Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year: My Obligatory List of the Pick of the Stuff of the Year, 2011

Insert Generic New Year Screengrab here
As the critically ailing ship of 2011 slowly sinks beneath the waves, it’s time to burn the deckchairs head for the lifeboats. 

It’s time for my usual New Years Eve ritual of affecting cool and detached party ambivalence until the last possible moment. However, at the last minute, my resolve to stay home will collapse with a barrage of last minute texts as I try to in vain to search for that mythical perfect wild and decadent party. 

You know the one - that soon-to-be historic event that everyone you know must have been invited, except for you?

Predictably, I’ll find myself yet again pleasantly drunk and toasted on a couch somewhere with a small gathering of friends, thinking proudly to myself that this was the best plan all along and wondering why I even bothered to entertain the idea of the overpriced punishment of clubs or re-enacting Braveheart in the desperate crush of Trafalgar Square.

Until next year, at least.

Either way, we want to be close to our loved ones during the Midwinter holidays and the celebration of the passing of the old year is something hardwired into us regardless of culture. Inevitably, that celebration turns to reflection on the year passed and the year ahead. It’s a curious time, when nostalgia is at it’s most myopic as we squint to make sense as to whether we’ve made sense of the last 12 months.

A family down the road are originally from Brazil and are planning to celebrate New Year with the ‘Quema del Año Viejo’ – literally the Burning of the Old Year. They have been building Papier-mâché effigies of bad things that have happened in the departing year to be burned on News Years Eve night. If you had a recent car accident, for instance, you may choose to make an effigy of the offending vehicle to purge that memory. The youngest son of this particular family has been building a dinosaur, which makes me think my own problems must have been pretty modest in comparison.

In a way, a broader manifestation of our desire to congregate and burn away of the Old Year is in the annual lists, reviews and ‘Best of’ commentaries that dominate the digital, print and whatever other airwaves there are left. In this reflective spirit I thought I would share my own ‘List of Stuff of the Year, 2011’. I don’t consider myself to be a particular expert in any specific branch of ‘stuff’, so instead I’ll cover all the traditional bases of music and movies and hide my limited view under the pretence of a ‘pick of the year’.

2011 has been a year of unrest and austerity, defined by a mood of impending great changes and uncertainty. At times like this the comforts of nostalgia are even more compelling. Whether it’s coincidence – or clunky editorial convenience – almost all of my scattered highlights of the last year reflect this.

Refn's Drive, Blizten Trapper's American
Goldwing and Amanda Fucking Palmer all
delivered style and substance in 2011

My two favourite movies of the year - in my limited opinion the best of the year by some distance - were Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Both look back reassuringly to a different cinematic age, yet are also fresh and wholly contemporary.

Drive channels the same bleak 80’s neon dreams that I’m sure still trouble Michael Mann on a regular basis. Ryan Gosling’s Driver-with-no-name is an everyman nephew of Clint Eastwood and Travis Bickle. A vision of icy retro cool, punctuated with blasts of intense and brutal violence, Refn delivers pure cinema and a timely reminder of the importance to show and not tell.

Black Swan, conversely, reanimates the 70’s Giallo with a wild melodrama just barely contained by beautiful psychedelic visuals. Amidst the mayhem, Natalie Portman takes the role seriously enough to keep the viewer emotionally engaged and the climax packs a harder punch than any ballet-based drama has a right to.

An honourable mention should also go to Duncan Jones' Source Code, which was a fresh, economical and exciting spin on some classic pulp science fiction. I also enjoyed Jason Eisener’s wild exploitation movie Hobo With a Shotgun. Although an entirely more sleazy feature – and therefore heaps more fun – it manages a similar trick to those above. It is a grindhouse tribute, borne from a fake trailer for Tarantino & Rodriguez’s Grindhouse movie, but never descends into self-conscious parody or pastiche. Instead, it feels like the real deal, which is because it actually is. Even the Raccoons cartoon end theme blasted over the credits feels like it was always destined to close a splatter movie about a vengeful vagrant. It’s bloody, antisocial, subversive and – most bizarrely of all – occasionally quite charming.

Similarly, I’ve found myself travelling back to more comfortable and secure times through most of the year in music. I’ve been rediscovering and reloving the rare groove, funk and daisy age hip hop I grew up with and making virtual mixtapes from the whimsical folk rock of Fairport Convention and CSN&Y that soundtracked a time when I actually believed anything was possible.

This is why it’s fitting that my favourite long player release of 2011 was probably Blitzen Trapper’s American Goldwing. It’s a healthy slice of retro country rock on first listen that reveals many sublime pleasures on subsequent play. It also has some a couple of economical guitar solos and a heap of catchy singalong choruses, two endangered musical species that I’d never realised how much I’d missed. It is perhaps Blitzen Trapper’s least schizophrenic recording and sounds simultaneously new and fresh yet, at the same time, like an old friend who had always occupied that space somewhere between the Eagles and Joe Walsh on my record shelf.

Speaking of old friends, the last year also brought Bad As Me, a new release from Tom Waits. This is always a cause for celebration and it’s always a comfort to know that no matter how things may change over the years, ol’ Tom is still out there howling at the moon for all of us.

Aside from those two albums, I haven’t heard many new releases that have excited me. It’s a contrast to the rich pickings of the year before that brought us fresh sounds from The Dirty Projectors and The Animal Collective, amongst others.

Maybe all this nostalgia isn’t just a case of me starting old and jaded. Maybe there’s a wider sense of looking for escapism, or perhaps inspiration for where we can go from here.

In fact, amidst the chaos of the financial crash and a glimpse of the beginning of the collapse of complacent ideologies we’ve carried for so long that we almost seem to have forgotten they are ideologies in the first place, there are some positive signs. Foremost is in the power of collectivity, from the Arab Spring to the hopeful audacity of the Occupy movement.  

In 2011, I discovered that Twitter might actually be a force for good and have some positive practical social effect – although our current Government appear to think quite the opposite and seem rather scared of any unsanctioned collectivity.  It was sad footnote that we lost Apple idealist Steve Jobs in October, as perhaps as much as anyone, his legacy was to bring the world just a little closer together.  Bill Gates, please note: the fact that Microsoft spellcheck doesn't even seem to recognise the word 'collectivity' just made me a little more suspicious of you.

It might be crass to suggest that this enduring spirit of collectivity was reflected in an unexpectedly strong year for live music, but the carnivalesque is an important factor in community empowerment. Any positive or peaceful thing that brings people together at a time when society seems to be fracturing has to be celebrated.

The Low Anthem delivered exquisite low anthems at The Green Man festival, Amanda Palmer began with heartbreaking keys and ended with a rocking punch into the air at Heaven in September whilst the legendary Roy Harper's 70th birthday concert at The Royal Festival Hall was intense, cathartic and transcendent. Those fearless feral freaks, The Artful Badgers, also proved there was clubland life beyond Dubstep – although I sometimes wear a tail and carry their boxes, so should maybe declare an interest.

In the arts there have been a few standouts too. The Fine Arts, at their best, should reflect our wider situation and it’s very clear that there have are big changes on the cultural horizon.  For me, it was actually a retrospective of work from the last 40 years or so, the Susan Hiller exhibition at Tate Britain, that most captured the spirit of the times with its demonstration that interesting and challenging ideas could be engaging and entertaining without resorting to excessive showy glamour. 

She weaves stories using pseudo-scientific discourse, recording the sublime, the strange, the arcane and the damned. Her canon is almost not art at all, but a sketchbook, patchwork museum of neglected ideas and stories. I could have spent hours alone in the single room that comprised Witness, a dark space dominated by a forest of disembowelled audio speakers trailing from bare wires from the ceiling. Each speaker broadcasts a eyewitness interview of an experience with an Unidentified Flying Object. You can concentrate on one speaker and enjoy a moment of full confessional or sit back and lose yourself in the murmured communion of the whole.

The effects of austerity on the arts is something that has shaken the commercial spectacle of the art world and seems on the brink of liberating the artist from the restrictions of economy and marketing. It’s no coincidence we’ve seen a rising profile from ‘Street Artists’ and it’s natural that this DIY ethic is now reaching to embrace the wider conceptual and formal arts. I don’t envisage too many million dollar crystal skulls over the next decade.

Across town in “London’s fashionable” Fitzrovia is Diemar/Noble Photography.  Whilst I again have to declare an interest, as it’s a space I’m peripherally involved with, it has consistently exhibited a programme of challenging new photography alongside the provenance of classic and vintage shows.

Photography is finally being accepted, somewhat grudgingly, into the fine art club of this country and it’s about time. The immediacy of the medium has always troubled our arts establishment, despite our history as pioneers. With recent changes in technology, photography is now probably the most accessible of media to practitioners, collectors and enthusiasts. It is at the root of our new media and it’s universality and versatility ensure it’s relevance in the digital age. Most importantly, it allows diverse voices a platform and the entire contemporary programme at Diemar/Noble has surprised, entertained and proven to me unequivocally that there is some incredible talent in this city that has been criminally underrepresented. Emily Allchurch’s elegant photographic reimaginings of Hiroshiga's Tokyo – which gained an unexpected resonance as it was opened during the Japan earthquake – and Not The Chelsea Flower Show, a group and ‘alternative flower show’, remain my standout exhibitions of the year. 

Finally, there wasn’t a lot of new writing that nudged my interest in 2010, although that was likely more related the fact it was a busy year and haven’t had the concentration. As a result, I made a reacquaintance with a small pile of short story anthologies. This inevitably led me back to the science fiction I read hungrily through college – hungrily not only because it was a genre I’ve always loved as a guilty pleasure but also as I didn’t eat very much at college.

The Parallel worlds of DC Comic's Batwoman
 and Murakami's IQ84 provided escapism 
as London burned.
It’s interesting how appropriate Science Fiction feels right now. Some of the best Science Fiction works have come from the most challenging times, notably the apocalyptic mood of the 1950’s Cold War. Maybe it comes from the need to play out the best and worst possible scenarios, the utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares. I guess I’ve been looking backward to looking forward, or something.

In a similar escapist and somewhat nostalgic vein, DC Comics decided to jump ahead of everyone else and choose this year to relaunch their entire universe in August. After picking up a few issues of the New 52, primarily out of curiosity, I have since found myself buying monthly issues for the first time since I was 15. Action Comics and Batwoman, in particular, have done much to sate at least part of my appetite for bite sized words and if you have any patchy history of interest in comics or costumed heroics, I’d recommend revisiting some of these titles – at least before before the next reboot.  In a year when the altogether more banal real world villainy of crooked politicians, predatory bankers and octogenarian Antipodean media moguls have once again managed to slip from the clutches of appropriate justice, it's satisfying to visit a world where some form of fitting reparation is  assured.

The only new release of an actual novel that I managed to snare was IQ84, the new epic tome by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. I suppose this story of a woman who realises she has accidentally travelled into an alternate reality actually isn’t a taxi ride that far away from Science Fiction either, albeit filtered through the sublime and slightly magic-surrealist lens of Murakami world.

So, those were some recommendations plucked from my whirlwind 2011. With just a handful of gigs, movies and albums, alongside one book and a clutch of comics, it’s hardly exhaustive in terms of cultural commentary, or even particularly informative for that matter. Ultimately, it says more about my personal year than an authoritative judgement of the movies or books or whatnot of the year - just like every ‘Best of’ list or Review, really.

All of which, brings me back to the New Years Eve. 

I guess if there’s been any kind of theme to the last year it’s been one of change. Change can be frightening if you resist it and fear it, but once you realise it’s a constant, it’s important to embrace it and take responsibility for making sure it’s leading somewhere positive and good. And so, while you’re all burning away the last year, be sure and take some time to pick through the ashes to gather up some of the best things from 2010 to bring with you into 2012.

By the way, if any of you are having any wild, badass parties tonight, let me know…okay?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Strange Currency: Painting on Coins

Since 2004, I have been painting miniature portraits of dictators and tyrants on two pence coins. What this steadily expanding little cohort of international undesirables share is that they have all, at some point in their respective careers, been supported economically or politically by the United Kingdom. 

Following the tragic events of September 11th 2001, many people became aware that much of Bin Laden's £300 million fortune actually came from US and European investment in Bin Laden's Maktab al-Khidimat fighters to win the Afghan war and install a sympathetic government in the country. Similarly, the brutally corrupt regimes of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, to name but a few, all benefitted from our patronage in return for the whichever flavour of loyalty was required at the time.

The nurturing of questionable regimes for our own ends is a tradition that stretches way beyond our colonial past and is unlikely to end soon. It is ironic that are warned on a constant and spectacularly melodramatic basis that money spent on illicit contraband - from drugs to pirated music - is used to fund terrorism, war and aggravates third world exploitation, yet much less scrutiny is focused on the so-called legitimate use of the wealth we generate from our country. It is unquestionable that this kind of political expediency is a far more dangerous gamble, with a potentially far higher price to pay further down the line.

On each coin, traditional headshots mirror the familiar profile of Queen Elizabeth that adorns the reverse side. Conceptually, the use of coins is a very obvious visual pun, but formally the work is heavily influenced by Victorian Miniatures and Locket portraiture. Cameos and miniatures were often commissioned as keepsakes for loved ones. In contrast to the grand gesture of the full-blown oil painted portrait they were a sign of a more intimate, often secretive, affection.

Alongside this, the very use of a monetary unit as a canvas makes a gentle dig at the notion of the art object as financial commodity. These works are of immediate value to an audience beyond the galleristas and hipsters as they have an intrinsic worth - in this case a two pence sterling. As a result, they aren't going to get destroyed any time soon as no one simply throws money away – literally - it is instead always passed on. In some respects, I suppose these little works may well prove to be amongst the most valuable I’ll ever make.

Clockwise from top left: 
Jose Eduardo dos Santos (Angola, 1979-Present), General Augusto Pinochet (Chile, 1973-1990),
Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines, 1965-1986), Saddam Hussein (Iraq, 1979-2003),
Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire, 1965-1997), Osama Bin Laden (Al-Qaeda, 1988-2011)

Although I approach each portrait with as much formal realism as my size 000 brush and the uneven copper surface allows, the defacing of the coins draws on the techniques of classic art intervention. These are objects intended for mass circulation, so my initial intention was to paint and circulate the series over a period of time, leaving anonymous recipients to draw their own conclusions for the reasons behind the mystery appearance of the odd dictator in their wallet, purse or palm. 

However, when the initial series was completed, I had invested such a disproportionate amount of time and effort in the diminutive paintings that the first twenty miscreants were instead framed and exhibited together at the 96 Gillespie Gallery in North London. Since then I have slipped a dozen or so coins into circulation, including the accidental release of my first and favourite portrait of Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, but have continued to add to the collection on an casual basis. Some of these newly minted are shortly to be exhibited again as part of Theresa Bruno's quirky Wallet Gallery project.

If you are interested, but you don’t manage to catch them this time around, I can only offer some appropriate Northern advice – always check your change.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Strange Case of Philip K Dick & Other Movies Inspired by Classic Works of Science Fiction

I recently watched The Adjustment Bureau, a movie ‘inspired’ by a story from Science Fiction writer Philip K Dick.  It was an amiable romantic fantasy about love and fate, in which Matt Damon plays a young senator whose chance encounter with an impulsive young woman inadvertently leads him into conflict with sinister forces who secretly govern our world.

The notion of a mysterious conspiracy to control the fate of the planet, along with their regulation 1950’s men-in-black wardrobe, is in keeping with the cold war paranoid tone of Dick’s source material, but little else bears more than a passing resemblance to the more sinister short story from 1954.

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982)
He saw the light...and a portal to ancient
Greece in his refrigerator.

From humble beginnings writing for pulpy magazines, when Dick claimed that he “couldn’t even afford the late fees on a library book”, the prolific PKD has risen in stature over the years since his death.  In 2005, TIME magazine named Ubik one of the hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923.  In 2007, Dick became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.  Despite this literary and genre acclaim, however, it is through the movie adaptations of his work that Dick has most prominently entered the popular public consciousness.

Dick’s posthumous rise to cinematic stardom began with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982, the year of Dick’s passing.  Loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), the film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles in which the powerful Tyrell Corporation manufacture genetically engineered robots called replicants, visually indistinguishable from humans. Their use on Earth is banned and the replicants are exclusively used for dangerous, menial or leisure work on off-world colonies. Replicants who defy this ban and return to Earth are hunted down and "retired" by police special operatives known as "Blade Runners". The plot focuses on a group of recently escaped replicants hiding in Los Angeles and the burnt out veteran Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who reluctantly agrees to take on one more assignment to hunt them down. 

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner was a visual treat; a hardboiled detective story reset to a dark and raindrenched future of deteriorating hi-tech and oppressive neon. The narrative jumped ably between sporadic bursts of brutal action and the more sombre reflections of a weary Deckard, his uncertainty over his assignment and even his own humanity.  Although key scenes were replicated from Dick’s text, the broader world around Deckard and his prey was stripped away in favour of the existential detective story.  The movie stays within sight of the original story, although much is changed or excised – notably the religious elements – and Scott himself admitted that he hadn’t actually read the inspiration for Blade Runner.  In this case, Dick had the last laugh following an early screening of only major adaptation of his work he would see in his lifetime.  When asked what he thought of it, the famously hallucinatory writer apparently reported simply that he “loved the lightshow.  It looked very cool.” 

Blade Runner was not an instant hit and took almost a decade before it would creep from cult favourite to mainstream classic.  It would not be until 1990 that the eventual recognition of Blade Runner would see Dicks name once again bothering the cinema marquees.   This time, the fragmented and dreamlike We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966) was mangled into the hysterical Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall.  In the hands of splatter satirist Paul Verhoven, this was a high point for the Austrian muscle man and a lot of messy fun, but took only the principle character, theme and outline as a starting point for Verhoven’s own comic book stylism.

Three onscreen faces of Philip K Dick: Harrison Ford (Blade Runner), Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau)
and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Total Recall)

The successes of Blade Runner and Total Recall would see casual cinemagoers begin to associate Dick’s name with intelligent yet muscular science fiction – wild action with a little cerebral depth for good measure.  In an attempt to emulate the following of these two movies, the rush to market his properties over the next 20 years would be staggering, but fuelled by a principle misconception: what actually connected these two movies was not Phillip K Dicks writing, but the work of auteur directors at the top of their game.

Neither movie was truly representative of Dick’s staggering imagination, his unique blue collar spin on science fiction tropes or his wild conspiratorial fantasies, but at least they were genuinely inspired by his work and used key concepts, ideas and themes.   In stark contract, Dick’s tropes would be simplified to the point of parody in the slew of adaptions to follow. 

Screamers (1995), Impostor (2001), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003) and Next (2004), amongst others, all recognise Dicks name as a marketable property but demonstrated ever diminishing evidence of the original stories.  It’s probably unsurprising that over half of all Dick’s adaptations to date are from short stories rather than his substantial canon of novels, the most acclaimed of which remain unfilmed. In a mess of good, bad and indifferent titles, the disappointment is that they clearly attempt to reimagine Blade Runner or Total Recall, whilst somewhere along the way, Dick became little more than a brand name and a handy double entendre for reviewers.

It is interesting to note that the two most faithful adaptions of Phil Dick’s writing to date are of books that contain the least science fiction elements.  A Scanner Darkly (1977) does have the misdirection of a dystopian near-future setting and a digital McGuffin that allows an undercover narcotics agent to conceal his identity, but primarily this was a device that allowed Dick to pen a tribute to the psychosis and paranoiac breakdown of the lost souls of early-Seventies suburban Californian drug culture.   In his animated 1997 adaptation, director Richard Linklater clearly recognises this and concentrates on the more domestic themes.  Linklater follows Dick’s text closely, concentrating on the characters and resisting the temptation to introduce any additional action. The focus is firmly fixed on psychological rather than phaser disintegration and the narrative is much stronger for it.

Alongside this is the French film Barjo (1992), based on one of Dick’s handful of non-science fiction novels, Confessions of a Crap Artist (1977).  Aside from the European resetting, this tale of bitter and complex marital conflict in 50’s suburban California, is a very faithful translation.

Neither Frank Herbert's 'Dune' nor Isaac Asimov's 'I, Robot'
would make it to the screen entirely intact

With this in mind, perhaps the problematic element is not Dick’s sociological, political and metaphysical themes, but actually the genre itself.  On reflection, it becomes startling apparent that, of all the many genres of fiction, science fiction alone inspires such wilful lack of respect in movie adaptation.  After all, Dick is not the only Science Fiction luminary to suffer such shameless misrepresentation.

In the hands of David Lynch, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune (1965) became a typically Lynchian nightmare that takes extreme liberties with the novel in the service of its somewhat psychedelic journey. It was long hoped that Isaac Asimov’s similarly lauded and influential I, Robot stories would make it intact to the screen, but the considered and respectful screenplay developed for Warner Brothers by sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison was eventually ditched in favour of using the title alone for an existing project originally called Hardwired.  This entirely unrelated robot murder-mystery, once injected with a few additional references to Asimov’s laws of robotics and populated by a few of Asimov’s characters and Will Smith, stretches the credibility of the adaptation to breaking point.  In the resultant 2004 feature, Asimov is reduced to the indignity of a “suggested by” credit.

Steven Segal as I imagine he would look in
'Hard To Kill a Mockingbird'
Few writers of equivalent stature outside of science fiction have suffered such abuse.  I admit, by virtue of mass recognition alone, it’s probably understandable that the acknowledged classics of literature have escaped such blatant disrespect.  If, after several rewrites, an adaptation of Lord of the Flies evolved into the time travelling adventure of a group of young people lost on a mysterious island, their attempts to unravel the mystery of a mysterious scientific initiative, hindered by attacks of a time-slipped Tyrannosaurus Rex, I’m certain that William Golding’s name would be quietly discarded.  Likewise, Steven Segal waging a one man war against a small town racist hit squad in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is something I doubt that devotees of either Lee or Segal could tolerate. Of course, there have been a multitude of cinematic reimaginings based on classic tales, but even at the extreme and even when recast with garden gnomes or Leslie Nielson and space monsters, the narratives of Shakespeare are recognisably retained.

It could be added that science fiction is a pulp genre of niche interest which requires broadening in order to appeal to a popular audience.  Where this view immediately falls over is in the comparatively faithful treatment of other pulp literary genres, from the crime thriller to the western.  Even adaptations of lurid horror paperbacks are given better treatment.

Fans of the iconic horror writer Stephen King often rage against the cinematic treatments of his canon.  Even Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining (1980) is presented as an example of the Hollywood brutalisation of his work.  Whilst it is true that the narrative is condensed and trimmed, Kubricks glacial visuals and Nicholsons unhinged performance overwhelm and some plot elements are excised completely, the basic story is at least maintained.  In comparison to the wholesale evisceration visited on translations of classic works by Dick, Asimov or Clarke, The Shining renders King’s novel practically verbatim.

I’m afraid the explanation may just be more cynical.  The adaptation of established written works will always be a challenge; the magic of the word allows the reader to conjure their own images and own the look and landscape of familiar stories.  A movie adaptation has to reconcile and placate billions of very personal adaptations.

With recognisable historical or contemporary settings, it is much more likely that a realisation will land relatively close to audience expectations.  Conversely, Science Fiction as a genre is persistently popular but often immensely hard to visualise.  A high level of creativity and imagination is required to bring often wild and fantastical – thus very personal - imagery onto the screen.  I am not going to repeat the familiar accusation that there is no creativity or imagination left in popular cinema, but it does seem that, of all the creative industries, this most lucrative medium appears to employ the highest disproportion of distinctly uncreative people.

The end result is that those who lack imagination or creativity are incapable of bringing the classics of the science fiction writing to the screen with any resonance or recognisability, often misunderstanding and reducing the work to the simplest narrative or lowest common denominator.   Alternately, as demonstrated by Total Recall and Blade Runner, those filmmakers who are capable of genuine artistry are unwilling to be confined by the desire to exercise the slavish restraint necessary to appeal to the broadest audience and instead interpret these stories into their own very personal creations.  There is no shortage of quality science fiction cinema unencumbered by source material.  As an example, consider Moon and Source Code, the first two rich and rewarding movies from director Duncan Jones.  These original features evoke far more of the spirit and tone of Phil Dick than the majority of lacklustre, officially ‘inspired by’ adaptions.

Regardless of the critical reception, as long as literary adaptions open the wallets and purses of a built-in audience, they will continue to be a mainstay of popular cinema.  The obvious butchery of science fiction only makes the gulf between storytelling techniques more apparent, but it applies to all genres equally.  Perhaps fans of both words and moving picture should take some comfort in the disparity of such adaptations, as it proves the unique individuality of both media.  In digitally obsessed times, it’s reassuring to know that the written word still has a power that resists complete translation.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Why I love Halloween (and other Ghost Stories)

“Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” - H.P. Lovecraft

Of all the annual festivals, it is Halloween that most stirs up memories of childhood excitement.

Essentially a celebration to mark the end of the ‘season of the sun’, Halloween is one of the oldest holidays with origins that can be traced back thousands of years.  It is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, a name historically kept by the Celts in the British Isles and derived from Old Irish meaning ‘summer's end.’ Over time it was adopted into Roman culture as Pomona Day and Christian culture as All Hallows’ Eve.  In its contemporary form it has become a somewhat playful celebration of mythology, horror and the occult, but the sense still persists that this is the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds are closest and magical things might just happen.

Whilst my Celtic antecedents may in part be responsible for my occasional affinity with the pagan, I consider myself more rationalist than religious.  Nevertheless, it seems entirely rational to me that we are unlikely to ever know or understand even a fraction of the true nature of our existence.  Whilst trick-or-treating had not fully crossed the Atlantic when I was of acceptable age to commit door-to-door candy extortion, I welcome the annual herds of little zombies, miniature witches and midget vampires. They are a reminder to recognise and celebrate the idea of mystery and the unknown – a reminder that becomes even more important as we become untethered from the spiritual certainties of our cosy old Monotheism. It is essential that, in a Godless word, we should still retain the humbling presence of mystery.

My childhood Halloween was mainly a time for parties and the cheap thrills of age-inappropriate horror movies. Night of the Creeps, Dawn of the Dead and, of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween are all fondly remembered October classics.  It makes me nostalgic for a time when even a battered video cassette of the truly craptacular space-horror Inseminoid was momentarily an event movie.

While gory and garish Horror movies may not appeal to everyone, they form an extension of seasonal folk storytelling.  The compelling and near universal draw of the simple ghost story once again speaks of our need for mystery. Observe how even the most egotistical and self-centred gatherings can be brought to hushed attention by a tale of the inexplicable, supernatural or strange incidence.

It seems that almost everyone has at least one short incident or vignette to share.  I’m somewhat sceptical in my outlook, but there is at least one story in my past that refuses to fit neatly into my rational little worldview.

I was probably 14 or 15 and was spending the night with a group of friends in bivouacs in the nearby woods of Thornthwaite on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.  We were all scattered in an individual favoured spot all around the base of the valley, lost amongst in the thick spiky tangle of conifer trees.

When our fire died and we ran out of stolen cigarettes and teenage wit and wisdom to share, we all separated off to sleep.  I don’t remember actually sleeping, so I can’t have been long settled in the uncomfortable hole I’d quickly and lazily covered over with brush and leaves when was started by a scream.

Assuming it was a friend, I set off to investigate.  It turned out I was right as I found out later that my friend’s equally slapdash shelter had collapsed, but I didn’t discover this until morning because I immediately became hopelessly lost.

I suppose I was half asleep as, although the woods were modest in size and should have been familiar, I became so disorientated that I couldn’t find my way forward or back.  There was an eerie stillness and deep blue tint that seemed entirely alien.  I was just starting to worry when I saw a flickering light in the trees ahead.  Thinking this was one of my friends, I called out and the light started to move, blinking between the tree trunks. As I followed the light with my own torch beam, I realised that I was turning on the spot as it circled completely around me.  At that point the light blinked out.  I was just a little disturbed and ran away in the opposite direction, through the woods and past a long square modern building with the lights still glowing through the windows. I paused a moment to consider whether I could find help inside. Catching my breath, I suddenly felt rather embarrassed about the whole thing.  By now I was in the scattered broadleaves on the edge of the open fields.  From this vantage point, it seemed simple to rediscover my bearings. I lifted my torch to the treeline and shone it straight at what at first glance appeared to be a face. I froze and stared, waiting for the illusion to fade.  With terror, I realised the edge of the woods was now seemingly populated with vague but tangible figures, waiting still, as if frozen at the field break and unable to advance further. I kept staring, convinced it was a trick of branch and shadow, but they were clearly there, staring back at me.

At this point, I snapped, ran furiously across the field and spent a sleepless night in our fortuitously pitched tent near the roadside.  In the morning, I sheepishly had to explain my sudden retreat and had to endure a fair amount of ridicule.  I had to conclude that my experience was a mix of Pareidolia and night terror, but it shook me enough to remember it with incredible clarity, even now, close to 20 years later. The oddest thing about the whole experience – and the thing that interested my friends most at the time – was the incongruous modern building.  Noone can recall it ever being there and, on reflection, I have no idea what or where it was. Later, I’d reinterpret this little tale as alien, phantom or otherwise supernatural, depending on my interest at the time.  But while Tolkien, Argento or Castaneda may have influenced the odd creative flourish here and there, the fact remains that it is, for me, an entirely inexplicable event of non-specific weirdness.

There is an odd mixture of unease and excitement that comes from both the telling and the listening to stories such as this.  In some deep and instinctual way our fascination is rooted in our need for mystery that transcends the mundane.  Especially now, in this time of elephantine vanity and greed, it is a comfort to know that the world is not and never will be wholly knowable or controllable. Faced with a dark and endless universe, where black planets roll without aim and a vast and nameless void defies our comprehension, we find ourselves, friend and foe alike, just a little more equal and huddled just a little closer together for comfort…and isn’t that alone a good reason to welcome a little more mystery into our lives?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Slow Train Coming: Bob Dylan on the Northern Line

I hear my train a-comin'
Partially inspired by Simon Patterson’s artwork The Great Bear (1992) - in which he retitled the tube stations on the iconic map of the London Underground with a collection of cultural figures - I’ve spent many uncomfortable hours delayed on the tube devising more appropriate names for the various stops across the capital.  This kind of psychogeography is not only useful for keeping commuter sanity in check, but also fascinating in how easily familiar landmarks reveal distinct personalities.

I’m particularly intrigued by how the Northern Line, running from south to north London, seems to act as a rather neat narrative mirror to the career of folk icon Bob Dylan.  I would assume this to be an act of accidental symmetry rather than an elaborate subversion by some Dylan obsessed rail planner - however, if you'll indulge me, it bears closer scrutiny:

The Early Years, 1959-1963 (Morden to Kennington)

The Tube lines,
we are a-changin' (1964)
With little indication of the long and winding career ahead of him, Robert Allen Zimmerman was born to a suburban middle class family in Duluth, Minnesota.  Similarly, our journey begins in the suburban middle class suburbs of Wimbledon - two relatively unassuming locations whose primary identification is with sporting events.

Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis in September 1959 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where his early focus on rock and roll gave way to an interest in American folk music. In January 1961, he travelled to New York City – moving eastwards from the rural to the urban.  Travelling from Wimbledon to Clapham, we do much the same.

Soon, we find ourselves in the diverse international communities of Stockwell, Kennington and Elephant & Castle, reflecting not only on Dylan's appropriation of Black music and the roots of rythmn and blues, but also the adoption of the working class protest song.  This formative cultural mix is clearly reflected in Bob Dylan (1962), which drew heavily on familiar folk, blues and gospel material and featured only two original compositions. This came to fruition with the release of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), in which he first began to make his name as both performer and songwriter.

Going Electric, 1964-1979 (Waterloo to Tottenham Court Road)

In London rush hour traffic, 
the roads are just not an option (1965)
As we reach the bustling crowds of Waterloo, we join Dylan at his first peak of popularity.  Standing on the concourse of this busy national terminal, lost amongst a crush of humanity, we can probably share Dylans bewilderment as he found himself standing alone on a pedestal of unexpected and unwelcome adulation.

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) reflected a lighter mood, hinting at a rejection of the role being forced upon him and suggested the shift to rock and roll soon to dominate Dylan's music.  Like us, he was looking longingly at the bright lights and carefree delights waiting across the river and was increasingly eager to cross over.

In the latter half of 1964 and 1965, Dylan's appearance and musical style changed rapidly as he made his move from leading contemporary songwriter of the folk scene to folk-rock pop-music star. Scruffy jeans and work shirts were replaced by a Carnaby Street wardrobe as he prepared for his night on the town. 

This transformation would culminate with the infamous 1966 Free Trade Hall concert in England, touring in support of Highway 61 Revisited (1965).  The evening would climax with a member of the audience, angered by Dylan's electric backing, shouting: "Judas!"   
Dylans response to this was a terse "I don't believe you, you're a liar!" before promptly turning to his band with the demand to "play it fucking loud!"

With the cries of the folk purists ringing in our ears, we follow Dylan to the Embankment, the gateway of the West End.  Initially, the excitement of this new musical freedom was responsible for a whole slew of eclectic delights, including Blonde on Blonde (1966), Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976).

Likewise, the West End is indeed an initially impressive glittering palace of hedonistic delights.   However, by the time we reach Tottenham Court Road, it becomes all too apparent how precariously the area clings to the vibrancy of the past.  Here, grand historic facades give shelter to cheap gift shops, tourist traps and faceless chain stores, the very embodiment of Self Portrait (1970) and Street Legal (1978), lurking in the otherwise vintage years of Dylans back catalogue.

Anyone who has spent a moment too long in London’s West End will recognise his weary reflection on the decade: "I was on the road for almost five years. It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things…just to keep going, you know?"

Slow Train Coming (1979)
The Lost Years, 1979-1989 (Goodge Street to Euston) 

Eventually, hedonism, a motorbike accident & born-again Christianity took it's toll and we find ourselves down in the groove of an unmemorable 1980’s identity crisis. This unloved era is clearly shared in architectural empathy by the ugly transitory transit stations of Goodge Street, Warren Street and Euston.  It is here you will find the critically reviled follies of Empire Burlesque (1985) and Knocked Out Loaded (1986). 

Rediscovery & Reflection, 1990-Present (Camden Town to North London)
Moving swiftly onwards, if there is one stop on the line most truly representative of snatching Dylan-esque pop-cultural reinvention from the jaws of defeat, it is our next destination: Camden Town. From hippies, to mods, to punks, to goths and all manner of subsequent post-millennial suburban kids with guitars, Camden is endlessly rediscovered by new generations.  Dylan likewise entered the 1990’s reinvigorated by the rediscovery of his canon by a new generation of listeners. The next few years saw him returning the favour by returning to his roots with two minor but successful albums covering old folk and blues numbers: Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).

Finally, North London sees Dylan returning home in a number of ways. Pausing to reconcile with his Jewish identity in Finchley, he nears High Barnet and Mill Hill with a period of suburban reflection on his long journey.  It is here we leave the 21st Century Dylan to focus on the reissues of his back catalogue, his roots radio show and other legacy recordings.

In the course of this journey, Bob Dylan has become one of the most important and profoundly influential figures in the popular music and culture of five decades.  I have, once again, just barely made it to another meeting on time.

In conclusion, I am concerned that I am wasting too much of my life on trains.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Short Eyes: Subverting the Jukebox Musical

The Jukebox Musical has taken over theatreland.  It would seem almost every major popular music artist from the last 50 years, from Elvis and Abba to Madonna and Queen, feature in thinly veiled tribute shows stitched together by increasingly flimsy narratives.  

Whilst it might be easy to dismiss the Jukebox Musical as theatre for people who don’t like theatre, featuring music for people who don’t like music, it’s hard to deny the popularity of a genre that consistently draws coachloads of eager audiences night after night.  Whilst in Melbourne earlier this year, I admit I was lured to Rock of Ages by the promise of a night of absurd 80’s hair metal and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Deep down I knew it was wrong and I knew it was the equivalent of a fast food burger or a pornographic movie – a pre-packaged, safe, sterile and weak imitation of a real thing – but it was disposable fun that delivered cheap thrills exactly as promised.

Whilst it is easy to snobbishly criticise any popular art form, perhaps, at a time when even critically acclaimed new theatre is failing to find an audience and attendances are dwindling, it is better to look at how this odd mutant genre is succeeding.  Maybe it even has the potential to be subverted and grow into something altogether more positive and healthy.

If new audiences are flocking to the Jukebox Musical, why not use the form to revive a genuinely challenging piece of theatre?  Why can’t serious and provocative themes coexist within the crowd pleasing greatest hits of an artist or era?

It’s easier done that you might imagine.  Consider, for instance, the sleeping giant of potential Jukebox Theatre: The Soul Hits of the 70’s.  If a genre can pack a dancefloor at the most hipster nightclub and the squarest wedding party alike, then surely it will draw the crowds onstage.  Furthermore, beneath the familiar breaks, beats, funky bass and sweet honey vocals, there lurks a breadth of social commentary and personal confessional, just ripe for narrative exploitation.

A perfect vehicle for this musical back catalogue already exists in Short Eyes, a 1974 drama written by playwright Miguel Piñero.  Short Eyes, prison slang for a paedophile, was written for a prisoners' writing workshop during Pinero's incarceration for armed robbery.  The play was nominated for six Tony Awards. It won the New York Critics Circle Award and an Obie Award for the "best play of the year". 

The play was also a success in Europe and catapulted Piñero to literary fame.  In 1977, it was adapted for a film and soul legend Curtis Mayfield composed and performed the acclaimed soundtrack, the lyrics of which already provide an inescapably funky narrative.  Insert the soundtrack into the performance, integrate a wider spectrum of popular hits from the era and suddenly you have an explosive combination. 

Short Eyes begins with Clark Davis, a middle-class white man, accused of raping a young girl.  An ensemble performance of Short Eyes/Freak, Freak, Free, Free, Free (Curtis Mayfield), led by the father of the victim, narrates Davis’ journey from courtroom to custody at unnamed House of Detention in New York City. We are then introduced to this new harsh reality with an inmate led performance of Do Do Wap is Strong in Here (Curtis Mayfield).

The prisoners are predominately black or Puerto Rican and Davis is notably conspicuous. Furthermore, Paedophiles are considered the lowest form of prison life and fellow inmates immediately turn against him.  Davis is kept separate from the other prisoners, who become increasingly threatening toward him at every opportunity.  This imbues their frustrated performance of I Can’t Get Next to You (The Temptations) with a sinister undercurrent.

At this point, Davis still maintains he is innocent of the crime and invites the audience to empathise with his situation in a poignant Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out (Bobby Womack).

His only friend is Juan, one of the institution's older prisoners, who treats him with kindness and dignity.  Juan is a quiet and thoughtful man, a devout Catholic resigned to atoning for his past sins. He performs Mercy Mercy Me (Marvin Gaye) alone in a moment of world-weary reflection.

Eventually, Davis takes Juan into his confidence.  Although he insists he doesn't remember raping the girl, he admits that he has molested several other children.  Nevertheless, the case against him is weak and, unless Juan tells prison authorities about Davis' confessions to him, it is only a matter of time before he is set free.  As Juan struggles with the right thing to do, the other prisoners plan to rid themselves of Davis permanently, with the Gospel tinged Are You Ready? (Pacific Gas and Electric) building toward the climax.

Further musical possibilities are endless – I would certainly find a way to include Curtis Mayfield’s apocalyptic If There’s a Hell Below… - but I think you get the idea.  By the time the curtain falls, the audience has had their butts and their emotions shaken in equal measure, perhaps the latter even moreso through being presented by stealth.  Far from being an object of derision, this genre has the potential to reach out, challenge and enrich audiences far more diverse than the usual informed clutch of regular theatregoers – and isn’t that what theatre should aspire to if its to thrive?