Monday, December 29, 2008

Music for One

The Red Thumb

Music for One is the nom de plume of guitarist Sherry Ostapovitch, who creates understated textures from an acoustic resonator guitar.

The Red Thumb contains 12 pieces, all recorded live to 2-track, so is quite lo-fi and DIY in approach. It's reminiscent of an earlier time, when music was created spontaneously and quickly, on the hop before jumping on the next boxcar out of town. No 64-track studios or Pro Tools then.

Which isn't to say it's backward-looking or derivative. Just very atmospheric. All instrumental, the music has a dreamy quality, reminiscent of a Sunday afternoon in an overcast town, when one is wandering, wondering what to do next.

All of this comes packaged in some splendidly delicate hand-crafted artwork. So a DIY project in every sense.

Music for One plays on Monday 2 February 2009 at bar&co, temple pier, London.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Penetration Reanimated

It's become a bit of a theme for this year: punk band re-forms for one or two gigs. But, Newcastle band Penetration have been at this re-formation game longer than most, having actually re-convened as far back as 2001.

As leader Pauline Murray explained recently, they take a flexible approach, with band members coming and going. This week the band play two gigs, but also have a compilation out on Easy Action, as well as a new single on Damaged Goods.

Veterans of the first wave of punk, Penetration carved out a niche for themselves with angry agit-punk merged with more traditional rock guitar. Murray's vocal style was strongly influenced by Patti Smith, and the band covered "Free Money" to great effect.

Unlike some of their punk peers, the band have new material, with the single "Our World" their first since 1979. To my ears, "Our World" is a bit wimpy to carry the Penetration name, more reminiscent of mid-90s Britpop than punk. But kudos to them for not resting on their laurels. It remains to be seen how long this incarnation will hang around.

The dates are:
12 Dec Northampton, Roadmenders
13 Dec London,The Forum

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

11th Festival of German Films

Still from Beautiful Bitch28 November - 4 December

This year's Festival of German Films features a co-production strand and a focus on the documentary maker Andres Veiel.

Intentional or not, the themes of politics and families run through the programme for the festival. Sometimes, as in Lenin Only Got as far as Lüdenscheid (dir Andre Schäfer), one finds both. In this ironic documentary, Richard David Precht recounts his upbringing in 1960s West Germany, being raised by leftist parents and dreaming of life as the head of the East Berlin zoo in the the fantasy land of the GDR.

With an extended family that includes two adoptees from Vietnam, there is plenty of scope for drama, while mentions of Baader-Meinhof and shots of protests provide the necessary backdrop, as the country goes through its own growing pains, ending with reunification and a family reunion in Denmark.

Alex, the hero of My Mother's Tears (dir Alejandro Cardenas-Amelio), also has an unconventional family, which encompasses the residents of his group house in West Berlin in the 1970s after he and his parents flee the Argentine dictatorship. His gift for moving things with his eyes proves more help than hindrance, and he observes with unease his dad's struggle to settle in "the island of Germans". It is a compelling story with wonderful moments of invention, as when dad's drawings come alive and in the films shot by the household.

Meanwhile, over in Absurdistan, the residents of a small village find themselves left behind once the Soviet Union crumbles and as their ageing water pipe collapses, their water supply dries up and the village divides along gender lines. Veit Helmer's allegory is enlivened by bits of surrealism but let down somewhat by crude humour.

Inter-generational conflicts provide the fault lines in Cherry Blossoms - Hanami (writer-dir Doris Dörrie), as the well-ordered life of elderly couple Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) and Rudi is disrupted when she dies and he tries to live out her dreams in Japan by visiting their son there, having discovered their other two kids in Berlin have no time for them. The sacrifices his wife made for him and the family haunt him and he realises how little he knows of his family. The most perceptive characters are the outsiders: the daughter's girlfriend (Nadja Uhl) sees both parents in a way the kids never do.

Late in the film, as Rudi bumbles around Tokyo, the character of Yu appears, and if she's a bit ditzy and overly mannered, she does represent a less rigid character who helps Rudi connect with his departed wife and some risk-taking in himself. It is also amusing to find "ah so" exists in German and Japanese.

The documentary Two Mothers - The Search Began in Riga considers the very meaning of family, as filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim searches for his biological mother and father and uncovers some uncomfortable truths. His adoptive parents were part of the occupying forces of Riga and his investigation into his origins moves between Berlin and Riga, as he tests out hypotheses: was dad a photographer? A Nazi? Could his mother be Jewish? Along the way he meets a range of characters from devout nationalists and apologists to historians. In the end he simply cops out and decides it's better not to know.

In Beautiful Bitch (dir Martin Theo Krieger), 15-year-old Bica is cut adrift from her brother and homeland of Rumania as she arrives in Dusseldorf and takes up the life of a pickpocket. When she meets the spoiled Milka and streetball coach Andrej she hopes to find friends but is constantly under threat from her "patron", the odious Cristu.

The premise is intriguing and the promises made to easterners about the west that lead to exploitation and greed are well-rendered, but the film deteriorates into melodrama and the relationship between the girls is not developed. It's not believable that a few games of streetball and some dancing would create a real bond so much so that Milka says Bica is her first real friend. And what's up with the black-clad girl who appears sporadically to ask (backwards) if Bica will be her friend?

Drifter (dir Sebastian Heidinger) is a well-shot but very slow observational doc about street youth living around Zoo Station in Berlin. This is perhaps a nod to Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo but with no sensationalism. Aileen, Daniel and Angel live on the streets visiting shelters in between shooting up and taking clients when they need money, but there is little drama to their lives, just the sensation that they are wasting away, while complaining of being undercut by those even lower on the social scale--Poles.

With no voiceovers and no interviews, it relies purely on observation. The worst scene is Aileen giving a blood sample and finding her vein is too scarred from heroin injections. In the credits is a thank you to Andres Veiel, who has several showings at the festival and will be a guest.

The festival screenings are mostly at Curzon Soho, with some at the Goethe Institut.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

7 Women No Cry

Cover of 4 No Woman, No Cry
The 4 Women No Cry series on Monika Enterprise collects four international female artists on one CD, in a kind of sampler. Label boss Gudrun Gut chooses four up-and-coming artists and allocates each 20 minutes. It's a way for listeners to hear lots of new music in one place.

The third volume, featuring artists from Europe, South America and the USA, is very much a late-night listen--gentle, melodic and dreamy.

It opens with The Sound of Lucrecia, from Colombia, probably the most pop of the four. Her voice reminds me of someone I can't quite place.

Manekinekod, from Greece, is more experimental and quirky, using typewriter-like sounds on "Room 302" and a spoken vocal on "Like In the Movies".

The American Julia Holter sounds a bit like Stereolab on "Neighbor Neighbor" and like Solex on "Minerals", while "Measure What More" has a music box feel. Not sure about the Valley Girl spoken vocal in the middle, though.

Album closer Liz Christine is based in Brazil but doesn't sound at all Brazilian. Her music is more electronic and features a lot of animal samples, especially on "Dreaming". Headphones would probably make the lyrics more clear but they have an intriguing not-quite-audible sound.

It will be interesting to hear how this translates live when a selection of artists from the 4 Women No Cry series congregates for two gigs in Germany. 7 Women No Cry, on 26 November, marks the opening of the Worldtronics festival in Berlin and features seven performers: The Sound of Lucrecia, Julia Holter, Manekinekod, Dorit Chrysler (Austria/USA), Tusia Beridze (Georgia), Mico (Japan/GB) and Rosaria Blefari (Argentina).

The second is on the 28th in Leipzig and features four acts: The Sound of Lucrecia, Manekinekod, Tusia Beridze, and Rosaria Blefari.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Poster for The Baader-Meinhof Complexdir Uli Edel

Viewed at the London Film Festival, Edel's controversial film finally opens across the UK. Based on Stefan Aust's book of the same name, this is the long-awaited cinematic telling of the campaign in the late 60s and 70s against the West German state by the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader Meinhof Gang, which resulted in firebombings, assassinations and several questionable deaths in German prisons.

Onscreen this becomes a lot of smoking, shooting and yelling with the odd anti-US slogan but little coherent vision, either for the group or the film. At the end, the transgressors die, and so the morality is quite conventional.

Much has been said as to whether the film glamourises terrorism and cultivates a cult of personality around such figures as Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), the three leading figures in the film. More on that later.

For me, there is a huge void at the centre of the film and that is Ulrike Meinhof. As portrayed by Gedeck (marvellous in The Lives of Others), Meinhof is tentative, anxious, indecisive and held in no great esteem by the rest of the group, who consider her bourgeois. She has so little presence and appears so passive, that one wonders how she came to be a figurehead: she displays no leadership qualities whatsoever. What she does contribute, as a recognised left-wing journalist with access to the media, is good PR: her typed missives gain a following for the RAF. In short she is the PR mouthpiece rather than leader.

The driving force within the RAF rather seems to rest with the power couple of Baader and Ensslin. Here is a symbiotic relationship, with Baader's adolescent swagger egged on by Ensslin's revolutionary fervour combining to form zealotry. At times they are a comical duo, with him purring "Baby" to her and the two cuddling in strategy meetings or in prison.

Baader and Meinhof have very little interaction, other than him bellowing at her when she suggests more planning in their actions and her responding with a baleful stare. One waits in vain for her to assert herself in the film, and she strikes a rather pitiful figure, as if she can't understand how this terrorism thing happened to her. Most odd. In fact, Ensslin and Meinhof display more chemistry---their dynamic ranges from mutual suspicion to camaraderie to betrayal, with the two squabbling in prison like an old married couple, while the men look on, bemused.

As for Baader, he is invested by Bleibtreu with a lot of gusto, charisma and ridiculous bravado, brandishing a cigar as he plays to the gallery in his first trial. Early in the film, as he swaggers around in his leather jacket, driving at excessive speeds and firing a pistol out of the car window, one senses his role model is Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Indeed, in Jürgen Teipel's book, Verschwende deine Jugend, one finds that a lot of German punks identified with Baader and that he sought inspiration from Belmondo's role in Pierrot le Fou.

Ironic, then, that 31 years after his death he finally becomes a leading man. But Baader comes across as a bit of a buffoon. A quintessential alpha male, he expresses himself by throwing chairs and torrents of verbal abuse rather than any reasoned arguments or political theory, in a manner more Basil Fawlty than Che Guevara. Casually peppering his antagonists with racist and homophobic slurs and posturing arrogantly, he offers no coherent explanation for his actions. The film is, in fact, remarkably lacking in providing a theoretical framework for the group's actions, with the exception of tiny extracts from Meinhof's tracts.

The participation by women in RAF remains a fascination. That so many women were drawn to a terrorist group and achieved leading positions is unusual. The film depicts many women coming and going, but Astrid, Ingrid, Petra, Susanne, et al are indistinguishable and their motivations remain unexplored, which is a pity.

The exception comes two thirds of the way through the film when a key figure suddenly appears: Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), who becomes the new leader of the second wave of the RAF. Released from prison, she quickly arranges a sexual assignation and then sets about planning the next stage of the group's activities. Her steely determination and efficiency in martialling the troops are in stark contrast to the ineptitude of the first wave, whose leaders managed to get arrested for breathtakingly stupid lapses. Mohnhaupt is quite a striking figure, and the actress bears a disconcerting resemblance to Nico. Should a biopic ever get made on the singer's life (and why hasn't that happened?), surely Uhl would be a leading candidate.

If the film does provide opportunities to glamourise the RAF leader, it also shows the cost of the group's actions, with gory, bloody, bullet-ridden assassinations depicted, balanced by police brutality and an attempted assassination of student leader Rudi Dutschke. The message seems to be: violence begets violence.

Dutschke's shooting in 1968 is an interesting inclusion. Not a member of the RAF, he is shown as inspiring many youth to protest against the Vietnam War and there is a long sequence showing his attacker stalking, confronting and shooting him several times. Blood spurting from his mouth from several wounds, Dutschke stumbles, falls and appears an absolute goner, but miraculously survives and promptly disappears from the film until much later on when he appears at the funeral of Holger Meins, an RAF member who died on hunger strike.

That draws a parallel with the other particularly graphic scene: the force-feeding of Meins in prison. If one duty of the state is to give everyone a fair trial, provide representation and to protect them in custody, then clearly it fails in this instance. By including this scene, the film attempts to recognise the humanity of people, no matter their extreme ideology and to suggest that nobody deserves to be treated with such brutality. This message is especially timely, given that it is considered acceptable for states to hold suspects for indeterminate time without charge or trial. Equally trenchant is a police investigator hunting the RAF suggesting that those in power must change the conditions that lead to terrorism.

The Baader Meinhof Complex provides few insights into what turns political activists into terrorists, being more interested in action than motivation. As such, it is dramatic, powerful, violent and gripping. But the question asked so many years ago by Marianne Faithfull in "Broken English" remains unanswered: what are you fighting for?

The Baader Meinhof Complex opens in the UK on 14 November.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Slits Reunion

The news that the re-formed Slits are performing at this weekend's Ladyfest Manchester marks a coup for the festival. I am a bit envious. I saw a version of The Slits back in 2004 but didn't really feel it qualified, as singer Ari Up was the only original member and had brought a group of New York session musicians over to London for the gig.

This lineup, however, includes Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt and guitarist Viv Albertine, and so is truly worthy of the name. I never thought it would happen. When I interviewed Albertine in 1996, I asked her about a possible reunion. This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Scene Update in 1997:

Obviously, the world needs The Slits, but would they ever re-form? Viv doubts it. “Tessa [Pollitt] reckons we should do it when we’re 65. Little old ladies. That is very Slits, actually, to be really old and do it. That’ll look great with the guitars” she says, cackling. “Fantastic.”

So, they are early by a good number of years! The Slits will also play in London on 3 December.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Annie Leibovitz: a Photographer's Life, 1990 - 2005

National Portrait Gallery
Through 1 February 2009

After touring the USA, Leibovitz's exhibit arrives in London. It starts, puzzlingly, with images of US Olympic athletes, some of them quite Riefenstahlian, such as the diver frozen against the sky. Then it moves on to some celebrities and landscapes. And isn't that Susan Sontag?

What does this jumble mean? Well, the answer lies very much at the end, in the room given over to her proofs. While leafing through her work in 2005, she realised she'd separated it into commercial and personal. It was then that she decided to fuse the two into one exhibit, the personal and profession merged to illustrate her one life. Interesting.

Why in 2005? As documented in her photos, death had recently claimed her father and her partner Susan Sontag, while Leibovitz had recently become a mother. Clearly, some reflection was in order and assembling a book and exhibit was part of the photographer's grieving process.

And so this mess of an exhibit begins to make some sense, because it is difficult to understand otherwise why one would want to juxtapose shots of Scarlett Johansson pouting with shots of Sontag being treated in hospital. In truth, an exhibit of the personal photos would have been much more enlightening. But perhaps not so marketable.

The shots of Sontag, the kids and Leibovitz's parents, especially the ones in 35mm black and white, are intimate, personal and powerful. By contrast, the Vanity Fair covers and other assignments are glossy, colour, large format, and ultimately hollow.

Leibovitz herself comments that she doesn't consider herself a great studio photographer and yet this is what she's become known for: the big Hollywood assemblages with armies of assistants--more Cecil B Demille productions than portraits. So, why pursue that line? Surely, at this stage, she can't need the money or the kudos. [2009 edit: Ah, but maybe she does.]

It's also troubling to note that it's only after Sontag's death that Leibovitz feels able to acknowledge their relationship. In photo after photo, whether in Jordan, Paris or New York, Sontag appears, mostly not named but quite visible. And the shots of her sprawled on couches or in bed, draped in rumpled sheets, speak volumes about the intimacy between them.

But in life? Never a mention, except as the "close friend". The saddest photo in this collection is the one that's missing: the one of Sontag and Leibovitz together.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

LFF: Country Wedding

Still from Country WeddingAnd to end this year's LFF in style, the Icelandic film Country Wedding would be hard to beat. A laugh-out-loud comedy of disasters about a wedding party on the way to the ceremony, it combines the road movie genre with knockabout farce to great effect. Director Valdis Oskarsdottir has collaborated with her cast on the screenplay, which is sharply revealing of human foibles, and she skillfully uses the device of two separate buses of guests to chart alliances, fallouts and bulging cupboards full of skeletons. It's not groundbreaking cinema but it is very, very funny.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

LFF: Cold Lunch

Still from Cold LunchFrom Norway comes this oddity from Eva Sorhaug. An Oslo apartment building hosts an assortment of domestic dramas, from the abused young wife, to the dissolute young man scrounging for money. The structure is confusing, with a prologue that doesn't seem to tie into the story, which is divided into chapters. Sorhaug stages many impressive set pieces, especially a surreal sequence in which a flock of birds menaces a cafe peopled by the characters. But the ending comes as an anti-climax, and one is left wondering what it all means. Another film which seems to speak to the loneliness that unites humanity.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

LFF: Ties That Bind

Still from Everybody Dies But MeAh, the agonies of youth. In Dying or Feeling Better (dir Laurence Ferreira Barbosa), Martial is a sulky French teen who has just moved to a new town with his newly single mother. A loner, he finds it difficult to fit in but becomes fascinated with a set of twins who are also outsiders. Falling in with them, he becomes embroiled in a series of power games that escalates to extreme danger. Quite a well-made film, even if the finger of blame seems to point at Martial's distracted mother (Florence Thomassin) for failing to keep him in check, as if she didn't have enough on her mind.

In 57000 Km Between Us, Florence Thomassin appears again as a flaky mother struggling to keep control of her family, especially her video-obsessed boyfriend and young daughter Nat. Here lives lived online provide a respite from the banality of reality. But it is Nat who recognises the dangers of living a virtual life well before her mother. Writer/director Delphine Kreuter has a sharp eye for detail and the film is a critique of the disconnectedness of modern living, in which people are more concerned about the number of hits on their websites than about the actual people in their lives. Kudos, too, for the depiction of a plethora of relationships, between adults and children and various genders.

The mutual incomprehensibility of parents and children comes under the spotlight in Everybody Dies But Me (dir Valeria Gai-Germanika), in which three Russian girls (see pic) risk everything to attend the school disco. What starts as a semi-comic slice of teen life quickly toughens into an exploration of conflicting loyalties, betrayal and self-destructive tendencies, as lived by teenaged girls. Grim but gripping.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

London Film Festival: Black Sea + Down on the Street

Still from The Black SeaThis year's LFF has not yet really caught fire for me, unlike last year's which featured some very memorable films. This year one finds a lot of biopics (Oliver Stone's W, Steven Soderbergh's Che, Uli Edel's Der Baader Meinhof Komplex) plus the odd attention-grabber (Quantum of Solace??!!! Why, why, why?).

Anyway, on to a small, European film called Black Sea (dir Federico Bondi), almost a two-hander, really, with Gemma, an elderly Italian widow, taking in a new carer, Angela, who is from Rumania (see pic). Predictably, they start off in conflict and then slowly warm to each other. But, really, there is very little dramatic tension: Angela is just so darned nice from the off, while Gemma is bitterness personified. It's really Gemma who has to make the character journey. The film moves extremely slowly and the last quarter is when things happen, as they travel to Angela's hometown to look for her missing husband. Overlong but with beautiful performances by the leads.

Also viewed: shorts programme Down on the Street, billed as "the lives of young people around the world" but which really should be subtitled: stupid boys with guns. And drugs. The exception was Midnight Lost and Found (dir Atul Sabharwal), a delicate tale of two lonely souls trying to reach out to each other across barriers.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nico Tributes

Two tributes to the enigma that was Nico are planned for the coming week. In London, the South Bank is staging a tribute curated by John Cale on the 11th, while over in sunny Berlin, there is an event at the Volksbühne on the 17th.

Not quite sure why these are happening now, although she did die 20 years ago. Nonetheless, it's good to see her getting her due. For far too long considered a bit of an empty vessel to be manipulated by alpha male Svengalis, Nico produced a wonderful body of work in music and film. She had her problems, as is well known, but perhaps now is the time to reassess her legacy.

Also on at the South Bank in London is a new Warhol exhibit, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Among the visuals on offer (42 TV programmes!) is a clip of the Velvet Underground rehearsing at The Factory in 1966.

There sits Nico, beatifully lit at the centre of the group, while her son Ari plays at her feet. While chaos swirls around her, she implacably taps a tambourine with a maraca. Then the police burst in to close it down.

Here is a live clip of her from 1983:

Friday, September 26, 2008

Xposure Live: Those Dancing Days

Those Dancing Days at the Barfly Camden; photo by Val PhoenixBarfly Camden
25 September 2008

As the singer of Those Dancing Days, arriving last, clambered onstage, she pushed the guitarist out of the way before striding to the centre of the stage and striking a pose, fluffing her mop of hair.

Most off-putting, it rather set the tone for the gig. Much as I've enjoyed the clutch of singles I have heard by TDD, this performance was underwhelming.

The drummer, at least, was top-notch, her sticks creating a blur of action and some very impressive tribal rhythms which haven't been apparent on the records. But, aside from the singles, the songs were not very memorable.

Given that this Swedish band numbers five, one would expect a bit more charisma and engagement. But, aside from the whirling dervish keyboard player, there was precious little to enjoy.

Interestingly, the bassist, stuck behind the singer, kept giving her bandmate baleful looks. Working out the intra-band dynamic proved a diversion from the performance, which was not helped by THE WORST SOUND MIX heard since.... the last gig I attended at the Barfly. Sort it out.

But do check out the gig highlights next week on Xfm. They will probably sound ace.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Myra Davies

The Girl Suite EP/Girls and Cities
Moabit Musik

After three editions of Miasma, her collaboration with musician Gudrun Gut, spoken word artist Myra Davies steps out under her own name for a new full-length CD, Cities and Girls, and an online taster, The Girl Suite EP.

A gifted storyteller, Davies has a dry, knowing and stolidly North American delivery which contrasts sharply with her Europhile leanings. Whereas Miasma explored themes of nature and gender, Davies now turns her eye to the shared culture of girls, working with a range of musical collaborators, including Gut, drawn from Berlin's experimental margins.

On the EP's standout track, “Valkyrie”, Davies celebrates “nine sisters with old German names” over Gut's remix of the operatic classic, “Ride of the Valkyries”. But in this telling, the "horsey girls" become great rebels, riding off on their steeds as the music fades, a Wagnerian nursery rhyme for the 21st century.

Curiously, that piece is omitted from the album, much of which harks back to an uncomfortable past: in “Burroughs' Bunker” Davies makes a visit to the poet's New York dwelling which reminds her of “1956 middle America”, and on “Calgary”, she turns to early 20th century folk songs from the USA and her native Canada.

“My Friend Sherry” is a strange mélange of doo-wop pop, sampled speech and Davies's recitation of a botched abortion leading to a friend's death in the 1960s. It's an ambitious undertaking to turn social commentary into a pop song which is part Four Seasons, part Shangri-Las, but Davies's voice, usually so supple and confident in its delivery, sounds curiously stiff, as if shoehorned into the pop idiom.

In a nod to Miasma's quirky subject matter, “Worm” is a drawling, tongue-in-cheek consideration of the life cycle. Inspired by the sight of a worm stranded on a pavement, Davies draws the listener into her circular musings on Jean Genet and Italian sailors, before returning to the plight of the humble creature, offering it solidarity.

Berlin, so long a source of inspiration for the Davies-Gut partnership, is notable by its absence. Only one piece, the ambient tone poem “Rain”, refers to it, and then only in the press notes. The casual listener would have no idea which city was the subject.

Berlin at least provides fruitful collaborations for the album. In addition to Gut, Davies gets musical backing from Beate Bartel and the pairing of Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke, all of whom have connections with Einstürzende Neubauten.

Bartel, Gut's former bandmate in Mania D, Matador and Neubauten, provides the music for “Hanoi”, a gentle observational tale of sitting in a café enjoying Vietnamese coffee, while watching humanity pass by on bicycles.

Considering their industrial pedigree, de Picciotto/Hacke's contribution, “STUFF”, is remarkably placid -- a bit of paper rattling, some playful fairground melodies and a few lines pilfered from “My Favourite Things” delivered in a freaky high voice.

Here, Davies delivers her wittiest performance, a comic riff on the human tendency to accumulate STUFF, always taking too much with no place to put it. Her solution to the problem of STUFF is to take it to the landfill because it's the natural conclusion of the production cycle: “Property isn't theft. It's slavery.”

Equally unsentimental is the album closer, the startling “Goodbye Belfast”, in which she bids farewell to an ancestral home she never really knew. Recalling a visit to some Northern Irish great aunts in 1982, Davies repeatedly calls up their attempts at comforting words (“Have a wee cup of tea; you'll feel better”), contrasting this with their unshakeable sectarianism and using this as a metaphor for a place caught in the past.

“Not my place, not my time, not my pain”, she concludes, bidding the city good luck in its quest to move beyond this stagnation.

Girls and Cities is out 26 September.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Vienna: Queer Feminist Days

Flyer for Queer Feminist Days Vienna; photo by Val Phoenix10-14 September 2008

This week sees Vienna's inaugural Queer Feminist Days taking over the city for workshops, discussions and actions.

It's an opportunity for the city to shake off its slightly fusty image and put itself at the heart of queer feminist activism. It also provides a platform for the budding queeer feminist music scene to take centre-stage.

Since Vienna's first Ladyfest in 2004, there has been an upsurge in female bands and performers. Says Fiber magazine's Angela Tiefenthaler, "People are recognising we have a scene here, so there's something going on."

Acts associated with the queer feminist scene include: Bonanza Jellybean, First Fatal Kiss, Ilsebill, Norah Noizzze, Palslut, Freie Radikale, Dandies and Darlings, Clara Luzia, Petra und der Wolf, Spoenk, Gustav and Zum Beispiel. While not working in one musical style, they share a certain political and gender awareness, as well as a fanbase.

Iris Hajicsek, also known as Norah Noizzze, explains, "We don't want to have all these boys playing guitars and posing and singing in bands. We want to form different bands which work on a different basis."

As one of the Queer Feminist Days organisers, Hajicsek draws distinctions between QFD and earlier feminist events in the city, such as Ladyfest and RampenFiber. "Ladyfest is more around music and pop culture and Queer Feminist Days are more about thinking about academic contexts." This seems to translate as more discussion, less music.

But there is still a programme of cultural activities, including gigs and parties, in order to get people talking and interacting after the day's more intellectual activities. Among the acts are CHRA, Petra und der Wolf and Frei Radikale Reduced.

Vienna often takes the lead from Berlin, its trend-setting neighbour to the north, with both Ladyfest and QFD inspired by similar events in Germany. Many of the Vienna bands seem content to operate within the cosy confines of the city's small alternative spaces.

Queer Feminist Days provides an opportunity for the city to stretch its wings and show what it can offer in the way of radical politics and culture. Tiefenthaler goes so far as to claim: "Vienna is the next Berlin."

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Vienna: Ilsebill

Ilsebill at the Kunstraum Niederösterreich; photo by Val Phoenix Art and music: always an intriguing mix. Where would the music world be without art students and their exciting concepts? And sometimes galleries like to invite the scruffy hoi polloi into their environs to give events that bit of je ne sais quoi.

I assume it was the latter that prompted the Kunstraum Niederösterreich to put on the bill that performed on the 4th. It was meant to accompany a performance by performance artist Christian Falsnaes but I am still not sure of the connection, despite the world's longest intro by a compere: she had about five pages of comments before the bands came on in the open-air courtyard.

Second on were Ilsebill, part of a burgeoning queer feminist scene in Vienna. A trio of drums, keyboards and guitar, they are lo-fi and quirky in a way that recalls Young Marble Giants, with a tunefulness that reminds one of Sigur Ros and a bit of attitude that calls up Heavens to Betsy. Not too bad for reference points.

Feeling quite out of place in the rather staid surroundings of a government office building (as part of the Palais Niederösterreich), Ilsebill reacted by rather disengaging from the audience, explaining later that they didn't really give a s**t, especially as they had been drafted in to fill some kind of female quota.

Indeed, the stage lighting and general atmosphere put one in mind of a prog-rock gig rather than the lo-fi punk that is more their home. They made sure to announce they were from Favoriten, a less salubrious part of Vienna than the posh first district of the gig. It was quite endearing and if they were a bit lacking in stage presence and craft, they were highly entertaining and brightened the occasion enormously.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Vienna: No One Is Innocent + Derek Jarman

Punk: No One is Innocent exhibit in Vienna; photo by Val PhoenixBack after a brief absence of 20 years in Vienna, I find I recognise nothing. But at least the weather´s good and there is plenty to see, starting with two exhibits at the Kunsthalle.

Punk: No One Is Innocent views punk through the eyes of three great metropolises dear to me: New York, London and Berlin. Entering the gallery, one sees first the offerings from London: portraits of urban wasteland and the dandies who frequented the Blitz club. These are supplemented by displays of the usual suspects: Sex Pistols/McLaren/Westwood.

But there is little to entice except for some intriguing work by Linder, who fronted the band Ludus and made some brilliant album covers. Her critiques of male and female magazines are still fresh.

New York is also on the grimy side, with Richard Kern`s exploitation film Fingered given an airing, as well as some installations by various musician/artist types such as Alan Vega. Still not really piquing my interest.

The Berlin section, however, is where things really pick up with exciting musical/artistic and political connections being made. After so much male-oriented art, it was a pleasure to see work made by women. Upstairs was a kind of Frauenecke peopled by visual art by Elvira Bach and the rest of the space taken up by art bands Mania D and Malaria!, springing from the Geniale Dilletanten scene of the late `70s.

There was a lot more on the GD across the room, also upstairs, with DVDs of concerts and books scattered about in a kind of punk rock reading room. Someone had even scrawled a very punk comment on the display. In response to the question: what was punk like in Vienna, this person had crossed out the past tense and rendered it in the present. Punk lives in Vienna, as elsewhere.

Also on at the Kunsthalle is Derek Jarman: Brutal Beauty, curated by Isaac Julien. Here one can relax into giant scatter cushions to watch Derek, Julien's oh-so-arty but affecting doc on his mentor Jarman, look at numerous TV screens showing clips from Jarman's films, gaze at the filmmaker's visual art, created at his Dungeness retreat or ponder Julien's own visual tributes.

A most peculiar and oddly sparse exhibit. But I quite enjoyed the doc, even if Tilda Swinton and Julien appear to wander rather cluelessly through it.

Punk: No One Is Innocent through 7 September.
Derek Jarman: Brutal Beauty through 5 October.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eduard Goldstücker and the Prague Spring

en:Liberec Townhall, Memorial to victims from ...Image via Wikipedia

As the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia approaches on 21 August, one wonders what the political map of Europe would look like, had the Prague Spring reforms been allowed to reach fruition.

Among the proposed reforms in the Action Programme of April, 1968 were freedom of expression, a federalised system, secret ballots, term limits and a sharing of power by the Communist Party. An Extraordinary Party Congress, set for 9 September of that year, would have debated the plan but this was pre-empted by the Soviet-led invasion, which toppled party secretary Alexander Dubček and crushed the Prague Spring. The reforms lay in tatters, leaving one to ponder what this democratic socialist state would have looked like.

Eduard Goldstücker, who had been a member of the Czech National Council, was one of the architects of the reforms. In an interview conducted on 16 August 1988 in London during his exile, he discussed his hopes for the Prague Spring and the promise it offered.

What political system did you envisage and what difficulties did you foresee?

We did not have at that time in mind the creation of a multi-party system on Western models, because our society in 1968 was completely different from western societies and we tried to create a participatory system, a democratic system on the basis of the society as it was, namely on the basis of the freedom to voice and to defend group interests and to harmonise these interests. That was an attempt. Whether that is possible at all or not is inconclusive, so far--whether it is possible to create a system which is democratic but in which one party has the leading role.

Would that be your ideal system?

In that stage in which we were that was the necessary step. Where that would have led we don't know and we will never know.

Wasn't the leadership thinking about it?

Of course they were. The key lies in the change of the Communist Party's position vis-a-vis society, that the Communist Party should give up its position as a mentor of society, ordering society. I called it a command system. The Stalinist system is a system in which society is being commanded as if it were an army unit on permanent alert or in battle conditions. There is the commander--Stalin or Little Stalin--who commands and says to every citizen, "You must do that and you are forbidden to do that". The Action Programme contains very important proposals of changing the Communist Party's position in society. They were not presented because the congress did not take place. They were taken out secretly after the invasion.

What kind of leader was Alexander Dubček?

The Stalinist system does not have a set-down order of succession and does not educate successors. The successors are chosen from those who there are at the moment. When [party leader Antonin] Novotný was deposed, there were various thoughts but Dubček emerged at the end of that discussion, and he was, under the given conditions, the best candidate and he really became that symbol of the great movement of democratisation which he is until today, in the eyes of many people.

For me, Dubček became characteristic... I was one of the vice-rectors of Prague University and as soon as he was elected I wrote a letter congratulating him and expressing our satisfaction that at last something is happening. And he immediately invited us for a talk and received us in his office and in the conversation--he was the first high party official able to poke fun at himself, to be ironic toward himself.


He said, "Oh, you see, I am here only by chance. And I know it. See, those who were here before me were trying to persuade you all the time how much you need them. As long as I will be here, I'll try to persuade you that I need you more than you need me." That was the difference. Then he appeared on television after all those heroical, triumphant people of steel and so on--a man, an ordinary citizen with a long nose, with spectacles which slipped on his long nose all the time, who read his speech and misread every fifth word and had to repeat it, a human man, like us. Everybody could identify with him. And he brought something which allowed people to take a deep breath and think, "At last, something decent is returning to our lives."

Image: courtesy of Rawac, Wikipedia

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Angelina Maccarone interview

Angelina Maccarone at LLGFF; photo by Christa HolkaPhoto: Christa Holka

Showing at the BFI next week is Angelina Maccarone's nerve-wracking drama, Unveiled, about an Iranian woman disguising herself as a man in order to stay in Germany.

A prolific director, currently, Maccarone has two films in development but is taking a bit of a break after a period of intense activity, with five films in three years.

The German-Italian director's latest work, Vivere, featuring three women and three interlocking stories, closed this year's London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which is where we spoke.

Who is the audience for your films? Arty? Queer? German? International? Do you think about that when you write the screenplay?

No, I think it's bad to think about who is my audience and try to write for a certain audience because it's always a bit vague, I think. In the first place I write stories that I would like to see and I'm interested also in international films and projects and art and whatever, and I have [had] the experience that my films travel quite well.

Regarding themes in your work, I have written down here: foreigners, relationships, travel. What would you say are themes in your work?

Yeah, I think you're right and crossing borders is always important. Also for me to think about things I would like to explore and meine Grenzen erweitern: to push the borders.

And feeling an alienation or feeling like an alien. When you mention foreigners, yeah, I think that this experience was very important for me when I grew up because I was not really German [laughs].

Could you speak about that? I'm just wondering because one of the last films I saw was Auf der Anderen Seite [directed by Fatih Akin]. Is there a kind of emerging cinema in Germany, with people from multicultural backgrounds bringing that into their work?

Yeah, the representation has changed, in that people who are second or third generation make their own films and not just appear in films, but I think it's still very complicated in Germany. The representation is more in the hands of people who have the experience of being actually second generation, but this doesn't mean that you are always telling the story about yourself and there are many traps because everybody is watching you when you do this and you touch upon ground that is not touched upon.... It is not that we are [a] happy big community. I know Fatih and I like him but it's not that we meet.

Talking about subjects in my films, I think the need or the wish, or the longing to belong, is one of the strongest subjects and the paradox is, on the other hand, not wanting to belong and not wanting to fulfill the expectations that a group might have.

You said you felt like an alien growing up.

Maybe I still feel like an alien [laughs]. I think it's very strange, this life on this planet.

Unveiled plays at the BFI in London on 12 and 17 August.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

X-Ray Spex Reunion

Continuing the unstoppable propensity of reunions, legendary punks X-Ray Spex have re-formed for one gig in September.

After a number of years out of the limelight, frontwoman Poly Styrene has been popping up of late, appearing in Zillah Minx's film, She's a Punk Rocker UK. She also made a cameo appearance at the Love Music, Hate Racism event in the spring, having played at the first Victoria Park event 30 years ago.

Last week she appeared on a UK radio station for an interview, which was a bit of a letdown, because the presenter insisted on focussing on the most idiotic of topics: gobbing and braces. Please.

The woman is a gifted lyricist, with trenchant observations about consumerism and identity that were decades ahead of their time, and he wants to talk about gobbing. Clod. She dealt with it in a dignified manner but it must be irritating to talk about such teen-era trivia.

I'd like to know what she's been doing all these years. There was a brief solo career in the '80s and an abortive band reunion in the mid-90s, which produced the album Conscious Consumer. And she joined the Hare Krishna movement, but it wasn't clear from the interview whether she is still a member.

The gig seems to be a one-off, a testing of the waters to see if there is an appetite for more. There is a lot of rehearsal planned and she promised an intense and tight live show. It's not clear who the band personnel are, but I'd quite like to see Lora Logic in there. Here's hoping.

X-Ray Spex play The Roundhouse on 6 September.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Upstairs Downstairs vs Normal Love: Hannah Cullwick

Normal Love exhibit at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, 2007; photo by Val PhoenixI have only recently caught up with last month's Channel 4 documentary charting the "mad love" between gentleman barrister Arthur Munby and toiling maid of all work Hannah Cullwick in Victorian London.

The subject matter of Upstairs Downstairs Love also formed the basis of the Normal Love exhibit I saw in Berlin in 2007 at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien. Hannah Cullwick is a fascinating figure, a working class woman who kept a diary and pursued a class-defying relationship which encompassed S/M role-playing, cross-dressing and muscle fetishism.

While the doc took a curiously judgemental tone, decrying the relationship as shocking and bizarre, Normal Love instead depicted it as an admirable bit of transgression by Cullwick. Refusing to be constrained by notions of gender, class or race (she dabbled in some questionable blacking up), she revelled in her physical toil and embraced her identity as a maid of all work, building up musculature and strength which delighted Munby.

Unusual in his admiration of working-class women, Munby photographed female miners in Lancashire and took samples of their calluses. He also carried with him a photo of Cullwick's hands.

Both documented their relationship, though it remained secret from their peers and Cullwick even took the bold step of changing jobs when staff became suspicious of the chain she wore round her neck as a symbol of her "belonging" to Munby. In her diaries she records submissive acts such as washing his feet and licking his boots.

However, as the doc makes clear, Cullwick was probably in the driving seat in the relationship and refused his attempts to turn her into a lady. While Munby's diaries are full of his admiration for her physicality and muscularity, it is less clear what drew her to him, and indeed kept them locked together for decades in a relationship she described as "the same to us as marriage is to other folks", much of it spent living apart.

Cullwick was a new and intriguing figure to me, though her diaries have been published and analysed in detail. Extracts from the diaries and photos of her appeared in Normal Love, alongside works by modern artists such as Del La Grace Volcano, Karin Michalski and Pauline Boudry, creating intriguing juxtapositions. The theme of the exhibit was sexual labour, a longtime interest of curator Renate Lorenz.

When I spoke to her last year in Berlin, Lorenz explained to me what led her to put Cullwick at the heart of the exhibit. "I found the material very interesting to talk about connections.... Her field of work was also the field where she enacted her sexuality together with a bourgeois man, so their S/M scenario was exactly her wage labour.

"They used her wage labour as a scenario which they enacted [as] their private field and she also wrote to him about her wage labour in detail and so on. So there were interesting things taking place."

Ironically, marriage and Munby's desire for a conventional wife seem to have been the undoing of the union. The thing that drew them together--her work as a maid doing dirty, physical, hard labour--seems to have been exactly the thing he wanted her to change in order to be his wife. Quite the U-turn.

For Lorenz, the Normal Love exhibit connects the fields of labour and sexuality: "to question what it means for the field of labour, how it is an issue of power". Scenes from Cullwick's relationship with Munby were re-staged in Normal Work, a film by Renate Lorenz and Pauline Boudry starring drag artist Werner Hirsch as Cullwick being directed by an off-screen voice.

Hirsch moves in to the poses, include slave and gentleman, while positioned in front of two distinct backdrops, a flowery, Victorian-era one and a photo of S/M dykes by Volcano. Boudry explained these represented Cullwick's era and modern times. "The idea was to reflect on these two moments: her moment of her life and look from our perspective now--what we know of drag performances, etc.--at her pictures... and the opposite, as well; from her perspective, try and look at what is drag performance now and include more of this question of work, of economy, of capitalism."

Giving Hirsch instructions as to how to hold the poses, she said, is a reference to Cullwick's dynamic with Munby. "It's about the relationship between the person in front of and behind the camera.... and to make visible the desire between these two."

I was curious as to the connection between this artistic work with the more prosaic daily bread version. Boudry said being able to negotiate social boundaries and pass is quite relevant to modern times, as workers are called upon to be flexible and adapt to different situations.

"This crossing of social positions that she was doing at the time, which means being able to be a hardworking maid of all work who can also pass as a lady sometimes, who can also pass as a man of the bourgeoisie or who can pass as a slave, is something that gave her more recognition," she said. "I think this being able to cross positions is something now that is very much demanded in contemporary work situations."

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Monday, June 30, 2008

New Films Uploaded + Guy Maddin

New Bloods at Ladyfest; photo by Val PhoenixIn my continuing quest to embrace the multi-media age, I have added a few films to various items in this blog. At present, these are:

Ladyfest London

New Bloods at Ladyfest London

Isabella Rossellini at the Berlinale

Monika Enterprise 10th anniversary

Others to be added as I edit them. But sure to follow in my lo-fi auteur style.

The Isabella Rossellini piece includes a cameo from Guy Maddin, whose work I have reviewed.

The BFI is about to run a Guy Maddin season and for those new to the work of this iconoclastic filmmaker, it's sure to be an eye-opener: Expressionistic, quirky, and disturbing, in turns. The programme includes several films, as well as Maddin in conversation.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Louder than Loud: My Bloody Valentine

What with their recent warm-up gig at the ICA, the return of My Bloody Valentine to concert stages has prompted much muttering about loudness at gigs (as well as plenty of "What? Speak up!" and probably many sore ears).

I am in the none-louder-than-MBV camp, having wandered unwarned into one of their last gigs, at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco in about '92. I don't recall any earplugs being offered to the audience but I am reliably informed that this was de rigueur, for health and safety reasons.

In any case, unprotected, I made my way toward the front and was duly blasted backward once they started up, the cacophony whacking me in the chest and propelling me backward, to the back of the auditiorium, then into the foyer and finally, despairingly, into the street and home after about 20 minutes. I simply could not bear the noise.

One does wonder why it is necessary to perform at such extreme levels. After all, anyone listening to the records does not find them especially loud, sonic wizardry notwithstanding. I don't quite get it, nor the chorus (all male, I notice) of fans chiming in with blissful tales of week-long tinnitus afterward (not so amusing when it becomes permanent, giggers!).

So, though slightly annoyed I missed the ICA gig, I am probably better off enjoying the records and steering clear of the upcoming shows at the Roundhouse. I wonder how they'll go over at festivals?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Caramel Revisited

Still from Caramel, directed by Nadine Labaki
While I have already reviewed Nadine Labaki's debut, Caramel (original title Sukkar banat), the delightful ensemble piece set in a Beirut beauty parlour, I wanted to revisit it for a couple of reasons.

I am pleased to see it's been hanging around the UK top ten for awhile now, rubbing shoulders with Iron Man, Indiana Jones and other more typical entries. To have a film directed by a woman, with a female cast, in a foreign language (Arabic and French) reaching large numbers of moviegoers is very pleasing indeed.

It also puts me in mind of the recent blog discussion about the rarity of films featuring female leads (and I number myself among the early adopters of the Bechdel-Wallace Test). Hollywood films are the focal point of the discussion and many explanations have been offered for the lack of female protagonists.

Thank heavens for Vivere, Caramel and other independent films, which don't conform to the expectation that the protagonist must be male and the leading lady the underwritten love interest.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Working On It

Still from Working On Itdirs Karin Michalski, Sabina Baumann
Switzerland/Germany 2008

Puzzlingly subtitled "conversations, performances, queer electronics", this doc is a non-linear exploration of various forms of oppression experienced by women and trans people, from gender, to race, to sexuality and a bit of class thrown in. Hey, why not? The limitations of language, the assumptions of others, and the behaviour and thoughts of oneself all come under the microscope, as well as how it is possible to subvert or invert these behaviours.

Playing with the conventions of the doc, Michalski and Baumann structured the film in two parts: conducting initial interviews and then convening a group meeting a year later. This gives the film an intriguing angle as the participants arrive in a former Berlin supermarket to reflect on their earlier words and view others' contributions. There are several shots of interviewees watching TV screens and putting up art around the space.

But the promised performances and queer electronics are downplayed. One participant dons enormous eyelashes to recite a short poem and there are a few cameos of opening cupboards and some participants screen-printing T-shirts with the slogan "identity pills".

Interviews are interspersed with these activities rather than forming a linear flow. Decrying the limitations of gendered language, one participant creates alternatives by writing sentences on a wall using new pronouns such as "sni" and "per". Others discuss the frustrations of being stared at in public and asked where they are from because they are non-white.

One interviewee declares how great it is not to be white and skinny. Still others decry the binary gender system and refuse to be categorised within it. There is a brief interlude outside the space showing footage from what I believe was the 2007 Dyke Trans March in Berlin as rain-soaked marchers hold up signs.

Without captions or a voiceover, the film is a bit of a challenge as one struggles to see how it holds together. The interviewees are quite interesting but without knowing even their names (I recognised a couple of familiar faces from the Berlin art/music scene), it's hard to get to know them. A few clues are offered in the interviews, as some participants refer to their jobs or to confronting specific prejudices, but this is by no means uniform.

There is very little group discussion, which is a pity. Once the participants are gathered in one room, one expects more interplay but this is limited to about one minute of conversation and some intrusively shaky camera work. Perhaps this is some self-referencing comment on film-making? Then Rhythm King and Her Friends perform a song and drive off on a motorcycle while wearing bear heads (much of this footage appears in the video to "No Picture of the Hero!" but I am not sure which came first). Then the film ends. Most odd.

Nonetheless, I quite like the ambition and artfulness of the film, and its attempts to link many expressions of behaviour outside the norm. As one participant says, queer was an attempt to make heterosexuality not the norm.

Working On It screens at Frameline 32 on 21 June in San Francisco.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Bloods: The Secret Life

One highlight of Ladyfest London was the chance to see and meet New Bloods, the Portland trio whose debut album is just out. The band played at Camden Underworld during the festival and we then convened for a brief interview, interrupted by over-zealous security moving us on. Adee, Osa and Cassia of New Bloods found this hilarious, while I was irritated. Nonetheless, I managed to get a few words with them.

Comparisons abound between New Bloods and arty post-punk bands such as The Raincoats: the use of strings, wandering bass lines, shouted vocals, an interest in nature and the human condition, among them. Indeed, Ana and Shirley from The Raincoats ventured to the Underworld to check out the young pups, and Adee let out a squeal when she heard they were in the house, but unfortunately, the two bands didn't meet. Shirley explained to me the next day that she and Ana left to get food after the set and then never returned. How untimely.

Nevertheless, back at the Underworld, New Bloods talked a bit about their songwriting and interests. Cassia, the bassist, explained: "I think that we all share certain things and then we all have separate things, as well. I mean, personally, my main motivation is just having music as a mode for expression and what we want to express changes and varies, but, I think, you know, a lot of it is about my emotional life as a woman and... living in this world. It can be a beautiful world to live in and you can experience it also as... a hostile world as a woman, so it deals with those things."

Onstage they are an exciting proposition with Osa centre-stage on violin, barefoot, her bow shredded, Cassia taking most of vocals as well as bass and Adee on drums chipping in with some vocals (I will resist the Phil Collins comparison). They managed 30-minute set, seven minutes longer than album.

Clocking in at a brisk 23:36 and no messing, The Secret Life (Kill Rock Stars) is a curious record, which rewards on repeated listens. Very sparsely produced, with just violin, drum and bass for instrumentation, abetted by all three members on vocals, the record has a very post-punk, art rock feel and recalls recent British bands like Gertrude and Witchknot more than any of their Pacific Northwest contemporaries. For me, the standout is the tuneful and cryptic "Oh, Deadly Nightshade", which may or may not reference the 1970s' women's music band of the same name and features some brilliant plucked violin.

It's hard to make out what they are singing about, as the vocals are so far down in the mix, but as queer-identified women of colour, they have lots to say. The lyric sheet comes in handy, but even that is incomplete.

Violinist Osa said: "If I could, I would probably try to write more overtly political lyrics because I feel like it's coming from that place and... I wanna say something meaningful and important and a lot of that, to me, has to do with politics around race and colonisation and sexuality and gender, but I think that those things just come out kind of... as an emotional response rather [than] as direct political lyrics."

Here, dear reader, we break, as first an audience member thanked the band "for your amazing set" and then the guard chased us from the stairwell. Cassia retorted, "Why are you oppressing me?" before, with many guffaws, we moved back to the noisy confines of the bar area. How ironic that in the feminist womb of Ladyfest a male authority figure should hold sway.

Before we parted ways, drummer Adee added her tuppenceworth: "All of us write lyrics and the lyrics I tend to write are about the same thing: decolonising your mind from things and also the connection with the natural world because it's beautiful.... I spent a long time being in spaces where you complain about a lot of things and I definitely... think there are a lot of things that need to be different.

"I think that people can do a lot better but I also think I'm in a space in my life now where I want to celebrate all the amazing people that are in my life and all the amazing women and queer people and people of colour and artists and musicians that I know 'cause I feel really lucky, so I feel like kind of writing about that stuff and not really so much focussing on the people that are messed up in the world."

Currently, New Bloods are on tour throughout Europe.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ladyfest London

After three sun-drenched days of women's art and culture, it's back to the grindstone.

Much of my time at Ladyfest was spent in the cafe invigilating the music video exhibit, and so I cannot do a report, as such.

But I was privy to many illuminating conversations, interactions and pronouncements, of which my favourite were:

"Can I be an eco-feminist and use your plate?"

"Spuds are a tuber for every season."

"It is a bit like building a house with your teeth."

"Identity politics have gone out with the '90s."

"It's Edward Scissorhands meets Cousin It meets Diamanda Galas."

"It's like the city is buying the revolution."

"They can infiltrate the psyches of non-Ladyfesters."

"It was really groovy."

Thankfully, others were more mobile than I. Vertical Blue has a good overview of the festival. The F Word also has some good things to say.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rebellious Teens: Persepolis and XXY

Still from PersepolisPersepolis dir Marjane Satrapi/Vincent Paronnaud
XXY dir Lucia Puenzo

Two films about rebellious teens who know their own minds, much to the dismay of society and consternation of their families.

Marjane Satrapi's comic volumes of her life growing up in Iran and eventual exile to France have been brilliantly translated to animated film, voiced by an array of French stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux, in Persepolis.

The tone is mostly comic, as the lively, opinionated Satrapi finds her independent spirit smothered by the increasingly restrictive regime in her homeland. The pop culture references are a hoot--the scene with black marketeers on the street offering Iron Maiden and "Jichael Mackson" cassettes is especially funny. It isn't easy worshipping Bruce Lee and pursuing one's aims as a prophet while war rages and the country moves from dictatorship to religious state.

Satrapi is sufficiently outspoken as a teenager that her sympathetically portrayed parents send her to a lycée in Vienna for her own safety. The sequence in which she loses her way and falls into a depression is unexpectedly grave and moving. Her acid-tongued grandmother acts as a moral compass, demanding young Marjane stay true to her Iranian identity while wittily disparaging those who fall short of her expectations.

The film offers a potted history of Iran in the 20th century, with descriptions of torture and disastrous foreign policy interventions sitting side-by-side with disastrous love affairs and frightening encounters with religious extremists. Finding herself an outsider at home and abroad, Satrapi must decide where her future lies, eventually opting for France, where she lives to this day.

XXY is a whole different exploration of otherness, set on an island in Uruguay where an Argentine family has gone to escape "idiots" only to find themselves besieged by a whole new set of same. This unwelcome attention is directed at their offspring, 15-year-old Alex, intersexed and disenchanted with taking medication to remain acceptably feminine.

Alex is the only one who talks sense in this ponderously paced drama, declaring,"I am both", when questioned about her (everyone refers to Alex as "she" and Alex never specifies) gender. The adults stand around, engaging in metaphorical handwringing and wondering what to do about this "problem" while Alex gets on with life, reading up on female domination and acting out sexually with a young visitor to the island, Alvaro, whose surgeon father hopes to "correct" Alex's condition.

The scene in which Alex jumps (and humps) Alvaro is certainly an eye-opener and the consequences prove to be revelatory for both of them. By the end of the film I was more concerned with how poor Alvaro would deal with his burgeoning sexuality -- beaten down as he was by a boorish father and a distant mother -- than with Alex's dilemma. Her parents, by contrast, were portrayed as affectionate, protective and well-intentioned, if ineffectual.

The film suffers from slow pacing and some clumsy symbolism--there is much cutting and chopping of flesh--and characters make bald statements that defy subtlety. "It's silly, isn't it? Worrying about what people think" is one comment that hangs in the air. It is also puzzling when a female friend of Alex's appears in a sleepover scene and then disappears without being named. Surely, in an 86-minute film, more time could have been given to this character, a peer who appears comfortable with Alex's identity.

After much ado about nothing, Alex asks: "What if there is no decision to be made?" Indeed.

Persepolis opens on 25 April.
XXY opens on 9 May.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Britspotting preview

Berlin 10 - 16 April
Cologne 24 - 27 April
Stuttgart 1 - 7 May

Now in its ninth year, the Britspotting festival aims to take the best in British and Irish film to Germany. Launching the programme with a tea party-themed event at the Berlinale in February, the Britspotting team welcomed a throng of filmmakers, programmers and a good number of freeloaders to Homebase in Berlin.

Amid the noshing of scones and clinking of china, new festival director Alex Thiele explained the need to make a splash in culture-savvy Berlin. "We need to increase our audience figures, mainly. Berlin has a festival every week and you're competing with so much stuff here," she said.

With such a plethora of British and Irish film around, programmer Selina Robertson, who used to work at London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, discussed her selection criteria: "quite populist mainstream cinema and first-time features of young filmmakers and then artists' film and video work."

So, this year features work by veteran Stephen Frears, as well as first-time director Joanna Hogg. The Fiennes family is well represented, with director Martha's film Chromophobia showing, while brothers Ralph and Joseph appear in In Bruges and The Escapist, respectively. Shane Meadows' explosive This Is England and Asif Kapadia's Far North are also showing.

Artist/filmmaker Isaac Julien gets a retrospective, as well as a showing of his documentary on mentor Derek Jarman, Derek. Other docs include Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, directed by Kim Longinotto, and The English Surgeon, directed by Geoffrey Smith.

Robertson explained that she must decide whether a film will travel well. "In terms of comedy, British comedy travels quite well; people are quite used to seeing sort of subtle humour, black comedy... One of the things we have to be careful about is that we don't have a budget to subtitle films so we have to be quite careful about the dialogue... This year I am trying to be quite clear about [whether a] film [is] easy to understand."

Among the short film programmes is Was She There, curated by Club Des Femmes, in which Robertson is involved. "We're going to curate a programme in Berlin comprising artists and filmmakers living in Berlin and London and it's going to be themed around feminist performance practices; it's a whole range of things: pop videos, filmmakers reconstructing things in their lives, feminist re-enactments of situations."

Among the shorts showing is Jules Nurrish's Bend It, inspired by British artists Gilbert and George. Speaking at the tea party, Nurrish explained: "It's kind of based on a performance they did based around the whole idea of living sculptures but I used these two androgynous women who are doing the same kind of dance that Gilbert and George did. It's just kind of screwing around with that kind of idea."

Asked how she feels being exported as British culture to Germany, Nurrish chuckled. "I'm just up for anything. I'm just excited that foreign festivals want to show my film. I love Berlin.... it'll be good to see what the reaction is here."