Monthly Archives: January 2013

Inappropriate sloth

Complaining about getting lost at the Barbican feels like a reinforcement of a lazy error.  Still, when you’re already late, the multiplicity of routes and apparent paucity of signs is not helpful. Earlier complacency when leaving for a couple of shows at Somerset House was the reason for being late.  Two were finishing that day and I went to Tim Walker first. While it was occasionally witty, at other times I found it too arch and the blurbs were irritating.  It’s not often I see fashion models because it’s not a world to which I devote much attention and most of them really were disturbingly thin (to recapitulate a predictable opinion). I was amused by one child’s complaint about the bee musicians – “But you wouldn’t play a violin like that”.

When I left for the Cartier-Bresson in the South Wing, there were already queues in the courtyard for Walker. The second show consisted of a sparse selection of monochrome Cartier-Bresson prints, flanked by many more colour photos intended to match the quality of the former. Most photography exhibitions are a bit patchy and this wasn’t an exception. I did enjoy some of the American images of Helen Levitt and Ernst Haas.

Now I had to rush from Embankment to Barbican for the postponed showing of Woman of the Dunes, chosen by Nick Broomfield as his exemplar of Sloth. Passing the inevitable queue of young students waiting to enter the Rain Room, I rushed down to Cinema 1, where, naturally, no-one seemed to be in a hurry.  A friend had recommended this at Cornerhouse several years ago so I didn’t want to miss the chance to see it. The film was quite remarkable, showing an unappealing scientist’s response to a very unusual predicament, complete with shimmering eroticism and disturbing mob behaviour. One odd thing I noticed: immediately the film ended, lots of people putting on lip balm.  Is that part of the ritual now? I drank the contents of my second special Helen Mirren water bottle.

Nick Broomfield said he first saw it as a schoolboy in the mid-sixties. Ostensibly it was to represent the sin of Sloth and he regarded the connection to be the emotional apathy of the characters and the villagers, and their moral apathy, exemplified by the woman’s indifference to the dangers caused by selling salt sand to the construction industry, which would lead to building collapses. He also contrasted the scientist’s initial pondering in voiceover of the need for certification to confirm status in life, with his passive acceptance of the validation achieved by the water experiments. This was the main area of interest for the audience’s questions, because the link didn’t seem strong enough. One woman thought it a typically male response – just accepting what’s on offer (in reference to his relationship with the woman). Someone else thought that the protagonist had become just an automaton by the end, without any humanity, just another grain of sand. For Broomfield, the context of the original novel, which was written while Japan was still being ruled by General MacArthur, was key, as was the question posed by the scientist: “Are you living to shovel sand, or shovelling sand to live?” One interesting technical point was that the music by Takemitsu, which (quite unusually) was composed along with the film, rather than being written after completion, gave it an avant garde atmosphere.

A couple of days’ later, I’m wondering about the influence of Woman of the Dunes on films like The Music of Chance.

That’ll do nicely

Last week I attended the Leveson Debate  at the Conway Hall, organised by the Soho Skeptics. In my anti-Rupert zeal I confess I hadn’t really considered the issue properly.  Certainly not the arguments of those warning against “state regulation”.

The hall was packed (at least for the start of the debate), with a mixture of earnest young pretenders and sage, nodding old-timers. Someone in front of me was showing to her friend a letter she had received from from Mary Macleod MP in response to her Leveson query, illustrating I suppose that lots of the audience were quite committed on the issue. The first part consisted of comments from the four people on the panel, followed by discussion between them.  The apparent rancour between Nick Cohen and Evan Harris was surprising – perhaps they’ve had a spat that I’ve missed? Cohen thought the continued focus on newspapers to be a distraction, given their rapid decline. Early on he asked for a show of hands from the audience in answer to the question “How many of you here tonight are journalists”. Quite a few. Davis tried to counter the impression that the report did not address the internet. Suzanne Moore embraced her recent notoriety while Natalie Fenton was the less strident of the two in the pro-Leveson camp. Naturally there was a lot of tweeting going on, including from those not in attendance, the latter divided between affected sneering “I can’t imaging anything worse than attending the..”, eager interest and puzzlement.

After an interval, during which I heard that the entire stock of the bar was consumed, it started again with the moderator (Helen Lewis) reading out selected tweets and inviting questions from the audience. It was at this point that I found I was attending more to Twitter than to the debate itself, which rambled around somewhat. Helen Lewis should perhaps have tried to restrain the speakers (and questioners) more.

What I had learnt by the end was that there is some nuance in the regulation-sceptic camp.  Still, you know, Rupert Bad.

The following day some investigation revealed that I did in fact have a free ticket to the Helen Mirren Screen Epiphany at the BFI, having applied for one a while ago and not having received the normal confirmation. On my way to the entrance I noticed a quite un-BFI-like man on station by the doors often used by speakers. His stolid frame and stern face were quite out of place. It turned out, of course, that he was one of two security men for Helen Mirren…

American Express do seem to sponsor various BFI events.  Walking in from the back of NFT 1 I spotted some bags and cards on the seats, presuming that they were for special people in reserved areas. An addition to the usual notes available as you enter. However, they were in fact for everyone.  There was a card advertising the play in which Mirren will be performing from February and a black canvas bag, which had the American Express logo on one side and a promotional logo on the other. Inside were a small bottle of water (“American Express welcomes you to…”) and a similarly marketed bag of posh popcorn with caramel and sea salt. An unexpected corporate air. As usually seems to happen, a few seats on my row were empty, so I moved across to be nearer the middle, thereby meeting the wishes of my neighbours to the right. This meant, of course, that there was extra sponsored popcorn available.

The discussion between Stephen Daldry and Helen Mirren was entertaining and they did both seem to be genuine enthusiasts about L’Atalante, poor Jean Vigo’s masterpiece, albeit she said she’d only seen it for the first time five years ago. Discussing her old films, Mirren related how on Excalibur John Boorman had elevated the camera for a particular fight scene, so that slain knights could crawl around again unseen and return to the fight, such was the lack of budget.

It’s been many years since I last saw the film and it truly was as poetic and moving as I remembered.  In fact, along with a Channel 4 masterclass on the Battle of Algiers, I think it was a Christmas showing of L’Atalante on BBC2 twenty five years ago that set me on the path to be a film bore. A simple story, so beautifully told.

Afterwards, I saw people carrying their special bags, including one extravagant fellow who performed a special twirl with it. My two were out of view in my bag.

Take that.



Cul-de-Sac Holiday

The Sunday before last I had the choice between a literate comedy (Holiday) in the screwball season and an early Polanski, full of disturbance, self-loathing and humiliation.  I chose the former and it was wonderful – Cary Grant less frantic and still the acme of urbane, Katherine Hepburn lustrous, and with two marvellously subversive academics as the chorus.  This meant I had to see Cul-de-Sac last Saturday.

There was an introductory talk by a Polish professor in film, who thought that it was in many ways the canonical Polanski work.  While often funny and broad, it is of course unsettling in the degeneration of Donald Pleasence’s character and the shifting relations between the three protagonists.  She promised us that eggs would be prominent as props, and they really were, mostly filling the fridge, showcasing Pleasence’s awkwardness and impotence, and providing rough sustenance for Lionel Stander.  The music was very effective, with the same motif transposed from incidental themes to Dorleac’s loud jazz vinyl.

Apparently the shooting was nearly as fraught as the on-screen action…and, as usual, there was a lot of overlap between Polanski’s own life and the plot.

Lindisfarne seems more appealing now, actually.

Inefficient density

The problem with the early Members’ Hours at the Tate is that they’re early.  The other problem is that there are over 100,000 members now (I believe…) and so the imagined idyll of empty galleries, just like on the telly, is unlikely to be achieved.  I had raced through the Pre-Raphaelites show 6 weeks ago while concentrating on the Turner Prize.  It was hideously crowded and I wasn’t sure whether I’d make the effort to see it properly.

Still, I’ve been advised not to say No to anything, even my own suggestions, so in that spirit I got up very early, for a Sunday and headed to Pimlico.  Oddly, people were heading in straight away and there was a queue.  An entabarded man was regulating entry and, in response to his query as to whether I had booked (apparently flashing my membership card was insufficient) I’m afraid I told a fib and said I had, at which revelation I was admitted.  A kind man at the ticket desk let me have one of their spares, thereby sparing me the humiliation of an ejection.

To be honest I’m not sure how interesting I find the Pre-Raphaelites in terms of the work they produced, so much as the effect they had, and so much of it is perhaps over-familiar anyway.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy it, in spite of the large group being lectured at and led around by a loud American curator;  somewhat going against the spirit of the semi-exclusive hour.  Their presence meant you had either to speed up or to improvise a non-linear scheme of looking.  I heard a man say to his companion:

I’m just going back to that other room to see Ophelia

It was pleasing to be able to linger over a few Ford Madox Brown paintings that I’d had to rush past at the Manchester Gallery last year and the tapestries were unexpected.  The progress of William Morris was also enjoyably tangible.

Outside the queues were enormous:

Queues to the Pre-Raphaelites show

Queues to the Pre-Raphaelites show

The last time I’d come to one of these events, the works on display in the open space outside the main galleries were unexpected and so doubly appreciated.  Then it was Patrick Keiller, now it was Ian Hamilton Finlay.  I wasn’t sure whether I knew him or not.  I liked his attention to design and form as well as his poetry, especially this final piece:

The world has been empty since the Romans

The world has been empty since the Romans

Ignoring the unresolved nagging feeling that I’d planned to do something else next, after a brief spell in the Members’ Room which seems to facilitate mainly negotiations for extra chairs, owing to its size, I headed home.  It was Football Time and the result was satisfactory.  During the match I consulted my almanac and realised that it was the last day of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the ICA, so I would have to head back into town again, knowing that I was due at the tunnels beneath Waterloo Station in the evening.

Long before I moved to London I used to visit quite a lot, and during those visits I would come to the ICA often, usually for films.  I couldn’t remember how large the galleries were and was worried whether I’d have time to see everything in the hour or so available to me.  In fact, it was fairly small.  There was perhaps more painting than you might expect at such shows.  Lots of video of course.  I think my favourite was the squirrel, because it reminded me of the Maurizio Cattelan suicide squirrel I’d caught at the Whitechapel in December:



One question – who are the mysterious manufacturers of these weird TV sets often used for video art and in schools (on stilts)?  As is often the case with waiting until the last day, some installations either weren’t working or couldn’t be bothered to work.

I walked down Charing Cross Road and across the Thames to Waterloo and the Old Vic Tunnels, venue for the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a show I only knew about because I heard an interview with Fiona Shaw on Night Waves.  La di da.  There was some confusion in the lobby, while we had to wait for the people who’d seen the previous showing to leave:

The sadness of the blanked out old CCTV camera

The sadness of the blanked out old CCTV camera

The next room held a bar and  strange pool:



Fiona Shaw appeared while people were taking their seats, with two black hats.  She picked out several people and tried hats on them, searching and assessing the audience.  As you’d expect it was a powerful performance from her and her interplay with the dancer worked quite well.  As with many such poems, I enjoyed it much more in this format than I had under scholastic strictures.  The occasional rumblings from trains up above melded effectively with the soundtrack.  Here is a view of the stage before the performance began:

Rime stage

Rime stage

Sundays shouldn’t really be so busy.


I thought I hadn’t been spending enough time on the South Bank lately, so I headed there for the Twelfth Night celebrations put on by Lionspart at Bankside, outside the Globe.  It wasn’t quite clear where things would occur, given that the small posters were found over quite a wide area, and I then tried to work out who was waiting for it all to start, like me.  This is difficult when people just tend to stop and gawp along the Thames anyway. I settled on a spot with a wall for leaning on, by some steps down to the shingly bank itself and read the remainder of Private Eye.  Some folks took me for an initiate and leaned against the same wall, thereby mutually validating (without any real evidence…).  A boat was spotted, going the wrong way on the river.  Speculation about the reasons for this did not reach a consensus and there was still quite a while before it was due to start.  Two noticeably tall young men of a tweedish bent appeared, glad-handing.  I then heard a man near me introduce one of them as “the chairman of the Young Conservatives in my constituency”.  This seemed appropriate, because they looked like they should be chairmen of the Young Conservatives.

Soon the performers appeared and announced that the Holly Man was approaching:



However, the boat turned back, went further out and then approached again, calling for another announcement.  The Holly Man, when he appeared, was actually quite impressively holly-ful:


After some wassailing, which involved the Holly Man reciting this text:

Globe wassail

Globe wassail

they moved down for the Mummers’ Play.  It was unfortunate that I was a bit slow in following them, because this meant I wasn’t able to see their performance very well.  Still, being tall is often convenient and by standing on a concrete ledge I could just about see what was happening, unlike many people who were intrigued by the large crowd, only to be put off by the impossibility of viewing events.

While I couldn’t hear all of what was being said, the phrases fiscal cliff,fiscal stimulus, and giving all our money to bankers did resound, which seemed to me to be a departure from the traditional text:



while the Holly Man continued to preside:

Holly Man

Holly Man

Cakes were distributed, two of which held special beans as a means of choosing the King and Queen of the procession.  The two were chosen and crowned, the King being somewhat more at ease with his elevation than the Queen:

More Mummers

King and Queen

The route to the George pub seemed…haphazard, perhaps in keeping with the spirit of the event.  As we passed a chain food shop (I don’t recall which), the customers were desperate to capture the novelty passing their window on their phones.  There was limited space in the courtyard of the pub and the Holly Man had to assert his eminence – “Let me through – I’m the star here” – before wassailing the pub:

George Wassail

George Wassail

After this proclamation a space was cleared for the Molly Dancers.

In spite of the cold, I did enjoy this couple of hours and it seems noble that the performers are so keen to revive these traditions.  Not sure our Tory friends will have appreciated the jibes sent in their general direction.

Theatre through the window

One thing I noticed was the admonition

Latecomers may not be admitted

reiterated on the ticket and elsewhere in the information about the show (Strindberg’s Dance of Death, now finished). That’s redundant information for me, I thought. Imagine being late for the theatre.

It was New Year’s Day and I took the chance to explore my neighbourhood, hoping to find a sneaky route to part of Epping Forest. The suburban houses on roads I didn’t know – that were plagued by learner drivers, to the extent that they were impeding each other – did not present any apparent point of entry, so I went back to the main road. Further on I saw a pond, with the various fowl oscillating between the family units proffering inappropriate bread.  A district noticeboard offered films and courses on Egyptology.  An enviable provision for those able to attend during “working hours”. Having passed the intangible elision between Snaresbrook and Wanstead, I took the Central line from the latter station, intending to see what happened on the Other Branch, with its mysterious Hainault. It was disappointing.

This wandering must have precipitated a mood of dilatoriness. I had established that a recent indulgent book purchase at Foyle’s included a duplicate of a book I hadn’t read yet, so I thought I could combine returning it with a walk from Tottenham Court Road to the Trafalgar Studios for the play.

As it turned out, even though I took a train earlier than Google Now’s recommended service, I didn’t have much time. My presumed familiarity with the Centrepoint nexus was found to be inadequate and I had to backtrack in order to head to Foyle’s. I returned the book successfully, quite pleased with myself, then walked on towards Trafalgar Square.

Of course, I was about two minutes late for the start of the play, and the stricture was activated. The box office person explained that I couldn’t go in and that I’d have to wait for the interval. Perhaps fearing a Scene, she passed me on to someone more senior who explained this again, with the added detail that as soon as I opened the door

I would be on the stage

which showed how foolish an enterprise that would be. He repeated their regrets and said that I could wait in the bar for an hour, which is when I would be able to enter.

I sat in the bar, disconsolate and cross. No one else seemed to have made the same mistake. Someone did turn up though, a civilian, and I overheard a staff member explaining that he could sit in row H for now and take up his allocated seat at the interval. She asked me

which studio I was

as she passed me, and carried on when I replied it was number two.

A few minutes passed, while I contemplated my defeat.

A man approached. One of the ushers and/or bar staff. He asked why I was there, so I explained, ashamed. He made an unexpected suggestion, namely that I could watch

through the window, as long as you don’t go in – otherwise I’ll get into trouble

which didn’t really make sense to me but seemed like an improvement on stewing alone in the bar. There was a door leading to a small lobby, at the end of which was the door to the studio. In the latter were two windows, through which I could see most of the stage.

He whispered that he could bring a chair, which offer I accepted with some embarrassment. He brought in the stool, taking the greatest care not to create any noise and I then watched the first part of the play, in this rather ludicrous manner, trying to be careful not to distract anyone in the audience. I wasn’t sure whether the people in the front row on the opposite side of the stage could see me as clearly as I could see them, and wondered, if so, what they made of this curious peering figure. An opportunist? An interloper? Could the actors see too? If they could, would they care?

The usher came in to remove the stool a few minutes before the interval, to prevent an obstruction. This meant I watched the remainder of the first part from an even odder position of stooping.

When the interval came, I left the lobby before any of the audience emerged. One woman asked with concern about the smoke on the stage (which had been present throughout). The senior usher reassured her that it was just water vapour. I asked him if he could show me to my seat, which he did, after the stream of interval emergers had finished.

People sitting near me were clearly surprised that someone should appear at that point, though no-one said anything. It was indeed a very small studio space, with only 4 or so rows of seats. Behind me was the stage manager, activating the smoke, in his box. For the second part I could hear every word, which wasn’t the case when I was in my fenestral position.

The play itself was wonderfully bleak and yet funny, benefitting from the extra claustrophobia of the studio space. Did I enjoy it more because I’d had to struggle more than those who’d arrived on time?

When I left, I made a point of thanking the helpful usher, who said

you’re welcome

and I hoped he felt that his kind gesture had been worthwhile.