off in a small group again. We’re told, “for health and safety reasons”, that we must at all costs stick together from this point on, so even though the group is entirely new, we start to co-operate, waiting for people to catch up and talking to each other to solve problems.
For we are now in a huge dark room, converted into a labyrinth with head-high walls of steel mesh so that we can see beyond our current position. There are no junctions, just a twisting route. A small sign is flashing up ahead and a buzzer sounding. They stop, just as we reach the sign which says, “Pick up the phone”. One of our group does so, but there is no sound. Another sign starts to flash further on and the buzzer sounds again, so we hurry towards it. The sign says, “Don’t press the button”, so we don’t. Another sign starts to flash and the buzzer resumes once more, so we hurry towards it. “Swallow the pill” – nobody dares. “Read the script” – we would if the light hadn’t gone out just as we reached it, just like all the other tasks. Someone in the group has a mobile phone with a light on it, so they peer at the pages, which say, “The next task involves a comb. You are all going to die.” We look at each other. Even though we know it’s not real, we start to worry.
To be continued
We enter an office, with desks and filing cabinets full of reports of surveillance. By this stage, we’re catching up with the previous batch of audience members, who are examining evidence even more thoroughly than my group, and the groups blur and overlap.
There’s an interrogation room, what might be a torture room, a television studio, make-up room and film set, all eerily empty apart from the occasional mannequin, all with bulging eyes and often in strange poses, sometimes lying collapsed on the floor or waiting expectantly in the corner of a corridor. Many rooms have screens of one kind or another, showing loops of film – a close up of a woman with someone’s hand squeezing her cheeks, scenes from a beauty contest or a napalm victim burning to death.
Finally we enter the cinema, decorated like a cabaret theatre. The film on constant loop tells us of America’s interference in international politics – the various bizarre attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, giving arms to Saddam Hussein to set Iran and Iraq against each other, a coup in Africa, Nixon visiting Moscow, bin Laden’s early days, the forming of Lee Harvey Oswald’s character and the assassination of Kennedy, the jumping of the HIV virus from ape to human in Africa. The editing is fast, sometimes too fast to get more than a vague impression of violent images. I’m automatically suspicious of fast editing, because it relies on generalities rather than coherent argument, so I feel removed.
Interspersed with all of this footage is film of Americans dancing and the explanation of the production’s title, which comes from a song by Carole King, who discovered that her boyfriend had been regularly beating up their babysitter, leading to the lines, “He hit me and it felt like a kiss. He hit me and I knew he loved me”. The babysitter’s name was Eve, and she later released a song of her own, The Locomotion, under the name Little Evie. Hearing it brings a shiver to your skin. Ambivalence abounds.
To be continued
I very nearly didn’t go to Manchester last week. The Sunday train service coupled with track repairs requiring replacement bus service between Stockport and Manchester seemed such a hurdle, but I’d paid for my ticket to ‘It Felt Like a Kiss‘ and I was reluctant to waste the money. I am so glad I made the effort.
Lots of people have been talking about the production: The Telegraph, The Independent, The Times, and The Guardian. So too Music OMH and the Epoch Times. The Guardian, as is its want, tries to sum it all up in a slightly self-satisfied way. There is a snippet on the director’s blog on the BBC website, and, from today, the full documentary by Adam Curtis at the centre of the show is available on the BBC website. Perhaps the guests on the Culture Show put it best when they likened the show to a ghost train.
It’s a week now since I went to see it, and the crazy jumble of impressions and emotions has subsided into a more coherent view. Very few people read this blog, but even so, I haven’t felt right until now about describing the production in detail, because I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone, but the Festival finished yesterday, so I feel free to tell all.
The show is a promenade production through an empty office block in central Manchester that Punchdrunk have taken over temporarily. There are tight controls on how many people can enter at any time, with batches of ten people being dispatched at ten minute intervals after strict warnings about footwear, low lighting, flashing lights, uneven surfaces, nervous dispositions, pregnancy, heart conditions, not touching the stewards, no more toilets, and escape routes should you change your mind or in case of fire.
You ascend to the top floor in a tiny lift that requires two trips to ferry the group, so the first half wait nervously in the reddish gloom for the others to catch up. From that point on, it’s up to us to fumble our way firstly through a huge cut-out fairground clown mouth then along and round dark, twisting corridors of black walls and floors. The lighting levels really are low, so sometimes it’s not clear where you’re supposed to go, but we become accustomed to the context and stop feeling quite so ill at ease.
The introductory talk explained that the theme of the production is telling stories, particularly that of America when it thought it was the most powerful country in the world. But it also explained that when power wanes, the stories become fragmented. There will be a small cinema half-way through the building, with a film lasting about thirty-five minutes, and after that, well, who knows? There will be clues, apparently, which my fellow participants, all of whom are complete strangers to me, decide to interpret as an instruction to read all pieces of paper carefully in case there is vital evidence hidden away.
This is why it is taking audiences two hours to work their way through the production instead of the planned seventy-five minutes. For there are many pieces of paper – letters on desks, reports in filing cabinets, notes and scraps on tables. Punchdrunk have certainly been thorough. Each room we enter, separated by more dark, twisting corridors, is laid out as a specific place. At first, they are from a 1950s house – a lounge with looped film playing on the television watched by a mannequin with bulging eyes, a child’s bedroom, a study, a dining room with food on the table, a garden with the remnants of a picnic. One room has a masked figure, just as motionless as the mannequins, but I’m convinced it is a real person. All the time there is loud music (written by Damon Albarn), sometimes discordant, sometimes melancholy. The phrase Grand Guignol enters my mind, even though I’m not exactly sure what it means.
To be continued
It turns out that, despite the lull between festivals, culture continues in Edinburgh. We went to four blog-worthy art exhibitions and events in the National Gallery complex alone, and these will probably be the subject of future posts, but before writing about those, I want to recount a conversation I had on the train coming south.
I normally avoid conversing with strangers, but I felt drawn to the young lady opposite me. She was working away at a laptop and I didn’t want to disturb her, but she was repeatedly distracted by some boisterous lads further down the carriage and she commented twice to me on their youthful exuberance. After a while, she gave up her attempts to work and we started to chat. Initially we talked of food and cooking, so I recommended Nigel Slater’s books, but the conversation soon turned to creativity.
She appears to be where I was a few years ago, in an unfulfilling and stressful job, with half-forgotten ambitions to do something more interesting and creative. I recommended The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, as I often seem to, and she seemed intrigued. Indeed, she went as far as to say that we had been destined to meet. The conversation ostensibly revolved around my proselytising, but in fact, I got a lot out of it too. It reminded me of what I’ve frequently claimed is important to me, and although I don’t yet feel ready to immerse myself in drawing and painting, the idea seems closer and more realistic.