Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category
Thursday, December 19th, 2013
I have been interviewing an unconscionable number of very famous actors lately. You know of Dench and de Niro and there are more to come in the New Year. In the course of doing one phoner with a very big actor indeed, I was stopped in my tracks when she apologised for talking about the film in question because she knew actors sounded so boring when they did that.
Well, I’m afraid she was right, they often do. Indeed, years ago I used to liven up drab dinner parties with tales of the most boring actors I had ever met. How we used to laugh at the luvvies! The exceptions were actors I understood as I did Monica Bellucci, the chemistry of which encounter Clive James was kind enough – and surgical enough – to dissect. But, on the whole, actors were a gruelling task.
Yet, as Clive pointed out, the actor interview is a journalistic staple. Meeting big stars is something that can happen surprisingly early in your career. Getting good at it is another matter. I watch videos of actor interviews conducted by journalists and I am often amazed they can stay awake. Also when mainstream news shows on TV or radio wander, all innocent, into ‘the arts’, they invariably end up producing an uninformative, soupy promo for the film or play. But, in fairness, I admit I still come out of actor interviews feeling a miserable failure. Why is this?
Well, as the anonymous lady who apologised made clear, there is something a bit odd about actors talking about the works in which they appear. Why should they know anything except the necessities of their own part? Indeed, I am always noticing that even the most actor-friendly directors tend to conceal the big themes of the work from their stars. The themes would get in the way. They can talk about other things of course but these tend to be much more boring than art – my cocaine hell, my battle with fat/drink/the law, my love rat husband etc.
These thoughts have, in recent years, made me much more understanding of actors. Asking them how they did it is rather like asking them to explain how they ride a bike. Also, in spite of the rabid, contractually necessary self-promotion, unless they are in the very highest reaches of fame and sometimes even then, they are vulnerable creatures. I have seen them stare in almost pathetic wonder and gratitude as I rambled on about some aspect of their performances. They also tend to have become accustomed to deliberately constructing what they take to be an interesting persona, sometimes involving bad politics. This has to be got out of the way asap. Some act their way through the entire thing and, when that works, it is pure fun – Helen Mirren being my best example. But I find it easier these days to make them interesting – basically you start with the amazingly banal, thereby putting the being interesting ball in their court. Acting, after all, is just another art, once mastered it becomes all but impossible to explain how you do it. This is why I find indirection is often the best approach.
After years of laughing at them, I have mellowed into acceptance. No, I would go further, I find, to my surprise, that I love the luvvies.
Saturday, December 14th, 2013
This may sound a bit specialised and I know I’m a photo bore, but, bear with me, it’s might be worth it.
’The death of photography: are camera phones destroying an art form?’ runs the headline. Standing up this line is Antonio Olmos who says, ‘Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.’
I think this is daft. It’s good lots more people are taking pictures because the more thoughtful among them will come to realise the greatness of Don McCullin – the democratisation of literacy has the same effect with Shakespeare and Keats.
But Olmos is not being half as daft as Nick Knight, a professional photographer who has taken to using an iPhone on his assignments.
‘What I’m into,’ he says, ‘is visual connection to what I’m taking, not pin-sharp clarity. It’s absurd for people to think all photos need to be high-resolution – what matters, artistically, is not how many pixels it has, but if the image works. People fetishise the technology in photography more than any other medium. You don’t get anybody but paintbrush nerds fixating on what brush the Chapman brothers use. The machinery you create your art on is irrelevant.’
To say you can produce great images with your iPhone is to say nothing. You can produce great images with a hammer and a slice of Battenberg or, as Robert Rauschenberg did, with a goat and a tyre. And no, of course, we, the audience, don’t have to worry about paintbrushes, but artists do. I’m pretty sure from Titian to Hockney they’ve gone for the best, not because they’re gadget neurotics but because they don’t want anything to get in the way. You can do more with good brushes. Equally, you can do more with good cameras. I can do everything – I think – the iPhone can do with my Leica ME and later, I hope, with a Nikon D800, plus a million other things. Of course, you don’t pursue resolution and sharpness for their own sake, it is just that, if you have them, you are freer.
The non-specialised point is the philistinism implicit in these arguments. I am not sure it is meaningful to talk of destroying an art form, though people do all the time. If the novel ‘died’ tomorrow would people stop telling stories? One may mourn, as I sometimes do, the passing of a technology – vinyl records or film – but music and photography haven’t died and, anyway, you can still get film and vinyl. And, note, despite dark forebodings in the 1840s, photography did not stop people painting. On the other hand it is certainly true that digital photography has engendered a manic pursuit of some kind of perfection that is, in itself, aesthetically meaningless and that this should be rejected. But McCullin and his peers can deal with that and show the way.
So, if you’re getting a camera for Christmas, make sure it the most expensive one the giver can afford, but don’t unbox it until you have had a go with a hammer and a slice of Battenberg.
Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
The core of Stefan Zweig’s magnificent story Chess is summarised in the observation, ‘the more a man restricts himself the closer he is, conversely, to infinity’. This is said of Mirko Czentovic, a grandmaster who knows nothing but chess; he can barely communicate and has no social skills, he inhabits the game and the world is, to him, just the place where it is played. Nothing can lie beyond chess, it is, therefore, infinity.
Published in 1942, the year of Zweig’s death, it seems to echo Vladimir Nabokov’s Zashchita Luzhina (The Defence) published in 1930. The hero, Grandmaster Luzhin, also inhabits the game but has a more lively awareness of the outside world, until, that is, he becomes convinced, with tragic consequences, that the world is, in fact, a chess game.
The last work in this Eastern Europe triad is Franz Kafka’s The Burrow (published posthumously in 1931), which is not about chess. It is an unfinished story told in the first person by a mole or, possibly, a badger. This creature is desperately maintaining its systems of tunnels as a defence against the possibility of attack by some beast or other.
All three are about being locked in a world which, to outside observers, is plainly narrow and limited, but which, to the protagonist, is the whole of existence. The point is, of course, that we all live in such constricted worlds, we delude ourselves when we think otherwise. Travel may convince us we know a wider world, but we take out little minds with us wherever we go and return always to our burrows/games.
Shakespeare, as ever, got there first. He has Hamlet say, ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.’ Hamlet, the supremely conscious man, cannot delude himself about the scope of his world; he has ‘bad dreams’ that tell him there is more. The modernist heroes are less conscious than Hamlet (isn’t everybody?): Czentovic who does not dream, Luzhin whose dreams are nightmares of chess and Kafka’s creature, preserving its world against the possibility of an outside.
(In taking photographs, incidentally, I always regard myself as being inside a sphere, capturing the shapes that move on its surface. This is a modernist posture, not the renaissance one of Shakespeare. It is hard to imagine a renaissance photographer.)
Twitter, Facebook and the like want to make barely conscious, modernist heroes of us all, locking us in bubbles, translucent spheres, walled gardens that only look like the world. It is a more comfortable place than the mind of Hamlet, though it leads to psyhopathic callousness (Czentovic), to madness (Luzhin) and to neurosis and paranoia (The Burrow). Which, I suppose, means that blogging is a slightly less risky activity than tweeting, but only slightly.
Saturday, November 30th, 2013
I am a Manchester City fan so you can aim off for a degree of prejudice in what follows. I also think more about photography than anything else at the moment so you can also aim off for obsession.
‘For his 40th birthday @ManUtd have published a pic of Ryan Giggs in a fascist pose with a violent caption. Classy’
This tweet produced some odd responses: bafflement, derision and one responder who said it was ‘just’ a head shot. This last would be remarkable at any time – all images carry a distinct set of meanings - but in the age of Photoshop it was simply naive. I know photographs have always been manipulated but the advent of Photoshop made manipulation so powerful and so easy that it now takes precedence over the shooting of the original picture. This means we no longer see pictures ‘of’ anything. The magazine picture of Jennifer Aniston is not an image of THE Jen, but, rather of A Jen, a version that exists only in the imagination of the star and her retoucher.
The Giggs image is heavily manipulated. It is also very ugly, not because he is ugly but because it excites revulsion. My initial explanation for this revulsion was that the lighting, the pose and the composition reminded me of fascist ‘hero’ imagery, as in the films and photography of Leni Riefenstahl. Matters were made worse by the violence of the words, which, I now know, are Joy Division lyrics often sung by fans in honour of Giggs. This, of course, does not alter the fact that they evoke violence.
Without abandoning this reading, I have since come up with two further interpretations which take into account the colouring. Giggs’s skin is silvery grey, suggesting a corpse. But, lower down, it is suffused with the red that rises up from his collar. I take it this is intended to be United red, but it is not, it is the deep red of arterial blood. In this reading he becomes a zombie rather than a Nazi. The expresson in the eyes is no longer that of an SS officer moved by the singing of the Horst Wessel, but of a dead man puzzled by his continued existence. This reading provides an even better explanation for the words – or it would if ‘and eat you’ followed ‘apart’.
The final reading is that this image has been doctored to make him look like a figure in a violent computer game – Call of Duty perhaps. This arises from the hyper-realism of what I suspect is a heavily sharpened image. Photoshopped hyper-realism looks anything but realistic because that is not how our eyes see things, but I suppose people think it is how they should see things.
This is all, I suppose, frivolity. Or it would be if it weren’t for the fact that there now seems to be a cult of Photoshopped ugliness. I am looking at a full page Louis Vuitton ad in the FT which shows a model in the Doge’s Palace looking back over her should at the viewer. Her expression is very nasty, she seems to be saying, ‘Sod off, you can’t afford me’, which is almost certainly true but does not raise my spirits to the point where I might feel inspired to dash out and spend what little money I have saved to cover the next ruinous energy bill at LV, though I can see it might appeal to some masochists.
There are many other examples. The shift of photographic power from the taker to the processor has produced this new ugliness. It is as if in abandoning the real world occasion of the photograph, some retouchers have also abandoned the culturally acquired meanings of imagery – or perhaps they are exploiting them deliberately to upset us. Or, like certain PR firms, they are avenging themselves on clients they dislike. Whatever the explanation, the world is becoming a more dangerous place for the tutored eye. Oh and City rule
Friday, September 6th, 2013
The concave glass walls of Rafael Vinoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London focus sunlight so effectively that they melted parts of a parked car, a Jaguar XJ to be exact. Vinoly’s earlier building, the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, singed the hair of at least one visitor by the same mechanism. The fact that nobody in the City of London noticed this in the planning process is a very funny comment on the continued competence of our financial sector.
But the real story here is the glass building. I suspect Vinoly had no choice when he designed a glass-walled block, it is what companies and cities seem to expect. It is, they think, ‘modernism’. In fact, it isn’t. Of the great modernists, it is true that Mies van der Rohe favoured glass walls, but Le Corbusier didn’t and neither did Frank Lloyd Wright. If you close your eyes and think of the classical era of modernism, what you should see is white painted concrete rather than glass. However, the technology of non-structural ‘curtain’ walls, of reinforced glass and, latterly, of computer-aided design all made glass walls seem like the last word in modernity. The ensuing glass towers have become the dominant features in most of the cities of the world.
I am sure there are reasons – financial, environmental – why this should be, though my own experience of architects suggests they have a rare ability to provide almost any practical justification for what is, in reality, a purely aesthetic choice. There’s nothing wrong with that but, when it comes to aesthetics, glass is a limited and now entirely exhausted medium. Vinoly distorted his building with car-burning curves just to add a new twist (literally) to a rather routine office block. Nearby, at 122 Leadenhall Street, Richard Rogers has built his so-called ‘cheese-grater’ which gets round the tedium of glass walls with a strange shape, extravagantly exposed structure and exterior elevators. But the supreme London example of the glass tower is Renzo Piano’s Shard on the south bank of the Thames. This is the tallest building in Europe and it appear to be nothing but glass, even its shape and name signal that this is, indeed, a shard of glass and very little else but glass. It felt outdated before it was finished, the last building of the twentieth century, as Stephen Bayley put it, rather than the first of the twenty-first.
Glass, in short, has become a burden to cities, turning them all into the same city of jagged, twisted, burning, gleaming, sharp towers. From a distance, this is dull, from close-up it is worse. Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of among many other things, the London Olympic flame, explained to me exactly what was wrong with big glass sheets at street level.
‘A building landing on a street with such large singular components reminds human beings how tiny they are. They have very little of human scale and perspective and when you come up close there’s a sterilising effect. You feel you need to speed up to get past something like that.’
Glass, in short, is both deathly and dead. Designers of buildings on a smaller scale are now kicking the glass habit and, slowly, the street level is improving. But, above, the burning glass towers still threaten our cars and our souls.
Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013
Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity – a ‘fall’ blockbuster as they say – is a post-human film. Its two stars – George Clooney and Sandra Bullock – could have been played by robots. Clooney plays a standard non-threatening alpha male with a gruff manner and one minor character quirk – an urge to tell stories. Bullock plays her usual sweaty, scared but, when the chips are down, brave and competent woman in a life-threatening crisis. Algorithms for either performance would taken an averagely gifted geek no more than a couple of hours of programming. The plot algorithm would have taken him five minutes and, being a geek, he would have taken special pride in his specification of tight shorts for Bullock.
The story is an accident on a space shuttle which they must somehow survive and return to earth. ‘Gravity’ is a rather arbitrary title and, in fact, ‘stars’ is a misleading term for Clooney and Bullock. The real star is the kit – shuttles. space stations, re-entry capsules and so on. Finally, ‘director’ is an altogether absurd description of Cuaron’s role in this fiasco, unless directing entails the same shots endlessly repeated and the systematic elimination of all credibility and dramatic interest.
I can see the attraction of all the kit stuff and I can imagine being gripped by the film at the age of, say nine, but certainly not at the age of twelve. Still, lots of people seem to like it. Why? Because, I suppose, audiences are becoming more interested in machines than people. These two very good actors just phoned in two routine performances. We know, from the first minute, that one character/algorithm will survive and one won’t and, soon afterwards, we know which one it must be. What keeps us going (not me, I actually rose to walk out at one point but then felt an anthropological urge to stay) is the machinery, how it works, how it stops working and how it falls apart. Even I felt a more intimate contact with the Chinese version of Soyuz than I did with Bullock, shorts or no shorts.
Gravity, like so many things I have encountered, may represent the end of civilisation as we know it, but more likely it’s just a stupid movie. Don’t go and see it, you will only be encouraging them.
Saturday, August 31st, 2013
Staying at Mountain Village in the Colorado Rockies, I need to catch what the locals call the gondola but we would call a cable car to get down to Telluride. I start at about 9000 feet above sea level. The car first rises up to 10,500 feet and then falls 2000 feet to drop me downtown where the Film Festival is in progress.
For 13 minutes I skim through the ghostly aspens. I have not yet been alone. People jump into the cars together and then they talk. They tell stories about themselves and expect yours in response. I have drifted up in complete darkness with a retired Texan hedge funder who asked me if I knew Jeremy Clarkson and skimmed downwards with a local kid who wanted to study at the Royal Academy. One family from Philadelphia included me in a debate about the finer points of canyoneering and mountaineering. A lady explained something of the biology of aspens. Only once have I sat in silence – a high school girl and some college students were discussing their lives in terms far beyond my sphere of competence.
Meanwhile, Nige reminds me that it is 50 years since William Zantzinger received a six month sentence for killing Hattie Carroll, a casual, racist injustice that would have been forgotten but for the fact that it produced a very great work of art – Bob Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol, which was, as Nige says, ‘one of the first songs to reveal his talent in all its blazing glory’. Christopher Ricks told me he regarded it as was one of three perfect songs by Dylan, the others being I Want You and Sign on the Window.
What strikes me most about Hattie Carroll is its dazzling storytelling through the use of startling syntax and unexpected detail. You can read the lyrics for yourself, but here’s just one example – Carroll, sings Dylan, ‘Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane/That sailed through the air and came down through the room.’ This takes my breath away. That ‘down through the room’ is shocking in its oddity. It is obviously surplus to requirements – what else would it come down through? – but, somehow, it puts you right there at that fateful moment; you can feel the air disturbed by the cane’s movement on your face. I could go on…
The British tend to think of poetry as a matter of economy, of compression. Dylan, like Whitman, like America, sees it as an occasion for extension. And why not? Life should be extended. That’s what stories are all about.
It’s also what America, at her glorious best, is all about. Those gondola conversations will stay with me as evidence of a sweet, gracious, courteous, polite, curious, friendly, storytelling society. That is my normal experience of this country. Of course, I know the rest – the sentimental attachment to violence, a dim-witted respect for money, an appalling vulgarity, the creation of a vicious kleptocracy that is expropriating the wealth of the middle and working classes and now, probably, another unwise military adventure. But, strange as it may be, those things all become less not more apparent when you are actually here. What becomes most apparent is the urge to tell stories, perhaps because there are still remnants of settler/frontier society or – and I am pretty sure this is the most important factor – simply because it is very big country whose wildernesses inspire a strong sense of place and home and a desire to celebrate that in stories.
The gondola tales are like poems, yet further occasions of extension and little moments of sweetness and grace. Hattie Carroll lives on, having changed the world for the better. This land is not my land but sometimes I wish it was.
Tuesday, August 27th, 2013
In the early years of Thatcher I remember a conversation with a triumphant right-winger (a self-described bastard) in which he snorted with disdain about ‘people who care.’ I knew what he meant and I still do. On the one hand there is the whole caring industry, always seeking out new ways in which we must care; on the other hand there is the bloated welfare state with all its injustices and ineffectiveness.
Personally, being hyper-empathetic (or so I am told (critically)), I do a lot of caring, but I distrust any attempt to institutionalise the impulse, either by civil servants or the cast of Woman’s Hour. Yet, having drifted leftward, I can no longer tolerate triumphant right-wingers (aka bastards). That neo-con/neo-lib, anti-conservative generation has been proved wrong about everything of significance – primarily, wars and equality. They have some good points about welfare spending, but they have no right to make them because they persist in failing to condemn or act upon the financial industry’s multiple crime waves.
The first caring dilemma was caught, as it so often was, in the greatest of all sitcoms, Frasier, with a slogan for the Golden Acres rest home – ‘We care, so you don’t have to’. Turning caring into either an industry or a government programme runs the risk of relieving us all of the burden of mutual concern. In sending grandad to a nursing home, we are caring as much or more for ourselves than we are for him.
The second dilemma is abstraction. Can we care in the abstract – for all people – or do we need specific subjects? The first is a requirement of Christianity, the second of a certain type of realism. I am with the first because I agree with Dostoyevksy – ‘Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity’ – but I sympathise with the second, even though I have less and less patience with people who claim to be realists.
These thoughts came while listening to, you guessed it, Woman’s Hour in which, as usual, various people were demanding we care about certain other people. This sort of thing is as much of a contemporary luxury as designer luggage – I am writing this at Heathrow – and, often, as absurd. We were being asked to care about people who were suffering nothing more than the normal vicissitudes of the human condition, or, as they would now be called, ‘first world problems’. But, obviously, some vicissitudes can be soothed by people who care, so presumably they should be, assuming at least some cost-benefit analysis is involved and, assuming further, that the soothing did not do more harm than good – by, for example, encouraging the victims of said vicissitudes not to help themselves.
Of course, we now know of every, as it were, vicissitudee so we are subject to constant demands to make up our minds about whether we care. This may be a good thing. There need to be voices saying we should care to ensure that we don’t cease to care at all. I am, at this moment, caring about Syria because I suspect that whatever happens next will be even worse than what is happening now – the usual outcome when Tony Blair is keen to start shooting. I believe, in short, that the voices of those who demand we care are civilised voices. The demands may be annoying, impractical and absurd, but sometimes they aren’t. They belong in the marketplace of ideas. The anti-caring bastards had their chance and they blew it. They now don’t have a leg to stand on. Perhaps they need a carer.
Thursday, August 22nd, 2013
Arianna Huffington has decided to end commenter anonymity at the Huffington Post. Our conversation, she tells me, was ‘very important in my decision’. In my article wrote, ‘Somebody has to teach the internet companies some basic logic – anonymity and free speech are incompatible – and Arianna is in a position to do it.’ As many people don’t seem to understand this point, I had better explain.
Anonymity has been claimed by internet utopians as an aspect of free speech. This is the illogic to which I was referring. To claim freedom is to claim moral agency. It would be wrong to claim that a lion is free – though I understand the idea has a kind of sentimental, anthropomorphic charm – because the lion, lacking self-consciousness, is not a moral agent. When we use the word ‘free’ about humans, we do so in acknowledgment of our common humanity, the assumption being that others are like us in the sense that they can discriminate between right and wrong.
Of course, this is not always the case – psychopaths being the extreme example – but, without the assumption, much of what we say to each other would be meaningless. It is intrinsic to freedom, therefore, that we are identified.
Before the internet this was a fairly normal states of affairs. People, of course, could write anonymous letters or anonymously shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, but, overwhelmingly, communications were between people who identified themselves – either by giving their name or being present in person – as humans like you and me. (I am aware of the special case of whistleblower whose life or job may depend on being anonymous, but, if he is to be accepted, he must identify himself to the people to whom he is blowing his whistle.)
The internet turned anonymity into a new norm. People became accustomed to communicating with unidentified strangers. Sometimes robots would be involved, but, obviously, most of these communications would be with humans. However, these were a new type of human, a type whose moral agency was eliminated by anonymity. The exploitations of this perversion of freedom are all too familiar. They point to a future in which the very fact of moral agency will come to be seen as an encumbrance. There may be advantages to this state of affairs, but none of them will be freedom.
In short, only humans are free and they only attain freedom through moral agency, by asserting their place in the human realm. I cannot imagine any other coherent conception of freedom. To treat anonymity, therefore, as an aspect of freedom is an extraordinary perversion, a reduction of our humanity. I am proud to have helped persuade Arianna of this truth.
Wednesday, August 21st, 2013
I can’t stop thinking about the hair of Michaella McCollum, one of the British drug ‘mules’ arrested in Peru. It is extravagant, absurd, a swollen cushion drawing unflattering attention to her long face and neck. As is that weren’t enough, she is wearing a tee shirt bearing the legend ‘La Vie est Belle’. She is doing everything she can to appear to be ‘living the dream’of youth. Fame is one necessary component of that dream, of course, and now she has that too. Perhaps she will find that consoling in the years ahead. It is all unbearably pathetic
But I can’t help wondering: how did she arrive at that hairdo? It is not casual; constructing the cushion and ensuring the strands below are tightened to uniformity must occupy a good deal of her time. It is, I am told, fashionable, though I have never seen one quite like it. I know the beehive had a resurgence in recent years, but this is not a beehive as I understand it. The style evokes, perhaps, the extravagances of some earlier age, a time when women were constructed primarily to be seen and were obliged to pursue ever more ‘unnatural’ methods. In fact, I now see why Michaella’s look rang a bell in my mind. She has some distant resemblance to John Singer Sargent’s Madame X and, indeed, perhaps Madame X would have looked just as pathetic as Michaella in the hands of the Peruvian police.
I cannot explain why the young should ape the fashions of the Edwardian baroque other than to say that, bound, as they are, to a competitive wheel, they are statistically certain to recycle every look over time. That, probably, is why this picture resonates. It advertises the ignorance of youth, its failure to grasp the narrowness of its own world, the littleness of its concerns. This ignorance is usually touching, but, left to its own devices, it can, in an instant, become as pathetic as Michaella. La vie est belle, children, except when it isn’t.