Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lean, Mean, Filmmaking Machine

Last night I was one of the lucky few who managed to see Lawrence Arabia on the big screen at the NFT.

It was one of the best cinematic experiences of my life, I'd say. I'm not exaggerating. And as anyone who knows me will confirm, I do spend quite a lot of time watching (and raving about) films.

What's so great about it? Well, it's about a fascinating, real-life character, to start with. Combine this with a compelling performance by Peter O'Toole, ravishing cinematography that really captures the romantic vastness and brutality of the desolate, arid landscape with its sweeping dunes and uncompromising sun, a sensitive treatment of contemporary issues of race, colonialism and national pride, and most of all humour - and you have a masterpiece which has real staying power.

I saw Lean's Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) the other day, which is also excellent, combining an appreciation of the lush Ceylon landscapes with an intriguing, at times nail-biting plot based (loosely this time) on real events. But you can't compare it to Lawrence of Arabia.. The earlier film also centres round a stubborn, determined and most of all principled, English military man, who takes on an almost obsessive will to succeed in a particular - and unlikely - task. Alec Guinness' character - a colonel turned POW in a Japanese WW2 camp - becomes so involved in directing his men to build a bridge for his Japanese captor in the name of pride, that he forgets why he's building it, concluding in the film's disastrous,decadently riveting finale. In Lawrence of Arabia, O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence almost forgets which side he's on. Or does he? We're never really sure quite what Lawrence is thinking, who he's leading on, or indeed whether he knows himself. And this is where Lawrence becomes a masterpiece, overshadowing Kwai as a beautiful yet imperfect preparatory study.

Lean's masterful editing is another factor in Lawrence of Arabia's staying power - viewers of today, used to the conventional 90 minute movie slot, are still left riveted (a few times I scanned faces in the massive NFT1 auditorium to check), because the pace never slows down. Something is always happening, the voyage is continually taking place - and consequently viewers are transfixed. Reading the NFT handout after the film, I discovered that Lean had begun his cinematic career as editor, and still saw himself as one when making the film - and it shows. Not one scene in the 228 minute feature felt too long. I was captivated throughout.

There's one other thing that distinguishes Lawrence from Kwai. The earlier film does feel rather dated in its depiction of stereotypes (the happy-go-lucky American, the stiff-upper lip Englishman who is all principles and honour, and the belligerent Japanese general who appreciates English whiskey but not English morals). This may be knowingly done, but for some reason it grates when watched half a century later. Lawrence, on the other hand, doesn't feel so dated - well, barring O'Toole's eyeliner and orange makeup, Guinness' false nose, and an inevitable typecasting of minor characters into racial stereotypes. And we have to consider the time the context within which the film was made. On the whole, the characterisation of the main protagonists in Lawrence or Arabia is complex and thought-provoking.

The scene where Lawrence strides through a gawking hoarde of British officers as it parts down the middle to let him through- creating a strikingly Biblical vision - is particularly poignant for modern viewers, just as it must have been at the time of release. Conflicts in the Middle East are still rife today, and racial prejudice, greed and ignorance (a favourite word of Lawrence's) are at the roots of this, as we all know. Incongruously perhaps for the time, Lean steers clear from any jingoistic claims or didactic messages. His film doesn't portray Lawrence as a martyr figure, far from it.

The film's biblical leitmotiv, beginning with the associations attached to the geographical location itself, and bleeding into the film's narrative, with Lawrence's own self-comparison to Moses (crossing Sinai) and Jesus (the walking on water), are not intended to hint at the eponymous hero's status as martyr, but rather to suggest his human falllibility. For all the film's pomp and grandeur (epitomised in its sweeping, wide angle shots of desert accompanied by a beautifully majestic soundtrack), it's ultimately this human side to Lawrence, intertwined with an appreciation that he is also 'extraordinary', and finally an acknowledgment that there is no easy answer to racial conflict, that makes the film what it is. This isn't a predictable Hollywood-style epic saga of heroes versus villains. It's far more complicated than that, and so it should be.

I've begun to wonder whether the five-year gap between the release of the two films, and their differing portrayals of Britishness, are more deeply related to contemporary conflicts than initially evident. Lawrence of Arabia was released six years after the 1956 Suez Crisis.The Bridge on the River Kwai, on the other hand, was released just one year after Nasser attempted to nationalise the Suez Canal, sending shockwaves down Britain and undermining the apparent might of British colonial rule. Further, this WW2-themed film was made just a decade after India's declaration of independence, and at a time when tensions were brewing in other territories such as East Africa. Whilst Lawrence of Arabia seems sufficiently detached from patriotic concerns resulting from Suez (and, implicitly, other territories), Kwai cannot shake off colonial preoccupations. The sympathetic portrayal of Guinness' Colonel and his stoical British determination, versus the elusive quality of O'Toole's Lawrence, may well have something to do with these contextual factors.

It's great that we have the opportunity to rediscover David Lean, who not only managed to capture the spirit of his century with subtlety and complexity, but also knew how to tell a bloody good story.

On Sunday I'm going to see Doctor Zhivago (1965). I can't wait.

(Images: Lawrence of Arabia; The Bridge on the River Kwai)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Label Issue

Last Monday, Tom Lubbock wrote an article in The Independent challenging the need to label artworks in museum spaces. Taking Martin Creed's new piece at the Tate Britain, Work no. 850, as a starting point, Lubbock launches into an interesting debate about contemporary artspeak. I don't agree with all of his argument, but some parts do ring true. Click here to read it:
Is art running out of ideas? Artists forced to explain modern art

Turning on radio 4 this morning, I heard Lubbock himself talking about the issue with the presenter and a 'label curator'. Lubbock has in the past suggested that labels be separated from displayed artworks in an exhibition. His idea is, we should all face the challenge of having to engage with the work before us, rather than relying on information labels to tell us what to think. I agree with this point. However, he seems a little militant about the fact that going to an exhibition should be a difficult, challenging experience. This idea doesn't work because people go to exhibitions for different reasons - sometimes just to relax, sometimes to socialise. Another reason for gallery visits is to learn more about art history and new trends in contemporary art - in which case information labels can be very useful in contextualising an artist's practice, an art movement, or a particular piece. However, I do agree with Lubbock that these labels shouldn't be stuck right next to artworks, but placed in a different area for people to refer to if they really want to. Certain people don't like this idea - Michael Winner apparently spoke defiantly against the idea at the time saying 'if I need exercise I'd go to the gym' (but then again he probably should). Yet maybe we've just become too accustomed to having the labels there, and have begun to rely on them too much.

Michael Winner would need to skip his gym session to visit Dia:Beacon in upstate New York - this wonderful contemporary art space is in keeping with Lubbock's viewpoint, providing portable information packs about each artist on show discretely tucked at the corner of each room, so that visitors can choose whether to pick one up or not. I think this is perhaps the best approach - we can look at an artwork first and think about what it makes us feel, but then, having read some more about it, look at the work again and see whether or not this changes our reactions to it. I haven't yet seen Martin Creed's piece at Tate Britain but I'm wondering whether the same approach is used there. It certainly is at the Cy Twombly at Tate Modern - I liked the fact that I could carry around a little booklet on the artist and dip in and out of it whilst I moved from room to room.

I also have to say that audio guides can provide an excellent insight into certain artists' work - I used one when visiting the Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim and the Gustave Courbet retrospective at the Met in New York. I learned a great deal from them - the Richard Prince guide was particularly insightful as it provided various takes on Prince's art, including anecdotes from a New Yorker cartoonist, and an exploration of the origins of one-liners from a stand-up comedian. What's good about audio guides is they don't detract from our looking. They're also optional, so we can choose whether we want this added information or not. The worst thing to see in a gallery is people peering intently at labels for several minutes and then glancing quickly at the artwork itself, before moving onto the next piece and the next label.

Evidently, the issue lies deeper than the labels. It's embedded within the whole system of art practice and consumption. Last year I worked at SculptureCenter, a small, contemporary art space in New York. It was my job to edit all the 'artist statements' and resumes of people exhibiting in the space. It was also my task to filter all incoming proposals from prospective artists. I realised that artists are trained to represent themselves by means of documents such as an 'artist's statement', summing up their very being as an artist with one flimsy document. I find this system in itself problematic. At best it can lead to an over-simplification of an artist's complex thought process; at worst it can lead to very pretentious claims. Jonathon Jones responds to this idea on his Guardian blog.

I would also add that, like it or not, not all artists are great writers, so why should we force them to write? We don't ask authors to capture the essence of their written work by drawing diagrams. This may seem like an absurd analogy to make, but it isn't really if you think about it. Artists have a gift to communicate primarily through images, (and also sounds, or, in the case of Martin Creed, situations and juxtapositions) - not words. Yes, text can be integral to an artwork itself - take John Baldessari, Liam Gillick or Tracy Emin for example - but that's different to all these peripheral texts aimed at justifying or explaining its existence. Of course, if an artist really feels it is necessary to explain a certain aspect of their work, then it's important they do so. But when it's just expected of them, that's where the problems begin.

In consideration of this, see Lubbock's reference to art critic Susan Sontag's take on the purpose of art. Strategically placing Sontag's words at the end of his article, Lubbock demonstrates how art is about opening up debate rather than reducing it to one particular 'meaning'. The Chapman brothers realise this, and a visit to their recent exhibition If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be at the White Cube proves that you don't need written explanations for the artworks before your eyes. The White Cube press release reveals nothing about the Chapman brothers' extraordinary works, instead offering visitors a very brief resume of each artist's career. So much the better - we're left to think for ourselves, react with our own instincts, and, most of all, ask ourselves questions rather than relying on pre-prepared answers.

1) Martin Creed's installation at Tate Britain
2) Still from Baldessari's I am Making Art, 1971. This video performance challenges the pomposity of artspeak with its supposed simplicity. Yet beneath the deliberately monochrome, monotonous exterior, there are plenty of interesting ideas to be found. These are all the more exciting if we find them ourselves, as I discovered during a seminar with my fellow Guggenheim interns at MoMA earlier this year.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I love the Southbank

Home of the National Theatre, BFI, The Hayward, the Tate and more - this is one of my favourite parts of London. Recently I've enjoyed watching The Pitmen Painters at the National Theatre, and Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg (2007) at the NFT. I'm excited about going to see David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) next week.

Chelsea Hotel, New York Subways + Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

- My first visit to my friend Rupert at Harvard in September 2007 included a wonderful afternoon spent at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. After all that cycling, sightseeing, pizza eating and organic hippy ice cream scoffing, it was nice to chill out in the museum's elegant, Moorish arched cloister, which is filled with exotic looking flowers and ancient statues. It was my favourite Boston museum, and one of the artistic highlights of my stay on the East Coast. (Seeing Georges Seurat's sketches at MoMA at Christmas was another). Here's a sketch of Rupert in his seersucker trousers, chilling out against a pillar surrounded by leaves and flowers.

- Subway sketching (on the 'C' train...)

-I was at a gallery opening at the famous Chelsea Hotel one muggy August evening last year. Sitting on the narrow balcony sipping cool beer, it was a great time to talk to artists and people-watch. I saw a girl wearing a gorgeous white dress with a bold, red flower print. I just had to do a sketch of it.


Maddie is the ten year old girl I used to look after in New York.
Here are some sketches I did of her.

Wink the Other Eye

I'll hopefully be winking in approval soon...

My friend Leah is assistant director on what looks to be an exciting show - a Victorian-style dancehall performance taking place at Wilton's Music Hall - the world's oldest and last surviving dance hall.

Wink the Other Eye will be running 'Positively for Twenty-six Nights Only', from 17th July.

(above image: Wilton's Music Hall in Tower Hamlets, London)

You can take the girl out of New York...

(Above: Downtown NYC - a striking contrast to leafy Brooklyn)

Whilst my life in the big apple is fading further into the past, certain habits haven't rubbed off yet. I may have just about got used to saying 'toilet' without feeling strangely vulgar whilst doing so. Yet it's strange that, despite two decades' worth of English education compared to only nine months living in America, I still stop for a moment when using an 's' instead of a 'z' in words like 'authorisation', or when writing dates as day/month/year. Maybe the letter 'z' is just more eye-catching than 's'. As for calendar dates, I suppose as Brits we're used to hearing phrases such as 'September 11', so it's very easy to adapt to the format where the day comes after the month.

On the other hand, certain things are happily left behind. These include:

- Strange roommates found on Craigslist who seemed OK when I first met them.

-The 'C' Brooklyn-bound subway line. Especially at weekends when it's known to transform into an 'F' and skip stops. Or, worse still, suddenly switches to the express track at nighttime, skipping my stop and leaving me stranded in the delightfully named Hoyt-Schermerhorn station. Not to be recommended on a dark, rainy night.

- Trying to get a cab back to Brooklyn when it's 3am in Manhattan and raining.

- The near-impossible task of getting a nice espresso, or a macchiatto that isn't the size of a cappuccino.

- Neurotic, depressive New York men (no more tales of 'locationally circumscribed self-loathing' please!)

- The bitter, relentless winter. But then again that's outweighed by the marvellous, long-lasting summer...

Erm... well that's all about all I can muster. The verdict is, New York has more pro's than cons to it. But you didn't need me to tell you that!

That said, London would fare well in such a test too. Today for example, I swam with a swan at Hampstead Heath Ladies' pond. The pond (which actually resembles a mini-lake) is one of my favourite summertime haunts in the city, set within the beautiful Hampstead Heath. This proximity with nature is one thing missing from New York - central park doesn't count, it's too built up; Brooklyn's Prospect Park, though very pretty, is too small and far from the town centre. One of London's best features is its wealth of well-kept parks.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Wharf

One of the advantages of trekking all the way to Canary Wharf for work:

I just love being so close to the water, and I do like the ultra-modern feel over there. It's also fun to watch all the bankers congregating outside Canary Wharf station. I do wonder what kind of things they've been up to during the day, and how far removed it must be from the kind of stuff I've been doing. The most fun bit is going into the underground shopping centre linked to the tube station. The wide array of commerce there caters for every 'essential' for a busy working day (or night), such as sushi, Jo Malone perfume and L.K. Bennett shoes. On ground level, there's even a Carluccio's and various other posh eateries/ watering holes. With everything there, why even leave the wharf at all? Scarily, there are some people who scarcely do. Soon, they won't have to at all, with the hundreds of luxury flats springing up all over the place.

Mercutio and Gang Crime

Once again, Boris Johnson has brought literature and foreign languages into politics. A few weeks ago, it was ancient Greek and Latin - and how teaching it at schools could help curb the rates of knife crime. Personally, I think that learning Latin and Greek as a tool to combat violent crime is a little far-fetched. And, as Charlotte Higgins pointed out on Comment is Free, he's hardly the guy to rid Classics of its 'posh' image.
And anyway, what about Modern Languages? It's now optional for 14-16 year olds to study a foreign language at all. As a linguist myself, I think this is a more serious consideration than worrying about ancient languages. Through studying Modern Languages, a lot can be learned about how different societies work. Indirectly, this can lead to a better understanding of others, which can only be a good thing in working towards a more tolerant, less violent society.

This time round, London's mayor has brought things closer to home, referring to English literature. Speaking again on knife crime yesterday, Johnson drew a parrellel between the capital's gang culture and Mercutio in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Here's a link to an article in yesterday's Guardian on Johnson's new idea:

Whether or not we agree with Johnson's argument, I think it's great that we're having this debate at all. The idea's out there - it's up to us to decide what to make of it. Does it make sense? Studying Shakespeare may not in itself help combat knife crime. However, making literature and history exciting, accessible - and most of all relevant - to young people is so important. Then perhaps - just perhaps - if kids find school a more inspiring place, then eventually they won't turn to crime at all. Of course, things aren't as simple as that in the real world. But it's great that we're discussing this at all.

On a lighter note, Johnson's literary considerations may quell possible nightmares related to imagining our prime minister descending from Yorkshire's thunderous moors....

(image: Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, alongside Leonardo di Caprio's Romeo in Baz Luhrumann's Romeo and Juliet (1996) )

Monday, July 14, 2008

Travelling idea

I came across this quote on the BBC Four website and quite liked it:

"The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are."

Samuel Johnson

A Critical Era

During the past few months, the media world has been feeling restless and uncertain about its future.

One journalistic position that seems to be most in peril at the moment is that of the critic. Sunday's Observer feature addresses this issue. Taking recent statistics from America, where the value of the critic is undergoing severe scrutiny, Jay Rayner analyses the argument from both sides of the coin. He talks to young bloggers and veteran critics, and a few people in between. I liked the article, and it certainly sums up certain ideas that constantly resurface when chatting to with friends and colleagues in the media world:,,2290623,00.html

Is there a right or wrong answer to the fate of the critic? Probably not - but I personally don't feel too negative about the situation. Yes, the media world is changing, and bloggers like me are able to write freely, in terms of both subject, time and content: I can write about whatever I like, when I like, and how I like. This is liberating and I enjoy the potentials for creativity it brings. Yet I also savour the challenge of writing for the press, tailoring my argument to fit a particular frame-work or word-count, and the thought process involved when angling towards a particular readership. This is an exercise in itself, and it definitely alters the way one approaches criticism.

Just as Britain has a great academic tradition - which isn't, contrary to the stereotype, a fusty, old man's club anymore but alive and filled with young blood - we have, as Brian Sewell puts it, a wonderful tradition of criticism. And along with that comes our ability to say what we think, often expressing our opinions with humour. I never read A.A Gill's restaurant reviews in view of going to the restaurant (I can't afford to eat out, full stop). Of course I don't - his pieces aren't really about the food at all - his culinary contemplations often take up less than 50 per cent of his writing. No, I read them because he writes with style and wit. Same goes for Giles Coren. As for film reviews, good critics don't restrict themselves to the film in question, but will often bring in references to other films, and indeed their own, personal reactions. Of course, bloggers can do this, but they haven't gone through an interview process to get their job, and are perhaps less careful than they might have been if this were the case. And, from my experience, careful can sometimes mean thoughtful, too.

(images: food critics A.A. Gill, Giles Coren; Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw)

Blonde Explosion

Has anyone noticed how, since the Agyness Deyn phenomenon has kicked in good and proper, all the fashion supplements are using models with peroxide blonde crops?

As ever, Vogue magazine may have something to do with this. Since Deyn graced their cover in June 2007, her career has rocketed. 12 months later, she's on the cover again just to prove she isn't a passing phase. And she does look cool.

However, all those other Deyn lookalikes don't. Yes, the model Elena Sudakova pictured in Saturday's Telegraph magazine does have a sleek, über-sporty, Germanic look and that ice blonde crop sets it off well. It also complements the pale shades of the arid landscape she is framed against. Yes, the fluffy, oversized peroxide quiff worn by Zoe Brown in the Guardian weekend magazine combines well with the androgynous yet slinky look she's modelling. Unfortunately, the fact that these girls look good just isn't enough - the fashion world being what it is, only one person can reign supreme when it comes to an image-defining look. Kate Moss does it time and again, from 'that' crop back in the late 90s to her 70s-style, middle-parted straight locks. Each style makes a statement, whether it's carefree (Kate's long locks) or rock-chick (Agyness' do). It's a catch-22 though - those Deyns and Mosses set the trends, albeit unwittingly, and stylists take their cue... until everyone else jumps on the bandwaggon, and gradually (sometimes too gradually though) the public gets bored.

The aforementioned Deyn look, in this case, is a curse and a blessing. A curse, because now we have to face an onslaught of fashion pages graced by a range models wearing the look. The blessing lies in the fact that, thankfully, this particular hairstyle won't look good on everyone (imagining myself sporting the look quite frankly scares me, as it would anyone who hasn't got an English-rose complexion). There's also the fact that Deyn has the rock 'n' roll lifestyle to match her dramatic hairdo, and most of us don't. So at least we won't have to walk down the street filled with wannabe Agynesses - although believe me I've spotted a few.

(pictures: Deyn as Vogue cover girl: June 2008; June 2007)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Brooklyn Memories

People have been asking me recently whether I miss New York.
Not sure if I 'miss' it as such - I'm quite good at adapting to places, having moved around quite a bit in my life. But I certainly do feel nostalgic sometimes, about my friends and also certain places.
Here are a few snapshots into my area of Brooklyn, taken during the 9 months I lived there.

Locations: Clinton Hill; Fort Greene; Park Slope
Seasons: Fall, Winter '07; Spring, early Summer '08