Archives for category: Film

So last night’s pub philosophy circle was one of those classic subjects: art. Tim Cross led the discussion which was lively if full of assertions and opinions but lacking in philosophy. Tim’s talk was great, but our audience let him down, I feel. What it did demonstrate is that philosophy of art remains an area of much debate and it fuels a lot of entrenched opinion.

My feelings on the subject were pretty agnostic going in. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy art. In particularly photojournalism and photo-realist painting, interestingly, both schools of which are sometimes touted as not art at all. My view is that good photo-realism adds something to mere representation that is almost intangible – and it is that, in fact, which is the slippery essence of what ‘art’ is.

But any debate on art quickly falls into rather crass examples of what one likes or dislikes as if that explains what art is or isn’t. A slightly deeper debate will often get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’ but these too are often distracting traps of little consequence. Keen to play along, however, and at a push I came up with a simple triad of core qualities which we might use to define ‘art’. I am not yet certain how many of these qualities need to be in place to qualify, at least one, probably two but sometimes all three, but I’m absolutely happy with that ambiguity, just as what is/isn’t art can be slippery and open to debate.

Here it is; I’ve gone with the 3 c’s purely to keep it simple.

art

COMMUNICATION
All art has to engage at least the creator but ideally both the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it but if a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. To you. So, that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend it: there’s no magic number in consensus, but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object will do. In fact, it is probably easier to consider a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some way to define this difference between object and item imbued with meaning in some way. Which is different, of course, to ‘not liking’ what’s being communicated – it is still communicating with you.

It is easy to regard art as beautiful (the art communicates beauty to you) but there is also other means of communication at play here: the beguiling (Mona Lisa) or the horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.

CRAFT
The most obvious quality. And then there’s ‘found’ objects which are given a context and thus communicate as more than mere objects. So, no, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence, which brings us nicely to…

CHOICE
The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.

The combination of all these three (and in some cases perhaps, only two of these), and by varying degrees and in different forms is what makes art.

Arising out of these are other factors which might explain why some things become art or in some cases ‘great’ art after a period of time. Things like context, subject and whether the art is novel or innovative. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become art over time as context changes (scarcity or changes in train design now reveals the craft or art of the steam train). You might disagree with the example there, but the same process might explain the increasing regard for some art over time, or some novels.

The creation of art has the consequence that it does, however, become a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate to this, and it is a question rather of what do we mean by the ‘value’ of art, normally in a commercial sense, but sometimes in a critical sense.

Disappointingly, I find debate around art tends to miss what we might call the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking, or more thanks to modernity maths and coding might be considered an art. We debated whether the London Underground map is art. I said yes. Others said it was merely good design. I said it is also good design, but it is art. It has gone beyond design, as evidenced by people being compelled to buy and hang prints of it, a pursuit disconnected with its original purpose.

Finally, I wanted to consider the question ‘why is the question ‘what is art’ important to us?’

It is my opinion that all shared human endeavours and experiences that we hold in common will eternally be important questions and considerations for man. Probably because it is one of the characteristics which make man human.

Art is like all universal experiences – invaluably human.

I was talking about last night’s Tintern Philosophy Circle pub meet and a talk by Tim Cross ‘Art – some philosophical questions’. Next month (each 3rd Tuesday, 7.30pm) is Prof. John Clarke on ‘Sartre: on authenticity & sincerity’ and December has a guest speaker on ‘Religion & Science’.

mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of a looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us with the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough. It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.

 

Last night, as I watched probably one of the best concert films I’ve ever seen it struck me just how boring they are.

The appropriately titled ‘Don’t Think’ sees the Chemical Brothers attempt to make a proper film of a concert. Their conceit is to put the viewer both in the crowd and enjoy the super-clear visuals close-up (which you couldn’t if you stood at the back).

Then I spotted the problem: these films always fail because there’s no narrative.

To be fair, ‘Don’t Think’ tries to be as immersive in the gig experience as you can possible be without bobbing up and down in your lounge rammed with strangers in a Japanese subway-like bouncy huddle. But you’d still have to watch the thing in the dark and at maximum volume to get 1/10th of the feel of a real gig. And that’s why most of the concert films I’ve seen don’t even clock that figure.

When I was younger, the music used to be enough. But that would be denying the spectacle of seeing your heroes prance about in all their self-satisfied glory, performing vastly inferior versions of the great album tracks you love, which somehow managed to elevate my appreciation of the event. Van Halen’s ‘Live without a net’ captured Eddie Van Halen at his peak. But it also gave us Sammy Hagar instead of David Lee Roth, and a drum solo (that’s right a drum solo – even in jazz drum solos never work!) from Alex VH. It was a curious mix of admiration and disappointment stretched over an hour and a bit.

Then there’s the advent of the voyeuristic take on concert films. The first I saw was Metallica’s ‘Cliff ‘Em All’ – a tribute to Cliff somebody (their former bassist who died before his time), mixed with their own sardonic take on the moniker of their own ‘Kill ‘Em All’ album. Here we saw the band at their most jokey and knockabout but this managed only to destroy the doom-laden seriousness of their image I had been so attracted to in my brief spell of metal (I quit Metallica and metal writ large at ‘Master of Puppets’, after listening to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ for the first time on my way back from the Monsters of Rock festival in 1988).

Music is about music, not the jokes, personalities, banter (Jim Morrison in ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’), tricks (Eddie Van Halen) – it is the songs themselves that matter.

OK, you say, what about Pink Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’? Bubbling mud aside, that’s about the performance, you cry. There’s even no audience! True. But prog rock normally had its own imaginary narrative. Unfortunately it is often naïve and, in Floyd’s case, a bit sixth form. Which can also ache boredom 21minutes in to the same song. It’s a performance of tracks better played and recorded in the studio. Nothing more.

Still, by the time I attended what I regard as probably the best gig – DJ Shadow during his Private Press tour – the music was finally accompanied by visuals that were actually in complete time with the music. This meant visuals in synchronicity of this level were, however, only able to step up to fill the void of having no lead vocals which is often missing in much electronic and sampled music. It was, however, a brilliant show. The songs were great, loud, brilliant renditions of the album tracks, complemented by superb visuals, guests vocalists (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) and expert turntablism. Josh too was a refreshingly honest musician who admitted mistakes and shared his dissatisfaction with you when he made them. Of course, in the euphoric atmosphere we missed them completely anyway, but his authentic care for the music and performance was admirable. He thought he was a dweeb, we thought he was a genius.

When I saw the concert film of Shadow’s show later released on DVD, however, I was disappointed. It bore no resemblance to the experience I had that night in Bristol’s Academy. The songs were the same, the visuals the same but it was drained of all its life. The gap it revealed was the thing that is the essence of good art: it is that which distinguishes a masterpiece from a cheap fake.

I guess that is why even ‘Don’t Think’ occasionally breaks away to a strange outside the arena trip, where the movie switches to a segmented music video-style. It seems to do this because the vast backdrop of lights and animated video visuals by now are becoming tiresome.

And you could forgive them this foray: the Chemical Brothers had previously shown great form with their music videos. But on the whole I find music videos are another grossly uneventful experience. Exception to the rule, their ‘Star Guitar’ sees the rhythm and video as one. Then their brilliant choice of Spike Jonze to direct their ‘Elektrobank’ promo delivers a fantastic homage to 80’s triumph of the underdog-type movies typified by things like ‘The Karate Kid’. I recommend you YouTube it, not least since it stars the lovely Sofia Coppola (who Jonze would eventually marry).

But note, these all have narrative of a kind and a short duration and that is why they work.

The concert film has a long duration and no narrative. They’ve tried to fix the problem by ramping up the immersive vibe, but fail to realise that not everyone will play the film at full volume during a house party on an elevated large flat-screen. They’re fixing the problem at the wrong end. They’ve done a good job, but it is still boring by DVD chapter 14. I found myself skipping chapters. Next. Next. Yeah. Next. End.

Here’s my theory proven.

‘Don’t Think’ includes a CD version of the gig. Boring; I’ll never listen to it. Prefer the original album tracks they’ve laboured over so lovingly.

Compare this, however, to a CD of music from movies that use music well. Like, for example Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’: a truly brilliant film and, um, fantastic soundtrack CD which my family all enjoy.

Or ‘Jungle Book’? Or ‘The Accidental Tourist’? Or ‘Schindler’s List’? Or ‘The Double Life of Veronique’? etc.

My point is that you can watch these as movies and enjoy the music as part of the overall experience or independently on a music CD. A CD of a concert film is just dull – therein lies the problem. As a Marxist, of course, I see the phenomenon as nothing more than a means of selling us more of the same content a different way so we buy and re-buy that same content, all the while lining the pockets of the record company while the band probably can tick off another contractual commitment.

Concert films are just dull.

Even supposedly the greatest ever – ‘Woodstock’ – is only truly interesting the first time. And this is precisely because it has the narrative of the documentary story revealing just how chaotic and difficult it was to setup and keep from falling apart. After that it is a game of ‘Oh look, it’s so and so.’ And ‘Who’s next?’  Again though, the actual quality of the music is poor compared to the original studio tracks those artists recorded. I once stayed at house of a friend’s brother in Manchester. The brother had an LP of the Woodstock concert. Blimey that was a downer. Overlong clanky noise. Three tracks in, it was a relief when my friend suggested we listen to some Jesus & the Mary Chain instead.

So, concert films are just dull, precisely because of the music.

Feel free to post your objections and suggestions for exceptions to the rule. I will probably remain unconvinced, but you never know – open mind and all that…

DJ Shadow’s last tour saw him hide for most of the show in his globe and project 360 onto the globe. Very clever. But now we have a live visual audio show which really won’t be the same on DVD. See it live only.

‘A BOUT DE SOUFFLE’

Directed by Jean Luc Godard, France 1959, starring: Jean Seberg & Jean-Paul Belmondo

{Film review for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion, 2004.}

France 1959.

The year Claude Chabrol’s tender and more emotionally engaging ‘Les Cousins’ won the Golden Bear in Berlin and Truffaut won Best Director at Cannes for ‘Les Quarte Cents Coups’ (‘The 400 Blows’).

Why then was it not these nouvelle vague movies but ‘A Bout De Souffle’ that became the cornerstone of the new wave, cementing itself a deep and notorious place in international film history?

Based on an original treatment by Francois Truffaut but lacking any coherent script, and with Claude Chabrol acting as artistic advisor (plus Jean-Pierre Melville appearing in front of the camera), ‘A Bout De Souffle’ made, as Halliwell’s guide puts it “insolent use of the jump cut” and in doing so tore into the anarchic consciousness of a new, intelligent generation. ‘Breathless’ was a chaotic and rebellious mix of intellect and pulp; an anti-establishment Beat mix of cool jazz and Mozart.

Graduating from just writing about the movies in film magazines, ‘Breathless’ was Godard’s directorial debut and while obviously influenced by the American noir scene, heralded the arrival and opening salvo of the French New Wave. Today the film still stands out as a zig-zagging narrative; an existential meditation of life, love, crime, freedom, tedium and chaos.

Quinlan’s ‘Film Directors’ lists Godard’s politics as “communist but anti-soviet” and indeed after his initial successes, Godard went on to produce a number of left-wing films that despite their genuine commitment to the cause, but which generated little interest in the west. This was partly due to his rebellious reluctance to embrace the regular channels of finance and distribution – the very same thing which, on the whole, has continued to strangle creativity in film to this very day.

Of course, Godard had already upset the establishment by featuring references to the war in Algeria in the 1960 film ‘Le Petit Soldat’. That film was banned and left unseen for three years after production had ended. Later he worked in the Lebanon filming ‘Jusque a la Victorie (Until Victory)’ with the PLO, but again, through lack of funds, the film went unfinished.

The Parisian Maoist underground in which Godard had become involved saw him make low-budget films that dealt almost entirely on class and struggle: dialectical materialism – one example of which featured conversations between workers and students. But this was the 60’s of the Spring 68 revolution and Che.

Indeed, it was in ‘68 that Godard co-founded the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective making radical “political films politically”. The films never made it out of activist circles, but one can’t help but wonder what Godard might think of commercially successful political films like ‘Farenheit 9/11’ or ‘Super Size Me’.

Separately, the anti-heroine of ‘A Bout de Souffle’, the tragic American actress Jean Seberg, would find her own way to the struggle: through her support of the Black Panther Party. Having already been hand-picked by Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc, Seberg was a rising star on both sides of the Atlantic.

Seven months pregnant by her white intellectual husband Romain Gary, Seberg was targeted in an FBI smear campaign using fictitious letters suggesting her child was from an illicit affair with a Black Panther Party member. The trauma led to a premature birth and the child died. Shocking the world’s media she presented the dead baby at a press conference, proving the child was white in act of righteously outrageous rage against the smear campaign. The FBI, however, continued to track and follow Seberg, and eventually she took her own life in 1979.

Eventually Godard returned to the relative mainstream of world cinema and while remaining an original artistic force, he never reached the impact and quality of ‘Alphaville’ or ‘A Bout de Souffle’.

Meanwhile in Hollywood, 1959, ‘Ben Hur’ cleaned up at the Oscars.

Currently available on DVD.
 Want more Godard?: we recommend ‘Weekend’ and ‘Alphaville’
 If you like this, then you might like Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’.
 Webs: www.saintjean.co.uk