Friday, 21 October 2011

It’s the end of the world as we know it...

The scanner bleeped as I walked through the doorway. The security guard beckoned me over and looked through my handbag. Then the questions began:
“Are you religious ma’am?”
“Are you patriotic?”
“Did you vote in the last election? How did you vote?”
I felt my hackles rising, as I snapped “That’s private!”

No, I wasn’t going through US Immigration (just as well) but entering into a theatrical experience. Decade , the National Theatre/Headlong production that reflects on the events of September 11 2001 and their consequences, is a piece of site specific theatre that takes place in a former trading room near the Tower of London. On entering, the audience has to pass through a simulation of a security check point, which is a brilliant device for encouraging you to suspend disbelief. It’s an extraordinary position to be in; you become part of the action of the play, but you’re an actor without a script, and there’s an uneasy feeling as you don’t really know what to expect.

Once safely through security, you descend into a large room, echoing with piped easy-listening music, to be greeted by actors/waiters who take you to your table. The room is styled after the famous restaurant in the World Trade Centre, Windows on the World. At each end are windows the full height of the wall, each with a copy of the view over New York that would have been seen from the genuine restaurant. The tables even have replica menus on them.

This is immensely disorienting, and the mundaneity of the background music only adds to this feeling. The production is a patchwork quilt of pieces by different writers, all remembering 9/11. Some of them work better than others. Although the main point of action is a circular stage in the centre of the room, the whole of the space is used, most spectacularly the glass windowed mezzanine floor running the length of the room. At one point, this was chillingly used to represent the windows of the Twin Towers, behind which the doomed workers watched in disbelief as their world ended.

One of the best pieces took place on the central stage, which represented a New York newsagent/general store, run by a Muslim family, in the vicinity of the World Trade Centre. We’re shown them as a key part of their community, before the atrocities, and then how their position shifts afterwards. It’s a brilliant depiction of how the formless, unfocused anger at such events seems bound to take shape and find the nearest target, however inappropriate that may be.

For me, the one piece that really did not work was a dialogue between a journalist and a the soldier who killed Osama Bin Laden. This tried to mimic genuine conversation, with the two actors interrupting each other and finishing each others sentences. This is easy to do by accident in real conversation, but hard to pull off when done deliberately (try it and see!) so it came across as stilted and artificial. For the most part, the actors were astonishingly good, and the staging was mesmerising. At various points, thunderous noise broke, and the lights went out, simulating the effects of the ‘planes landing. Genuinely scary.

I can’t say it made me think in a new way about the events of that blue skied September day, but it did bring it all back. I remembered with piercing clarity that feeling of shock at seeing the events unfurl on the tv screen, and how, for many weeks afterwards, I was unable to see a plane flying across the London sky without a shiver of fear.

A connection could be drawn between the two subjects of this blog post; both feature depictions of apocalyptic events. But if the end of the world is as beautiful as this film, at least it will be nice to look at. The opening sequence is a series of stunning, surreally beautiful tableaux, so as not to spoil it for you I’ll only mention one; the sight of Kirsten Dunst, against a stormy sky, with lightning shooting from her finger tips and the telegraph poles in the background. All this to a background of desperately romantic music from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Ms Dunst is a revelation in this film, especially to those most familiar with her work from the Spiderman movies. The first half of the movie features her wedding to Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd, familiar to True Blood fans as Eric Northman. Her character, Justine, is whimsical and reckless. Her family treat her as a child, particularly her older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). In the second part of the film, Justine is deep in the throes of a depressive episode, being carted off to her sister’s beautiful mansion. This is one face of melancholia. But the other face is far more devastating.

Turns out that a hitherto unknown planet, called, wait for it, Melancholia, is on a trajectory towards Earth. Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) represent the two opinions about this; John believes the scientific community who claim the planet will pass by and leave Earth unharmed. Claire is filled with an almost superstitious dread that the end is nigh. You feel pulled into this, as the movie progresses; pinned in place by a terrible inescapable event.

The film plays with the idea beloved of astrologers, that the planets affect our moods. It shows how the depressive Justine, who is completely unable to cope with the normal course of events, comes into her own when facing disaster, in complete reversal to those around her. The action all takes place on Claire and John’s lovely estate; the first scene is the bridal car returning from the wedding, struggling to negotiate the steeply winding road. The characters seem trapped in this place; when Justine tries to leave on horseback, the animal refuses to cross the stone bridge which forms a boundary to the estate.

The photography is astounding; from the shot of naked Justine moonbathing on a river bank, to the images of the encroaching planet in the sky. I reeled out of the cinema in a state of shock. I literally couldn’t speak for about half an hour (an uncommon event). I am going to see this film again (and probably again, and again). If you want to be truly taken out of yourself, then you should do the same. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Review of One Day, and The BlackBerry Trajectory

I'm not usually averse to Americans being given a hard time; they live in the world's wealthiest and most powerful democracy, they can take a few digs. But I must admit to feeling slightly sorry for Anne Hathaway, whose version of aYorkshire accent in One Day has had a bit of a trashing lately. Being a Lancastrian, I'm less entitled than most to comment on the accuracy of an imitation accent from t'other side of the pennines, but her attempt doesn't seem that bad...Admittedly, it does veer about from posh, generic Northern to fairly standard RP, but this befits the character, Emma's, move to London, which does tend to soften the edges of most regional accents, whether by gradual assimilation, or design.
We Brits do seem to get quite upset by non Brits attempting any variety of British accent. I tend to make a personal distinction between:
i) accents that are ludicrous but don't feature that heavily in a film, and are regarded eventually as something of a classic (Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins).
ii) accents that are slightly rubbish, thus allowing us a smirk of superiority, but don't ruin a movie (Russell Crowe in Robin Hood)
iii) accents that are utterly silly, and so heavily featured that the film is almost impossible to watch (Brad Pitt as an IRA man in The Devil's Own)
and I'd argue that Hathaway's probably comes into the second category.

Besides, it's not the least of this film's problems. I read the book on holiday this summer, and enjoyed it. Mainly because it seemed to me to be an attempt at a portrait of my generation, and so many elements of it rang true. The move down to London post graduation (or at some point later); the inability to decide how to spend ones life; the romance with chemicals in the early 90s, partying, partying and yet more partying; the endless weekends spent at weddings in ones 30s etc etc. There were some keen moments of observation, as when the two central characters are at the start of their friendship, and Dexter analyses Emma's character on the basis of the contents of her student bedroom, and sums up with the devastating sentence ' The problem with these fiercely individualistic girls was that they were all exactly the same'. Ouch.

The episodic nature of the structure works in the book. For those who haven't read it, the action starts on 15July, and focuses each chapter on that same date in each of the subsequent years, looking at where the characters are in their separate stories, and in the one they share. But in the film, there isn't time to dwell on these occasions, and time passes like a series of snap shots, and we don't really see how their lives/personalities are developing. There are parts that have been elided, eg Emma's affair with a colleague.

The film's main problem is that it straddles various genres, as if it can't really decide what it is. It isn't a romcom, the story's ending is too sad for that. There are comedy moments, but somehow they don't quite take off. It isn't in depth enough to be a drama. Emma in the novel is mischievous, she has a twinkle in her eye that makes her one liners and put downs witty and droll rather than whingy. Hathaway delivers these in a flat monotone that kills them stone dead.

One my friend Celia said, when I asked if she wanted to see the film, that she found the book the 'smuggest vomitfest' ever, and although the book didn't strike me that way, the film kind of made me see what I think she meant. It's true to say that all works of fiction take place in a bubble, that's the job of the author, to create a believable universe in which the events take place. But I think realist novels, which One Day is, need to have some kind of connection with the wider world. The novel takes place during interesting times; the fall of Thatcher, the rise of New Labour, both Gulf Wars, 9/11, the London bombings are just a few of the events that fall within this time frame. But none of them are referred to. Alright, one could argue that the novel's focus on just one day each year, means they could be ommitted. But all these events resonated on for years, and someone like Emma, who is a political activist at the start of the book, would certainly have reflected on them/been affected by them.

The film shockingly portrays the ending of the story. The film starts with this scene, Emma cycling through the London streets, and returns to it near the end. Even though, if you know what's coming you're waiting for it, because of the camera angle, it hits you like a sledge hammer. I involuntarily covered my face with my hands. This ending rips apart the smug little universe of Emma and Dexter, and shoves home the story's theme of 'what really matters?' with a sickening thud. But when you leave the cinema, sadly, you don't feel any more able to answer that question than when you went in.

The BlackBerry Trajectory
I updated my mobile in June, and having decided I wanted easy access to my email, without having to pay more each month, I went for a BlackBerry. Of course, the cachet of using a BlackBerry had not passed me by. I had a vague idea that they were popular with business people and city types. Turned out, I was a little behind the times, just one of the things I learnt from the coverage of the recent riots.

Back in 2003, Blackberry released the first smartphone set up to optimize using email wirelessly. Basically, it was always connected so new email was notified to the user automatically. Back then it was all about the business community, being able to respond to emails quickly while on the go. So addictive was this ability to answer emails, and gallivant around on the web whilst commuting etc, that the device quickly earned the soubriquet ‘Crackberry’.

Barack Obama was probably the most famous addict, his dependence on his BlackBerry was revealed during his 2008 presidential campaign. Although warned about security issues, he carried on using it for some time after his inauguration. This ‘endorsement’ is estimated to have been worth more than $25 million.
So how did the Blackberry smartphone go from being the must have accessory of the modern business person, to tool of civil unrest, as witnessed in the UK riots?

Well, there were comments on the net back in 2006 that business people were starting to shun BlackBerry because carrying one was thought to signify low status in the corporate heirarchy, and the need to be always at the mercy of email and ones superiors.

Dr. Paul Coulton, Senior Lecturer in communication systems at the University of Lancaster said that teenagers started to use the BlackBerry as they inherited their parents’ cast off phones, and quickly cottoned onto the BlackBerry Messenger service as a way of keeping in touch for free. I spoke to some Merseyside teenagers (ok, my nephew and niece but that doesn’t make them any less reliable sources!) who confirmed this. My niece told me that not all of her friends have free texts in their contract, and those on pay-as-you-go often are too skint to top up their credit. My nephew reckons he was the first in his circle to get a BlackBerry, after seeing them in use by hip hop stars such as Jay-Z, who compares himself to a BlackBerry in his track Venus Vs Mars, and Ghostface Killah (formerly of the Wu Tang Clan) who lauded the BlackBerry in his track Drama. BlackBerries are also relatively cheap now to get on contract from phone companies, for example Carphone Warehouse offer the BlackBerry Curve free from £10.50 per month.

Although it’s well known that the police can surveil email and other web traffic when necessary, the riots were the first occasion when they have demonstrated wholesale their ability to break into mobile communications. This must have come as a shock to the BlackBerrying rioters, given you have to use a PIN to access the messenger service, which gives an illusion of security. The messages instigating rioting were sent in real time, and couldn’t be accessed quickly enough to stop this activity, but the police confiscated phones from those they arrested, and accessed messages planning looting etc. The Met even managed to use details from the seized phones to monitor BBM in realtime, which allowed them to turn up and disrupt further planned events.

So what does this all mean for Research in Motion, the company who makes the devices? I imagine they don’t care all that much, as long as their product is being bought and used, it probably doesn’t matter to them just who is picking their BlackBerries. 

Sunday, 31 July 2011

A personal tribute to Amy Winehouse; and a review of Beginners

Last Saturday, a friend texted me about this and that, and at the end of her text she wrote 'Have you heard about Amy Winehouse?', then I got another text from another friend, then even my dad 'phoned to tell me what he'd heard on the news. Nobody could believe she'd actually done it. Which is surprising given that ending her life prematurely had seemed to be exactly where she was heading.

I remember putting on the tv one day, about to commence channel hopping but stopping mid reach for the remote control as the video for Rehab started up on the screen. I was drawn in by that extraordinary voice, the jaunty lyrics and the compelling beat. I had to find out who it was, once I did I bought Back to Black and Frank immediately. I've even bought the sheet music for both albums and learned the songs. Often with other music I've added to my singing repertoire, particularly some of the old jazz tunes, I've enjoyed the feel of the music in my voice, but the lyrics drove me nuts. For example, from Black Coffee 'A man is born to go a loving/a woman's born to weep and fret/ to stay at home and tend the oven' was such a joy to sing lyrics, while if not exactly feminist, that did reflect some aspects of contemporary sexual politics.

Being born with a huge talent doesn't necessarily mean being born able to cope with the emotional and psychological demands of that talent, and of fame. Talented she was without doubt. At the height of the reaction to her second album, some critics (as often seems to happen with young female artists) claimed that the real force behind the album was the producer,  in this case, Mark Ronson. But those witty, sometimes sad, sometimes bawdy lyrics seemed so to be so infused with details from her life that it was hard to imagine them being written by anyone else. And the music was so married to those lyrics that it was hard to imagine them being written by anyone other than the writer of the lyrics. I loved the 60s girl pop feel of the melodies and their arrangements, combined with that smokey, croaky drawl.

But I always thought of her as a woman who did not seem to like herself much. The beehive, the tattoos and the startling eye makeup combined to form an effective shield. She looked like a woman you wouldn't want to pick a fight with, despite her tiny stature. But it seemed like a big act. I remember seeing a film clip which showed the after effects of a self-harming episode, her midriff scored with tiny cuts. She was known to have had an eating disorder, and struggled with body issues. The drugs, alcohol and partying were maybe escapes from that relentless voice in her head telling her how ugly she was, how stupid, what a loser, speaking much louder than the voices outside who loved her. I remember reading a Guardian article about a reporter who spent a day with the paparazzi as they pursued their victims around London. One of these was Winehouse, the writer wrote, amazed, at how the paps yelled abuse and insults at the tiny singer constantly, in the hope of provoking a reaction. It would be hard for even the most self-confident person to retain their self-esteem with that ringing in their ears whenever they stepped outside their door.

I was one of those lucky enough to see her perform, at Brixton Academy November 2007. And I do feel lucky. This was the tour that was labelled such a disaster in the press. Winehouse was at the height of her coke addiction (remember the photos of her apparently removing drugs from a stash in her beehive?) and her then husband was on bail facing serious charges. In later gigs, she was obviously off her face and incoherent on stage, unable to finish songs or to deal with heckling from the crowd. But at the Brixton gig, maybe cos she was virtually on home territory, she was fabulous. Yes, she fluffed her entry and skittered onto stage halfway through 'Addicted', tripping over her guitar cable on route. Yes, the tempo of many of the songs seemed off, and accelerated erratically as they coursed along, but she delivered. She sang her own music, and some excellent Specials cover versions, with skill and energy, adlibbing some new vocal lines in place of already familiar ones. We had a fantastic time, and it felt like a privilege to be there even then, let alone with the benefit of hindsight.

In our world today, talent and mega fame so often go hand in hand. Perhaps we are all fascinated with the lives of beings who seem as near magical as it's possible to be, how it feels to be them and to live their lives. We rarely question the relationship between talent and fame, assuming that the famous are asking for it, enjoying our 24/7 obsession with their lives. It is as if we consume those whose work we love, we use them and burn them up. Maybe all Winehouse wanted to do was make music, and to sing, as she had done all her life, but her talent inevitably drew so much attention. I read in the paper various quotes from the regulars in her local, The Hawley Arms, where she apparently would often get behind the bar and pull pints .and one said
" She was such a lovely person, and to be honest, I don't think fame agreed with her, she was an ordinary girl at heart."
But whatever we think of her addiction, alcoholism, self-harming etc, it's so sad to see a life ended at such a relatively young age, and to know that voice isn't going to be singing any more.

It seems appropriate, following my eulogy for Amy Winehouse, to write about a film that is a meditation on the end of life. But a life ending at what could be seen as the end of its natural span.

From the start, as we see Ewan McGregor clearing out a room, emptying no longer needed medicines down the toilet, the viewer knows that this is a film about moving on. Using flashbacks, we see Oliver and his father Hal (the thoroughly lovely Christopher Plummer), living in the wake of Hal's revelation that he is gay, and has always been so, despite his marriage to Hal's mother. Through flashbacks to Hal's childhood, we see Hal's mother, Georgia, bringing up Oliver. We never see her husband in these scenes, who is always at work, or who knows where.

Hal and Georgia married in 1955, at a time when homosexuality was taboo. Hal renounced his identity as a gay man, Georgia hers as a Jewish woman, living in an anti-Semitic America. To her son (and I expect also to the director, Mike Mills who based this story on events from his own life) this voluntary renunciation of identity is so bizarre as to rate being described in a tone of wonder, complete with illustrations to show how long ago and far away this was. Oliver is of a generation so familiar with identity politics and the individual's right to self-determination, that he can barely conceive of a life lived without fidelity to something as basic as ones sexuality. Sadly Hal only has a short time to live his life as an out gay man, before cancer claims him in much the way it did Georgia several years earlier.

As well as being a film about identity, this film is also about the difficulties of communication. Hal couldn't communicate with his son until late in his life, and Oliver struggles to communicate his grief, as is highlighted by the graffiti slogans he puts on buildings, when introduced to this past time by his friend Eliot. It's easier to spray stuff than say it. This struggle with communication is also played out in Oliver's nascent relationship with a girl he meets at a party in the present time sections of the film; when they meet she has laryngitis and can only communicate through writing. They speak to each other in half sentences and jokes, and their voices are muted during the depiction of their most vigorous conversation.

Georgia's voice is the least present in this film. Hal relates that when they married, she knew about his sexuality, but assumed she could 'cure' him. I wondered how she would have felt, when she failed to do so, and, one assumes, had to live without a full blooded sexual relationship in her life. In terms of the treatment of similar material, I prefer David Leavitt's novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, which doesn't privilege one person's viewpoint over another.

The sadness of the movie's events is leavened by light touches of humour, particularly through the vehicle of Arthur, Hal's Jack Russell terrier, who cannot speak but communicates with Oliver through subtitles. It's a quirky and interesting film (albeit one which drags in places), and kudos to Mike Mills for daring to make such a human film about mourning and loss. And well played to the distribution company, for giving us alternative fare to this summer's endless superhero movies...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Pulp at the Wireless festival: the normal world seems very very very far away

I heard Jarvis Cocker on the radio recently, on his regular 6music Sunday show, claiming to be bricking it about performing again with Pulp after such a gap. Bless him, he needn't have worried. That man was born to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. Or perhaps that anxiety turned into the energy that fuelled his stellar performance at the Wireless Festival on Sunday. I knew it was going to be great when they started with my my joint favourite Pulp song, Do you remember the first time? Oh how we jumped up and down, and sang along. Throughout the show, in fact. I've never been to a gig where so many people were singing along, completely familiar with the lyrics. I reckon it says something about the appeal of those lyrics, and they way they conjure up such familiar adolescent feelings.
Deep in the crush of the crowd it was difficult to make out the figures on the distant stage, so the massive screens on either side were a real blessing. I could easily make out Jarvis jumping and gyrating. There's something of Mick Jagger in his posture and the way he moves. He seemed entirely comfortable in the between song chats with the crowd, reminiscing about moving to London, talking about the band's early days.  I never saw Pulp back in the day, I'd hoped to see them when I went to Glastonbury in 1995, but missed their set- that's an entirely different (and quite long) story. So I don't know what the band's live musicianship was like back in the day, but certainly today they're complete masters of their instruments, whether that be Russell Senior on violin, Candida Doyle on keyboards...oh, I could go on. I didn't know Jarvis played the guitar, but he showed himself no mean strummer on Something's Changed. The intro to Sorted for Es and Whizz got a massive cheer, and the crowd didn't miss joining in with a word of this classic of the chemical generation.
From the upbeat beginning to the set, Pulp slid into the sleaziness of Hardcore and Ispy, complete with writhing and heavy breathing from Jarvis. But they picked up the tempo again to end with the classic social commentary of Common People, my other favourite. That was a superb ending, with ticker tape exploding from giant party poppers and raining down on us, lights and lasers swirling about.
I always swore I wouldn't go to a reunion of any band, nostalgia usually just makes me feel sad and pathetic. But I was more of a triphop girl than a Britpop one, so I don't feel that nostalgic about Pulp, despite the inherently nostalgic tone of many of their songs, with their evocation of teenage crushes, lust and partying. I've grown to love them over the last few years more than I ever did back then. I can't believe that they're only back for a few gigs. I read somewhere that Pulp wound down their work in the early noughties because they thought no one was interested in what they were doing any more. I hope that the sight (and sound) of 45 thousand folk singing every word of their songs will convince them that they were wrong about that.
Grace Jones
I read that Pulp chose all the acts that were on at Wireless this day, and I was trying to think what link there could be between such diverse acts as Grace Jones, the Hives, TV on the Radio etc. And I think it was that they're all great at putting on a show. Especially her royal Graceness, the penultimate act. She burst onto the stage in a kind of velvet bodice, over footloose fishnets, and vertiginous platform shoes . There were gasps and whistles from the crowd when she turned around to reveal her naked butt cheeks. And then there was the pole dancing...which occurred whilst she sang La Vie En Rose, in a sweet and wistful fashion. I loved her version of Roxy Music's Love is the Drug, and the excellent Slave to the Rhythm. And there was bumping and grinding a plenty during Pull up to the Bumper. It's great to see an older woman enjoying, and flaunting her sexuality, proving that lust isn't just for adolescents.
I'm not going to review all the bands, there was a lot of guitary stuff going on which I quite like, but it did get a bit samey after 6 hours (we got there early). But I'm having a musical crush on Metronomy at the moment so wanted to mention them. For those of you who haven't heard their stuff, do check them out on YouTube, especially their song The Look. I was delighted to hear them play this in their set, it's such a perfectly constructed pop song. First you get a catchy keyboard riff, then the drums and guitar take it in turns to join the tune, and finally a really strong bass line comes crashing in. This artful construction is reflected in the band itself, which is a really tight four piece, of strong musicians.
Metronomy's music feels like some of the most interesting stuff around at the moment, a blending of synths and guitars in some wonky electropop that reminds me of jazz at some points. There are influences ranging from Prince to Sparks and Kraftwerk, combined in a way that sounds like nothing else. Their fans made me chuckle though, we got right to the front for this set and the people near us seemed to be real aficionados. They were all so young: sporting that geek chic look and making those jerky, robotic dance moves that look like someone having a fit. Funny to think in 20 years or so, they'll probably be going to a Metronomy reunion gig at a festival somewhere...

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Pharoah Sanders at Ronnie Scott's

There are so many places in London I mean to go to, but haven't got round to yet. Ronnie Scott's was one such place. But I was was keen to go there to see someone I really liked, not just any old band. The long awaited opportunity came recently when US jazz legend Pharoah Sanders did three nights there with his quartet.

A word about me and jazz before I get into describing the gig. Somehow with jazz, it feels as though you have to prove your credentials. My dad likes jazz (although he prefers swing) so I grew up hearing stories about his visits to Manchester's jazz clubs in the 50s. I discovered recently he even played drums in a band, such a shame I didn't inherit his sense of rhythm.

My friend, Alistair, who's an explorer of the wilder regions of jazz, introduced me to John Coltrane, and of course the Pharoah himself. Like Coltrane, Sanders is known for imbuing his music with a spiritual dimension. Although I usually prefer my jazz with a shot of  female vocals, his track, The Creator has a Master Plan has become one of my all time favourites. Check it out on Youtube.

Ronnie Scott's itself is a very slick operation. We were welcomed at the door, and shown to our table. A waitress brought us, without our asking, glasses of iced water. Another waitress came over and introduced herself as our waitress for the evening. I loved the table service but realized later how practical it is. In a small club, the last thing you want is most of the audience ambling to the bar during the artists' sets. And it's all about respect for the artists. Recorded announcements asked us not to take photos, and to keep conversation to a minimum during peformances.

As I walked in, I said 'Wow', sotto voce, and the waitress turned, smiling and asked 'Your first time?', so I gathered it wasn't an uncommon response from the first time visitor. If I'd been asked to describe my ideal of a jazz club beforehand it would've been something like this. Darkened room, with red shaded wall and table lights, banquettes along the sides and intimate tables for twos and fours dotted around. The walls are covered in black and white pictures of jazz performers, usually unlabelled (I guess you're meant to know who they all are, but I didn't). The prices aren't jaw dropping for Soho, with cocktails starting at £9. My favourite was the Green Bison- Bison Grass vodka, kiwi liqueur, fresh kiwi and lime juice stirred with apple juice and fresh lemon grass, served long. The most expensive item on the drinks list, by a long long way, was a bottle of Dom Perignon  (1975) at £1300. I wonder how much they charge to let you sniff the cork?

The performance space is tiny, and but manages to accommodate a gorgeous Yamaha grand piano. It's close enough to the seating for the audience to see the way the musicians communicate non verbally with each other. And what of the music? Well, the support band were the Leon Greening Trio. They were all immensely skilled musicians, particularly the pianist, Greening himself. But they played what I think of as Charlie Brown jazz, after the background music that always used to be in those feature length Snoopy cartoons on tv when I was a kid. Pleasant enough in the background but not particularly inspiring, to me at least.

The main act came on at 8.30 and proceeded to hold us spell bound. Forgive me for not knowing the names of all the tracks, but they didn't announce them, just got on with delivering them.I feel I'm not worthy to describe Pharoah Sanders shoes, let alone his music, but I'll give it a go.  First up was a galloping, free form number that was like a musical whirlwind. The speed and virtuosity of the playing was awe-inspiring. The second song was even more my cup of don't realize how much you're enjoying this kind of music until you notice that your body is responding despite you, toes tapping, fingers drumming on the table. My mouth dropped open in awe as Sanders made the most extraordinary variety of sounds on his saxophone; long rippling runs of notes, squeaks and squawks, even a bubbling sound like when you fart in the bath. He played the whole instrument, tapping on the keys and funnel of the sax to end the song.

 My Favourite Things came next, delivered in the style of John Coltrane, with whom Sanders often used to play. It was a thrill to hear it live, and such a pleasure to watch Sanders wandering about the tiny performance space. Often, when the sax wasn't required, he would wander off to the side and lean on a table, nodding approvingly as the rest of the band did their solos, like a benevolent father watching his kids play. To lead into the break, they did a  truncated version of The Creator has a Master Plan (well the full version is about half an hour long) over which Sanders finally spoke, introducing his colleagues on drums, double bass and piano.

First song back after the short interval was a straight rendition of a jazz standard, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, probably as a nod to their London audience. The pianist sang the lyric, at first a little scratchily but he'd warmed up nicely by the second verse, revealing the richness of his tone. Next up, a tune I don't know the name of, but was in an arabic sounding scale. This was nocturnal, bedtime jazz. The audience was hushed and still, apart from the band there were no sounds other than the whispers of waitresses taking orders. The deep notes of the bass thrummed through the table into my arms, and the long slow notes of the sax seduced us all. To finish, the quartet returned to The Creator has a Master Plan, this time Sanders' deep gravelly voice added in the simple, repeating lyric.

Writing this, I realize how few tracks this seems, but each one seemed to last for many minutes, as these accomplished musicians soloed, improvised and played around the different themes of each song. It was music that touched on the transcendent, the numinous. Spirituality is such a loaded word these days, that I'm almost embarrassed to use it. To me, it describes that which is about the mystery of life; that spirit that quickens all our flesh, what it means to be alive. This music undercut my rational, analytical mind (which is why it's so hard to describe) and spoke to straight to that spirit. Purely and simply, it made me feel thrilled to just be alive.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Submarine

I remember when 3D films were those at the tackier end of the cinema market, Jaws 3D to name one such product. But now everyone seems to be getting in on the 3D act, most recently revered director Werner Herzog. His Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about the Chauvet caves in southern France. These caves, named after their discoverer, Jean-Marie Chauvet, the explorer who stumbled across them in 1994, are a prehistoric wonderland of cave paintings dating back almost 35,000 years.

Herzog was given privileged access to the caves in order to make this film, but could only use a camera crew of four and minimal lighting rig. The film's stars are as much the archaeologists, art historians and paleontologists who are researching the cave as the paintings themselves. The 3D effect is a bit of a distraction at first, especially since the paintings themselves are two dimensional. All that really looms out from the screen are the scientists as they poke around in the caves.

The floor of the cave are littered with the bones of animals, but strangely none of humans. The theory is that people did not live out their lives there, but used the walls to record their impressions of their world, perhaps as part of religious rituals. All that remains to identify any single artist are the myriad red palm prints which dot one of the walls. It's possible to trace the path of this artist through the cave, his print is unmistakable due  to a slight deformity in his little finger.

The palette of the documentary is a sombre one, of muted autumn shades (or perhaps there's a flaw with my 3D glasses). The paintings themselves are ochre and charcoal, beautiful images of horses, lions and rhinos. The best part of the film is the section near the end where the camera roams lovingly across the images to the haunting accompanying music.

There are some lovely light comic moments, courtesy of the scientists, particularly the one, clad head to toe in animal skins, who plays the Star Spangled Banner on the remains of an old bone flute found at the site, and his colleague who demonstrates his ineptitude at spear throwing. They make archaeology look such fun.

Herzog's output has been remarkably diverse over the years, from remakes such as Nosferatu, through narratives such as Aguirre Wrath of God, to documentaries such as his latest offering. Amidst this diversity it is possible to discern repeated ideas that preoccupy the film maker though, primarily the question, what does it mean to be human? Sometimes he explores this question by examining those who live at the fringes of, or who are completely alienated from, human society. For me, sometimes his explorations work, as in The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and sometimes they don't ( The Enigma of Kasper Hauser). But I'm glad that he keeps on asking the question.

The thing about rites-of-passage/coming of age movies is that the audience has to empathise in some way with the protagonist in order for them to work. Their dilemmas have to have some degree of universality to make us understand their struggles with life. I had considerable difficulty relating to the the problems of the teenage boy, Oliver Tate, whose story is the stuff of this movie. It made me realise how seldom these movies are about girls/young women (please do let me know any you can think of).

But his grandiose, narcissistic fantasies are amusing to watch, most memorably the opening scenes of the imaginary outpourings of grief that would attend the hero's tragic demise. Weeping teenage girls, flower and candle filled shrines and all night vigils, are the kinds of tributes Oliver imagines as his due.

Oliver is a literary genius in training, and records his life in obsessive detail. His every act is one of consequence. He's obsessed with a girl, and trying to prevent his parents' marriage imploding due to the malign attraction of their next door neighbour, a former boyfriend of his mother.

The film is beautifully realised, particularly the fantasy sequences such as the freeze frame effect as an unfortunate, bullied girl is pushed into a pond. There are apocalyptic images of rubbish dumps and deserted rail tracks that make the Swansea setting look like a waste land. Interestingly, the time period the film is set in is not obvious, there are no popular songs of the era to underline when this is set. It only struck me near the end when I realised there were no computers only type writers, and Oliver's dad had given him a souvenir cassette tape rather than a CD. The young actors are also extraordinarily watchable, and the lead, Craig Roberts is certainly no one trick pony, given the difference between this and his role as a horny teenage vampire in Being Human/Becoming Human.

But one last disparaging word about the music. Alex Turner, what were you thinking? I heard on the radio that Turner wrote the music without actually seeing the film, and I can well believe it. Such maudlin drivel you've never heard in your life. Get back to the Arctic Monkeys where you belong, and stop trying to be John Denver.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Frankenstein at the National Theatre

This week I had the privilege to see Danny Boyle's new prouction of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Although the production is sold out until the end of this run (April, but I'm sure it'll be back again, and two performances are to be shown live in cinemas during March), I'd had the good fortune to score a couple of seats, two rows back snuggled into the curve of the stage, within spitting distance of the action. Which proved to be spell binding, particularly the shocking opening section. At the start, the stage is empty, save for a large, upright oval covered in what looks like parchment, or the skin of a drum. It was possible to discern a shape inside this oval, soon revealed to be the monster, as he burst through it into life, as if leaving a womb. Previous versions of Frankenstein that I've seen have shown the monster on a surgical table, animated into life by a surge of electricity. But this monster, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, emerged into his life alone, writhing and gasping as he learnt how to use his body. Our proximity to this scene made this so intimate, the actor was stark naked, with scars and blood all over his body. It made me think about how shocking it would be to be so suddenly human; the skills and physical awareness babies learn gradually, would have to be grasped all at once. Cumberbatch is astonishing, in total contrast to his fast talking portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, he showed himself to be a masterful physical actor, as first of all his monster learnt he had hands, arms and then legs, stumbling in pain as he discovered how to use his body.

The two stars of the production, Cumberbatch and Lee Miller, are taking it turns in the two lead roles, one night being the monster, the next, Victor Frankenstein. For most performances, it's possible to choose who you see playing which part, but because this was a preview, we didn't know beforehand which would be which. Over pizza prior to the show, my friend and I had agreed that we hoped that Cumberbatch would be Frankenstein, assuming that would be the role with the most dialogue. In fact, once the monster has learned to talk, he gets most of the lines, staying more faithful to Mary Shelley's novel than adaptations usually do. He certainly gets the best lines, shouting "Now I am a man!" as he takes dreadful revenge on his creator. Frankenstein is hardly present in the first scenes, which depict the monster's education into humanity. Truth be told, Lee Miller was a bit of a let down as Frankenstein, even fluffing his lines at one point, but I have read that he makes a superb job of portraying the monster.

The staging of the play is worth the entrance fee alone. It's as if Boyle, more used these days to the wider canvas of film, has to use every inch of the stage, plus the auditorium and the ceiling. Flames flare up from a grill at the front of the stage to simulate a campfire (I thought my eyebrows were in danger of singeing), the sun shines and rain falls on the astonished monster as he encounters nature for the first time. At one point, an enormous train (symbolising the achievements of science and the advent of the industrial revolution) rides onto the stage with carousing villagers hanging off it. It's on stage for all of 30 seconds and then goes off again, having added little to the overall production, but still being a lot of fun. The only point at which I regretted our closeness to the action, was when clouds of dry ice flowed across the stage, and threatened to suffocate us.

The play does have its weaker points. Some of the supporting performances were less than stellar, particularly the role of Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancee. The actor in this role belongs to the school of actors that express emotion only by nodding and shaking their heads vigorously, in contrast to the intense physicality of the monster. The writing of this new play by Nick Dear is strong, except for a couple of places where overly modern idiom creeps in. The soundtrack, by Underworld, didn't work for me, it sounded too recorded, like someone had just put a cd on, and didn't work with the intensity of the live action.

The story of Frankenstein really makes you think about what it is to be human, what it is to be in this world. The newnesss of it all to the monster makes you see the absurdity of life through his eyes. When the monster cries out to demand of his creator why he was brought into the world and then abandoned, it's the cry any human could make at times about their own life. It's been filmed and played in so many versions over the last few hundred years, but by taking this production back to its origins, and focusing on the monster's story, we see it still has much to say that is relevant to our age, where science can do unspeakable things, and seldom pauses to ask why it shouldn't.