Archive | July, 2014

Dennis Hopper’s America

28 Jul

Hopper

Over the last two weekends I’ve been in London, recording interviews with the cast for the next series of The Confessions of Dorian Gray. It’s been great fun, and lovely hanging around in The Moat Studios, but I was very happy to have wrapped up my official duties by 2pm yesterday, so I could shoot off and do a bit of touristing.

With only a couple of hours to kill before my train home, I went to the Royal Academy to check out The Lost Album, an exhibition of photographs by the actor Dennis Hopper. There are more than 400 images in all, taken between 1961 (when his wife bought him a camera) and 1967, shortly before he began work on his directorial debut Easy Rider. Hopper would later portray a mentally frazzled photographer in the film Apocalypse Now, and his reputation throughout the late 1960s and 1970s was as a wild man, but if this exhibition demonstrates anything, it’s that behind the almost cartoonish excess and eccentricity he was constantly engaged with visual arts, both as practitioner and fan.

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

The writer Julie Burchill once commented – in a scathing (what else?) piece on David Bailey – that photography is “luck through a lens”, and while I’d disagree with the overall sentiment, there is often a grain of truth to it. The Lost Album includes pictures of Hollywood stars such as Paul Newman and John Wayne, and artists of the era, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Liechtenstein and Andy Warhol, and Hopper was certainly lucky to know them all well enough to take such candid pictures, but where Hopper’s photography goes beyond being the work of a keen and lucky amateur is in his ambition and scope.

Regular obsessions crop up: The Coca Cola logo, torn posters, cemetery headstones and dilapidated signage, as well as images of America’s nascent counterculture – its civil rights protesters, Hell’s Angels and proto-hippies – come together to form a kind of narrative. The show starts with celebrities, but soon enough we’re side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., or witnessing the Sunset Boulevard riots of 1966, or watching – second hand, via the curved screen of a television –  the funeral of JFK.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

If his civil rights stuff isn’t as accomplished as Bruce Davidson’s and his images of Mexico aren’t as inventive as Graciela Iturbide’s, that’s forgiveable. This is a photographer finding his way, but engaging with his subject all the same. If a lot of the time he’s riffing on his own influences (Coke bottles from Warhol or Rauschenberg, bull fighting from Hemingway etc), at least he’s influenced by the greats. In a way, if Hopper’s work depicts anything, it’s the forging of a new – and possibly unstable – American identity, one that was post-industrial and almost post-ideological. (There’s still something a little startling about seeing swastika badges on Hell’s Angels’ lapels.)

A middle room in the exhibition, and the room through which you leave the show, has the opening sequence from Hopper’s 1969 movie Easy Rider on a loop. It’s more than just a nod to the actor’s more well-known career as an actor and occasional director. Here, in his montage of bikers (played by him and Peter Fonda) riding across the American landscape (accompanied by The Band’s song The Weight) we see many of the same visual themes and preoccupations, only now they’re in blazing colour.

From Easy Rider (1969)

From Easy Rider (1969)

 

Whatever you now think of the movie itself, it was undeniably groundbreaking. Commercially, it demonstrated that unconventional indie flicks could make money, but it also changed how films look, being one of the first movies in which lens flare was treated as a visual effect and not something to be avoided or edited out. Including the sequence here makes an apt ending to a show that gives some insight into Dennis Hopper as more than just the star of Blue Velvet and Speed.

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“I don’t know what art is…” Why Martin Creed is a simpleton or a fraud

16 Jul

Martin Creed

Martin Creed was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, involved in a brief discussion about Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square, which is being exhibited as part of a Tate Modern retrospective that opens today. The painting, for the uninitiated, looks like this:

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That’s right. It’s one of those ‘Ronseal’ paintings. It’s called black square, and it is a black square. It was apparently inspired by the artist’s reading of Schopenhauer, which is way too hefty a subject to get into here without essentially copying and pasting big chunks of World as Will and Representation, but suffice to say, our pal Kazimir wanted painting to move away from the representational, and towards the kind of abstraction that music offers, thereby helping us transcend this dull and dreary world of ours. Hence, a black square.

The important thing to remember about an artist like Kazimir Malevich, however, is that he arrived at his black square through a lengthy process of practice and thought. He wasn’t capable only of covering a canvas in black paint. He could also paint stuff like this:

Dude was versatile, is what I'm saying.

Dude was versatile, is what I’m saying.

Abstraction, in his case, was an artistic choice, not the end result of having little or no skill. The same cannot be said about Martin Creed. I’ve waffled on about Creed in a previous blog, holding his work up as an example of the kind of conceptual art I find not only utterly vapid but nihilistic and viciously elitist. It is the dreary cul-de-sac of 20th Century art. Stick a blob of Blu-Tac to a wall, call it art and hope you can get enough gullible saps to agree. Except, of course, Creed doesn’t even do that. He is either gleefully in on the joke, or a simpleton who is unaware that there is a joke to begin with.

This is Creed's Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like - a scrunched up piece of paper.

This is Creed’s Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like – a scrunched up piece of paper.

On Today, for example, he was asked if he considered Black Square to be art.

He replied, “I don’t know if it’s art or not, because I don’t know what art is, because I think art is just a word… that’s difficult to understand.”

So, if I’m right, because art is an often difficult concept to define, we shouldn’t even bother calling anything art, or trying to understand or define it? Why have that discussion when you could just stick some Blu-Tac to a wall, switch some lights on and off, get everyone else to call it art, and then giggle all the way to the bank? Though, of course, when I say “everyone else”, what I mean is, “Other artists, art critics and people who went to art school.” Not the countless people outside those three categories who can spot the Emperor’s naked, bouncing bollocks a mile off.

The most frustrating thing about Creed is the kind of almost uniform, unquestioning loyalty he inspires in so many art critics (with the notable exception of the Times’ Waldemar Januszczak). The now-defunct Review Show’s four-way rimming session about Creed’s Hayward Gallery retrospective was one of the most unedifying bits of arts programming I’ve ever seen on the BBC, so much so that when the show was cancelled, I found myself thinking, “Good riddance.”

That not one of the guest critics (Paul Morley, Denise Mina and – most disappointingly – playwright Mark Ravenhill) nor host Kirsty Wark were prepared to stick their hand up and say, “But… it’s all shit, isn’t it?” says a great deal about the kind of cliquey, incestuous media world in which Creed operates while feigning an aloof disinterest; the critics themselves presumably too scared of bumping into him at their next shindig to pipe up honestly.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Martin Creed did not arrive at his empty rooms or his scrunched up bits of paper or his blob of Blu-Tac after a lengthy period of learning his craft, or engaging with contemporary thought. He did it because he is incapable of doing anything else. The only thing original about this routine is that he was one of the first people ballsy enough to produce such blatantly lazy work without bothering to provide any justification and get away with it, and “getting away” with something should not be enough to earn you plaudits. Not when you have slammed a great big door in the faces of anyone not well-versed in art history and said, “Fuck off. You won’t get it.”

What Creed’s work says to all the struggling painters who learned how to paint, struggling sculptors who learned how to sculpt, and struggling conceptual artists whose concepts are original, fresh and thought-provoking, is, “Ha ha ha… Fools! Why did you bother? Look at me. I’m a fucking dimwit, and I get to do this for a living.

If you doubt this is the case, if you think I’m misreading Creed’s work, or underestimating him, I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself, about his work The Lights Going on and Off:

“There was nothing that I could think of that was important enough to put in that room and say, “Hey, look at this.” And so, in the absence of that, I tried to do something with the room. And so I switched the lights on and off, because that’s all I could think to do.”

“They do things differently…” – Viewing the past through a modern lens

12 Jul

Blogpic

A short while ago the writer Philip Hoare penned a piece for the Guardian about Ivor Novello and Noel Coward’s brief “flirtation with fascism” in the 1920s. I’d recommend you read the whole piece to get the full gist of it, but the bottom line is that Novello and Coward contributed to a 1925 fundraising ball for the British Union of Fascists.

The "Bolshie Bug" sounds fun. (Pic courtesy of the Guardian.)

The “Bolshie Bug” sounds fun. (Pic courtesy of the Guardian.)

In its strap line and in the piece itself, Hoare asks if we can “excuse” either man for dipping their toes in the murky waters of the far right

I hadn’t given the article much more thought until today, when I read this piece (linked to by Julie Bindel) about Harriet Capon, a woman who presented herself as a man in order to serve in the army during WWI,  earn more money and support her family. The article looks at the way in which recent commentators have tried to shift Capon’s identity posthumously from that of a woman who considered herself a woman (what the more self-entangling types out there might call a “cisgender woman”) while dressing as a man, to that of a transgender male called Charles (the name she adopted).

Artist's impression.

Artist’s impression.

I won’t go into that post in any detail, because the author of Glosswatch does a much better job of that than I ever could, but the reason I made a connection between Hoare’s nostril flaring and the revisionist take on Capon  is that I think both make the mistake of viewing the past from the comfy (and politically biased) sofa of the present.

Now, of course, it’s difficult to do otherwise. Whenever we look at the past, we’re always judging it with our own values. For me, one of the most shocking scenes in the film 12 Years a Slave was the moment when Paul Giamatti’s slave trader leads his customers around his “showroom”, pointing out the best features of each naked slave for his well-to-do clientele. The later scenes, featuring Michael Fassbender’s deranged plantation owner, would have been distasteful to many people at that time, but the scenes with Giamatti’s character show how normal, how much a part of everyday life slavery was for people who would not have considered themselves inhumane.

But this guy? In real life, this guy must have known he was a piece of shit.

But this guy? In real life, this guy must have known he was a piece of shit.

The problem with viewing and judging the past through a modern lens is that it robs history of its greatest asset – the ability to teach us. This isn’t to say it prevents us from repeating our old mistakes – current events in Israel prove otherwise – but that when progress is made, it’s because history has shown us an alternative. You could even argue that the reason the situation in Israel goes on (and on) is because both sides are willfully ignorant of history, relying instead on mythology as justification of their actions. But if we pretend that the mistakes people made in the past are mistakes we couldn’t possibly make now because we are better people, and not just people with the benefit of hindsight, history itself becomes redundant.

There’s also a tendency in certain quarters – cultural commentary in the UK being one of them – to be highly selective about those we judge, based on political preference. So Hoare asks if we can “excuse” Novello and Coward, and elsewhere you’ll find similar pieces asking if we can forgive the likes of Ezra Pound (big fan of Mussolini),  P.G. Wodehouse (made Nazi-authorised radio broadcasts for the US), Henry Ford (Hitler’s pen pal) or Richard Strauss (who, though never a card carrying Nazi, carried on working under the regime).

"I gave you the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. What more do you people fucking want?"

“I gave you the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. What more do you fuckers want?”

 

You won’t, however, see many articles asking if we can forgive H.G. Wells (sang Stalin’s praises in New Statesman), George Bernard Shaw (fell hook, line and sinker for his “Potemkin villages” while touring the USSR), Jean-Paul Sartre (apologist for both Stalin and Mao) or any of the countless other artists and writers who either supported Communist regimes wholesale or downplayed their crimes. Even today, we give the likes of Oliver Stone and the Manic Street Preachers a free pass for cosying up with Fidel “My regime murdered thousands of political prisoners” Castro, while excoriating – and rightly so – those Tory windbags who provided shelter to Pinochet.

All this is to go a little off topic, however. My main point is that by asking if we can forgive men for “flirting with fascism” almost a century ago, Philip Hoare is looking at them through a prism tainted by the Holocaust and World War II. He seems blind to the idea that however objectionable many of us would have found fascism at the time, it enjoyed political power nowhere outside of Italy, and many of its supporters saw it as a necessary bulwark against Marxism, which – should we forget – had already seized much of Russia and caused countless thousands of deaths and mass exiles. It is, if anything, more understandable for two men from the middle and upper classes of British society to align themselves with fascism in its infancy than it would have been for either of them to raise the red flag.

For one thing, can you picture this man in overalls?

For one thing, can you picture this man in overalls?

So, if Hoare’s question is “Can we excuse them?”, I’d say the answer is yes. Had they carried on “flirting” with the movement after Kristallnacht, that may have been more questionable. As it was, they didn’t, and so it wasn’t. Trying to tie this 1925 fundraiser to Novello’s ration book fraud is tenuous, to say the least.

It is understandably tempting to make history’s characters our friends or enemies, based on whether we think we would have liked them as individuals, and they would have liked us. In this, our views are often coloured by the way these characters are presented in films, and so when we think of Gandhi, we think of Ben Kingsley’s sage Mahatma saying (as the real Gandhi said), “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”, and not (as the real Gandhi also said), “I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted.”

"And don't get me started on the blacks."

“And don’t get me started on the blacks.”

To bring the subject more or less full circle, we see this kind of revisionism often in modern-day LGBT(etc) discourse, with figures from the distant past labelled gay, straight, bi or trans depending on what scant information we have about their private lives. Even when someone’s proclivities are well-documented, such as in the case of Oscar Wilde, there is a tendency to airbrush that which doesn’t fit the modern narrative, and so we see him as a “gay icon”, ignoring altogether the fact that he was married (and, to begin with, quite happily so) and fathered two children.

At its most dangerous end, this kind of “judging the past from the future” sees nutters with nothing better to do than set up union jack-smothered Facebook pages describe the prophet Muhammad as a “paedophile”, because his wife Aisha was said to have been 9 or 10 years old when they first shared a marital bed. This is dangerous not because we shouldn’t upset Muslims, or because Islam should enjoy special privileges, but because it is said to demonstrate that there is something inherently paedophilic in the religion, a tenuous link to those gangs of – predominantly Muslim – men prosecuted for grooming young girls in recent years. Here, a narrow, ahistorical view of history is exploited to stigmatise people – over a billion of them, in fact – in the present, mindless of the fact that this kind of union, though eye-poppingly distasteful to us now, was common in the 7th Century, and not only in Arabia.

Even in the 14th Century Scotland, it was not uncommon for men in their 30s to shack up with toddlers. According to Mel Gibson.

Even in the 13th Century Scotland, it was not uncommon for men in their 30s to shack up with toddlers. According to Mel Gibson.

The truth of something like an individual’s sexual or political persuasion becomes more – rather than less – complicated with time. Many of the terms we use to describe human sexuality are less than 150 years old, and so it means nothing when we talk about Alexander the Great or the poet Sappho as “gay” or “lesbian”. A word like “fascist” (or even “communist”) has a whole ton of baggage in the year 2014 which it simply did not carry in 1925.

If we’re going to think and talk about our heroes and villains of the past, we’d do well to remember the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: 

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

 

Prom Queen/Scream Queen – The 2013 version of ‘Carrie’

9 Jul

Carrie

When is a remake not a remake? Well, maybe when the film it’s a “remake” of was itself based on an earlier book or play. And so it is with Kimberley Pierce’s Carrie. Both Pierce’s film, released last year, and Brian DePalma’s hit movie of 1974 are based on Stephen King’s novel, published back in the days when his books still clocked in at under 1,400 pages a pop. The DePalma version was an enormous success, earning Oscar nominations for both Sissy Spacek (in the title role) and Piper Laurie as her psycho-Christian mother, and still enjoys an enormous cult following to this day, referenced in everything from Family Guy to 2013’s GBF.

Since 1974 there have been three other major attempts to adapt the novel. A 1988 musical, which debuted in Stratford-Upon-Avon before transferring to Broadway, was a notorious flop, while The Rage: Carrie 2 wasn’t so much a sequel as a lame rip-off dressed as a sequel (complete with Amy Irving cameo).

"I was in the original, you know. That's why this isn't a remake."

“I was in the original, you know. That’s why this isn’t a remake.”

There was also a 2002 TV movie that is now on Netflix, but which it would appear no-one has ever seen.

With such forgettable remakes, re-imaginings and reworkings in the interim, this latest incarnation of the novel was only ever likely to be compared with DePalma’s movie, and therefore had a hell of a lot to live up to. The teaser trailer was promising: An ominous aerial shot of the burning high school, Julianne Moore as the mother, Kick Ass star Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie. There was no reason to believe the new film couldn’t at least make an honourable attempt at seizing DePalma’s crown.

Sadly – or, perhaps, unsurprisingly – that crown stays exactly where it is, for while it has its moments, the 2013 Carrie just isn’t up to scratch. One of the main problems with this new version is just how little it differs from the 1974 one. Looking on Wikipedia, I see that screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (not to be confused with The Stuff’s Larry Cohen) is credited on both films, and indeed, my partner (something of a DePalma version fan) was able to predict whole chunks of dialogue in the new version, despite it being the first time he’d ever seen it.

All the classics are there (“Plug it up”, “Creepy Carrie! Creepy Carrie!”, “First the blood, then the boys!”, “I can see your dirty pillows!”), so that if the 2013 version feels like anything at all, it’s the kind of DC/AC, Jon Bovi, Whole Lotta Led tribute act you might see playing in a regional leisure centre.

Although I thought the Blu-Ray's "Chant-Along-A-Carrie" option was entirely unnecessary.

Although I thought the Blu-Ray’s “Chant-Along-A-Carrie” option was entirely unnecessary.

That said, there are some successful attempts to bring the story up to date. The device of having the sadistic schoolgirls film Carrie’s traumatic first period on a mobile phone felt utterly authentic, and in keeping with the adolescent brutality found in both DePalma’s film and the original novel. There were some nice additional character touches, including the transformation of Carrie’s English teacher from a tubby, taunting bully into a sleazy douchebag who teases Carrie to impress one of her cruel classmates.

The almost 40-year leap forward in technology pays dividends too, with Carrie’s telekinetic powers moving way beyond props trembling at the end of a fishing wire, or bits of furniture elevating on unseen hydraulics. The prom scene is, it must be said, pretty spectacular, and would – like its 1974 predecessor – have offered an amazing sense of righteous catharsis… if only we gave a shit.

You see, the main problem with Carrie Mk II (I’m ignoring other versions) is that everything before the prom scene is a rushed job, sucking all the emotion right out of it. The film relies far too heavily on a working knowledge of DePalma’s version, and seems determined to leach some of that movie’s poignancy and heartache without bothering to do any of the heavy lifting itself. So, rather than exploring the dynamic between mother and daughter in any depth, we have a breezy skip through a few arguments, and a pretty lifeless scene in which Carrie causes everything in the room to jump two feet off the ground.

Like this. But without any sense of drama whatsoever.

Like this. But without any tension, suspense or spectacle.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Julianne Moore who – on the strength of highly-strung performances in movies such as Magnolia and Boogie Nights – I’d expected to give a barnstorming turn as Margaret White. Maybe she didn’t want her performance to tip over into pantomime, or she was conscious of aping Laurie, and decided to play it in a much lower key. Either way, her character here is subdued to the point of being catatonic, and the scenes between her and Moretz’s Carrie lack emotional punch.

You could argue that DePalma lucked out when he landed Spacek, whose otherworldly look of innocence was perfect for the role, but this is more than just an issue of casting. There’s just no sense of drama. One of the things that made the 1974 Carrie stand out from its mid-70s contemporaries, such as The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was its profound sadness. This wasn’t the horror film as thriller, it was the horror film as heartbreaking tragedy. In Carrie Mk II, that emotional resonance is sorely lacking. Instead, it’s as if the film is saying to us, “You remember how sad this scene was in the Sissy Spacek movie? Well… Pretend it’s like that, and in a few minutes we’ll give you the prom scene, but with CGI.”

"You can stick your 1970s split screen up your arse. I've got FLYING SCENERY."

“You can stick your 1970s split screen up your arse. I’ve got FLYING SCENERY.”

The saddest thing about this Carrie is the feeling of wasted opportunity you’ll have as the credits roll. A brief scene, prior to the moment when it all kicks off, between a bashful Carrie and her doomed Prom King Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) gives some hint of the film that could have been. The chemistry between the pair is genuinely endearing, and their first dance nowhere near as dizzying (or vomit-inducing) as DePalma’s 360° merry-go-round. It also helps that Elgort looks much more baby-faced (he’s still only 20) and convincingly teen-aged than lion-maned 25-year-old William Katt in the original. If the preceding 50 minutes had been anywhere near as good, we could have had a modern cult classic on our hands.

Remakes, or re-adaptations, or whatever we want to call them, don’t have to be bad. I think I’ve said, elsewhere on this blog, that there are plenty of great movies to prove this, from The Wizard of Oz to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11. However, as a general rule of thumb this only works if the original film was far from a classic. Take on a movie as well-loved, both critically and cultishly, as DePalma’s Carrie, and you’ll have a very tough, if not impossible job in front of you.