Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Book finds on Wicklow Street

I picked up three deadly second-hand books at the weekend in the Secret Book and Record Store on Wicklow Street. First up was a hardback copy of the second volume of Richard J. Evan's history of the Third Reich, which he is writing as a consequence of his involvement with the Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving libel trial, an experience he describes in Telling Lies about Hitler. I read the first installment last year and look forward to getting stuck into this one even though it weighs in at over seven hundred pages. Next was 'English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980' by Martin J. Wiener, which argues the disdain writers displayed for commerce in the period mentioned stymied British economic development. Written in the early 80's and clearly influenced by Thatcherism, it is something of a historical curiosity. Finally 'Aspects of the Novel' by EM Forster (pictured above), a collection of lectures the author gave in Cambridge in the late 1920's. The book was the subject of one of the first lectures I went to in Trinity, in which Forster's famous definition of the form as 'a prose fiction of a certain length' was held up as proof that trying to define a 'novel' is a fruitless task. I notice today the London Independent use a quote from the book as its thought for the day: "History develops, art stands still".

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Cinema: Scenes from a Marriage

Sunday nights are always fraught with a certain low-level anxiety, so what better time to watch a two and half hour portrait of the disintegration of a marriage? Despite its length and the fact for the most part there are only two actors on screen talking, 'Scenes from a Marriage',a film by Ingmar Bergman, is compelling. From the first scene where Johann and Marianne, an affluent middle-aged couple, are being interviewed for a lifestyle feature in a magazine to the last moments in a desolate cottage on an island off the Swedish coast when Marianne claims never to have loved or been loved, one's attention never waivers. That's probably something to do with the clinical but intimate style: the camera is rarely more than a recorder of what happens. The characters are all at once surprisingly formal and brimming with passion as their relationship goes down the pan. Johann tells Marianne at their summer home that he has decided to run off to Paris with a younger woman. She asks to see a photograph of his lover and then offers to pack his bags. They sleep together and he heads off the next morning. But some years later when their divorce is being finalised, Johann viciously beats Marianne and laments the redundancy of his life. "I'm 45 now and already a dead weight. I will probably live for another thirty years. To do what?," he reflects. Earlier we see Johann, who is a professor of pscychotechnology (not sure what that is, if anything), being ridiculed by a colleague to whom he has shown his poetry. The work is never published. Meanwhile, Marianne, a solicitor specialising in family law, can't feel anything and is trapped in a web of family commitments and expectations. How to break free from the strangehold of being a woman in a family, in a society that offers only limted opportunities to be oneself? But then what is the self? And could we really deal with absolute freedom if it was possible?
Thirty years later, in 2003, Bergman came out of retirement to make a loosely connected follow-up called 'Saraband', which is now something of a must-see.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Cinema: Pan's Labyrinth

Fantasy and brute reality are mixed up in Guillermo del Toro's new film Pan's Labyrinth, which opens today in the IFI. I saw it at a preview about a week ago and can't concur with the overwhelming critical acclaim it has received; for Observer critic Mark Kermode,it is a masterpiece. Of course it is nothing of the sort. Instead 'Pan's Labyrinth' is an uncomfortable melange of brutal torture scenes and at times cheesy fantasy sequences that suggest the imagination is a sanctuary from fascism. Set in 1944, in the northern region of Spain, twelve year old Ofelia is travelling with her mother to join up with her nasty step-father, a Francoist captain who is mopping up the last of the Republican guerillas. The girl loves reading fairy tales and is soon imagining an alternate world of fauns, monsters and labryinths where she is to be anointed princess of the underworld on condition that she complete three tasks. Meanwhile, back on the ground, her stepdad is busily murdering and torturing anyone who comes across his path. It is an uncomfortable mix and I found the violence at times overwhelming: faces slashed, legs and fingers dismembered, noses smashed into brains. This relentless grind is only slightly leavened by fantasy, which at times is hard going too. I can't see how the film tells us much about the Spanish Civil War but more about Del Toro's aesthetic sensibility and obsessions. Fascinating for him. Not for us though.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

You Tube's place in the history of art

YouTube, phenomenon of our day, proof of the existence of Web 2.0, re-writing the way we consume media and all that, turns out not be such a new thing after all but merely the latest chapter in western bourgeois society's long-standing desire to see itself represented and to convey that image to others in its community. That's the line art historian and media mogul Hubert Burda is promoting here on the technology discussion forum Edge. The purpose of the article is to give YouTube's seeming novelty context and Burda, in broad brushstrokes, locates it first in 15th century Belgium among the emerging mercantile middle class, who had their portraits painted to display their claim to power and status, a means of scaling the social ladder and establishing their place in the community. The above portrait of the merchant Georg Gisze and his worldly goods by Hans Holbein is an example of this impulse.
Burda then vaults forward a couple of centuries to the invention of photography and the consequent decline of portraiture. People preferred the certainty of the camera to the ambiguity of paint. Artists like Picasso went their own way into more abstract forms.
Warhol reinvented the portrait genre later in the twentieth century: his works gave an icon-like aura to his subjects and became the authoritative portrait mode of celebrities.
Warhol's conviction was that in a mediatised society "images need to be shared". "The better known your face is in the new economy of attention seeking, the higher your market value and your personal rate of return," says Burda.
And of course this brings us neatly to YouTube, which enables a new community of people - the strictures of class have long since been dispensed with- armed with affordable recording technology and a broadband connection, to expose themselves in whatever way they choose. On this reading YouTube is simply a new way of expressing an old desire: to be known to other people. You could say the same thing about blogs.

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Hidden Links: 'Casino Royale' and 'Hard Candy'

I had the doubtful privilege of seeing two scenes of genital mutilation last week. The first was in the despicable 'Hard Candy', a deeply unpleasant film about a teenage girl who turns the tables on an Internet stalker and subjects him (or maybe not) to the unkindest cut of all. The three people behind this effort explained in the illuminating DVD extra 'Controversial Confection' that the plot is simply a gimmick to reel viewers in but then tried to suggest that it was supposed to question the audience's sense of right and wrong. Well, no it didn't, it just left me feeling profoundly depressed, especially given the fact that the director seemed to be labouring under the delusion that the female character he had created was in some way realistic. I think it is fair to surmise that most fourteen year olds don't speak like a hipster refugee from a Tarantino film while undertaking a DIY castration. I hope not anyway. Naturally, I have the burden of answering why I watched the damn thing in the first place, a task that is presently beyond my capabilities.
I would give less of a bollocking to the Bond movie, even though it was half an hour too long and felt slightly like a computer game tie-in. Ever since 'Our Friends in the North', I have thought highly of Daniel Craig and he is certainly an improvement on the oily Pierce Brosnan, who could surely never borne with such stoicism the punishment bestowed on the new Bond's knackers.
However, there does seem to be more and more films (not just horror) featuring torture scenes. These two, Syriana, The Wind that Shakes the Barley are some that spring to mind. I wonder is this a reflection of current events or a way to normalise the idea of torture in popular culture.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Table Quiz Blues

Fuck, shit, piss. Nobody remembers who came second do they? Except the people who finish in this frustrating position. Like me and three mates last night at a table quiz. Supposedly all for a good cause and not to be taken too seriously, I find that table quizzes unlock some kind of primeval competitive streak that compels me to brand other contestants cheats, aresholes or worse. I hang my head in shame at not knowing who the previous artistic director of the Abbey was- Ben Barnes - and rail against our indecision about whether Clint Eastwood is allergic to horses - he is but we double bluffed ourselves. Then we bungle a question about the capital of Sierra Leone. The margin for error is slim because we lose by three points to a team who - oh the injustice, the sheer fucked up unfairness of it all - have five players. Next time, next time. Another well-worn cliche: no prizes for second place. Not true. For our travails, we depart with the Insider's Guide to Fair City, an indispensable reference work, various CD's including Def Leppard, Heading South and Dustin the Turkey as well as a meal for two in a trendy Thai restaurant. A fair cop, then. But I continue to lament not knowing where the Stone of Destiny is.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Hidden Links: Borat and Michel Houellebecq

I saw Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat in a nearly full Savoy cinema on Sunday night and laughed at most of it, particularly his insane dancing and the naked wrestling. Afterwards I was trying to come up with some interesting 'take' on it in case I met anyone who wanted to talk about whether or not it was offensive. I couldn't but inspiration struck today while reading a review by James Wood, who in passing I see is married to Claire Messud, author of modish 'The Emperor's Children', of 'The Possibility of Island' by Michel Houellebecq . No need to rehearse Houllebecq's literary output here except to say that critics regarded his previous book, 'Platform', as prophetic given that it was published days before September 11 and imagined Islamic fundamentalists bombing a resort for Western sex tourists in Thailand. In 'The Possibility of an Island', which was released almost a year ago in Europe, Daniel, its protagonist, is an outrageous professional comedian, who likes to splatter his venom all over delicate topics like the Middle East: one of his best-known films is a parody of a porn film, and is called Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler). Now, who has just released a wildly successful film which revels in saying the unsayable and ridiculing subjects that hitherto were taboo? So the 'take' is to draw attention to the similarities between the Daniel character in Houllebecq's novel and Sacha Baron Cohen and to muse on the French writer's prescience. Will that do?

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Erich Mendelsohn: the Irish connection

In an earlier post on an exhibition of the work of German architect Erich Mendelsohn, I mentioned that an Irish architect had designed a bandstand which stands in front of the Mendelsohn performance centre in Bexhill. At the time I didn't know who that was but Niall McLAughlin, a graduate of UCD and a former employee of Scott Tallon Walker, who now has his own practice in London, has contacted the blog to say that he was responsible for it. An image of said bandstand is shown above.
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