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

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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Dan Proops

Dan Proops exhibit at Menier Chocolate Factory; photo by Val Phoenix
Sam's Desktop II
Menier Chocolate Factory
Through 26 May

A painter who plays with notions of the digital age, Dan Proops' latest exhibit is quite clever. Housed in the Chocolate Factory, an old reclaimed space, the show features paintings of familiar computer images such as the Google logo, as well as works that look back to old masters, such as Caravaggio.

I took a shine to Proops' take on Jasper Johns' "Flag", substituting scroll bars and folders for the stars and stripes. It says something about modern life, surely, that the image is still recognisable, even in dull greys and yellows.

In "Caravaggio Censored", Proops depicts John the Baptist in a Caravaggioesque style but then pixellates the model's genitals, creating a startling juxtaposition of classic chiaroscuro colour and modern digital distortion. Other pictures he has done on this theme pixellate more curious facets, such as the earring in "Girl with a Pearl Earring". The practice asks questions about censorship.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

This Is England

Still from This is Englanddir Shane Meadows

A curiously unsatisfying film, despite its numerous assets. The story of a boy in an unspecified northern town in the summer of 1983 who falls under the spell of the local skinhead gang and its seriously anti-social leader, the film is apparently partly autobiographical for its writer-director Shane Meadows. Only he will know what is fact and fiction. And perhaps he is keeping his cards close to his chest regarding the absences, as well.

This is a film dripping with absences: the absent father; the absent family and community; the absent moral structure, etc. Into this void comes the lure of nationalism for young Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who is bullied at school, not fitting into any of the existing style tribes. Falling in with a group of skins, he is adopted as something of a comic mascot, being far younger and more naive than the rest. He gets his first crop, his first Ben Sherman shirt, etc. and he thinks he has arrived. The group is a bit of a joke, really, donning silly costumes to go out "hunting", mindlessly trashing local empty flats. The perceived leader, Woody (Joseph Gilgun), is a nice enough bloke for someone with a cross tattooed on his forehead, and his girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure) is a pleasant young lady, suitably chastened when Shaun's mum complains about his buzzcut.

However, a more threatening figure appears on the scene, with the arrival of hard nut Combo (Stephen Graham), just out of prison and fired up with nationalist agitprop, although his hard man image is rather undercut by his kiss on the lips for Woody. A pity this foray into homoeroticism wasn't developed. Anyway, Combo divides the group, siphoning off Shaun and a few others, while Woody and Lol withdraw in horror, along with Milky, the only black member.

Combo assumes the role of father figure to young Shaun, the latter having lost his father in the Falklands war, a conflict that Combo derides as pathetic, sending men needlessly to their deaths. This stance is interesting as the war has been widely interpreted as Britain flexing its muscles in the southern hemisphere, keen to hang on to the last vestiges of the empire. Combo's philosophy of nationalism and pride in England is one that is keen to stake out territory and drive out those who don't belong but it remains within England's borders. He takes his "troop" to a speech by a National Front leader and turns against anyone who questions it. Shaun doesn't. He is too much in thrall to being one of the gang. Then again he is 12.

This is one of the dramatic problems of the film. Shaun is largely given free rein because he is so young. Everyone looks out for him: his mother, Woody, Lol, Combo, even Kev, who is thrown out of the troop because he questions Combo's beliefs. Smell, the only female in the group besides Lol to be named, takes a shine to Shaun and becomes his girlfriend, despite several years age difference between them. She, too, looks out for him, in her own way. And I for one, found their romance rather icksome.

But Shaun is highly culpable, being an accessory to a robbery, incidents of intimidation and a savage beating, all with racist motivations. At no time is he called to account for his behaviour. Worse, his mother, who is given little to do in the film, appears utterly clueless as to what he is up to. Those who are old enough to know better don't.

The film promises much, but only partly delivers. All of the female characters appear underwritten. Lol, for instance, has some history with Combo, but what is set up as an intriguing conflict dissipates to nothing. She and Woody simply disappear from the film, as does the mother, until the latter pops up at the end to offer homilies. Milky's character is also hard to figure. What drives him to put himself in danger by going to Combo's house to smoke cannabis, knowing the latter's beliefs? It's a puzzling plot point. And what was with the numbers assigned to each actor in the opening credits? Never figured that out.

The Smiths cover used at the end offers some lyrical clues to the film's gaps: "the life I've had could make a good man turn bad". But that seems a glib copout.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Queen

Poster for The Queendir Stephen Frears

In the week that Gordon Brown has been confirmed officially as the next PM after 10 years of unofficially occupying this role, it's instructive to consider the early days of his predecessor, Tony Blair, as depicted in the Oscar-winning The Queen. Of course, Helen Mirren in the title role is the main attraction but Michael Sheen's depiction of Blair catches the eye, with many amusing insights into the Blair Years on view.

Remembering the excitement caused by a Labour government, then a novelty, I was amused to see Sheen's doe-eyed Blair arriving at Buckingham Palace in 1997 for his first meeting with the monarch, looking for all the world like a naughty schoolboy being called to account by the headmistress. Sheen/Blair's every twitch, toothy grin and gormless gesture was met with hilarity by the audience with whom I watched the film, all of us conditioned by 10 years of caricature from the likes of Rory Bremner. It's hard to know where the man ends and the character begins.

Best knowing line:
Aide: Tony, Gordon's on the line.

Blair: Tell him to wait. (And wait and wait...)

Oh, how we laughed.

Anyway, back to The Queen. I wasn't expecting it to be so laugh-out-loud funny. I mean, a film depicting the aftermath of Diana's death with the country experiencing mass hysteria and the royals ensconced in their summer residence of Balmoral castle doesn't seem promising material for comedy.

But Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan deliver laughs aplenty from the mutual incomprehension of the public, the royals and their advisors and the new Labour government struggling to extract approval ratings from the situation. Blair and Alistair Campbell take on the role of the young modernisers, with Prince Charles (depicted as a handwringing bumbler) trying to cosy up to the new government, while his mother and Prince Philip hold their ground as the traditionalists. In the background is the doddering Queen Mother, clutching her gin and muttering about the absurdities of going against hundreds of years of tradition.

Early scenes of the monarch's brood are more Royle Family than royal family, as they gather around the television watching the coverage of the public's grief and grumbling among themselves. Surely, it cannot have happened this way, with Philip bellowing to be heard and Charles storming off to book a flight to Paris on (shock, horror) a public flight because Mummy wouldn't sanction the royal jet? One almost expects him to burst into tears and clutch at her skirt.

Indeed, it is the queen herself who is reduced to seeking solace from mummy, tentatively knocking at her mother's door and asking her advice on the thorny manner of flying the royal standard at Buckingham Palace, at the behest of the PM who has advised her that her inactions may be damaging the monarchy. It is food for thought to wonder whether the monarchy was really in danger of being toppled over the royal family's lack of visible grief at Diana's demise. Are such monumental decisions really that subject to outpourings of emotion?

Blair's reaction is very telling. At first scornful of the old fossils he is dealing with at the palace, he comes to support the queen, even telling off Campbell in the process. Is it because he hopes for the same kind of staying power as the queen, then on her tenth prime minister? Is it because he sees in her his lost mother, as Cherie (depicted as having a sharp tongue but consistent views, unlike her malleable hubby) suggests? Is it because he wants to be on the winning side, whoever that may be? Hard to tell.

And what of the motif of the handsome 14-point (whatever that means) stag being stalked around the estate by Philip and the young princes while the queen struggles with her emotions, her duty coming first? What does the stag represent that she is so moved by its death? Diana? The monarchy? The queen herself? Again, hard to tell.

A puzzling film then, in some respects, but unexpectedly illuminating, even for those of us who lived through the events on show. I was intrigued to learn Her Majesty and I have something in common, albeit for very different reasons: neither of us can vote.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Xposure Live

Beth Ditto of Gossip at Xposure Live; photo Val PhoenixBarfly

When I awoke yesterday, I had a stiff neck and a band of bruising on my left leg, both courtesy of this gig. It wasn't violent, but it was lively.

Playing a small show by their standards, headliners The Gossip were the second coming, judging by the adulation Beth Ditto received with her every sashay, holler and aside. Too bad about the two security guards stationed on the two entrances to the stage, blocking my view (hence the stiff neck) and creating a barrier between her and the crowd. Ironic, really, because the only crowd problems were caused by devotees reaching out to La Ditto when she ventured into the crowd, sending me crashing into the monitors (the bruises). I digress.

The Gossip, of course, are this year's most unlikely top 40 act in the UK, and Mlle Ditto has settled well into her double role as lesbian and anti-fattist spokesperson, even writing an advice column in a daily paper. It's amazing what a few remixes and some timely TV exposure can give you, after years of labouring in obscurity.

I met the band at Ladyfest Scotland in 2001 and spent one enjoyable night sitting up late and talking with Beth into the small hours. By 2003 when they played The Spitz, they had a small but devoted fanbase, while White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing festivals and big venues. I wondered what the band had to do to reach the same level of success. It appears to have happened by accident but it's well deserved, nonetheless.

Not having seen them in action since 2003, it still came as no surprise when Beth stripped down to bra and girdle, exposing her round frame and flab with delight and defiance. What was new was the numbers of men with cameras surging forward to capture the moment. One called out to her: "You're fit!", leaving the singer bemused. Having disposed of her own garments, she then procured a heart-dotted T from the audience, recognising it as coming from a certain discount chain that starts with P.

Her gifts to the crowd were equally Beth-like: clumps of hair extensions and some sanitary towels secreted in her bra. Sanitary towels: the gift that keeps giving.

Musically, the show wasn't much different from what they were doing four years ago, just with Nathan doing double duty on guitar and bass, and a different drummer, Hannah. Unfortunately, the sound in the venue was crap, badly distorting her powerhouse vocals. Yet it sounded fine on sponsoring station XFM, which played out excerpts later on. Hmmm.

"Jealous Girls" and the opener, a rocked up cover of "Careless Whisper", were standouts, as were the monsta hit "Standing in the Way of Control" and small snippets of "Rebel Girl" and "Mississippi Goddam", perhaps tips to her musical foremothers.

But, the emotional apex for me was the closing song, which she delivered from in front of the monitors. We made eye contact and she started asking me on mic where we had met. "Do I know you?" I nodded and she kissed me on the cheek and we held hands for a few seconds while she sang. It was a moment.

There were no such touch-feely moments from the support acts but they were also impressive. I had heard little of openers Peggy Sue and the Pirates, a quirky sit-down duo who share one guitar and shaker. With a nice line in arch delivery akin to Kate Nash, they had the wittiest lyrics of the night, with one song rhyming "actor" and "wanker".

They were followed by the thunderous Blood Red Shoes, also a duo, comprising guitar and drums. What a wondrous racket they make. Even with earplugs my ears were ringing. It was hard to hear the words but they were spellbinding.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Poster for Pan's Labyrinth; photo by Val Phoenixdir Guillermo del Toro

Having missed this much-talked about film on general release, I was happy to catch it at my local rep arthouse.

And wow. It is an impressive spectacle of sight and sound, its grey, black and brown production design depicting the war-torn rural Spain of the 1940s as well as the fantasy world of a young girl's imagination.

Ofelia (a wide-eyed Ivana Baquero) is the unwilling accomplice of her mother Carmen's ill-advised marriage to the brutal fascist Captain Vidal. Wandering off into her imagination, Ofelia encounters a faun, which sets her three tasks to regain her rightful position of princess of an underground kingdom. Ofelia's struggles with these tasks take her into the grimy confines of a tree root and into a banquet hosted by a grotesque creature.

But no less scary is the martinet Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), with his pleasure in instruments of torture and utter lack of regard for Carmen or Ofelia.

Ofelia's only allies are her fairy friends and Vidal's servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who comes more to the fore as the film progresses, risking her life to help the rebels in the woods. She is the film's moral compass, able to see beyond fantasies and cold realities to how she wishes life would be.

Ofelia's fantasy world is an understandable response to her circumstances but her actions have deadly consequences and her obedience to the faun proves as dangerous as her rebellion against Vidal. Both of them are dangerous authority figures.

Perhaps this is del Toro's message: beware false idols.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Scene for New Heritage Trilogy

Brochures for Scene for New Heritage Trilogy; photo by Val PhoenixDavid Maljkovic
Scene for New Heritage Trilogy
Whitechapel Laboratory
Until 6 May

DVD, colour, sound 2004-2006

Passing by the Whitechapel Gallery on a sunny Friday, I thought I would pop in and see what's showing. The venerable institution is undergoing refurbishment, having swallowed up the former Whitechapel Library (RIP) next door. Hence, there isn't a Whitechapel Gallery until 2008 or possibly 2009 and it is currently trading as a much-reduced-in-size Whitechapel Laboratory, with a hidden entrance in the alarmingly narrow Angel Alley around the corner from Whitechapel Road.

On show in the auditiorium is Croat artist David Maljkovic's first solo UK exhibition, the DVD installation Scene for New Heritage Trilogy. Knowing nothing of his work, I was intrigued by the three short films linked by subtitles and fades to black. Maljkovic draws on Croatian history to project some fifty years into the future, imagining groups of young people visiting an abandoned building and wondering as to its meaning. In this case, the building is the Petrova Gora Memorial Park, a startling silver undulating building constructed under Tito's regime as a memorial to fallen Partizan soldiers and required viewing for schoolchildren until the fall of communism.

Maljkovic seems to be warning against being too in thrall to history and memory. Given Croatia's fragmented history, it is a poignant warning. The three films are linked by the visits to the site by young people, the first arriving in a silver-foil car, the second a boy with a silver-foil football and the third large groups of people standing around silver-foiled cars. All of them are puzzled by the space, wondering about its meaning and in the last group, waiting for something to happen. The sound design creates an undercurrent of menace to what are quite ordinary visuals. I quite enjoyed it but it does require some knowledge of Croatian history (helpfully provided by the Whitechapel's notes) to be really appreciated.