Monday, 29 August 2011

Life nowadays is a funny something

At the end of the day, we all live in different realities. Right? And if we haven't actually experienced something for ourselves, we will all inevitably have a different sense of the truth. No? The question keeps asking itself, why do we go to an art gallery, a film, a book reading? Is there really any human difference between those experiences and that of attending a sports event? Isn't it ultimately a search for belonging, for meaning in our lives? Prince Charles visited some of the sites decimated by the riots a fortnight ago and concluded that youths joined gangs for a sense of belonging. Often it's worthwhile to state the obvious. Tony Blair hit the front page of last week's Observer with his opinion piece on the riots concluding that these were isolated citizens in the minority of our good society and all that we needed to do was get back to his policies (promulgated as PM) of helping dysfunctional families.

But did Mr Blair see the real world either? The argument is a book in itself, of course. But Britain has always been a divided society. It tried (arguably succeeded) in leading the world in being a tolerant society. But for decades the money started running out to support the infrastructure for such noble ideals. New Labour created a new middle-class but ironically its result has been to out-price any new-coming house-buyers from any major town or city and create another set of under-classes. No-one could have foreseen last decade's multitude of financial debacles nor the Iraq War. Could New Labour have worked in an ideal world?

The roots of Britain's discontent lie far deeper than just dysfunctional families. Not all is lost of course and never will be (therein lies Blair's optimism and vindication) as many of America's inner-city interventions have proven. This year's Oscar winning In a Better World by Danish director Susanne Bier explores our notions of tolerance and forbearance. It's a confrontational yet life-affirming film, arguably a discourse rather than a vision for the world. The irony is that she may never have got it made (through Danish outfit Zentropa) if it weren't for the dystopian visions of Lars von Trier (his latest Melancholia opens end-Sept) who scorched an international reputation for that company. And who openly made fun of Bier (apologetically) at his Cannes press conference this year. He mentioned the Nazis and was banned from the festival. The Chapman brothers (at both White Cube spaces) eerily create an installation of life-size Nazis (like magnets that both repulse and attract) garnering them mostly praise (it really does need to be experienced). Go figure.

Von Trier's groundbreaking films are unlikely to ever win an Academy Award® (not that there aren't some very fine Academy Award® winning films). But films that win such awards will always tend to embrace the ground of life rather than break the turf. The concert film of Glee is a case in point. The stereotypes of this hit TV series are life-affirming to the minorities it champions. Who could possibly criticise that achievement? Just as the guy who blinked twice on YouTube and followed up with his confessionals went on to be one of the most widely viewed in the world. It's a sense of belonging.

But belonging can also be hewn out of dystopia as Athina Rachel Tsangari shows in her film Attenberg: “I don’t use psychology,” she has said. “I prefer biology or zoology. These are my tools." Marina's (Ariane Labed) father Spyros is dying of cancer and she forms a bond with Bella (Evangelia Randou). Together they watch Sir David Attenborough animal docs, dance, kiss and generally avoid any other human contact. As with last year's perversely provocative Greek film Dogtooth (same cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis) it is a meditation on the barriers between our inner selves and society. Are we any happier joining in the social mores of our race?

Another Dane, Lone Scherfig has helmed the film of David Nicholls's book One Day. College in Edinburgh almost unites Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturges) but life (we witness their same July 15 from 1988 to 2011) thence teases them apart. Scherfig's skill (cf An Education) is in getting up close and personal to find a character's truth. Her latest film is no exception. And many times we roll with this mirror to our nature. However, a novel allows us space to dream while a conventional film does not. Therein lies the film's failures not so much in the material.

If you've queued for hours one dreary, grey London summer morning in the vain hope of getting a ticket to see the bare-breasted torso of Jude Law in Anna Christie (the rest of the show's attributes are apparently first-rate too), try The Museum of Broken Relationships open til Sept 4: a sad, fascinating show touring from Zagreb, initiated by the Tristan Bates theatre, and spread over two Covent Garden spaces plus a few window nooks in surrounding shops. Objects with their attached 'broken stories' have been donated to the Museum by their owners and suspended in time like the volcanic aspic of Pompeii. Inspired or depressed you're certain never to walk alone with your scars after seeing this show.

Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar has spend much of his time living in another reality namely Madrid. His films find the truth of life in its melodrama, often multiple dramas within the same movie. The Skin I Live In has Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas who only seems to become more human the longer he works;) obsessed with his plastic surgery techniques. It's a far slower, more meditative, even more voyeuristic film than we're used to from Almodóvar. He creates skin that is both a metaphor for identity and a membrane for our tolerance of existence. He even seems to be toying with his viewer giving them both the entertainment they crave but also suggesting that our own inner life is far more disturbing and incisive than anything Almodóvar himself could conjure on the screen. Normally edgy 'politically aware' distributors Metrodome have savvily nabbed what could only be called Ming Dynasty soft-porn, 3D Sex & Zen-Extreme Ecstasy. Now's your chance if you've never seen a 3D nipple (and there are plenty to choose from here). Might even be a route into introducing teenage students into the semiotics of Umberto Eco and simulacra;) Or even the fine art of Chinese ceramics.

Sergei Paradjanov played with identity in The Colour Of Pomegranates, 1969 (a world 'classic' just out on DVD) outraging the censors by casting the same actress as both iconic C18th poet Sayat Nova and his seductress Anna-two halves of the same soul. He was imprisoned by the authorities who feared that he'd become a figurehead for young intellectual Ukranian nationalists. The film was commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Sayat Nova's birth - he wrote in 3 languages, viewed as a symbol of the brotherhood of the trans-Caucasus and promoted by central government as a path to united socialism. The original release was a travesty of the director's vision - and only by watching Levon Grigoryan's (Paradjanov's assistant) 2006 doco DVD extra can we gauge the full vision of the director's "poetic subtext of the everyday object". This Second Sight release is brimming with other extras such as Daniel Bird's specially commissioned doco The World is a Window and an audio commentary by one of the actors who was cast because of his authentic beard - though some phrases are a little hard to understand through his thick accent.
Legend Of the Suram Fortress DVD

A review at the time by Willy Haas of F.W. Murnau’s 1921 silent Schloß Vogelöd (Castle Vogelöd:The Revelation of a Secret) notes: "Murnau’s artistic tendency is to moderate strong gestures into others more noble and subtle. This makes him more successful than any other director in conveying intimate dialogue, the completely silent exchanges of the heart, as in the scene of the confession, where the emotion is expressed through the extraordinary tension of the bodies." The film is even more remarkable given that it was shot in only 16 days. A 30min DVD featurette shows how Murnau used sets to illuminate the character's emotions e.g. false perspective, inspired by the art of Käthe Kollwitz. Also from Eureka DVD is a very strange, rather slow Romanian tale Strigoi giving a sort of Ken Loach twist to the vampiric genre. And if you didn't know that Howard J. Ford & Jonathan Ford had over 100 commercials to their credit you'd be awestruck by the sheer technical brilliance of their zombies in Africa pic The Dead - a hit at London’s Frightfest. You don't have to give this film the 'sympathy' vote just 'cause you've heard all their trials and tribulations e.g. losing their leading man to malaria. What is lacking, though, is anything particularly new or inventive for the zombie genre. That said, you're never bored and the fact that you expect more to happen than it actually does is tantamount to the Ford brothers skill in the use of suspenseful cinema. There may indeed be a message trying to escape here but there isn't that extra twist to allow it to do so. Still, you'll happily buy a ticket for the Fords next adventure given this quality product.

Another award winning ad director turning to feature films is Ben Wheatley (whose debut last year Down Terrace divided critics). On the strength of that and his latest Kill List Wheatley's one of the few Brit directors alongside the likes of Shane Meadows who's idiosyncratic enough to deserve having their name above the title. There's a documentary edginess to the camerawork and to the way Wheatley allows us unto the lives of his characters. The 'hit man family' plot descriptions don't sound like much on paper. But when executed they're really quite spine-tingling and excitingly enigmatic. It's been a while since a Brit director had us on the edge of our seats (in Blair Witch vein) and if you prefer your violence suggested off-screen (like the Tarantino Reservoir Dogs ear slicing) then Wheatley's brand of entertainment is probably not up your street.

After In Bruges we all eagerly awaited Martin McDonagh's brother writer-director John Michael feature. The Guard's tone isn't quite as sure-footed and nimble as the former - think Tarantino on Valium in West Ireland after too many pints of Guinness. But it's still miles ahead of anyone else in the Isles attempting this sort of politically incorrect jibe, with every performance just a knock-out.

And you couldn't get further away from such shenanigans than Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (2006, out on Eureka DVD) filmed in Lisbon's new high-rise public housing ghettos. But there you might be wrong, at least most certainly in terms of Costa's cinematic sensibility. Craig Keller's doco extra is a fascinating shambolic 2hours where Costa reminds us that 3sec of a John Ford western is equal to 3hours of some less illuminating contemporaries. "Art is not about anything else but reality...the things we see...not doing, form, I see certain lights...I'm not dealing with other things than this" "3 seconds in John Ford is 3,000 years. I defy any young video artist to tell his story in [one of those time frames] but he has to work very's Proust, it's Kafka, it lasts for centuries to tell just one second."

Costa has used as actors non-professional local inhabitants of Fontainhas, Lisbon to get as "faraway from the mechanisms of cinema" wanting his films to be " as rich as a Griffith or a Stroheim film (beautiful in another sense)...I never thought I could do that with a video camera [Costa began his career using traditional 35mm]...I thought it was a poor electronic way of doing some things, but..."
Criterion's Region 1 DVD release certainly beats Eureka's when it comes to the extras and its 4-disc box set

At the Royal Academy Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century puts many of the world's most famous photographers into their historical Hungarian context - André Kertész, László Moholy Nagy, Brassaï. And like Pedro Costa you start thinking about what is life and what is art and is/should there be any difference in the execution or the result? Costa's film's could be termed 'art-house' yet they aren't professing to be art. Nor are Lars von Trier's films - he remarked once about the pointlessness of showing a close-up of a fly crawling up the wall if all one is doing was creating an atmosphere for a film. Neither he nor Costa could be termed 'realist' - perhaps more akin to 'magical realism' though both may consider each other polar opposites. Moholy-Nagy's photos aren't angular just to be different and 'poetic' they are his way of showing us the reality. Munkácsi (who moved on to fashion photography) described his task as seeing "within a 1,000th of a second the things that indifferent people blindly pass by - this is the theory of photo reportage. And the things we see within this 1,000th of a second we should then photograph within the next 1,000 of a second - this is the practical side of photo reportage."
Compare this to the V&A's new show Signs of a Struggle.

Artist Ryan Gander's work has always seemed to get us asking what is it that we desire and how do we go about that journey. You arrive to Locked Room Scenario and an empty Hoxton warehouse with almost all the doors padlocked. There are signs of activity that you barely see or hear. If you're ultra-used to be inquisitive/skeptical/voyeuristic then this experience may prove somewhat disappointing. But as we know, though that is everyone's natural tendency most of us go to great lengths to keep such thoughts submissive. Gander suggests you should un-lock these inner feelings, take them home and nurture rather than suppress them. Another ArtAngel commission is 1395 Days without Red two almost identical films by artists Šejla Kamerić and Anri Sala (in collaboration with Ari Benjamin Meyers) using citizens of Sarajevo to reenact the days they were under sniper attack (1992-1996) whilst crossing street corners. Each film uses the same material but is angled somewhat differently. Spanish actress Mirabel Verdú hums the notes of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony rehearsed by the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra elsewhere in the city. Even if you've never lived through an experience such as Sarajevo, it's easy to identify with the very private act of trying to stay alive whilst focusing your mind on both the reality and the possibility of a different world.

Mike Figgis Royal Opera House weekend Just Tell the Truth
Vision Sound Music Festival Southbank Centre

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