Archives for June 2011

“Through The Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman – Discovery Channel

The barrier that all popular science programmes have to surmount is that so many of our recent discoveries have come through the avenues opened up by Special and General Relativity and Quantum mechanics. And they are both so unfathomably complex that it’s incredibly difficult to talk about either of them to the likes of you and I. Either you sacrifice the science for the sake of making your programme accessible, or you alienate your viewers by owning up to quite how insanely counter-intuitive the quantum universe is in the age of Relativity. Inevitably, programmes tend to err on the side of popular at the expense of science. They tend in other words to be more BBC1 (and 3) than BBC2 (and 4).

Recently though we’ve seen a number of programmes that manage to redress that balance, exploring the cutting edge of scientific discovery, but doing so in a way that the non-scientist can (just about) comfortably follow. Brian Cox’s programmes on the Wonders of the Solar System and then the Universe (see below), the History Channel’s The Universe, and now this, Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. The way that he’s done it is, basically, by making a programme that he’s designed specifically for him.

Freeman plays the host, steering us through the day’s topic which range from black holes and time travel, to the origins of life and the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. But unlike so many of the figureheads who are tacked on to front programmes like these, Freeman is as genuinely interested in the topic being explored as we are. Like us, he too is curious about what we now know when we look up into the night skies, and what it can tell us about who we are and where we came from. But he too has never got around to formally studying it. So when he was asked to get involved in a series about space and the cosmos, he clearly saw it as a fantastic opportunity to explore all those things he was interested in a bit more systematically (or alternatively, he’s an even better actor than I gave him credit for).

The journey he takes us on in the course of the (so far two) series is as much his as it is ours. And the reason it works so wonderfully well is that he and it assume that we are as intelligent as he is, but no more so. So that whilst it never shies away from M (or string) theory, Relativity and the quantum universe, he’ll remind us every now and then that he’s as baffled and befuddled by all these apparently insane theories as we are. After all, as Nils Bohr, one of the great 20th century physicists put it:

“Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum mechanics cannot possibly have understood it.”

Apart from the mercifully brief flashbacks relating to so say childhood memories that each episode feels obliged to begin with, it’s a wonderfully engaging, science-heavy series that manages to be both accessible and stimulating. And the fact that it so successfully balances the dictates of educating, informing and entertaining (and in that order) is in no small measure a reflection on its genial host.

Series 1 and 2 can be seen on the Discovery Channel now.

Tyler, The Creator – “Goblin” + Odd Future

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are a loose collective of L.A. skaters who’ve banded together to produce the first whiff of cordite in what had long felt like the dead and buried world of rap and hip hop.

They’ve been bubbling under the surface for about a year or so, creating an increasing online presence with a variety of posts, pages and releases.

But when their Earl video went viral last Summer here, Odd Future burst up from the undergrowth and into the light.

The Earl in question is Earl Sweatshirt, one of Odd Future’s two de facto leaders, the other being the imposing Tyler, The Creator. Or at least he was. But just as it seemed that OFWGKTA were about to break out, Earl went missing.

The idea of sacrificing his youth for the chance of competing with the latest American Idol winner for column inches and airtime held little appeal for either him of his mother. So, as Kelefa Sanneh revealed in the New Yorker here, he’s withdrawn to think carefully about what he wants to do with the rest of his clearly promising life.

So Odd Future’s first serious step into the mainstream has been left to Tyler, and it comes in the form of his second album proper, Goblin. If you’re unfamiliar with Odd Future, there’s an excellent primer provided by the boys from Pravda’s Sean Fennessey here. In a word, they’re all about confrontation, and Goblin articulates this perfectly.

Which is fine. Growing up is hard, and trying to find out who you are and what your place is, is often masked by aggression and the façade of confidence. But the violence here is so unremitting and the gratuitous offence is so relentless, that instead of being shocked by it you just become numb.

It’s a bit like watching a film like Ichi The Killer. It strives so effortfully to offend that, from the very beginning, all you can see is the man pulling the strings. And very quickly, it gets really, really dull.

The confrontation doesn’t stop with the lyrics. Musically it’s every bit as self-consciously bolshie. So there’s little enough that could be described as a melody, and choruses are conspicuous by their absence. At one point, the track Sandwitches finishes by berating us with, “Listen deeper to the music before you put it in a box”. What music? Goblin is almost entirely word driven.

And yes, of course, that’s the whole point. They’ve made a hip hop album with practically no music in it. Get it? The more loudly you fail to get their jokes, the funnier they find them and, obviously, you. But eventually, one of them is going to come across Brecht, and they’re going to realise that conscious alienation of your audience – distanciation, as it came to be termed– is as old as the L.A. buildings they spend so much time skating around. And it’s as tedious to witness now as it was all those years ago.

There’s a palpable intelligence beneath all the bile, but there’s so much posturing going on, that all you can see is a monumental self-regard based on the perennial teenage conviction that they’re the centre of everyone else’s universe. The result is an album that’s a chore.

So unless they want to be remembered as one-trick ponies, however funny they find that trick, they need to start thinking a lot less about themselves, and a little bit more about the people with whom they are trying to communicate. Art needs to be significantly more generous than this. So far, the smartest guy in the Odd Future room is the one who’s left it.

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“All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – BBC

In 1974 Orson Welles made the apparently conventional but quietly brilliant F For Fake. He was convinced he’d invented a new art form. On the face of it, it was a languid documentary about a famous art forger, but in reality it was used by Welles to prod and probe our notions of art and artifice, of authenticity and mendacity, and he used himself and his life as the vehicle with which to do it. It was in other words a meticulously constructed visual essay.

The essais, or “attempt” was pioneered by Michel Montaigne in 16th century France. It was, as Sarah Bakewell puts it in her superb biography, a way of “writing about oneself in order to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity“. Welles believed the medium of film was a wonderful opportunity to give the personal essay a whole new lease of life.

But to his dismay, F For Fake fell completely flat. And, although Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s magisterial Hitler, A Film From Germany was shown in cinemas three years later in 1977, all 7 hours and 17 minutes of it, it wasn’t cinema that proved to be the natural home for the filmed essay, but television.

The ‘illusion of transparency’ that the anything but ‘arbitrary quadrangle’ that television creates is the perfect space to pursue personal passions. It’s given voice to everyone from Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan and Kenneth Clark to Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Louis Theroux. But by far and away the most sophisticated author of the filmed essay is Adam Curtis. It is he who has picked up where Welles left off.

His latest, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace has just been shown on the BBC, and is divided into three parts. The first is, arguably, its least convincing. It’s debatable just how influential Ayn Rand’s “economics” were on Alan Greenspan, and the causal relationship he sketches between Asia’s economic chaos and our own six or seven years later is much more complex than he suggests.

The second instalment though is much more satisfying, and the pattern he weaves between some of the 20th century’s big ideas and the direction that the environmental movement headed off in is brilliantly stitched together.

The third episode is even more impressive again, and is a searing indictment of Belgium’s responsibility for the genocide and chaos they caused in Rwanda in the latter half of the 20th century.

But it is also a fascinating portrait of two of the most important recent evolutionary scientists, George Price and W.D. Hamilton, whose work paved the way for Richard Dawkins to popularise the idea of the Selfish Gene. And it contains an intriguing mini-portrait of the American zoologist Dian Fossey, markedly different to the one you’ll see in Gorillas In The Mist.

What’s so exhilarating about Curtis, and in particular this third episode, is that he somehow manages to meld all these elements together alchemically to produce a coherent whole. So that what you get is three fascinating mini biographies, viewed in the light of the combustible way that science and politics often seem to interact.

Caitlin Rose – “Own Side Now” + Laura Cantrell “Kitty Wells Dresses”

Caitlin Rose "Own Side Now".

Caitlin Rose “Own Side Now”.

Just as all who are consumed by drama will one day gravitate to Shakespeare, so too anyone who’s serious about the craft of song writing will eventually home in on country music.

It was to Nashville that Dylan travelled when he put aside his childish things to record the monumental Blonde on Blonde. And when he went back east, it was not to the Village but to Woodstock so that he and the Band could re-imagined their musical heritage.

That legacy is evident today everywhere. From Emmylou Harris, T Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois to the new roots Americana of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and Iron and Wine.

Bob Dylan "Nashville Skyline".

Bob Dylan “Nashville Skyline”.

What’s so refreshing about the 24 year old Caitlin Rose is that she somehow manages to sidestep all of that, without in any way ignoring it. Like Gillian Welsh, she manages to sound both timeless and contemporary.

But her debut album Own Side Now harks back not so much to the 70s as it does to the 50s. So that whilst Welsh is drawn to existential introspection, Rose is felled by that Nashville perennial, a broken heart. What they both share is a flawless capacity to fuse lyrics of searing honesty with painfully beautiful melodies.

In For The Rabbits for instance, Rose entreats her departed man to,

“Fall back into my absent arms, Fall back into routine disaster, Habit’s the only place that you call home.

Fall back into my desperate arms, Fall back into this old disaster, ‘Cos it’s better than spending all your nights alone.”

It’s as much an accusation as it is a plea, and is aimed equally at herself as it is at him. But the desperation evoked is lifted and sent skyward by the Heavenly vocals, and the combination of pain and pleasure that results is intoxicating.

It’s a stunning piece of work, and is one of the best albums in the last decade. At least. And, whilst she’s not part of any actual movement, there clearly does seem to be something afoot, as it’s terrain that’s traversed similarly by Laura Cantrell in the states and, in a very English way, by Laura Marling in the UK.

Laura Cantrell "Kitty Welles' Dresses".

Laura Cantrell “Kitty Welles’ Dresses”.

Cantrell emerged in 2000 when her justly lauded debut Not The Tremblin Kind was described by none other than John Peel as possibly his favourite album ever. Her latest, Kitty Wells Dresses makes that 50s connection explicit. The title track that the album opens with is Cantrell’s, but the other nine are covers of songs recorded by the now 93 year old Kitty Wells, as she blazed a trail for Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.

But even when covering songs originally penned in the 50s, there’s something in the way that Cantrell delivers them that renders them simultaneously timeless and yet somehow un-mistakenly contemporary.

It’s this fusion of tradition and of the modern that make Caitlin Rose and Laura Cantrell so musically relevant, and it’s their visceral honesty that make their songs so emotionally engaging.