Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Picks

Well, it's that time of the year again, when once asks, "Where did it go?"

EXHIBIT OF THE YEAR
Whitstable Biennale opening day. I do like to be beside the seaside.

FILM OF THE YEAR
Hit So Hard, P. David Ebersole's doc on the life and near death of Patty Schemel. Grunge, lesbians, Courtney Love's one-liners. What more could you ask for? 

GIG OF THE YEAR
Little Battles album launch, which found She Makes War and the Olympians in excellent form.

INSPIRATION OF THE YEAR
Pussy Riot. Who else?

Best wishes to them and everyone for a swell 2013!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

On show

This week was meant to be about viewing art shows I've missed, but I only made it to the South London Gallery to view two. Both are by European women artists making long-overdue UK debuts.

Downstairs is Sanja Ivekovic's Unknown Heroine (one-half of a retrospective, with the other as-yet unviewed at Calvert 22), while upstairs is Toxic Play in Two Acts, by the duo Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz. Having met all of these artists at various times in Berlin, I was intrigued.

Both exhibits have explicitly feminist concerns, though coming from separate generations. Ivekovic, a Croat, grew up under the Yugoslav regime, and this section of her retrospective offers her gender commentary over the years, from videos that satirise standards of beauty, to an ongoing series of parallel constructions of magazines juxtaposed with her personal photos, as if contrasting her reality with the supposed ideal portrayed in mass media. The space is quite bright and open, leaving the exhibits looking a bit stranded.

Upstairs the more confined space presses in on Toxic Play in Two Acts, with the film Salomania offering a queered version of Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils presented by veteran filmmaker/choreographer Yvonne Rainer and Wu Tsang, shot in Los Angeles. In the next room is the new film, Toxic, featuring drag artist Werner Hirsch (the creation of Antonia Baehr) quoting Jean Genet, while Ginger Brooks Takahashi (late of MEN) hoovers up glitter. An abundance of cultural references and various forms of queerness and gender play abound in both works, though to what end I am not quite clear.

Having interviewed Boudry and Lorenz separately, I know they share interests in sexuality, labour, and such queer filmmakers as Jack Smith, and that these inform their work. They like to create alternative histories, to recuperate lost figures (here Alla Nazimova and Genet) and to "queer" whatever space in which they work. Toxic, in particular, is self-referential, as Baehr-as Hirsch-as Genet, turns on the filmmakers, questioning why they crew is not in front of the camera in his place. An off-camera voice asks, "Does it interest you to break the order?", followed by a pan that shows the crew and other cast in the audience."Of course," responds Baehr/Hirsch/Genet. The audience outside this filmic space is invited to draw its own conclusions.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jonas Mekas in London

I have not been publishing much lately, although I have been busily attending events. Is it my Twitter dalliance? My studies? I shall have to evaluate at the end of the year. But, I do retain a fondness for blogging.

So, back to the topic at hand. Filmmaker/archivist Jonas Mekas has two London celebrations at present. One is a retrospective of his films, as well as some Anthology Film Archives selections, which is on at the BFI.

The other is an exhibit of films and installations at the Serpentine, which is where I met him yesterday. I had a good look around the week before at the press preview, but as the exhibits were lacking captions, I wanted to have another viewing before our interview, and I am glad I did, because some of the captions contained his own explanations for the works on show. My eye was particularly taken by a quote stating something to the effect that he has a happy knack of forgetting all that is unpleasant and retaining only that which is beautiful. A funny thing to say, considering one of his new works, Reminiszenzen aus Deutschland, is a recollection of his time in forced labour camps during the Second World War.

But, there is no doubt he prefers to dwell on the delights of nature, the familial and the pleasing on the eye, with a sprinkling of New York Beautiful People thrown in. His newest work, finished two days before the Serpentine opening, Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, is a compilation of beautiful images, "with no purpose", as his characteristic voiceover repeatedly intones. It is a curious work, quite nostalgic and sentimental in tone, perhaps the summing up of a life on film, which he gave up shooting in preference to video in 1989. This explains the considerable youth of his angel-haired daughter Oona.

Nevertheless, the present and future were also under discussion when we met in a back room at the gallery for a 30-minute chat, for a forthcoming piece in The Quietus. It was not the easiest conversation, as the filmmaker, about to turn 90, was not in the most ebullient of moods and didn't appear especially interested in my line of questioning. But, he did offer some insights into Reminiszenzen and his fondness for Lithuanian folk art. And I didn't miss the opportunity to ask about his disagreements over form with Maya Deren, who turns up as a passing mention in one of the AFA films at the Serpentine. Apparently, she kept her unfinished films in coffee cans. Gives a new meaning to "film grain".

Here is an excerpt from Walden-Diaries, Notes and Sketches.


Walden - Diaries, Notes and Sketches by Jonas... by microcinema

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Her Noise

The Her Noise archive now has a dedicated website, which includes a section on the Sound::Gender::Feminism::Activism event in which I participated in May.

So, you can now see an edited version of my presentation (sans introductory witticisms!).

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Viv Albertine album stream

The long-awaited Viv Albertine debut album is now up to listen to on Louder Than War. Many of the songs I have heard live or on her EP of a few years ago, but it's a pleasure to hear them collected, and the album closer "Still England" is laugh-out-loud funny, featuring a list of England's finest eccentrics that rhymes "John the Rotten" with "Dot the Cotton".

Saturday, October 20, 2012

London Film Festival: the end

Still from Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
My festival ended on Thursday, but I shall round up the last stragglers of films seen this week, which includes some crackers.

Probably the best is My German Friend, Jeanine Meerapfel's consideration of a woman's German-Jewish-Argentine identity over three decades. Combining a bit of history, soul-searching and some romance, it works on all levels. I had hoped to speak to the director, but just missed her.

Moving into the realms of black comedy, the Basque film Happy New Year, Grandma had me covering my eyes in horror, as a family seeking to remove its troublesome elder stateswoman unravelled in fine style. I found it difficult to get past the premise that adult children could be quite so selfish, and so laughs were hard to come by, but it's well-crafted. The lead male actor also starred in Ander.

Documentaries were a bit disappointing this year. Canned Dreams I found overly stylised and way too slow. Les Invisibles focused on individuals from the French LGBT community in a way that seemed about  20 years behind the times, although some of the interviewees were impressive.

The standout doc for me was Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, although the title is misleading. Really it's an explanation of Angela Davis's time underground and the ensuing court case that resulted in her release. Not so much is heard about other political prisoners. And in fact it's a bit of a hagiography. Once Davis is released, there follows a triumphant montage of her visiting lands far and wide to receive acclaim as a revolutionary saved from martyrdom. Not mentioned is the fate of her co-accused, whom she cut loose. legally speaking. Nor is there any explanation of how a gun registered in her name fell into the hands of the man who used it in the botched courtroom raid that led to her arrest. Perhaps director Shola Lynch was so in awe of her subject, she didn't press the awkward points. Still, it remains a fascinating tale well-told.

Still from Breaking the Frame
Breaking the Frame features the intriguing life and work of Carolee Schneemann, but is less well-told. Now if the director had just let the artist tell her own story, it would have been fine. But instead there is an insistent, breathless "dramatic" voiceover inserted to read from Schneemann's works that just had me cringing in embarrassment and frustration. The artistic cutting, perhaps echoing Schneemann's collages, is a bit tricksy, but acceptable.

My review of the comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever is up on The Quietus.

And to end with, I didn't see many shorts, but did catch two shorts programmes. Mati Diop, whose work I didn't know, has a programme showing (today, actually) of three shorts. I caught two, both very different in tone and content. Big in Vietnam features two Vietnamese expats wandering the streets of Marseille and experiencing some kind of connection far from home. I found it a bit abstract, but it does capture the dislocation one can feel when uprooted. And then there's Snow Canon. Well, this is a bit of a cryptic psychological narrative featuring a teenaged girl and a baby sitter spending the weekend in a chalet, with a bit of role-playing and sexual tension thrown in.

Lastly, I saw more family drama on show in Blood Is Thicker Than Water, which amassed a range of ideas of family and drama. A family of dogs roaming Cairo starred in the very impressive A Resident of the City, but human beings had their day, too. I was moved to tears by Curfew, in which a recovering drug addict tries to re-connect with his estranged sister via her daughter. And Get Lucky, featuring Ralf Little as the world's unluckiest man, raised a few laughs, too.

To end with, two moments I forgot to mention from the filmmaker tea. One, as I stood waiting to meet my interviewees, a door opened and an older man with piercing blue eyes crossed my path. "That looks like Terence Stamp", I thought, but nobody else blinked an eyelid, so I thought no more of it. But, now I see he does have a film at the festival, and so it probably was the very same actor.

And, lastly, as I consider it my civic duty to spread feminist notions of film far and wide, I am pleased to say that I introduced Kate Hardie to the Bechdel-Wallace test, and very pleased she was to make its acquaintance, too.

Best of the second week:
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
My German Friend

Friday, October 19, 2012

London Film Festival: how soon is now?

Still from Tomorrow
Right. So, where was I? The festival closes on Sunday, and I have barely mentioned it. Yesterday was an interesting day as I attended a Filmmakers Afternoon Tea, kind of a speed-dating scenario for "talent" to meet press. My dates for the afternoon were shorts maker Kate Hardie and doc maker Andrei Gryazev, two very different encounters.

Hardie's film Shoot Me! is her riposte to the fashion and acting industries, as experienced by her heroine Claire (Claire Skinner) who nervously turns up for a charity fashion shoot and finds her worst dreams coming true as the photographer, renowned for his "sexy" pictures of young women, has no idea how to shoot her and only makes her feel more uncomfortable with his whacky patter and intrusive entourage. It's very funny, and Kate was quite chatty about the backstory to the film and her own experiences in the show biz and fashion worlds.

Then it was on to Andrei, director of Tomorrow. Never have I approached such a full table! I had expected Andrei's translator to be there, but there were also two representatives of Roskino, which is promoting the film in the UK, plus their laptops. I really don't like people sitting in on interviews. It ruins the intimacy for me, and thankfully, they moved to another table. As it was, it was a difficult enough interview, inasmuch as while I directed my questions to Andrei, he addressed his answers to Vitali the translator, who relayed them to me in English. With limited time, it was difficult to get a conversational flow going, and just as he really warmed to the thread, our time was up.  A pity, as I really would have liked to ask more about his approach to the film, which is a doc on Voina, the political art group, or "actionists", as Gryazev called them. I had expected a film showing serious, committed people protesting Putin's regime. What the film showed was three or four rather comically inept people shoplifting and practising flipping police cars, while carting around a toddler in a rucksack. More Stoke Newington than Moscow. Given the opening disclaimer that what is shown may not be reality, it's difficult to say how much was staged, but it was a bit disappointing for me. Even the title was a puzzle, until Gryazev explained at the post-film Q&A that it sprang from the question on everyone's lips ahead of the election: what will happen tomorrow?

I thought that was my festival done, but I was in time for an afternoon screening of Museum Hours. As I had left my festival guide at home, I had no idea why I had chosen the film, until about three quarters of the way through. This has to be the strangest film I have seen at the festival, in form if not in content. Jem Cohen is known as a doc maker, and while the film opens with a woman explaining to someone on the phone that she has to fly to Austria, the subsequent shots seem to set up a documentary. The characters speak in broken, unfinished sentences mimicking normal--not cinematic--speech, and I actually changed my mind a couple of times as to whether it was a drama or a doc. "Can't wait for the credits," I thought. I was puzzled as to why the lead character, a Canadian called Anne, kept breaking into song. And then suddenly it hit me: it's Mary Margaret O'Hara! That's why I wanted to see this film, to see the lost songstress as an actress. So, yes, it is a drama, but performed so naturalistically and shot so documentally, that many will be confused and annoyed. As a meditation on art and set in beautiful Vienna, it has its appeal, but it is definitely a Marmite film.

It is also quite slow-paced, which has been a feature of this festival. Perhaps it's a reaction to the MTV-style cutting and pacing that many decried in the '90s, but I feel this has gone way too far in the other direction. Many, many of the films I watched were glacially-paced and really tested my patience. A case in point: Punk, in which angry young French man seeks his long-lost father while wandering the streets of Paris. And wandering. And going to parties. And brooding. And yelling at his girlfriend. Until one despairs: why is he so angry, and why does it drag on so long?

Or House with a Turret, in which a very young Ukrainian boy takes a train ride that goes on so long, I wanted to throw myself under the train. Yes, he is on a journey and needs to reach his destination, but when half the film seems to be cut-aways of snowy buildings and people sitting outside, one wonders what the filmmaker's point actually was.

Keep the Lights On is a relationship drama in which an annoyingly whispery-voiced filmmaker tries to keep his whiny boyfriend off drugs. "Break up with him already!", I thought, after the fourth or fifth conversation-descending-to-argument. Tedious.

And then there's Tall As the Baobab Tree, which I anticipated with eagerness and was left grinding my teeth in frustration. Two sisters in Senegal fight to go to school rather than be married off in keeping with custom. Should be plenty of room for drama in that, and the filmmaker seems sympathetic to their plight, but again the pacing drags really badly, and the film ends up being a well-intentioned community project rather than a drama.
Still from Like Someone in Love

To end this dispatch on a note of confusion, let's try on Like Someone in Love for size. Abbas Kiarostami's first Japanese-language film, it features a bar hostess meeting a mysterious older man for an assignation outside Tokyo. Ignoring her visiting grandmother's pleading phone messages, she whisks off to meet him in his cluttered flat. An academic, he is more interested in talking than getting jiggy. The next morning he drives her back and witnesses her being accosted by her thuggish boyfriend, who mistakes him for her father and asks his advice. There is comedy in this, but it ends up going nowhere really, because the director is more interested in other things. And the ending is.... I don't know what.

Will give my final thoughts tomorrow.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

56th BFI London Film Festival: the story so far

Cast and director of Sister at the LFF
This year's festival has been unusual for me, in that I haven't attended it! Everything I've seen thus far has been on DVD or at a press screening, so for buzz and who wore what, please look elsewhere. Four of my reviews are now on The Quietus site, with at least one more to come. But here are my first thoughts: family drama, animal cruelty and blandness.

To the first, my goodness there is a plethora of family drama, from the fraught "siblings" of Sister, to the squabbling brothers of My Brother the Devil, to the son vs. father conflict of My German Friend, blood is not necessarily thicker than water.

And now to our furry friends: mutilated cats, stabbed dogs, and shot deer--it's quite the gorefest.

Lastly, I have yet to be truly knocked out by any of the films viewed so far. Have I become jaded, or is independent filmmaking seeing a bit of a lull this year? So many of them seem to meander nowhere or lose their impetus. Quite disappointing. But, I remain optimistic. Perhaps I have just not picked the best films. But there is a week to go.

Top films seen so far:
The Wall (Die Wand)
The Central Park Five
My Brother the Devil

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pussy Riot Appeal Monday

Pussy Riot's appeal is to be heard Monday am in Moscow. Here is the text accompanying MEN's new video in support of them. "This may be the last chance for the Russian judicial system to free the jailed members of Pussy Riot. After this, the women are expected to be sent to three different penal detention centers, where we are very concerned for their safety. Please check in at www.freepussyriot.org for more information."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Two Lives

 I've been thinking a lot about collaboration lately, about how living and working together must be just about one of the highest states of being: crashing the frontiers of music, art and film, combining the personal and the professional à deux.

So, it's terribly timely that Club des Femmes (a collaboration) is staging Two Lives this Friday in London, showing cinematic work by mostly female duos. I jumped on Skype to chat to CdF's Selina Robertson to find out more.

So, Club des Femmes. It's not about French film, but it is about film. Tell us more.
SR: Yeah, well, we named ourselves after a French film that was one of the first films that had a lesbian character in one of the dominant roles. We are a queer feminist film club and we started in 2007 and we basically do pop-up events in London and sometimes in Berlin. We screen a mixture of shorts and features, and we have Q and As and parties and lots of things.

OK. And you've got an event coming up in London on September 28.
Yeah, we have an event which is part of the Scala Beyond season and is at the Horse Hospital. It's a short film programme, plus a documentary and it's called Two Lives, which we named after Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The programme is about collaboration and partnership and how people respond to working partnerships, whether they're lovers or family or best friends.

So, why did this topic interest you?
Well, we were asked by Scala Beyond if we wanted to participate in this two-month season. The Scala Cinema was really known for putting on kind of schlocky B-movie stuff, but also a lot of really interesting 16mm work and new work. And we sort of took the Scala Beyond season, sort of the spirit of it, not the letter of it. I was amazed at how many film clubs and organisations wanted to participate in this season. So, we thought of it as a massive collaborative process and we wanted to do an event about collaboration and then we decided to focus on a few filmmakers, at certain times, some from the last century and some from this century, partnerships and filmmakers who work in partnership.

What do you think is the significance of women collaborating?
I think it's an interesting relationship. For example, we're showing some work by Tove Jansson and her girlfriend, who was a graphic designer. They just made sort of home movies together. But then we're showing some work by Sandra Lahire and Sarah Pucill, who are [known as] filmmakers in their own right, but then they also worked together. I think there's obviously a lot of inspiration and creativity that's sparked off with each other and against each other. I'm interested, because I don't think it's all plain sailing. I think it must be a difficult process, but also very rewarding. We've picked some films that really show how interesting partnerships and collaborations can be with queer and lesbian artists.

Two Lives is on at the Horse Hospital in London on Friday, 28 September at 19:30. Filmmakers Sarah Pucill, Bev Zalcock and Sarah Chambers will attend.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

E17 Art Trail

I didn't get to see that much of the rather overwhelming E17 Art Trail, which has just concluded. But here are some sights that caught my eye.
bicycle; photo by Val Phoenix
Topsy Turvy Tree; photo by Val Phoenix
Broken Britain; photo by Val Phoenix
life drawing; photo by Val Phoenix
venue shopfront; photo by Val Phoenix
WIFF; photo by Val Phoenix
Free Pussy Riot; photo by Val Phoenix
bird boxes; photo by Val Phoenix

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Whitstable Biennale: art and oysters

retaining wall; photo by Val Phoenix
Well, my belated investigation of Kent + art continues with a day trip to the opening of the Whitstable Biennale on Saturday.

Availing myself of the Biennale Bus from sunny London, I arrived outside the Horsebridge Art Centre just before 13:00 in time for the launch, which consisted of many people hovering outside the Biennale HQ (a rather functional black box) and sipping beer. Finding myself elbowed out of the HQ, I set off down the beach, hoping rather than expecting to encounter any exhibits. This is because, try as I might, I could find no map on the website.

This information did, however, appear in the guide I picked up on my travels and so I hotfooted it back to the HAC to hear Jeremy Millar's guided tour of the artists film on show on the ground floor. I was somewhat late and so arrived midway through his discussion of Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time, and had the unusual experience of sitting in a darkened room with a group of people listening to someone give a running commentary on a silent film.

I had to break off from the talk to nip upstairs to see performance duo Internet enact their very self-referentially awkward piece Acting, an hour-long reflection on performance, shyness and repetition. I found it funny and especially enjoyed the audience interaction (I'd wisely avoided the front row, fearing being called upon), with one audience member asking a puppet whether he was influenced by Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt. You had to be there.

That done, I went in search of food. Now, Whitstable is known for its oysters, and these were EVERYWHERE. On the seafront, in the bars, even in shop windows as decoration. But, being a vegetarian, I was immune to their allure, and ended up enjoying an enormous English breakfast in a cafe.

Sated, I made my way to my next exhibit, an installation called Hollow Moon, by Tom Gidley, which was installed in an out-of-the-way Scouts Hall. Entering the darkened room, I heard a rather detached woman's voice relating a strange encounter with a missing building, while a dancer circled a room, interacting with pieces of pottery. Spotlit in the Scouts Hall were some of those very same objects. I watched, intrigued and bemused, and tried to determine the meaning behind this, while a young boy next to me looked very serious and equally bemused.

This pairing of video and objects was also used to great effect in Emma Hart's Monument to the Unsaved #2 (M20 Death Drives), which I found with great effort hidden on the other side of a large industrial site in a Sea Scouts hut. I didn't mind the hike, because it gave me a chance to explore the beach some more, picking my way over groynes and past the beautiful beach huts. Someone was throwing a birthday party in one, adding to the festivity of the occasion. Once I'd located the Scouts hut, I was greeted by a marvellous multi-media sculpture of wing mirrors reflecting video, plus an installation of plastic bottles, cocktail glasses and trinkets. Even after listening and watching, I am not sure of the connection of the objects to the piece, but the audio/video aspect was entrancing, as Hart related a frightening cut-up of a near-death experience on a motorway. The wing mirrors were a brilliant device for this, and I had to have a close-up look afterward to see how she did it (flatscreen TV!). This was undoubtedly the artistic highlight of the day. Then it was a mix of sunset-hunting and time-killing before the late-night departure of the Biennale Bus. 

The festival continues through the 16th, with different activities throughout the time. The website does not indicate any entry fees, but some events do have fees, as do most of the publications. There is also an app, which may have some of this info, but, not having a smartphone, I didn't try it.

A most enjoyable day, and I am now dreaming of my own seaside cottage or beach hut.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Pussy Riot Verdict

Reading at Royal Court Theatre; photo by Val Phoenix
So, we now know what value the Russian authorities put on disrupting the address of God: two years.

This morning, though, the sentence was unknown, though those in the know feared the worst. As we gathered at the Royal Court Theatre in London to hear a pre-verdict protest reading of the accused's closing statements, we had an inkling the news would not be good when it came. After all, not guilty is only the verdict in 1% of Russian trials. Ulp. It was like the world's poshest gig, with people streaming in to sit on the floor, peek over the bannister and around the sides of the small stage. The Royal Court has never seen anything like it, their rep said.

Kerry McCarthy MP, who observed two days of the trial (and live-tweeted!), spoke of her experiences there and how she felt the women were not given a fair shake--they were not allowed to call many of the expert witnesses they had assembled, were not given food during the 12-hour days and so forth. The playwright E.V. Crowe, who had arranged the readings, announced there will be a Pussy Riot symposium in November.

And then on came the actresses, one for each of the accused (though they neglected to identify whose statement was whose). First up was the lengthy statement of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, read by a woman with a strong northern actress. Her words were eloquent and forceful and delivered in dispassionate tones. Next up was a very posh-sounding woman reading the words of Maria Alekhina. Hers were the most emotional and I felt myself welling up a bit. Lastly, was a rather impish woman reading the statement of Yekaterina Samutsevich, with her declaration that they had already won. Had the audience been a bit less staid, they might have started chanting. I wanted to.

What now? Well, McCarthy told me she would wait to hear the verdict and sentence but thought that there might be some steps the UK government could take. There are already street protests taking place. And the band seem to have had another premonition about what might happen, by releasing a new song, "Putin Lights Up the Fires".

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pussy Riot Day of Action on Friday

Friday afternoon is when the verdict in the Pussy Riot trial is to be announced. Free Pussy Riot has announced a global day of action, which, at last count, numbers 61 cities!

Among the activities are readings from the trial transcript, protests outside Russian embassies and consulates and flashmobs. Please check the website and get involved!

Here is a contribution from Peaches and friends, shot in Berlin:

Free Pussy Riot! #freepussyriot from Peaches on Vimeo.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Margate Cartival

Margate Sands; photo by Val Phoenix
Margate beach; photo by Val Phoenix
Sun, sea, sand, cross-dressing.... Yes, Margate's got it all, or at least did on my day trip yesterday, which happened to coincide with a soul weekend and Carnival! Well-timed.

As was my trip to see the shiny, new Olympic-branded Turner Contemporary, site of enfant terrible Tracey Emin's homecoming exhibit, And She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea. Ironic to see Emin brought in to help regenerate her hometown, which produced so many terrible experiences for her growing up and was the spur to much of her early art.

Here she is in more or less placid form, working through her Blue Period of nude figures. The figures are her, of course, and are mostly reclining with arched backs. Her work is juxtaposed with that of Rodin and Turner, but in a way I found unconvincing. Actually, I didn't find any of the drawings particularly engaging, as those of the men seemed objectifying and Emin's were too porny for my taste. Interestingly, a lot of children were visiting, and the boys ran away from the drawings, giggling. One has to ask: why bring children to a show that is warned as being of adult nature? And if you do bring them, why not use the opportunity to discuss the isses and perhaps educate the kids, eh? No, that didn't happen.

Much more intriguing was Lindsay Seers' installation, Entangled, shown in a secret location in order to enhance its insular, immersive qualities. OK, it was just a shed at the back, but being led into a room and handed wireless headphones while staring at two white orbs did pique one's curiosity about what was to follow. And seeing two male impersonators at work on local music hall stages was a win-win for me. Interestingly, the two figures cited as inspiration for these women were Hetty King, about whom I know little, and Vesta Tilley, whom I discovered while researching my Cabaret Special. I found some old wax cylinders that had been digitised and was able to play one of her numbers. So, it was a treat to see what she looked like in her role as "Britain's Foremost Male Impersonator". Much to ponder here, and the orbs worked wonderfully as screens. It was its last day, though, so you've missed it.

Later I picked my way through the Carnival, which made its way up the hill past the gallery, bearing such luminaries as Miss Herne Bay and so forth. I made my way to the beautiful golden sands, wiggled my toes in the incoming surf and found myself mesmerised by the beauty of the sky meeting the sea. Nature still puts on the best show.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Pussy Riot on Trial

The wheels of justice turn very slowly in Russia, where alleged members of Pussy Riot have been detained for months awaiting trial on charges of hooliganism. The trial is finally set to start tomorrow, 30 July, and is worth keeping an eye on. Numerous stories have come out about the significance of this whole process for Putin's government.

Among Pussy Riot's supporters are high-profile musicians such as Sting, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Franz Ferdinand, as well as members of Bikini Kill, the latter not at all surprising, as the two bands share a lineage of matching music and political expression.

Amnesty International is circulating a petition calling for the women's release. The implications of a seven-year jail term for political protest are quite alarming.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Artist Is Present

My review of Marina Abramovic: the Artist Is Present is up now on The Quietus.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Jo Spence: Work (Part I)

The rather proletarian title has a double meaning--an introduction to the work of the late photographer and a hint as to her interests and is half of a two-part exhibit (the other in Studio Voltaire) that marks the 20th anniversary of her death.

It's a bit of an unwieldy beast, with a slide show, lengthy texts lining the walls and precious few prints of Jo Spence's work. In light of the current wave of feminist responses to pop culture and commentary (Bitch, Bust, Vagenda), it's interesting to note Spence's witty, feisty ripostes to everyday sexism and injustice, whether depicting her relationship with her mother, noting the absence of childcare for working women or grotesque adverts for "female" products.

The Hackney setting is also appropriate for a member of Hackney Flashers photography group, which had a socialist outlook and politicised raison d'etre. While Spence became best known for her self-portraits depicting her struggle with cancer, this exhibit gives more space to her external interests.

Monday, June 04, 2012

In Bloom



photo by Val Phoenix
photo by Val PhoenixI don't have too many details yet, but my film In Bloom, which played last week in London, will be showing in Basel next week as part of the Liste 17 art fair. Very exciting. Wish I could be there.

But, alas, I shall be in rainy-sunny-rainy-can't-make-up-its-mind London, where we are seeing a marvellous outbreak of roses. Here is a selection from my travels.

8 June edit: Ah, now the film isn't showing next week, but it will show at the same gallery sometime this summer. Will update when I know.
photo by Val Phoenix

photo by Val Phoenix

photo by Val Phoenix

photo by Val Phoenix


Monday, May 28, 2012

Odd Girl Out podcast 6

Further to my posts on Sound::Gender::Feminism::Activism, my new podcast features interviews from the conference (Cathy Lane, Annie Goh, Helena Lopes Braga, and Laura Seddon) plus my meeting with Toronto's Abstract Random.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How does your garden grow?

Last night was the opening night of Bildwechsel's touring Garden programme, which featured the world premiere of my film, In Bloom. I had a little nostalgia walk as I headed over to Four Corners for the screening, noting which shopfronts had appeared since my last visit a few years before. At least the chippy is still in business.

On arriving at the venue to hand over my freshly burned copy of the film, I spotted a familiar face, that of Bildwechsel head Chris Regn, whom I'd met in Berlin in 2009. Since all my correspondence had been with Kate Henderson of Bildwechsel Glasgow, I hadn't realised that the various outposts were linking up for the programme, a pleasant surprise, and later I got reacquainted with Eva Kiezmann of Bildwechsel Berlin.

My film was on first, so I had none of the anticipatory nerves of last week. Instead I was the mystery starter for the wide-ranging programme, which featured entries from Canada and Germany, as well as the UK, in response to the call for submissions. I took no notes (for once!), but I particularly liked Gillian Steel's animation, as well as Lamathilde's multi-part piece. It was also bittersweet to see a film on the late, lamented Rosa Rose garden (now replanted elsewhere) bringing a little piece of grassroots Friedrichshain to East London.

What was also exciting for me was to chat to Super 8 experimentalist Bev Zalcock, the other attending filmmaker. I have only done one Super 8 film, and so it was great to chat to her about her practice making these films the hand-crafted way, adding dyes and so forth. Plus, she said she liked my film, and so I was chuffed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bildwechsel Garden Programme

Thursday sees the premiere of the Bildwechsel Garden Programme at East London's Four Corners.

I don't know the rest of the bill but I can say that my strange floral noir In Bloom will be having its world premiere on the day. Very exciting! I seem to be reliving my life this week, as I used to take film courses at Four Corners some years back, and lived around the corner.

Space is limited, so please email Bildwechsel if you would like to attend. bwglasgow@gmail.com

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sound::Gender::Feminism::Activism

Sheet of conference logos; photo by Val Phoenix
AKA I finally get to unleash The Thing. So, yesterday was the conference I have been anticipating for some weeks now with great trepidation. German has a lovely word for my feeling: gespannt. Excited and anxious at the same time. Yes, I was truly gespannt.

As I rolled up to the London College of Communication just before 10 am, I spotted a familiar figure approaching. It was my old photojournalism tutor (at another institution) from some years back, a bit whiter of beard but still recognisable. We shook hands, chatted, he confirmed that his course has gone completely digital (a shame), and I bade him farewell and continued on my way, wondering at the omen. It was only later that I realised: a) he never had anything good to say about my work as a student and b) some of the very same photos I printed on his course were about to appear in my conference presentation. Ha!

Anyway... the conference was a whirlwind of speakers and an excellent veg lunch, but sadly devoid of any tea. Perhaps that is just as well, as I was so nervous. I was making far too many dashes for the loo as it was. I sat at the back and took restrained notes on the presentations, knowing mine was scheduled in the very last session of the day. My nerves had manifold causes. I was the only speaker who had neither an academic nor artistic background. I have never used Power Point or Pro Tools, the two applications on which I was relying. And, oh, I haven't done any public speaking since I entered an oratorical contest at 16. Which I did precisely to exorcise my fear of public speaking. I did win it, though.

Anyway... I was WAY outside my comfort zone on this little enterprise. And as I sat back and watched and listened, I tried to take in what people were saying, rather than worry over my own contribution. As one of the organisers had said the night before (during a mammoth 3-hour soundcheck), it was meant to be informal and non-competitive, a chance to share ideas and build a network of researchers working in the areas of the title.

So, obviously, terribly exciting for me to participate in and meet like-minded folk. They had come from as far as Melbourne, with a smattering of Europeans and the odd North American. And the styles varied from verbatim reading from a prepared text to showing film clips. What really surprised me was that, given that it was run by a sound art organisation (CRiSAP), how little use was made of the medium of sound art. I had expected the sound artists to really go to town in being experimental. But they were very restrained. I was actually the only contributor who made use of the eight channels on offer. Now, that's weird.

The second weird thing was I ended up closing the programme. A headlining gig! (OK, I don't think conferences have headliners, but I'm claiming it.) At the last break, just when I was heading into that last furlong of "OK, there are two speakers to go and then I can be released from my self-made anxiety prison", I was told that it would be better to swop me over to the last slot, because the computers had to be moved. OK, I said. What was another twenty minutes? I'd already waited six hours.

So, I closed the show with my 22-years-in-the-making presentation on the idea of creativity as a form of self defence, as told through interview clips with: Viv Albertine, Hanin Elias, Tribe 8, Kleenex, Kathleen Hanna, Lee Beattie, Philippa Nielsen and Manon Duursma. A small selection of brainy gals, illustrated by black and white photos, most of which I had also taken. So, it felt very DIY, in keeping with the themes of the day. I had a few technical flubs, but it felt great operating the faders and advancing the slides, though I never got to actually sit and hear the eight channels flooding the room with sound or see the slides on the big screen behind me. Someone told me it worked really well, though, and I was so proud and relieved when I stepped back. I couldn't relax, though, because there was a Q&A (another first for me) to cap it off.

It was an amazing buzz and I am so pleased I got to participate. I didn't meet a whole lot of other people, as I was running around preparing during the day, but I did have a few chats with attendees and speakers and finally got to meet Caro Snatch, whom I'd interviewed via Skype for my podcast. She spoke on studio recording techniques undermining women's voices, which I found quite illuminating. I also met Annie Goh, who did a great demonstration of echo and reverb, referring to the myths of Echo and Narcissus. And I finished the day by chatting to researcher/journalist Theresa Beyer about German-language hip-hop.

I really hope something comes of the event, in terms of linking disparate areas and approaches to research in sound and gender. I definitely want to find out more about the Her Noise archive, which has just moved to LCC.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Thing Revealed

So, now that I have uploaded the info, I can reveal that I shall be making my Power Point debut at a conference this week in London.

SOUND::GENDER::FEMINISM::ACTIVISM is an all-day event at the London College of Communication and puts me in formidable company.

It will be interesting for me, as it is positioned very much as an academic research event, and my research and practice are completely removed from that sphere. Amusingly, I am in the last session of the day, titled Sexing the Groove, which happens to be a book in which I appear as a reference, so I guess the shoe fits.

What does please me immensely is to finally take some of my myriad interviews and present them as sound to a live audience. I have been bustling along, learning about multi-channel installations (and Power Point), and while my presentation is by no means super-finessed, I think it should stand on its content.  Hurrah.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Gossip: A Joyful Noise

Just listening to the stream of of the latest Gossip album, A Joyful Noise, via the Guardian website and first impressions are not good. Intrigued by Beth's comment she has been listening to a lot of ABBA, I clicked on the first track and was met by bland, tuneless flannel. And on it went. Only "Get a Job" seemed to have some melody. The rest were over-produced and characterless. What has happened to this band?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Thing

Haven't blogged much lately, because I have been consumed by preparing A Thing. I can't say what it is yet, but I am working on it, diligently. Gathering information, synthesising it, learning new technologies (for me), such as the mysterious Power Point and Pro Tools. Yes, the thing will be a multi-media, audio-visual delight, A Thing of splendour. And it will encompass some of this other thing I have been working on for the last, oh, 17 years or so. Will let you know how it goes.

BTW can't say I am feeling the new Blogger layout. At All. It really has taken "creative white space" to extremes. Apologies if you are not a Blogger user and can't see the back end of the site. But, urgh. Don't like. Vimeo has also just revamped its site to make it spectacularly less user-friendly. Why, why, why?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hole Reunion On-stage

They said it would never happen. But, for two songs it did in NYC. You can only watch in awe at the chaos that ensues when you invite Courtney Love to join you....

Filmic Friday

Sign to Little Joe Clubhouse; photo by Val PhoenixAnd then it was back to the films, as I made a return to my old stomping ground of Brick Lane for some bagels and then a visit to the Little Joe Clubhouse currently in residence through Sunday (as part of Fringe!) in the basement of Rich Mix, a venue that didn't even exist when I lived around the corner 10 years ago.

The Clubhouse is a wood and textile construction that would do the Scouts and Guides proud and indeed one of the visitors was an ex-Cub, so we bonded over childhood memories of... not going out to the woods and making fires. Didn't happen in my Brownie chapter in the Bronx.

There was a lot of time for bonding, as the scheduled film, Star, was delayed for some reason. But when the DVD got going, we saw some very entertaining clips of two little-known Indian disco films from the early '80s. As presenter Shanay Jhaveri explained, this was an intriguing experiment in a cross-cultural youth movement translating to film. Not too successfully, as it happens, as the films bombed and the actors didn't work again! It was marvelllously camp, with sassy women and tight-trousered men rocking the disco beat, surrounded by totally OTT lighting.

Stumbling out of that humming one of the songs, I headed to the Southbank for two Made In Britain programmes. I have seen the work of most of the directors on show, but not that of the twice Oscar-nominated doc director Lucy Walker and was looking forward to two of her films, Devil's Playground and the recent The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. In truth, I wasn't bowled over by either film, though she got brilliant access for both, as an outsider. DP is a 2001 account of the Amish tradition of rumspringa, when teens go out into the world to sample the forbidden before deciding whether to commit to the church or not. She found some intriguing subjects, most notably the wayward Faron and his on-off girlfriend Emma, who tempts him to leave the church and make a new life. But it felt overlong. Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom I found simplistic and a bit manipulative, with Moby's music used to push the audience's buttons in a way that is not necessary. The tragedy of the Japanese tsunami is powerful enough. It didn't need any cinematic trickery. It reminded me of Steven Spielberg's overly sentimental work. Perhaps this is something to do with Walker working in the USA.

After a brief pause, it was on to the second programme, Carol Morley's The Alcohol Years, which I have been keen to see since finding Dreams of a Life. Somehow I missed TAY when it was on Channel 4 all those years ago. It was preceded by two shorts, Everyday Something, which is really quite comic and disturbing at the same time and The Madness of the Dance, which I saw years ago at Raindance and hated. I still find it an uncomfortable mix of quasi-scientific pontificating and musical numbers, and I really, really don't like the final scene, which seems to ridicule the notion of mass hystaeria as experienced by women. But, I accept I may have misinterpreted it, as Morley's other films exhibit a keen empathy with her female protagonists. In any case, it certainly illustrates her fascination with real-life subjects, which she finds through newspaper clippings.

TAY, of course, is about her search for herself, as seen through other people's eyes. Having lost five years of her youth to alcohol-fuelled hedonism in Manchester, Morley journeyed back in 2000 to ask people who knew her then to recount their memories, and it really is a fascinating portrait, utterly unsparing in its criticism of her, her behaviour, her promiscuity and her relationships. What isn't said by anybody, really, is that this was clearly a vulnerable child seeking attention and love and not finding it. Speaking onstage afterward, Morley referred to two or three people in the audience as saving her, but her public demeanour is utterly lacking in self-pity or -congratulation. It's very Mancunian, I would venture to say. As a non-Mancunian, I did find the lack of captions most irritating, as the only people I recognised were Liz Naylor and Pete Shelley, but that is another Morley hallmark, as she likes to let the audience meet the characters without being prompted by captions. This quirk aside, I do find her work quite impressive, and look forward to her next project, which she teased would feature adolescent 1960s girls as we've never seen them on-screen.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Little Battles Launch

She Makes War at Half Moon; photo by Val PhoenixIt's great to get out and experience some live music again after weeks of film viewing, and last night's She Makes War album launch was a spectacular return. It involved a journey down to Herne Hill, not my neck of the woods, but was well worth it. The venue, Half Moon, was surprisingly roomy, the sound crystal clear and the performance was something special.

Having released her second album, Little Battles, on Monday, She Makes War had gathered some comrades in arms to perform as her backing band, The Olympians, and what an array of musicians! Two violinists, a harpist, two backing vocalists, two guitarists, a keyboardist and a drummer came and went in a range of combinations, making for a very busy stage indeed. And at the centre of it, Laura Kidd aka She Makes War, relieved of her usual multi-tasking duties to play bass, a bit of ukulele and, occasionally, vocals only. She was visibly enjoying the spectacle, grinning broadly, high-fiving a bandmate and generally drinking in the building vibe.

Playing tracks from debut Disarm as well as the newbie, The Olympians applied themselves in grand style. I particularly liked the songs featuring the dual violins, or duelling fiddles, as I called them. There was something magical about the way the two women flanked Kidd as she sang, almost like stringed guardian angels. If I won the lottery (not that I play, mind), I would definitely hire two violinists to accompany me for the day, as I went about my business.

Acting as bookends were my favourite tracks from the two albums, opener "Shields and Daggers" and closer "Scared to Capsize", which ended up in a surprising and delightful singalong, as Kidd stalked the stage with her megaphone and then did a turn through the audience, before returning to the stage to take her bow.

Friday, April 06, 2012

LLGFF Recap

My round-up of the 26th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is now live on The Quietus site.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Made in Britain

A quick word about the Made in Britain series at the BFI Southbank. This edition of the ongoing programme celebrating UK filmmakers is devoted to women directors and runs through the end of April.

It's a great chance to check out the back catalogue of celebrated filmmakers like Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, and Lucy Walker, as well as artist-turned director Gillian Wearing. A pity they couldn't have found space for any women of colour, though.

Tonight Clio Barnard is in conversation after her amazing film, The Arbor. Carol Morley and Joanna Hogg will also participate in Q&As.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

LLGFF: Sisters in Struggle

Still from Joe + BelleHappy April Fool's Day. There will be no pranks played in this post, which winds up my coverage of the 26th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Saturday's viewing started with a DVD of Joe + Belle, a real find and one of the highlights of the festival for me. An Israeli comic drama directed by Veronica Kedar, the film finds drug runner Joe going on the run with psychiatric patient Belle, who had broken into the former's flat in order to commit suicide. Joe's reaction to finding this stranger in her bathtub, razor in hand, is exquisitely deadpan, setting the tone for the rest of the picture. As they get deeper and deeper in trouble with the law, their relationship also deepens, setting up a most cryptic finale.

Second highlight of the day was Icelandic drama Jitters (dir Baldvin Z), which also had comic elements amid its teenaged highjinks and parental disapproval. Sensitive Gabriel has an encounter with fellow student Markus while on a school trip to Manchester. Returning home to join his group of friends, he finds himself called upon to solve all of their problems while keeping his own uncertainty at bay. What I really liked about this film is that it gave free rein to teenaged passions, especially drink and sex, while at the same time allowing the kids intelligence and sensitivity. The adults were shown to be distant or out of touch with their offspring, while trying to be authority figures, which really rang true.

And then on to the concluding programme and most problematic of the day: Mommy Is Coming + Sisterhood, two films from Berlin, both related to queer feminist porn. MIC is the latest from Cheryl Dunye, one of my favourite filmmakers since the 1990s, and is an odd mix of screwball comedy and porn, or, as I decided, screwball with the emphasis on the screw. Gender-bending, a fish out of water, and adopted identities provide the humour, while visits to a sex club provide the porn element, as well as the atrociously bad acting. Even Dunye, as the cab driver who picks up all of the characters, over-acts. Maybe it was meant to be a parody of trad porn. Anyway, that and her use of to-camera interviews proved to be quite irritating, tripping up the comedic moments time and again. Odd, really that Dunye and co-writer Sarah Schulman should choose to do porn at this time in their illustrious careers. And a very thin piece it is, too, at only 67 mins.

The companion piece, Sisterhood, directed by Marit Östberg, is a doc on her gang of collaborators who make queer feminist porn in Berlin. It references a film of hers, Share, which showed last year at the festival, but which I have not seen, making the actors' constant nods to it less than illuminating. And, quite frankly, it was a bit dull. While I admire the performers' thoughfulness on their participation in porn and what makes it compelling for them, I do not share that interest and found my attention wandering to the dog, Billie, which was in all of the group interview shots. How did it stay still so long? How did it stay awake?

So, not the best end to the festival, but a sign that many, many tastes are being catered for. Oh, and the Dyke March ending up at the BFI lent a rather surreal air to the proceedings. Emerging from a shorts programme, I wandered in a daze through the throng, wondering, "Where did all these women come from?" Spirits were high, and though the sun had long since departed, a warm glow suffused the hall.

Friday, March 30, 2012

LLGFF: Glam and Swagger

Still from Stud LifeLast night was glam night, with the European premiere of Jobriath A.D., followed by a party, which I missed, because I opted for the Alice Walker premiere.

Anyway, glam has never been of particular interest to me. Too many ridiculous guitar solos, tight trousers, and boys playing at being transgressive. So there's the disclaimer. To my mind, Jobriath's story is far more interesting than his music, which is liberally sprinkled throughout the doc. Starting out as a cast member of Hair, he moves to New York, meets manager Jerry Brandt and gets signed to Elektra. So far, so good, but Brandt hyped his client to the skies, made all kinds of promises of epic greatness Jobriath could not meet and used the singer's sexuality as a selling point. Calling himself "the true fairy of rock", Jobriath was openly gay at a time when many of his contemporaries were hinting at bisexuality to seem daring. But it backfired spectacularly on him. One of the questions the doc doesn't address is why the gay community was so indifferent to him.

But, things didn't go well for the singer, and after being dropped by Elektra and Brandt, he never regained his standing as the next big thing. Interestingly, he reinvented himself as a piano bar singer called Cole Berlin, and there is a piece of intriguing footage showing him in this guise, winking at the camera, nattily dressed in suit and tie with a 'tache. It seemed he had found his calling before he fell ill and died of AIDS in 1983. Jobriath barely speaks in the doc, so dominated was he by Brandt's plotting and scheming. A shame, as he did appear to have a talent for performance, strutting about on The Midnight Special in a Bowie-cum-Pierrot get-up. Director Kieran Turner asked after the screening for a show of hands as to who thought Brandt was good or bad and the vote was pretty evenly divided.

There is a fair amount of strutting in Stud Life, Campbell X's fiction debut and, apparently, the only British feature on show. A love triangle of sorts, the conflict pits butch JJ's best friend Seb against her new lover Elle in what the director-writer calls "mates before muff". I immediately had a problem with this: 1) I don't like the term "muff" to refer to a human being and 2) why can't one be friends with one's lover? Ah, maybe it's a butch-femme thing. Anyway, Seb and Elle don't get along, and JJ is not the most tactful of souls, all swagger and bragging until the shit hits the fan and she needs to reach out to Seb and Elle to reach some kind of compromise. There is a good supporting cast of familiar faces on the queer scene and some funny moments, but it feels a bit self-consciously hipster.

LLGFF: Alarm Bells

production photo from Alice Walker: Beauty in TruthThe world premiere work-in-progress screening of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth must have hit the audience just right. So mellow was everyone taking in the good vibes of Walker's presence on screen, accompanied by conversation between director Pratibha Parmar and programmer Naz Jamal that when a fire alarm went off during the first audience question, there was scattered laughter, applause and then a very jovial exit from the cinema. Kind of a bummer to end on, but all good things must come to an end. The seven clips screened included readings by Walker, reflective interivews with the writer and comments from the great and good, including Jewelle Gomez, Quincy Jones and her ex-husband. Parmar hopes to complete work on the doc in the autumn.

The previous evening the same director hosted a programme comprising her 1991 doc A Place of Rage, accompanied by two new shorts made for a deluxe DVD. Not having seen this film since its original release, I was curious to see how it would stand up and found that the interviews with Walker, Angela Davis and the late June Jordan still hit home, explaining their activist work and writings as black women. The two new shorts find Davis reflecting on her life and one of Jordan's poems collected into one reading.

The day started with me finally finishing my aborted viewing of Yes Or No, having wrestled with the unreliable DVD players all week. This Thai film is unexpectedly sweet and a tad twee, almost an Asian 90210, what with its bratty teens, disapproving Moms, and budding young love. Kim, a tom, and Pie, a girly girl, are thrown together as college roomies, Pie having escaped from lipstick lesbian Jane, who turns her attentions to Kim. Surely Pie, who can't stand toms, won't mind? But she does.... No points for guessing the ending, but it was surprisingly sturdy as a comedy, despite the terrible pop interludes meant to illustrate our heroines' inner turmoil.

Now if I could just manage to finish Vito... I got almost to the end before time ran out. But the first 80 minutes or so of this doc flew by. Having known of Vito Russo as the author of The Celluloid Closet (which I picked up at a used bookstore in San Francisco in 1991, and which disappeared from my collection a few years later), I wasn't aware of his history as an activist prominent in post-Stonewall NYC and a founder of GLAAD and ACT UP. The archive footage shows him to be a thoughtful critic and powerful speaker lost, like so many others, before his time to AIDS.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

LLGFF: The (Not So) Perfect Family

Still from The Perfect FamilyPhew. A flurry of family dramas to get through. Just seen is The Perfect Family, Anne Renton's sly look at a would-be white picket family unit coming apart at the seams. Matriarch Eileen (Kathleen Turner on fine form) is a devout Catholic who attends Mass every day and spends every other waking hour serving the community and assuming her husband and offspring will follow her moral compass. Except hubby Frank is a recovering alcoholic, son Frank Jr. has left his wife, and daughter Shannon isn't going to get married... to a man, anyway, as Eileen discovers to her horror. A host of clever one-liners and a genuinely moving performance by Turner in what could have been a horrendously unsympathetic role make The Perfect Family a delight.

Another comic mother takes the lead in the Argentine film Mother Tongue (dir Liliana Paolinelli), as Estela learns rather late that her 43-year-old daughter Ruth has a lover of 14 years and sets about making up for lost time--by hitting the women's bars! The relationship between mother and daughter takes some twists and turns in this quirky tale.

Much more sombre in tone is Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz's Iranian drama in which the kids take-centre stage. Best friends Atafeh and Shireen are leading double lives, veiled school girls by day and secret clubbers by night. This being Teheran, both are possible but the stakes are high for those who get caught doing anything un-Islamic, which includes the budding romantic relationship between the girls... Aside from one hilarious sequence in which the girls and their friends dub Sex and the City into Persian, the film is largely a tension-building affair, as Atafeh's increasingly paranoid brother Mehran intrudes into the girls' relationship, forcing her to make a decision about her future.

LLGFF: Gun Hill Road

Still from Gun Hill RoadHaven't seen much drama yet, but this ranks as the best so far. I was immediately intrigued as the title indicates the setting, a Latino neighbourhood in the Bronx, not too far from where I grew up.

Michael is a 17-year-old doing the usual teenaged stuff: dressing up, dating, going to nightclubs to do spoken word and attempting to transition by sneaking off to buy hormones from a local dealer. OK, not so typical. Add in two absent fathers (one biological and one chosen), and a mother who has her own secrets, and Michael aka Vanessa has a lot on her plate. When chosen dad Enrique (Esai Morales) is released from jail and returns home to find his little boy has changed, trouble is afoot.

Of course it all gets messy and the pot well and truly boils, but there are moments of comedy, as well, and Harmony Santana as Michael/Vanessa offers a very sweet vulnerability in the role, tentatively asking her boyfriend why he doesn't take her out, as promised. Esai Morales as the macho dad trying to understand, while dealing with his own compromised masculinity, is impressive. It doesn't seem that long ago he was playing the teenaged roles. How time flies.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

LLGFF: Genre Bending

Still from The Ballad of Genesis and Lady JayeLast night found me watching two ambitious, if flawed and sometimes tedious, docs, to varying degrees of frustration.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (dir Marie Losier) featured the intriguing premise that its titular couple sought to fuse themselves into one being: the Pandrogyne. Genesis P-Orridge's entire career has been spent shape-shifting, changing names, bands and identities, though it remained unclear whether the desire to fuse with Lady Jaye actually placed P-Orridge in the transgender camp (P-Orridge seems to prefer "we" as the pronoun of choice). Though P-Orridge's voiceover provided the narrative flow of the doc, in my mind, the important questions went unanswered: Who was Lady Jaye? What was their relationship about? And what is Pandrogyny? Instead Marie Losier's camera lingered on P-Orridge, mugging, showing off implant-enhanced breasts, performing turns and recounting scandals past. Lady Jaye remained in the background, breezing in and out of shot and saying almost nothing. It really never felt like the two names in the title were at all warranted. Genesis Remembers would be a more fitting title, as Lady Jaye is no longer with us.

Earlier in the evening, I spent a bum-numbing two hours sitting through This Is Not a Dream (dirs Ben Walters/Gavin Butt), a recap of the breakthrough of queer voices into the realm of alternative television, from cable in the 70s to the current You Tube "stars". Again, the premise intrigued, but the delivery was marred by interminable interviews with not very interesting people, badly edited. Bright spots included Vaginal Davis recounting the Fertile La Toyah Jackson project and Nao Bustamante's "intervention" on Joan Rivers' talk show (missed that, myself). But, a lot of it was unnecessary flab and could have been trimmed way, way down. Kudos to Dickie Beau for the live spots, which would have worked better in a reduced running time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

LLGFF: the Future of Language

Still from Hit So HardJust finished a whirlwind day at the Southbank Centre attending my first day at the LLGFF, which has been underway since Friday. Caught 2.5 screenings, conducted an interview and swung by the Royal Festival Hall to watch Laurie Anderson's Sounds from a Room performance live from the adjacent building.

To recap: Hit So Hard is a really emotive and illuminating doc on the life and near-death of Hole drummer Patty Schemel, chock full of archive footage she shot while on tour in the '90s, supplemented with up-to-date interviews with all of the band members and various observers and associates, among them Phranc, Gina Schock and Patty's mother and brother.

I'd hotfooted it back from Laurie Anderson's "The Future of Language" to speak to Patty before the screening, meaning I had yet to see the film, but we had a good chat about her early inspirations (amazingly similar to my own), as well as her current life in Los Angeles, where she has a dog-walking business.

I capped off the evening with a screening of Girl Or Boy: My Sex Is Not My Gender, Valerie Mitteaux's portmanteau documentary on four individuals born women who now identify as men or none of the above, among them none other than Lynnee Breedlove, ex of Tribe 8, whose bandmate Lesley Mah turns up in wedding footage in Hit So Hard. Truly a small world. Afterward, Mitteaux answered questions, and various testimony was given by audience members as to the limits placed on identity by the state, people's imaginations, and indeed the language we speak. Mitteaux said her film was meant to break out of the box and look beyond binary gender identity and that she hoped in future it would not be given so much consideration.

Friday, March 23, 2012

London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival: Opening Night

Still from CloudburstTonight the 26th LLGFF opens with the road comedy Cloudburst. Starring venerable Oscar-winners Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as lezzies on the lam, the film breaks new ground in presenting a long-term lesbian couple as heroines of their own adventure, while presenting their relationship as a given. After 31 years together, Stella and Dot find themselves separated when Dot's grand-daughter has her committed to a home. Stella breaks her out and the two go on the run.

Dukakis is a revelation as Stella, an unreconstructed butch, trading earthy jokes with her partner, while giving anyone who crosses her path an earful of her foul-mouthed opinions. The opening shot establishes the feel of the film brilliantly, with Dukakis, resplendent in flannel shirt and cowgirl hat, at the wheel of a pick-up, humming along to k.d. lang (several of whose early songs feature on the soundtrack). Marvellous.

Fricker has the tricky task of offering understated support as Dot, the blind, fragile partner to Dukakis' exuberant lead, but she also has some great moments, although the comic setpiece that finds her headbutting a naked man in bed is misjudged. The film does occasionally stray into crude slapstick, but there are so many great moments that the mis-steps don't spoil the fun.

One might question the necessity of introducing Ryan Doucette's metrosexual dancer Prentice to join the women on the run, but perhaps writer-director Thom Fitzgerald thought this would provide eye candy for the boys, the number of times Doucette takes off his shirt.

I was looking forward to meeting Ms. Dukakis for an interview today, but she has cancelled her appearance at the festival. A shame that, as I was hoping to get some butch tips from her.

Other highlights to look forward to: docs on Alice Walker, Patty Schemel, Vito Russo and Jobriath; hotly-tipped dramas Circumstance, Gun Hill Road and Stud Life; and chances to see Weekend, Pariah and Potiche.

The 26th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival runs from 23 March to 1 April at BFI Southbank.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Standing Drummer, Kneeling Guitarist

Plaided live; photo by Val PhoenixAs a long-time devotee of music, one sees peaks and troughs, and recently I have heard little to inspire me: playlisted radio, awards handed out to mediocrities--it's a bit dulling to the senses.

And then there's Plaided. Watching their progress from a distance, I wondered where this Vienna duo would go, and last night's gig at the Lexington gave the answer. Formed from the ashes of Ilsebill, Plaided take guitar and drums places they didn't know they wanted to go, down dark post-punk alleys, teeming with pissed-off Riot Grrrls who've nicked Kleenex's records.

A delightful study in contrasts, the band features diminutive Veronika on scratchy guitar and plaintive vocals, complemented by the Amazonian Julia on tribal drums, the two making such a racket one would think four or five players were on stage. But for the last number they switched, and Veronika prowled the stage, a single drumstick in hand, while her bandmate knelt down to pick out her guitar part.

Watching from the audience were some of their Vienna posse, including some burlesque performers and erstwhile Ilsebill bandmate Lena, who is now studying in the UK. It all added to the rough-hewn charm of the gig.

Plaided have one single out on Fettkakao, with an album to follow in summer.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Happy IWD

Hope you are enjoying International Women's Day, which has been trending at the top of Twitter's topics all day.

The news has been mixed, with a BBC exec stating the corporation no longer worries about gender; Pussy Riot still in jail; and an exhibit of women musicians shot by women snappers opening in London.

Here's Pussy Riot in action.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Radio: the professional way

Just catching up on my Deutsche Welle news, when I thought my player was malfunctioning. I distinctly heard the newsreader pause and then utter: "Scheisse", before continuing. (03:39)

Wow! What was the producer doing allowing that to go out unedited?

Extra funny points for it being "langsame gesprochene" reports designed to teach non-natives German!

Thursday, March 01, 2012

If Not Us, Who?

My review of this film, which opens in the UK tomorrow, is up now at The Quietus.

The editors re-wrote the headline and intro. I am biased, but I prefer mine: "War of Words: ideological bed-hopping in Andres Veiel's lumpen drama... "

I mean: "ideological bed-hopping". That's pretty good, right?

Took me 24 hours to work out that "Baader Romance" was a Lady Gaga reference. Not down with the kids.