Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Sheer Joy of a New Bike

For only the third time in my life I am about to be the proud owner of a brand new bicycle. This might seem reasonable to some people, but how I've managed to find myself in this situation only twice before is beyond me. I'm currently the owner of a stable of eight complete bikes and more odd wheels and half finished projects than you can shake a spoke at. I've been racing bicycles for almost half of my lifetime, yet all but a couple of the bikes that I've ever owned have been acquired second hand and have often been built from a hotch potch of parts with varying suitability for their purpose. For those in the know, I've had Campagnolo bikes with Shimano brakes (quelle horreur!), race bikes with mountain bike seatposts (oh how I recoil) and probably half of the bikes I've ever ridden have been the wrong size.

You'll (maybe) understand my glee then, when I tell you that my new bike will be perfect. Sure, it won't be a superbike; I won't have the top level frame, groupset or wheels, but everything will be just right. Everything will be new, clean. Everything will match: I'm feeding the obsessive compulsive in me. I won't be riding a mongrel. For the first time I might find myself on a level playing field with some of those I race against, even though spending less than two grand means that I will have spent a quarter as much as some others.

But I don't care about those with all the gear and no idea, I will let my legs do the talking. They will repeat phrases they have learned during the masses of miles I have put in over the winter (yes, on one of those mongrel bikes that's too big for me), and their platform will be a bike on which everything is actually designed for the purpose for which it's being used: racing.

I'll wash my new bike every time I ride it (at least at first), and I'll only ride it when I'm racing or the weather is perfect. I'll ensure that my valve stems match up with the logos on my tyres, who doesn't? I'll insure it, after all, it's probably the most expensive thing I've ever owned. I'll covet and protect it with the kind of tender loving care usually reserved for a newborn child. The first scratch will break my heart, but I'm sure it will happen - this bike is for riding.

My new bike and I are going to have a beautiful relationship, and this is just the start.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Reel Deal: Eyes Wide Shut, 1999


Sex on screen is nothing new. In fact, it’s practically as old as the movies itself. Many of the earliest examples of pre-cinema, essentially short series of pictures inside a box turned with a handcrank by the spectator so that they create the illusion of movement, made money peddling titillating footage of dancing girls and strip-tease shows. Nowadays, celluloid entertainment of this kind has been largely banished to the filmic netherworld of hardcore and softcore pornography. These much-maligned genres arguably function as black mirrors for the mainstream Hollywood productions mounted far away yet ever so close to the industrialised intercourse of the San Fernando valley. They often share the same dubious sexual and racial politics and narrative predictability, taken to an extreme in the ‘Meet, Fuck, Repeat’ formula of the porno.

  If one was to be unkind, it might be posited that at least some blockbusters are merely whack-off material sublimated beneath a PG13-sheen; it’s not entirely irrelevant that Michael Bay describes his own maximalist aesthetic as ‘fucking the frame’. It’s interesting to consider the sub-genre of the porn-parody with this in mind. These skin-flicks are designed to resemble recognised film franchises, complete with lookalike adult performers, so as to capitalise on the disposable income of their horny fans. More than being purely spoofs of their specific material, however, they unintentionally (after all, let’s not give them too much credit…) satirise some of the worst excesses and traits of the entire Hollywood industry i.e. male stars placing themselves in narratives that will resolve in reinforcing their power and fellating their egos.  

  I mention this pornographic approach to sex in cinema in order to juxtapose it with the antithetical, rigorously intellectual style of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, much-maligned at the time of its release shortly after the auteur’s sudden death in 1999, and crying out for the sort of critical re-appraisal which retrospectively crowned his other misunderstood work, The Shining.  

  Easily the equal of that other great 90s film about sex, David Cronenberg’s Crash, it is quite possibly the most cerebral film about sex ever made. This may well be the reason why it initially disappointed many: instead of delivering erotic thrills, it’s far more interested in examining the psychology and politics of sexuality. Indeed, in one sense the film can be said to take place within the minds of its characters: the central figure of the doctor William Harford, played by Tom Cruise, embarks on his nightmarish sexual odyssey across New York because he is filled with an irrational jealousy brought on by his wife’s confession of fantasies of infidelity with other men. The film therefore becomes a profound exploration of the power the mind wields over our experience of sex: constructing it, animating it and becoming infatuated with it.

  Harford is no Casanova or Don Juan; he’s not even the dominant stunt-cock of hardcore. Instead, he drifts in bemusement from one potential sexual encounter to another – an unplanned visit to a prostitute, an offer from a father to take his daughter, a society of ritualistic intercourse. Every time he is thwarted by forces beyond his control, like the phantom of venereal disease or social exclusion, so that the film becomes a subversion of the erotic expectations typically fulfilled by pornography.

  With his final work, Kubrick confirmed his place as one of the most determinist directors in the history of cinema. From the depersonalised military drones of Full Metal Jacket through the capricious fortunes of Barry Lyndon to the transformation of Alex into a clockwork orange, his films repeatedly explore how the idea of the autonomous individual is a myth. Cruise’s doctor is only the last in a long line of anti-heroes produced and controlled by their environments, and the way in which Kubrick denies us the usual humanising colour afforded to protagonists goes some way towards giving them the disturbing aspect of living puppets.
  The environment comes to the fore in his satirical treatment of the unholy marriage between sex and capitalism and the way female bodies can become the currency of male power. It is surely no coincidence that the film is set at Christmas time, the annual peak of Western consumerism, foregrounding how in a culture where everything is for sale, sex becomes a commodity for the rich and powerful. One recurring image is of older, upper middle-class men standing over the broken bodies of young women who have been assimilated to this system of commerce: at the beginning, when the doctor is attending a high-society party thrown by one of his wealthy clients, Victor Ziegler, he is called to the bathroom where this client is unable to revive a bare-breasted and OD-ing girl with whom he was presumably about to have intercourse; towards the end, the doctor looks upon the corpse of a hooker he had encountered at a baroque sex party with a very exclusive guest list.

  This bizarre orgy scene at the centre of the movie, where everyone wears a mask and adopts a secret identity, is also eerily prescient of sex in the internet age and the industry of anonymous, no-strings-attached ‘adult dating’ websites. Again, Kubrick is highlighting how sexuality is increasingly coopted by consumerism.

  Even though Harford is presented as very successful in his career – someone who has seemingly realised the American Dream – we see him ejected from the orgy and warned by Ziegler against investigating the shady practices of this clandestine society. Kubrick’s movies, with the obvious exception of Dr Strangelove, are not often noted for their political engagement, but here it is apparent that the filmmaker has a characteristically scathing and cynical statement to make about life in the USA. Namely, that hierarchies of class remain unspoken realities even in the self-proclaimed land of the free, and that when freedom and success are so inextricably bound up with consumerism we eventually become enslaved to these market forces.     

  It is also typical of the eternally provocative filmmaker that he should choose to end his swansong on such an ambiguous note. Harford’s wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), having forgiven William for his nighttime excursions insists that there is something else they must do to resolve the situation: ‘fuck’. Not make love, but ‘fuck’, the coarse word emphasising the animal nature of every human being and intimating that it is not to be denied, whatever the film’s questions about sex in the late twentieth century. Fucking equated with forgiveness, because it is also potentially the most beautiful and assuaging of all human activities, after 159 minutes of sceptical unwrapping of the gilded allure of sex. Kubrick was always one for leaving his audience with unresolved dilemmas about the big themes in existence, and following in this grand tradition on his last picture – if you’ll excuse the pun – he goes out with a bang.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

F--K Yeah Birmingham!: M83 Live Review

Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, a record which I gave a dazzling review to last year, seems to have been something of a turning point for M83, for tonight the HMV Institute in Digbeth is packed to the rafters. This is no mean feat for a band who, until recently, were critical darlings but largely ignored by the general public. That the band has managed to garner such popularity off the back of a double album tied together by the concept of dreaming is even more of a ruse. That TV show theme probably helped.

The band arrive early, briefly preceded by this freaky bastard, who over the course of a minute or so, lifts his hands from his sides until they are far above his head. They begin, rather aptly, with Intro from their latest record, Zola Jesus's part performed ably by constant member Morgan Kibby, who tonight bounds keenly around the stage in a glittering blue dress.

It's unfortunate that a large contingent of the standing audience don't yet share her enthusiasm, as many of them seem content to stand rooted to the spot, static with their arms folded. The bands exuberance quickly rubs off, however, and by a third of the way through the set, largely drawn from the band's most recent two records, most of the assembly is pogoing around with reckless abandon, singing every word they know back to frontman Anthony Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is clad initially in a plaid shirt, but by the time Midnight City arrives he's removed it and the singlet beneath reveals that he's been working out recently. The guy is absolutely ripped. It's at this point that he climbs the barrier and pauses for a moment before hurling himself into the adoring crowd. Everyone is now hooked, and this eggs the band on, clearly thrilled at the adoration that they are receiving.

Later in the set and during the encore, there's palpable sexual tension between Gonzalez and Kibby; he wields his guitar at her as she stands behind her keyboard, she responds by grinding up against him moments later. This is clearly the sight of a band letting their hair down, visibly joyful, and is confirmed by a post from the M83 Facebook page later in the evening. The encore ends with the pounding Couleurs, the audience clearly satisfied, but still clamouring for more. Fuck yeah Birmingham.

The Oscar Committee

A selection based on merit and integrity, welcoming of diversity and progression. Just like the films they nominate.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Shakespeare versus the World

by Tom Dunn

Shakespeare adaptations are always an interesting event, particularly if you’re a film fan who also happens to enjoy a bit of the bard. Troublesome questions are posed to a potential director from the outset; blank verse or modern English? Historically rooted, fantastical, or re-fitted as contemporary allegory? Shakespearean stage interpreters, or Hollywood camera muggers – what is one to do? Ironically, many of these issues lie at the heart of most Shakespeare performances today; indeed, only the issue of blank verse is left sacred on stage. No, the real interest in cinematic Shakespeare adaptations lies in how they allow for a moment of greater, cross-cultural exposure than a typical RSC production might, and the responses this garners as a result.

 Take, for example, MattBochenski’s review of Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, Coriolanus, for Little White Lies. We’ll come to Coriolanus shortly, but there’s more pressing issues present in Little White Lies’ article that must be addressed beforehand. Bochenski’s review isn’t so much a critique of this latest silver screen outing for old Will as it is a violent savaging of the bard’s work at large. Clearly alienated by Fiennes’ decision to retain the blank-verse of the original play, Bochenski’s review regards the film as “mealy mouthed” to the point of incomprehensibility, using Coriolanus as a case study for his rather simply put conclusion: “there’s no place for William Shakespeare in cinema.” Well.

 Bochenski’s article is interesting for a number of reasons (not least the rather profound leaps in logic it makes throughout), and belies how easily most people shun Shakespearean works purely through a refusal to engage with the language. I’m not saying Shakespeare is for everyone, nor that those who get nothing out of his work are boors. But there’s something rather dangerous in Bochenski’s review – there is no movement beyond the language into the qualities that define this film as a cinematic adaptation rather than a play. All we really gain from it is that Bochenski would rather not watch Shakespeare, and would prefer to see it confined to the stage. By anticipating an “intellectual” backlash to the fact he personally did not enjoy the film, Bochenski ironically draws the enemy’s lines out for him.

 This is worrying, particularly from a magazine that prides itself in discussing not only the merits of the form it reviews, but how cinema is part of a wider artistic dialogue that encompasses all forms. Perhaps theatre is rather passé amongst the cutting edge ranks of Shoreditch and their love of graphic design, who knows. Given how indebted cinema is to theatre though, one would think that this love of the great artistic web would allow for film’s most obvious predecessor. One wonders what Bochenski makes of Polanski’s Macbeth, Olivier’s Henry V, or Welles’ Othello; all Shakespearean adaptations showing masterful approaches to the power of cinema – approaches that no cinephile should be blind to. Fiennes' take on Coriolanus might not stand up to Bochenski’s idea of a worthy film (he gave it the lowest score available for the mag), but this alone doesn’t justify a dismissal of all Shakespeare from the screen. By that logic, every Disney film out there must be atrocious because I thought Tarzan was a total crap-fest.

 There are problems with Fiennes’ debut behind the camera. Coriolanus is a play about one man’s stubborn pride, and how that leads to him being banished by the people – the individual failing to adhere to the collective. In bringing the play into modern day, certain aspects of Coriolanus’ exile from Rome lack necessary resonance; the war hero’s refusal to slip off his toga and display his wounded, vulnerable body to a rabble of onlookers, in being transformed into a failure to “speak” openly somewhat reduces the sense of Coriolanus as the peoples’ property to be owned and destroyed. Likewise, the call for death asks for too much of a leap from reality in this world of democratised Western Europe. Redgrave, Cox, Butler and Fiennes all give individual performances ranging from fine to fantastic over the course of the film, but never seem to ignite sparks within each other during the key dialogues, instead existing in personal vacuums. Jessica Chastain is embarrassing as Virgilia, and highlights Fiennes’ own uncertainty toward both her and his titular character with regard to the power of silence against language. What remains is a satisfactory film, at times charming in its flawed re-contextualising (the storming of Corioli is a highlight).

 If Bochenski had raised any of these issues – particularly those toward performance, or the inadequacies of the shift into modern Rome against the clear reliance on the machinations of the Roman Senate, his critique of the film, whilst something I still wouldn’t agree with, would at least be respectable and thought out. Instead, Bochenski’s article merely exacerbates a fascinating, if troubling, issue in the reception of cinema. Why are people so willing to make allowances for the idiosyncratic ways of Terrence Malick, or ignore the fact that Wes Anderson’s directorial box of tricks is becoming increasingly well-used, but at the first whiff of Shakespeare, they shut down? Were high-school English lessons really that bad? More seriously, are people really that willing to be led by what is labelled as “groundbreaking” or “alternative” in rather amorphous, indefinable terms, rather than actually engage with difficult passages of cinema?

 If the answer is yes, it's fucking frightening.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

In defence of Lana del Rey

Lana del Rey could possibly be the greatest cultural ruse in all of history. With well over twenty million YouTube hits to her name and anticipation reaching fever pitch over her forthcoming debut under the del Ray persona, the woman also known as Lizzie Grant has become something of a darling for both the music press and the industry itself. But there are two sides to every coin, and del Ray has also attracted a fair range of detractors in the blogosphere for her ‘fake’ aesthetic and spiel, which many have written off as cynical marketing on the part of her record company, Interscope.
Here’s the thing; as many of you may already know, the forthcoming Born to Die is not Lizzie Grant’s debut album at all (hence the obtuse choice of language in the first paragraph). She actually released her debut LP two years ago, pre-lip surgery but already adopting much of the persona by which she goes by today; songs like Lolita and Kill Kill clearly display the “ghetto Nancy Sinatra” aesthetic which del Ray publically admits she is going for. Whilst not up to the lofty standards of Video Games or Blue Jeans, the record is pretty great. It’s a pity it bombed and stayed on iTunes for only a few months.
This is what brings me to my first issue with the detractors; those that claim that del Rey has an unproven track record are simply incorrect. Whilst it may be the case that del Ray has garnered a massive amount of hype over a relatively few number of songs, those that wish to confirm her status as an artist to be watched have only to make a few mouse clicks to find over 40 minutes of material; material which, in my opinion, more than justifies some degree of hype surrounding her Interscope debut, despite the public indifference it faced upon release.
The second, and main, issue that I have with those that call del Rey out, is the idea that for music to be good it somehow has to be genuine or legitimised, presumably by some bizarre panel that makes a judgement based on a lie detector test. The whole point of art is escapism, and it’s escapism that encapsulates what it is that del Rey (and presumably her songwriting backers, it matter not) is setting out to achieve. The value of a book of fiction is not reduced simply by it being fictional, and nor should the ideas surrounding a musical artist. After all, was it ever really feasible that del Ray was the bizarre Lynch-esque character that she portrayed? It would have been foolish tothink so.
Those that write del Rey of simply as a false aesthetic expose themselves as somewhat counterfeit themselves. What they are, in effect, suggesting is that music is only valuable as some kind of confirmation of a genuine worldview or existence, and that it has to represent something beyond that which it actually is; enjoyable sound. They are essentially posturing. It is my belief that we should judge the value of music on what it actually sounds like, rather than what it says about us, the listener, or the artist.
As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your bona-fide gangster rappers and your heartfelt indie bands. Right now I’m happy to hear a melody and a voice that I enjoy. And if that means I get an interesting piece of musical theatre, albeit one (shock horror) supported by a record company? So be it, I’m entertained.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Shame Review

Days that are mindlessly routine in their execution, leaving behind them a miasma of confusion and repetition. An existence punctuated by wilful acts of pain – to oneself and to others – that result only in furthering the descent into nihilism. Such is life in director Steve McQueen’s New York, where sex addiction is a component of a society that, when trying to achieve something positive, is impotent. Shame, McQueen’s second collaboration with Michael Fassbender, is a bleakly explicit portrait of modern life – a need to consume, and in doing so, lose oneself – that, in many ways, finds itself sitting as something of a companion piece to Gaspar Noe’s equally devastating Enter the Void. Compelling in its presentation of utter destruction, Shame is a numbing experience.

 Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), is living the dream; a thirty year old businessman who happens to cut a dashing figure, New York is his for the taking. But, from the film’s opening moments, we see that this existence is one that is hollow and unrewarding, only made worse through Brandon’s distractingly compulsive behaviour toward sex. One-to-one webcam shows; prostitutes; magazines; office toilet cubicles – one way or another, Brandon silently pacifies his urges throughout each day. There is no context, nor explanation. Brandon merely exists, and in existing, he fulfils desires that only leave him alienated from the world around him. Not even with the arrival of his damaged sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), forcing his solo routine to deal with another (troublingly female) party, is the issue of sexual addiction explicitly addressed. The words are never spoken, and so the actions continue quietly and destructively.

 For Brandon and the people around him, emotion seems intrinsically linked with destruction, whilst sex, at least, offers negation. Nowhere is this better seen than in Brandon’s one, moment of potential sincerity during sex, an incident that is unfulfilled. Instead, it is swiftly swept aside for one more moment of guilty reduction, such incidents increasing throughout the film’s run until we become fully aware of just how numbing and nauseous Brandon’s life is. The explicit sex scenes of Shame may have earned it an NC-17 rating in the US, but these cold actions speak only of contempt, and are entirely free of any titillation.

 This emotional grinding, whilst clearly the thematic drive of the film, runs the risk of leaving the film going nowhere around two thirds in – thankfully, Fassbender’s excellent portrayal of emotional fatigue and self hatred, so much of which is realised non-verbally, ensures this period functions as Brandon’s personal nadir rather than the film’s, leaving the way paved for a suitably ambiguous climax. This is not a story of recovery so much as it is a snapshot of one man’s life in the city; why is he compelled to behave in this way? What is the story behind his relationship with his sister? How can the world’s foremost city be such an intensely isolating, nightmarish place? Aiding these uncomfortable questions is McQueen’s probing camera; a knowing voyeur that knows just when it’s time to step back and soak everything in, and then gets in suffocatingly close for the slight fall of Brandon’s face and shoulders in the aftermath.

As a result of this intense commitment to a single portrait, it’s hard to say whether the film truly achieves anything more in its second half that it doesn’t initially lay on the table, powerful as the portrait is. Whilst a Hollywood ending would be sickeningly false, what does occur is in some ways equally contrived, and highlights a lack of development in the character of Sissy. That said, the major thesis of McQueen's second feature works almost too well; an emotional endurance test, Shame isn’t the sort of film you’ll come back to any time soon, but it’s one you’d be a fool to miss the first time round. Just perhaps not with anyone you feel any affection for.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Modern Man: Brian Eno

There was a time in 1995 when many people were listening to Brian Eno without even realising it. Every time they switched on their Windows computer in fact. Eno had been tasked with composing the 3 1/4 second musical cue that would play every time the hardware loaded. He confessed to actually recording the piece on an Apple Mac, stating that he disliked the machines put out by his newest employer.

  As a musician, Eno has always embraced both technology and the opportunity for exploring ever more unusual and fertile avenues in sound. As early as 1978 he wrote a composition devised to be played on a permanent loop in airports and thereby subtly alter the mood of bustling terminals from chaos to calm. It is an example of the genre of ambient music that he was instrumental in founding. With it Eno anticipated and may in fact have helped to create our present, where music is no longer necessarily conceived of as a discrete unit to be occasionally digested so much as a constantly fluctuating cascade of beautiful or cacophonous noises emanating from our whole environment, loudspeakers to Spotify to mobile phones.

 The ubiquity and simultaneous anonymity that the Windows venture brought him were also nothing new for him; ever since his beginnings in the industry, Eno was a chameleonic and enigmatic force in the musical world. A veritable wizard of Oz, making magic behind the closed curtain of his production studio, and the Emerald City of his creation is the musical landscape of the past forty years.

  Starting out as a member of louche, lusty glam-rock outfit Roxy Music, Eno initially remained backstage on the mixing desk. When he did eventually join the others out front, the outrageously flamboyant and transgressively feminine costumes he wore meant that he effectively kept his professional aura of mystery. These were the first indications of what the word Eno would come to denote: something created in the moment of its performative space, resisting final definition, but endlessly compelling.

  When he first embarked upon a solo career a few years later, Eno developed his role as master-of-sounds from his days on the mixing-deck, playing about with the instrumental tracks laid down by such notable musicians as Robert Fripp and (ahem) a pre-Genesis, pre-atrocity Phil Collins. His earliest release in 1973 is everything you’d expect from someone as potentially pretentious and undeniably brilliant: the ultimate art-rock album, Here Come The Warm Jets. It showcases perhaps better than anything Eno’s propensity for twisting guitar music and pop structures in manners propulsive, parochial and perverse. It also established a template for his admirable skill at investing popular music with intellect whilst retaining the irreverent fun and seductive rhythm that gave it popularity in the first place. However, it’s his third album Another Green World that is widely considered his masterpiece, Eno incorporating the textures of ambient music into his signature odd pop. The result is more obviously serious than ever before: rather than merely augmenting reality (decades before the iPhone app did the same thing) as he had done with Music for Airports, he forms a new one: an entire pastoral universe filled with flora and fauna, where he adopts the role of a genial Pan. It’s an expression often bandied around, but World really is an album you can get lost inside, and it feels like a mini-holiday.

  However, it’s his work as a producer and collaborations with other artists that demonstrate his alchemical genius best. Most recently he’s been credited with granting Coldplay another lease of life by drawing them away from their dreary, sub-Radiohead safety zone to the sunnier climes of Mylo Xyloto, which is apparently quite good if you like that sort of thing…(Source of information: Father Pierce.) 

  More importantly, he’s the man who took David Bowie to another plane of excellence with the ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums, named after the Cold War-era city in which they were recorded. We can presumably thank Eno for giving free rein to the seventies icon’s experimental side. It is only with the arrival of their first team-up Low (1977) that Bowie moves away from more traditional songwriting towards soundscapes of fractured, abrasive and frightening electronica that reflect the divided geography of their birthplace and foreshadow another genre of the future: industrial. Listening to Low now is like witnessing a head-on collision between two distinctive brains, ideas flying violently like sparks off a chassis, and ultimately igniting.

  But the desert island disc, the one that stands tallest and brightest in the Eno canon, is the masterwork he produced in 1980 with another incorrigible innovator, David Byrne, and the rest of the Talking Heads. Remain in Light is the band’s magnum opus and although their prior work amply showcases their enormous personality and songwriting chops, it’s incontestable that they blossomed only with the addition of Eno to their number as both performer and head wizard. The source of its impact is Eno’s introduction of world music into the equation, but not in the tokenistic manner of a Sting record where a few sitars are sprinkled tastefully around like pot pourri in some tantric love-den that nightmares are made of. Instead, the rhythms and instrumentation of Africa and Asia are woven into a multicoloured tapestry on tracks like ‘Listening Wind’ so that they become part of a whole that feels organic, unpredictable and utterly sui generis. Everyone knows ‘Once in a Lifetime’, the closest the album comes to chart-friendly, but ‘The Great Curve’ is the standout; six and a half minutes of sinuous multi-layered drum beats, jubilant brass, ecstatic vocals and two gigantic, plunging electric guitar solos. Ecstatic? Gigantic? Plunging? The adjectives don’t lie; this song sounds like the horniest sex of all time.

  From the kaleidoscopic artistry of Remain in Light to the digital minutiae of Microsoft might seem like a shrinking of ambition, but really it’s all part of the bigger picture of Brian Eno, a man intent on changing music and the way music changes us. It’s his world, we’re just listening to it.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

On a car crash

I will preface this by saying only that it is an account of something I remember from five or six years ago, and that I have tried to be as truthful as possible whilst writing it. This is the first time I have written anything down about the incident, so I can't claim that everything will be absolutely correct, but I have done my best. There are news reports about the incident at the bottom.

Nothing had appeared wrong as the two cars overtook us at speed. Sure, they were going bloody quick - ninety, a hundred maybe - but there was little to suggest anything unusual. They were just a bunch of boy racers out on a Friday night to us. We were driving up to Derbyshire for a weekend away in a youth hostel with friends, and our route took us past the Starcity entertainment complex in Nechells.

The area surrounding the complex is fairly industrial. It's a stones throw, both geographically and architecturally, from Spaghetti Junction; the roads here pass over one another, suspended high in the air by monolithic concrete pillars. This place is the embodiment of the word  'brutalist'.

The two cars in question rounded the right-hand bend ahead, seemingly disappearing into the night as quickly as they had sprung from it. We thought nothing of it. The scene that confronted us as we rounded the bend ourselves was nothing short of catastrophic. A burnt out wreck of a vehicle was sat on the road ahead of us, black, smoking and silent as the grave. The silence would turn out to be the strangest part: we had heard nothing..

We simply could not believe it. This car had obviously been there for some time, how had it not been moved? This was a city centre dual carriageway, not some sleepy lane out in the country where an arsonist's plaything could lie dead without causing any further harm. How could a car here be this utterly decimated without having fallen from the carriageway above? The arnco was in tact.

Slowly, it began to dawn on us. The reality hit home when we saw that there were people still inside. Or rather, they would have been, had the twin concepts of 'inside' and 'outside' still been applicable to the mangled wreckage that lay strewn before us, and had the occupants still, in fact, been people.

We were the second or third vehicle at the scene. My mum bought our van to a stop some distance from the remains of the car and the concrete block it had struck. I don't know whether this was a conscious decision or one made simply out of shock. My dad immediately got out and began running towards wreckage, but not before warning us to stay exactly where we were. I'm grateful for this years later, but at the time I wanted to do anything I could to help. I felt stifled. In reality, however, there was little any of us could have done at all. Two of them were already dead. One of these was still wearing his seat belt, though it transpired that a large part of him actually occupied an entirely different seat.

For me, the rest of the night is a blur. There are flashes of my mother going to the scene herself and returning astonished, in tears. The emergency services weren't long, but my dad has described to us how, in the time it took them to arrive, him and another member of the public had held a third man's head up to give him some support as he sat dying. He told us that the man's arm was in another lane of the dual carriageway. He told us that the only reason he had been able to cope with what was going on was because it simply did not seem real to him. I was surprised at the time how strong he was about the whole thing, even at fifteen I would have expected to be able to read something like that, though I'm not sure that the gravity of the situation had really hit him until the inquest, when he was visibly upset for several days.

Of the four men that set off in that car, heading to work at the Birmingham post sorting office, one survives. He was silent at the inquest. I'm not sure now if he was the driver and if his silence was borne of shame, but I wouldn't be surprised if he could not recall a thing anyway. They never found the other car that had been racing with them, it had disappeared into the ether. I wonder if the occupants of that car ever feel guilt? Do they even know what happened? It begs another question; were all of those in the crashed car complicit in their night time adventure, and would they have done the same had they been in the driving seat? Would they risk their youth, would they risk everything, the same as the driver had, for a thrill on a Friday night?

But here is the thing about youth and youthful vigor; sometimes I feel as if the only true brashness would be to waste it, to not take every chance or act on every whim without a thought,  but I think a little more and realise that it can't last forever, and that it's worth not giving in to some of those whims to prolong it.


Monday, 16 January 2012

This is Britain: Some thoughts on today’s Report to Government by the Film Policy Review Panel

The future of British film might not seem like one of the most pressing issues in our economically uncertain present. Aside from my personal love of cinema however, I believe that a flourishing film culture should be considered important to the life of any nation. After all, obviously when a ship is sinking under its own weight it’s logical to throw out a few of the more disposable and frivolous items of furniture in order to keep it afloat. But there’s always the danger of going too far under the perceived imperative of safeguarding the vessel and ending up with an empty, cheerless tin can that you’d rather throw yourself off of and risk the open water than remain inside. Similarly, a nation which opts to stymie colour, diversity and vitality in its arts is one that is impoverished beyond measure.

  David Cameron’s ominous exhortations last week, simplistically and naively advocating the pursuit of commercialism in British filmmaking, were typical of Tory government; they suggested that resources and support should be channelled only towards the established industry figures and production companies who enjoyed this form of success, neglecting to consider the importance of nurturing fledging talent. They also sidestepped the wider social responsibility of any artistic medium and the funding bodies that should support it: to provide a means of expression and recognition for peoples from diverse and potentially marginalized communities, and to provoke thought and discussion. Obviously commercial success and the revenue it returns to the film industry are important to ensure the necessary resources for future films, but attempting to transform British filmmaking into a micro-Hollywood is wrong for two reasons. 1. Commercial success is difficult to predict, and it is often through risk-taking and innovation that this success is attained. 2. Such an approach can lead both to artistic bankruptcy and homogeneity in the types of film produced, which is not good for anyone.

  The Film Policy Review Panel’s report is encouraging then because it encompasses both a more idealistic and simultaneously savvier proposal of what is needed to ensure a thriving film industry. It recognises the need for greater provision of as broad a range of indigenous and international cinema as possible for British audiences. Refreshingly, it criticises the bullish tactics of major studios, specifically their tendency of demanding that multiplexes provide inordinate amounts of screenings of their films per day, thereby squeezing out smaller-budgeted and independent works which cannot afford to compete. Alongside arguing for negotiations with these studios in this area, it recommends that alternative platforms beside theatrical release be employed for these marginalized texts. The film industry, like its musical counterpart, has been reluctant to engage extensively with these secondary platforms, but it is time that a strategy of distribution in these new media was developed. Like many others I’ll always prefer seeing a film cocooned in a darkened auditorium with a receptive audience, but it’s important that the potential for these other platforms (e.g. streaming services, television networks) to provide greater access to world cinema that might otherwise remain unavailable and unnoticed be recognised. Additionally, by releasing these films on other platforms audiences for them can be developed, thereby establishing greater consumer interest and thus commercial imperative to release others like them theatrically in the future.

  The other really interesting and significant proposition made by the report that struck me was the section advocating a nationwide programme of bringing both theoretical and practical education in cinema to our schools. As I have previously stated, filmmaking can be a means of universal expression and of encouraging children to engage productively with their wider communities.  Media studies is often wrongly dismissed as a non-subject, but the critical approach to the reception of media texts such filmic education could foster is vital in today’s society. Children are flooded with information on screens from infancy, and the critical faculties these disciplines can foment allow individuals to become more active recipients of the texts they watch, for example by enabling them to become alert to the ideological or political biases these texts encode.

  In our society, we often give too much priority to the written word over the image. This is particularly glaring today, when people are accustomed to watching screens more than ever before in human history, and absorb more knowledge through these screen-based media than through traditional print. Literacy must be supplemented by greater visual-literacy if we want new generations to possess the necessary qualities to become both responsible, informed citizens and skilled practitioners of a world-class film and television industry.  
For anyone interested in reading the report, it's available here: http://www.culture.gov.uk/publications/8743.aspx         

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Déjà view: The Artist Review

It’s fair to say that the success of The Artist has been unexpected. An anachronistic revival of silent cinema by a group of French filmmakers practically unknown outside of their home country, sans star wattage or worthy themes, it has enjoyed commercial success and critical plaudits regardless. Harvey Weinstein, hotshot producer and notorious Hollywood bullyboy, has even thrown his considerable weight behind bagging it the Oscar for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. In light of the underdog success story with which it arrives laden – perhaps detrimentally – at UK theatres, it’s a shame that the film itself fails to deliver entirely on its intriguing premise.

  The problem lies principally with the screenplay, which borrows heavily from Singing in the Rain to weave its glossy story of riches to rags and back to riches amongst the Hollywood golden age. George Valentin, played ably and with an uncanny resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks by Jean Dujardin, is a silent-era movie actor who revels in his fame and fortune. Unluckily for him, the times they are a-changin’, specifically from silence to sound, and he swiftly finds himself out of work and out of favour with the public as young actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) – with whom he is besotted – inversely experiences a meteoric rise to the A-list. Considering that the film is only 100 minutes in length, this somewhat clichéd narrative still feels stretched too thin to support its running time. There are no subplots and few other characters beside the central pair are given any significant screen-time or fleshing out, which unfortunately means that Valentin’s extended period of despair and career meltdown begins to feel overwrought, fairly aimless and dare I day it, slightly tedious.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some dynamic sequences dotted here and there; the film comes alive the most when it surrenders fully to the romance of the movies, as when George and Peppy fall in love over the course of several aborted takes during shooting for his latest adventure movie or in the almost empty auditorium where Valentin watches his onscreen self in his first flop sink inexorably into a pool of quicksand, taking his career with it. Director Michel Hazanavicius also manages to rouse the proceedings in time for a breathless final act replete with deadly house fires and a showstopping dance routine, but sadly it’s too little too late to save the film from its lack of momentum.

  It’s also telling that many of the most striking visual and sonic devices employed by Hazanavicius are lifted directly from American classics like Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard; we are treated to facsimiled images like the group of silhouetted figures watching a camera projection or the marital breakdown over the breakfast table. And towards the end a segment of Bernard Herrman’s extraordinary score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo is interpolated to ratchet up the tension. Whilst it’s undeniably fun for a hopeless film buff (that’ll be me) to play spot the references, the film fails to invest them with any new vitality or meaning. Unless one has the gift for postmodern mixtape-filmmaking of Tarantino or the Coen brothers, it’s unwise to rely too heavily on the rich associations evoked by these allusions. Not because it can be construed as an act of artistic rape as actress Kim Novak recently alleged, but since by invoking masterpieces of yesteryear the work invites inevitably unflattering comparisons. 
  It’s possible that The Artist plays better to those who have little or no prior experience of silent cinema, since the film does have fun by exploiting the novelty of the form in our time, most memorably in the gag towards the end of the picture predicated on an ambiguous title card…To those who already have an existing interest in early cinema however, this novelty will quickly wear off and when it does it has less to flaunt underneath its alluring exterior than one might desire. Instead of standing on an equal footing with the great silents of the first years of the 20th century, it functions more as a ghostly echo of their past glories – initially striking, yet ephemeral and ultimately insubstantial.          

Monday, 9 January 2012

Angelina Jolie Q&A? Aye Aye!

Whilst everyone likes to pretend they never saw Mr. & Mrs. Smith, there's no denying Angelina Jolie can drop a corker of a performance when required (see: The Changeling). It also turns out that she may be a bit of a dab hand behind the camera too, with her directorial debut, In The Land of Blood and Honey nabbing itself a Golden Globe nomination.

Starring Zana Marjanovic and Goran Kostic as lovers caught on either side of the Bosnian War, In The Land of Blood and Honey looks to be a fairly intense portrayal of Sarajevo life in the middle of the crisis. Sound like your kinda schtick? Fancy asking a question to the female half of Brangelina but never had the chance? Well today may well be your lucky day chum, for Angelina will be taking part in a live Q&A session on January 12, and if your question's picked you might just get a poster too.

Keen? Leave your profound statement for Mrs. Jolie in the comments section of this post - the best answer will be put forward for the Q&A which will be viewable HERE on Spectrum, live, January 12. Exciting! And make sure to refresh this page when the time comes!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

My Year in Lists: Songs

So like a lot people blogging out there I decided to take on the challenge of writing year end lists. First up are the songs (listed alphabetically), and there should be albums too in a week or so. I haven't included any songs from stuff that's on my albums list as that would have ended up a mega-gargantuan task. Indie lovers may feel a bit short changed, but there's more of that on the albums list. There's a spotify playlist for the songs on the list that are on spotify:   http://tinyurl.com/7jnu38a  Enjoy!

Adele - Rolling in the Deep (Jamie xx shuffle)

Adele is a whiney bint and her music is some of the most boring dross that I have ever heard in my entire life. It’s a good job then that Jamie xx is about to give some vitality to her usual claptrap with his fantastic pitch-shifted remix of Rolling in the Deep. One of many fantastic tunes from Mr xx this year, this one stands out as an excellent example of why remixes are a good idea – the complete transformation ofsource material into something else far more adventurous and interesting.

Azealia Banks feat. Lazy Jay - 212

The hype surrounding Azealia Banks’ 212 was almost inevitable in 2011, the year of Odd Future. A three minute banger containing graphic sexual imagery and gratuitous use of the word cunt, set to a bouncy house beat, the song showed Banks keen to establish herself a bad girl image, despite her classical training. Equal parts Tyler, The Creator and Kreayshawn, the song justified the hype with its invigorating catchiness. Imma ruin you, cunt indeed.

Benoit & Sergio - What I've Lost

I’ve already blogged enthusiastically about Benoit & Sergio this year, and whilst the initial excitement has died down, I still find this song fantastically evocative. Bittersweet and gorgeous, it is this restrained groove that has been music from popular dance music for some time. When you hear “little French girl, I wanna drive you round the streets tonight”, you want to drive her around those streets too.

Bjork - Crystalline

As Bjork is such an innovative artist, it came as no surprise this year when she released an album-as-ipad-app. Focussing just as much on visuals as sounds was merely a small step for a musician so concerned with aesthetics. The gorgeous clangers-cum-lsd clip that came with this song matched the music perfectly – somewhat bizarre but astonishingly brilliant. The left turn with a minute remaining vies for an award as the year’s greatest Aphex Twin song not released by Aphex Twin too.

Earl Sweatshirt - Dat Ass

Hidden away on a low-profile mix tape, this minute-long track is Odd Future at its most soulful and it’s all too brief. Powered by a soulful sample from J Dilla’s Time: Donut of the Heart (which itself samples the Jackson 5), it finds Earl in an uncharacteristically jubilant mood. I wish those boisterous scamps would do stuff like this more often.

Feist - How Come You Never Go There

Feist returned from the musical wilderness in 2011 with her well-received Metals, the cover of which was decided as the winner of an online paint-by-numbers competition. Inside was found much of Feist’s usual fare, albeit this time with a darker edge than on The Reminder. There has always been something bittersweet about her tales of life and love, but here the focus was squarely on the bitter, and How Come You Never Go There was a case in point, for the first time showcasing Feist with an accusatory tone. Those melodies are still pretty sweet though.

Girls - Vomit (can't say I recommend trying to Google the single's cover)

Girls proved to be more than a flash in the pan with their sophmore record Father, Son, Holy Ghost and this storming single was an undoubted highlight. The desperation in Christopher Owens’ voice was palpable, and the explosion of guitar mid way through matched the climax of the song’s narration perfectly, the bolt-on choir a perfect metaphor for excess. Vomit made loneliness and yearning sound cool for all of its six and a half minutes.

James Blake - Wilhelm's Scream

The main highlight on an otherwise disappointingly dry album, Wilhelm’s Scream was deceptively simple, with James Blake’s lonely cry building to a gorgeous murky climax. With Blake seeming to be splitting off in many directions this may be the best song of this type we hear from him, a diamond amongst the dull rough elsewhere on this album.

Jamie xx - Far Nearer

Jamie xx features far more heavily on this list than anyone has a right to, especially for someone who has released only one solo single. On that single, however, he showed that he was capable of much more than just fantastic remix jobs. This airy track, powered by the sound of steel drums, lies a million miles from the moodiness exuded by his band. Instantly appealing, its exuberance is infectious.

Jamie xx & Gil Scott-Heron - NY Is Killing Me

This has been something of a stellar year for musical chameleon Jamie xx (not so much for Gil Scott-Heron who passed away in May), with a number of high profile projects to his name. His set of Gil Scott-Heron remixes could so easily have gone wrong, but he pulled it off with aplomb and no small amount of skill. This truly essential track managed to be both haunting and an awesome club banger. A true ruse for any aspiring DJ.

John Maus - Believer

John Maus goes beyond pretentious to preposterous. Recent interviews have seen him comparing his music to power struggles throughout human history and attempting to explain his hysterical stage presence as a response to the metaphysical question of how we can be sure of our own existence. Whilst part of our retort to him should be “Mate, get over yourself. You just make synth music.” we should also applaud Maus for his instantly appealing dark pop. Recalling both Joy Division and Kraftwerk, Believer was one of the highlights from his third album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves.

Kreayshawn - Gucci Gucci

The year’s biggest musical marmite moment came from female white Oakland-based rapper, Kreayshawn and her equally infectious and daft single Gucci Gucci. Even in a world where rap has proliferated so much into mainstream culture, it was no surprise to see so many rap purists coming out against Kreayshawn’s “bastardised” version of the form. But the point here was fun rather than legitimacy, and Kreayshawn bought it in spades. Swag.

Lady Gaga - Judas

Is it still ok for me to like Lady Gaga? Everything she did this year, apart from this song, felt tired. Born This Way was Scissor Sisters lite, and they weren’t exactly lead-like in the beginning. The first single, however, caused me genuine excitement in the same way that Papparazi did; “hey guys, this is Eurodance that I can like too!” Another overblown theatrical video was also order of the day. More tunes please Gaga, and less sloganeering!

Lana del Rey - Video Games

Lana Del Rey could quite possibly be the story of the year. With accusations of falsehood and fakery flying around, it was a good job that her songs were so impeccably well written, regardless of who wrote them. Naysayers have accussed del Rey of being all aesthetic and no substance, but I challenge anyone to feel unmoved by the gorgeous piano balad Video Games and its equally fantastic b-side Blue Jeans. I can only hope that the songs on del Rey’s forthcoming album are half as good as these.

Lil Wayne feat Corey Gunz - 6 Foot 7 Foot

Everything Lil Wayne does falls into one of two distinct categories:
a)      Complete failure, or
b)      Unparalleled success.
Whilst Mr Carter seems to have produced more of the former recently, this was definitely part of the latter category. Wayne works best when he leaves feelings out of it and sticks to bragging just about how great he is. It may be a rap cliché, but with a beat this addictive and lines this crazy, who’s gonna hate?

Rival Schools - Wring It Out

Rival Schools made a storming return this year, over 10 years since the release of their last (and in fact debut) album. 2011 saw them more mellow, but still capable of producing rousing rock anthems as well as any their younger contemporaries. Wring It Out is power pop at its best.

SBTRKT - Wildfire

SBTRKT has steadily been making a name for himself with some high profile remixes and EPS over the past few years. This standout track is from his debut album, which is influenced by the whole spectrum of UK bass music. Post-dubstep goes pop. 

Tyler, the Creator - Yonkers

I have to be honest, Tyler, The Creator doesn’t sit particularly well with me. I find his music trad and his spiel boring, and quite frankly I think that Goblin was largely rubbish. Yonkers, however, I feel was a moment of real genius. The first view of the genuinely shocking (no mean feat in these times) was an exhilarating experience that’s hardly faded over time. Couple the excellent beat with some genuinely funny one-liners and you have Tyler’s definitive moment to date. Everything surrounding it is irrelevant when a song is this good.

Washed Out - Within & Without

Despite a largely lacklustre album this year, Ernest Greene still proved himself capable of the occasional moment of beauty. Within and Without, his album’s title track, was tender and restrained, but still carried an air of regretfulness between its notes. More of this on your next record please Ernest.

Wild Flag - Romance

Indefinite hiatus. These words hang over so many of the 90s brightest lights that they have become almost cliché. These words are also a curse for fans of Sleater-Kinney, damning Wild Flag’s debut with the weight of expectation. It speaks well for Carrie Brownstein and co then that Wild Flag’s eponymous album has been so well received, with this 70s-esque rocker the focal point of the Wild Flag campaign.

The Young Knives - Love My Name

The Young Knives haven’t garnered much attention over the past couple of years, and post-punk isn’t exactly de rigueur at the moment, but the first single from their latest album was an under the radar pop gem. Love My Name brimmed with fake excitement and sarcasm, but quite what the band were sarcastically pretending to be excited about is still a complete mystery.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Back then they crawled, but now they flew.

If I could live those days again
In wood-clad rooms and on the fens,
In cobbled courts and winding streets,
Where life was laid right at my feet.

Days once grey, now silver-sheened,
If only this I could have seen:
That beauty lay outside my door,
That time I've lost, forever more.

If I could live those days afresh,
I'd do much more and care much less.
I'd say to sorrow - stay away,
And hold my petty fears at bay.

If only I could start anew,
Back then they crawled, but now they flew.
Days that felt not special then,
If I could live those days again.