Wednesday, September 03, 2014


A piece I've been working on for a while and then ran out of gas... maybe it's finished, who knows?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

King Crimson - Elstree

Pat Mastelotto

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be invited to hear the new seven-piece incarnation of King Crimson rehearse at Elstree studios.

It was LOUD...

The visual results are here...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier (2014)

You’d have to be a Touareg tribesperson or deep sea-dwelling creature not to have been alerted to the Vivian Maier phenomenon in the last year or so. The nanny who took at least one Rolleiflex film roll of pictures a day for 30 years and never once exhibited a shot has become big business since the ‘discovery’ of her work by several men from Chicago around 2007 when her vast horde of personal possessions, mainly kept in locked storage, became available for auction. The tens of thousands of negatives which detail her compulsive recording of street scenes - not just from New York and Chicago but also around the globe – now form the basis of a canon of work that is being acclaimed as a lost photographic treasure. Finding Vivian Maier is the second of two documentaries made in the last 18 months to examine both the pictures and, more importantly to those selling you the films, the mysterious back-story that comes attached. It’s a very good film indeed, but what does it tell us about the way in which we create mythology around ‘artists’? About the reasons we take photography? About the nature of art, itself? A lot, as it turns out…

Actually, Finding Vivian Maier most eminently tells us most about the untrustworthy nature of eyewitnesses. Obviously every documentary is fraught with the danger of unreliable narrative, whether it’s in the interviewees’ tales or in the post-production and editing. Within about three minutes Finding Vivian Maier throws up an obvious challenge to credibility by both placing the film’s co-director (and owner of the vast bulk of Maier’s legacy), John Maloof, as central narrator and then by showing us a fabricated sequence to demonstrate him bidding for the legendary boxes of negatives in the auction house (in the BBC’s marginally earlier documentary it’s revealed that Maloof actually won the lot with an ‘absentee bid’ and therefore wasn’t even there at the sale). So hackles are immediately up for anyone who labours under the misapprehension that a documentary tells a tale objectively. For me, the initial resistance was also aided by the fact that Maloof comes across as humourless as well as bearing an uncanny resemblance to a grown-up Phineas Flynn from Phineas and Ferb, but that’s neither here nor there. After the first half an hour Maloof (and fellow director, Charlie Siske) have mostly edged themselves out of the narrative and let the plethora of first-hand accounts of Maier, her eccentricities and work take centre stage.

In doing so Maloof teases out a compelling account; not necessarily of Maier’s own life, but of the lives of the middle classes who gave her a home and allowed her to record their lives alongside her own darker record of street life in America’s major metropolises. Her earliest position work as a nanny - for the Ginsberg family and their three sons – draws the fondest recollections. This was where the obsessively private Vivian came closest to forming permanent bonds with both parents and children and her shots of their leafy lives in the suburbs are a glowing testament to a USA in the midst of its most optimistic period, just before the fall.  Contrasted with her later charges – when not only her own circumstances were reduced, but also following the catastrophic events of the late ‘60s onwards – she emerges as self-possessed, politically engaged and as someone who was actually very good with children.

Again and again commentators are wheeled on to contradict each other. Especially hilarious is the pompous academic who states with absolute certainty that her French accent was fake (her mother was French and she actually lived in France between the ages of six and 12) – even challenging Maloof to read his dissertation on the pronunciation of French vowels (no, really).

But it’s here that any discussion about Maier becomes problematic. For Vivian’s tale is that of a non-artist, made an artist posthumously: a woman who deliberately coveted her own anonymity during her own lifetime and who, as various people state, would have probably hated any whiff of fame or validation. As one letter reveals, she knew she was a gifted photographer, even in her early days, but she never actively sought the recognition which supposedly drives ‘true’ artists in their lifetimes. So is the ‘Maier industry’ (as Alan Yentob calls it in the BBC’s film of her life) a bogus one? Maloof’s answer is to paint himself a loner who battled the art establishment who resisted her acceptance into the history books. It’s the film’s biggest failing, simply because it perpetuates the age-old fascination with creative people who were ‘cruelly’ ignored by their contemporaries.

The idea of a photographer who deigns to share his or her work is doubly ironic in the 21st century, of course. In an age where we clamour for attention, and share everything while beset by dilettantism on every side (even in this blog), the tale of a woman who not only shrouded herself in mystery – even to the point of lying about her origins and regularly changing the spelling of her name – but also seemed blissfully unaware that her exceptional talent could have perhaps paved the way for a career seems so, well… romantic. Again and again we’re asked ‘so who was this woman?’ up to the point where I felt I knew more about her than I’d ever known about, say, Diane Arbus or Lisette Model, both of who’s work Maier had to know of.

 Let’s be clear here: while her pictures are extraordinary, they are by NO means original. A fact no one seems prepared to explore. But naturally, the desire to create a sweeping tragic narrative only serves to get in the way of the work itself. Like Vincent Van Gogh’s ear, her eccentricity serves as a lazy way to understand what may, or may not, be a collection of masterpieces. And if you add to this the startling fact that when her work was unearthed she was still alive (and fading away in a Chicago hospital) it all starts to reek of creepy opportunism.

And while the story of her life was filled with enough dark family secrets and deliberate obfustication to make it utterly compelling, you sensed that such rooting around would have appalled Maier herself. All the muttering about ‘a dark side’ and the fact that she hated to talk about herself just back up Joel Meyerowitz’s claims that to be a competent street photographer these qualities are not just desirable, but essential. In short: Vivian Maier knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. Meyerowitz comes across as about the only reliable observer of her work and is the only commonality between the two documentaries made about Vivian. As a photographer he explains the skill and the tenacity it took to get such intimate glimpses of American life. He’s also the only one to question the validity of the editorial choices that go into prints made from negatives never even seen by Maier in her lifetime.

With these facts in mind, I’d argue that the Maier phenomenon is rooted in several wrong-headed notions about art and photography. A lot of what fascinates us with Maier’s work isn’t the startlingly brilliant compositional skills or in the recent trend in clinging to and lionising historicity as some part of tendency to hanker after all things ‘vintage’ (I say recent, but this is a quality in modern post-industrial society that’s been around since before Constable painted his mythical Haywain). You could regard this as ironic as Vivian herself wore what her peers regarded as strangely fusty, old-fashioned clothes: primarily, I suspect, to put her subjects at ease as well as repelling any unwanted male attention. Next is the suspect quality of the bandwagon-jumping which leads to her work now selling for between two and eight thousand dollars apiece. Such instant desirability (painfully highlighted by the late appearance of Tim Roth at a swanky gallery opening where he patronisingly explains why he bought a picture of a hobo, because there’s some ‘joy’ beneath the destitute misery of the subject) is nothing more than the twitchings of an over-privileged few, desperate to be arbiters of taste. But you do sense that Maloof is self-aware enough to realise that in many ways he’s lucked out and not above blame. As fellow owner, Jeff Goldstein, explains about their role in the story in the BBC’s film: ‘we’re mostly just trying not to be public assholes’. Luckily, in Maloof’s film, he’s canny enough to retreat from the fray and let the various factions strut their stuff, leaving us with a film that succeeds because it raises more questions than it answers.

The finest example of this is the way in which you emerge with a far more balanced view of Vivian than the people she actually knew, and this all depends on the period in which she was encountered. In later years, if you are to believe the families’ accounts, she was batty, belligerent and borderline abusive. But taken against the obvious issues displayed by the more self-obsessed and tricky children of the ‘70s (and parents, especially in the case of the last family she worked for), one comes away with a feeling that this was a woman who had spent a life only in the service of others so that she could pursue her true calling: the recording of life around her with an exceptional eye, a sense of humour and a deep understanding of the precarious nature of life. It’s no wonder that, as she grew older, her status as a permanent outsider, combined with the fact that the families she worked for became less well-balanced, finally ground her down. This is reflected in the fact that she allowed the Ginsbergs to call her ‘Viv’ whereas the bratty later charges were only allowed ‘Miss Maiers’ (note the added ‘s’). I would imagine that by the late ‘70s she knew that she would die alone and in relative poverty, but this was a price she was willing to pay in the service of a greater muse.

In comparison Alan Yentob’s Imagine series BBC doc  - Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Pictures - is predictably woeful. As with all of this criminally vanity project-like series, it’s redolent with the diminutive, inflated ego of Yentob although, to be fair, he’s far less prominent than usual.  But one senses that it’s he who pushes the first half’s obsession with the bargain-hunter aspect of the ‘Maier industry’. Like a miniature, even more egomaniacal, David Dickinson he keeps probing the owners of Vivian’s legacy (here represented by Ron Slattery and Jeff Goldstein: Maloof was making his own film simultaneously) as to how much money they paid for (and subsequently made on) the pictures and boxes of ephemera. Luckily, just as it really seems as though Yentob is presenting us with a bourgeois version of Storage Hunters, the film finally gets around to giving us some interesting facts which, when tallied with Maloof’s (far better) film make for interesting contrast.

Yet, if there’s one aspect that the BBC version of events excels in, it’s the chronology and background to Vivian’s self-education in photography. You get no sense from Maloof that Vivian ever paid attention to other photographers whereas she not only lived with another female photographer in her early years, but she was known to have studied the masters. And Maloof’s slant of anti-academia is belied by the fact that he was allegedly alerted to the worth of the treasure trove he unearthed by a ‘Californian Art Professor’, according to Ron Slattery, as well as the appearance of at least two heavyweight ‘Maier scholars’.

However as an earlier (and visibly rushed) work it mostly fails.  Falling even more egregiously into the trap of ‘background story’ it ends up feeling not unlike a Catherine Cookson novel; full of illegitimate children and disgraced chambermaids. What it fails to mention is that just about every family under the sun has such skeletons clogging up their closet; especially in the turmoil of the early 20th century. One ends up confused as to whether this is a soap opera-cum-detective tale or a film about the arts  – something which has beset so many recent documentaries (cf: Looking for Sugarman another film which obsesses over the romantic myth of the undiscovered genius).

But if you watch both films back-to-back (as I did) you’ll come away with at least a sense that Vivian Maier was neither more eccentric or strange than the majority of us, and that it’s probably far too soon to be heaping her with plaudits or superlatives. One look at her work speaks far more eloquently than any film could, and that’s not only what she would have undoubtedly wanted, but also what she undoubtedly deserves.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

That holiday.....

Another quick experiment with vintage photos

Friday, July 18, 2014

Moon gif experiment

Made from an old photo found in an album from a junk shop...

Friday, June 27, 2014

Viewing the World Cup from an Ivory Tower

Nothing says 'football' better than a blue and yellow armadillo, right?
Yesterday the first round of the World Cup 2014 reached its conclusion. Even as an ingénue to the world of organised sports I know that this heralds a few weeks of extra time and distressingly disappointing penalty shootouts. ‘What?’ you cry – ‘has Jonesisdying lost the plot so badly that he’s resorted to writing about the antithesis of ‘culture’?' Sport: that stuff enjoyed by vaguely right-wing types in white trainers braying at ceiling mounted LCD TVs in public houses, or maybe the stuff that summons up of the childhood indignity of always being the last to be picked for any team during our ‘halcyon’ schooldays?  So many of my Facebook friends have expressed both disapproval and dismay at the amount of media coverage given to any 90-minute display of human-on-pigskin action. Wimps, the lot of 'em...

Well, amazingly I DO watch the World Cup, and a friend yesterday actually asked me to post something about the current competition in Brazil from the point of view of an ‘aesthete’. Pausing only to point out that describing me as an aesthete is like calling David Cameron a ‘keen European’ (I was tempted to post a picture of my living room to make my rather messy point, but no one deserves to see that); I do (occasionally) relish a challenge, so here are a few not-very-salient points regarding the jamboree/bunfight/crucial tournament (delete as applicable).

Firstly, some context: it will come as a surprise to no one who knows me that I hardly EVER watch sport. I could point to Brian Eno’s quote about organised sport mirroring the condition of fascism if I could be bothered to find it, but that’s easy stuff. My objection to televised games is nothing more, really, than the mewlings of a man who just has other obsessions to fill up his time and distract him from doing anything useful. I just find no glamour or commonality in the struggles of arbitrary ‘teams’,  ‘personalities’ or the (masculine) predilection for endless statistics involving leagues, tables, goal differences, touchdown percentages blah, blah… I would not and could not ever deny my own peccadillo for knowing who was the second bass player for Uriah Heep or the order (and year) in which David Lynch’s films were released. Working up the enthusiasm to actually CARE if Andy Murray wins at Wimbledon or that a team which I have randomly picked to be my favourite has won against another eleven-man bunch of overpaid tabloid whores will never move this writer who, at the age of 11 or 12 decided that David Bowie may just know the secrets of the universe (it turns out he didn’t – boo). And yet I know that many of my eloquent, erudite friends DO care for such things as WELL as caring about music, literature, film whatever… Apparently these interests aren’t mutually exclusive. Quelle horreur…

Yes, I’m the kind of guy who, if, in the middle of a heated debate about the relative merits of Miles Davis before and after Bitches Brew finds the conversation has drifted into whether England may win the Ashes (whatever they are) will be nothing less than disgusted. All of which marks me as a steaming great hypocrite, I know. Arguments as to the horrid, corporate nature of modern sport are built on sand when you consider the self-delusional cant of my beloved counterculture with regard to ‘selling out’ or the nauseating amount of marketing, sponsorship and dodgy finance involved in everything from the Turner Prize via just about any architectural endeavour of note to even Henry Cow’s involvement in this year’s London Jazz Festival. Fucking hell, it’s an ethical minefield out there, mate…

And claiming moral high ground when I DO watch a couple of major sporting events (I even used to watch American Football in the days when it was on Channel Four, finding it akin to a vast, boring game of human chess, which appealed to the pervert in me) is also odious. The Olympics (winter AND summer) as well as the object of this post will pretty much always draw me in. Willingly. But what makes these acceptable to such an anti-sport prig?

My friend’s request for my take on the lengthy World Cup campaign made me sit back and mull for all of, ooh… ten minutes last night as I watched the Belgium vs South Korea match.  

And the not-really-very-surprising conclusions I careered into last night were as follows:

You seemingly did, Ray: YOU ate all of the pies...

1) The ITV coverage is horrible compared to the BBC’s, if only because they insert adverts and idents into gaps that could be measured in gnat’s whiskers. Add to this the creepy editing of Ary Barroso’s fabulous song ‘Brazil’ into the last two notes, the inevitable appearance of that Ray Winstone floating head advert (where he makes the word ‘taaaablet’ sound like the most disgusting thing on the planet - see above) and Adrian Chiles’ puffy miserable face and even Gary Lineker’s Mr Clean act seems preferable. On which note, tradition dictates that I insert this clip:

2) Having noted the above, one point in favour of ITV vs BBC is that ITV do not have Robbie Savage as a commentating pundit. I understand the attraction of having an ‘expert’ on hand to comment on proceedings, tactics etc. yet Savage’s miserly, bitter Northern pronouncements are utterly depressing. Once he gets an idea he seems unable to relinquish it and move on. The BBC came under attack for their recruitment of Phil Neville (allegedly he was boring – well, durr) but in my mind Savage is far worse. Like the offensive professional Yorkshire arrogance of Geoffrey Boycott in the even more occult land of cricket, his know-it-all demeanour really gets my goat.

2a) Even more objectionable is the constant need for producers to cut to shots of 'attractive ladeez' in the crowd, but others have noted this way before me...

3) I LOVE the introductory pre-match computer wizardry that shows us each player rotating towards us with arms folded and a sexy come-hither look on their dear sweet,  dim faces. I’d like to see this approach adopted everywhere. I’m frankly amazed that they don’t do it at Glastonbury this weekend. Pre-show Metallica gurning (but with less tattoos than footballers) would make my weekend.

4) And on that point, the flair and variety of modern footballers’ appearances is astounding. They’ve taken David Beckham’s peacock-shaped ball and run right out of the stadium with it (ouch, sorry for the mangled metaphor)! Tattoos are the least of it. Facial hair; science fiction hair-dos; flourescent footwear; even dreadlocks for goodness-sake. For the first time in recorded history, the World Cup shows more sartorial daring than 150,000 posh kids at Glastonbury Festival. Maybe football really is the new rock ‘n’ roll…

5) As a temporarily re-vibrated Englishman (who actually could not care less about his home team, but more on that below) I suddenly cannot bear the idea of the USA winning anything to do with football. While I admire Jurgen Klinsmann’s success in partially making a nation of insular ‘we’ve got our own massively corporate-sponsored games’ types sit up and take notice as well as shaping a team (mainly by stealing them from his native country) that at least made it into the last 16, I rail against the world’s most arrogant country sullying a pastime which really belongs to Europe or Central/South America. For this reason I also took offence at the Australians taking part. But then, they went and called themselves the ‘Socceroos’, and for that alone they deserved to be knocked out.

6) See what happened there? I became, to all intents and purposes slightly racist for a second. And this is my next point – the commentators and pundits throughout provide us with the slyest, most socially acceptable form of racism while passing judgement (i.e: making huge generalisations about a team’s ‘national characteristics’). Last night it took seconds before Alan Hansen (that scarred, ultra serious provider of truisms and humour-free comments on defensive failures for every World Cup since god-knows-when) referred to the  Germans as ‘ruthlessly efficient’. An hour later they were ‘the sharks of the World Cup’. And so it goes… Latin Americans are passionate yet cynical cheaters. In fact the word ‘cynical’ now seems exclusively reserved for the art of tackling until this is all over. Americans and Australians are relentlessly positive (well, they just are) while any far eastern team deserve the ‘plucky’ label. And, let’s face it, you can’t be plucky unless you’re SMALL compared to the opposition. Well, not in someone as provincial as Robbie Savage’s mind, you can’t.

7) Further to this, I haven’t, you’ll notice, mentioned how England’s performance has affected me. The answer is not one jot. On every level the England team were rubbish to my un-tutored and unqualified eyes. Ugly, dull, and lacking any grace: and that was just the manager… Their early departure hasn’t abated my interest in the slightest. If I were to profess any preference it would probably for those ruthlessly efficient Germans.

8) Which brings me onto the last brief observation: that I don’t really care who wins. It’s the HOW they win that amuses me and keeps me engaged.

So my cursory conclusions came down to this: I like the world Cup because it’s a WORLD event. Asked yesterday whether it was the political subtext that drew me in, I have to say, no, not entirely, but it’s undeniable that there’s a rather satisfying sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ about the whole affair that makes it more intriguing.  There we have it: it’s the NARRATIVE that entices. I actually find myself envying those diehards who know every back story behind every player and their history on the pitches of the world’s regular leagues. How much more exciting to know that player A, playing opposite player B in term-time plays in the SAME TEAM. Or that player C is well known for his trademark fouls/headers/acrobatics/ball-handling skills/speed etc. etc. etc? But to an amateur such as myself, the prospect of a limited and yet extensive set of skirmishes establishes a foreseeable result, rewarding close attention, and also (with the help of aforementioned pundits) means that you can pretend to have opinions about matters. Admit it, you felt strangely qualified to speak to a near or dear one on the subject of Luis Suarez’sadolescent biting behaviour this week, even if you’d no idea of his record over the last few years.

But unfortunately the regular three-ring circus of Premier league football is still best represented in my head in the following way:

Or maybe its arbitrary partisan nature could be better demonstrated like this:

Yet, just like a mini-series or box set of a TV show, you can binge on the World Cup but be sure of both a conclusion and of some thrills and spills along the way. It’s the True Detective of sport. I know the end will be disappointing, but it functioned well as a distraction for a short period.

Given the above, it seems fair to surmise that the function of nearly all sport which is passively consumed shares the same goals as a digital drama series and that the two are equally guilty of drawing us away from what really matters in life: the ability to create rather than consume. Giant world competitions such as this are expressions of capitalism in excelsis. And so was Breaking Bad. Both function as a socially codified excuse to sever our connection to the outside world and, as such, I’m back to where I started. To criticise is aimless, because from my ivory tower of aestheticism, I’m not doing anything more worthwhile, other than writing about it. And maybe this is the most positive point I can make about the World Cup 2014. For five weeks my uptight universe coincides with another alien one, and briefly I can pretend to be part of something that for the other three years and 11 months is as remote as Alpha Centauri.

So come on my son, nice one Cyril, or whatever you footballists say. Score one for team Jones!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Commemorating D-Day with a scientologist: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow - this year's Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster - is, as most other reviews have made plain, a melange of many other films. But then, which blockbuster these days isn't? I seem to remember realising this when I saw Alex Garland's Sunshine. But remarkably it turns cliches to gold and never approaches dullness. For the literal-minded amongst you (and in similar fashion to Sight & Sound) I spotted the various component parts of Groundhog Day and Source Code (Tom, as Major Cage has to repeat the same day ad nauseum); The Matrix, Battleships, The Darkest Hour etc. etc. (squirmy CGI aliens); Aliens (post-'Nam troop fun with large exoskeletal battledress etc.); Mimic (well, the aliens are called mimics); Starship Troopers; Independence Day; Looper; Battle Los Angeles etc., as well as Saving Private Ryan

Yes, you read the last one right - its release timed to perfection, with its central set piece battle, this is possibly the oddest commemoration of D-Day that you're likely to see all week. In this respect it functions well as a science fiction film, using scenario as metaphor, just as all genre work should. 

Europe has fallen under the jackboot tentacle of an alien race borne to Earth via asteroid. Humanity looks out for the count, but a surprise victory (at Verdun of all places) led by tough resistance poster girl, Emily Blunt, has given the world hope again. Allied troops are massing in London (now officially the cool location city of choice for CGI blockbusters cf: Thor: The Dark World) ready for a invasion landing on, naturally, Normandy Beach where everything goes to hell. Our first experience in this battle is with the spearheading forces which include Tom. In this way the film functions as a re-telling of how the Yanks helped us kick Adolf's boys back in 1944. On paper that doesn't look too promising, but somehow no memories get sullied here and the aforementioned Frankenstein's Monster approach to putting together Edge of Tomorrow is saved by Doug Liman, a man who, with the Bourne series, showed us that the spy thriller could be retold for the post-modern age (and thus, subsequently laying the ground for the renaissance of James Bond). And if you think the script crackles, amuses and entertains more than usual it'll possibly be because two of the film's writers are none other than Jerusalem playwright, Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry.  This is no mere production-line pulp, even if it isn't (as the publicity claims) a really 'intelligent' sci-fi movie. But it sure ain't dumb…

As mentioned recently, we're now in a post-gaming environment where the game influences the film, rather than the other way around. Unlike Dredd and The Siege's simple level-by-level methodology, the concept of re-living the same battle over and over again is given life via the gaming cliche of being able to die repeatedly and being automatically put back at a fixed opening point until Tom and Emily can figure out how to kill, yes you guessed it… the big (blue) BOSS at the game's end (here referred to as the Omega). Emily Blunt's character is even nicknamed the 'Full Metal B*tch', in case we don't fully get the joke. And like Bill Murray's hapless weatherman in Groundhog Day, each rebirth offers scope for exploring the variations in formula as Tom meets Emily again and once more attempts to thwart the 'mimics'.  As if to demonstrate how well thought-through this concept is, at one point, I began to wonder why (a by-now pretty battle-hardened) Cruise had to work with Blunt, only to have Liman explore that very option for me. Talk about neat timing.

Virtuoso editing by James Herbert rushes you through Tom's many incarnations, often to comic effect as he wakes again and again to the (always wonderful) Bill Paxton as his Squadron Sergeant. The 12 certificate also in this case adds a certain dignity to the whole affair by never revealing too much gore, and leaving you to guess at how Cruise meets his grisly end at times. Paxton's just one of the joyful little touches that turn what could have been a boneheaded and deadly dull rehash of recent tropes into a genuinely entertaining film. There's also Brendan Gleeson (recently stunning in John Michael McDonough's Calvary) as the grumpy allies' general and Noah Taylor as Carter, the particle physicist who's the only one who understands exactly what is going on. Much has been made of the shaky opening premise that (for some reason) Cruise is sent to the front in some kind of revenge for his role as the US Army's PR man, depicting him for once as (initially) a craven coward - in other words, playing against type. Yet what he's really doing is putting us slap bang in the centre of the nightmare battle scenes, allowing us the imagine the sheer terror that any invading troops must feel. Beyond the A to B narrative arc, it's this aspect of the film that adds any real depth while never letting it get bogged down or over serious. For every war-weary failure there's a moment of genuine playfulness. Hell, there's even a caravan joke (which may have been insisted on by Cruise who has, himself, guested on the awful Top Gear). Goodness knows why certain reviewers found it dull

What's more, despite the film's central premise of reliving time again and again, the writers never attempt the kind of tricksy time travel plot twists that bedevilled crap like Looper, instead opting for a simple premise that allows us to enjoy the thrill ride as TC becomes gradually more and more like the pint-sized action hero that we all know and love. If there's a downside it's that the action sequences suffer from that 3D conversion process that leaves the whirling dervish machine aliens looking like hyperactive blurry octopi and battle scenes too chaotic a la Michael Bay. Yet the plot makes sure that these sequences are actually mercifully brief throughout, never sacrificing character or plot for sterile explosive scenarios. Be warned, there's nothing original about this film, and yet somehow this is one of the most charming (and it IS oddly charming) aspects. There are, after all, only seven stories in the world. Edge of Tomorrow remembers that it's how you tell these stories that draws in an audience.

But, in the end (without giving TOO much away) I'd say that the central premise of this film isn't really about re-imagining D-Day for a 21st century audience, or even about how one man can be transformed (in the 'crucible of battle' as his Sergeant jokes) into a true hero. No, Edge of Tomorrow  could be summed up as 'boy has goofy smile, boy loses goofy smile'. Yes, it's simply about one a-list screen actor's quest to rediscover his patent disarming, lopsided grin. Does he find it, folks? 

Like you have to ask…

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

H. R. Giger (1940-2014)

Giger (right) with ELP in 1973
News just in that H.R. Giger, the Swiss artist has passed away at the age of 74 following a fall in his Zurich home. 

As this news story on the BBC indicates, Giger was most popularly known as the man who conceived of the nightmarish alien in Ridley Scott's classic sci fi film of the same name. In fact his production designs for the film had been honed by his work in previous years on Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted Dune project which I've written about at length several times on this blog. What's more he worked again with Scott on the woeful prequel Prometheus, where his paintings (and the use of designs from his Dune days) were just about the best thing about the film.

Alien made Giger, if not a household name, then certainly a bona fide cult amongst everyone devoted to both fantasy art or 'alternative' approaches to life. 

On paper Giger wasn't the kind of man you'd probably want to have sunday dinner with your parents. A complex man, by his own admission he was troubled (I recall the first time I was impressed by his candour in print when he explained the symmetry in his work as an obvious sign of insanity). The son of a chemist, as a young man he was obsessed with guns and weaponry; he suffered from night terrors, openly indulged in drugs and ritual 'magick', was a scholar of Crowley and Eliphas Levi, and had a tendency to use pornographic imagery extensively in his work. Added to this as his life progressed his somewhat louche appearance and croaking demeanour took on a decaying decadence which made him fairly repulsive to the eye. 

And, of course, like most people who profess their strangeness, he was also extremely canny as a businessman (having his own museum in Gruyeres as well as a giving rise to a plethora of publications, posters, prints, not to mention the 'Giger bars' in places such as Tokyo) and continued to hawk his nightmarish visions to Hollywood via schlock such as Species, not to mention THIS beauty.

By the release of Alien I was already well aware of Giger's work via firstly the fantastically complex cover art he created for Emerson Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery (above), after which I got a copy of his first book in English, from Big O Publishers, the company that had helped blow my generation's minds with posters by Roger Dean and Giger amongst many others. The Necronomicon (named for H. P. Lovecraft's fictional 'forbidden book' written by the 'mad arab': Abdul Alhazred) is still in print (albeit only in German)  and pretty much sums up what made Giger important, both to me and to a generation of art directors, designers and visual artists who followed. There's barely a horror or science fiction movie since which hasn't been touched by his grimy, post industrial aesthetic. His palette of bluish greys and decaying flesh tones prefigured a high-definition breed of horror and computer gaming. I'm sure that feeble copyists such as Clive Barker and his 'body horror' ilk would not have existed without Giger's visionary work. 

Not that all H.R's work inevitably led to schlock and lazy shorthand for 'hellish' visuals. He did regular work as a record sleeve designer, including the infamous sleeve for Debbie Harry's solo album, Koo Koo as well as for Magma and a host of others. And let's not forget the unlikely attention he garnered when The Dead Kennedys included a poster of one of his 'penis landscapes' with one of their albums, Frankenchrist, leading to obscenity charges. In the end, none of his 'followers' had an iota of Giger's originality or skill, and perhaps that too is a good thing. I, for one, never would want to live in a world where there was more than one H.R.

In a sense just about everything he achieved following the mainstream breakout of Alien was merely a reiteration of the personal language he'd perfected in the late '60s and early '70s through his work with theatre and fine art. Personally I was drawn to his work, not only for its nightmarish qualities, but for the singularity of vision that transcended his suspect role models in hacks like Dali, Austria's Ernst Fuchs or even Hans Bellmer. His early engravings have a grim intensity to them. Yet it was undoubtedly his discovery of the airbrush which truly liberated his style from previous shackles. It gave his 'biomechanicals', temple settings and fleshy landscapes a gruesome realism which added a very palpable sense that here was a true vision of some alternative dimension where sanity and decency had fallen prey to the more extreme prophesies of an immediately post-war Europe.

Giger's biomechanical visions are the antithesis of, say, fellow middle-Europeans, Kraftwerk, with their idyllic dreams of man and machine in perfect harmony. Compare his 'Biomechanische Landschaft' (1976) (above) with the celebratory exploration of man and bicycle on 'Tour De France'! The post-acid claustrophobia of landscapes crawling with orgiastic demons, cyborgs and instruments of torture shone a brutally honest light on a world that had experienced the Holocaust and still proclaimed itself (especially in his homeland) as rational.

Anyone who has seen Giger's recent interviews couldn't really have doubted that his days were numbered, yet it's sad that another of the key figures in my personal pantheon of great commercial artists from my youth has (along with Jean Giraud who also worked on Dune) been taken from us. 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Rory Gallagher - Sinner Boy

I've been listening to a lot of Rory Gallagher recently. Before you start sniggering at the back there, this has (possibly) more to do with another conversation I recently had with a music producer/friend about the nature of 'true art'. Both of us agreed on one of the definitions as being that which is produced with NO thought for either fashion or even a prospective audience. In other words, something that comes directly from what may be termed 'the soul'. The boy from County Donegal, for whom a 'sense of style' amounted to a flannel shirt and baseball boots, had this in spades.

Yet, before we explore WHY Rory remains important, especially in this age of cookie-cutter 'authenticity', it's a good idea to begin by defining exactly what William Rory Gallagher wasn't. Aways regarded, even by detractors, as some kind of analogy for integrity, Gallagher - once you do a little bit of digging (both research-wise and  aurally) - turns out to be so much more. On the surface Rory's brand of integrity tends to be, well... dull. The world is full of 'purists', especially in the world of blues (however you define that). And how dull they are. Have a look at Rory's Wikipedia entry and there it is: 'an Irish blues-rock multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and bandleader.' Gee... three chords and the truth.

Like everything on Wikipedia this tells a fraction of the story and the irony is that had Rory lived until the present day I think he'd now be expanding his audience through more collaborations and musical diversions. He just never had the chance. 

If there's one overriding reason why Gallagher's name is consigned to a cabal of blues-worshippers and not celebrated beyond is that his main body of work resided in the live arena - honed by night after night of doing what he was always most happy doing - playing to sweaty crowds. This is not to say that all of his recorded output is a failure. But the dedication to life on the road and a strange refusal (possibly born of his early dedication to his own, singular artistic path) to work with other producers means that if you want to really appreciate the man, you have to see him on stage.

Luckily we now have the treasure trove of Youtube to allow us to fully appreciate how special his talent for performing was. There are literally hundreds of hours of Rory on video - a cursory trawl resulted in the playlist below: all pre-1980 shows and each with its merits.

Of all of these concerts the most 'poetic' would be Tony Palmer's long-forgotten Irish Tour '74, immortalised on the brilliant live album of the same name (although strangely missing from his IMDb entry). On the accompanying record Rory explodes out of the traps on the opener, 'Cradle Rock' - it has to be one of the most visceral expressions of filthy, dirty rock ever recorded. But in the film - ostensibly a straightforward 'on the road' documentary of Gallagher on his home turf - Palmer starts with an almost genius stroke of an opening sequence, where the crashing waves off the rocky coastline of Western Ireland are slowly replaced by Gallagher's exquisite soloing on the middle section of 'Walk On Hot Coals': delicate, folksy arpeggios drenched in sweat, demonstrating his astonishing range from the off.

While there's a sense that maybe something darker drove Rory to endlessly tour (I well remember how in the mid-'70s the NME yearly reader's polls always half-jokingly gave him the 'Vasco Da Gama touring award' for sheer hard work on the road), not only did he almost single-handedly pave the way for Ireland's modern gigging circuit, but it's also possible that many a student union would have had far less to show if he hadn't been prepared to play over and over again. I myself only saw him once (in 1981 at Reading University, to a small faithful crowd - by then his star was well into the descendant), but he still gave it 110%.

In real life Rory did appear to be almost monomaniacal in his pursuit of the adrenaline rush that accompanied live playing - in one interview he explains how itchy he got when working at home or in the studio, undoubtedly explaining why many of his studio albums have a rather rushed two-dimensional feel. In a life filled with irony, the ultimate one was that this inability to lead a settled existence finally led to his death. Alcoholism combined with medication to combat a fear of flying led to unforeseen liver damage that seems inexcusable less than 20 years later.

To believers, the cliche is that Gallagher was far more influential than he's given credit for, but the cliche turns out to actually have a solid grounding. The evidence is pretty clear, especially for someone like me,whose years as a guitar beginner were indelibly marked by his work. As a youngster I only owned two Gallagher albums - Tattoo (bought on cassette in a W H Smith sale in Coventry) and Live in Europe. Actually I don't think I knew anyone at that time who didn't own Live in Europe. It was, after all, the first of his albums to truly capture the essence of what he stood for and a template for aspiring guitarists. Brian May is on record as saying that his own signature 'toppy' sound was derived from Gallagher's advice after a show on the use of treble boosters etc. In fact, Rory was renowned for taking the time to explain his techniques with young fans, so there are probably a whole lot more examples out there. Simply put, Rory was a giant among the players who defined what a 'rock guitarist' could be.

His early choice to work in the showbands that toured the clubs of his native Ireland in the '60s was regarded as a cop-out, until everyone realised that he was merely learning his stagecraft (as Jon Anderson would have it - ho ho). Not only that but (a little like Van Morrison) he was also getting a grounding in far more than rhythm and blues. By the late '60s he'd become the coolest kid on the block with the longest hair and the hottest licks. In Ireland at this point it almost equated to avant garde behaviour. His first band, Taste, were also far more than the usual Cream-alike power trio. Their repertoire included gutsy blues primitivism, folk, prog and even a fair amount of jazz. Check out their performance on Beat Club in 1970, and see Rory wail on the sax! He kept up the habit well into the '70s, as well.

By the band's legendary appearance at the Isle of Wight festival in the same year this was, in all but name, a solo act. Again, Rory's eyes-on-the-prize drive that led to a successful launch of a solo career the following year belies any simplistic take on the man and his muse.

Myth had it (when I was younger) that Rory was not the brightest bulb in the box - unconcerned with financial success as long as his brother/manager kept him in Guinness and enough money for strings and petrol for his car. I'm pretty sure that a huge quantity of this mythology stems from good old-fashioned racism. The fact is, if you watch the (rather excellent, if you ignore The Edge and Bob Geldof) documentary, Ghost Blues, you'll hear the story of a man who, from an early age just knew exactly what he wanted to do: play guitar and lead a band. If that single-mindedness led to Rory being branded stupid it was because people often mistake focus and dedication with a lack of imagination. It's true that in the biographies you do begin to sense that the interviewees - unable to expand on the man's personality other than he was 'generous' 'sweet' or 'nice' - are running out of synonyms for 'boring'. And this view has undoubtedly tainted the man's reputation. 

However, back in the early '70s this was a man who was touring the States as a support for every major act around (and regularly blowing them off stage), playing equally easily to stadium crowds as well as tiny clubs. When he began touring under his own name he was important enough to audition (and reject) Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell for his new trio: a fact worth noting if you happen to (wrongly) believe that his eventual choices (Gerry McAvoy on bass and Wilgar Campbell) were 'hacks' as some journalists remarked at the time. Rory was never anything but driven and knew just what suited his style. 

Following the smoother approach of his eponymous debut album, Gallagher quickly realised that he needed to somehow bottle the live energy in a studio format. Deuce, the follow-up was rawer (and pretty close to the best he ever got in studio confines) yet, as stated, it wasn't until later that year that Live In Europe really set his star alight. So much so that, when Mick Taylor left the Stones, Rory was one of the guitarists auditioned to replace him. But Rory was a born leader, not follower, and he was wise enough to pass.

The replacement of Campbell by the less versatile Rod de'Ath on drums led to his trio expanding to a four-piece, with Lou Martin on keyboards to fill out the sound. To my ears Martin's rinky-dink electric piano always detracted from Gallagher's already top-end dynamic, and while he was undoubtedly accomplished one can only speculate how things may have gone if he'd found a more sonically compatible keyboardist. Still, the live shows of this period (as captured on Irish Tour '74) were blistering. With a voice that was both sweet and growling, and a brace of more than adequate songs, Rory was in his element: slaying the crowd, night after night after night... 

Another irony of his (supposed) back-to basics approach was the iconic effect it had on him and his image; or lack of it. Rory truly hated the idea of stardom and had no use for recognition or validation, yet the business (and his fans) kept trying to smother him in it. 

For starters, there's his legendary guitar. I'm aware that the fetishisation of axes amongst the more obsessive six-string enthusiasts can run amok, given the chance. Read any of the thousands of guitar magazines and you'll hear references to legendary instruments referred to by soubriquets that seem to approach the level of naming of weaponry in cheap sword and sorcery novels: Billy Gibbons' 'Miss Pearly Gates', BB King's 'Lucille' (of which there were apparently many), Eric Clapton's 'Blackie' and 'The Fool', Neil Young's 'Old Black' and even Willie Nelson's 'Trigger'. But visit the Rory Gallagher website and you can buy a POSTER of his guitar. A poster! Rory's '61 Strat was bought secondhand for £100 in 1963 (another indicator that Rory knew exactly what he wanted at an extremely early age) and, along with its pre-CBS buyout status, is most famous for being the most beaten up instrument on the rock stage at any time, before or since. The way in which the patina had worn was allegedly down to Rory's rare blood type which gave his sweat a high alkaline content that literally ate away at the varnish. 

Equally iconic was his lack of 'devices'. Despite the aforementioned treble booster, Rory was well known for eschewing the technical trappings of rock stardom. Not for him any wah-wah, fuzz or volume pedals that afflicted the post-Hendrix generation: he learned to use just tone and volume controls to achieve these effects along with a startling dexterity with harmonics. He even used an old aspirin bottle as a slide. The only downside of using less to achieve more is that his later work sounds horribly artificial as he finally started to use flangers and effects racks in the '80s.

People at the time equated this lack of flummery as a 'workmanlike' approach to his craft, yet if you watch his shows he frequently dazzles in a way that perhaps only Jeff Beck replicates, demonstrating a tonal mastery over the six strings that uses the guitar for its own ends. Yet, unlike Beck, his guitar isn't wielded like some phallic extension, but seems more like a third limb: no wonder his old Strat became so legendary, it was as much a part of him as his arms. But the same applies to his 1930s National Steel. Ragtime, country, etc etc. Rory really could play 'em all.

And on the  dodgy subject of rock and sexuality, it always seems fascinating that when he died tragically young at 47 he left no (acknowledged) partner or children. His style packs a masculine aggression born of years treading the boards in the roughest drinking establishments and yet how did such a handsome boy avoid the snares of the heart? A cursory glance at forums reveals the usual sexual stereotyping that comes with 'rock', desperate to disparage any hint of being gay in favour of the adages of 'life on the road' negating any long-term relationships, or even that he had a mysterious American girlfriend. In the end, who really cares? The fact remains that the musical seam he mined had more to do with hardship and bad luck than the pursuance of getting his rocks off. He's far more believable when singing of his time in Sing Sing on 'In Your Town' or despairing of the destructive power of sex vs spirituality on 'I Could've Had Religion'. He loved the mythology and the symbolism of the blues ('you're just born with it' he tells a German interviewer in one of the attached clips), and that included the hard-drinking lifestyle that was to be his downfall.

But above all Rory has, for me, become a symbol of artistic integrity that transcends genre or technical ability. On the second point it has to be stated that if you watch any of the videos on the playlist below you'll quickly surmise that Gallagher was an astounding guitarist who simply preferred to work within the more basic framework of the blues. Taste's earlier explorations in jazz (along with tracks such as 'They Don't Make Them Like You Anymore' on Tattoo) show that those years in a show band had given Rory the chops to deal with most other genres. What's more, his distinctive phrasing contains a huge dollop of Irish folk in its trills and flourishes. And in many ways that's what Rory's biggest legacy has been: putting Irish music on the world stage. 

Anyway - spend some time with Rory - and marvel again at the world's most self-effacing, genuine guitarist. Whatever that entails...