Monday, December 24, 2007

End of Year

This being the first full year of my blog, I shall give a brief round-up of things that made it enjoyable:

1. Berlin!!!: three visits were not enough but highlights included Ladyfest, the Berlinale, and shooting two films

2. Halloween with Kleenex/Liliput in Zurich: it was delightful to meet three of this pioneering band on their home turf

3. The Gossip at the Barfly: a small gig for this red-hot band

4. Young Marble Giants--Colossal Youth and Collected Works: a timely reissue for these post-punks underlines their brilliance

5. films at festivals: Caramel, Vivere, Brand Upon the Brain and the short Le Lit Froisse were standouts

6. first listens: Las Furias, Kaputt, and Grace and Volupte Van Van are ones to watch in 2008

7. catching up with: Girl Monster and Malaria!'s back catalogue were brilliant late discoveries

8. Tate Modern: Maya Deren's films, the slides, and Doris Salcido's crack made this a great visit for all ages

9. West Ham and Leyton Orient both staying up: hurrah for East London football!

10. also seen/heard: New Young Pony Club, Bat for Lashes, Duke Spirit, Ida Maria, Electrelane (RIP), Milenasong, CSS, Normal Love, The Lives of Others

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Enchanted

dir Kevin Lima

Not my usual fare but if one is feeling a bit jaded and out of sorts, why not enter the magical world of Disney, in which animals dance, heroines twirl and sing and a happy ending is de rigueur?

Indeed, Enchanted is the latest entry in the "ironification" of Disney, as the company has become aware of how out of step its values are in the modern, cynical world.

Thus, while would-be princess Giselle starts off in cartoon mode, regaling her animal friends with her search for "true love's kiss" from a handsome prince, about 15 minutes in, poor Giselle (Amy Adams, strangely reminiscent of a young Nicole Kidman) is stumbling around New York in her wedding dress, meeting unfriendly humans.

It's a clever hook, but, sadly, the film doesn't make the most of it. Despite knowing nods to Cinderella, Snow White, and other Disney classics, the jokes aren't quite sharp enough for an adult audience and the message seems quite traditionally Disney: true love comes to those who wait.

As our heroine lurches from one misunderstanding to another, with her prince (James Marsden) and chipmunk pal Pip in pursuit, it's only a matter of time before the happy ending arrives. The only question is which prince she chooses: the cartoon version or the single dad earthling (Patrick Dempsey) who befriends her.

For a brief moment when she and Dempsey are cavorting around Central Park and discovering the "King's and Queen's Ball", I thought there might be a foray into drag. Now that would have been an interesting culture clash. But no. A pity.

The funniest scene finds Giselle ensconced in Dempsey's apartment, intent on cleaning up the mess in her usual manner--getting the animals to do it. But, rather than cute woodland creatures, her call attracts more typical New York inhabitants--rats, cockroaches and pigeons---to tidy up as she sings merrily about getting work done.

The always watchable Susan Sarandon, playing the evil steopmother (and how come that stereotype is not challenged?), is restricted to one scene in the flesh, a rather flat climax which owes more to King Kong than Bambi.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The State I Am In

dir Christian Petzold

Showing as part of Baader's Angels, this German film from 2000 centres on disaffected teen Jeanne and her struggles with her parents. But Jeanne has a particularly hard time of it as her parents are on the run from the law and she never settles anywhere or forms relationships.

During a stay in Portugal, she meets Heinrich, a surfer, and falls for him. As her parents drag her away, she becomes increasingly disenchanted with their nomadic lifestyle and makes a series of decisions that lead to disaster.

While I enjoyed the film, I left the cinema bemused by the ending and feeling curiously detached. I realised that what was missing for me was context: why are the parents on the run? What have they done? How do they feel about it?

Although the story is told from Jeanne's point of view, surely she would have some knowledge of what happened to put her family in its precarious position. There is a scene in which she confronts her parents: "after 15 years you want to take it back!" And they are chastened by the knowledge that their actions have caused heartache for their daughter. But that is as much insight as the audience ever gets into their world. To paraphrase Marianne Faithfull: "what are they fighting for?"

The ending is also problematic as the family is confronted by some form of authority and forced off the road. Do they die? Are they arrested? Who knows? Writer/director Petzold is clearly not interested in tying things up neatly but leaves it hanging. Sometimes this is effective but I was left feeling he wasn't sure how to end the film.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Baader's Angels Preview

Still from The Legends of RitaICA, London
6-10 December

Coming up at the ICA in London is the intriguingly (if irreverently) titled film series, Baader's Angels, looking at the role of women in the German terrorist group Red Army Faction (aka Baader-Meinhof Gang). The series covers some 30 years of work made by German directors such as Schlöndorff, von Trotta, Fassbinder and Kluge.

Coming 30 years after the notorious Deutscher Herbst and in the current political climate in which terrorism is an omnipresent buzzword, the programme is a timely arrival. I emailed curator Pamela Jahn for some comment on it. Our exchange follows.

Kunstblog: I wanted to know why you picked this topic and what the themes were that linked the films.

Pamela Jahn: Marking 30 years since the deaths of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe in Stammheim Prison in October 1977, I wanted to look back at the history of the RAF, the German Autumn and the events of that time, but not simply as a historical retrospective of what happened back then. I was interested in finding a different angle or perspective and, at the same time, I wanted to look at more recent attempts of filmmakers dealing with this topic - especially after the reunification of Germany.

On the one hand, it is striking to see the number of women who were part of the RAF, not just the leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, but many other young women. On the other hand, while researching the films, it was striking to see the great number of films which concentrate on female protagonists and the role women have played in the revolutionary struggle -- direct and indirect, politically and personally.

Given the striking number of female members of the RAF, this season revolves around questions of the roots and potential paths of women’s resistance and revolt as explored in many of the films about the RAF and German terrorism. Though some of the films are made in the 70s and responding to the paranoid political climate in West Germany 30 years ago they still feel timelier than many films made today, especially in regard to the world's current political situations.

KB: It seems to me the films look at individual stories, mostly fictional, but do not address the question of what drew women into terrorism.

PJ: By choosing these films, I am trying to create a space between both fiction and reality, that encourages people to think and to get their own idea about the whys and wherefores. Although all five films of the season have west German terrorism in common as a central theme, they do not all adopt the same position but offer a honest portrayal of the West German crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, or use their engagement with the past to suggest subtly different analyses of personal and state histories, and the role women have played in the revolutionary struggle, both politically and personally.

An idea of the atmosphere of fear, hysteria and public denunciation which was whipped up at the time, and of the role that the conservative, self-censoring media (yellow press) played in this, can be re-experienced through The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. The film is directed by both Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta who give the film a documentary feel though the story itself is fictional (the film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Heinrich Böll).

What is also interesting is the comparison between this earlier film by Schlöndorff and The Legends of Rita, made in 2000. In Katharina Blum you see a woman who came into contact with a terrorist but is not actually one herself. In The Legends of Rita, Rita is actually a terrorist. She is seduced into the terrorist movement through her sense of justice and she’s been involved in violent action. You would almost think that Rita is a kind of composite of various female members of the RAF. There are elements in her character that come from the real life of female members of the RAF. For example, in Rita’s story there are echoes of the life of Inge Viett, a member of the RAF who took refuge in East Germany to escape prosecution in the West and whose life is documented in detail in the documentary Greater Freedom - Lesser Freedom.

Christian Petzold’s film The State I Am In is less about history than about public memory in Germany today, which shows no sign of having resolved the social contradictions that led to terrorist violence in the 1970s. The film centers on the life of Jeanne, a teenage girl who is leading an underground existence with her former terrorist parents. For Jeanne ideological struggle has become a kind of banal reality, something that is obstructing her need to engage with the social reality around her. What remains in this film, which has won wide acclaim as one of the most powerful and controversial German films in the years since reunification, is the complex question of the personal and the political: the original German title Die Innere Sicherheit demonstrates the independence of the political (state security) and the psychological (the inner security, stable identity).

Baader's Angels runs 6-10 December at the ICA, London. The films are: Germany in Autumn (DEUTSCHLAND IM HERBST); The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (DIE VERLORENE EHRE DER KATHARINA BLUM); The State I Am In (DIE INNERE SICHERHEIT); The Legends of Rita (DIE STILLE NACH DEM SCHUSS); Greater Freedom - Lesser Freedom
(GROSSE FREIHEIT - KLEINE FREIHEIT). For further details please see www.ica.org.uk.


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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

German Film Festival

Still from VivereLondon
Through 29 November

Vivere
dir Angelina Maccarone

Having seen Unveiled, one of her previous films, I was keen to see this latest work from the prolific writer/director Angelina Maccarone and it didn't disappoint. Family relationships, loneliness, Christmas Eve, a road trip to Rotterdam.... From these various strands she has crafted a subtle, complex and delightful film shining a light on the things people often keep hidden from themselves and others.

Francesca and Antonietta are two squabbling siblings stifling in their small town until Antonietta runs away to Rotterdam to join her musician boyfriend on tour. Francesca, a stand-in parent for her since their mother left and their father went to pieces (this character spends much of his screentime mumbling in Italian and German and is truly sorrowful), follows her in her cab and encounters a car-crash victim along the way. This is the mysterious Gerlinde (a resplendent Hannelore Elsner), who is having woman troubles in a big way.

Francesca finds herself attracted to Gerlinde and also responsible for Antonietta and the film takes unexpected turns as these three characters try to sort their lives out. While the film starts from Francesca's point of view, it retraces its steps to show the same scenes from the other two characters, and also fills in the backstory, giving depth to the character's actions. Very impressive.

After the Fall
dirs Frauke Sandig / Eric Black

Less story-driven but brilliantly shot is this documentary, a retrospective piece from 1999 looking at the Berlin Wall ten years after its fall. Sandig and Black focus a lot on images and gradually a story emerges of how people view the wall now, how they viewed it from opposite sides pre-unification and then, most bizarrely, how opportunists are seeking to preserve and make money from it.

This last strand features the most bizarre array of characters, including Bavaria's answer to Del-Boy, a man with a "recycling machine", who is extremely frustrated by the refusal of German museums to buy pieces of the wall from him.

In possibly the funniest scene, he plays his accordion while recounting how he stood in the former Death Strip making a toast to the wall with various officials.

However, this pales in comparison to the appearance of the two homeopaths from Tunbridge Wells who explain how the dark energy emanating from the wall makes a useful but dangerous remedy. Every word out of these people's mouths sent the audience into raptures of merriment. It was not a great advert for alternative medicine.

Anyway, the film looks beautiful, with many dusk and dawn shots of Berlin under (re)construction in the late 90s and some thought-provoking commentary from an historian about the way the east was left behind and had its history consumed by the western part.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

La Vie en Rose

dir Olivier Dahan

Still on show at various art houses is La Vie en Rose, a long overdue bio-pic of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, a born drama queen.

She certainly had a life full of incident: born to bohemian parents who neglected her, left in the care of her grandma who ran a bordello, discovered singing in the streets of Paris and put on the stage, passed from one alpha male to the next, before descending into various addictions and dying young. So much for Amy Winehouse to live up to, n'est-ce pas?

Portraying the singer, actress Marion Cotillard has a difficult task, called upon as she is to spend much of her time in heavy prosthetics/make-up as the film projects forward to Piaf's decline in later years before shooting back to her childhood, where she is played by a younger actress. Cotillard's task is to pick up the thread from the early years and carry it through to the singer's later drugged-out phase. She does get to perform on-stage, but the singing appears to be done by others.

Some of the actress's best moments come in the depiction of two very different but key relationships in Piaf's life: one with her friend Momone, whom we first encounter with her on the streets of Montmartre, Piaf singing and Momone collecting money. The tone is set: Piaf is the talent in the duo, Momone the support act. This later becomes a problem once Piaf becomes famous and doesn't depend so much on her friendand and the two split acrimoniously. A pity, as Momone is an intriguing character and her disappearance two-thirds of the way through robs the film of a point of context for Piaf.

The other relationship is with boxer Marcel Cerdan, married and thus not truly available to Piaf. But this doesn't stop her entering into a passionate affair with him, curtailed by his death in a plane crash. This scene is cleverly turned into a kind of dream sequence, with Piaf not recognising that he has not returned to her as promised, but is dead. She goes into a kind of catatonic state, and is propelled on-stage, the implication being that the stage was her true home, where she could express her innermost emotions.

The figure of St. Therese is a motif, with Piaf praying to her at various dramatic moments, hoping for protection. Religion and sin are thus juxtaposed, exposing a certain amount of hypocrisy in the various circles in which she moves.

Other narrative threads are left hanging. One early trauma of Piaf's life was being spirited away from the bordello by her father, with no warning, leaving behind Titine, a prostitute who had acted as a mother figure to the young girl. I rather expected this character to reappear at some point, so important did she seem. But nothing doing. One senses that the film may have been subject to some insensitive editing to cut down its running time.

The film is well-executed, looks sumptuous and the performances are good, but I was left largely unmoved. What stayed with me were the songs, especially what became Piaf's theme song: "Je ne regrette rien". "Rehab" just can't compare.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

M is for ...

video

The independent Berlin label Monika Enterprise is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a hometown gig on 4 November. This seemed an opportune moment to visit label HQ and chat with founder and owner Gudrun Gut, a long-time Berlin mover and shaker.

Having arrived in a still-divided Berlin in the 1970s in order to attend art school (that venerable training ground for musicians--does anyone study art at art school? Anyway...), she has stayed on and continued making music as well as acquiring many quirky artists for the Monika label, Barbara Morgenstern, Quarks and Cobra Killer among them.

Settling down in the kitchen with coffee and cigarettes, Gut, smoky of voice and eye, explained the label ethos: "It is more an artist-orientated label. We do more artist development and every artist has to have their own expression."

In 1997 when the label started, there wasn't much industry interest in the quiet Wohnzimmer scene that produced Morgenstern and Quarks and so Gut, who already ran her reissue label Moabit, turned her attention to new artists. With a handful of releases per year, Monika is a small concern, concentrating on quality rather than quantity.

In addition to solo albums, the label has also produced compilations and the series 4 Women No Cry, with four women artists from different countries. Gut explained, "Each artist has 20 minutes and they have to fit on one album. The idea is we get so many nice demos and lots from women, too, because they know we do lots of female releases."

The internet has proved a fruitful source of talent. "I mostly find the artists on MySpace, actually. It is a really good space for finding new artists."

Recent releases include albums by Milenasong, Chica and the Folder, Michaela Melián and Gut herself. "I was working on it for quite awhile. It was more a question of finishing it 'cause I never had the time." She cleared her throat and continued, "To finish an album you have to have some concentrated time to dive in to it and really finish it."

She works with a small studio set-up: "Oh, it's really simple. A big Mac and a good mic and a good compressor." Highly textured and multi-layered, the record draws from many genres and each song has its own inspiration and dedication. "I wanted it to have not too much of an electronic record. I wanted to have some more... atmosphere."

What with the labels and Ocean Club, her weekly radio show with Thomas Fehlmann, the record was a long time coming but as she explained, Monika pretty much runs itself now. "My assistants can do what I do, more or less, so I could do my own record last year. That was very good. I needed that."

Gut's previous work includes the bands Mania D, Malaria!, and Matador and spoken word collaboration Miasma. The eagle-eyed will spot these names all start with M. She explained: "in the '80s we just did so many projects and to have something in common, we did the M thing. That was really simple. M is for mother, money, moon and it's in the hand. You know, you've got an M in the hand." She held out her hand and one saw that the lines of the palm could be interpreted, by an imaginative art student, as a swirly M. "That's where it comes from," she concluded with a dirty laugh.

Over the last decade Berlin has transformed and Gut welcomes changes to the city, which was something of an island when she arrived. "You couldn't go out. You had the wall around it. You had to pass the borders and it was a pretty tough border crossing.

"Now the last 15 years what's changed the most is business is coming to Berlin. You see people in suits and white collars and we didn't have that before. It's like 'Wow! It's a real city now.' I think it's healthy. It needs that. Because we had it without it and it's a little claustrophobic."

Still, for her Berlin remains a place of boldness and creativity. "Berlin has mostly everything I like because it has this border feeling... The culture is really interesting. It has this underground feel always, kind of daring in the arts. I like that."

Ten Years of Monika, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin, 4 November, with live performances by: Chica and the Folder, Gudrun Gut, Michaela Melián, Barbara Morgenstern + short appearances by Quarks, Cobra Killer and Masha Qrella.

Michaela Melián is included in the art exhibit Same same, but different, exploring "minimal deviations from the status quo". Curated by Lena Ziese, it is on at Jet, Memhardstrasse 1, Berlin, through 10 November.

Friday, October 26, 2007

LFF: The Unpolished

The Southbank Centre; photo by Val Phoenixdir Pia Marais

"By the way, our daughter worries we're losers." Given the large number of films viewed at the festival focusing on dysfunctional families, it is fitting that the final film viewed is The Unpolished, a German ode to parental irresponsibility and childhood accommodation. Stevie, who looks to be about 12, is the most mature and rational member of her brood: her mum takes drugs, Dad's a dealer just released from jail and they move around Europe in pursuit of his business activities.

Stevie's not been to school in ages and the scenes of her parents attempting to enrol her without any documentation are amusing. Eventually, she sends them out of the room in order to reason with the head herself; true to form, she offers the woman a bribe. It's not often one sees a child trying to get INTO school.

Rather than attending school, Stevie spends her days breaking into homes and stealing family photos so that she can paste her and her family's heads over the more conventional poses. Yearning for attention, she attempts to seduce Ingmar, one of her father's many hangers-on. She also befriends the kids next door, wowing them with made-up tales of her exotic past in Brazil. Observing the morning after a night of Bacchanalian excess, which includes adultery, drugs, etc. her neighbour observes drily, "Your parents have a weird ethos." It all ends in tears, the parents go off and Stevie must decide whether to trail in their wake or strike out on her own.

One can only imagine how Hollywood would have depicted the same scenario: either a Home Alone-type gross-out comedy or a shocking drama, ending in tragedy or punishment. Not so in this film. Stevie chides, acts out, and lies when it suits her, but she copes with the situation and eventually makes a decision. It's all presented quite matter-of-factly, no matter how many acceptable boundaries are crossed in this family's life.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

LFF: The World Unseen

(dir Shamim Sarif)

Adapted by Sarif from her own novel, this plays a bit like Desert Hearts, as a forbidden romance is played out in the wide open spaces and stifling society of the 1950s, in this case Cape Town, 1952.

Housewife Miriam and cafe owner Amina are emigres from India, occupying a niche somewhere between the native Africans and the ruling whites in the apartheid hierarchy. Amina does her best to resist the restrictions placed on her, running the cafe with her "coloured" partner Jacob, wearing trousers and resisting her family's entreaties to marry. By contrast, Miriam is under the thumb of her husband Omar, who is having an affair with a family friend, and finds herself expecting her third child and trying to run a shop in a remote location outside the city.

Amina proves to be a lifeline for Miriam, reawakening her love of books and encouraging her to question what she has been taught. The two spend much of the film making eyes at each other and it's only a matter of time before they are having "driving lessons" under Omar's nose as their attraction develops. In a parallel storyline Jacob is romancing the white post-mistress, also transgressive behaviour. How will it all turn out?

Beautifully shot, the film is enjoyable but flawed: some characters and underwritten and the ending feels far too glib. The lead performances are uneven: Miriam seems to have stepped out of a 1940s Hollywood film, with her deferential glances and excessively slow speech, while Amina reminded me a lot of the Cay Rivvers character from Desert Hearts. Indeed, Donna Deitch is thanked in the end credits. But, there are intriguing insights into apartheid society and how the different strata could be simultaneously oppressed and oppressive.

Speaking at a publicity appearance the morning after the screening, Shamim Sarif told me that the ending is not meant to focus on the love affair but Miriam's increasing independence. There is no guarantee the romance will continue, but whatever happens, "Miriam will be OK."

She spoke also of the inspiration for the story, her grandparents' and parents' stories from when they lived in South Africa. She said emigre Indians seem to have a "knack of fitting in" and making the best of whatever situation. Nor was the racism expressed by the Indians toward black Africans something she ducked, explaining it as something that occurs in a "system that promotes stepping on people below you."

Her own parents, she said, would have been horrified if she had brought home a black man to marry. She laughed. "As it happened, I ended up with a woman, so a black guy would have been good."

Though set in the past in a disappeared system, the story is still relevant, she said. "People always feel confined in some way", whether from expectations or religion. The film is about "what it takes to think outside the box. It upsets things," she explained. "I think of it as a maturity thing, learning to critique."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

LFF: Caramel / At the River

Photo for CaramelCaramel (dir Nadine Labaki)

A delightful film about the bonds between women and set in a beauty parlour, this plays as a kind of Lebanese Almodovar picture, substituting Beirut for Barcelona. The writer-director Labaki also plays the lead, Layale, a Christian who is having an affair with a married man and putting her life on hold for him. Her colleagues are equally troubled, "living a lie" as one character puts it. Nisrine, a Muslim, is about to marry but is not a virgin and takes extreme measures to keep this fact from her fiancé. Rima has an unspoken passion for a client. And Jamale, another client, is not dealing with the ageing process.

However, the film does not play like a drama, but a comedy. The atmosphere in the salon is full of squabbles and banter. Layale has a flirtatious running feud with a traffic cop. Jamale goes to disastrous auditions and next-door neighbour Rose has to keep an eye on her mentally fragile sister Lili. Some of these situations do turn dramatic and even sad, but the film's world is one of warmth, both emotional and lighting-wise, and the women are all engaging. Even the wife who is the rival for Layale is drawn sympathetically. Given the subsequent bombing by Israel, the peacetime world depicted here may seem out of step with current events but Labaki feels it gives the world a political element she didn't expect.

By contrast, At the River (dir Eva Neymann) is about the ties that bind, whether one wants them to or not, as an aged Ukrainian mother and daughter play out a love-hate relationship in their shabby apartment before taking a day out to continue hostilities on the river. It is painfully slow-going and laughs are thin on the ground. Even more puzzlingly, the whole middle section is given over to minor characters who appear and disappear without explanation as to why they are there. A most peculiar film.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

LFF: Docs

A Walk Into the Sea (dir Esther Robinson)
We Want Roses Too (dir Alina Marazzi)

Two docs to ponder: Esther Robinson's is an exploration of the disappearance of her uncle, Danny Williams, in 1967. Using interviews with those who knew him from his work as a film editor and member of Warhol's Factory circle, the film creates a portrait of a sensitive young man, who seemed to be damaged and defeated by the competitive, druggy atmosphere of the Warhol crowd. While there is no narration, Robinson's voice is heard in the background asking questions of her family and associates of her uncle. She is puzzled as to how he could just walk out on a family gathering one evening and not return.

Most puzzling is Warhol's indifferent reaction at the time to Williams' disappearance, as they were lovers. But as a range of interviewees, including Factory acolytes Billy Name, Gerard Malanga and Brigid Berlin, explains, sensitivity to others wasn't Warhol's strong suit. Much like the Wagstaff documentary, A Walk reveals as much about the self-centred manipulation of the famous artist as it does about the less celebrated partner.

Even less conventionally authored is We Want Roses Too. Its subject is not immediately apparent as a woman is seen in lurid Technicolor window-shopping. Gradually, a picture emerges of Italian sexual mores from 1967 (that year again) until the late '90s, with women's roles shifting amid much protest and social ferment. Marazzi makes much use of found footage and women's diaries over the period, with voiceover reading the passages.

Again there is no narration but a patchwork of sources, including animation, tells an intriguing story of women's ambitions being thwarted by a combination of church, state and family and the attempts of feminism to change everyone's thinking. An hilarious advert for feminism exhorts: "Ladies, young ladies, girls. We're expecting you."

Monday, October 22, 2007

LFF: Brand Upon the Brain / Black, White and Gray

Still from Brand Upon the BrainThough I've never met Guy Maddin, I think it's safe to say he has issues. This view is formed not only from Brand Upon the Brain, his latest work, but also my attendance at his birthday party at this year's Berlinale. This was a very public event hosted by Cheap, at which Marie Losier premiered Manuelle Labour, a faux silent featuring her giving birth to Guy Maddin's hands, the result, she explained, of her wanting to do a portrait of him.

If this wasn't startling enough, Maddin was as surprised as any of the onlookers when he was presented with a cake and forced to exorcise the painful childhood memory of being terrorised by a monkey at a birthday party. This was accomplished via a series of silent film titles, filmmakers dressed as monkeys and, back in the Cheap Gossip studio, a quick number on a piano--Marlene Dietrich's piano, no less, specially wheeled in for the occasion from the adjacent Film Museum. The cake was then smashed on the floor.

At the Berlinale, Brand Upon the Brain was given a gala staging with musicians and live voiceover by Isabella Rossellini. At the LFF it is playing as a standard film, but is still enormously inventive, witty, beautifully executed and clearly the product of a delightfully twisted mind.

A man, called Guy Maddin, returns to his childhood home on an island, after an absence of 30 years, summoned by his mother to give the lighthouse two coats of paint. Most people's memories of childhood are charged enough, but poor Guy has quite a lot of baggage to unearth, as his memories emerge over 12 chapters. His mother ran an orphanage while his father carried out mysterious experiments in the lab. When teen sleuth Wendy Hale arrives on the island, all kinds of passions are unleashed, all under his mother's omnipotent gaze, equipped with the lighthouse searchlight and the aerophone, which she uses to keep tabs on eager-to-please Guy and his sister.

Mother and son have an unsettlingly close relationship and all kinds of dynamics within the family are hinted at. Guy and his sister Sis end up vying for the attentions of Wendy, who disguises herself as her brother Chance and confuses everyone. So, in the midst of a lot of sci-fi hokum and family melodrama, a very sweet lesbian romance unfolds, leaving Guy on the sidelines.

All of this is accomplished in Maddin's signature faux-silent style, with voiceover, intertitles, asynchronous sound, no dialogue and vignetted black and white photography.

Much black and white photography is on display in Black White and Gray (dir James Crump), a documentary on the life of New York art curator/collector Sam Wagstaff, a powerful figure in the 1970s who is almost forgotten now, unlike his protégé and lover Robert Mapplethorpe. It was Wagstaff, 25 years older, who promoted Mapplethorpe and drove up prices for his work. Wagstaff also left much of his enormous wealth to Mapplethorpe, who profited greatly from the relationship.

In fact, there are those in the film who suggest Wagstaff was nothing more than a convenient sugar daddy for Mapplethorpe. By contrast, Patti Smith, who lived with Mapplethorpe when he met Wagstaff, insists that the photographer loved Wagstaff and she paints a picture of a threesome who all got along, despite the differences in their backgrounds and outlooks. Wagstaff came from a privileged Ivy League background, whereas Mapplethorpe was more rough around the edges.

As a curator, Wagstaff favoured modern art and hated photography until he had a change of heart and pursued his interest in voracious style. It is suggested that he was a collector of people as well as art. And so the two formed an alliance that lasted until their deaths from AIDS in the late 80s, during which time Wagstaff changed from a Brooks Brothers suit-wearing establishment figure to a leather-jacket wearing habitué of the meat-packing district.

The doc features work by artists favoured by Wagstaff, such as Tony Smith and Mapplethorpe, as well as interviews with various art world figures from New York and London and a few archive clips of Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff. Wagstaff's photography collection is now owned by the Getty Museum.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

LFF: I'm Not There / Hounds

I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' much-anticipated riff on the life of Bob Dylan, is quite the ambitious enterprise and a huge disappointment. Using six actors to portray various aspects of Dylan, the film jumps back and forth in time and location and confuses greatly. Perhaps Haynes is just too much of a fan, trying to cram in every last utterance of the great man, but the film is deadly in its talkiness, encompassing long, existential monologues and endless debates about whether the artist cares about his audience and whether he feels protest can change the world.

Most successful of the unconventional casting is the mercurial Cate Blanchett, who proves a surprisingly foxy Dylan, whether performing on-stage, or chasing an heiress in the forest. Christian Bale offers a hollow impression while Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin are irritating.

And what exactly is Richard Gere doing in this picture? He seems to have wandered in, astride his horse, from a Clint Eastwood western shooting next door. Guest appearances from Julianne Moore, Kim Gordon and Calexico can't save a story that drags badly. No doubt Haynes intended this to be an artful, ambitious alternative to the typical biopic but there's no there there.

Hounds (dir Ann-Kristin Reyels), by contrast, is an engaging art-house picture on a theme of loneliness. Set in a small, wintry German town, the film is engaging and at times enchanting.

Ignored by the locals and estranged from his father, teenaged newcomer Lars bonds with mute Marie, much to the disapproval of her father. Lars' father, on the other hand, has taken up with his sister-in-law and seems insensitive to his son's feelings. The boy consoles himself with long walks in the forest with the eponymous dogs, but even this loses its allure when one of the dogs is killed.

The relationship of Lars and Marie is charted painstakingly, with many silent conversations and visits to a swing by a frozen lake. In one scene Lars and Marie put on masks and prance about on the surface, two outsiders finding understanding.

When Lars' mother arrives with her new boyfriend, the stage is set for a confrontation and resolution but the film then loses its way and the ending is unsatisfying. But the first 85 minutes are a delight.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival: Shorts

London Film Festival-branded bag; photo by Val PhoenixWho Are You
Mondo Mayhem

Two shorts programmes on view at the festival span the sedate to the way out and how. Who Are You is centred on identity and features mostly North American work, the exception being Isold Uggadottir's Icelandic coming out story Family Reunion, which starts in New York but then ventures to Reykjavik as a young woman fears her secret being revealed to her family. Strangely grainy in tone, it features an amusing twist.

Other films venture into darker territory, with Slippin' (dir Mike Forshaw) exploring the crisis of masculinity in a group of London youths trying ever so hard to impress each other with their posturing and drinking. Tragi-comic is the word. Screening (dir Anthony Green) takes the ever-so-topical war on terror/homeland security/paranoia from a personal point of view as a woman traveling back to Britain fears a fellow air passenger. There is real tension but I could see the twist coming a mile away. Funniest of the pack is I Am Bob (dir Donald Rice), featuring everyone's favourite saint, The Geldof, not being recognised at a Lookalike Convention and having to sing for his supper.

Mondo Mayhem, curated by Philip Ilson, veers off the straight and narrow into the downright weird, offering, as promised, several "what the f---k" moments. Most bizarre is the Mexican A Red Recipe to Cook Crustaceans (dir Eun-hee Ihm), which is baffling but beautifully shot. After an abusive father chokes to death, his wife and son spend most of the film boiling and eating his reincarnated body with lip-smacking and bizarrely sensual relish.

Almost as strange is Mammal (dir Astrid Rieger), which features a man plunging his face into bread dough, a woman being dropped into a soup pot and a man hiding under a carpet. Anemone (dir Nathalie Teirlinck) is a truly disturbing depiction of a girl's birthday party under surveilance by a paedophile and the consequences of his actions.

Offering light relief are Taste of Kream (dir Deanna Russo), a mock-doc on some deluded cat owners in Florida, and Thanks Anyway (dirs Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke), in which the latter practises some squeegee cleaning on the trams and S-bahns of Berlin, with amusing results.

Help is Coming (dir Ben Mor) is a riposte to the promises offered by Washington and assorted cronies to the people of New Orleans, post-Katrina.

Welcome to the Black Parade (dir Yasmine Abboud) is an alternate vision of the song by the irredeemably crap My Chemical Romance. Now, I find it difficult that anyone could extract anything profound from this extremely trite band. I find it even less possible that the people of Beirut, having been shelled by Israel, could find comfort in this music. I am not at all sure what Abboud's message is, as she mixes images of soldiers and various militaristic figures with skaters. "Keep on skating?" "Resist and rebel?" "Fight the power?" I only know I had this f-----g song in my head the rest of the day.

The Art of Lee Miller

Cover of Lee Miller exhibit catalogue; photo by Val PhoenixV & A
London
Until 6 January 2008

Model, photographer, journalist, adventurer. Lee Miller's centenary is being celebrated in this exhibit at the V & A, continuing her belated recognition. The art is featured here, not the extraordinary life that began in oh-so-homely Poughkeepsie, New York (amazing anyone of achievement came from there) and ended in England 30 years ago.

In between, Miller became a Surrealist in Paris, then a war photographer and writer. She ended up doing features for British Vogue, coming full circle, having started as a model in American Vogue.

What comes through sharply in the exhibit is Miller's dissatisfaction with being a Thing, albeit a Beautiful one. She was clearly a woman of action, which must have been quite difficult in that era. The portraits of her as a young woman, by a range of male photographers, including her father, show a bestilled glacial beauty. She looks trapped and bored.

The most extraordinary photo of her is the earliest, a full-length shot from 1915, when she was eight. She appears as a handsome young boy with a crewcut, overalls and her hand clutching a post. Lips pursed, eyes veiled by shadows, she appears grave and solemn, but with a direct gaze. Given that she was raped at age 7, it is poignant indeed.

That she went on to become a model and a great beauty is an irony--always an object of someone else's gaze. She must have been keen to rebel against this fate, and at age 22 headed for Paris where some of her best work was done. Her nudes show a delicate sensuality and her eye for detail makes pictures of chairs and ironwork into works of art, unrecognisable as common-place objects. With Man Ray she developed solarisation, a technique which adds a magical quality to such portraits as that of Unknown Woman, 1930.

The exhibit includes a few drawings from this period, eye-opening depictions of a woman's head under a bell jar and another being pinned to a wall by daggers. Proto-feminist statements? Well, how about her Untitled [severed breast from mastectomy], which, far from being set in some medical scenario, is depicted on a dinner plate, complete with service? Surely, this is a woman with a critique of her surroundings.

Later, she worked in New York and then returned to Europe, turning her eye to photojournalism in London and in France during the Second World War. These pictures serve a different purpose, documenting the horrors of war, lest anyone deny or forget what happened.

She also became a war correspondent for Vogue New York, and her diatribe against the Germans she met accompanying the invading troops in 1945 makes for uncomfortable reading, especially as the layout contrasts the well-fed children of Germany with the murdered Holocaust victims. Miller's anger is palpable. Other work during this period includes a shot of her towering over Pablo Picasso in his studio in liberated Paris, the statuesque Miller, looking tired in her uniform, linking arms with a gleeful Picasso.

The pictures in Hitler's apartment in Munich seem quite off-colour, staged shots of her in his bathtub and a soldier reading Mein Kampf. What are they meant to depict? The banality of evil? If anything they seem disrespectful to the thousands of his victims, cocking a snook at a deposed dictator by turning his lair into a joke.

Curiously, Miller's work tails off after the war, just when she should have been at the peak of her powers and a double threat as photographer and writer. There is only a photo essay on Working Guests at her Sussex farmhouse from 1953 and then nothing, though she lived until 1977.

What happened? Did she retire? Did the work dry up? It seems sad that this cut-off seems to have coincided with her 50th birthday. Was the great beauty considered past her sell-by date? It is disappointing that after a life of action, she ended up becalmed.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Frieze Art Fair

Visitor to Frieze Art Fair; photo by Val PhoenixLondon
11-14 October

So, to Regent's Park for the annual confab of the great and good (and the odd Hollywood D-lister wanting to look cultural). A big white tent, stuffiness, goodie bags, anxious/bored looking people clutching mobiles and laptops. Hmmm.

One stall (David Zwirner) had a Saab as its attraction while another appeared to be a caravan and had been sold to Tate Modern. The lines between art and commerce aren't blurred; they're non-existent on such occasions.

As far as stalls go, Gavin Brown's Enterprise was certainly busy, with a witty installation of Rob Pruitt's flea market. It's a cheeky notion, taking detritus from artists and flogging it off to a willing set of buyers in a high art setting. And indeed the crowds were lapping it up. With hand-written signs and rails of clothing, it was, indeed, reminiscent of an ordinary flea market but with Jay Jopling's White Cube and other high-powered dealers in close proximity, it certainly hit the irony button on the head.

Jopling's stall was a bit of a disappointment, lacking any particular outrage or attraction, just a video by Sam Taylor-Wood being of note. But then I'd missed the previous day's signing by the tragically over-rated Chapman brothers adorning the queen's head on notes (defacing currency is a criminal offence, don't you know?). Such a pity.

Oddity of the day was the Frankfurter Kunstverein "performance", which appeared to be a bored-looking chap making noises into a microphone, while a bemused crowd looked on. Was this the performance? A warm-up? Nobody seemed to know. Cheers.

Around the corner from that, hordes grabbed at posters printed in Hebrew rolling them up smartly and tucking them into their goodie bags, not even knowing what they were getting. Because they were free and they wanted souvenirs.

Outside, the sculpture garden was also free and the air was considerably cleaner. The fair runs through the 14th.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Front of Luxury

Rhythm King and Her Friends
The Front of Luxury / A Street Angel with a Cowboy Mouth
(Kitty-Yo)

The follow-up to I am Disco from 2004 finds Pauline Boudry and Linda Wölfel reclining almost into coma, so laid-back is this record. Having lost one member, the leaner, meaner duo is (according to the press notes) rocking out on this record. Can't hear it myself. In fact, the album sounds strangely detached and difficult for the listener to engage with.

For ones with so much to say, RKAHF don't make themselves easily understood. They sing about sexuality, economics, neo-liberalism (you know, the usual rock topics) and one strains to catch the words and the meaning. It's odd to hear vocals mixed down to the point of ambience. Very frustrating. Take the title track. What is the front of luxury? What does "we want desire's working like a factory" mean? Why obscure the lyrics so that they become unintelligible?

I was intrigued by the title "Queer Diskotek", possibly a nod to Stereolab's "French Disko", but it's a bit moody for the dance floor. "Metrosexual Ride"'s vocals sit under the bass and drums and it's difficult to extract what sounds like a critique of those who want all the trendiness of queerness without all the hassle of discrimination. "C'est un visite" is about the only decipherable lyric. The standout is "Speedometer", which is actually quite an old song, appearing on their first self release some years back. It's cool and sultry and quite Stereolabesque but more tuneful than the newer material, which is curiously pallid.

More satisfying is the accompanying DVD of tour diaries from 2004-2005 and thus promotion for the previous record. A Street Angel with a Cowboy Mouth (nope, not sure what it means either) is an intriguing 40 minutes of Pauline Boudry's observations about herself, her band, their tour and engagement with one's work. None of this is resolved either but it's an enjoyable ride. Boudry has a dab hand with film, having already made several and this is several cuts above the usual japes-in-the-van tour vid.

During the film, the band crosses Europe, loses a member, returns to Berlin and goes back on the road. We learn a bit about Boudry's use of language, observe slow-dancing lesbians at a Parisian bar (to "How Deep Is Your Love", which she mistakenly disparages as "bad 80s" pop when, of course, it dates from the '70s), and visit several sound checks with tiny, tiny snippets of touring partners Angie Reed, Scream Club and others, who are never interviewed, for some reason.

In fact, the best interaction with a fellow musician comes when Francoise of Stereo Total puts make-up on Boudry and Wölfel, sending them out giggling with moustaches to play a gig in Austria. This comes after RKAHF arrive at the venue and the in-house tech guys ignore the band's tech woman. So, they are rather annoyed and it looks like a confrontation may develop. Yet, we see nothing of that night's performance. How did the small-town audience react to a lesbian band with moustaches? We don't find out.

While the overall feel of the piece is dispassionate, there is understated humour: Boudry's T-shirt reading "Heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses"; her matter of fact explanation of them stealing the jacket that gave the band their name; and a group of lesbians she has just met enticing her bandmate Sara to go out on the town by calling up to her hotel window.

At the start of the film, Boudry expresses her frustration at the difficulty in finding female musicians (or "girl bands" as she puts it; a shame how "girl" has made a comeback to encompass "woman". It's as if feminism never happened!) and flips through her LP collection to show the discoveries she has made, everything from Siouxsie to Conscious Daughters. She goes on to say she wanted to illustrate the history of girl bands. Again it is not clear how this fits in with the ensuing film. Is this film a history of her band, her story? Is it meant to be one tiny chapter of a larger metaphorical book? Who knows? That strand disappears once the tour is underway.

Unanswered questions abound. Boudry drops such ambiguous statements as: "we are queering the audience through the way we address them" or "behind the trendy window displays it reeks of long work hours, flexibility and precarity", and one feels context is called for. One well-made point is in her critique of the music press for concentrating on male acts, and thus "listening to only half of the sound". This is illustrated by half of a broken record rotating on a turntable. Touché.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lives Controlled

Still from Educational Film about State Security FilesGoethe Institut
London
18 September 2007

As part of its Lives Controlled series on the former GDR's system of state security, the GI presented two documentary films on the state security service or Stasi. The feature I Love You All (Aus Liebe zum Volk) (dirs Eyal Sivan, Audrey Maurion) was a German-French co-production using the memoirs of Major S of his time as a Stasi agent, written in 1990 on the occasion of him losing his job after 20 years' service.

The film used a voiceover reading the agent's recollections and his bitterness at his change of circumstances, utterly oblivious to the effects on others of his activities and the distortion of the idea of the people's state. There was much humour in this, with such memorable quotes as "You have to force some people to be happy" and "Trust is good. Control is better".

Then there were the party songs, including such jaunty numbers as the border guards' ode to "so many skulls smashed"; angelic socialist children celebrating joining the People's Army; and the Stasi anthem about being "soldiers of the invisible front", surely a Eurovision anthem in the making.

The film never showed the agent, instead using archive footage and possibly reconstructions of surveillance but it was difficult to tell what was genuine. There was fascinating footage of the people invading Stasi HQ in 1990, demanding to see their files and daubing anti-Stasi graffiti on the walls of the hated building. Major S says very tellingly that the Stasi were more afraid of the people than the other way around.

While I found the film enthralling, others in the audience found it hard going and there was a rush for the exits as soon as the credits rolled. One viewer who remained called it bleak. An interesting point of the film was that surveillance of the population did not end with the fall of the GDR. Indeed, today's population is probably the most watched in history, with security cameras omnipresent and "anti-terrorist" measures still at work.

One of Major S's gripes was the lack of high-tech facilities at the Stasi's disposal, unlike their counterparts in the west. Presumably, this included paper shredders because when they were disbanded, they left behind reams of hastily hand-shredded files on the people they were meant to serve.

The short film which preceded the feature, Educational Film about State Security Files (dir Anke Limprecht), was as unglamourous as its title suggests, but equally gripping. Without dialogue, it showed in black and white the mundane existence of the people who are attempting to reconstruct the shredded Stasi files. Piece by labourious piece emerges from huge sacks, is laid out on a desk and then matched to other fragments.

It is a shockingly low-tech procedure. Not only do the staff not wear gloves, but they appear to be using standard sellotape to piece together the fragments, despite the fact that tape degrades with age. Another curiosity is the use of Pepsi Light boxes to contain the sheets.

Incidentally, in her book Stasiland, Anna Funder quotes the chief of the reconstruction office in Nuremberg as saying at the present rate it will take 375 years to reconstruct the Stasi files. It does make one wonder at the commitment of the reunited government to this project and also just whom it will benefit, once completed. Perhaps the Stasi have had the last laugh, after all.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

The Great Rock 'n' Rollerderby Swindle

Miss Tsunami and Dolly BustHer; photo by Val PhoenixTottenham Green Leisure Centre
London
8 September 2007


Saturday the 8th dawned as a busy one for sport: cricket one-dayer, Rugby World Cup and Euro 2008 football qualifiers. So it was that I wandered off to Tottenham to check out the UK's first Roller Derby expo, hosted by London Rollergirls.

Somewhere in my memory banks are hazy recollections of roller derby: competitive roller skating, rather violent, a Raquel Welch film? I didn't know the rules and I had no idea what to expect. But, I am ever so glad I attended this debut.

The sport was popular in the 1970s, spawning a professional circuit in the USA, still sadly rare for women's team sports. And it's made a comeback there, as well as branching out to Europe. As Moe YaDown explained to me, "What I love about the sport is it's for women of all sizes, for women of all ages. The crowd can get into it. It's very exciting." She plays for Rat City in Seattle, which is heading to the Nationals soon. "It's very competitive".

Noms de guerre seem to be de rigueur, lending an air of danger and a rock edge to proceedings. Team captains were Correctional Felicity and Kitty DeCapitate and they could count among their teammates the fearsomely named Bambi Manslaughter, Slice Andice, and Belle DeBrawl. N emma sis proved to be a fierce blocker, even in a tutu, and quite a few players sported ripped fishnets. There were quite a few tattoos, as well. Rituals and jargon abound. I picked up on a few terms: jams, whipping, bouts, etc.

The bout was a sell-out and quite a few leagues (as clubs are called) had made the trip to support their colleagues. I spoke to skaters from Glasgow, Birmingham and some guest skaters from Stuttgart. All were excited by the possibilities of roller derby. Ragged Robin of Glasgow Rollergirls said, "It's fantastic. It's really good to see the turnout and the enthusiasm and to watch other team members put the skills in to play that we're so used to practising."

London Rollergirls were divided into Team Black and Team Pink for this bout, which ran in two 25-minute halves, with numerous (I lost count) jams of up to two minutes each. Teams consist of one jammer, who tries to score points by moving through the pack; blockers who defend against her; and a pivot, who seems to be the brains of the operation, setting strategies.

A jam can move quite quickly or slowly, depending on the pace set by the pivot and one really needed to pay attention to know what was going on. There was much no-nonsense blocking, sending the opposition and occasionally teammates flying. One attempted whip sent the jammer sprawling on her bottom toward the crowd. At first the contact produced gasps and the odd involuntary wince but after awhile it became common-place and there was a bit of guilty admiration for the offender's bravado. A penalty box, set up like a jail, kept the officially guilty out of action for 60 seconds, thus reducing their team's strength.

There was much to admire: the jammers seem to be the quickest, most skilled players, and their ability to find spaces to move through was impressive. In particular, Sky Rokit, playing for Team Black, caught the eye, picking up numerous points for her team by becoming lead jammer.

Lead jammer was the coveted position, as each jammer tried to move to the front by legal means. When a lead jammer emerged, the jammer ref would point, much like a hunting dog, at her, as they moved round the track, thus giving her a kind of lap of honour as she raced to make her next move. This got the crowd cheering.

As the bout developed, Team Black moved ahead steadily, eventually winning 100-77. Despite knocking ten bells out of each other during the bout, the players embraced and seemed to enjoy the occasion, whichever side they were on.
Guest player Dolly BustHer, who ended up on the losing side, was unbothered by the result. "It doesn't matter at all because we just want derby to get out there. Because most people didn't even know what derby was up until a half a year ago. The most important thing is to show how fun it is and what a great sport."

Her home team, Stuttgart Valley Rollergirlz, is the only one in continental Europe and she hopes to see the sport expand. "Roller Derby is still a very young sport in Europe and we have a very close connection with the British girls."

Other bouts are planned for Birmingham and London, and many leagues, including LRG, continue to recruit. Visitors I spoke to hope to take some knowledge back to their home leagues to organise their own bouts. Glasgow Rollergirl Mistress Malicious said, "It's about meeting other Rollergirls, to see how they run their bouts".

They also spoke of a sense of community for the fledgling sport. Dolly BustHer said, "It's a very small community and we all have to help each other grow." Her Stuttgart teammate Miss Tsunami, playing with a broken rib, enthused, "Everybody shares information. I like that." (pictured above: Miss Tsunami and Dolly BustHer)

Roller derby is back.

London Rollergirls

Stuttgart Valley Rollergirlz
London Rockin Rollers
Birmingham Blitz Derby Dames

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Portobello Film Festival Awards

Portobello Film Festival programmes; photo by Val PhoenixElectric Cinema
London
21 August 2007

Back in Blighty, I just caught the end of the festival, with its awards ceremony in the oh-so-plush Electric Cinema on Portobello Road.

As it started late, I had to leave early and so missed the presentations but prior to that, the shortlist was screened.

Top of the list was the very clever and well-made The Last thing To Go Through A Fly's Mind (dir Steve Webb), which won for best film. This was a surrealist comedy touching on reincarnation and karma. No, really. I could see the payoff coming a mile away, unlike the fly. Bah-dum-sum.

Green Pages won for best director (Sasha C Danjanovski). I had seen this film and found it incredibly tedious on preview but it played better in a quiet cinema. I still think it's overlong, but I can see why it won this award: directing a one-shot film dependent entirely on the actors' performances (the screenplay is directory entries) is certainly a big ask. Not my cup of tea, though.

Winner for best foreign film was The Dreams Of Lost Time (dir Faysal Saysal), which I found incomprehensible. It seemed to be a meditation on death and motherhood set in Iran, but the English subtitles were comically bad and obviously not accurate. A pity as it was beautifully shot.

Je Suis Jean, the winner for best art film, is a Marmite film (dir Christine Pinheiro/Andre Scucat), a tres arte black and white surrealist (that word again) take on Monsieur Cocteau. Lovely images. The point?

Salt And Vinegar (dir Mark Jackson), which I saw at Raindance last year, won for best animation. A punk rock musical about chips and rebellion.

Kourtrajme won for best cinematography, an interesting choice as this group has filmed the Paris riots and the footage shown, all hand-held camcorder shots of milling men throwing stones at the police, was set to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" ("I'm having such a good time") in what I imagine was meant to be a light-hearted two fingers up to the authorities. However, in my eyes, all it did was trivialise a highly charged and serious issue, remove from it any context and present it as a macho past-time. The message left: rioting is fun. A bit more thought could have gone into that, methinks.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Berlin Record Stores

Hair wax bottles at Core-Tex; photo by Val Phoenix
Core-Tex; photo by Val Phoenix
In my quest for certain hard-to-find indie records on Berlin-based labels, I embarked on an odyssey around the city, taking me from Friedrichshain to Mitte and up to Prenzlauer Berg. I discovered that Berlin indie record stores tend to be small and of minimalist decor, with none of the flyers and milling scenesters I tend to associate with London record shops. More´s the pity.

I also found that what they advertise on the net is not necessarily what is in-store. As I was looking for CDs by post-punk bands, I bypassed shops only selling vinyl. Ironically, it might have been easier to buy vinyl even for modern bands and most shops had turntables set up to preview.

In the end, I found Dense in Prenzl´berg (Oderberger str. 34) had a good selection, which was catalogued on computer, and available in both vinyl and on CD but it was pricey, at 16 to 17 euros per CD. The stock covered several forms of dance and alternative music and was classed by artist and local label, making it easy to search for other acts on the same label.

Other shops visited included:

Saturn, huge chain shop in Alexanderplatz; stocks mostly current releases

Neurotitan, Rosenthaler str. 39, 2nd hof, first floor; hard to find; overpriced and arty with not a very good selection

Rotation Records, Weinbergsweg 3; good stock of dance vinyl, plus an assortment of shirts

Das Drehmoment, Lychener str. 23; an entire section for Skinny Puppy; interesting architectural feature--a bust of Lenin

Vopo, Danziger str. 31; Deutscher hip-hop, hard rock and band T-shirts

Core-Tex, Oranienstr. 3; big selection of hardcore, oi and modern punk, plus Dr Martens shoes, hair wax (pictured above) and band T-shirts; quite macho

Monday, August 06, 2007

Ladyfest Berlin: Shirts v Skins

Las Furias at Ladyfest Berlin; photo by Val PhoenixVarious Locations, 4-5 August
Berlin

I don´t give nipples, mine or others', a whole lot of thought, I must admit. They´re there. Occasionally, one gets a bit of chafing, etc. But, they are not a part of the body that impinges on my consciousness.

But after the kerfuffle at Ladyfest Berlin over exposed nipples, it is one aspect of body consciousness I shall have to give more consideration. The row over exposed chests cast a bit of a pall over an otherwise sunny (weather and atmosphere-wise) weekend of festie-going.

Saturday night´s gig was capped by an uproarious performance by Barcelona quartet Las Furias (pictured above), three diminutive women and one male, who play old-fashioned surf rock. The women, on bass, vocals, and guitar, ran through the full gamut of rock postures, including falling to the floor, jumping on the monitors and flinging themselves into the audience, all to ecstatic effect. They were rapturously received, the only hint of discord coming when the drummer took off his shirt in the heat. Performance artist Die Helmut appeared on-stage and proferred her shirt to him and he put his shirt back on and the performance continued. Most people probably didn´t even notice the moment.

However, on Sunday, with the band Queen Kong playing, their male guitarist removed his T-shirt and then took down his braces and the reaction was very different. First, two Ladyfest women got on-stage and danced in front of him. Then he was asked to put on his shirt and he explained he didn´t feel comfortable and asked for a vote. The band´s supporters cheered him on and he put one brace back on, but not the shirt. Later, a bra was thrown onstage and he was asked to wear it. In the meantime the band´s female bassist had taken her shirt off and was wearing a bra. Then the singer took off her bathing suit top and bound her chest in duct tape, all in an effort to achieve some kind of parity. He said he would wear the bra if he could get the rest of it and tossed it away.

However, things turned confrontational. One woman from the Ladyfest group demanded he wear duct tape as his bandmate was doing. But another woman said it would be cruel. The first woman confronted the guitarist and then jumped on-stage and unplugged the band. Some discussion followed at the side of the stage and then the band left. Some time later they played another song but by then the congenial atmosphere had been ruined.

The issue has a history at the festival because in 2005 another band´s male drummer had removed his shirt and the objection was made that why should he be able to when women are prohibited from doing so, and why should a women´s space make that concession to him. Obviously, some members of the organising group feel very strongly about it. Most people on Sunday didn´t appear to be offended or angered by the guitarist´s gesture and, indeed, the loudest opinions were the band´s fans clapping in protest at the power cut.

My feeling is there is a big discussion to be had about body image, empowerment and safe space but that it didn´t happen at this gig and shutting down a performance in mid-flow is not the right way to achieve anyone´s liberation. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "Keep your shirt on." Ahem.

Other than that, big props to French hip-hop duo Grace and Volupte Van Van who opened Sunday´s show with a very entertaining set of French and English-language originals. They had a good posse of followers who willingly jumped on-stage for some interpretative dance, as well. Nothing out on record yet, though.

Earlier in the day there was a picnic at Mauer Park in Prenzl´berg, a fantastic, visually impressive, lively location. However, for some reason the picnic was held in the least felicitous, hard-to-find spot akin to a gravel-strewn car park. Baffling.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Ladyfest Berlin: Openstage

3/8/07
RAW Tempel

Well, it was technically 4 August when I arrived, having been delayed by non-running S-bahns and poor signage but the venue was extraordinary, a reclaimed post-industrial site straight out of Blade Runner.

The Ladyfest Openstage was in full effect and the area thronged with alternative lifestyle practitioners swigging beer and plotting the revolution. I thoroughly approved. The acts appearing on-stage ran the gamut from silent performance to rock guitar. None will trouble the charts, methinks, but that's not the point. The Ladyfest ethos is more about creating links and giving women a chance to take centre-stage, rather than commercial success and polished performance. The venue was buzzing and I look forward to more today and right on through Monday the 6th.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hairspray

dir Adam Shankman

The city of Baltimore doesn't feature too much in the cinematic world, being overshadowed by New York, Los Angeles, London and so forth. If Baltimore turns up as the setting for a film, chances are it's the work of Barry Levinson or John Waters.

True to form, Hairspray opens with an overhead shot of an extraordinarily flat and featureless Baltimore, 1962, a city in which even such carefree pursuits as dancing are performed in racial segregation. Waters, the king of bad taste, turned this into a camp, gender-bending comedy in 1988. His successor, Adam Shankman, has turned to the original film as well as the 2002 Broadway show for an unlikely musical comedy, the message being that people who are different can triumph.

Waters' muse Divine performed the role of heavy-set housewife Edna Turnblad, here reprised by John Travolta, with mixed fortunes. Travolta is so weighed down with make-up and prosthetics, he can barely waddle from room to room of the Turnblad home, let alone shake a leg in the dance numbers. Peering out from his doughy face, his eyes look like slits. It's quite disconcerting and his accent wavers from deep south to The Simpsons character Comic Book Guy.

In the role of perky upstart Tracy Turnblad, we get Nikki Blonsky, who pretty much impersonates Ricki Lake's original while Lake turns up in a cameo toward the end as a William Morris Agency scout. As nebbishy dad Wilbur, Christoper Walken excels, taking a break from his alpha male villain persona. He and Travolta actually make a pretty decent couple, taking a turn through the backyard laundry for some nifty dancing and romancing. Shame there was no kiss to seal it. Travolta also does give a sense of Edna's insecurity and fears for her daughter, as big people in a world that favours thin.

But Hairspray is troubled by its basic premise, that racial discrimination can be funny. Yes, Michelle Pfeiffer is in fine form as the racist station manager threatening to cancel the local dance show's Negro Day [sic]. Queen Latifah lends some gravitas and brilliant pipes as record store owner Mother Maybelle and she gets the best songs, too. Those two are posited at opposite ends of the moral spectrum and it's a pity they have no scenes together. Interestingly, though, Maybelle, who exudes confidence and self-belief, is given a scene in which she tempts Edna with a brownie.

But it's just not funny or politically savvy enough to really get to grips with the topic. Tracy is depicted as a well-intentioned kid trying to overcome her white privilege by befriending the put-upon black kids in detention. But how come we never see any black students doing anything but singing and dancing.... in detention? What kind of racial stereotyping is that?

Elijah Kelly is brilliant as Maybelle's son Seaweed, daring to cross the colour bar and romance Tracy's pal Penny (Amanda Bynes), but he has to toe the party line and appear grateful for the limited assistance offered by the white characters. It is Tracy, not any of the black characters, who suggests they march in opposition to the cancelling of Negro Day. As if it would never dawn on any of them to fight back.

The other message of fat acceptance is also a bit muddled, with much comedic mileage expected from the sight of John Travolta in a fat suit. How condescending is that?

In the end the best line falls to Maybelle as she bemoans the troubles facing the inter-racial couple: "you two better brace yourselves for a never-ending parade of ugly coming at you from a whole lot of stupid." If only the rest of the film were as sharp.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth

Domino

Well, we've had Lou Reed performing Berlin and various artists playing old albums under the Don't Look Back banner. But the one nod to the past I would surely welcome would be Young Marble Giants performing their masterpiece, Colossal Youth. How about a Young Marble DLB at the Union Chapel? Or maybe the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington.

It almost happened. They were scheduled to do a reunion show with the Raincoats for Rough Trade's 25th anniversary, if memory serves, but illness put paid to that. And the group did reunite for a gig at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival some months back. But I have yet to see them play live.

Until that time, Colossal Youth has been reissued as part of a three-CD package collecting demos and a 1980 Peel session. And it is great. The album stands the test of time, as much a glorious oddity now as it was in the heyday of post-punk in 1980.

The Cardiff band combined the disparate elements of songwriter Stuart Moxham's choppy guitar and swirly organ, Philip Moxham's melodic bass and Alison Statton's dispassionate vocals to create an original, minimalist treasure.

Just about every Olympia band in the early '90s paid homage to YMG but they are still massively under-rated. Theirs was a delicate, anti-macho sound which didn't fit into the aggression of the times. Stuart describes their music as repressed while Simon Reynolds says in his liner notes that it was music by introverts for introverts. Were they the original quiet storm band? "Brand-New-Life" was about as rock as the band got, with its driving guitar. But they also made the Testcard EP, six instrumentals inspired by breaks in TV transmissions.

The Peel Sessions are a delightful find, almost a YMG greatest hits, including the apocalyptic "Final Day" and "Brand-New-Life". Alison's voice sounds particularly edgy on this session.

It's interesting to read that the band were adopted by the Raincoats on their arrival in London back in the day. How intriguing to imagine the two outsider bands with their cryptic lyrics, unusual arrangements and tense, prickly music palling around the grey, rainy capital. Let's hope that reunion gig happens.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Portobello Film Festival Launch Party

Cobden Club, London
18 July 2007

Although the PFF held a launch some months ago, this was the one to launch this year's programme, which makes more sense. Held again at the Cobden Club, the programme featured a night's worth of short films, accompanied by loud chatter and free beers (the last two possibly linked).

Although I didn't stay for the full duration, being an eastie and thus at the mercy of London Transport, I saw a good range of work which will be presented at the festival from 1 to 22 August (http://www.portobellofilmfestival.com/).

Among the best were some experimental docs. J Is for Julie made intriguing use of home movies and snaps to trace the life of filmmaker Carol Burns's mother from her youth as a Jew in Hitler's Europe to her death as an emigre in London. The pictures were almost entirely stills but still very dynamic and affecting. It helped that the subject was so intriguing: Julie described herself as a "Jewish Christian Marxist" and found it difficult to finid a place for herself. Not surprising.

Colourful EU was Peter Vadocz's witty depiction of the flags of the EU countries found in everyday objects such as office supplies. At two minutes it flew by.

Baron Samedi, by Dan MacMillan started off brilliantly as it set up a haunting backdrop to explore the legend of blues player Robert Johnson. Then it turned into a Marilyn Manson video and I lost interest.

As far as fiction films went, they were more hit and miss. Green Pages, an alleged comedy by Sasha C. Danjanovski, was lost in the chatty confines of the Cobden and went on way too long anyway.

Film Eight, by Dan Gitsham, was well made and quite amusing but was listed as Horror. Surely some mistake?

Slap, a drama by Uriel Emil about domestic violence, I found a bit disturbing because it seemed to end on an inappropriate comic note. A matter of interpretation perhaps.

The festival has a real sense of place, dwelling on the psychogeography of the area and making use of historic venues. Among the offerings are Julien Temple's Joe Strummer doc, The Future Is Unwritten, and a photo exhibit from The Roughler Gallery Archive.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Celebrity spot

Seeing as how I never, ever run into the great and good on the streets of London, I was very excited to spot Linda Bellos striding purposefully along Kingsway, looking very businesslike in pinstripe suit and briefcase. Take that, Heat!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

BP Summer Big Screens: Tosca


Royal Opera House
as seen in Victoria Park, London
3/7/07

As the great British summer lives up to its historic billing as a damp squib, the idea of sitting in a park to enjoy a live screening of opera becomes more and more perverse. After Glastonbury's muddy excesses, its urban, posh cousin did its best to follow suit. The tents and wellies should have given a clue as I approached with my three companions, picnic supplies in hand.

And sure enough, as the huge red curtain on screen rose, the heavens opened for a light sprinkle which abated after about 15 minutes, about the time Mario Cavara- dossi (Salvatore Licitra) was opining the joys of his jealous lover, opera singer Floria Tosca (Violeta Urmana) and some time before villainous Baron Scarpia (Mark Delavan) made his suitably Vaderesque entrance.

Given the unpromising surroundings the performance was enjoyable and gripping enough for one to shake off the fear of imminent hypothermia. Plus, there were the added attractions of Hackney at its finest. Children milling about, yuppies on mobile phones and the amusing array of waterproofing: umbrellas, tarpaulin, the odd tent and the plethora of rain ponchos supplied by the corporate sponsor.

Up on screen Scarpia was explaining his life's philosophy of violent conquest, eschewing the "astrology of flowers" (was that a correct translation?), while in murky Victoria Park we were all looking forward to cracking open the hampers for the interval food and drinks. Presenter Deborah Bull and her guests discussed the opera's enduring appeal and concurred that love, betrayal and jealousy were as potent as ever. Certainly, the frolicking children were stopped in their tracks at the more dramatic moments while the adults took sips of wine and pondered how Cavaradossi's gaoler was allowed to smoke on-stage. Is Westminster Council aware of this flagrant violation of the law?

Despite a similarity to Dawn French which gave an inappropriate expectation of comedy breaking out on stage, Urmana was a commanding Tosca, if a bit hindered by the ridiculously long train of her dress. Licitra was a bit lacking in the charisma stakes. But Delavan excelled in this area, verbally jousting with Tosca and turning from torturer to seducer in the flash of an eye.

As the curtain fell at 10:30 and we stretched our frozen limbs, opera in the park seemed once again like a jolly good idea. See you next year down the front.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Long Weekend: Maya Deren/Ikue Mori

Performance by Ikue Mori at the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern; photo by Val Phoenix

Tate Modern
25 May 2007
London

Those looking for a more challenging start to the bank holiday weekend could do worse than drop by Tate Modern over the next few days as it plays host to a series of multi-media events day and night.

Kicking off with a series of short films by the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961), accompanied by music from No Waver Ikue Mori, was a promising start. The setting was the towering Turbine Hall, turned into an al fresco, albeit indoors, screening, with the audience reclining on red cushions. One just needed a hamper and some Pimms to make an evening of it. and pretend it was Hampstead Heath, then.

The programme began 30 minutes late, which suited me, as public transport proved unreliable. Mori appeared behind her bank of computers and began playing to the darkened room. I was a bit confused as I thought she would be accompanying the films and as there was nothing on the screen above her, the effect was rather dampened. However, her performance proved to be the overture to the series, setting the tone with some blasts of discordant electronic noise, building up to a recognisable rhythm before subsiding.

She then left the stage and the films began. Deren's most famous film was also her first and it led off the programme. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) remains avant-garde, a series of seemingly innocuous occurrences that conclude in tragedy. Deren's protagonist, portrayed by the filmmaker, repeatedly enters a room, sees objects on a table, cliimbs stairs and follows a nunlike figure with a mirror for a face. Each time, however, the situation is slightly skewed and she sees herself enacting the behavior. Keys turn to knives. The rules of gravity stop being applied and the woman ends up sitting in her chair dead. I scribbled in my notes: is it Surrealist? Deren rejected this label but her work does share attributes.

Next up was Meditation on Violence (1948), less complex in structure as it depicted Chao Li Chi performing Shaolin and Wutang movements. This was scored by Teiji Ito, as was Meshes, and the music and movements were well matched. Deren toyed with reverse shooting and freeze frame but I felt it went on a bit too long.

The Very Eye of Night (1959) was her last completed film and shows her interest in dance and animation as she shot ballet dancers in negative set against a backdrop of stars. It creates a lyrical effect but dragged by the end.

Mori returned to perform a live score for the remainder of the programme, which continued with fragments of Witch's Cradle (1943), an unfinished film featuring Marcel Duchamp, of all people. What remains shows a man being pursued by a piece of string, a woman with symbols drawn on her face and lots of strange architectural structures, apparently from Peggy Guggenheim's collection. Very puzzling, but also fascinating. Deren was decades ahead of her time in her use of shapes and movement.

At Land (1944) was my favourite of the night. Deren, now a familiar sight with her mop of curly hair and athletic frame, is washed up on a shore. She proceeds to climb up a piece of driftwood, emerging at a long table filled with men smoking cigars. As she crawls along the table, everyone appears oblivious to her presence. A feminist statement? I wondered. John Cage turns up in this but I am not sure which character he was, possibly the man playing chess at the end of the table. Deren follows an errant chess piece along a beach and then finds two women playing chess. After distracting them, she nicks the chess piece and then runs away. The women aren't credited but perhaps they are some of her famous friends.

The last two films are very much about movement. A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945) does what it says on the tin, as Tally Beatty dances in a range of settings, from woodland to what looks like more Guggenheim settings. I recognised a heart-shaped chair from another film.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), the closer, is intriguing. Deren appears with skeins of yarn, which are then wound by Rita Christiani while Anais Nin (!) glowers in the background. Christiani is then admitted by gatekeeper Nin to a room of the beautiful people, all dancing toward and around each other in choreographed movements. Deren and Christiani sometimes double for each other as they run away from a strange live statue. Gore Vidal also makes an appearance, and there is also a scene with three black-clad women dancing, echoing The Three Graces. I wondered if Deren were making a point about identity and the different sides of women or indeed about race as she is white and Christiani is a light-skinned black or mixed race woman. It would be quite daring for 1946.

Sadly, these ideas were not developed as her career was cut short. But she is a hugely undervalued figure in film. Mori's music, while decades later than the film, complemented it well, as she works in an experimental style, using electronics to create rhythm and soundscapes rather than recognisable melodies.

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