Thursday, August 30, 2012

Professor Stephen Graham: “very silly” (allegedly)

Context determines much about how we perceive art; graffiti is an eyesore until it’s determined to be by Banksy or John Lydon, at which point it goes into a gallery or becomes appropriate raw material for academics to ponder. And that 120-year-old Ecce Homo fresco in a church in Zaragoza is rather more famous now it’s been, um, restored by a parishioner and, I guess, a bit more valuable as well.

So I was immediately sceptical when nice residents of a nice street in a nicer bit of Newcastle claimed to be discombobulated that their nice cars had been vandalised with words such as “VERY SILLY” and “ARBITRARY”, spelled correctly and all. The Daily Mail in its wisdom has decided that the culprit is one Stephen Graham, a professor at Newcastle University where he focuses on cities, technology and surveillance; here he is on the subject of London’s Olympic lockdown. I should stress that Graham has been arrested and charged, but not convicted of any offence, so someone at the Mail should really get a major bollocking some time this morning; but still, I’d guess that having one’s Merc or BMW etched with what may be the initial notes for a groundbreaking thesis on ostentatious consumption by the bourgeoisie of North-East England would double its resale value at least. If I were a well-off car-owner in Jesmond, I’d be slipping Professor Graham a research grant to enable him to scratch a bit deeper.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The deep superficiality of Andy Warhol

So if you’re running an exhibition featuring 260 works by one of the most famous, collectible artists of the past 100 years, you’d make a big song and dance about it, right? Right? Well, apparently not if you’re the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, where Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal appears to be doing rather less well than Harry Potter: The Exhibition. They didn’t even want to us to pay for our tickets; we just needed to photograph ourselves amidst the soup cans and soap boxes strewn around the foyer – simulacra of simulacra, extra postmodern points there guys – and we were waved in.

In many ways it’s an impressive show; the pieces range from very early sketches to his photos of the ugly/beautiful denizens of New York’s mid-80s club scene. As with several other artists often dismissed as charlatans – Pollock, Klein, Emin – you need to get up close to the real works to discern that Warhol could actually draw and paint.

But hey, this is the 21st century and interactivity is the watchword, so the punters demand more than just a bunch of pictures in a bunch of rooms. You can don a ratty wig and be Andy for a while, toss around big, metallic balloons, watch audition films for wannabe superstars and rehearsal footage of the Velvet Underground. But this is a slightly sanitised version of Warhol: his nickname, Drella, was a synthesis of Dracula and Cinderella, which would suggest that he wasn’t exactly what you might call a nice guy. His sexuality, his voyeuristic tendencies, his fondness for ethically questionable clients such as Imelda Marcos are all glossed over. I didn’t even notice an acknowledgement that he was bald. There’s a nice mock-up of the Factory itself, because we all wish we’d hung out there, don’t we? In your own 15 minutes are you Lou or are you Edie? But what it really needs is for someone dressed as Valerie Solanas to burst in, wielding a .32, come to hunt down her own personal Voldemort.

I bet they’re already planning 50 Shades of Grey: The Exhibition. But with all the sex taken out.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Beach Boys: all my worries and my fears


At Collapse Board I muse on the reunited Beach Boys, who played in Singapore last week, and why they still matter.

Friday, August 24, 2012

In defence of stylish exclusion

There were verbalcuffs at the Edinburgh Book Festival last weekend, with Irvine Welsh grabbing the biggest, splashiest headlines as he accused the Booker Prize of squeezing out British regional and vernacular voices in favour of the posh and the exotic. His wingman was another Scottish author, Alan Bissett, who argued that “protectionism for local cultures is sometimes necessary” but then appeared to contradict himself:
I worry how style can exclude. You think about the people who are not convinced by literature and find it for a small elite… Style risks becoming fetishised and it becomes stylish people talking to one another.
Well, yes, but if you’re reading from outside a particular regional tradition, such as the urban Scots of Bissett and Welsh and James Kelman, does that style not have the potential to exclude as well?  Especially if it’s protected; what are we talking about, Celtic quotas in the Booker shortlist? And how much effort should an author put into reaching out to the excluded and the unconvinced? If style – fetishised or not, whether it derives from Hampstead or Hampden Park – is such a barrier, maybe we should all write in the manner of government websites, with clarity and ease of comprehension the only criterion that matters a damn. Which would of course not only disqualify from consideration the kinds of book that tend to win the Booker Prize but also those that offer a gateway into what Bissett would describe as “local cultures”. I’m guessing that Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave is the sort of book that Bissett and Welsh would hold up in opposition to the consciously stylish Hampstead tendency, but I found it pretty bloody exclusive when I first read it at the age of 12 or so; I didn’t talk that way, didn’t know anyone who worked down t’pit, didn’t feel any particular desire to train a bird of prey. For the first few pages I wasn’t really sure what was going on. But I persevered and became utterly absorbed in Billy Casper’s world and remember sobbing myself to sleep after I’d finished. And if I hadn’t believed there might be something for me there, I might not have pushed on with Joyce or Nabokov or BS Johnson. I’m not saying that writing must be challenging to be good, but for every reader welcomed in by a writer who goes out of his way not to exclude, there will be another who just gets bored by the blandness of it all. Inclusiveness also excludes.

And in any case, is there really such a thing as style-free writing? I’ve seen the prose of Magnus Mills described as such, but the apparent blank artlessness he offers is surely a style in itself. Or is it just a euphemism for mainstream fiction, where function takes precedence over form? In a recent piece about the film-maker Christopher Nolan, David Bordwell confronts those who take issue with his sometimes clunky story-telling style:
Can you be a good writer without writing particularly well? I think so. James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other significant novelists had many virtues, but elegant prose was not among them. In popular fiction we treasure flawless wordsmiths like PG Wodehouse and Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, but we tolerate bland or clumsy style if a gripping plot and vivid characters keep us turning the pages. From Burroughs and Doyle to Stieg Larsson and Michael Crichton, we forgive a lot.
I’m guessing that in the last sentence he means Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle rather than William S and Roddy, but you never know, do you?

On a vaguely similar note, the annual to-me-to-you about whether exams have been dumbed down up or sideways prompted me to take a look at some recent GCSE papers. One English exam from last year had a practical criticism component, comparing two poems about social outsiders. No problem there, except that the examiners were helpful enough to define three apparently difficult words therein; namely “chide”, “gibber” and “dissuade”. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on the first two; but if candidates can’t work out unaided that “dissuade” is pretty much the opposite of “persuade”, I don’t think their grasp of English – as distinct from their ability to regurgitate what the teacher has told them is going to come up in the exam – is all that great. Sorry, is that too exclusive? Too stylish, maybe?

And while I’ve got you, I’ll just reiterate my response to Rachel Cooke’s description of Ian McEwan as the nearest thing to EL James that literary fiction has right now”. Eh?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tony Scott, Top Gun and speaking truth to death

I hadn’t intended to say anything about Tony Scott, who has died in Los Angeles. That was until the tributes started rolling in, most of them praising his skills as a film-maker of merit, many seeming to wallow in the writers’ own memories of seeing these movies in the 80s and 90s, as if this period was some sort of lost Eden. This wasn’t just Ridley’s kid brother, they argued, not just a maker of loud, glossy, dumb action flicks; this was an auteur, a craftsman, the Welles of weaponry, the Bergman of blowing stuff up. The unexpectedness of his demise and its horrible circumstances seemed to have the makings of a Princess Diana phenomenon, as those who had derided Scott’s work during his lifetime attempted to make amends.

So I suggested, through the medium of a popular microblogging site, that while his death was sad and my sympathies went out to his family and friends, in my opinion he made rather a lot of rubbish films. And a number of people took exception to that; too soon, was the general theme.

Let’s be clear; I wasn’t kicking the man. I never knew him, but I’m happy to accept that he was a lovely bloke and he’ll be much missed. I did, however see many of his films. Some of them – True Romance, Enemy of the State, maybe The Hunger at a pinch – had their moments. Most were glossy and stupid and owed more to the traditions of MTV than MGM; when I heard the news of his death, a whole slew of titles came into my head and I had to sift through them to make sure I wasn’t thinking of Adrian Lyne or Joel Schumacher or Roger Donaldson, fellow ringmasters of flashy vacuity. But one of them stayed on the mental list, a film that I believe goes beyond not-very-good into the realms of the truly horrible. And that film is Top Gun.

Top Gun is often described by its fans as a guilty pleasure. I don’t really believe in such a concept; it’s perfectly OK to have favourite films (or books or music or whatever) that you know aren’t particularly good in any objective, critical sense. I’m unashamedly fond of several of the films of John Hughes, whose commercial peak was at around the same time as Scott’s, but I know that’s as much to do with where I was and who I was when I first saw them. They’re not that great, but they have a quirky attitude and an essential moral decency that remains modestly attractive.

No such defence is plausible when it comes to Top Gun. If Hughes’ take on the 80s centred on the beautiful losers on its periphery, Scott’s vision was the pure, glistening centre, Reagan and Thatcher and raw, shiny power. Quentin Tarantino’s ironic post hoc analysis of its supposed gay subtext only shows up its lumbering quasi-fascism; I’m reminded of another unworthy icon of mid-80s pop culture, the stadium concerts of Queen, fans of whom would punch you in the eye if you dared to suggest that Freddie Mercury was anything other than heterosexual. Some young bloods went into finance after they saw Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, believing that Gekko’s “greed is good” schtick was a genuine statement of moral purpose. We can laugh at them, but not at their contemporaries who joined the armed forces after seeing Top Gun. They got the message, loud – very loud – and clear. The US Navy even set up recruiting booths in cinema foyers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people who like Top Gun can’t be friends of mine; but they’d have to try that bit harder. Back then, there were Tom Cruise people and there were Molly Ringwald people and we didn’t go to the same parties.

When the disgraced politician John Profumo died a few years ago, a number of commentators argued that he was by no means a bad man; he was a good man who did a bad thing. Tony Scott was a good man who made a very bad film and I don’t feel bad for saying so.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Julian Assange, Pussy Riot and the sacred art of fence-sitting

When it comes to the subject of Julian Assange, it appears that agnosticism is not an option, at least not in polite society. But I really don’t know whether he should be deported to Sweden or spirited to Ecuador or asked to stay on in London for the moment in case England’s batting line-up needs further bolstering. Pundits of impeccably leftist credentials such as Owen Jones and Cath Elliott have snapped at soi-disant liberals whose support for Assange appears to trump any sympathy for the women who accuse him of raping them. I certainly see their point, but A-HA! say the conspiracy theorists, this is why St Julian’s opponents have framed him as a sex offender: they know it will cause divisions among his instinctive defenders, whereas an accusation of, say, bank robbery (the offence that the South African secret services tried to pin on Peter Hain) wouldn’t be taken as seriously. Had Assange been accused of something else, would Jones or Elliott have been so eager to distance themselves? And, for that matter, if he had been accused of saying something rude about Islam, would George Galloway now be so steadfast in his defence? Rape is a heinous crime and accusations of rape need to be taken seriously; even in democracies, there are some people in positions of power who are prepared to use underhand means to silence those who oppose them. Neither of those is a particularly outrageous point of view, but right now it seems to be difficult to hold both of them at once.

I’m less conflicted about the case of Pussy Riot, the Russian punks who were sentenced yesterday. Modern Russia is a corrupt, dysfunctional plutocracy and the fact that Putin has managed to get the hierarchy of the Orthodox church onside just adds a thick layer of mumbo-jumbo and a dash of misogyny to the ghastly cocktail. The three women should not be in prison. But (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), they were fully aware of who they were going to upset and what was liable to happen when they made their protest inside the cathedral in February; otherwise there would have been little point in doing it. Let’s be honest, if the verdict had come through yesterday and they’d been found not guilty and Putin apologised for the misunderstanding and said he loved their records actually, their righteously, rightfully indignant supporters around the world would probably have felt a little let down. Like Eliot’s Thomas Becket, they were seeking martyrdom and Putin, the clown, has handed it to them. I’m not entirely sure what Assange is after, or whether the weird dialectic created by his opponents and supporters will hand it to him or not. Adding to the confusion is that the three defendants in Moscow come across as fun, feisty broads with whom you’d like to have a pint; Assange seems to be a pompous dick. Which shouldn’t matter, but it does.

And there’s another paradox. Pussy Riot were caught bang to rights. We may not like the law they broke, but it’s pretty clear that they broke it. Even if Assange were to stand trial in Sweden, no verdict would satisfy everyone and the conspiracy theories and other grumbles would persist. Perversely, the legal process in Russia has been far more transparent than what’s happening with Assange in the nominally free and open West.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How can I plot the downfall of civilisation on the back of a fag packet when there are no fag packets left?

From December, all cigarettes in Australia will have to be sold in uniform, olive-green packets. I’m not going to get into a fight over the rights and wrongs of tobacco laws, beyond mentioning what a doctor friend pointed out to me, that it costs rather less to treat a terminal case of lung cancer for 18 months than it does to manage a cocktail of dementia, osteoporosis and various other age-related conditions for 20 years. No, what really interests me is that the battleground on which the government and the tobacco companies have been slugging it out isn’t actually the thing that actually kills people – tobacco itself and its various noxious components – but something apparently peripheral, the pictures that surround the tobacco. First it was the advertising, now the boxes. They’re getting closer to the stuff itself, but they’re still not there. It’s as if someone had reframed that cliché in defence of the US Second Amendment: “It’s not guns that kill people, or even people that kill people – it’s the designer holsters that the guns come in.”

The reason Big Tobacco has resisted these encroachments so stoutly is that they know that they can’t hope to keep making profits based on the quality of their products alone. Branding and packaging are what keep their industry going but it’s a bigger fight even than that – without pretty pictures, huge chunks of capitalism would wither and die. Even supposedly sophisticated consumers can be gulled by a good label, as academics have shown with tweaked wine tastings (but let’s pass over the fact that that article was the work of pretty-boy auto-plagiariser Jonah Lehrer). BAT and Philip Morris aren’t just sticking up for your your right to kill yourself; it’s also about your sacred right to bullshit yourself as you do it. But which amendment covers that?

PS: In the Guardian, Alex Hoban predicts that the tobacco companies will make a virtue out of the enforced uniformity, as part of their strategy of co-opting anti-corporate adbusting techniques. Nice.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Editing: obsolescence and apathy

Every wage slave cowers under the cloud of potential obsolescence, the fear that changes in technology or economics or consumer behaviour will send us the way of chimney sweeps, tin miners, unicorn wranglers. You may be in some well established profession and think that we’ll always need doctors or accountants but are you sure? Are you really sure?

I work with words. It’s no secret that it’s become considerably harder in the past few years to make cash from writing alone; one EL James doesn’t make a boom. But I don’t just write; I also play with other people’s scribbles, cutting them down to size, shaving off any dangling participles, giving them a little something for the weekend. Even if writers can be persuaded to write for free, very few editors are willing to labour in tedious anonymity unless they’re offered a few shekels. So I was a little nervous when I heard about a software product called Grammarly, which claims to “check your writing for grammar, punctuation, style and much more”; and then relieved to read this piece in The Economist concluding that it’s a bit rubbish, really. Phew.

But of course it’s not technology that’s going to make editors obsolete. We rely not so much on the fact that we know what “literally” and “surreal” and “unique” and “disinterested” really mean, the difference between “which” and “that”, between “infer” and “imply”, where to place that pesky apostrophe; but on other people who don’t know these things, but want to look as if they do. At some point, though, they’ll realise that none of the readers know or care, so why should the writers? And once that happens, editors may as well learn how to sweep chimneys.

Friday, August 10, 2012

I vow to thee my pasty

Well, the Olympics has got all some of us feeling terribly British and flaggity-wavery all of a sudden, but one or two people apparently want to widdle on the flame. I’m not just talking about Alex Salmond and his Scolympians (which sounds to me like a species of alien mollusc), but also the head of the tourist body Visit Cornwall, who wants to avoid references to England in any promotional material for the county. Sorry, make that duchy – the word “county” is also verboten. Cornwall is just Cornwall, and that’s where people should go. The fact that they’ll have to go through Devon to get there is but a minor inconvenience.

This does help to remind us that the entity we define as the United Kingdom is a fairly recent invention, and in a political sense only really goes back to 1707, with the Act of Union between England and Scotland. Since then, Ireland has joined the party and then (mostly) left it again, so the current map of the United Kingdom is less than 100 years old; when UKIP’s tosspot-in-chief Nigel Farage dismissed Belgium as “an artificial construction” I wondered why he thinks that couldn’t be applied to the entity he so zealously seeks to release from the bonds of Euroserfdom. Even if we cleave to the notion that England – as distinct from the UK – is a valid concept, we have to accept that for plenty of people a regional or civic loyalty trumps any fealty to nation or country. This is true in Cornwall, Liverpool and also Yorkshire, where they’ve been calculating how many medals they’d have taken if the county had entered the Olympics as a separate entity. I now find that when I’m outside the UK and someone asks where I come from, my immediate response is usually “London”.

I’d guess that every country – barring a few small, relatively homogeneous island or city states – has areas that attract this sort of local loyalty, whether or not they’re actively yearning for independence. National citizenship is simply an administrative necessity, rather than an expression of an emotional bond. I’ve been to New York and Barcelona, for example, but I know damn well that doesn’t mean that I’ve been to the USA or Spain. Are there any real Italians, or are they at heart Venetians and Sicilians and so on? Home is not necessarily where your passport says it is.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Plop art

The Oriel of the Blue Horses, an installation by Martin Gostner, has gone on display at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. It’s horse shit. No, make that fake horse shit. Now, I’m always ready to defend the wild-eyed imaginings of the conceptual art posse against the sneers of Call-That-Art?-A-Child-Of-Three-Could-Do-That, Inc, but it does look as if this time Gostner has just stapled a sign saying “KICK ME” to his own arse. Or maybe that’s his next piece.

I wonder what the late Robert Hughes would have made of it all.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

#London2012: regarding the keirin

I’ve just realised that in the midst of the most spectacular sporting event to grace my native land since they cancelled We Are The Champions, I’ve written three blog posts about the opening ceremony and precisely none about the actually running and jumping and throwing and all that malarkey. You see, when healthy lads of my age were glued to Grandstand and World of Sport, or out in the park trying to emulate Kevin Keegan or Brendan Foster, I’d be stuck in my bedroom using the continuous paper my dad brought back from work to recreate in prose form the dystopic sci-fi that dominated my imagination and TV viewing.

So while I have the deepest respect and admiration for plucky Victoria Pendleton and her success in the keirin yesterday, I have to admit that to me, this is not so much a sport, more a combination of 



Thursday, August 02, 2012

Vertigo vs Citizen Kane: battle of the fat blokes

The results of the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll are out and the collective wisdom of hundreds of critics and directors asserts that Vertigo is, notwithstanding what everyone has said for the past 50 years, better than Citizen Kane; one white, male, overweight raconteur and curmudgeon nudging another off the pinnacle. I don’t agree: I don’t think it’s even Hitchcock’s best movie, and it’s not my favourite either (which is a different thing, but more on that later).

Every time one of these polls is staged, the same quibbles arise. What’s the bloody point of it all? Well, the first point is to shift copies of Sight & Sound (or Film Comment or Empire or whatever) and then, on a more altruistic note, to raise awareness of the richness of cinema as an art form, to encourage people to see some movies again or for the first time and to provoke debate and discussion and dialectic. Obviously nobody is arguing that Citizen Kane was, in some empirical and absolute sense, the best film ever until 2002, but that this has now ceased to be the case, as if helium has usurped hydrogen as the lightest element.

The other gripe concerns the selection of those who vote in the poll, and with it the whole nature of elitism in the creation of a canon. “But my favourite film is Star Wars [or The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption or Dirty Dancing] so why should I care what Mark Kermode or Quentin Tarantino thinks?” The answer of course is that Kermode and Tarantino have almost certainly seen Star Wars, whereas I’m not sure how many diehard devotees of Star Wars have seen Vertigo or Kane or Tokyo Story (number three on the list and top of the directors’ picks). And when you’ve seen Star Wars and Vertigo and several thousand other movies of all genres and periods and countries, you start to realise that there’s a difference between your own favourite film and the film you consider to be the best. (Back to Hitchcock: I suspect Rear Window or Psycho are among his best, but my favourite is Spellbound, even though I’m well aware of its glaring faults. And as for Welles, I’d pick The Stranger or Chimes at Midnight over Kane.) So ultimately there’s nothing wrong with having Star Wars as your favourite film, but without any critical context, why do you expect us to care?

That said, a well organised poll does tend to say something about the sampled group. I always think of the time customers at the David Lean Cinema in Croydon were asked to pick the best film of all time; confronted with the glories of Hitchcock and Welles, Ozu and Kurosawa, Bergman and Ford and Wilder and Ed Wood, they picked that epic of love and loss and duty and windy bonnets, Mrs Brown. If only Hitchcock had replaced Kim Novak with that nice Judi Dench, there would surely be no arguments.

PS: In the New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey – one of the voters – queries the dearth of recent movies in the list.