Sunday, December 28, 2008

Australia, Changeling and All About Eve

Despite all the terrible reviews I went to see Baz Luhrmann's latest film, Australia, last week. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Well, I suppose anything would be a pleasant surprise after reading Peter Bradshaw's scathing Guardian critique. Also, I'm not a Nicole Kidman fan, but by the end of the film I had actually warmed to her.

Yes, the film is sugary-sweet in places, but, as Philip French puts it, "you don't go to Baz Luhrmann expecting to find Patrick White, any more than you buy a ticket for South Pacific expecting to experience The Naked and the Dead." French's observation neatly sums up my own reaction to the film. Set in Australia at the brink of World War Two, this epic adventure begins rather clumsily, veering between outback wilderness to white saloon bars, to stately home, horses and lawns in England. The film is also spoiled to start with by Kidman's efforts to act the frosty upper-class Lady Sarah: her accent veers between Bridget Jones and Mary Poppins for a good half an hour. However, I was soon carried away by the adventure and hypnotised by the stunning costumes and props. Take the heroine's matching, immaculate blue and white set of suitcases - one of which explodes during a brawl, exploding its contents of delicate lingerie - or her dazzling, tight red ball gown. Everything is just that little bit camp and over the top, just like the dazzling technicolour of The Wizard of Oz, a recurring narrative and stylistic reference. It's obvious that Luhrmann is just as interested in visual details as he is in narrative. To me, both work well together in this film which is meant to be pure entertainment at its campest, exaggerated best.

Kidman's performance warms up, too (once she is able to stop acting the 'English Lady'), and she makes a great match with Hugh Jackman. Sod Russell Crowe, Jackman is far better suited to this part. Nullah, the young, mixed-race boy, and his grandfather, his Aborigine grandfather, have important roles in the film, too. They movingly portray the terrible racial prejudice inflicted on Australia's indigenous peoples, right up until the early 1970s, as the film's closing credits point out. So the film isn't all mush and escapism - it also highlights a horrible and uncomfortable truth about a not-too distant past. But go and see it for all the mush and escapism anyway - and if you have any heart you'll be swept away by the story.

Last week I was also lucky enough to catch a screening of the stunning All About Eve, starring Bette Davis at her bitchiest, cattiest and most wonderful. It's amazing how the film's themes - ambition, celebrity and the emptiness of fame - still ring true today. It also sums up that each to-his-own, cut-throat environment particular to New York.

Changeling, Clint Eastwood's latest directorial achievement, is another film set in the first half of the 20th century. I went to see it last week at the newly revamped Everyman cinema in Hampstead, as a post-Christmas treat. Tickets are extortionately priced, in exchange for the privilege of waiter service and enormous sofas instead of seats. Each place comes complete with a side table, to which champagne holders are affixed. There are even aeroplane-style buttons which remain lit up throughout the film, and can be pressed at any time , should you require additional drinks or snacks. It's a nice idea, but in practice it means a lot of clunking of bottles and general disturbance as waiters weave in and out of spectators, many of whom are concentrating too hard on munching and sipping than watching the film. Given the choice, I'd go for the BFI any day - you may not be able to eat or drink in the auditorium but the bar is very cool. Also, £12 is a ridiculous price for a cinema ticket - you can go to the theatre for cheaper.

Either way, I enjoyed the film. Angelina Jolie's performance is very convincing; the costumes and sets are stunning, and the story all the more poignant because it's true. It's interesting that Clint Eastwood seems to be quite a feminist - like Million Dollar Baby, this film highlights sexual inequality and the barriers faced by women. He has also revealed himself to be a talented musician, having composed the score for both these films and also Flags of our Fathers, Grace is Gone and Mystic River.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Edinburgh sketches

My first ever trip to Edinburgh was wonderful. Went there for the opening of Steve McQueen's touring installation, Queen and Country, along with my colleagues from The Art Fund. Here are a couple of sketches I did during the trip - a city scene and a portrait of Guilaine.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cultural highlights

It's been a while since I last wrote, and I've seen so many interesting things, so it's difficult to know where to start. Maybe I'll mention some of the 'cultural highlights' of the past weeks.

Well, this past week started off in a very memorable way - at 9am on a misty, damp, Monday morning a dozen or so work colleagues and I gathered at the staff entrance of Tate Modern, where whisked down some hidden corridors, and led up to the entrance to the Rothko exhibition, where we were let loose amongst the vast, empty rooms. The museum is closed to the public on Mondays and we were the lucky few who had the chance to take in the beauty of the room full of warm, glowing canvases that Rothko was originally commissioned to paint for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York. The exhibition also includes some of the harsher, cleaner looking Black-Form paintings, his large-scale Brown and Grey works on paper, and his last series of Black on Grey paintings, which were created later on in his career. I can't describe what a difference it made seeing it in this calm, silent ambiance, compared to my first visit weeks ago on a busy lunchtime. What a wonderful way to start the week.

What else have I been up to? Well, last Sunday I went to see Kazan's wonderful Streetcar Named Desire at the BFI. Of course, both I and the friend I went with had seen it before, but both of us agreed it's totally transformed at the cinema. It was a real treat to watch the larger-than-life characters, acted by a brooding Marlon Brando and simpering Vivienne Leigh, battling it out on the big screen, accompanied by that wonderfully foreboding music. I'm hoping I'll have time to catch at least one more Tennessee Williams film before the BFI retrospective ends.

The other week, I finally made it to see the Francis Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain. I had always been rather sceptical about Bacon's work, but I totally changed my mind on seeing this fantastic show. I think I just hadn't seen enough of his work. It was so interesting to follow the progression from his earlier, more restrained approach to colour to his later, more exuberant compositions. I adored his interpretations of Velasquez' paintings of Pope Innocent X. One of the best parts of the show was the room in which we're given a glimpse of his work process. There are glass cabinets filled with art books he used for reference, alongside torn out pages from newspapers and medical magazines. There are also some stunning black and white photos on the wall, taken by the artist and friends, in his studio. One wall is covered with a blown-up photo of what the studio looked like, with its round mirror and dozens of paint brushes splaying out from glass pots. I'm hoping I can go back and see the show once more before it closes.

Tonight I'm going to see Othello at the Lyric Hammersmith. It's one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I've never actually seen it on stage, so I'm very excited. Tomorrow I intend to go and see the Miró, Calder, Giacometti, Braque show at the Royal Academy.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Chatsworth snaps

Just back from a gorgeous day in Derbyshire. Lots of travelling, but worth it for the magnificent sculpture exhibition in Chatsworth's grounds. And the house itself is superb - definitely want to go back again soon.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Yesterday I went to the BFI screening of Hyenas, a film by the late Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety. I've seen and written about some of his other films - my favourite is Touki Bouki - but Hyenas is notoriously difficult to get hold of so I was thrilled to be able to see it on the big screen.

It's a fabulous film. Made in 1992, it was conceived as a follow-up from Touki Bouki, (which translates as The Journey of the Hyena ), made two decades before. Both films portray human greed and corruption in a highly coded film style, complex and often humorous. The story of Hyenas unfolds in a Senegalese village called Colobane. At the beginning of the film, the town's grocer, Dramaan Drameh, is paid a visit from the past - the woman he'd rejected as a potential wife in favour of someone richer, has returned, years later. Her name is Linguère Ramatou and she's far more wealthy than anyone could have imagined. She also has her mind firmly set on revenge. Mambety based the film on a Swiss play by Dürenmatt, called The Visit (1956). The film works on many levels, functioning as an allegory of the 'postcolonial' or 'neo-colonial' predicament, but also commenting on human society in general, and the way money and power go hand in hand.

It's not all doom and gloom, though: Mambety's films are always polyphonic, filled with colour and energy, highlighting potentials for good (singing, dancing, bright colours evoke a passion for life), whilst simultaneously depicting wickedness and cruelty (Dramaan's customers refuse to pay upfront for their purchases, but parade around in brand new boots from Burkina Faso). The landscape, people, costumes and animal imagery Mambety employs are all African, but the message isn't specific to Africa, it's relevant to us all. The key motto is spoken by the decrepit Linguère Ramatou: "The world turnerd me into a whore. I'll turn the world into a brothel". She executes her revenge plan, but in the end, who do we feel sorry for? As ever, Mambety blames everyone and no one, and there are more questions than answers.

After the screening, we were treated to a lively debate, led by Colin Prescod, Chair of the Institute of Race Relations. He provided an insightful commentary on the film, and then other audience members chipped in with their reactions and thoughts. It gave us all a chance to think more carefully about the different layers of meaning Mambety weaves into his story.

The film's penultimate image shows a desolate, muddy plane ridged with fresh tractor marks - a community 'flattened' by the will of one person in power. But on the horizon there's a baobab tree, deathly looking with its roots hanging like a skeleton, yet resolutely alive, fixed at the centre of the frame. Is this a vision of hope? Or does it suggest that greed and corruption will 'grow again', the cycle of corruption repeating itself? The film begins and ends with shots of elephants moving through a dry savannah. One audience member, who grew up in South Africa, pointed out that in Zulu culture, the way elephants interact and care for each other is repsected and revered. By juxtaposing the community of elephants with visions of hyena-like men, Mambety is reminding us to look to ourselves, question our own motivations and attitudes to each other and society as a whole. Hyenas offers an uncompromising critique of human society and how we choose to build it. It couldn't have been screened at a more timely moment.

(images: Hyenas poster; Djibril Diop Mambety)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Memories of Tea & Sympathy

I'm really enjoying Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. As I said in an earlier post the film is rubbish, but the book is brilliant.

One of the best bits about reading about Young's New York exploits is coming across locations that I became familiar with during my time living there. I was particularly thrilled to read his mention of the Greenwich village 'greasy spoon', aka Tea & Sympathy, as I worked as a waitress there for a couple of months last summer. As I discovered, it really is a New York institution, on a par with shopping for budget designer underwear at Century 21 department store, ice skating in Central Park and buying organic fruit from the Wholefoods on Union Square. Tea & Sympathy is comprised of a tea shop (where I worked, alongside an all-English group of faithful waitresses, some of whom have been there for over a decade), a shop which resembles a Sylvanian families replica of an Olde English sweet shop, and a chippy called 'Salt & Battery'. Tea & Sympathy is, I soon learned, a big celebrity hang-out, favoured by the likes of Rupert Everett (who Nicky refers to as Rupert, reminding everyone they're on first name terms), SJP and Jake Gyllenhaal. David Bowie even rented the whole place out for his 50th birthday bash, back in the day.

While I was working at T&S, I was quickly indoctrinated into the intricate list of do's and don'ts that customers and staff must abide by, if they want to stay on the good side of Nicky, the fiery owner/manager, originally from South London but now a New York establishment in her own right (check the press links on the website for proof). There's even a list of 'Nicky's Rules' stuck firmly onto the front door of the diminutive tea shop, just to make sure there's no messing around. The rules insist that no one can go just for tea, some kind of edible must be consumed. There's also to be no rudeness to members of staff, and, most of all, THE WHOLE PARTY must be present before a table can be seated. You've been warned. I worked there during the summer months, but apparently the warm aroma of apple crumble and treacle pudding pulls in double the customers during winter months - even if it involves waiting in line when it's minus 5 Farenheit outside.

I used to enjoy serving up bangers and mash, eggs on toast and shepherd's pie to homesick expats and anglophile New Yorkers. My favourite was preparing 'Afternoon tea for two' on old-fashioned, metal stacked servers: a portion to share included a selection of finger sandwiches, three slices of cake (chocolate was always one of them), and scones, clotted cream and jam. Everything was prepared in-house by head chef Jimmy and his colleagues, who must be among the only New York-dwelling Latin Americans in the world who've tried marmite and know that 'rosie lee' means tea.

I do think it's funny how you can find more typically 'British' traditions abroad. I mean, how many people really do sit down to afternoon tea these days, here in the UK? It's the same in ex-colonial countries. Whenever I used to visit my grandparents in Bangalore in South India, one of my favourite treats would be to stock up on the tantalisingly titled 'rich plum cake' from Nilgiri's - a supermarket founded during British rule which still sold old fashioned Johnson's soap, tin jars of Cadbury's cocoa and Pond's Cold Cream - and tuck into a good old 'high tea', with the addition of Indian savouries, of course. I still remember the days when I lived in Nairobi as a child, lounging on the deckchairs in the beautiful gardens of Karen Blixen's house, sipping on Earl Grey. Or those crisp, dark early mornings in the Masai Mara, when ginger biscuits, pungent and dampened by the humidity, and hot, steaming tea, coaxed us out of our camp beds and into our land rovers. I can also recall afternoons spent at Langata's Giraffe Manor where we'd climb a raised wooden platform to feed the tall, graceful giraffes pelettes straight onto their long, black tongues, before tucking into our own tea of scones and cream.

The nearest I've come to replicating those childhood tea-time experiences is at the Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester, near Cambridge - sitting in those deckchairs in the open air really does take me back to my Nairobi days. Proust was definitely right, there's something about the tastes, smells and sensations one experiences when growing up that just can't be forgotten. But the Orchard isn't the real world, either - it's about as frozen in time as you can get. Maybe that dreamy idea of lazy afternoon tea can only exist for those 'exiled' from home (or in the novels of P.G Wodehouse or Richmal Crompton, of course). But that's probably a good thing. It wouldn't be half so special if it were a reality.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Good Critic

Last night I attended a very interesting debate at the British Film Institute, discussing the role of the critic in the 21st century.

The talk was chaired by Nick James, editor of Sight & Sound, the international film magazine based in London. The invited speakers included: filmmaker, author and curator Mark Cousins; Jean-Michel Frodon, editor of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma; The Times film critic Wendy Ide; and Mark Fisher, blogger and Deputy editor of The Wire.

I really enjoyed hearing each of them speak, and to listen to responses from members of the audience, too. I was glad to hear that there are still many people who are passionate about keeping educated, enthusiastic and opinionated (yes, opinionated!) criticism alive. I agreed with Cousins and Ide who spoke against the pressures of marketing ploys to promote star-studded blockbusters at the expense of less mainstream, smaller-budget films. Cousins used Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End as a prime example of what he calls 'bullying'. Quite rightly, he questioned the need for it to be shown 53 times over the course of one single day in Edinburgh. I couldn't agree more. I'm also thrilled that among the list of films Cousins has selected for screening at the BFI at the moment, is Djibril Diop Mambety's Hyènes (Hyenas) is being shown.

It was also fascinating to talk to Nick James and Jean-Michel Frodon after the debate. I asked Frodon whether he thinks that France is suffering the same 'crisis' of criticism that the Anglophone world seems to be undergoing (in America, 31 permanent critics have lost their jobs over the past couple of years, since web 2.0 came into being). It seems evident that the French haven't quite reached our stage of cynicism yet, and hopefully they never will. France has had a cinéphile tradition ever since Lumière and Méliès delighted audiences with their projections. Henri Langlois founded the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 1936 - the world's first film archive. It was at this historic location that François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard received their cinematic 'schooling'. They also wrote regularly for Cahiers du Cinema, which was founded in 1951. I loved living in Paris for the very fact that it has so many wonderful art cinemas, and that people there (and in France in general) tend to appreciate a wider range of films. Perhaps I'm looking through rose-tinted spectacles, but I don't think so.

Earlier this week, I was reading a few interviews with Peter Greenaway in the BFI library, and he often says that his most loyal and enthusiastic viewers can be found in France. He says it's because the French public tend to be, in general, more inclined to embrace cinema in relation to other art forms such as painting, theatre and literature, as well as philosophy and history. He also talks about an 'inverse snobbism' in the UK, in that people tend to be sceptical about films which try to be too clever for their own good. In his view, we're a far more literary nation than a visual one, and as a result we're quite accepting of playwrights and novelists to tackle complex issues, but are less inclined to appreciate a thought-provoking, 'difficult' film. I'm not sure if one can make such a sweeping statement, but perhaps he's right to a certain extent. But maybe it's more to do with the fact that we're victims of the 'bullying' that Mark Cousins mentioned in his talk. Perhaps if there was a more equal distribution of small-budget films alongside Hollywood blockbusters, more people would take an interest in a wider range of material.

It was also interesting to hear what Mark Fisher had to say about the demise of terrestrial TV. Nowadays, he argues, mainstream networks such as the BBC and Channel 4 hardly ever show foreign or 'arthouse' films. He says that he first discovered directors such as Tarkovsky and Jarman by happening to switch on the TV and being instantly captivated by what he saw. This is a valid point. However, I'm not sure if I totally agree with him. I find that the availability of DVDs in local libraries and on websites such as Love Film means that we have a far greater access to all kinds of films. The chance encounter is still possible- just in different ways. In my local Camden town video store, there's always a freshly arranged shelf of 'recommended' titles, picked out by the staff. OK, I am lucky to live in an area where there's a high demand for all kinds of films. But internet rental sites are quite well stocked too. However, I do think that local cinemas should be encouraged (or financed) to show a wider range of films. Finally, I think it can be concluded that critics can function as 'signposters' (as Mark Cousins says) or 'bridges' (Jean-Michel Frodon's term). In an age of information overload, we should welcome suggestions and recommendations from critics who dedicate their lives to watching films and framing their reactions thoughtfully, articulately and above all honestly. Long live the critic!

Sweet tooth

I went for a run on Hampstead Heath earlier and happened to jog past fellow Kentish town resident, the journalist Giles Coren. (I know he lives nearby as he often slips in fond remarks about his Camden neighbourhood into his restaurant column in The Times magazine. Coren - an excellent writer, and sworn enemy of sub-editors all over Fleet street due to his wrathful reactions to any tampering with his carefully formed prose - was walking his dog and tucking into what seemed to be a packet of some kind of sugary confectionary. Perhaps the credit crunch is hitting The Times and they're no longer sending him for slap-up, three course dinners, so he's having to resort to afternoon snacking to stave away hunger pangs. Probably not. Maybe his tastes are just less refined than he'd have us believe...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Living, Dining and Philosophising - the art of French cinema

During the Cambridge Film Festival, Isabelle McNeill wrote a brilliant article about a current trend in contemporary French film: depictions of the family home. This was certainly evident in the line-up of new cinematic offerings at the Cambridge Film Festival.

During the week I saw Cyril Gelblat's new film, Les Murs Porteurs (Cycles, 2007), Philippe Claudel's fabulous Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You so Long, 2008, starring Kristin Scott Thomas), Michel Léviant's En Souvenir de Nous (In Memory of Us, 2007), and Eric Guirado's Le Fils de L'Epicier (The Grocer's Son, 2007). They all deal with notions of the family, traditions, coming of age, memory - in particular relation to a shared living space. The films are also about a changing France and in certain ways celebrate a decidedly 'French' way of life - shared meals, philosophical discussions, setting aside time to think and reflect upon life and art.

Tom Sutcliffe on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review hosted an insightful discussion of Il y a longtemps que je t'aime last week. The presenter and his guests - Douglas Kennedy, Fay Weldon and James Runcie, enjoyed the film overall, and it was interesting to hear their observations. However, I was slightly irritated by their shared dislike for a certain crucial scene - "that damned dinner party", as one of the panel puts it. They all seem to agree that the sequence is too obvious, too contrived and of course so irredeemably French, as presenter Tom Sutcliffe says. Brits seem to have a rather contradictory attitude to the French and their attitude to meal times. On the one hand, we long for a 'civilised' dining tradition à la française while we speedily wolf down our lunchtime sandwiches over our computers.* On the other hand, we secretly despise our Gallic neighbours for having a better deal than us, and think it all rather pretentious. We also have a problem watching them 'having their cake and eating it' on screen. It doesn't make sense.

Eventually, the Radio 4 panel conceded that it's refreshing for a British audience to watch a film in which the characters talk about culture and go to art galleries (and, presumably, have long dinners). The verdict is, apparently, that the French are less scared of portraying middle class life than us Brits. "The French invented bourgeois and they practice it", concludes Douglas Kennedy. But maybe the reason why they still 'practice' this slower, more contemplative way of life - whether we label it 'bourgeois' or not - could be linked to the fact that all French students wishing to pursue further education have to pass the compulsory Philosophy module of the Baccalaureate. That means that a large proportion of the French population has been educated to think and ponder in a certain way. French cinema reflects this. I thought the dinner party scene was effective, but then I'm biased because it includes an argument between some of the characters about the filmmaker Eric Rohmer - a master when it comes to filming meal time conversations. A film which is not only a delight to watch, but also slips in a reference to one of my favourite directors of all time, definitely gets my vote.

Cycles is a slow-paced, gentle film about relationships between the generations of a Jewish family - the Rosenfelds - living in the Marais in Paris. The film centres around the old family home - an apartment on the rue de Turenne. The beautiful old flat is no longer occupied by the Rosenfelds. However, family members are drawn back to it during the course of the film. I enjoyed it all the more because it's shot just a few steps away from where I used to live, and it brought back lots of memories.

En Souvenir de Nous could almost be corny in its romanticised portrayal of a remembered youth, but it's not. Léviant weaves into his plot some more troubled, uncertain dynamics between his three female leads. It was also interesting to hear Léviant present the film, and explain how it came to fruition - it's actually two films merged into one, made twelve years apart and with the same actors, bar one. He was inspired to make it because one of the actresses died shortly after the shooting of the original film, and he observed how strange it was to watch the film, knowing she was no longer alive. He decided to frame a second film, based on the notion that the character she played has died and her friends gather together to reminisce about the summer they spent together. The opening of the film depicts them entering the house for the first time after all those years, opening cupboards, peering into drawers and uncovering old relics - echoing how the film itself delves back into the past, not only of the characters but the director and actors too.

I enjoyed watching Le Fils de L'Epicier, again a contemplation of inter-generational relationships and of old tradition. Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé), is the son of a grocer and was brought up in a rural community. The film opens in Paris, where Antoine is working as a hotel waiter, reluctant to join the family trade. Yet his father's ailing health and his relationship with a young girl, Claire (Clotilde Hesme) eventually draw him back to his childhood home. He soon becomes attached to the community he grew up in. Guirado's film is brought alive by stunning location shots and engaging central performances by Hesme and Cazalé.

* Interestingly, Angelique Chrisafis recently wrote in The Guardian how the French are slowly moving towards our mode of desktop lunching as the credit crunch sets in.

The Artist and Model

I just returned from a wonderful day's drawing, led by the artist Tom Davies at the school he teaches at in Ealing. It's a long way from North London but I can't think of a better way of spending a Saturday.

My good friend Aliette was modelling, along with two other people, and between 10am - 4pm the hours just whizzed by. Another fantastic and inspiring artist, Francis Hoyland, was also there. The class comprised a few of Tom's Sixth Form students and then quite a few 'older' people - myself being one of the youngest of that category. As all of us sat and sketched, Tom and Francis kept up an ongoing dialogue about drawing, ways of seeing, and artists. Their favourites seem to be Matisse and Bonnard, which is handy as they're my favourite artists too. The discussion moved to the new Rothko exhibition at the Tate, which I am dying to see. Tom also told us about his imminent trip to Calais, where he's been invited to give a talk at the inauguration of Anthony Caro's new installations in a 12th century chapel. The project is entitled Le Choeur de Lumière.

Tom also talked to us about Balzac's novella, Le Chef d'Oeuvre Inconnu, which he'd suggested as reading matter to one of his pupils who is preparing to study Art History at UCL. The book is set in 17th Century Paris. It's about an ageing artist, the mysterious and foreboding Frenhofer, desperately trying to complete his 'unfinished masterpiece'. He inevitably fails - in the eyes of his critics at least. Balzac incorporates a fictitious young Poussin into the tale, too. According to Tom, the house in which the story is set actually exists, and apparently Picasso was so enthralled by the tale that he decided to paint Guernica there. I read the Balzac work a couple of years ago, whilst researching for a dissertation on painting and cinema. Jacques Rivette made a film loosely based on the book, entitled La Belle Noiseuse (1991), and that's what first inspired me to read it. The film stars a fabulous Michel Piccoli as Frenhofer, and Emmanuelle Béart as the young model. Both the film and the book provide fascinating explorations into perceptions of beauty, the artist's impulse to capture the ephemeral, and poses the unanswerable question of 'what makes a good painting'?

During today's session I completed about 5 drawings, using a mixture of charcoal, pen and ink. I was very pleased with them and can't wait for my next class.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

Cambridge Film Festival 2008

Just returned from a wonderful week reviewing films at the Cambridge Film Festival.

Highlights of the week included interviewing Tilda Swinton, watching Belle de Jour on the big screen along with it's follow-up by Manoel de Oliveira, Belle Toujours, starring the fabulous Michel Piccoli. But the most memorable experience was, without a doubt, the screening of Jarman's Blue. The entire 79 minute movie is basically just a blue screen, inspired by Yves Klein's 'International Klein Blue', accompanied by a beautiful audio collage of voices and sounds, dealing with Jarman's personal experiences as an artist suffering HIV. The marine coloured screen has a very calming effect, yet it's also disconcerting as it forces the audience to focus more acutely on sounds and words. Largely based on Jarman's personal diaries, the narrative is extremely poetic, whilst also conveying Jarman's lively sense of humour. It's a very moving film.

As part of the Festival's Jarman Tribute, the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse also showed films by Richard Heslop, an artist/filmmaker who collaborated with Jarman and also made his own feature films and over 80 music videos for bands such as Queen, The Cure and The Happy Mondays. You can read my review here.

The festival was rounded off with a screening of Peter Greenaway's new film, Nightwatching, followed by a Q+A with the director, during which he elaborated upon his rather radical views on (the death of) cinema. It was also hilarious to witness Greenaway's outrage when it was suggested that his film might be likened to Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, to which he responded loudly, 'Why should I be a f***ing Jarmanian? Why can't I be a Greenawayan?" or words to that effect. The comparison had obviously touched a raw nerve.

I was particularly taken aback by the fact that Greenaway believes he's the only filmmaker around who makes films based around image rather than text. It seems like quite a bold claim to make. What about Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Renoir, not to mention African filmmakers such as Haroun, I was thinking to myself. And if he meant specifically British cinema (it wasn't entirely clear), then Jarman would be an obvious example of a painterly filmmaker - but maybe that's why his name is unwelcome. I quizzed Greenaway about his views later on in the Arts Picturehouse bar. I was relieved to discover that the arrogance and pomposity is in fact an act, and that in real life he's actually rather playful and of course highly intelligent. It was interesting to learn more about his progression from studying painting at the RCA to filmmaking. He lives in Amsterdam now and his latest film certainly reveals his knowledge and passion for Dutch painting.

During the festival I also discovered a range of new French films, which I will talk about in a later blog. I saw the UK premiere of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, too, which I found rather disappointing. The film is based on Toby Young's novel, a memoir of his cringe-worthy experiences of working at Vanity Fair in New York. I bought a copy of the book on Friday as Toby Young was there doing signings. I'm very glad I did as it's completely different from the film. The book is full of wit, intelligence and snappy observations, just like the 1930s and 40s screwball comedies Young talks about admiringly in the opening chapters. I can also identify with some of the situations he describes, given that they involve journalism and New York office politics. I particularly relished the accounts he gives of the Condé Nast hierarchy, and the bitchiness of certain fashionistas. Believe me I've been there...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Yes, I want a job. But please, spare the jargon

If you're looking for jobs at the moment, you may share a certain irritation with me. Is it me, or is there a growing tendency on the part of recruiters to create ludicrously exaggerated headlines in their adverts?

Recent favourites include the enticing tagline, 'Do you have a passion for punctuation?' and, better still, 'Are you mad about cosmetics?' (No, really).

But the best has definitely been the boastful (and tautological) sentence rounding off one recruitment agency's ad: 'Competition for this role is very competitive'. Gosh, doesn't it make you want to apply right now?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

In Defense of Keira

I have been a bit silent on the blogging front lately. That's mainly because I was busy scurrying around the streets of London's Soho, picking up and delivering tapes, scouring hardware stores for buckets and fire-proof gloves (don't ask), lugging 20kg metal cases filled with walkie-talkie equipment, all on behalf of an Unnamed Film Company which gave me a travelcard and £4 per day lunch money in compensation for 9 hour days during which I barely sat down and felt guilty if I took more than a 15 minute lunch break. Needless to say I packed it in after a couple of days. Good insight into the film industry though - though I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone else.

Anyway, since then, I've done a few nice things too. I went to see the wonderful, if miniature, Courtauld Cézannes exhibition at Somerset House. Aside from the well-known Card Players (1892-5), I also enjoyed looking at other gems such as Pot of Primroses and Fruit (c. 1888-90), which reveals Cézanne's flair for capturing an overall sense of balance and harmony of shape. It's that awareness of pattern and form which allows him to transform even the most 'simple' or mundane of subjects into something fresh and exciting. Another favourite of mine is Apples, Bottle and Chairback (1904 - 06). The subject matter is exactly that described in the title, but the feelings of warmth and plenty emanated from the canvas, with its soft, reddish tones, abundance of plump, rounded apples and inviting wine bottle and glasses, make it more than a mere still life. For me, it's a painting about conviviality, enjoyment and the wealth of nature.

Incidentally, Somerset House provides one backdrop for The Duchess , which I saw on Friday. The film is set in 18th Century England and focuses on the real life of the Duchess of Devonshire, or Giorgiana for short. During the past week it has also been the subject of many a critic's tirade, from the pages of The Guardian to BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review. I agree that the film is no masterpiece. Yet Dibb - of Bullet Boy fame - has achieved a pleasant level of entertainment whilst providing a delectable feast for the eyes. Certain aspects of the film do seem contrived - do we need so many bedroom scenes, and why are they always followed swiftly by brisk, cold dining sequences? - but then who says it should be totally realist in its approach to history and character. With its short, sharp scenes and sweeping narrative, the film could be a well-crafted play - minus the fantastic location shots of course. For me, this 'staged' feel actually allowed for an interesting contemplation of the 'theatre' that was 18th century society. The scene in which Giorgiana's wig catches fire is particularly successful, bringing the aristocratic protagonist firmly 'down to earth' and cleverly unwrapping the layers of artifice. That particular moment made me feel oddly uneasy - it was almost as if the artifice of the film itself was being exposed, unwittingly allowing Keira Knightley to appear beneath the guise of Giorgiana's elaborate costume. Because of the uneasiness it evoked, I felt it was a particularly successful sequence, summing up the way in which Dibb's film deals with glamorous spectacle versus human emotion. It also exposes his capacity for toying with our fantasies of a sumptuous past whilst undermining these romanticised visions.

I thought that the cast did a fine job, too. Whilst I felt that Hayley Attwell seemed a bit stiff at first, I realised that she actually played her part exceedingly well, capturing the slightly self-conscious, awkward character of Elizabeth. Ralph Fiennes did an excellent parody of English stiff-upper-lip masculinity, the scene in which he engages in baby-talk with his well-groomed hunting dogs from his seat at the dinner table being the comic high point. But - shock, horror - I also thought that Keira Knightley was excellent in the role of Giorgiana. I know that most women wouldn't agree with me - I've noticed that she seems to be an object of hatred amongst many of my contemporaries. I was only in the office of one national broadsheet the other week to be shocked at a tirade of insults bequeathed on the successful British actress. I have to say I feel like a lot of this is down to jealousy. Knightley is attractive and has landed some of the most covetable lead parts in recent British films. She doesn't seem to have an obvious 'weak point' like her counterparts - for instance Kate Winslet, who everybody loves because of her so-called 'normal' physique - ie fluctuating weight and open discussion of diets. Keira on the other hand is very young, slim and probably could get away with being a model if she weren't an actress. She is also very intelligent - listen to her discussing the parallels between cartoonists in 18th Century England and today's paparazzi on last week's Woman's Hour for an example. It's interesting that us Brits have a problem with intelligent women like Keira whilst hungrily purchasing the latest issues of Heat and Now magazines to gorge on gossip-filled columns about bland celebs such as Jordan and Peaches Geldoff. Even Kate Moss seems to be a national heroine whilst all she's famous for is looking good in clothes and hanging with rock stars. Reading The Guardian Weekend's recent interview with Keira Knightley, I smiled to myself when I came across the quotation from another Guardian article cited by Sam Wollaston - "If you want to befriend a woman, ask her the question, 'What do you think of Keira Knightley?' In the resulting torrent of bile and loathing, you will bond." Whilst this ironic observation is amusing, it's also rather sad, I think. Why is it that we British seem so keen on bringing down those of us who are fortunate enough to 'have it all'? - especially if the subject in question is a young woman?
Answers, please...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More T-shirt designs

I'll be selling my hand-painted T-shirts at Islington Art Market this Saturday, 30 August.
Here's a little preview. The colours aren't 100% accurate in reproduction but you'll have an overall idea of the designs.
Hope to see those of you can make it on Saturday!