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.

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