Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Goneril? Who the **** is Goneril?

Britain’s greatest living playwright (discuss), Sir Tom Stoppard, has said that audiences fail to get many of the literary allusions in his play. For example, he believes that a one-liner about Goneril in Travesties (1974) would fly above the heads of many people watching or reading it today. In The Guardian, Michael Billington sensibly argues that it doesn’t matter a great deal if every theatre-goer fails to get every reference, but there is a bigger question bubbling under the surface: in a post(?)-postmodern culture, is there such a thing any more as a cultural canon, of which we can expect everyone to be aware? And if so, what should it contain? Billington is blasé about the fact that a proportion of Stoppard’s and Shakespeare’s gags may fall flat these days, but feels the need at the end of his article to explain that Rhett Butler was in Gone With The Wind. Which is something that my parents, say, would not need to be told and nor would they have to have it spelled out to them that Goneril was one of Lear’s daughters; but they may not have got the reference to Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown in the title of this blog post. I wonder whether Stoppard would get it – and if he did, would it make him seem more or less clever?

PS: And here’s something – an article in The Atlantic that feels obliged to explain who Plato was.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Page 3, Charlie Hebdo and the bare boobs of Angkor

Last week, The Sun pulled off what was widely regarded — through gritted teeth — as a PR masterstroke, by appearing to retire its venerable Page 3 feature (an attractive young lady with her breasts on display) and then, with all the brouhaha for and against still sounding in the air, bringing it back. But before the other media were forced to retract their obituaries, their coverage seemed to come up against the same sort of dilemmas and paradoxes that were exposed by all the Charlie Hebdo-related comment: essentially, if the key issue is whether it’s appropriate or not to depict something (Mohammed, boobs) you’re forced to take sides when you choose whether or not to depict it. Many of the papers and other news sources attempted to fudge the task by running pictures of former Page 3 stars such as Samantha Fox or Linda Lusardi, but choosing poses where they weren’t airing their areolae. This in turn raises further questions, since these more demure poses were still cheesecake shots for the gratification of the straight male gaze, which is apparently the whole problem with Page 3 — otherwise we’d have to infer that breasts per se were the problem, a profoundly anti-female stance that would probably have found favour with the Kouachi brothers, albeit maybe not with the sort of fervour that might have prompted them to shoot up an editorial meeting of The Sun. Because bare breasts when deployed in the cause of feminism — as in the case of Femen, say, are a good thing. Oh, hang on, maybe not.

In a parallel development, there has been outrage at the appearance of photos of topless women taken in and around the historic temples of Angkor in Cambodia; this is particularly controversial because what clothes they are wearing make them resemble apsara, cloud spirits of Hindu/Buddhist mythology. Apart from the fact that this is far from the first time such a scandal has erupted, observers have been quick to point out that Angkor is absolutely swimming in images of underclad females, in the form of the carvings on the temple walls, but that cuts no ice with Kerya Chau Sun of the Apsara Authority: “When you insult someone’s culture, it’s not art at all,” she says. Which is pretty lame as a code of aesthetics but I suppose it neatly encapsulates the thinking behind the campaigns against both Charlie Hebdo and Page 3. Although it does raise a further question: if it were art, would that make it OK?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ahmed Aboutaleb says “fuck off” (or does he?)

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and associated horrible events, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, has told Muslims who don’t like the city’s chilled pluralism and might consider taking violent offence at the contents of a newspaper to “rot toch op”, which has been translated in the British media — with varying numbers of asterisks — as “fuck off”. I don’t speak Dutch; some contacts have suggested that in reality Aboutaleb’s words might be translated as a rather milder “go to hell” or even just “go away”, but he’s still earned plaudits for his straight-talking approach to the enemies of freedom. Of course, Mr Aboutaleb is of Moroccan extraction, so he can probably use more direct language than some other civic leaders could get away with, without being accused of racism or Islamophobia. (I’m thinking of Boris Johnson, his Turkish ancestry notwithstanding.)

But the discussion did get me thinking about what an odd beast our favourite expletive construction really is. If we accept that “fuck” means to copulate, how exactly does one “fuck off”? It creates images of someone copulating so forcefully that he or she is propelled bodily from the bed or other surface, rather in the manner of Viz’s Johnny Fartpants being sent skywards by the power of his own bottom burps. The American “fuck yourself” is more satisfying as an insult, casting the recipient as a sort of carnal oureboros, pleasuring and consuming himself at once, the ultimate in squalid self-indulgence. But then the “off” does reinforce that your ultimate goal is for the person in question to leave your presence entirely, which I guess was Mr Aboutaleb’s main point. Maybe in celebration of this excellent fellow we should recalibrate our default swear mode to “rot toch op”. And unless we’re telling a Dutch person where to go, only we know how rude we’re being.

PS: This:

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

#JeSuisCharlie and David Bowie’s teeth

I realise I’ve been rather slack of late in the attention I’ve been paying to this silly little blog, but really, does it matter what I write or don’t write. I did have a few vague ideas for writing something about the apparent modest upsurge in sales of print books versus e-books, with particular reference to the covetable designs of the past two or three Murakami titles; and I also toyed with being sardonic about the fact that someone made a sculpture based on David Bowie’s teeth. But ultimately, I was thinking, hey, it’s just a blog, who cares?

And then, on the way back from a visit to review a restaurant (it was very good, by the way, thanks for asking) I found out about the Charlie Hebdo attack. And you think you’ve become, immune, numb to such horrors, and in terms of numbers it wasn’t even the worst terrorist attack of the day but something about the scenario in Paris overwhelmed me. Some people drew some silly cartoons, so some other people went round and killed them. All sorts of words came to mind, disproportionate, barbaric, counter-productive but the one that kept banging around my head was “stupid”. This wasn’t really about religion or politics, it was about people who have invested their whole selves in an identity of wilful, blinkered stupidity and when they see anything that challenges it (because even if a cartoon is silly, it can still be clever) their only response is bullets or bombs. Just like the recent school attacks by the Taliban and Boko Haram, this was about not being able to cope with any manifestation of intelligence or curiosity or critical that might threaten one’s own lumpen, black-and-white view of the world. And I started spewing on social media, mainly links to some of the other cartoons that people have been drawing in recent hours in support of their slain colleagues. And ultimately it doesn’t really matter what I say on Twitter, what pictures I put on Facebook or Flickr, or even whether I go back to regular postings on this blog. Except that it does matter, because I can say things and suddenly it’s very important that if I can, I do. And the same applies to all of you. Say it. Write it. Draw it. Because you can. Because the fact that you can matters and it suddenly matters even more.

Sorry, I’m still so sad and angry that this isn’t really going anywhere. In a few days I’ll come back and it’ll be all about Bowie’s teeth again. But for now I’ll just repeat something I wrote on Twitter a few hours ago, that felt like howling into the void but a few people said they appreciated it: If your faith is so fragile that it can be troubled by a silly cartoon, is it worth even being faithful?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Interview: but is it art?

Until a few days ago, the Seth Rogen/James Franco movie The Interview appeared to be nothing more than a crass, schlocky, buddy movie with a bit of heavy-handed politics thrown in. But then things got interesting. First came the cyber-attack against Sony that may or may not have had something to do with North Korea (although they said “it’s not us, guv”). Then the big cinema chains in the United States, mindful of the rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang, announced that they wouldn’t be showing the film, and Obama weighed in to say that the Koreans were acting like terrorists and the Koreans said “oh yeah, well you’re the real terrorists” and then he said that he was disappointed in Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures said “it’s not us, guv” and then someone knocked out the whole internet in North Korea and most of us said “but we didn’t think they had the internet in North Korea” and now it turns out that The Interview will be shown in cinemas after all, but only in a few small independents and art houses. And Obama said, gee, I’m proud of you guys, Merry Christmas.
A few thoughts. First, I’m sure I’m not the first person to wonder whether this might be the most deviously brilliant marketing campaign ever, worthy — if this isn’t getting just a tad too self-referential — of a movie in its own right. Then, if the terrorist threats were indeed credible, are we supposed to assume that a few earnest cinephiles munching vegan brownies would be a tolerable level of collateral damage whereas the loss of a packed cineplex would be beyond the pale? And finally, if The Interview is now to be shown in art houses, does its context at the centre of a geopolitical shouting match mean that it has suddenly become art?

On similar lines, it would appear that Cecilia Giménez’s cack-handed restoration of a fresco at the church in her hometown of Borja, Spain, has attracted 150,000 visitors over the past couple of years, numbers that would make many provincial galleries salivate. Maybe that’s the answer when it comes to The Interview: yes, it’s art, but nobody said it had to be good art.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On re-reading Douglas Coupland

It’s a difficult thing, falling out of love with an author (or musician or artist or chef or, for that matter, a lover, I guess). The moment you realise their last two or three books have been dull reiterations of the same bloody theme, or misguided attempts to switch genre, or half-arsed doodles that wouldn’t have been commissioned if they didn’t have an established name attached, or some combination of all of them, can be a punch in the face. It’s not just the time you’ve wasted ploughing through the tomes in the hope of finding some of the sparkle that attracted you to the author in the first place; it’s the fact that even the earlier books, the ones you do love, are a little bit tainted. The question starts to nag at the back of your skull — were they actually that good to start with? And do you really want to go back and find out?

Shortly after I gave up on Douglas Coupland, thanks to the confused farce and misfiring satire of Worst. Person. Ever., I also managed to lose my Kindle, so found myself getting reacquainted with my bookcase. Which is how I found myself leafing through Coupland’s third book, Life After God, which I think I think I first read in the dying days of the John Major administration. In the last story, the narrator tracks down the friends from his teenaged years, including Julie, who is “trying to escape from ironic hell” – perhaps embodying the shift from the sarcastic wisecracks of the author’s debut, Generation X, to the more fleshed-out characters that came in the likes of Girlfriend in a Coma. And this exchange occurs, although as the use of the future tense implies, maybe it’s all in the narrator’s wishful thinking and will never really happen.
We will talk some more. She will remind me of a night the seven of us had back in 1983. “You know — the night we drank lemon gin and we each stole a flower from the West Van graveyard for our lapels.”
I will draw a blank. I won’t remember.
“Oh, Scout, don’t blank out on me now — you weren’t that drunk. You gave me all that great advice at that restaurant downtown. I changed schools because of that advice.”
I will still draw a blank. “Sorry, Julie.”
“This is truly pathetic, Scout. Think. Markie went shirtless down Denman Street; Todd and Dana and Kristy got fake tattoos.”
“Uh – brain death here. Nothing.”
Julie will become obsessed with making me remember: “There was that horrible brown vinyl 1970s furniture in the restaurant. You ate a live fish.”
“Wait!” I’ll cry. “Brown 1970s furniture – I remember brown 1970s furniture.”
“Well thank the Lord,” Julie will say, “I thought I was going mad.”
“No, wait, it’s all coming back to me now... the flowers... the fish.” Like a thin strand of dental floss the entire evening will return to me, inch by inch, gently tugged along by Julie. Finally, I will remember the night in its entirety, but the experience will be strangely tiring. The two of us will sit on the warm concrete steps quietly. “What was the point of that story, anyhow?” I will ask.
“I can’t remember,” Julie will say.
 You know, maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Why I am no longer a clown

When I was about eight years old, each class had to put on some sort of performance once a term for the rest of the school. Our teacher, Mr Gamble, decided the theme would be “When I Grow Up” and so each of us had to write a short piece about our career aspirations. I can’t recall many of the other choices; lots of boys as footballers, girls as princesses, I suppose, although one young lady announced that she wanted to be a frog, a decision that seems ever more magnificent the older I get.

I wanted to be a clown. In retrospect, this probably derives from a memory of about five years before, one of the first things I can genuinely remember with certainty (rather than remembering the retelling of it as it seeps into family folk history). We were watching Billy Smart’s circus on TV when the kitchen suddenly erupted in flames, the result of a hyperactive chip pan, and yes, the very notion of a chip pan might hint at how bloody old I really am. My parents did everything by the book, one phoning the fire brigade, the other hustling my sister and me out of the house to a neighbour’s place, where we were plonked down in front of a telly that was also tuned to the goings-on in the big top — not such a startling coincidence in those days, as there were but three channels. I have no memory whatsoever of the fire engine or of the blackened, sodden mess into which the kitchen had turned by the time we were allowed back into our house, only of the fact that the neighbours had a colour TV, while we had a mere black and white set, and that the clowns were funnier in colour.

Back to school. I’ve written a poem about how bloody brilliant clowns are and Mr Gamble says it’s good enough to read to the assembled audience. (I’ve also started writing poetry but haven’t yet conceived of Being A Poet as a career option. That comes later.) I dress in an approximation of an auguste’s finery, including a garishly checked blazer borrowed from my grandmother, and paint on an appropriate face. Mr Gamble suggests that a suitable ending for my moment in the spotlight would be for me to get hit with a pie and so taken with the whole experience am I that I just say yes, whatever, great, do it, I’m a clown — I haven’t actually contemplated what the experience might be like.

Come the morning of the performance, the various policemen and train drivers and pop stars do their schtick and frog girl sits on a lily pad and croaks and then it’s my turn. I do a few prat falls. I do my bit of bloody awful poetry. And then Mr Gamble hits me, hard, in the face, with a pie. Except it’s not really a pie, it’s just a paper plate, covered in flour-and-water paste. And instead of sliding elegantly towards the floor, leaving my eyes blinking soulfully from within the white goop, it just stays stuck to my face. I can hear my schoolmates, even if I can’t see them. And everyone is laughing, which is nice, but it’s the same sort of laughter that comes when the roly-poly headmaster, Mr Petts, calls some hapless child a ruddy lazy idiot in front of the whole school. Laughing at, not laughing with. Suddenly, I don’t want to be a clown any more.

Of course, if Mr Gamble had read this recipe for the perfect comedy pie the whole thing might have gone more successfully and my life might have taken a completely different path, clown dreams intact.

I wonder what happened to the girl who wanted to be a frog.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols

I bloody love Mike Nichols’ first two features, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, and am quite fond of several of his later ones, without having ever thought of him as any kind of great auteur. Neither did he, if a quotation in his obituary is anything to go by. Setting himself apart from the likes of Renoir, he said:
The rest of us make entertainment. And that’s an absolutely honourable profession. Straining towards art is confusing and useless.