Monday, 31 December 2012

Films of the Year 2012

The cinema was mainly a place to see re-issues for me this year, generally travelling the country courtesy of the bfi. Quai des Brumes, Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert’s fatalistic dockside romance, its digitally clarification thankfully leaving the fogbound atmosphere intact. Jean Gabin possessed an offhand, Bogart-like everyman charm as the disaffected anti-hero, lost in his own existential fog, but offered the chance of salvation through the luminous-eyed Michele Morgan, a young innocent beset by corrupting forces, who persuades him that this isn’t the end of the road after all. A supporting cast of beat barmen, suicidal poets, dedicated and saintly soaks, predatory ‘uncles’ and cowardly petty gangster bullies add to the self-conscious and very French tenor of this nocturnal world, all beautifully shot in moody black and white. The Lodger was also a fogbound film, London smog swirling through Hitchcock’s street sets in this London set thriller, his breakthrough film from 1927. The elegant, sad-eyed Ivor Novello (whose charming music was the subject of a Simon Callow narrated Prom in the summer) provided the model of the ambiguous Hitchcock protagonist, suspected of the murders carried out in the area, but appealing to the female lead nonetheless, and presented as an attractive character to the audience. Hitchcock later encouraged the view that this was his first truly characteristic film, and it had many assured and imaginative directorial touches. Novello’s initial entrance, face swathed in a scarf and topped with a broad-brimmed hat, leaving only his expressive eyes visible, made him seem like a character from one of the German expressionist films which Hitchcock admired so much. Malcolm McDowell’s entrance in Lindsay Anderson’s If… would seem to be paying homage to this scene. The sound of Novello’s character’s restless pacing across the upstairs flat was represented by making the ceiling at which the suspicious landlord’s family and policeman friend transparent, another nice expressionist touch. Nitin Sawhney’s new score was fine, except when he introduced two songs to soundtrack romantic scenes. The introduction of a contemporary pop sound seemed a misjudgement, raising the unfortunate spectre of Giorgio Moroder’s pop video mangling of Metropolis.

Plague of Zombies and Quatermass and the Pit were both great, concise Hammer films from the prolific mid-60s period. It would have been good if they could have been shown in double bills reproducing the conditions in which they were originally shown. The digital restorations made the vivid colours really come to life, and revealed details which had previously remained obscure, such as the posters for other Hammer films on the walls of the tube station corridors in Quatermass and the Pit (Dracula Prince of Darkness, The Nanny and The Witches, the other film which Nigel Kneale scripted for the studio at the time). Plague of Zombies’ famous dream sequence came over in all its queasily tinted glory, and Jacqueline Pearce’s performance remained impressive and affecting. Quatermass and the Pit was by far the best of Hammer’s Quatermass adaptations, with Andrew Keir’s Scottish professor hugely preferable to Brian Donlevy’s lame American tough guy. The stagebound London street and underground sets were impressive, and if some of the effects were rather exposed on the big screen and with the new digital clarity, it didn’t really matter. Barbara Shelley was as great as ever, particularly in her electrifying levitation scene, and there was a very effective score by Tristram Cary, including some unnerving pulsing and howling electronic sound.

Carl Dreyer’s 1955 film Ordet was an incredibly powerful experience, its emotions magnified on the big screen. Its concentrated sense of place, and of weather, and its intimate observation of family and small community relations also came through with more clarity in the cinema, which allowed for a greater absorption in its constrained environment. The final scene is one of the most moving in all cinema, a miraculous resurrection which restores to life the woman who is the balancing heart of the family. It is both spiritual and very physical (the husband and wife Mikkel and Inger’s passion for one another is clearly evident, revealed in small gestures), the close-ups revealing their embrace in all its saliva and snot dripping emotional intensity. The messianically deluded Johannes, an utterly mesmerising performance by Preben Lerdorff Rye, is a mystical presence throughout, his madness an ambiguous blend of the genuinely visionary and the mental fractured. It’s perhaps the greatest religious film in the history of cinema.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Husbands was John Cassavetes’ long-gestating and highly personal portrait of friendship, self-delusion and mid-life crisis. It’s a film which is unapologetic in its honest and unflattering examination of male behaviour, and it drew directly on the feelings and experiences of its three main actors: Cassavetes himself, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara (the latter of whom died earlier this year). All three became completely absorbed in the creation and inhabitation of their characters, and a real and lifelong friendship was forged during the filming. As for new films, Berberian Sound Studio was the standout for me, centring around a quietly commanding performance by Toby Jones (recently seen playing Alfred Hitchcock in the TV movie The Girl). The claustrophobic limitation to dimly lit studios and hotel rooms gave it a very interior feel which, as Julian House’s characteristically potent poster design suggested, reflected the story’s excavation and exposure of the reserved protagonist Gilderoy’s psyche. The fetishistic lingering over the dials and switches of the analogue equipment highlighted the sonic element which was so integral to the film, and it was also blessed by an atmospheric score by Broadcast. The film has just been released on dvd, and Broadcast’s soundtrack will by released on the 7th January. Two Days in New York, Julie Delpy’s follow up to Two Day in Paris, had considerable charm, largely due to the presence of Delpy and her co-star Chris Rock. The French family’s arrival in America pushes the original’s acerbic and surprisingly unflattering portrayal of Delpy’s home country and its culture to new and excruciating depths. I’m looking forward to her return in 2013 as Celine in Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s Greek-set follow up to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

Away from the cinema there was more Hitchcock in the form of Sabotage, his downbeat English thriller with the famous boy with a bomb on a bus scene – still shocking to this day; and the picaresque American ‘wrong man’ chase adventure Saboteur, with its Statue of Liberty finale presaging North by Northwest in its ‘dangling from a famous monument’ cliff (or torch) hanger. Young and Innocent, a lesser known 1937 English picture, was another wrong man on the road searching for the real killer thriller, light and jokey in tone. The long crane shot tracking through the seaside hotel at the end, finishing with a close-up of the killer’s eye, its twitching the detail betraying his guilt, is justifiably renowned. I rediscovered David Lynch, having unexpectedly been mesmerised by Inland Empire, three hours of undiluted dream logic which were a superb distillation of his surrealistic essence. As a result I went back to see Lost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which possessed this essence in smaller doses, along with the small town teen dramas and generic elements which I find less compelling. Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff were both excellent, quiet and slow-paced anti-dramas with considerable cumulative power. The former in particular was an almost unbearably moving story of one woman searching for her missing dog, reminiscent of Robert Bresson in its distanced by compassionate focussing on small detail and rejection of grand or melodramatic expressions of emotion.

There was some good Czech stuff, including Frantisek Vlacil’s magisterial medieval epic Marketa Lazarova, the similarly evocative Valley of the Bees, set in the same historical era, and the 1970 film Adelheid, a ‘haunted house’ story in which the ‘ghost’ is a living German woman. In the post war period, she is forced to become the housekeeper in the large, empty house which was once her home. Mala Morska Vila (aka The Little Mermaid) was Karel Kachyna’s beautiful and surreal 1976 retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, with wonderful costumes (and hairstyles) and a great score by Zdenek Liska (released on Finders Keepers Records). Milos Forman’s 1967 freewheeling comedy of bumbling official incompetence Fireman’s Ball was unsurprisingly the last he made in his native Czechoslovakia, and was shot by Miroslav Ondricek, just before he went off to work on If… with Lindsay Anderson. Some of the female actors who make brief appearances (this is largely a film about foolish men) are familiar from Forman’s earlier Loves of a Blonde, and Vera Chytilova’s Daisies. The 1972 film Saxana (aka Girl on a Broomstick) was good fun, and the soundtrack is once more available on Finders Keepers.

Other highlights included: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s bewitching Buddhist fantasies Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Tropical Malady; Terence Davies’ translation of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea into his own inimitable style, with a fine central performance from Rachel Weisz; Roman Polanski’s rain and bloodsoaked Macbeth; Chris Marker’s La Jetee and Sans Soleil, watched in tribute to the French director who died this year; Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 film Deep End, set in Soho and a dilapidated East End swimming bath, and released in the bfi’s Flipside series; Wim Wenders’ Wrong Move and Until The End of the World, the latter clearly a huge self-indulgence, but I can’t help liking it anyway; Andrew Kotting’s Ivul, a fable about a boy who decides his feet will never touch the ground again, and travels across the treeline; Pasolini’s Accatone and Medea (with the Masters of Cinema releases of Porcile and Hawks and Sparrows awaiting); Michael Powell’s late, Australian-set portrait of an artist and his muse (played by James Mason and a teenage Helen Mirren) Age of Consent; Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, a highly stylised giallo (not usually a subgenre I have any liking for) and the deeply strange, Christopher Wicking-scripted Scream and Scream Again, a 1970 horror film which blends swinging sixties clubland nightmare with the neo-Nazi genetic engineering of brutal superbeings, and which features the ever-interesting Michael Gothard as a psychotic hippy; Jacques Demy’s bizarre but colourful musical A Slightly Pregnant Man (a typically hangdog Marcello Mastroianni, here married to Catherine Deneuve’s hairdresser); the wonderful The Ghost and Mrs Muir, with its lovely Bernard Herrmann score, an old favourite; Paul Kelly’s Saint Etienne-produced semi-fictional look at the pre-Olympic Lea Valley What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?; Light Years Away, a strange allegorical fantasy starring Trevor Howard and Mick Ford which I’d remembered from childhood; Artemis 81, another complex fantasy from the same period, written by David Rudkin; Some great children’s TV fantasy, largely courtesy of the ever-reliable Network – Shadows and Dramarama Spooky (with fine stories by Alan Garner and Susan Cooper), The Boy Merlin, Children of the Stones (again), Escape Into the Night (an adaptation of Catherine Storr’s novel Marianne Dreams, which makes for an interesting comparison with Bernard Rose’s 1988 adaptation Paperhouse), and The Ghosts of Mottley Hall, with the marvellous Freddie Jones on fine blustering form (and he could bluster like no other); some excellent bfi documentary collections – London on the Move, Wonderful London (a fascinating insight into the capital in the 20s), Roll Out the Barrel and Here’s A Health to the Barley Mow; the landmark series 49 Up, observing the lives of a diverse collection of people from various backgrounds over seven yearly periods, which also came to its latest instalment, 56 Up, this year; and of course, a goodly amount of Doctor Who, including Robert Holmes’ hilarious satire of bureaucracy The Sunmakers, and the Pertwee adventure The Ambassadors of Death, available in colour at last and serving as a fitting tribute to Caroline John.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Books of the Year 2012

This year was dominated by two writers for me. Having been introduced to the elderly London detectives Arthur Bryant and John May towards the end of last year in The Victoria Vanishes, I read a further 8 novels featuring the duo at the beginning of this. They’re such hugely appealing characters, bringing the values of post-war optimism and hope into a darker and more complex and venal present. May’s tact and ageless elegance and charm perfectly balance Bryant’s old from an early age gruffness and instinctively anti-establishment egalitarianism, a becalming John le Mesurier to his friend’s raging, eccentrically autodactic Romantic soul. As befits a writer who also has an affinity with the darker end of the fantastic genres, the detectives’ investigations within the Peculiar Crimes Unit generally have an aura of the strange and the supernatural, although seldom stepping beyond the bounds of the rationally explicable (although Bryant does gather some important tips from his scatty, Margaret Rutherford-esque occultist friend Maggie Armitage). The novels also explore a rich seam of London lore and urban legend, often centring on a particular aspect of the city (its pubs, theatres, sewage systems or underground network). Bryant’s wayward researches allow for a good deal of tangential but fascinating material about the London nobody knows (except Bryant, of course), offering a rather more accessible take on Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographies. These are very much London novels, although the duo do make the odd, rather reluctant expedition beyond its boundaries: a short jaunt down to Brighton (London-on-sea) to consult with a punch and judy man in The Memory of Blood, and an ill-advised trip across a snow-bound Dartmoor in White Corridor, a novel which fruitfully experiments with the series’ form. You strongly suspect that Bryant’s unrestrained (and usually unprompted) expositions of his outlook on various aspects of contemporary politics and society act as a convenient vehicle for the author’s own views (regularly aired on his prolific and always interesting blog). I’ve yet to read the latest case, The Invisible Code, published earlier this year, and so have that and two more upcoming novels (and a comic) to look forward to next year. Can’t wait.

I also read Fowler’s Hell Train, his homage to Hammer films and, with its intertwined portmanteau tales set on a train of the damned, perhaps Amicus and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors too (with a bit of 70s Cushing and Lee throwaway romp Horror Express added for good measure). If it failed to live up to its initial promise (and, for an avowed Hammer fan, enticing premise of a ‘lost’ script), then it was never less than entertaining. The novel has a story within a story structure, with a scriptwriter trying to produce a story super-quick, adjusting it according to the demands of the producer. The cameo which he adds in to allow for an appearance by Peter Cushing is particularly nicely done. The 2001 story collection The Devil In Me showed the range of Fowler’s writing, ranging from noir to horror, Wodehousian humour to quietly observational character pieces. Particularly fine were Crocodile Lady, in which a primary school teacher returning to the job after many years, follows a child who has been led astray during a school outing through the chaos of the underground with heroic doggedness; and The Beacon, a beautifully balanced tale about connection and understanding in the age of remote digital communication, which resembled the short stories of Katherine Mansfield in its sad ironies and delicate characterisation. Fowler’s childhood memoir Paper Boy was lovely, both funny and poignant, with a hint of melancholia which is perhaps inherent in such reminiscences, with their memories of people and places long gone. With its south east London suburban settings, it also inhabited territory with which I am extremely familiar. Paperboy was a gratifying success for Fowler, and a follow up memoir, Film Freak, taking him into the heart (or thereabouts) of the London film industry, is due for publication in the near future. Another one to look forward to in the new year.

I also read a great deal of Angela Carter this year, which marked the 20th anniversary of her horribly early death. I worked my way through all of the novels, save for The Passion of New Eve and Nights At the Circus, which I read last year. It was particularly interesting to read the early and relatively neglected books, and to find the familiar elements of later books present in nascent form. Shadow Dance, Several Perceptions and Love form what is sometimes thought of as the ‘Bristol trilogy’, reflecting Carter’s time in that city during the 60s, and cast an ascerbic and ironic eye over the aspirations of countercultural drop-outs. The Magic Toyshop is set in Carter’s childhood territory of South London, and presents a 60s world still in thrall to oppressive Victorian values and with an atmosphere defined by decaying gothic-revivalist architecture. Whilst none of these have explicitly fantastical elements, their fascination with the gothic and with masques, role-playing and dark grotesquerie sowed the seed for future fabulations. Heroes and Villains was post-apocalyptic science fiction which might easily have found a place in New Worlds magazine, alongside similarly brutal depictions of social collapse and primitive savagery produced by M John Harrison (The Committed Men) and Keith Roberts (The Chalk Giants) at around the same time. In The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann, Carter’s gave her imagination full reign in a picaresque journey through a landscape in which the monsters of the id have been set loose, under the influence of the Doctor’s rays. The protagonist, Desiderio, has a variety of encounters on his travels, travelling with gypsy bargees, performing in an erotic carnival, visiting an extravagantly impersonal brothel with a licentious count, falling prey to cannibals, and becoming a sexual slave to a herd of centaurs before finally arriving at Hoffmann’s castle. It’s an extravagantly decadent novel, consciously drawing on various literary sources, and finds Carter at her most full-blooded, her unexpurgated imagination brought to life with lush, rococo prose. Her final novel, Wise Children, marries Shakespeare with music hall and Hollywood in a bawdy and warm-hearted tall tale of theatrical dynasties and the good life south of the river. I also re-read The Bloody Chamber, which contains Carter’s best known reconfigurations of and commentaries upon fairy tales and folklore. I managed to pick up a copy of the new Folio Society edition, with its lovely accompanying watercolours in a classic Rackhamesque style by Igor Karash, who won a competition to provide the illustrations. A Postcard From Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp was a short and very personal reminiscence of the person whom she knew, whilst Angela Carter: A Literary Life by Sarah Gamble provided valuable analysis of her work, relating it to her life and experience.

I read two books by Elizabeth Hand, who could be said to be one of Carter’s successors. Generation Loss was a fine detective story of sorts, with burned out punk photographer Cass Neary travelling from her native territory of New York up to a remote town on the wintry coast of Maine to meet a legendary photographic artist, who disappeared into reclusive obscurity many years ago. She comes across a community locked into its own dark Pagan rituals (Hand’s novels often find Pagan rituals and beliefs re-emerging in the modern day), distorted from their origins in hippy communalism. It’s an utterly absorbing mystery, with an engaging protagonist, the drug-taking, heavy drinking Cass, a wiry Patti Smith type wholly out of her element in the wilds of Maine, but finding her way to the heart of the matter with the help of amphetamines, cynical toughness and an underlying passion for her lost artistic vision. The short novel Illyria was a coming of age tale, with its young female protagonist discovering her artistic path within another semi-rural communal set up, an element of the supernatural intruding via a strange miniature stage uncovered in an attic space, which seems to glow with its own footlights, and experience its own microclimates. An entrancing fable of the golden moment of youth when all seems possible, and the world appears to be a stage awaiting your grand entrance. It’s wise but not overly pessimistic in its depiction of the disappointment of potential greatness left unrealised, of the dissipation of youthful energy and excitement.

There were some exciting new novels from favourite authors, with M.John Harrison’s Empty Space, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Tim Powers’ Hide Me Among the Graves and Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. Empty Space was the follow up to his previous novels Light and Nova Swing, which saw him produce his own distinctive brand of hypermodern space opera. I read all three consecutively, to better appreciate the sequence as a whole. Light set up Harrison’s fictional universe, which the other novels also inhabit. There are three intercutting narrative strands, one featuring a twentieth century theoretical scientist and grubby serial killer named Michael Kearney (Harrison never dwells on his impersonal murders, which are as incidental to the story as they are to him); the other two set in a 25th century in which humanity has spread out to the far corners of the cosmos, and centre around a rebellious ‘k-ship’ (an interstellar craft which uses the reality warping potential of the new physics) pilot named Seria Mau Genlicher; and wide boy Ed Chianese, on the run in the slums of a corporation planet from the Eva and Bella, the Cray Sisters.

Light contrasts a dreary present day world on the cusp of the new millennium with a future of almost limitless possibilities, in which different and seemingly contradictory physical laws and scientific models co-exist and can be exploited. In spite of this miraculous sense of endless potential, people nevertheless constrain themselves the same roles in the same old scenarios. They have themselves tailored, or ‘zipped’, or use disposable ‘cultivar’ bodies which provide them with overdetermined sexual stereotypes. Men can have huge tusks, whilst women often go for the Mona package, modified into eternal Marilyns. The corporatisation of human life has been exported to the stars, with a resultant ennui and sense of powerlessness which infects the sections set in the present day. Some opt to spend their time in the viscous proteome of the ‘twink tanks’, like Ed Chianese, dreaming away their lives in manufactured worlds and stories. The corporate governmental expansion into the furthest reaches of the cosmos and appropriation of what it finds there (boldly going in the name fo maximising profit margins) is embodied in their creation of the k-ships. These are fusions of human, machine and something wholly other: ‘shadow operators’ who cluck and worry like over-solicitous old ladies, their disembodied, phantom forms flickering at the periphery of vision. Seria Mau is forever bound to her ship, like a spectre anchored to the site of its death, the ghost wired into the machine from which it projects itself. The scene in which she discovers the pitifully diminished and mutilated state of her body, de- and re-formed whilst she was still a young woman to fit into the ship’s pilot tank, hardwired into its navigation systems, is filled with a terrible poignancy and a furious burning rage at the powers which would use people as so much disposable meat in the pursuit of further power and dominance. Looming above the planets of the ‘Beach’, a marginal interzone marking the boundaries of the known universe, is the Kefahuchi Tract, a radiant auroral rent in the universe which represents a remnant of the mysterious, the transcendentally unknowable, a completely different order of reality. Daredevil pilots, or entradistas, such as Ed used to be, defy conventional physics common sense in order to approach the borderlands, pushing at the bounds of the possible.

The emergence of the tract has something to do with the advanced quantum calculations of two scientists in the present day, Michael Kearney and Brian Tate, who struggle to continue their work in the face of corporate pressure. Kearney is haunted by a creature he knows as the Shrander, a being which manifests itself as a terrifying ragged figure with a stripped horse’s skull for a head, like something out of an old folk ritual. He kills in the belief that this will keep it at bay, and is a thoroughly wretched creature, despite the fact that we know his theories (the Kearney-Tate equations) will lead humanity out to the stars. In the end, he confronts the Shrander at a place called Monster Beach in America, which evidently corresponds with the Beach on the edge of the Kefahuchi Tract, and is granted a vision of the astonishing beauty of the cosmos from which he has been shrinking. Light is a simply dazzling book, filled with subtle correspondences, linguistic play, anger-fuelled satire, and the display of an almost casually profligate imagination. It’s also extremely deft in its use of science fiction’s potential for surrealism and metaphor.

Nova Swing grounds the cosmic sweep of Light, limiting things to one planet. This is Saudade, onto which a part of the Tract has crashed in the wake of the events which ended Light. This results in a forbidden zone at the industrial end of Saudade City, which has similarities with the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (again, there are correspondences here, Kearney having seen all Tarkovsky’s films in Light). As in Stalker, it is an area contiguous with the mundane world, and seemingly a part of it with its decaying industrial landscape. But it operates according to unpredictable and surreal (a permanent whirlwind of shoes, for example) physical rules of its own. Vic Serotonin is a guide to this dangerous area, hanging out at the White Cat, Black Cat bar whilst he waits for clients (another correspondence with a film seen by Kearney in Light, this time directed by Emir Kusturica). Other characters in this neon noir novel include Lens Aschemann, a compassionately weary detective who looks like Einstein feels like he’s stepped out of a Wim Wenders film or a science fiction novel by Samuel Beckett; a policewoman technologically enhanced to the point where she can shift into a hyperkinetic blur of motion and lighting, millisecond calculation; treet punk Alice Nylon (the perfect name for a street punk); wasted zone veteran Emil Bonaventura and his tango loving daughter Edith; and barkeeper Liv Hula, Mona packaged Irene, and ordinary Joe ‘Fat’ Antoyne. These three end up joining together to buy out the spaceship Nova Swing and run it as a transport vessel (interstellar truckers). They return again in Empty Space, and Irene provides the heart of the story, remaining possessed of a certain innocent sense of wonder (the state which old-fashioned SF was often said to evoke). She is somehow linked with Anna Waterman in the present day, who was married to Michael Kearney in the first novel, and now lives on her own in the Sussex house she shared with her late second husband. The south downs loom in the background like the Tract. The tract bleeds through into the ‘real’ universe in both times; bodies fuse, interpenetrate one another and hang suspended in space after death, slowly revolving like planetary satellites or galaxies (another Tarkovsky allusion here, perhaps, to the levitating or orbiting zero-g bodies of Mirror and Solaris). Irene and Anna are adrift in the world, but intuitively enjoy moments of simple and direct joy. Anna’s naked nightswim down the Sussex river is the equivalent of the entradistas’ plunges into the Tract. And for the young man she meets outside the village pub, the grand cosmic drama of the far future is concentrated into the experience of watching his hounds racing down a corridor of light when he goes out lamping at night.

There’s something summatory about these novels. They bring together many of the elements characteristic of Harrison’s work over the years: the juxtaposition of the seedy and defeated with the transcendental; a Gnostic spirituality in which a divine force (often in fearful form) attempts to break through into a devolved world; the use of Tarot cards and their symbolism to indicate the play of chance and recurrent patterns in life; cats and their mysterious otherness; the horse’s skull, which features (in the form of lamb’s skull) in the Viriconium story The Luck in the Head; the New Men, straying from the fantasy lands of Viriconium into this science fictional universe; the seedy séances held in dilapidated suburban houses; the colourfully poetic naming craft carried over from the 1974 anarchist space opera The Centauri Device (Light’s La Vie Féerique, Karaoke Sword and Touching the Void – the latter a link with Harrison’s love of climbing – and The Centauri Device’s decadently Aesthetic Atalanta in Calydon, The Green Carnation and Driftwood of Decadance – Wilde and Swinburne in space); and the constant theme of tawdry, prefabricated fantasy and escapism as a trap, and the metaphysical need to find one’s own way of pushing against the limits of environment and perceptual limitation. These are novels of great, poetical richness (with moments of great humour, it should be added), which bear repeated reading.

Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue centres around a record shop dealing in jazz, funk and soul in Oakland, California. Its name, Brokeland Records, clearly invites some kind of state of the nation comparison. The novel, rooted in a singular place and concentrated span of time, is an anti-epic, the opposite of his last novel of this size, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, which engaged directly with the grand sweep of twentieth century history. It’s the story of the two men, one Jewish (Nat), one African-American (Archy), who run the store, and also of their partners (Gwen and Aviva), who are midwives supervising home births, and Nat’s son Julius and his friend Titus (who it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly in this dynastic family drama, to be Archy’s forgotten son). Both sets of adults represent the individual character of a particularised spirit of localism, the historically continuous heart of an area. Both face threats from corporate hostility and competition; the women from the insurance company funded hospital, and the men from the proposed building of a new mall, incorporating its own record shop designed, in parasitic Starbucks style, to replace the original. The story imaginatively magnifies its seemingly small scale setting with a wealth of popular cultural references, creating a sense of universality, of connection with a wider world. It also gives the sense that the problems which these two families have, both on a personal, social and economic level, connect with the concerns of modern society at large. Pop culture is seen as a uniting force (as it is in the essay The Amateur Family in Chabon’s recent essay collection Manhood for Amateurs), bringing together families, communities and otherwise disconnected individuals. Here, jazz and black American music of the post-war years forms the central connection and source of obsessive amateur scholarship (I particularly like the reference to the pipe once owned by Archie Shepp, and winced when Nat, in one of his rages, threw a rare Sun Ra LP on Saturn Records across the room to crack against the wall), which might leave some of the references obscure to many (but then what’s the internet for, after all). There are plenty of references to Star Trek, blaxploitation and martial arts films, the Avengers, Asimov’s Foundation novels and many other cult artefacts thrown in along the way as well. Obama has a presidential walk-on part, and a certain intertextuality is present in the return of the grey parrot from Chabon’s short novel The Final Solution, in which he introduced an elderly, retired Sherlock Holmes into the period of the Second World War. The parrot sits on the shoulder of the Hammond organ playing character Cochise Jones, as if he were some kind of jazz pirate.

Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (the title a reference to an unfilmed scene from the original King Kong, re-introduced by Peter Jackson in his remake) is a sprawling novel which bears comparison in its extravagant length to his 1975 novel Dhalgren, which in itself marked a significant change in direction (and was a key book of my teenage years). It’s certainly a long way from The Fall of the Towers trilogy (published 1963-5), which was the first Delany I picked up (in Hay on Wye on a childhood holiday in Wales), a relatively conventional if poetically written science fiction novel. There are still SF elements in the current novel, which proceeds from the present day some seventy years (a lifetime) into the future. But the focus, as in Delany’s recent novels The Mad Man and Dark Reflections, is almost wholly on the physical manifestations of desire, and the utopian vision of a world in which its manifold varieties are accepted and catered for in mutually supportive communities of caring and generous people (men in this case, as the sex is exclusively gay). As much of a fantasy as the early SF perhaps. Changes in the nature of the world, social and technological (the two affecting each other) are noted, but remain in the background, although the society within a society in which the novel takes place is a model of wider transformations. At heart, this is a love story, however, a story of a lifelong partnership between its two main characters (one black, one white): Eric and Morgan (or Shit as he’s more generally, and affectionately, known). The concentration on intricately and delicately detailed sexual encounters, the nature of which might often be construed as disgusting, is shocking at first, but the very compassion and kindness of those involved, and lack of aggression or coercive hostility in any of the participants make it seem, in the end, the most natural thing in the world. A respectful and mutually beneficial means of communication and physical satisfaction in which everyone’s needs, no matter how unconventional, are respected. A key quote from Samuel Johnson, written down for Eric by his gay ‘uncle’ Bill, reads ‘he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’, to which he appends the comment ‘but note the good doctor said “beast”, not “animal”. For he who forgets the animal he is, has taken the first step toward becoming a beast’. This undeniably challenging novel also marks a geographical shift for Delany, moving out of the cities, and the suspended apocalypse of Bellona in Dhalgren, and into a remote rural setting on the coast of the US southern state of Georgia. As such, it takes its place in the tradition of American rural utopianism. Perhaps Thoreau would have approved.

Another favourite author published a new novel this year, Tim Powers’ Hide Me Amongst the Graves being a follow up to his The Stress of Her Regard, published some 23 years earlier in 1989. Again, I re-read the first novel again in order to enjoy the stories as a cohesive whole. Whether the new book can be appreciated without first having read the earlier one is dubious. It’s certainly preferable to read both. I’ve looked at them in more detail elsewhere, so suffice to say that Hide Me Amongst the Graves was a thoroughly satisfying follow up, taking Powers back to the Victorian London of his best known work (and a founding novel in the steampunk subgenre) The Anubis Gates. The typically dense and thoroughly worked out mythology common to both novels brings together a comprehensive collection of Romantic and gothic device, which are rationalised around the central notion of a mineral race, stony creatures of the earth, which predates humanity, and which, in its vestigial form, still preys parasitically upon it. They form close and, in their own murderously jealous way, loving relationships with particular individuals, and bring with them, as a side effect, visionary insight which feeds into artistic inspiration. They are like bloodsoaked muses. The novels ingeniously incorporate vampires, lamiae, golems, ghosts and many other supernatural manifestations into their overarching mythological schema, and also use the Romantic and Aesthetic poets as major characters, commenting on their lives and the nature of their inspiration in the process: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Polidori, Mary Shelley and Edward Trelawny in The Stress of Her Regard, and Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne and a returning Trelawny in Hide Me Amongst the Graves. Powers also evokes the haunts of the Romantics very atmospherically, from the Alps, Venice, and Ligurian coast of the first novel, to the gaslit London of Hide Me Amongst the Graves, with its hidden and labyrinthine subterranean subcity.

Also this year, I read Kim Newman’s highly entertaining Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles (how can you resist a title like that), a series of tales in which the Napoleon of Crime’s righthand man, the proudly thuggish Colonel Sebastian Moran, relates several of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories from the villain’s perspective, revealing Moriarty’s hand to be evident in more cases than Watson gave him credit for. Holmes here becomes less deductive genius, defending crown and country from international villainy, more an irritating meddler ruining carefully laid plans of beautifully elegance and consummate wickedness. Wicked and its follow up Son of A Witch by Gregory Maguire were brilliant expansions of the Oz mythos, making of the childhood tales something wholly adult. Maguire uses his recasting of L Frank Baum’s world to reflect upon the pains of growing up, of being visibly different, as well as to comment on modern politics, religion and the uses and abuses of power. These were novels which really surprised me. I expected them to be relatively throwaway entertainments (and there’s nowt wrong with those), but they turned out to be something much deeper (whilst still being hugely entertaining).

I also read James Knowlson’s comprehensive life of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame, which offered fascinating insights into his role in the French resistance during the war. I look forward to seeing some of the Bike Shed Theatre’s Beckett season in Exeter in the new year. Throwing Muses singer and songwriter Kristin Hersh wrote something which went well beyond the standard rock autobiography in Paradoxical Undressing, offering an intimate, impressionistic and beautifully written account of her early life which read more like a novel. Finally, Barry Miles’ London Calling was an enjoyable account of the post-war counterculture in the capital, from Soho soaks, penniless poets and savage artists of the Bacon, Freud and Dylan Thomas era, to those of the YBA generation. In between, he ranged over the artistic and radical political spectrum, from jazz lovers, British beats, Mods, pop artists, hippies and revolutionaries to punks, industrial noisemakers and new romantics. He spends the greatest amount of time in the 60s. Here, his observations benefit greatly from his own direct involvement in the scene, having worked at the Better Books shop in Charing Cross Road, co-run the Indica Gallery where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono, and helped launch the countercultural newspaper International Times. Miles also writes about Michael Moorcock, J G Ballard and New Worlds, and two figures I’ve become familiar with this year: Pauline Boty (whom he describes as ‘the purest, and perhaps the best, of the British pop artist of her time’, with ‘none of the dull masturbatory “male gaze”of the male pop artists’) and Bruce Lacey, theatrical prop maker, antic performer, robot controller and general madcap goon. It’s a fascinating story, with Miles customarily unafraid to make moral judgements, and shows what a rich and fertile ground the city has been for artists wanting to go against the grain.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Robinson Instute at the Tate Britain and Patrick Keiller's Robinson Films

Back in September, I went to see an exhibition in the Tate Britain which purported to be curated by the Robinson Institute, whose aims were to ‘promote political and economic change by developing the transformative potential of images of landscape’. The exhibition used the classically columned aisles running through the centre of the Tate building, with their temple-like grandeur, to house a jumbled assemblage of materials, turning the spaces into an ad-hoc blend of museum, gallery and library. Its slightly knocked together, church hall aspect, which worked against the professionalism and sanctity of the building in which it set up its stall, gave it the appearance of a collection of artefacts scavenged and gathered together after the fall – a reconfiguration of cultural matter in the wake of a cataclysmic crash aiming to provide a new way of seeing the world. The Robinson who lent his name to the institute was (or perhaps still is) an ‘itinerant scholar’; and like his shipwrecked and marooned namesake, a man adrift, isolated and at a remove from the dominant concerns of society. His name also links him with the Robinson of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s black novel Journey to the Centre of Night, who provides the bitter, anti-social narrative voice, full of fiercely intelligent misanthropy. Celine’s Robinson evolved into the titular character of Chris Petit’s novel, ringmaster of Soho’s night circus, would-be diviner of its secret heart, and witness to the apocalyptic deluge which turns its narrow streets into the canals of a new Venice.

The character of Robinson whose explorations the exhibition drew upon is the subject of three films by Patrick Keiller: London, Robinson In Space and Robinson In Ruins. A blend of fiction and documentary, they are structured around a narration which relates the journeys and reflections of Robinson (we never learn his first name), although he remains an off-camera presence throughout. The images presented to us are coolly, classically distanced, static observations of the atmospheres of place and time, season and weather. Robinson’s excursions are roughly planned, with vague scholarly ends in mind, but allow for diversions and chance happenings or revelations along the way. They are attempts to address ‘the problem of London’ and, in Robinson In Space, ‘the problem of England’. The first two films are narrated by a travelling companion (voiced by Paul Scofield) who is both close to and distanced from his guide (the distance which comes with the well-educated background the narrator’s accent suggests, and which is embodied in the public school use of surnames rather than Christian names as a mode of address); Close enough to be a sometime lover, but not really a friend. Robinson’s explorations take the form of short journeys in search of some particular connection, often of a literary or artistic nature, with place. The seven journeys in London (although the pattern set out at the beginning becomes a little diffuse as events proceed) begins with a pilgrimage to the sources of English Romanticism: Hugh Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill, the locale for his novel The Castle of Otranto, and the view over the Thames from the hill above Twickenham, the winding curve of the river across the plain still redolent of the pastoralism of Turner and Reynolds. Robinson is in essence a latterday Romantic (a term he describes in London as defining ‘a mode of feeling’), a man out of time in a materialist age. He also shares the Romantics’ yearning for a new Utopian society arising out of the ashes of some revolution or catastrophe. In Robinson In Space, in which he embarks on a further seven journeys suggested by Daniel Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, spiralling outwards from the centre point of Reading, he finally discovers it in the unlikely guise of Blackpool. This it the end point of his journey, a town whose economy is based almost entirely on the pursuit of pleasure. It’s also revealed as the town he came from before he moved to London (and perhaps not coincidentally, it is where Keiller grew up, too), giving his quest something of a Wizard of Oz ‘there’s no-place like home’ circularity.

Robinson In Space explores the strange hinterlands of England, linking the blank spaces of commerce (the container ports of Sheerness and Tilbury), justice and containment (the newly built and privately run prisons at Blakenhurst and Doncaster), self-contained mall worlds (Bluewater and Merry Hill), and military, communications and power installations (the Menwith Hills geodosic ‘golf ball’ tracking stations, DERA – the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency – at Malvern, the smoking cooling towers of Didcot Power Station and the monumental bunkers of Sellafield, and the Hiatt Works, with its historical links to the slave trade). Literary associations with land, place and memory are unearthed and followed up along the way: Paul Nash’s Wittenham Clumps; Daniel Defoe’s supposed meeting with Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe, at the Llandoger Trow wharfside pub in Bristol; and Shandy Hall, where Laurence Sterne set his labyrinthine cock and bull story Tristram Shandy. The final image, of lorries, trains and cars shuttling back and forth over adjacent bridges (the camera angle making it seem as if they are stacked one on top of the other in rising, Metropolis-style layers) spanning the Tyne in Newcastle, is choreographed to Allan Gray’s floating, whole-tone scaled music from Powell and Pressburger’s dream for a post-war Britain A Matter of Life and Death. These hypnotically arrayed bridges with their perpetual contrary motion portray an England caught between an industrial past and some new future configuration, in the meantime suspended in some indeterminate no-place, filling its uncelebrated midlands and obscure peripheries with deliberately faceless, inaccessible and secretive bases, enclosed complexes and depopulated compounds.

If Robinson In Space criss-crossed England observing the furtive landscape of its new service industrial base, then Robinson In Ruins concentrates on a more narrow radius surrounding the city of Oxford. Robinson, having, by the time of Robinson In Space, been dismissed from the teaching position we were told he held in London, has now, it is revealed, spent some time in prison. This may well have been an outcome of his investigations and reports in Robinson In Space. Paul Scofield’s narrator is, of necessity, gone (the actor having died in 2008), replaced by another ex-lover, this time female and voiced with calm authority by Vanessa Redgrave. Robinson In Ruins is presented as a specimen of the found footage genre, a device generally associated with verite-style horror movies. Its filmed content and the written comments read out by Redgrave purportedly derive from 11 film cans and a notebook found in a caravan in the corner of a field. From the beginning, Robinson states that he is ‘looking for somewhere to haunt’, plotting the course towards his conspicuous absence. The evidence he leaves suggests that he has succeeded in managing his disappearance (or has been ‘disappeared’), and is perhaps now dead. His journeys on foot through the villages and fields surrounding Oxford explore in microcosm the agricultural history of England and the current state of arable farming in relation to the wider condition (bad, in short) of the national and global economy.

Rocket sheds at Westcott
Robinson, true to his Romantic nature, seeks out the pastoral picturesque, the soul of a certain vision of Englishness (the kind which put the Hay Wain on hundreds of living room walls), believing that by framing such pictures ‘in the manner of Turner’ with his camera, he will dispel some ‘great Malady’ which has infected and possessed the spirit of place. He also visits SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) and finds hope for the future (albeit not necessarily a human future) in nature, and plant life in particular. A certain strain of apocalyptic, Blakean mysticism becomes apparent in his usually empirically analytical and intuitively sceptical outlook. He dreams of building eco-villages in old, disused clay pits, ‘experimental settlements in spaces of extraordinary biomorphic architecture’ (spaces which Keiller, trained and practicing as an architect, has perhaps dreamed of too). He is attempting to imagine a new form of futurism, a new kind of science fiction vision to replace the old, now-tainted variety. This futurism past is represented by the old 50s hangars of the rocket testing site (or ‘Guided Projectile Establishment’) at Westcott, a site now occupied by a business park. Robinson’s mysticism extends outwards beyond the bounds of the Earth towards speculations about a cosmic connection linking meteorite falls and historical moments of seismic social and political change. He also believes that ‘he could communicate with a network of non-human intelligences’. These principally seem to take the alien-sounding form of Xanthoria Parietina, more commonly known as lichen. Seen in close up, they do indeed form extraordinary biomorphic florescences against the rigidly geometrical green tesseract patterning of the Newbury roadsign (a beautiful image which was reproduced as a large photograph in the exhibition). Exotic beliefs stemming from a science fiction imagination (frequently indistinguishable from reality in the bewilderingly swift and ceaseless flux of the present) were also voiced in Robinson In Space (hence the title, I suppose), in which Robinson ‘explained that life on Earth evolved after the arrival of Buckminsterfullerenes in meteorites. Buckminsterfullerenes are complex carbon-based molecules with a vaguely geodesic structure (hence the nod to Fuller and his geodesic domes), which do indeed, it has been deduced from studying meteorite impact craters, exist in space. Robinson had also visited Horsell Common (a SSSI) in the course of his travels, the site which HG Wells chose for the first landing of his Martian cylinders in War of the Worlds. In Robinson’s SF imagination, the boundaries of fiction and fact, of the metaphorical and the real, become indistinct, leading to his delusions of alien plant communication (unless Robinson In Ruins, which is after all itself a fiction, has crossed genres and become a science fiction movie).

The lichen which so fascinates Robinson is seen as a model for a new kind of co-operative social structure. It exemplifies a symbiosis, a conjunction which benefits both participants, actually comprising two different but interdependent species – a fungus and a green algae. Robinson’s belief that he can communicate with a fungal algae may present a strong case for his solitary wanderings and mental divagations having led him too far from reality (and sanity); But as a metaphor, it has a simple elegance, and in close up an unearthly beauty (the geometrical backdrop of the metallic sign being the human world, and the invading spread of the lichen the alien). Robinson’s biophilia (‘the love of life and living systems’, as the narrator helpfully informs us) is manifested through many shots of plants and flowers. These take the steady, statically framed gaze common to all the films to new, unhurried lengths, inviting a meditative absorption in the detail of movement and sound. A shot of a cluster of teasle heads, their spiky ovals blossoming in pink and green, boiled-sweet colours, is taken from ground level, with the blue sky as a speckless backdrop. It makes them look like some strange alien forest rising improbably into the summer haze. We watch them for what seems like several minutes, as butterflies flit on and off, and their occasional nodding motion makes manifest the light wafts of warm air. Another sequence invites us to observe a stand of foxgloves trembling and swaying in the wind, bending out of the shot from time to time before springing back into the frame. This movement makes them seem vigorously alive, and their flexibility in the face of the passing breezes offers an Aesopian fabular lesson, a variant on the tale of the oak and the reed. The static form and extended length of these vegetative takes (‘vaster than empires and more slow’ as Andrew Marvell might have put it) makes them look like photographs possessed with sudden motion, and reflects Keiller’s background in architectural photography. The exhibition contains a good number of photographs, including some by Keiller himself. The stills from the film work perfectly as carefully composed photos, as did those from Robinson In Space included alongside the published and annotated script. Other photographs in the exhibition include selections from Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London series, and Bernd and Hiller Becker’s Coal Bunkers (1974), which captured vernacular and sculptural industrial architectural forms shortly before they were to become redundant. They were often in a state of disuse and disrepair, a kind of concrete gothic ruin which possesses its own desolate Romanticism.

Framing the landscape - the Wittenham Clumps (Robinson In Space)
The exhibition followed the form of the films, tidily compartmentalising itself into seven separate sections, reflecting the various stages of Robinson’s journey around Oxford in Robinson In Ruins and the themes and historical events it encompassed. The first part, entitled Robinsonism, (thereby granting the character immortality as a philosophical system), sets out the nature of the project, its basis in a reflection on and detailed framing of landscape, after the manner of the Romantics. Robinson, drifting towards a Blakean mysticism, was hoping that ‘if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events’. This is a transposition to a rural context of Robinson’s philosophy of urban observation which underpinned the film London, in which he put forward the similar belief that ‘if he looked at it hard enough he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events’. The important difference between the two, learned through the travels and incarceration of the intervening years, lies in the removal of the active, causational element. This philosophical shift betokens a willingness to suspend the ego and become a part of the surroundings in order to understand it, rather than to impose oneself upon it. Robinson succeeds in this to the extent of eventually disappearing into the molecular grain of the landscape, becoming a part of its accumulated strata of history, fiction and myth. The introductory notice to this first part of the exhibition states that ‘the lnstitute continues his enquiry, with the aid of works by artists, writers, historians, geographers, cartographers and geologists, and a variety of other objects, that advance its exploration of unfinished histories in landscape’.

The architecture of New Babylon - Constant Nieuwenhuys
There are books which form a sample of the Institute’s imaginary library, some of which are available to read at a desk, chained to the display cabinets behind to prevent pilfering. These include Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the locales in which are thought to have drawn upon the Otmoor landscape north east of Oxford, a central site in Robinson In Ruins; A book of Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon plans for an utopian future city from the 60s and 70s, based on a world in which land has become collectively owned, an influence on Robinson’s dreams of an ‘extraordinary biomorphic architecture’ and new social model; Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the Captain Swing agricultural riots of 1830; Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which Robinson had read whilst travelling around Oxford and its environs in Robinson In Space, the narrator remarking ‘I think we were never so happy as on the day of our pilgrimage to the memorials of Robert Burton’ (suggesting that Robinson was most content when in a state of pleasurable melancholia); Jorge Luis Borges stories collected in Labyrinths, for their penetration of the surface of things, their dismantling of the singular vision of history, the idea of the discrete and indivisible self, and the immutable materiality of the world – for revealing the molecular basis of perception and reality; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as an exemplar of the Romantic worldview which Robinson shares, and as a founding work of the science fiction imagination, which Brian Aldiss, in his history of the genre, characterises as being ‘in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode’.

The second section of the exhibition is entitled 1795, referring to the amendment to the Settlement Act made in that year, which allowed for much greater freedom of movement of the labour force, and is seen as key moment in the development of an industrialised economy. Robinson links this historical shift with a meteorite fall in Yorkshire, and a mineral specimen of space rock is duly displayed. A close-up of the Newbury roadsign with its blooming Xanthoria Parietina stain was also included, pointing the way from the fields to the urban centres, and through its symbiotic biological patina, to the possibility of alternate forms of social organisation (or to post-human futures). A quotation from Frederic Jameson’s The Seeds of Time (no relation to John Wyndham’s SF collection – or is there?), also included in the film, points to the vital importance of visionary art and fiction in offering new and different ways of seeing the world: ‘it seems to be easier’, he writes, ‘for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the Earth and nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’.

GPSS signposts
The third section looks at Greenham Common, Aldermaston and the Government Pipeline System (GPSS), the landscape of militarised power. The GPSS traces the hidden circulatory system of the national body’s lifeblood. Its hidden subterranean presence undermines notions of an ineradicable English identity rooted in the rural landscape. It is a system which is linked to a longer pipeline heading East across Europe, a drip feed making Britain’s dependence on wider geopolitical forces apparent. Robinson also notes tributaries branching off to military bases and weapons research establishments, many owned or part-owned by the US government or American corporations. A map outlined this veinous web, and there was a model of one of the pipeline markers, looking like a homely, slope-roofed birdhouse, painted with cheerful yellow stripes. Robinson used these markers to follow the pipeline north to the village of Ipsden, near which he passed a field of opium poppies, grown for medical use. They had a hypnotic effect, wavering with a pink blurring of vision commensurate with their narcotising purpose. The idea of secret government power sources piped into bases from alien sources is illustrated in science-fictional form in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass 2, those sources genuinely extra-planetary rather than merely extra-national in this case. This played on a small screen, with headphones for those who wanted to listen to the soundtrack. Unfortunately it was the 1957 Hammer film with Brian Donlevy in the title role, playing Professor Quatermass as an entirely inappropriate American tough guy, rather than the original 1955 BBC series. It was a cheaper and more concise choice, and served well enough to make the point.

Section 4was entitled the Non-Human, The Post-Human, and looked at Robinson’s biophilia, and his argument for the primacy of symbiotic relationships in nature. Included amongst the plant studies and Keiller’s own picture of foxgloves (a still taken from Robinson In Ruins) was one of Michael Landy’s etchings of hardy plants dismissed as weeds, the colonisers of post-industrial wastelands and urban cracks and patches of scrub – in this case, a study of herb robert. William Blake’s patron and follower John Linnell’s Study of A Tree from 1806 foregrounds the tree as a beautiful form in itself, rather than as just one element in a landscape. Philip Wilson Steer’s Elm Trees from 1922 remains as a record of a species now wiped out from the British Isles, a foretaste of the potential for mass extinctions.

The Agriculture sector, number five, included the note that ‘Robinson rarely saw anyone working in the fields, even during harvest’, the arable farming processes now being so heavily mechanised. In Robinson In Ruins, we watch huge combine harvesters slowly and inexorably eat their way through broad expanses of wheat, looking like unstoppable robotic mega locusts. Turner’s Harvest Home illustrates the older ways, with a celebratory gathering of farm hands in a huge barn, the golden glow of the evening landscape framed through its doors, the cavernous spaces waiting to be filled with the last wagons of hay just pulling up. James Ward’s 1808 painting Beef is a patriotic display of plenty, two hulking sides hanging up raw, bloody and dripping. Meanwhile, Andreas Gursky’s large scale photograph Chicago Trading Floor II, on which yellow and orange shirts blended in an almost abstract way with the blue of computer screens, indicated the kind of place where the fluctuating values of the wheat harvest and other farming produce was likely to be determined.

Satellite dishes on Enslow Hill
Stage six of the exhibition’s survey was based around the year 1930, a year of revolutions. The Captain Swing riots spread across the country, and in the seven towns surrounding Otmoor in Oxfordshire, there was active and recurrent resistance to attempts at enclosure and the diversion of the river. Robinson notes that it was also the year in which the Liverpool to Manchester Railway was opened, and that on the 15th of February, a meteorite landed in Launton near Bicester. The final section, Hanged, Drawn and Quartered, ventures further back in time while remaining geographically rooted in the Oxfordshire fields. 1596 marked the year in which the carpenter Barholomew Steer called for a rebellion against the local gentry who were enclosing the land, declaring his intention to tear down the fences they had put up and attack the manor house. In the end, only three other men turned up at his meeting point on Enslow Hill, and they failed to tear down any fences or make their proposed march on London to demand a change to the enclosure laws. He was said to have preached ‘the politics of Cockagne’, a vision of common ownership, plenty and creative leisure which would later be reflected in Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon some four hundred years later. The would be rebels were swiftly apprehended and taken to Newgate prison, where Steer undoubtedly died after torture. The surviving two members of the rebellion that never was were brought back to Enslow Hill, where they were hung, drawn and quartered. The site now looks down on an array of satellite dishes, relaying images and messages almost instantaneously around the globe, nestling in an old disused quarry. It is also an area rich in fossils (some of them on display in the exhibition), geological and historical planes of time intersecting with the invisible, intangible and transitory networks of contemporary information overload.

Hepworth and Hamilton
Various works of art from the Tate collections were displayed throughout to reflect Robinson’s multi-layered and –disciplined outlook on the world, his efforts to make connections. His approach was echoed in the Psychogeographical Guide to Paris produced by Situationist artist and prankster Guy Debord in 1957. Henry Moore’s Family Group, with its roughly formed bronze figures of mother and father holding a baby between them, draws on geological forms and suggests a connection between humanity and the landscape which it inhabits. It also, more prosaically, bears some resemblance to the piece of public art which Robinson films outside a LIDL supermarket on a retail estate. Barbara Hepworth’s Sun and Moon sets red and black discs, the latter intersecting with an open circle as if about to eclipse it, against a frottage background suggestive of a ploughed field. It gives semi-abstract, symbolic form to cyclical patterns of nature and the seasons, as does Richard Hamilton’s Microcosmos: Plant Cycle, with its watery sun cresting the horizon like the arc of a cranium. A Paul Nash sketch of the Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, made in 1943-4 near the end of his life, echoes Robinson’s travels in investing these twinned hilltop stands of beech with a personal symbolism and meaning, and the sense of connection with a particular place through time. Robinson notes them during his wanderings across Oxfordshire in Robinson In Space. Nash’s Totes Meer has intimations of a bleak post-human world in its depiction of a wintry ocean whose waves are composed of the wreckage of crashed German bombers. Beyond its specific wartime context, it could be seen as a sea of industrial detritus, creaking and grinding as it washes up on the shore of the world. Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze bust Shattered Head and Nigel Henderson’s Head of a Man (which looks a bit like William Burroughs), both from 1956, look like they are either cracked and decayed, dug out of the ground after many years, or half-formed, golems made from the stuff of the earth – a modernist Gog and Magog.

Henderson and Paolozzi
How much sense any of this would have made to those unfamiliar with Keiller’s Robinson films is uncertain. The Institute’s assemblage would have seemed a merely random gathering of objects and artistic works. But they may well have been intriguing enough to make the viewer want to make the connections between the apparently disparate elements and seek out the source. Which would have been well worth their while.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar, who died on Tuesday, had an immense influence on Western music in the latter half of the twentieth century. He did more than anyone else to bring Hindustani music and Indian culture in general to Europe and America, and to present in a popular and accessible way. The traces of Indian modes and rhythms, and of the resonant, singing buzz and ringing, sympathetic drone of the sitar in particular, can be found across a broad spectrum of musical styles from the 50s onwards. It was through Shankar that Brian Jones and George Harrison took to twanging simple melodic accompaniments on the sitar, introducing an intoxicating new sound to pop on songs like Paint It Black and Norwegian Wood. Harrison had been introduced to Shankar’s music on record by Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds, and it was also the derivation of the scattershot clusters of notes in their own brand of raga rock. Harrison, of course, went on to study briefly with Shankar, but never approached the level of mastery or dedication required of the serious Indian musician. He never lost his love of Indian music, though, and continued his relationship with Shankar, producing several of his recordings, including a handsome 1995 4-CD retrospective for his 75th birthday, In Celebration, which encompassed all aspects of Shankar’s playing and composing.

Shankar was introduced to many of the 60s hippie generation through his appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, recorded at generous length in the DA Pennebaker film which commemorates the epochal event. Shankar was granted his own afternoon slot, since any attempt to condense his music in between the folk pop of Simon and Garfunkel and the Mamas and Papas, and the guitar smashing and burning of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend in the evening would have been both pointless and disrespectful. It’s the thrilling interplay between Shankar’s rapidfire sitar runs and the intuitive responses of his regular tabla player Alla Rakha in the final jat section of raga they’re playing (Raga Bhimpalasi) that visibly wows the crowd. It was this aspect, along with the improvisatory nature of the music, which made him a favourite in the jazz world. John Coltrane, in particular, was a huge admirer, sufficiently so to name his son Ravi (and Ravi would later go on to meet his namesake). The influence of Shankar’s sound can be heard on pieces such as India, one version of which rides on a tamboura drone, and on the lengthy modal explorations of his many My Favourite Things excursions. These take their cue from Indian ragas in terms of extending the Western sense of appropriate (and endurable) duration well beyond the normal span, requiring new efforts of concentration. Coltrane’s duets with Elvin Jones on the likes of Impressions and Chasin’ the Trane also feel like a jazz variant on Shankar and Alla Rakha’s rhythmic byplay. This can also be heard in the lightspeed unison passages fired out by John McGlaughlin and Billy Cobham on the Mahavishnu Orchestra LPs The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. McGlaughlin drew more directly on the Indian musical heritage in his acoustic group Shakti, in which he played alongside Indian musicians including Zakir Hussain, the son of Alla Rakha, and had a special acoustic guitar built with sympathetic strings stretched across the sound hole.

Ravi Shankar at Monterey Pop Festival, 1967
The music of the minimalist composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass drew heavily on Indian music in the early 60s. Young’s drone pieces for his Theatre of Eternal Music environment, and Riley’s extended, tape-delay multiplied ‘phantom band’ improvisations on saxophone and organ were both inspired by Indian styles, and undoubtedly by hearing Shankar recordings. They both went on to study under the Indian vocal singer Pandit Pran Nath in the 70s, Young recording The Tambouras of Pandit Pran Nath in his honour, over an hour of hypnotic tamboura drone (great for improvising over). Glass met Shankar whilst in Paris in 1964, working as a session musician and transcriber in the studio where the latter was recording the score for the film Chappaqua. He always claims to have learnt a huge amount from Shankar in that short space of time, lessons which were formative in pointing to the slowly evolving additive rhythms and melodic spirals which were so central to his early music, and continue to be so to this day. Glass later collaborated with Shankar on a 1990 LP, Passages, which doesn’t show either at their best, amounting to a conventional chamber orchestrated dilution of both styles. Shankar also had an influence on the British folk scene, with several musicians incorporating the sitar alongside guitar and more traditional folk instruments to create a sound which is today generally known as psych folk. Mike Heron played the sitar on Incredible String Band songs such as Maya, There Is A Green Crown and Nightfall, and John Renbourn used it as an additional colour on Pentangle albums. The droning strings provide a weird, shimmering shadow to traditional songs like Once I Had A Sweetheart, Cruel Sister and House Carpenter, blending particularly well with the clipped notes of the banjo on the latter. The extended soloing and fluid, rapidly picked lines of the Grateful Dead’s guitarist Jerry Garcia, with their sliding blurs, also bear the hallmarks of Ravi’s influence (mixed in with a bit of bluegrass), Indian music having a particularly strong presence in the Bay Area. One of the Dead’s drummers, Mickey Hart, also played in various Indian and world rhythm orchestras, generally alongside Zakir Hussain, with the 1976 Diga Rhythm Band being a notably successful meeting of minds.

Ravi Shankar’s relationship with the hippies, and with the rock world in general as it grew into a mass marketed distillation of ‘countercultural’ values, was an ambivalent one. His association with George Harrison, and by extension with The Beatles, enabled him to introduce Indian classical music to an even wider, and younger audience. But he had no illusions about the fact that it was little more than a novel background sound for a lot of these new listeners. The sitar and tamboura drone is still synonymous for many with 60s psychedelic wooziness, an association with a brief moment in pop cultural history which does a considerable disservice to the centuries over which the music had been developed and refined into a complex and highly expressive artform on the Indian subcontinent. Shankar’s mixed feelings about the widespread adoption of Indian sounds as mood or head music in the 60s was perfectly summed up by his famous remarks at the Concert for Bangladesh which George Harrison organised in 1971. Shankar came on with his musicians, who settled down and looked at each other whilst sounding out a few single notes and tabla taps, making adjustments as necessary. When everything had been set up to their satisfaction, they fell silent in preparation for playing, only for the audience to burst into rapturous applause. ‘Thank you’, Shankar replied with measured sarcasm, ‘if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you enjoy the playing more’. Shankar also had great reservations about the hippie lifestyle. He disliked the drugs and the smoke-filled concert halls and the inability of some sections of the audience to appreciate to pay the music due respect and attention. If people really wanted to appreciate the music, and to gain an understanding of the culture from which it came, they needed to approach it in a proper mental and bodily state, he suggested. He was also no doubt sensitive to criticisms that he was sacrificing his art to commercial forces by playing to large rock crowds. Woodstock might have appeared as the apotheosis of the countercultural love generation for many, the point at which it became a ‘nation’, but for Shankar, who played there but didn’t appear in the film (even in subsequent bonus feature stuffed and additional performance appended directorial cut dvds), it marked the end of his engagement, his sympathy for its underlying ideals having run short. ‘I saw half a million people in the mud and rain’, he said. ‘No one was really in their right mind, and the music was just a background. That was the end; I promised I would never do that again’.

He was not an ascetic and saintly guru shying away from the base materialism of the world, mind you, nor did he ever claim to be. He was born in Varanasi on 7th April 1920 as Robindra Shankar Chowdhury. He adopted the name Ravi (meaning sun) in his 20s, as something more than just a stage name, although it also served that purpose well enough. He had a fairly privileged youth, particularly after he’d joined the renowned dance troupe of his elder brother Uday, with whom he travelled the world in luxurious style, acting as a background ‘chorus line’ dancer and playing various musical instruments in a cursory fashion. Uday was 20 years his senior, and must have been something of a father figure to him, particularly in the light of his own father’s almost total absence from his life (he didn’t even meet him until he was 8). He made his debut recording in 1937 with his brother’s troupe on an LP with the snappy title The Original Uday Shankar Company of Hindu Musicians Recorded During Its Historic Visit to the United States. He wasn’t playing sitar at this time, however. The momentous decision to take up the instrument came a year later in 1938. He had been encouraged to do so by the sarod master Allauddin Khan, who had been touring with the dance company. He went to study with Khan in the small Bengali village of Maihar, which was also the name of the gharana, or musical school, with which Khan was associated. Also studying with him was Khan’s son Ali Akbar Khan. Indian music has always been a dynastic affair, a tradition which Shankar furthered by teaching his daughter Anoushka to play the sitar, playing alongside her in numerous concerts in his latter years. His tabla player Alla Rakha also taught his son Zakir Hussain to play, and he has gone on to perform in a wide variety of musical set ups, from traditional Indian classical concerts to Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s world percussion ensembles and John McGlauglin’s Shakti Indian groups. Ali Akbar Khan would grow to become an acknowledged master of the sarod like his father. The sarod is a lute with a metallic neck (all the better for sliding notes) and a dry, non-resonant sound which offers a complete contrast to the sitar’s reverberant strings. Shankar wanted to play the sarod at first, but Khan wisely suggested that he would be better suited to the sitar. He would go on to play many duets (or jugalbandi) with Ali Akbar Khan, including the performance at the Concert for Bangladesh, and the lp recordings Master Musicians of India (1964) and the Apple-released In Concert (1972), a performance which took place shortly after Allaudin Khan’s death and was dedicated to his memory. Sadly, the two fell out in the 1980s, which brought their memorable and cherished collaborations to an end.

Shankar collaborated with a wide and disparate group of musicians over the years, bringing many musical styles and traditions together, to varying degrees of fruitfulness. Fusion is inherent to the northern Hindustani classical styles, anyway, emerging as it did in the 13th century with the advent of the Mughal Empire, which introduced influences from the Islamic world to the purer Hindu religious forms. These persisted in the south, forming a distinct stream known as Karnatic music. Shankar united the two by playing with musicians from the Karnatic tradition. He worked with West Coast jazz musicians on a couple of tracks on the 1962 LP Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali (which I remember getting out of the library way back in my teenage years, when it still had records), refugees from the Stan Kenton and Chico Hamilton bands: Bud Shank on flute, Dennis Budimir on guitar, Louis Hayes on drums, and future Keith Jarrett trio bassist Gary Peacock. He duetted with Yehudi Menuhin, whom he had first met in Delhi in 1952, on the popular 1966 West Meets East LP (and its follow ups), the violinist proving stiff and inflexible, unable to adjust his classical technique to the fluid vocal lines essential for Indian music (for which the voice is the source of all sound). East also met further East on the 1978 LP East Greets East (those titles never avoided the obvious), on which he collaborated with players of the traditional Japanese flute and zither, the shakuhachi and the koto. He also composed and played on several soundtracks, beginning with the lovely folk themes played on sitar and flute which he provided for Satyajit Ray’s 1960 portrait of Bengali village life Pather Panchali. Variations of these can be found on that 1962 LP Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali (a good record to start with if you want to get into Shankar’s music in all its variety). He also wrote and performed parts of the music for the 1968 film Charly, an adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ affecting SF novel of artificially enhanced human intelligence Flowers for Algernon. His music for Jonathan Miller’s 1966 TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is particularly successful in creating an atmosphere of sun-dazed drowsiness, imbuing the English gardens, meadows and decaying buildings in which he sets the story with the hazy, surreal quality of a half-waking state. Shankar’s Alice music was a particular favourite of Trish Keenan from the band Broadcast.

Shankar has something of a connection to the South West and Devon through the Dartington Hall Estate, a rural social, educational and artistic endeavour set up by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in the 1920s. Leonard Elmhirst had been a close friend of and personal assistant to the towering figure of Bengali (and Indian as a whole) literature. Tagore was a tremendous influence on Shankar and many other artists of his generation. The Elmhirsts’ experience of Indian culture proved an inspiration for many aspects of the integrated rural enterprise which they worked to create and sustain. As a result, Indian music and art has always found a home there. Shankar’s brother Uday’s dance troupe visited in 1934 for a performance and short teaching session. He returned several further times in the 30s, brother Ravi present for some of the visits, including a longer six-month residency in 1936. In the light of these connections, Shankar returned at various intervals to perform in the old medieval great hall, the last time being in 2004.

Ravi and Anoushka Shankar at the 2005 Proms
I was lucky enough to get to see him perform during the 2005 Proms in the Albert Hall. His daughter Anoushka played lead in the first half performance of his Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra, a piece first recorded by Ravi with Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1971. It’s a light but colourful work, sounding a bit like the kind of 50s and early 60s exotica which plundered sound and rhythms from around the world, shaking them together with lush orchestrations to produce a gaudy but sometimes quite tasty cocktail – an odd reversal of the process in this case, making the authentic sound ersatz through the addition of Western colourations and musical structures. In the second half, he took to the stage with Anoushka, and the two duetted on a raga which lasted a little under an hour. I was close enough to smell the incense which burned on the stage, to the side of the carpet upon which they sat. This was one of a series of concerts he gave with Anoushka in his 85th year. His age wasn’t apparent as he played with typical sensitivity and agility, and the scalar patterns he threw back and forth with his daughter in the rhythmic jat section were as thrilling as ever in their melding of musical minds. I definitely felt in the presence of a legend. Anoushka Shankar now remains to carry on his legacy and nurture and develop the musical traditions which her father did so much to bring to the world through another generation.