Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Interview: but is it art?

Until a few days ago, the Seth Rogen/James Franco movie The Interview appeared to be nothing more than a crass, schlocky, buddy movie with a bit of heavy-handed politics thrown in. But then things got interesting. First came the cyber-attack against Sony that may or may not have had something to do with North Korea (although they said “it’s not us, guv”). Then the big cinema chains in the United States, mindful of the rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang, announced that they wouldn’t be showing the film, and Obama weighed in to say that the Koreans were acting like terrorists and the Koreans said “oh yeah, well you’re the real terrorists” and then he said that he was disappointed in Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures said “it’s not us, guv” and then someone knocked out the whole internet in North Korea and most of us said “but we didn’t think they had the internet in North Korea” and now it turns out that The Interview will be shown in cinemas after all, but only in a few small independents and art houses. And Obama said, gee, I’m proud of you guys, Merry Christmas.
A few thoughts. First, I’m sure I’m not the first person to wonder whether this might be the most deviously brilliant marketing campaign ever, worthy — if this isn’t getting just a tad too self-referential — of a movie in its own right. Then, if the terrorist threats were indeed credible, are we supposed to assume that a few earnest cinephiles munching vegan brownies would be a tolerable level of collateral damage whereas the loss of a packed cineplex would be beyond the pale? And finally, if The Interview is now to be shown in art houses, does its context at the centre of a geopolitical shouting match mean that it has suddenly become art?

On similar lines, it would appear that Cecilia Giménez’s cack-handed restoration of a fresco at the church in her hometown of Borja, Spain, has attracted 150,000 visitors over the past couple of years, numbers that would make many provincial galleries salivate. Maybe that’s the answer when it comes to The Interview: yes, it’s art, but nobody said it had to be good art.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On re-reading Douglas Coupland

It’s a difficult thing, falling out of love with an author (or musician or artist or chef or, for that matter, a lover, I guess). The moment you realise their last two or three books have been dull reiterations of the same bloody theme, or misguided attempts to switch genre, or half-arsed doodles that wouldn’t have been commissioned if they didn’t have an established name attached, or some combination of all of them, can be a punch in the face. It’s not just the time you’ve wasted ploughing through the tomes in the hope of finding some of the sparkle that attracted you to the author in the first place; it’s the fact that even the earlier books, the ones you do love, are a little bit tainted. The question starts to nag at the back of your skull — were they actually that good to start with? And do you really want to go back and find out?

Shortly after I gave up on Douglas Coupland, thanks to the confused farce and misfiring satire of Worst. Person. Ever., I also managed to lose my Kindle, so found myself getting reacquainted with my bookcase. Which is how I found myself leafing through Coupland’s third book, Life After God, which I think I think I first read in the dying days of the John Major administration. In the last story, the narrator tracks down the friends from his teenaged years, including Julie, who is “trying to escape from ironic hell” – perhaps embodying the shift from the sarcastic wisecracks of the author’s debut, Generation X, to the more fleshed-out characters that came in the likes of Girlfriend in a Coma. And this exchange occurs, although as the use of the future tense implies, maybe it’s all in the narrator’s wishful thinking and will never really happen.
We will talk some more. She will remind me of a night the seven of us had back in 1983. “You know — the night we drank lemon gin and we each stole a flower from the West Van graveyard for our lapels.”
I will draw a blank. I won’t remember.
“Oh, Scout, don’t blank out on me now — you weren’t that drunk. You gave me all that great advice at that restaurant downtown. I changed schools because of that advice.”
I will still draw a blank. “Sorry, Julie.”
“This is truly pathetic, Scout. Think. Markie went shirtless down Denman Street; Todd and Dana and Kristy got fake tattoos.”
“Uh – brain death here. Nothing.”
Julie will become obsessed with making me remember: “There was that horrible brown vinyl 1970s furniture in the restaurant. You ate a live fish.”
“Wait!” I’ll cry. “Brown 1970s furniture – I remember brown 1970s furniture.”
“Well thank the Lord,” Julie will say, “I thought I was going mad.”
“No, wait, it’s all coming back to me now... the flowers... the fish.” Like a thin strand of dental floss the entire evening will return to me, inch by inch, gently tugged along by Julie. Finally, I will remember the night in its entirety, but the experience will be strangely tiring. The two of us will sit on the warm concrete steps quietly. “What was the point of that story, anyhow?” I will ask.
“I can’t remember,” Julie will say.
 You know, maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Why I am no longer a clown

When I was about eight years old, each class had to put on some sort of performance once a term for the rest of the school. Our teacher, Mr Gamble, decided the theme would be “When I Grow Up” and so each of us had to write a short piece about our career aspirations. I can’t recall many of the other choices; lots of boys as footballers, girls as princesses, I suppose, although one young lady announced that she wanted to be a frog, a decision that seems ever more magnificent the older I get.

I wanted to be a clown. In retrospect, this probably derives from a memory of about five years before, one of the first things I can genuinely remember with certainty (rather than remembering the retelling of it as it seeps into family folk history). We were watching Billy Smart’s circus on TV when the kitchen suddenly erupted in flames, the result of a hyperactive chip pan, and yes, the very notion of a chip pan might hint at how bloody old I really am. My parents did everything by the book, one phoning the fire brigade, the other hustling my sister and me out of the house to a neighbour’s place, where we were plonked down in front of a telly that was also tuned to the goings-on in the big top — not such a startling coincidence in those days, as there were but three channels. I have no memory whatsoever of the fire engine or of the blackened, sodden mess into which the kitchen had turned by the time we were allowed back into our house, only of the fact that the neighbours had a colour TV, while we had a mere black and white set, and that the clowns were funnier in colour.

Back to school. I’ve written a poem about how bloody brilliant clowns are and Mr Gamble says it’s good enough to read to the assembled audience. (I’ve also started writing poetry but haven’t yet conceived of Being A Poet as a career option. That comes later.) I dress in an approximation of an auguste’s finery, including a garishly checked blazer borrowed from my grandmother, and paint on an appropriate face. Mr Gamble suggests that a suitable ending for my moment in the spotlight would be for me to get hit with a pie and so taken with the whole experience am I that I just say yes, whatever, great, do it, I’m a clown — I haven’t actually contemplated what the experience might be like.

Come the morning of the performance, the various policemen and train drivers and pop stars do their schtick and frog girl sits on a lily pad and croaks and then it’s my turn. I do a few prat falls. I do my bit of bloody awful poetry. And then Mr Gamble hits me, hard, in the face, with a pie. Except it’s not really a pie, it’s just a paper plate, covered in flour-and-water paste. And instead of sliding elegantly towards the floor, leaving my eyes blinking soulfully from within the white goop, it just stays stuck to my face. I can hear my schoolmates, even if I can’t see them. And everyone is laughing, which is nice, but it’s the same sort of laughter that comes when the roly-poly headmaster, Mr Petts, calls some hapless child a ruddy lazy idiot in front of the whole school. Laughing at, not laughing with. Suddenly, I don’t want to be a clown any more.

Of course, if Mr Gamble had read this recipe for the perfect comedy pie the whole thing might have gone more successfully and my life might have taken a completely different path, clown dreams intact.

I wonder what happened to the girl who wanted to be a frog.