Archive | October, 2012

From Blues to Disco – How Gay African-Americans Created Pop Music

29 Oct

Sometimes it’s tough, being a fan of Public Enemy. The tunes are great, the message is – for the best part – passionate and empowering, but every now and then they kind of lose it:

  • “Man to man / I don’t know if they can / From what I know / The parts don’t fit…”

That’s from Meet The G That Killed Meon the album Fear of a Black Planet. Here, Chuck D and friends voice a kind of pub-bore-style bafflement about how homosexuality actually works, and imply – later in the same song – that when a heterosexual catches HIV, it’s ultimately the fault of gay men.

Does it need saying that this man is not one of the world’s leading epidemiologists?

Now I can’t imagine I’d give many other artists the kind of free pass I give Public Enemy (it’s the tunes… I love the tunes) but even so, they’re far from the most homophobic act in hip-hop. GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) counted a total of 213 uses of the word “faggot” on VMA-winning rapper Tyler The Creator’s album Goblin, and the recent “coming out” of an artist like Frank Ocean was newsworthy on this side of the Atlantic, despite his relative obscurity over here, for this very reason. What’s amazing about all this is that without African-American gay, lesbian and bisexual singers and musicians, there wouldn’t be any such thing as hip-hop in the first place.

And no, I’m not talking about Dr Dre’s “Jheri Curl” phase.

And I’d go further than that. Without African-American gay, lesbian and bisexual artists, there wouldn’t be any such thing as popular music, full stop.

Oh, there’d be music that was popular, sure, but it would probably sound like that album of Elizabethan madrigals that Sting recorded a few years back.

Make it stop. Make it fucking stop.

First, let’s launch ourselves back to Chattanooga in the year 1894, and the birth of Bessie Smith. Smith is a giant of early blues music, with a personality every bit as big and feisty as her voice suggests. Her private life was turbulent – twice married, and with a string of affairs with other women, she paved the way for every troubled chanteuse since, from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse.

In this picture the main thing troubling her is some Old Timey racism.

Moving on a decade or two, you may have heard of Duke Ellington, widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians and composers who ever lived, but it’s less likely you’ll have heard of his songwriting partner and left-hand man, Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn had a hand in co-writing some of Ellington’s most famous tunes, including Take The A Train and the score to Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Strayhorn was openly gay at a time when his skin colour alone would have been enough to see him castigated and ostracized in many parts of the US. Through Ellington’s son Mercer, Strayhorn met jazz pianist Aaron Bridgers, and the two were partners from 1939 until 1947, when Bridgers emigrated to Paris.

Pictured (left to right): Bridgers, Strayhorn and Billie Holiday

Now, while Bessie Smith had the voice and the attitude, and Strayhorn had the intellectual heft and musical dexterity to revolutionise music, our next artist hit the 1950s like a bomb. A great big satin-coated bomb with backcombed hair, guyliner and a drawn-on moustache.

Who else?

To understand the impact Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) had on the 1950s, try and picture a scenario in which James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Prince got together and then, using their combined sperm and through some bizarre scientific experiment/pagan ritual created a hybrid baby and sent it back in time to Macon, Georgia in 1932, to be raised by mere mortals like some kind of funky, screaming black Superman. Listen to Little Richard singing Tutti Fruiti and you can maybe understand just why your grand- or great-grandparents were so shit-scared of this newfangled rock and roll.

And the version they heard was cleaned up considerably from the version Little Richard originally sang in clubs. Take, for instance, the line, “Tutti frutti, aw-rooty.” In his club version, this had been, “Tutti frutti, good booty.” And that wasn’t a girl’s booty he was singing about, neither.

For one thing, the official term for this is “boo-tay”.

Since then, Little Richard’s sexuality has been something of a mystery. In the mid-1990s he kind of came out of the closet, and then climbed back in again, and his private life is littered with lots of “long-time friends”. But seriously…

This is not the face of a heterosexual. It just isn’t.

So how do we get from a bunch of people born before World War II to the pop music you youngsters are listening to today? Well, easy. Without Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn et al, rhythm and blues as we know it wouldn’t have happened. Without rhythm and blues, there’s no rock and roll, and therefore no Little Richard. Without Little Richard, there’s no James Brown. (Seriously, go watch some early footage of James Brown. It’s like he’s auditioning as a Little Richard tribute act.) Without James Brown, there wouldn’t be funk. And what happened to funk when it hit the mid-1970s?

That’s right. In the 1970s funk and soul mutated into disco. Now, contrary to popular belief (or, at least, a popular belief that I just made up) disco was not invented by Barry Gibb, nor was it originally the weekend pastime of white-suited Italian-Americans. Oh no. Disco started life in the predominantly black corners of New York’s underground gay scene, a scene that was still exerting its influence on the pop music white folk were listening to over a decade later, when Madonna decided to copy purloin steal homage its latest dance craze.

The fact is, name any genre of music currently topping the charts, and you can draw its roots back to music in which gay, lesbian and bisexual African-Americans played a vital role.

Rock music? Well, that owes its existence to the blues. RnB? That’ll be rhythm and blues to us oldies. Hip Hop? Started life with a whole load of James Brown samples, and as we’ve already seen, without a (literally) screaming queen like Little Richard, there wouldn’t be any James Brown. And dance music? Why, that’s just disco’s gayby.

“We’re calling her Sylvester.” “Uh-uh. We’re calling her KC.”

So next time Eminem or Tyler the Creator or any other rapper rants about “faggots”, or Nicki Minaj declares “N****r, you softer than a homosexual”, maybe they should ask themselves where they’d be without the amazing African-American gay and lesbians artists who preceded them.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

3 questions for the demon in the movie ‘Sinister’

27 Oct

Warning: The following blog is almost 100% spoilers.

Has anyone else noticed how demons have become a big thing in horror movies lately? Seems that if something spooky is going on some place, you can bet the (haunted) farm demons are to blame. The zombie plague in the Rec. movies? Demons. The poltergeist shenanigans in the Paranormal Activity movies? Demons. The Poltergeist-rip-off shenanigans in Insidious? A demon who looks like a Muppet Show version of Darth Maul.

This fella.

So it was with some disappointment and no surprise whatsoever I learned (via a trailer that gives away much of the plot) that the gruesome family murders in the horror movie Sinister are the work of a demon called Bughuul.

This guy.

Don’t get me wrong. I like demons as much as the next man. I’ve written something recently in which “demons done it”. I just think that while they can be great at conjuring up ideas of something mysterious, malevolent and exotic, there’s a lot to be said for ambiguity. In the case of Sinister, leaving the admittedly-very-creepy-looking villain unnamed and more mysterious would have improved the film enormously. In it, we see a number of children’s drawings featuring him, in which he’s named “Mr Boogie”. Now, personally, I find the name “Mr Boogie” infinitely scarier than the fantastical Bughuul. And I could have done without the cod-mythology explaining his schemes. Knowing that he’s some kind of Pagan Pied-Piper-meets-Slipknot-tribute-act, while not exactly diminishing the threat, does leave you thinking, “So what?”

It also left me with a couple of questions for the sinister one himself. Like:

1) What’s with the Super 8 camera?

Okay, so I get that the whole plot revolves around “true crime” author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) discovering some gruesome Super 8 movies in the attic of his new house, and that (ULTIMATE SPOILER KLAXON) the movies are shot by the kids who murdered their own families, but does this mean the camera belongs to Bughuul? If so, where did he get it from? And I can’t imagine many kids these days knowing their way around a Super 8 camera (unlike the kids in Super 8, which had to be set in 1979 for that particular plot device to even work), so does Bughuul give them a quick tutorial before setting them off on their killing spree?

“No, Ashley. You have to focus it. Focus. Focus. No, see, if you do that it’ll be blurry. Here. Give me the goddamn camera. Jesus… Kids.”

Pictured: Take 1 of Pool Party ’66.

2) Doesn’t the whole “Mr Boogie” thing piss you off?

When the kids make their drawings of “Mr Boogie”, it’s implied that they’re under Bughuul’s spell. So wouldn’t he at least insist they get his name right?

“It’s Bughuul, damn it. Bughuul. B-U-G-H-U-U-L. For fuck’s sake. It doesn’t even sound anything like Boogie. Where the hell did you get Boogie from?”

Wasn’t it a song by KC & The Sunshine Band? And if not, why not?

3) Why go to all that bother in the first place?

So his raison d’etre is that he captures children’s souls by making them slaughter their families, or he captures their souls so they’ll slaughter their families (it’s not very clear) and that’s cool. You know, each to his own. But why then spend so much time and energy winding up the dad by leaving some creepy films for him to watch, and then appearing in each film? Why not cut to the chase? And don’t give me “It’s because he’s a sadist and enjoys toying with his victims”. If that’s the case, there are way spookier and more practical things he could have done to freak out Ethan Hawke, and none of them would involve the maintenance of an almost obsolete piece of camera equipment. I mean, where the hell does he even get the parts from?

A trip to Jessops left Bughuul bitterly disappointed. The staff there hadn’t even heard of Super 8.

Now, of course, you could ask similar questions of just about any horror movie, but what the successful ones do is obey their own internal logic, even if it bears little resemblance with real world logic.

For instance, mobile networks in horror movies have virtually no coverage, even in cities.

And if they can’t obey that logic, they at least have the decency to scare you so much you don’t start asking silly questions. Sadly, though it starts very promisingly, and though the cast are all much, much better than the film deserves (James Ransone, in particular, stands out as a geeky sheriff’s deputy), Sinister just isn’t scary enough, and ends with very few shocks and even fewer surprises.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

Writing Oscar – The Confessions of Dorian Gray

24 Oct

It’s almost two years since writer, producer, director and all round whizz-kid Scott Handcock first mentioned to me the idea of an audio series about the continuing adventures of Dorian Gray. I remember we were in the hipster magnet that was Cardiff Arts Institute, and I drank far too much coffee. I think it was Scott who suggested the opening episode could have Gray meeting Oscar Wilde; the idea being that Wilde based his novel on real events.

Much like Harry Potter’s Slytherin.

I went away and thought about it, but nothing more was mentioned until earlier this year, when Scott told me The Confessions of Dorian Gray had been green-lit by those very nice people at Big Finish. By then I’d had some vague idea that Wilde and Gray’s encounter would revolve around his semi-apocryphal* last words, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death, one of us has to go.” (*Semi-apocryphal because while he is recorded to have said those words, it wasn’t on his deathbed.) Traditionally the line has been read as a witticism, up there with King George V’s “bugger Bognor” and Pancho Villa’s “Tell them I said something”. What if, I wondered, Wilde was deadly serious? What if there was something genuinely malevolent about his wallpaper?

Had he lived in the 1970s, Wilde may have had a point.

One thing I hadn’t considered, while essentially off my face on caffeine, was that any story featuring Oscar Wilde would have to include dialogue spoken by Oscar Wilde, aka one of the wittiest men who ever lived. Suddenly, with a first draft deadline looming, I realised I had some research to do.

A major source of inspiration was Joseph Pearce’s The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. Pearce, in going back to the letters and diaries of all the central players, eschews a fashionable and more contemporary “queer theory” reading of Wilde’s life and work (he’s particularly scathing of Richard Ellman’s biography, on which the film Wilde was based) in favour of an analysis of Wilde the man, with a refreshing emphasis on his religious beliefs. Certainly, Wilde’s spirituality – his Anglican upbringing, his mother’s nascent Catholicism, his eventual slide into a kind of decadent agnosticism before a last minute, deathbed conversion – is  more interesting than much of what went on in his private life, though of course the two are often inextricably linked.

What struck me, after reading Pearce and others, is that Wilde often defies most modern attempts to categorise him. He was  a Catholic and a heretic; a loving husband and father and a frequenter of male brothels; a strident intellectual who was capable of being infuriatingly glib. He doesn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes a modern observer might want to squeeze him.

For example, this man was surprisingly good in a fistfight. Seriously.

These contradictions are most apparent in Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Before starting work on my script, I went back and read it for the first time in almost 20 years. I remembered struggling through it as a teenager. The language was a little florid, a little too sensual, for my liking. I seemed to remember four or five pages of stuff about flowers and fragrances before anything resembling a plot kicked in (it’s actually two paragraphs, but still…), and the dialogue was all so arch, so vaguely pleased with itself.

Get past that initial Wildean smugness, however, and you’re in for a ripping yarn. Wilde’s prose – when he’s not waffling on about curtains and incense – is nowhere near as leaden as some of his contemporaries (yes, Stoker, I’m thinking of you), and his characters are often wonderfully observed. The few scenes of violence are genuinely shocking. Even now, Basil Hallward’s murder remains spectacularly gruesome, and very cinematic; a kind of proto-Hitchcock.

From ‘Dorian Gray‘ (2009)

Of course the novel has its flaws. It was, after all, a first novel by a writer more accustomed to the stage. It borrows heavily from Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebourswhile never quite daring to credit the book in name (it’s referred to, euphemistically, as a “book bound in yellow paper”). Even so, it’s nowhere near as daring as its literary forebear, a novel whose protagonist throws a “black banquet” (black decor, black-dyed food, guests dressed in black) to mourn the passing of his sexual potency. As controversial as it apparently was on publication, there’s something about The Picture of Dorian Gray that feels like “decadence light”, “diet hedonism”, an idea borne out by Belknap Press’s 2011 publication of the slightly more salacious – though not exactly pornographic – “uncensored version” of the text.

Most unforgivable of all are those moments when Wilde falls in love with the sound of his own voice. Certain dialogues –  in which Dorian, or Lord Henry wax lyrical about art and beauty – may provide the novel with a philosophical thrust but they also bring the plot grinding to a halt, particularly in the novel’s last act. When Gray leaves London and travels off in search of new sensations and experiences, we are treated to page after page (after page) about rugs and fabrics, music and fragrances, which add very little to the novel, do some damage to its pace and structure, and are often lifted wholesale from other sources. In these passages, Wilde is most of all like the Little Britain character, Dame Sally Markham, padding out his novel with any old guff.

Still, Dorian is a fascinating character. Predatory, sexually ambiguous, and often quite unsympathetic, he is a challenging anti-hero to adapt for any other medium. One thing that struck me, reading the novel a second time, was just how antisemitic he can be, describing Sybil’s theatre manager as a “hideous Jew”, a “horrid old Jew”, and “oily”. Wilde wrote the novel 25 years after Charles Dickens felt appropriately disgusted with his own antisemitism in Oliver Twist (1835) to make amends with the heroic Jewish character of Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1865). Is the throwback racism in Dorian Gray the character’s, or Wilde’s? Well… That’s probably for another blog altogether.

Let us never speak of this again.

I would say that our Gray, the Gray who appears in Confessions, is a changed man. For one thing, he isn’t dead. (We’ve taken some liberties with the source.) Hopefully, he’s a little more sympathetic than Wilde’s smug, misogynistic racist, without having been transformed into too much of a goody two-shoes. We’ve been very lucky in landing the very talented (and very handsome) Alexander Vlahos as Dorian (yes, I know that with it being a series of audio plays we could have had a buck-toothed Mexican midget playing him, but it kind of helps knowing our Dorian would be equally convincing on-screen) and Gavin & Stacy and Belonging star Steffan Rhodri is a revelation as Oscar.

Future episodes, written by Scott Harrison, Gary Russell, the aforementioned Scott Handcock, and Joseph Lidster, take Dorian kicking, screaming, and gallivanting his way into the 20th Century, promising some spine-tingling adventures for our handsome hero along the way, and I for one can’t wait to hear them.




David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

Turner, not Turner – ‘Artes Mundi’ and the Turners that were, then weren’t, then were

22 Oct

When the Turner Prize rolls into town, it’s often difficult to remember that there are other arts prizes and events in the UK, and that the prize was named after a Victorian artist who didn’t staple Polaroids of Peter Sutcliffe to a stuffed pig. Or something.


Fortunately, the National Museum in Cardiff is showing two exhibitions that remedy this.

J.M.W. Turner – The Davies Collectionlooks at the small but rather lovely collection of Turner paintings, watercolours and sketches bought by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, wealthy granddaughters of the Victorian industrialist and philanthropist David Davies Llandinam.

‘The Rainbow’, J.M.W. Turner, ca. 1835

When they died the Davies sisters bequeathed their impressive collection (including several Monets, a number of Rodin sculptures, a Van Gogh, and the aforementioned Turners) to Cardiff Museum, but there’s a twist in the tale. In 1956, five years after Gwendoline’s death but while Margaret was still kicking around, the Turners were declared forgeries!

Who knew?

It’s taken best part of the last 55 years for critics and art historians to come around and acknowledge that most, if not all of the Thomas sisters’ Turners are the real deal, but it did get me thinking: How much does it matter, more than 150 years after an artist’s death, if a painting is actually by them? The paintings in question were sufficiently Turner-ish to be credited to him for maybe 100 years before being declared fakes, having been in the possession of two very seasoned art collectors since the eve of the First World War. And nobody called bullshit in all that time?

It’s not as if the paintings were suddenly found to be photocopies, untouched by human hand, or clever machine-made forgeries. These are beautiful paintings – regardless of whose name is printed along the bottom of the frame – hand-painted by a living, breathing person.

The mini-exhibition – it occupies only one room – includes some of the letters from 1956, adding a bit of drama (and comedy) to the story. I particularly liked the line where somebody (I think it was the Davies sisters’ representative in the whole debacle) declared, “Somebody’s pulled a fast one, here.” You can take the boy out of Wales etc…

“Oh. We’ve come to ‘ave a look at yer Picaahsso.”

The second exhibition was part of Artes Mundithe biannual international arts prize hosted in Cardiff. I’ve been to the last two shows, in 2010 and 2008, but found much of the work on show a little dry and academic. The 2010 competition, in particular, was dominated by artsy documentary-style videos that, 25 years ago, you’d have been more likely to see on Channel 4 than in a gallery.

Artsy documentaries… and ‘Max Headroom’.

In 2012 we have an abundance of artists “exploring social themes from across the globe”, but again much of it left me feeling a little underwhelmed. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera doesn’t actually have any work on show in the museum itself, as she considers “the encounter with the artwork (to be) more powerful when it is dislocated from the conventions of the gallery and integrated into social reality”. Instead, Bruguera is competing with an “artist-initiated socio-political movement exploring what defines an ‘immigrant'”.

Is this a racist joke? Discuss.

Now… That’s all well and good, but it sounds to me like a political campaigner getting away with calling what they do “art”, which it blatantly isn’t. It’s political campaigning. For the last 10 years, to subsidise my (modest) income as a writer, I’ve worked in a crappy office job, but at no point during that 10 years did I try and pass off my day job, which involved assessing loan applications, as a “writer-initiated exploration of the contemporary work space”. It was just my fucking day job.

Fortunately, your experience of the Artes Mundi show itself kicks off with a vast, impressive tapestry by Miriam Bäckström:

‘Smile as if we have already won’, Miriam Bäckström

Sadly, the above picture really doesn’t do this justice. Smile as if we have already won is an intricate piece of work depicting multiple mirrored surfaces that becomes more and more fascinating, the longer you look at it.

The offering from Lithuania’s Darius Mikšys reminds me of those Friday mornings at art college when you realise you’ve forgotten a deadline, and it’s a presentation day, so you just throw any old rubbish together and make some shit up. Here, he’s  chosen to fill a small room with various items found in… Cardiff Museum. Which, frankly, doesn’t even get a D for effort.

“Er… It’s a seagull. Because, like, seagulls are really, you know, wise and shit?” – ‘The Code’, Darius Mikšys

Sheela Gowda’s large-scale installation (Kagebangara, pictured below) had something to say, at least, having been fashioned from oil drums and tarpaulin, the materials used by migrant construction workers in India to build temporary shelters, but didn’t really communicate this idea aesthetically or emotionally.

‘Kagebangara’, Sheela Gowda

I wish I’d gone a little earlier, and given more of my time to Apolonija Šušteršič’s Tiger Bay Project, which looks at the environmental and sociological implications of the Cardiff Bay development project. Unfortunately, the brief time I spent watching her video The Tiger and the Mermaid left me almost apoplectic. Though I liked the Astro-Turf viewing platform and stools, I found the video itself dry, like a corporate presentation (perhaps this was the intention), and I rankled a little at its snide voice-over, which framed the redevelopment of Tiger Bay (the bulk of which happened almost 20 years ago) as the behemoth of capitalism trampling over both communities and wildlife. And there was me thinking Cardiff Bay brought jobs and improved facilities to one of the poorest communities in Wales, and is now a place much loved by almost everyone in the city. Turns out it’s Cardiff’s answer to the Tuskegee Experiment.

“The horror… the horror…”

Fortunately, having been left nonplussed by everything except Bäckström’s tapestry, I was blown away by the last two artists on show.

Teresa Margolles’ work, dealing with drug-related gang violence in Mexico, is like a punch in the stomach; visceral, political, and deeply moving. Sonidos de la morgue is a sonic work, a 66 minute looped recording of the first incision in a murder victim’s autopsy. While listening to it, your eyes are drawn to a section of tiled floor beneath a spotlight; an apparently innocuous piece that resembles – superficially – Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (aka, ‘The Bricks’) but which is in fact the section of studio floor where the artist’s friend, Luis Miguel Suro, was found murdered.

’32 años. Levantamiento y traslado donde cayo el cuerpo asesinado del artista Luis Miguel Suro’ – Teresa Margolles

While listening to the nauseating, squelchy sounds of an autopsy, you are looking at a crime scene. Finishing this unflinchingly forensic work, Plancha takes water once used to cleanse bodies in a Mexican morgue, and at random intervals drips it onto an extended hotplate, beneath a row of dim spotlights. The greenish corrosion of the metal, and the wisps of steam each time a droplet of water lands, only add to the unease, and it’s something of a relief to move on to the next room.

I first came across the work of Phil Collins (the artist, not the singer) in 2006, when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. Then, I thought his return of the real (in which he interviewed people who have appeared on reality TV) was eclipsed by the gorgeous abstract paintings of that year’s winner, Tomma Abts, and the colossal, quasi-Stalinist posters and bonkers contraptions of Mark Titchner, but here at Artes Mundi he’s the star of the show.

From ‘free fotolab’, Phil Collins

His piece, free fotolab, is a slideshow of photos taken by people in several European cities. Collins offered them free processing and prints of their undeveloped films, in return for the right to use their photographs in his installation. The end result is a moving and often very funny montage; it’s impossible for you not to at least try to fashion some sort of narrative, even though the same subject never appears twice. Blowing the images up until the people in them are more than life size invites you to almost over-analyse each one, to study every detail, and to appreciate the beauty of even the most casual snapshot. A stunning piece of work, and far more empathetic and “socially engaging” than a pile of oil drums, or a woefully misconceived “power to the people” documentary.

Artes Mundi is heralded as the UK’s “biggest art prize” (actually, at £40,000 it’s on an equal standing with the Turner Prize), so it should probably get a lot more attention than it currently enjoys. Perhaps the trick to achieving this would be to recognise work that stimulates the heart – as Collins and Margolles both do – and not just the brain.

  • J.M.W. Turner: The Davies Collection runs until January 20th 2013
  • Artes Mundi runs until January 13th 2013
  • Both are free entry

Nick Griffin and his Imaginary Valkyrie

19 Oct

When I started this blog, I made a vow to myself that I’d only write about books, films, art and music. Never politics. For one thing, I’m not really all that political. Oh, I have opinions. My boyfriend can vouch for that, having experienced my “Morning Rants” while watching BBC Breakfast. It’s just I’m not very partisan. I don’t support any one party. Sooner or later I find myself disagreeing with each and every one of them on at least one issue, and when election time comes around I really struggle to pick a team.

And that’s what party politics boils down to, all too often. We treat it as Blue Team vs Red Team, or Red Team vs Green Team, or Blue-and-Yellow Team vs. Red-and-Green Team, or whatever. And not one of those teams represents fully my personal beliefs. As the comedian Chris Rock once put it, “I got some shit I’m conservative about, I got some shit I’m liberal about”. If Chris Rock were to form a political party, chances are I’d vote for him.

Or Michael Palin. I’d also vote for Michael Palin.

But all this non-partisanship goes out the window when it comes to the BNP. You see, I fucking hate the BNP. Now, I know that’s not a very controversial standpoint, and I’m also aware that discussing the BNP in any context draws attention to them that they don’t deserve, and only helps them achieve more column inches, or whatever, but seriously… I fucking hate the BNP.

Some background is needed.

Back in 2007 I wrote, for a while, a guest blog on the Daily Telegraph site. I was their little pet left winger, or what they perceived as their pet left winger. Not because I was particularly left wing, but because I didn’t go along with what most of their readership believed; namely, that immigrants are evil, that the day we lost the Empire was the greatest tragedy in our island’s history, and that Margaret Thatcher is a saintdamn it, a living saint. It wasn’t that I thought immigrants beyond reproach, or the Empire worse than Hitler, or that I would one day dance on Thatcher’s grave, but apparently having an opinion that takes nuance and opposing arguments into consideration makes you, in the eyes of a Telegraph reader, a Communist.

In all fairness, many of them consider this man a Trotskyite.

What I soon discovered was that the Telegraph site’s “comments” section (that diabolical pit below each article and blog) had been hijacked by the BNP. Not long after starting my blog, I wrote a piece about how the BNP, having failed to make much progress in the ethnically mixed towns of the north, where genuine tensions existed, had now moved on to mono-cultural, almost exclusively white Middle England. Places like Windsor, and the West Country. I said that this illustrated, perfectly, how the BNP existed only to exploit people’s fears; that they were campaigning in these places precisely because the local population there didn’t know many black people, or Asian people, or Muslims, and as a result may be more wary of them. “Vote BNP, or else the Ethnic Types will move in!” That sort of thing.

Er… Yes?

No sooner had I posted the blog, than in swept the Valkyrie. I was a typical left-wing loony, they said, living in an ivory tower. (Never mind that I lived in a racially, culturally diverse neighbourhood in a racially, culturally diverse city.) I had no idea what real people thought, they said. Come the next election, we’d learn what real people thought and felt. The mainstream parties had ignored them for too long. This country was on the brink of civil war or revolution. Enoch was right. Etc. Etc.

By the sheer number of pro-BNP comments (from people invariably sporting Union-Flag-themed avatars), I began to worry. What if they were right? What if Labour and the Conservatives’ inability to discuss immigration or multiculturalism in a mature way (Conservative: “Send ’em all back!” Labour: “Fascist!”) had created a hate-filled underbelly among the British electorate? I mean, I hadn’t actually met any BNP voters, let alone party members, except for one or two posturing pub bores, but maybe all my friends were secretly planning on voting BNP next time they entered the polling station.

After all, most of the people commenting on my blog weren’t party members. They said as much. Comments to the tune of, “I’m not a member of the BNP, and haven’t voted for them in previous elections, but I’ve read their manifesto and it makes a lot of sense.”

I received a comment like that, more or less word for word, from a reader calling himself Carlos Cortiglia. You can imagine my surprise when, in 2012, I saw Carlos Cortiglia was the BNP’s candidate for London Mayor. From “interested in their manifesto” to “candidate” in less than 5 years! That’s a party with a fast track to promotion. Unless, of course, it was a different Carlos Cortiglia…

“My friends call me ‘The Jackal’…”

But the BNP’s bluster and hot air became apparent a lot earlier than that, back in 2010. They had, by this point, secured seats in the European Parliament, including one for their fearless leader, the aesthetically challenged Nick Griffin. There were quite a few of us watching on election night with bated breath, fearing the worse, but though by sunrise an overall outcome wasn’t clear, one thing was certain:

The BNP got their ass whupped.

Any gains and victories made in the preceding 9 years were made when people were frightened. After 9/11, after the July 7th attacks in 2005. They had capitalised on people’s fears. Given any kind of political power, however, and they were exposed, naked. This was a party with no real policies, no diplomacy, and an inability to play anything other than the Free Speech Martyr Card (“What do you mean, we can’t invite our members to participate in interracial rioting? It’s political correctness gone mad!”)

The following 2 years have been a bad time for the BNP. The courts ruled (hilariously) that they would now have to accept members from ethnic minorities to carry on as a legitimate party. Many of their “foot soldiers” jumped ship to the equally bonkers but, for the time being, slightly less tainted English Defence League. (“Less tainted” in that none of their leading members had publicly denied the Holocaust). Membership dwindled. There were no more invites to appear on Question Time. Griffin clearly thought he’d get some leverage out of the August 2011 riots (commenting, on his Twitter feed, on the “acrid black smoke” from the fires, despite being nowhere near them), but it didn’t come to pass. In short, nobody gave a fuck about Griffin or his party.

Pictured: BNP HQ.

Which isn’t to say they hadn’t done any damage. The BNP (and now the EDL) have done a lot of damage in the last ten years. They’ve exploited the Left’s inability to criticise Islamist extremism (preferring, instead, to shift the blame back to the UK, US or Israel), and convinced many that immigration isn’t up for discussion (despite being discussed almost constantly), or that Muslims in the UK enjoy “special privileges” (an accusation levelled at every prominent minority in the last 100 years). Every time you hear somebody make a sweeping statement about Muslims, even if they might never consider voting BNP, they’re spouting another part of a disseminated manifesto.

And yet, despite poisoning the debate and shouting so very loudly from their soap box, they still don’t get votes. Back in the 1980s, after the initial split from the National Front, the BNP’s rhetoric focused largely on Jewish influence, Zionist conspiracies, and the “myth” of the Holocaust. When this failed to garner them any votes, and in the aftermath of 9/11, they moved on to Islam. Now, after more than 10 years of banging his head fruitlessly against that particular cherry tree, Nick Griffin appears to be on the hunt for a new target.

Pan pipe buskers?

Following a court ruling that B&B owner Susanne Wilkinson had, by turning away their custom, unlawfully discriminated against Michael Black and John Morgan, Griffin decided to become the Christian hotelier’s champion.

“So,” he Tweeted. “Messrs Black & Morgan, at [their address]. A British Justice team will come up to Huntington & give you a bit of drama by way of reminding you that an English couple’s home is their castle. Say No to heterophobia!”

Now, regardless of the fact that “heterophobia” would mean “an irrational fear of anything different”, and would more accurately sum up the BNP’s raison d’etre, it’s fairly clear what was implied here. “A bit of drama” does not mean “a rational discussion over tea and biscuits”. Griffin had given away the gay couple’s address with the intention of “sending the boys round”.

(Artist’s impression)

As you’re no doubt aware, Twitter responded in kind, with many posting Griffin’s personal address (not cool, by the way), and calling for him to be banished from Twitter, which is well within Twitter’s guidelines, given that their terms of use prohibit giving away anyone’s personal information without consent. Fortunately, Black and Morgan were both out of town that night, but in the event nothing happened. No skin-headed mob arrived at their house, threw bricks at their windows, or simply stood there with placards declaring “Say No To Heterophobia!”

Now, this may sound weird, but I kind of feel sorry for Nick Griffin. He’s there, in his little farmhouse in North Wales, Tweeting away about anything he sees on Sky News, plotting his next big move, but even when he makes it easy for his “British Justice Team”, giving them an address and everything, they don’t turn up. His Valkyries – so loud, so prominent, online – just aren’t there. Which isn’t to say that the BNP have no members at all. We’ve all seen the odd photo or documentary clip of maybe 15 skinheads in the Union-flag-festooned backroom of a northern pub. It’s just… well… is that it?

Skinheads and pensioners.

Seeing Griffin try, and fail, to rouse his troops last night was like watching the scene in The Wizard of Oz, when the Wicked Witch sends her army of flying monkeys out to capture Dorothy, but this time, to your surprise, it jump cuts to a mad old woman standing in the third floor window of a psychiatric hospital, shouting, “Fly, my pretties! Fly!” at the pigeons on a nearby telephone wire. Suddenly the villain, the Wicked Witch, isn’t the stuff of childhood nightmares, but a crazy person shouting at some birds.

Stuff I Love – 1: Weegee

18 Oct

Okay, so I’ve now written a few blogs, and by far the most popular has been the one in which I slagged off Fifty Shades of Grey, and that’s great because, you know, “Yay! Hits!” But when you’ve written something like that, it does leave you feeling as if your total contribution to  humanity can be summed up in one long sneer.

Pictured: The author, circa 2012

So, to balance this out, and fully aware that this will be read by nowhere near as many people as the Fifty Shades blog, I’d like to start an occasional series called “Stuff I Love”, dedicated entirely to, well, stuff I love.

First up: Weegee.

This guy.

Born Usher Fellig in the Galician (now Ukrainian) village of Zlothev, in 1899, Weegee was a news photographer who crossed the line successfully from reportage to art photography, often in a single image. Though many of his most famous photographs were taken for newspapers and magazines, they were never just documentary images. Through subtle framing and observation, many became clever statements and puns, a background billboard or notice acting as ironic commentary on the scene itself.

‘Simply Add Boiling Water’ (1937). See? Subtle.

He earned his nickname from the NYPD, who could never quite understand how he was able to arrive at crime and accident scenes before them, and joked that he must have a Ouija (“Weegee”) Board. In fact, he was actually listening in to police radio, and would go wherever there had been a shooting, a fire, or an arrest.

As a result, his photographs capture moments of drama and violence with an intimacy that had never been seen before. Is his work exploitative? Hell, yes. Did it change the way we witness news events? Without a doubt. The debate as to whether this is a good thing is, I feel, endless. But Weegee didn’t only deliver scenes of carnage and tragedy.

Though admittedly, they were his specialty.

As he became more successful, and was able to indulge his artistic inclinations more and more, Weegee gave us some of the most heartwarming, uplifting, and eye-popping images of the 1930s and ’40s. Take, for instance this very famous photograph of New York’s Coney Island, from July 1940…

If you just said, “Where’s Waldo?” or “Where’s Wally?”, punch yourself.

If that picture doesn’t take your breath away and make you smile, you have no soul. By some estimates, there are about a million people on that beach. A million. This is an America just crawling its way, squinting, into the sunlight after the dark days of the depression. In another 18 months, they’ll be at war. There is something so beautiful about the concentrated fun in this picture.

Over and over again, as if to counter the accusations of cynicism and exploitation, Weegee displays an amazing compassion and warmth in his work, whether it’s for tenement kids trying to sleep in a heatwave…

…the most dapper man in Harlem…

If this guy didn’t have a voice like Morgan Freeman, I’d be bitterly disappointed.

…or a teenage girl at a Frank Sinatra concert:

“Beliebers” eat your hearts out.

Like Spirit creator Will Eisner, Fellig/Weegee was a Jewish immigrant (though Eisner was first generation), whose work developed and matured way beyond its pulpy, commercial origins. Both documented the mid-20th Century uniquely, both tested and expanded the boundaries of their chosen media. In Eisner’s case, the way was paved for comic book artists to go beyond cowboys and superheroes. In Weegee’s, it was for documentary photography to become an artform. And if nothing else, he photographed the world’s least convincing transvestite.

The hairy arms? The tattoos? He’s not even trying, is he?

The opening paragraph of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ – and why it’s terrible

17 Oct

Back in April I found myself sitting next to a friend’s wife at a wedding party, when she asked if I’d read a certain book.

“It’s called Fifty Shades of Grey,” she said. “It’s amazing. I just can’t put it down.”

I’d never heard of it, but from that brief conversation it seemed to sweep across the nation like a swarm of locusts, or an outbreak of ebola, until, only a few weeks ago, I was sitting in a car with my two aunties, both of them in their 60s, while they discussed it.

“I’ve heard it’s very saucy,” said my Aunty Pam.

I’m not sure “saucy” is the word I’d use. Though I hadn’t – and still haven’t – read it from beginning to end, “saucy” is how I’d describe Barbara Windsor’s bikini top flying off in Carry On Camping. Not a novel with at least one reference to anal fisting.

Anyway, as I said, I’ve still not read the whole novel, so you may be wondering why I consider myself qualified to pass judgment on it. Maybe you’ve read something I’ve written and wonder why I consider myself qualified to pass judgment on any novel. Either way, I’d like to point out I’m not judging the type of novel that Fifty Shades sets out to be. There is plenty of room for popular fiction, for trashy fiction, for erotic fiction. What I object to is bad writing.

“But who are you to say it’s badly written? It’s sold billions of copies!” Says the exaggerating straw man in my head. “How many books did you sell?”

“Ouch,” I reply. “You’re my straw man. No need to get personal.”

Whenever anyone mentions a “straw man” argument, I picture these guys.

Others, real people, have asked me why it’s badly written, what makes it badly written. Is it that it started life as Twilight fan fiction? Certainly not. As I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, the history of fan fiction is a long one, and encompasses everything from Virgil’s Aeneid, through Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (a kind of spoof sequel to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela) and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre).

Is it that it was initially self-published as an e-book? Again, no. There are many genuinely good self-published authors out there, but they are people who have actually worked hard and practiced their craft (or who were born with an innate talent) and who are particularly good at self-editing.

No. The problem with Fifty Shades is one of mechanics, of the basic engineering of almost each and every sentence. The reason I haven’t read it past page 4 is because it hurts my eyes.

Like this.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

  • “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.”

Obviously the italics are mine, but I’ll go through this sentence by sentence to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

  • “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.”

Okay. This is the opening line, and it really doesn’t scan. Try saying it aloud. Doesn’t “I scowl at myself in the mirror” trip off your tongue a little easier? Everything that follows will illustrate the character’s frustration. Throwing that three syllable word in there makes the sentence cumbersome.

  • “Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.”

Where to start? “Damn my hair” should probably have been followed by a full stop or a semi-colon. The punctuation here is all over the shop, so we can’t really be sure what she’s trying to say. Is the narrator’s hair her “ordeal”? Is Katherine Kavanagh’s illness a serious one? In which case, is your hair really all that important? What is the main point here?

“Like, what if *this* is Katherine Kavanagh, you self-centred b*tch?”

Okay. Next line:

  • “I should be studying for my exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission.”

Again, it’s a question of what scans. “I should be studying for next week’s exams” is more economical. “Trying to brush my hair into submission” sounds a little verbose (not to mention, given the book’s subject matter, unintentionally funny), and maybe it’s just me, but I can’t quite believe that three lines in we’re still on the narrator brushing her hair.

  • I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.”

Nothing wrong with the repetition. That’s the kind of writing I’d expect. But does she really recite this mantra several times? Out loud? Because if she does, I’m now picturing a mad person, or Annette Benning’s character in American Beauty.

“I will SELL this HOUSE to-DAY. I will SELL this HOUSE to-DAY.”

What follows is a multiple pile-up of unnecessary commas: “Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.” When she could have just said, “Reciting this mantra several times I attempt, once more, to brush it under control.” Sounds petty, but if you try reading it aloud it’s all stops and starts. And she is still brushing her fucking hair.

  • “I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up.”

Her “exasperation” is already implied, the reader isn’t dumb, and it’s a five syllable word that comes only a few lines after the three syllable “frustration”, making yet another sentence unnecessarily clumpy. As for the “pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me”, this is what we call an “info dump”. The writer wants to give a physical description of the character as quickly as possible, so tips all that information into a single sentence. Unfortunately, thanks to the leaden sentence structure, you may have to re-read the line to work out she’s talking about herself, and not some other girl.

Like this girl?

But at least, after over 100 words dedicated to the subject, she’s given up brushing her hair. Next line…

  • “My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.”

Nope. She’s still talking about her hair, and again in a sentence that bumps and rattles its way towards a full stop. To be honest, I’d have probably scrapped this line altogether; it doesn’t really do anything.

So there you have it. The opening paragraph of a book which has now been read by 8 billion people (or something), and not one of them a professional editor.

“So?” Says the catty straw man. “What’s the problem with that? Who needs editors, anyway? They merely stifle creativity. Look how successful she is. Good on her, I say.”

Well, the problem isn’t one of trash selling. It always has and always will. The problem is one of lowering an audience’s expectations. The most popular writers have often – though not always – been brilliant in their own way. Go read early Stephen King (when he could still deliver novels less than 800 pages long), or Leslie Charteris, or Jacqueline Susann, or Patricia Highsmith, or Raymond Chandler. They wrote bestsellers, pulpy bestsellers, but they knew how to craft a sentence, develop characters, and fashion together a story arc. Their fans, as a result, had high standards.

What Fifty Shades does is lower the bar, lower readers’ expectations, and – from a didactic point of view – encourage a sloppy level of communication, in which it doesn’t really matter how well you communicate something, so long as your reader is hooked on the smutty bits, or has a crush on your vapid hero.

Civilisation is only, well, civilised when it communicates ideas successfully, when people understand how to string sentences together and how to read and process those sentences. Fifty Shades, with its desperation to clog up paragraphs with as many adjectives as E.L. James can pluck from her thesaurus, turns language and writing into little more than a hefty word count. From a writer’s point of view, seeing it become the most talked about novel of the age is like a footballer watching some 34-year-old man who has a kick-around with his mates every Sunday become ‘Sports Personality of the Year’.

Followed by his becoming the “face of Gillette”.

“Yes,” says the straw man, eager to have the last word. “But don’t tell me you’re not just a little bit jealous of all the money E.L. James made from that novel.”

And, in return, I scowl, with frustration, at myself in the mirror.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

Turning misanthropy into an art form – Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dogville’

16 Oct

The relationship between theatre and cinema has always been a complicated one. In the early days, movies were often little more than filmed plays, and even once sound had kicked in, post The Jazz Singer, many films still drew – and continue to draw –  their material from the stage, from Tod Browning’s Dracula (based on the Balderston & Deane stage adaptation) to William Friedkin’s recent “comeback” movie, Killer Joe (adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play).

At the same time, while it was drawing so many of its ideas from theatre, cinema was also doing its best to kill it off. Countless theatres were shut down and converted into picture houses, and cinema in turn begat television, which was an even bigger nail in the coffin lid of music halls and variety theatres than its big screen predecessor.

And yet theatre didn’t die. There is still something about the intimacy of a theatre, being in the same room as the actors, and – let’s be honest – the possibility of everything going tits up (actors forgetting their lines, somebody falling off the edge of the stage) that make for a more exciting, almost interactive experience than that offered by your TV or your local multiplex.

Punching the person next to you doesn’t count as “interactive”. Not even if you’re watching ‘The Expendables 2’.

Maybe this is why several films have gone out of their way to forget – or at least subvert – over a hundred years of cinema, and emulate the stage. A recent example is Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, much of which was shot within the same disused theatre and has extras moving props and backdrops from scene to scene, but back in 2003 the controversial writer-director Lars Von Trier attempted something even bolder still.

Dogville is ostensibly a tale of small town folk, set during the great depression. The eponymous town is, so we’re led to believe, a dead-end place, at the end of a dirt track, far away from civilisation and the nearest big city. I say “led to believe”, because unlike any other period film you might care to mention (the recent Lawless, for example), the town of Dogville isn’t lovingly created by a Hollywood art department, with clapboard houses and an artfully dilapidated filling station. Instead, every house (and even a pet dog) is drawn out and labelled in chalk on the bare, black floor of a large studio. In this space are just a handful of props (desks, chairs, beds, the very top of a church tower – without the church), and an ensemble cast.

Ok. So far so Bertolt Brecht. And I must admit, when I first heard about the film’s premise, back in 2003, my heart sank. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than watching a film that isn’t really a film but a play pretending to be a film. Or maybe a film pretending to be a play. Or… who cares? I want to watch The Day After Tomorrow.

I don’t care what you think. I bloody love this movie.

It was only while talking to somebody, a few days back, about Von Trier’s film Melancholia, one of my favourite films of 2011, that I remembered Dogville is on Netflix (other movie streaming sites are available) and decided to give it a go.

Its devices and pretenses took a while to get used to, I’ll happily admit that. When characters mime opening and closing doors that simply aren’t there, and yet still make a sound, or when the dog that’s actually the outline of a dog drawn on the ground still barks, your suspension of disbelief is a part of the movie. What surprised me, though, was how quickly that suspension of disbelief is achieved, how effectively you get drawn into the narrative. You know… Just like you would with a play.

The film (or is it a play? Or a film of a play? Or… forget it) tells the story of how the people of Dogville harbour Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious young woman on the run. From whom? We don’t know. But the ominous gunshots overheard by Paul Bettany’s Thomas Edison Jnr (no relation) suggest the Mob.

If there’s one thing Dogville has in spades, it’s foreshadowing. The film is divided up, novelistically, into chapters, each one subtitled with a brief description of what’s coming, and it’s narrated from beginning to end by John Hurt, on particularly sage and gravelly form. As a result, we’re always aware that something terrible is just around the corner, though the film dares – like Melancholia – to make us believe, for just a while, that the inevitable unhappy ending isn’t coming.

I say “inevitable”, because this is a movie by Lars Von Trier, a man who’s turned a pathological hatred of humanity into the backbone of his career. Here, we have the town rally heartwarmingly around young Grace, despite some initial reservations. For a brief moment we think we’re in Frank Capra territory. Hey… This could even mutate into a screwball comedy. The sassy, big town gangster’s moll having to cope with pegging out laundry and milking a cow. And yes, Grace – encouraged by Tom – does her fair share of chores, to help pay her way and earn their trust. But what starts as something altruistic, on both sides, quickly turns sinister.

Not a single man in Dogville can keep his eyes or hands off Grace. Even the eldest son of a family whose children she tutors and babysits misbehaves purely so that she’ll spank him, and hard. The elderly blind neighbour (a brilliant performance by the late Ben Gazzara), to whom she describes the world beyond his windows, quickly gets a little “hands on”. And crotchety apple farmer Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) takes things to another, more violent and sinister level. Even Tom’s kindness is soon revealed to be something cowardly, and ultimately no less cruel or cynical than that of the others. If the men of the town are shown to be exploitative, they face stiff competition from the womenfolk, who treat Grace like a slave and turn on her when she is at her most vulnerable, and the town’s children switch in no time at all from “cute urchins” to Lord Of The Flies.

Von Trier’s version of ‘It’s A Wonderful’ life ends with the little girl biting her father’s ears off.

So… Given that every single character, even Grace – who spends much of the film as a kind of human punching bag – is shown as being capable of diabolical cruelty, and the film makes most Jacobean tragedy look like The Tweenies: Live, what is there to recommend this movie? Well, for one thing the plot is utterly engrossing. Dogville clocks in at almost 3 hours, and I’m a firm believer that most films struggle to justify a running time over 2, and yet I wasn’t bored for a second. Every scene develops the plot, character, themes or all three; not a moment is wasted. With no scenery, and being shot entirely in a slightly grainy “hi-def” video, the focus is almost entirely on the performances, which are uniformly great. Even in a West End or Broadway blockbuster, it’s unlikely you’d catch Kidman, Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Philip Baker Hall, Gazzara, Skarsgård and a particularly scene-stealing Patricia Clarkson all on the same stage, and yet here they are.

Even the downbeat ending is, like Melancholia, more cathartic than depressing. This isn’t bleakness for its own sake, or nihilism, or the kind of relentless despair you get in so much British cinema.

Dogville is a film by a misanthropic filmmaker, yes, but that doesn’t mean its questions aren’t worth asking, or that its admittedly miserable answers aren’t worth listening to. It’s an experimental film that’s exciting and dramatic, with an engrossing plot and knockout performances, functioning very much like great theatre (Quentin Tarantino commented that had Dogville been written for the stage, Von Trier would have won a Pulitzer), but with close-ups. And you won’t have to pre-order a gin and tonic for the interval before watching it.

Five days with Iris

15 Oct


Since 2007 Cardiff has played host to the Iris Prize, an annual competition to find the best LGBT short film from the last year. The shortlist of 30 or so films are put forward by partner festivals around the world (New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv etc) and from open submissions. I’ve been lucky enough to attend every Iris Prize Festival since its inception, writing a blog for their official website (which you can read here).

LGBT cinema has come a long way in the last three decades, and even within the 5 year time-span of Iris I’ve seen the films get better and better. Obviously, the winning films from each year would still stand a very good chance of winning now, but what I’ve noticed is the overall quality of the films improve, making the jury’s job harder each and every year. In its infancy LGBT cinema was almost invariably political, issues-driven, and though there’s nothing wrong with that it meant that there was often very little variety on show. In recent years there’s been a noticeable shift, particularly in European cinema, away from coming out stories, or stories about bigotry, towards films (dramas, thrillers, horror films, science fiction, rom-coms) in which characters are gay, but in which sexuality is not the driving force of the plot.

A great example of this is writer-director Till Kleinert’s film Cowboy, which scooped the Iris Prize in 2008. Here we have a film that owes as much (if not more so) to films like The Wicker Man and The Hills Have Eyes as it does anything in “Queer Cinema”.

Till Kleinert’s ‘Cowboy’

In fact, since it began only one of the Iris-winning shorts (Dee Rees’s excellent Pariah – adapted into a feature film in 2011) could be described as a “coming out” story. Elsewhere we’ve seen small, intimate dramas and bizarre tales of the unexpected and sweet coming-of-age stories and this year a violent drama set in an young offenders’ institute (Grant Scicluna’s brilliant ‘The Wilding’). And no one country or culture has the monopoly on LGBT cinema right now. Winning films have come from the US, Germany, Israel, Norway, Brazil and Australia.

I’ve gone into some detail about the individual short films I enjoyed on the festival blog mentioned above, but really wanted to talk a little about my favourite feature film shown this year. Though there were seven features shown during the festival, I was able to catch only three of them, having been pressganged blackmailed forced given the wonderful opportunity to join the jury and help pick the winning short. The audience award for Best Feature went to Xavier Villaverde’s film Sex of Angels, which sadly I missed, but of the features I did watch, my favourite has to be Matthew Mishory’s Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.This was a biopic with a difference, focusing only on the period of Dean’s life immediately before his meteoric rise to fame and premature death. There have been a number of previous films about Dean, including one starring James Franco and another featuring beefy Starship Troopers star Casper Van Dien. The former chooses to play James Dean as if he were being played by James Dean (and not how James Dean would have been off camera), while the latter movie could only have been more miscast if they’d chosen Whoopi Goldberg for the lead.

Mishory’s film gives us a fragmented, dreamlike vision of the actor as an enigmatic young man in the process of becoming an icon; a conflicted character one minute extolling the virtues of getting by on talent alone, the next going to bed with whichever lecherous mogul will offer him a role. Here, Dean is a Rimbaud-like figure (a comparison made explicitly in the film’s opening minutes), wandering through a bleak and desolate California. Sexually ambiguous, extremely masochistic, and virtually incapable of reciprocating genuine tenderness, this is less Dean the matinee idol than Dean the existential anti-hero.

‘Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean’

While he’s not quite a dead ringer for Dean, star James Preston manages to convey something of the actor’s mystery, and thanks to some stunning make-up, lighting and photography there are shots that border on the uncanny. Much of the film is shot in a gorgeously authentic black and white, with occasional scenes in Super 8 and Technicolor, but often feels as if it owes as much in tone and look to David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch as it does Nicholas Ray or Elia Kazan.

I’m not sure if Joshua Tree, 1951 has a DVD/Blu-Ray release date for the UK yet, but I’ll be clearing some shelf space (and you know what I’m like about shelf space) when it does.

James Joyce: Not a fan

9 Oct


I had to visit a bookshop earlier today, to buy a birthday present for a friend’s soon-to-be 4-year-old daughter. Now there’s a challenge. What do 4-year-olds read? They’re too young for Harry Potter, a teensy bit too young for much of Roald Dahl, and a tiny bit too old for The Gruffalo. See, if it was up to me I’d have bought her Jane Eyre and have done with it.

“There you go, my sweet. Come back to me when you’re 4-and-a-half with a 2000 word essay on Gothic and Byronic influences on the works of the Bronte sisters. Off you go.”

Anyway, in the end I settled for some sort of activity book because it was pink. At the checkout, the man in front of me was tapping his credit card impatiently on the counter, waiting for a member of staff to return. A minute or so later, said member of staff came bounding back, brandishing a weighty-looking green hardback.

“This is the only one we’ve got,” she said. “Is this okay?”

The man in front of me nodded, and then I saw what he was buying. The Complete Novels of James Joyce. I almost laughed.

I almost laughed because a gigantic, hardback doorstop containing the complete novels of James Joyce isn’t really a book; it’s a trophy. It’s doubtful the owner of said book will ever pluck it down from the shelf and, while sitting presumably in a wing-backed leather armchair, say to themselves, “Ahh… Finnegans Wake. ‘Riverrun, past Adam and Eve’s, from swerve of shore to bend…'” Firstly, because people don’t tend to read aloud to themselves, and secondly, because if you really wanted to actually read Finnegans Wake (and it’s quite beyond me why anyone would) you’d buyborrow or download Finnegans Wake. You know, so you could take it on the bus or the Tube, or on holiday, or to your nearest franchised coffee outlet. Unless you are built like a mid-1980s Jesse Ventura, there is no way you are taking The Complete Novels of James Joyce anywhere. Not when just picking it off the shelf could give you a hernia.


Jesse Ventura – “I ain’t got time to read.”

The practical difficulties of reading such a massive, weighty tome aside, I really can’t think why anyone would want a “complete” James Joyce anyway. Not when Finnegans Wake is unreadable tosh and Ulysses such a chore.

Now, enough people who I respect rate Ulysses very highly, so I’m not about to go slagging it off. Even though I’ve tried – and failed – to read it twice now, and on both occasions came to the conclusion that life is just too short. There are too many great novels that I will almost definitely enjoy for me to waste time wading through Joyce’s experiments, however many gems they may produce along the way. If there are so many little nuggets of genius in Ulysses, it’ll be the first Great Work of Literature I’d be happy to see abridged (or adapted into a Manga.)


Trans: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

So I’ll give Ulysses a free pass. I’ll write that one off as something I just don’t get, like The Smiths and most of Bob Dylan. Enough sensible people like it for me to sometimes think it’s my fault I don’t get it. Sometimes. But then, I remind myself that in his next novel (the aforementioned Finnegans Wake), Joyce lost the plot completely and produced something utterly unreadable, thereby birthing a cottage industry of literary critics all desperate to be the one who “gets” it. Or, in other words, the one person in the crowd who can see the Emperor’s golden robes.

“It’s meant to be read aloud…”

“It’s actually very witty, if you get it…”

Please. Fuck off. If I want to read something aloud, something spiky and experimental, I’ll opt for T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (it’ll take me about half an hour) and not 650 pages of James Joyce vanishing up his own arse. If I want something witty I’ll read P.G. Wodehouse or early Evelyn Waugh. There is nothing witty about “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoodenenthurnuk!” (That is an actual line from the first page of the novel.)

That line is one of three things:

  1. The sound of a famous novelist losing his mind.
  2. The sound of a famous novelist taking the piss out of critics and readers alike, chuckling to himself and saying, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this shit.”
  3. The sound of a famous novelist intentionally turning away his readers.

“What’s that?” I hear you ask. “A novelist intentionally turning readers away? Why would any writer do that?”

To answer this question, you have to understand something of the world, and the literary scene that James Joyce occupied. Joyce’s writing (like that of the other Modernists) comes from a time when the average bloke (or blokess) was becoming more literate. Education was improving. Publishers like Penguin were mass producing cheap copies of classic works. The Fortress of Bookchat was under siege from the great unwashed.

Nowadays, no left-leaning author or artist would dream of slagging off the working classes, but this was a different time. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine provides some insight into how many in the upper echelons viewed their blue collar brethren. Namely, as illiterate, subterranean, knuckle-dragging scum. Letting the Morlocks loose in the library would lead to disaster, surely. What was it Pope said?

“A little learning is a dangerous thing / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring…


“Do you have a copy of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’?”

So… How to bolt the library door, when most of what was inside could be read and understood by the hoi polloi? Any literate person can grasp a decent translation of Plato, or Cicero, or Chaucer. Great writing is never subterfuge. Ambiguity, yes, but never subterfuge. Until the Modernists. Suddenly, obscurity was the name of the game. The more obscure the reference, the more puzzling the turn of phrase, the more labyrinthine the plot, the more disjointed and spiky the prose, the better.

“This’ll show ’em. These grammar school boys and girls who’ve read a bit of George Eliot and think they can play with the big kids.”

And it wasn’t just Joyce or the Modernists playing this game. That creative obscurantism spread to every art form, and lasted decades. It’s still with us now. What else is the vast bulk of conceptual art but art for artists and critics? How often does somebody without an academic background in art, in practice or theory, walk into a gallery displaying a work of conceptual art and “get” it?


Conceptual art. Fucking seriously.

I’m not talking about experimental art. Good experimental art still communicates something, particularly if that experiment is successful. Earlier in his career, and as late as Ulysses, you could argue that Joyce was experimenting, and that sometimes it worked. Certainly, even as somebody who isn’t his number one fan, I’m aware of his influence when it comes to writing a character’s interior monologue, of trying to shift away from the “He thought/She thought” school of writing, of finding new, more subtle ways to get inside a character’s head. For all that, I’m grateful. But there’s a fine line, particularly in writing, between “experiment” and “gibberish”, and clearly Joyce crossed it. After Joyce, and particularly after Finnegans Wake, it became easier for writers who couldn’t actually write to string any old bollocks together and call it “stream of consciousness”, just as after Hemingway it became easy for any writer who couldn’t manage complex metaphors to pass their work off as “economical” and “understated”.

In the great scheme of things, Finnegans Wake is still a young novel. It’s only had a bus pass since 1999. It’s younger than Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Agatha Christie’s first seventeen Hercule Poirot novels. The works of art that survive longest in the public consciousness are often those that broke new ground, yes, but they are never those that tried to slam the door in the audience’s face.

And that is why I’m not a fan of Joyce.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.