Friday, January 22, 2016

Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable

I have been thinking about the day-to-day, the routine, the quotidian, everyday life. I have been thinking about how context and form can reshape the banal into the beautiful. I have been thinking about how critics condemned Carolee Schneemann's experimental Super 8 films for their indulgence and personal clutter and how they really are quite fine pieces of work. The current exhibit, Unforgivable, at Work Gallery has ten of her films on view, in digital form. My friend B. and I took in three of them in pieces, interspersed with cups of hot chocolate, chatter and a meal, making for a very fine afternoon.

The film that really spoke to me was the longest, Kitch's Last Meal, which has been described as Schneemann recording her elderly cat declining over many, many meals, but that does the film a disservice. It is a meditation on death and does show the cat in a state of decline, but it is much more than that. Schneemann records her life, the cat's, her farmhouse, her partner of the time, Anthony McCall over a long stretch of time (in this viewing 53:47 over several reels), from 1973-1976. She also comments on institutional sexism, gender roles, and her own approach to art-making in a way that is fascinating, moving and profound. She also dances, makes preserves, and works with her film reels, and goes on car journeys. Her daily life makes up the film, which is in itself a defiant riposte to the art establishment that dismissed women's lives as unworthy of art.

I ponder all this as I face a period of confinement and reduced mobility. I am in the process of making a film and wondering how I will do it in these circumstances. I hope to take some inspiration from Schneemann and let my imagination wander where my corporeal being cannot.

Unforgivable contines at Work Gallery, London until 11 March.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year-end Thoughts

It's been a tumultuous year for me, one in which I retreated to offline space to ponder personal vulnerabilities, but I still managed to venture out to enjoy the plethora of culture on offer. Here is a quick round-up of things that made a big impression on me.


I saw quite a few films I never got around to reviewing, including A Girl Walks Home Alone, Dear White People and A Girl at My Door. Tops for belly laughs would have to be the genre-mashing Dyke Hard. However, for films that made a big and lasting impression, my two favourites would be Girlhood and Carol, both of which I reviewed. 


The Brighton Festival, guest-curated by Ali Smith, offered many delights, including Agnes Varda's installation and Gauge. I also enjoyed Bridget Riley's exhibit at the De La Warr, her intricate drawings deconstructed, yet still mesmerising to the untrained eye. There are still a few more days to see the survey of work by Emily Jacir at the Whitechapel. I was most intrigued by her detective/archaeological/archival retrieval of the life of the assassinated writer, Wael Zuaiter.

For me, personally, my highlights were having 1/3 of a retrospective at Wotever DIY Film Festival, starting work on my next film, the contemporary B-movie, Lactasia, and enjoying some glorious days out at the seaside in Brighton, Bexhill and Folkestone.

Onward, 2016.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Carol Soundtrack

Well, here's a thing. Having become rather obsessed with the music from Carol, I have found a performance the composer Carter Burwell did at the Middleburg Film Festival! Most interesting to hear his views about how the music articulates things the characters can't.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Or Oscar for Ms. Blanchett!

Perhaps getting ahead of myself. I headed into this preview screening at the BFI full of trepidation. Would Todd Haynes mess it up, overstylising his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1950s lesbian-themed novel, lavish on his box of cinematic tricks and miss the wood for the trees? Thankfully, No. Haynes hits it out of the park, as we used to say, back in the old neighbourhood. That neighbourhood was slightly north of Manhattan, seen here in all its sepia-toned loveliness, a time when men wore hats and women like Cate Blanchett's Carol wore gloves. And what gloves! Those gloves, so artlessly left on the counter of Therese's (Rooney Mara) department store counter, prove so alluring that she sweeps them up, takes them home and eventually posts them to their owner who promptly reciprocates by phoning her on the shop floor and inviting her to lunch. As you do. And so it begins.

Their romance, teased out through home visits, car journeys to New Jersey and eventually a rather unexpected road trip to Chicago (!) brings the older, wealthier Carol into the orbit of the younger, breathlessly naive Therese, so green she doesn't know how to order at a restaurant, much less define her sexual identity. Blanchett's indefatigable tranche of meaningful looks, hair tosses and the occasional pat on the shoulder is a delight to watch. One envies Therese, for how can she resist?

Despite having read the book many years ago, I didn't recall many plot details and agonised over how the story would play out, as Carol is put through the wringer by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, who is keen to punish her for leaving him and uses their daughter as payback. Carol and Therese's relationship alters as the balance of power shifts, and it is also a lovely touch to see that Carol has an ex-lover who remains a loyal friend, so rare in mainstream films that isolate lesbian relationships. I was enthralled, my one gripe being the sex scenes seemed a bit porny, as seen through a male lens. Generally, though, the tone of the film is just right, not so in thrall to period detail that it forgets the characters or their very powerful emotions.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Finally, finally, finally I caught up with this film depicting the struggle of British women for the vote some 100 years ago, and by an accident of timing, on US Election Day of all days. I have been prepping by reading up on Sylvia Pankhurst, the radical activist branch of the famous family. Ironically, Sylvia does not appear in the film, and Emmeline's much vaunted appearance (courtesy of the venerable Meryl Streep) amounts to one striking speech and then a quick getaway.

A curious beast, this Suffragette. The lead character is a fictionalised launderess in Bethnal Green, played by Carey Mulligan, who is radicalised both by her grinding poverty and social inequities, as well as her associations with suffrage agitators, including Mrs. Pankhurst. Making a working-class woman the protagonist is to be applauded, but in fact, Mrs. Pankhurst was not at all interested in class struggle and specifically withdrew her WSPU organisation from the East End. It was her daughter Sylvia who was devoted to getting the East End involved in the struggle, who made common cause with the nascent Labour Party and who had a life-long intersectional political outlook. Her acknowledgement in Suffragette is limited to one comment by a male character that "Even Sylvia doesn't approve of the violence." No, she didn't, but she had a lot more to offer than that.

Well, what is in the film? Several real-life suffragettes, including the martyred Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), who flits in and out of the film, arriving in a prison scene and departing via her confrontation with the King's horse at the Derby. In between, we learn precisely nothing about her politics, her life, her reasoning. Nothing except that she hands Maud a book she has received from the suffragette/pharmacist Edith Ellyn (a delightfully arch Helena Bonham Carter), who I am intrigued to learn was a real person. Must read up on her.

While I got fired up watching the women venting their spleen by smashing shop windows in Oxford Street and blowing up pillar boxes, I felt there wasn't nearly enough depiction of this in the film, especially as it spends no time discussing their politics, perhaps reasoning that "votes for women" is self-explanatory. But, it isn't, as the split between the Pankhursts makes evident. Votes for which women? In the end, we are left with a dignified procession for Davison and a scrolling list of countries granting the right to women. The film feels very much like an exercise designed to be used as a teaching tool about equality. This may also explain the downplaying of the violence experienced by the protesters on the streets as well as in the prisons. There is only one depiction of force-feeding, suffered by Maud. While it is awful, it is nowhere near as harrowing as that shown in The Baader-Meinhof Complex, for example. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted that 12A rating.

The film's heart is clearly with the downtrodden women suffering degradation and belittlement at the hands of violent husbands (Anne-Marie Duff's Violet bears the brunt of this depiction) and sexual harassing bosses (Maud's intervention in this regard is curiously underplayed). It could have been much, much more.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Unidentified Photo Object

Nothing spooky to report today, other than this Halloween emoji. Even that is a castoff from the emoji I couldn't get to work in Twitter.

Anyway, enough about my digital incompetence. I have had two rather underwhelming gallery visits recently, not for the subject matter but for the presentation. Galleries in Shoreditch seem to think that presenting photographs without captions or with minimalist captions is somehow doing the art a favour. I disagree.

Last week I saw the Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism exhibit at Autograph ABP, touring the cool, white space at Rivington Place in quick time, partly because the accompanying information was so utterly inadequate. Photo after photo was captioned with a location and a date, but no information on the subject. Who were those young people slouching against a wall in Hackney? Those two girls at a rally? No idea. In some cases the identifing info could be quite important, as Shelton shot both anti-racist and far right participants. One should not get confused as to who was who!

Moreover, what information was given in the captions was annoyingly shabby. "Jimmy Percy" was some kind of singer, apparently, who performed at the famous RAR gig at Victoria Park in 1978. It wouldn't take more than a quick web search to work out this character was actually Jimmy Pursey. Similarly, "Dennis Bovel" is actually Dennis Bovell, not only a musician but also producer of some renown. I met him some years back at a Slits gig and told him how great the production is on The Slits' Cut. I'm sure there were other slip-ups I missed, but mis-spellings in exhibits is a bugbear of mine and spoils the viewing. If it's important enough to go in a gallery, the text should be given as much attention as the artwork.

At least there were captions in that exhibit. When I stopped by After the Fall: Berlin 1990/2000 at Red Gallery a couple of weeks ago, I found three walls of photos with no captions at all. What the heck? Who were all those people, I wondered. What were their squats called? What was their relationship to techno? as an introductory text opined. I found it a most frustrating experience and did not linger long. Context matters.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Volcano Castle; photo: Val Phoenix
No gold was found, but I did enjoy my day trip to sunny Folkestone at the weekend. My companion Helga and I attempted to find the elusive Creative Quarter mentioned in guides to the town, only to get lost and request assistance at the library. We were directed back up the hill and then saw the giant Creative Quarter sign flapping in the breeze. Sadly, the Quarter is in need of a bit of a spark, if the many empty if attractive properties for let in the Old High Street are anything to go by. Helga and I attempted to come up with some nifty business ideas, including our screenplay-in-the-window wheeze (£50 per page was my pitch). Such a lovely town. It needs some visitor love.

I was terribly motivated to find some of the gold bars left from last year's Biennale project, Folkestone Digs, and so we arrived on the Sunny Sands Beach equipped with trowel and colander. Our digging for gold proved fruitless, but Helga did leave behind her post-modern creation Volcano Castle for the sea to reclaim. I handled the documentation for the piece, as well as contributing the essential final touch, the shells. Some of my best work, I think.