Archives for August 2011

“Cowboys & Aliens” – Jon Favreau

Cowboys, and Aliens! Gedit?! What a fantastic idea for a film! You take two of Hollywood’s most successful genres and mash them up! On the one hand, you have one of the oldest and most iconic of Hollywood genres, the western. And on the other, the classic means of reflecting the present by projecting into the future; science fiction. What’s more, both genres take themselves fantastically seriously, so mixing them up like this makes the inevitable humour that’s sure to follow all the more delicious! But here’s the killer; they’ve written all the jokes out!!! How fantastic is that?! They’ve taken the whole premise for the film, the very idea for making it in the first place, and turned it on its head! Instead of playing it for laughs, they play the whole thing completely straight! Brilliant!

I don’t like to go out on a limb here, but I confidently predict the birth of a whole new genre; the Surprise Package, or the Miss-match. After all, why stop with an unfunny comedy? What about an un-scary horror film? So instead of all that boring gore and any of that irritating tension, we spend the whole film focusing in on the teenage romance? Or alternatively, we concentrate on what it would actually be like, if you really did have to come to terms with the fact that your teenage girlfriend had been decapitated by a homicidal, axe-wielding manic in a Halloween mask. You’d end up in therapy for weeks, and as for your end of term exams, forget about it. Almost certainly, you’d have to repeat the whole year, which would be an absolute disaster.

Or what about a sex-free porn film, where everybody keeps their clothes on? When the plumber arrives in the first scene, we spend the rest of the film finding out precisely how it is that he fixes the plumbing. So when it comes to him thrusting his plunger deep into her hole and spraying for all he’s worth, we’ll get a detailed shot of her sink and his actual toolbox.

I’m not quite sure exactly why, but I haven’t as yet got around to actually heading out to my local multiplex and watching Cowboys and Aliens. But believe you me, I can’t wait! An hilarious, side-splitting comedy, but without the jokes! Genius!

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Washed Out – “Within and Without”

From the moment that Ernest Greene’s vocals kick in on the opening track on Within and Without, his first album proper under the moniker Washed Out, you know exactly where you are. It’s the same terrain mapped out by Panda Bear on his most recent outing, Tomboy, the follow up to his justly lauded third album Person Pitch, from 2007.

Panda Bear is the guise Noah Lennox adopts when he’s not performing as one of the core members of Animal Collective, New York’s post-punk, industrial noise merchants. Their break-through 2009 album, Merriweather Post Pavilion was produced by Ben H Allen, and it was to him that Greene turned when he was looking for someone to produce this, his debut album.

It’s not so much that you can join the dots between Merriweather, Tomboy and Within and Without. After all, Panda Bear has a very different feel to the work that Lennox does when performing with Animal Collective. Where the latter stimulates and excites, the former calms and balms. It’s more a sense that what you have is a group of very different people who are all nonetheless extremely comfortable in one another’s company, and who all move to similar beats.

Once you get beyond that opening track though, it’s not so much the East coast that you find yourself in as it is the Mediterranean. And the clearest echo you hear is that of Groove Armada’s seductive refrain “If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint little villages just here and there”, which hummed across the whole of southern Europe for three or four summers throughout the middle of the last decade.

I’ve no idea where Greene and Washed Out go after this. It’s not so much that that whole Chillwave sound has already come and gone. It’s more the sense that as a genre, it’s inherently self-contained. Rather like a Waltz, it’s a joy to luxuriate in when it’s done well, but there’s only so much you can take in one go, and it’s hard to imagine where anyone can take it subsequently.

But we don’t have to worry our pretty little heads about that now. All we need to do is lie back, close our eyes and feel the waves lapping at our feet, as we sink into the sand on a forgotten beach in an as yet undiscovered corner of the Aegean. Expect to find at least one of these tracks turning up on the next Hôtel Costes ablum, whenever it is that the magnificent Stéphane Pompougnac gets around to compiling it.

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“Last Year In Marienbad” – Alain Resnais

Peter Greenaway once remarked that Alain Resnais’ first three films were the three most important films in the history of cinema (he went on to poach Resnais’ cinematographer Sacha Vierny for all of his films so, if nothing else, they are all immaculately crafted.). The third of them, Muriel (‘63), finally appeared on dvd last year and, truth be told, it hasn’t aged terribly well. The Brechtian delineation of e d i t i n g, f i l m i n g, a c t i n g etc that would eventually lead to the tedium of the Dziga Vertov “movement” is, alas, all too evident. But his first two films, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (‘59), and Last Year In Marienbad (‘61) really do justify that heady accolade. And the latter has just been re-released, both by the peerless Criterion (http://www.criterion.com/films/1517-last-year-at-marienbad), and on a brand new print.

Marienbad is an exquisitely crafted, unashamedly elliptical piece consisting of a series of mercurial scenes that appear to be staged at an exclusive spa in the heart of Europe. There, a man insists to a woman that they “met” there the year before. But everything that we see calls into question his version of events. She was in black, or perhaps it was white, standing there on the stairs, or was it on the veranda, last year, in Frederiksbad, or maybe it was Marienbad. The details, that is to say the truth, of what actually happened is irrelevant. All that matters is that his version of the story is the one that prevails.

To begin with, he pursues her, trying to impose his version of their shared past. But after a while she begins to remember. But her version of their past is very different to his and flatly contradicts it. And when a second man appears, presumably her husband, his version of events is further called into question, not so much by anything the man says, but by the sheer force of his presence.

In many ways, Marienbad has a companion film in Antonioni’s Blow Up. There, a photographer witnesses an event which he captures on film. But no-one will believe him when he tries to convince them that anything has taken place. And when the only evidence that anything did happen, his photographs, are stolen, he has to chose between accepting the false reality that the rest of the world is insisting on, ie that nothing took place, and the reality of what he knows to be true, but that no-one else will accept.

Both films take that philosophical perennial and turn it upside down. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, it doesn’t matter whether it makes a sound or not. All that matters, both films suggest, is whether someone remembers – or moreover, decides to remember – that it made a sound. Even if they weren’t there to hear it, indeed, if there’s no tree there in the first place, if somebody remembers hearing the sound that it made, then that will eventually become that event’s history. For what is history, whether we are dealing with the events of the Second World War, or the shared events of a broken marriage, other than a battle of wills in which two sides try to impose their own memories, their own histories, at the expense of the other? Can we ever point back to an objective reality, or are all memories subject to the prism of our vision?

Everything that the man says in Marienbad makes it abundantly clear that it’s not the details of his version of events that matters to him, that is to say the facts. All he is interested in is establishing that it will be his truth that prevails, his will that triumphs. The artfully formal, increasingly stylised language that Resnais uses to continually call into question that version of events suggests that perhaps all objectivity is an illusion. Everything that we know is just a set of memories that we’ve decided to construct. And all truth is forever distorted by the mirror that we view it in.

As monumental as Marienbad is, rather like listening to Wagner’s Ring, or reading Ulysses, you need to be in a certain frame of mind. And if you are looking for an easier entrée into Resnais’ work, then you should probably start with Hiroshima, his devastatingly intense yet epic essay on love. Or better still, begin with one of his more recent films like Private Fears in Public Places (’06), from a play by Alan Ayckbourn, which is relatively conventional but no less distinguished. But when you can, you really ought to have a look at Marienbad. And preferably in the cinema.

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Alan Yentob’s BBC series “Imagine”

Alan Yentob has been the driving force behind the BBC’s coverage of the arts for decades. In the 70s he was instrumental in steering Omnibus onto our screens, and in the 80s he was responsible for what was effectively its replacement, Arena. The former produced a justly famous David Bowie profile, Cracked Actor, and the latter the even more celebrated 3 hour Orson Welles portrait. But it was after he was made Controller of BBC2 in 1988 that he truly left his mark, when he gave the station what amounted to a complete overhaul.

One of the many programmes that he introduced there was The Late Show, an arts strand that aired five nights a week from Monday to Friday at 11pm. Inevitably, as seemingly with all attempts at serious arts programming, it was quietly shelved in time. But you can still see its dying embers every Friday night with the usually reliable Late Review, which mostly sticks to its BBC2 remit, and only occasionally slips into BBC1 mode by offering up Cheddar instead of Roquefort.

In ’93 he was made Controller of BBC1, a promotion in their eyes, and in 2004 he was appointed as overall Creative Director for the whole of the BBC. But every now and then he pops up to front Imagine, the latest series of which concluded last week on BBC1, where inexplicably it resides.

As ever, a series of intimate and revealing portraits across the artistic spectrum were each given depth and scope by vividly describing their subjects in terms of the time and place of their life and work. This season’s highlight was the mirror editions on John Lennon in New York, and Harry Nilsson. The former provided wonderfully surprising insights into a figure we thought we knew, and the latter into a man largely and unfairly overlooked.

Nilsson’s first album proper, Pandemonium Shadow Show (’67) showcased his beguiling ability to combine honeyed vocals with apparently effortless song-writing, which he then layered using his unique mastery of the evolving multi-track recording technology. The results managed to be both monumental and intimate and would eventually produce the ultimate torch-song anthem Without You. Both McCartney and Lennon were bowled over, and he joined them in London a year later in ’68 to become yet another unofficial fifth Beatle. But it was the release of the iconic Midnight Cowboy in ’69 which saw Nilsson catapulted into the stratosphere.

The film’s producers commissioned Nilsson, Dylan and Joan Baez to come up with a track for the film (Nilsson offered up I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City, which was a hit on his next album, and Dylan gave them Lay Lady Lay.). But while they were waiting to decide which track to go with, they used Nilsson’s then current single Everybody’s Talkin’ as filler. And they became so used to hearing it while they were watching the rushes, that that in the end is what they went with.

Nilsson and Lennon clicked immediately, both of them fuelled by an anger born of abandonment. Nilsson had been discarded by his father when he was three, and almost inevitably he did exactly the same thing to his son when he was three in ‘73. And when a disgraced Lennon was dispatched to LA that same year, the damaged soul mates descended together into a vat of alcohol and drugs in a futile attempt at oblivion.

Ever since John and Yoko had arrived in New York in 1970, they’d been hounded by the Nixon administration who’d made persistent attempts to have him deported. When Tricky Dicky was returned into office with a landslide in ’72, Lennon lost the plot. And in a drunken rage at an election night party, he disappeared into a next door room with whoever happened to be at hand, and betrayed a mortified Yoko. Loudly. But this being Yoko, she didn’t actually kick him out per se. Instead, she sent him off to Los Angeles to think about what he’d done. So when Lennon arrived in LA in ‘73, the most lonely, forlorn and unwitting bachelor on the West Coast, he went off the rails. And for two years he and Nilsson left a trail of destruction behind them.

Eventually Lennon snapped out of it, sobered up and dragged himself back to New York where he was eventually rescued by a doleful Yoko. And on his 35th birthday on October 9th 1975, the legal attempts to deport him were finally if improbably overturned. That very night, their son Sean was born. And for the next five years Lennon became a devoted and doting house husband, until fatefully deciding in 1980 to return once more into the recording studio and the public light.

Both episodes were riveting, and as ever, the entire series once again embodied everything that an arts strand ought to aspire to. Every once in a while the BBC reminds us that, whatever about the organization as a whole, there are some things it does that continue to render it peerless. And Imagine, its dreadful, Blairful title excepted, is a celebration of everything that BBC2 stands for at its brilliant best. Which is hardly surprising. Its ethos was moulded largely in Yentob’s image.

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