Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols


I bloody love Mike Nichols’ first two features, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, and am quite fond of several of his later ones, without having ever thought of him as any kind of great auteur. Neither did he, if a quotation in his obituary is anything to go by. Setting himself apart from the likes of Renoir, he said:
The rest of us make entertainment. And that’s an absolutely honourable profession. Straining towards art is confusing and useless.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The crappiness of collective criticism


Received wisdom holds that the traditional top-down critic, bestowing his/her discriminating intelligence upon a grateful, adoring readership, is an endangered species, squeezed out of the arena by the voices of so-called ordinary people on sites such as TripAdvisor and Amazon, blurring together to create an incoherent choir of white noise and a score that always seems to add up to three and a half stars out of five or thereabouts.

But this crowd-sourced crit clearly has its weaknesses, not least for those who are on the receiving end. Take Bac Nguyen, a restaurateur in Cleveland, Ohio, who didn’t care much for a customer review on Yelp He did attempt to engage with the specifics of the review (mainly a matter of what should or shouldn’t be the main ingredient in ramen noodles) but pretty soon the whole thing degenerated into “You’re ugly and physically weak and your girlfriend is an ugly piece of shit.” Which doesn’t exactly make me want to eat his cooking, but at least he restricted himself to verbal abuse, unlike one Richard Brittain, who is alleged to have avenged a lukewarm GoodReads review of his self-published book by hitting the critic with a wine bottle.

Davide Cerretini, who runs Botto Bistro in Richmond, California, was less worried about what the digital Anton Egos had to say; at first he tried to get his restaurant removed from Yelp, then attempted to subvert the whole system by offering discounts to diners who awarded it a single star. (Thanks to Paul Blackwatertown for alerting me to this story.) And then of course there are the glorious one-star movie reviews of Amazon (Free Willy: “They should of killed the whale and ate it.”) although these are partly redeemed by the mass kickings sustained by such crass products as the sexy PhD costume.

So maybe the professional sneerers needn’t feel so threatened. Could it be that crowd-sourced criticism is just as crap as the old version, only in slightly different ways?

Image: Raoul Haussman, Der Kunstkritiker (The Art Critic), 1919-1920, Tate Collection

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A death in Kensington

A man has been found dead in London. Not in itself a huge news story, but the context brings it to the attention of a national publication such as the Daily Telegraph. For a start, he was impaled on railings, which adds a certain gruesome curiosity value to the event; Gothic overtones, maybe, flashbacks to Satanic spearings in movies such as The Omen.

But it’s not just the mode of his demise that matters. Apparently the railings are next to the school attended by David Cameron’s children, which is on “Kensington Church Walk, one of London’s most exclusive streets, on which the average property price is £1.6 million.” So it’s not just a death – there’s a splash of celebrity and a stiff dose of property porn in there. And the privileged setting adds a rather ironic twist to the current line of enquiry, which is that the (anonymous) deceased was homeless; the spikes can be seen as an extreme manifestation of the “hostile architecture” increasingly used in public spaces to deter undesirables from hanging around for too long. In the words of the Parks Police constable: “We do have a problem here with homeless people and the number of them has increased by 200 per cent in the last year. It is a growing problem which we are tackling.” 

Never mind. I guess this is one less “problem” for him — and for David Cameron — to tackle.


PS: The Express goes one better and brings a royal angle to the story.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The dislike button

Bret Taylor, inventor of Facebook’s “like” button, has explained why it has no negative equivalent, and probably never will:

The reason we launched the [like] button in the first place was that there were a lot of times that people wanted to acknowledge something someone did, but didn't have anything to say. And a lot of comments were one word like ‘cool’ or ‘wow’ so the like button let people did that with a single click. It wasn't really just a sentiment of ‘like’. 
So the “like” button serves to save inarticulate users the trouble of hitting three keys when one will do. Fair enough. But wouldn’t a “dislike” button serve the same purpose, offering an alternative to the intellectual effort of typing out “dude, this sux”? Hell, why not offer readers three options, as I do on this blog, allowing them to indicate their joy, loathing or – worst of all – bored indifference to what I post? No, says Taylor:
I have the feeling that if there were to be a ‘dislike’ button is that you would end up with these really negative social aspects to it. If you want to dislike something, you should probably write a comment, because there’s probably a word for what you want to say. 
Really? So people who can’t be bothered to type “wow” have the time and inclination to compose a thoughtful, cogent, sensitive explanation of their own negative reactions to what their friends have posted? In the past few days, two of my Facebook friends have lost their fathers. Both have received many messages of condolence, all of which are doubtless honest, caring and heartfelt, but the majority are variants on “Sorry for your loss, thinking of you”. There’s nothing wrong with such standardised mantras, of course – but by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with a one-click acknowledgement that the post brings bad news rather than good, rather like an anonymous candle lit in someone’s memory, or a teddy bear affixed to a tree at an accident black spot. What does rather spoil the mood of kind thoughts and virtual hugs in adversity is that each announcement has also attracted a whole bunch of “like”s, which to me would suggest “cool, wow, I’m happy your dad’s dead” – not the message the sender intended, I assume.

I simply don’t buy the “negative social aspects” of Taylor’s argument. Social media should reflect the lives of its users and life includes some negative stuff, whether it’s the death of a beloved parent or an annoying paper cut. His concept of Facebook as a cheery, positive, Pollyanna-ish thumbs-down-free zone is just a case of avoiding reality. Although since, as TechRadar points out, it’s probably more a case of dislikes being less useful to Facebook advertisers, he’s simply being disingenuous about the whole thing anyway. But hey, who ever looked to social media for expressions of sincerity?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bentleys, Borges, Bros and the fine art of disingenuous damage

From a letter to the Guardian about the late Jocelyn Stevens:
He was so wealthy that, when his car was written off in an accident, he instantly bought another Bentley (or whatever) and told his garage to make on it the same scratches and marks as were on the original so that his wife wouldn't know about the crash. 
Whether the tale is true or not (the correspondent believes it is but can’t be certain) there’s something deliciously Borgesian—via Baudrillard, naturally—about this, with the new car as a simulacrum to disguise the reality of the old one, and the crash. But the new car can’t just be a replica of a thing; it also has to replicate a history, events, time. Or maybe it’s just like the late 1980s, when people (OK, we) deliberately ripped holes in their Levis while insisting they’d occurred naturally.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

About ‘God Only Knows’


‘God Only Knows’ is probably my favourite Beach Boys song. So, it’s not the most crushingly obvious choice (that would be ‘Good Vibrations’ or maybe ‘California Girls’), nor is it just trying to be obnoxious for the sake of it (‘Kokomo’) but it’s not exactly out of the box either. A proper smartarse, offering his personal BB fave for a 20-page retrospective in Mojo or Uncut, would plump for something rather more obscure from Smile or Surf’s Up. But I like ‘God Only Knows’. So shoot me.

Or you could just shoot whoever decided to make ‘God Only Knows’ the latest Everyone Gets To Sing A Line, Even The Token Bloke From Senegal Or Wherever, Quite Yer Moaning It’s For Charity, Can The New John Lewis Christmas Ad Be Far Behind BBC Children in Need single. No, stop, don’t really shoot. In purely musical terms, I’m sure it’s not the most hideous version of the song ever committed to whatever it is songs are committed to these days. (The Bowie one was pretty sucky, for a start.) It’s not even the aura of smug self-satisfaction that hums off these records that’s the problem; the BBC has been getting so much politically motivated flak in recent years, any reminder of the extent of its riches has to be a good thing, even if that encompasses a cameo by old tortoise-face from Coldplay and Brian May doing the same guitar solo he’s been playing since about 1346.

No, it’s not so much what they’ve done to my song, ma, it’s more about how it changes my relationship with that particular piece of music. Within a few days, ‘God Only Knows’ will cease to be a Beach Boys song. It will become a charity single and if people chance to hear the original they’ll be confused because they’ll be expecting Emeli Sandé or One Direction or Stevie Wonder or that nice trumpet lady or the skinny choir bloke to be on there. Of course, the same thing happened with ‘Perfect Day’, which suddenly ceased to be a wistful paean to heroin and became a song about a day that was quite nice actually, with a bit by Westlife. In fact, ‘Perfect Day’ occupies a similar place in Lou Reed’s oeuvre to that of ‘God Only Knows’ in Brian Wilson’s; the mind-numbingly obvious pick would be ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, while clever-clever music critics would pick side three of Metal Machine Music.

But in both cases, the BBC has a lucky charm against any criticism of the recording. “Look, it can’t be that bad,” they’ll chide. “Brian Wilson’s playing on it. Just like Lou Reed did.” Which of course smudges over the fact that both Wilson and Reed are/were spectacularly odd and damaged individuals, a fact that is intrinsic to the weird brilliance of their music but has also led them down some pretty awful avenues (such as their collaborations with Status Quo and Metallica respectively). The cosy niceness of the BBC singles is just a minor late-period mis-step when seen in the broader context of their careers. Still, it’s a pity. ‘God Only Knows’ suddenly isn’t my favourite Beach Boys song any more.

PS: The Daily Mash gets it right, as is so often the case.

PPS: And this, by Lisa Cordaro. “A line in the sand”. Yes.

PPPS: ...and Michael Hann gives each performer on the BBC version marks out of 10.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Bailey, Banksy and the thing too horrible even to be mentioned


Racism is bad. I trust we’re all on the same page as far as that’s concerned. But what to do about racism, how to respond to it, how to discuss it — these seem to be rather more divisive questions.

Take, for example, the installation Exhibit B by Brett Bailey, which features chained black actors in an effort to represent the true horror of human slavery. Or rather, it featured them, until protests against the “complicit racism” of the show forced it to close. The artist wasn’t actually suggesting that slavery or 19th-century human zoos were in any way a good thing; but people were offended by the scenes of degradation on view (or not on view — it’s not clear how many of them had in fact seen the show) and blockaded the venue and that was that.

Then, the good burghers of Clacton-on-Sea took against a new piece by the artist Banksy. Here it is:


OK, not one of his best works, maybe, but the message is pretty clear, I would have thought. Racism, including the disingenuous I’m-not-a-racist-but anti-immigration message being touted by the likes of UKIP (widely expected to win the imminent by-election in Clacton) is pretty bird-brained. But the image disappeared within hours and Nigel Brown, the council’s communications manager, said: 
The site was inspected by staff who agreed that it could be seen as offensive and it was removed this morning in line with our policy to remove this type of material within 48 hours. 
Get that: “it could be seen as offensive”. Presumably they understood that the artist’s intentions were entirely right and proper, but on the offchance that someone, somewhere, somehow might misinterpret them, the image was destroyed. The eternally sage and perceptive Annie pondered on Twitter whether the fact that the artists in these cases were white may have had a bearing in the case (although there’s no evidence that the factotum who erased the bird mural even guessed who’d created in, which adds another level of dumbness to the equation). But then I discovered that US school students’ access to novels by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker has been restricted because of their depictions of racism.

What unites these cases is that the intention of the artists is entirely irrelevant. The protesters and censors and council scrubbers seem to be worried that the very subject of racism is being raised in anything but the blandest, most nuance-free terms. Racism has become Voldemort. And although they don’t specify who is liable to be harmed by these artworks and books, I’d infer that its members of the ethnic minorities who are foremost in their minds. Which in turn suggests a rather patronising frame of mind, an assumption that non-white people are intellectually or emotionally incapable of coping with the subtleties and ambiguities of creative communication. And there’s a word for that.

For a more sensible approach to the whole subject, here’s Tom and Jerry. No, seriously. Aware that some people are uneasy about the depiction of the character Mammy Two-shoes in the evergreen cartoons, Amazon and iTunes have added a disclaimer:
Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.
There you are. Nothing censored, nothing prohibited, nothing scrubbed off the wall. Just a pale amber alert, a gentle acknowledgement that some people may not like something included in the product, like a “MAY CONTAIN NUTS” warning. It would be nice if some of those who’ve objected to the works of Bailey and Banksy, Morrison and Walker could take the same attitude; but I’m not holding my breath.


PS: More on this by Laura Mallonee at Hyperallergic, with specific reference to Scandinavia.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Post to ensure that I don’t feel obliged to say anything about the Scottish referendum result

Apologies to people who follow me on various social media thingies, as you may have seen these already. I don’t know whether this is original but I do rather like it:


And, on the same lines, these may or may not be the authentic musings of a teenage girl, but they still made me smile anyway: