Monday, August 18, 2008

Putting the War in Warminster

At the weekend I decided to go for a pleasant bike ride in Warminster's surrounding countryside. After cycling for about an hour along lanes and paths, ignoring lots of red warning signs, and getting lost, I found myself in a, er, military firing range. When I heard gun shots, I decided to heed the warnings and go back.

Warminster, Wiltshire is renowned as a garrison town. It's not unusual to see army convoys and soldiers in town. My neighbour is a soldier, and seems a nice family guy. He recently had a great time in Basra, and likes guns. A large portion of Salisbury Plain is owned by the MoD – and out of bounds. Cycling and walking around the outskirts, there's a strange feeling as if I'm being watched – by snipers. Like in a Vietnam war film where everything's still – too still... then suddenly there are gun shots coming through the bushes. Nothing feels real – the grass, trees, even the birds – it all feels like an artificial training ground. There's an eerie, empty silence; the grass isn't whistling in the wind, the birds aren't singing. There's a crow following me and I'm sure it's got a CCTV camera built into its eyes. Seemingly innocuous objects take on sinister significance – like discarded farming equipment, old barns, hay stacks, even a dirty sock on the road, and, er, bullet shells, a training camp and tanks.

I eventually found myself in a garrison housing estate – MODern said the sign, but it seemed anything but. That too was empty – rather like the Nevada atomic bomb testing villages (there's one featured in the latest Indiana Jones film) – a discarded tricycle on the pavement, a dog barking – but on Saturday afternoon, completely deserted. Most bizarre for a housing estate was the lack of litter and dumped mattresses and TV sets. There was a ubiquitous Londis on the estate – selling bullets in the place of cigarettes and grenades instead of Pot Noodles. Only joking.

Imber village, seven miles east of Warminster on Salisbury Plain, can only be visited one week in the year. It was a real, functioning village until 1943 when the army requisitioned it for military training purposes and gave the residents 47 days to leave and very little compensation. They were meant to give it back after the war – but didn't. It's still used for training, and in the past was heavily used to prepare troops for combat in Northern Ireland. When I went I almost tripped over some teenage soldiers in camouflage gear with rifles. Imber still has its local pub (unfortunately not functioning), The Bell Inn, and a church. The army have a purpose-built 'German', and more recently an 'Iraqi' village, at nearby Copehill Down – also used for training. These somewhat sinister ghost villages, from a distance, look like quaint Wiltshire towns. Then you get close and a polite sign tells you will be shot if you try to enter.

Some people think the UFOs sightings (and sounds) in the 1960s and 70s may have been the army practicing on Salisbury Plain. This month locals may get to see more Unidentified Objects if they're lucky – in the form of surveillance robots taking part in a Grand Challenge on Copehill Down which sees 11 teams competing against each other.

It was somewhat depressing hearing recently Labour Minister for Trade and Investment, Digby Jones, proudly declaring that Britain is now the world's biggest arms exporter. In 1997 Labour had said they would not sell arms to countries that violated human rights. Surprise, surprise, they seem to have gone back on their word. In 2006, 19 of the 20 countries the UK exported arms to, such as China, Israel and Colombia, have a record for abusing human rights. Oh well, at least we're good at something.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Don't Give Up the Day Job

Rock stars have had a rocky relationship with the movies. Madonna started off well in Desperately Seeking Susan before sinking with Shanghai Surprise, Who's That Girl and Dick Tracy. Jennifer Lopez fared worse with turkeys like Maid in Manhattan and Jersey Girl, which has eclipsed quite good roles in Out of Sight and The Cell. Dolly Parton was upfront in 9-5 and Debbie Harry sexy in Cronenberg's Videodrome. The annoying Barbra Streisand has been in lots of films, from Funny Girl (1962, for which she won an Oscar) to Meet the Fockers (2004).

But on the whole it seems male rock stars have fared better – or at least have more interesting roles (apart from Elvis's and Cliff Richard's lightweight cinematic escapades) – than their female counterparts. Cult existentialist road movie Two-lane Blacktop (1971) was an unlikely star vehicle for singer songwriter James Taylor and late Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Featuring almost no plot, very little dialogue, and not much in the way of acting (apart from Warren Oates) the film ends with the projector literally burning the film. James Taylor has said he's never seen the film.

Equally unlikely was The Monkee's psychedelic film Head (1968), co-written by Jack Nicholson. Seemingly conceived as an antithesis to their sanitised TV series, it featured surreal, stream of consciousness sketches, musical numbers and satire of the movies and was apparently intended to damage the Monkees squeaky-clean image.

Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) stars country singer Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and Bob Dylan, who also provided the soundtrack, in a small role as Alias. The film also features singer Rita Coolidge, Kristofferson's then wife. Kristofferson is great as Billy, cocky and confident, and he's appeared in many pretty good films since: Heaven's Gate, Blade I-III, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Fast Food Nation and A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand. Dylan, on the other hand, is pretty bad in the movie, and has appeared in only a couple of films since: the dreadful Hearts of Fire (playing a rock star) and Masked and Anonymous (playing a rock star). Dylan fared far better acting himself in Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, and directing himself in the little seen Eat the Document and Renaldo & Clara.

Country singer Lyle Lovett became a Robert Altman regular, acting in Prêt-à-Porter, Cookie's Fortune and Dr T and the Women and being especially creepy in The Player and Short Cuts. Tom Waits had a role in Short Cuts too. His cool, somewhat sleazy cigarette-smoking gravelly persona has also been put to good effect in Coppola's The Outsiders, The Cotton Club and er, Dracula. Paul Simon is great as a seedy record producer in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Disreputable Welshman Rhys Ifans was lead singer in Super Furry Animals before finding fame as an actor in Notting Hill, Enduring Love and Twin Town, the best Welsh film ever. He's now in Welsh band Y Peth (The Thing).

Director Nic Roeg has also used rock stars in several films. Mick Jagger starred alongside James Fox and Anita Pallenberg in cult (why are most male rock star films 'cult' whilst most female ones 'crap'? The line between cult and crap has always been a fine one...) film Performance (1968) as, er, a washed up rock star living in a basement in Notting Hill. He then went on to do Ned Kelly (1970), which was awful. David Bowie has been in a surprising amount of films good and bad including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Absolute Beginners, The Last Temptation of Christ and Into the Night (directed by John Landis, who made Michael Jackson's Thriller video), but it's Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie plays an alien – a perfect role for the 1970s Bowie that was Ziggy Stardust – that is his most iconic, and arguably best role.

Rap stars have frequently been in films either about rap (Eminem in 8 Mile) or life in da hood such as Boyz N the Hood (Ice Cube), Menace II Society (MC Eight and Too Short) and Juice (Tupac Shakur). Ice Cube is one rapper who's escaped the cinematic ghetto by appearing in films such as Three Kings and Anaconda – a great B-movie about a giant snake. See him next year as B.A. Baracus in The A-Team – can't wait. LL Cool J has also had some minor film roles. I almost forgot (it seems so long ago – his first album was back in 1987) – Will Smith is of course a rapper who appeared in TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and went on to Hollywood blockbusters Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men In Black and I Am Legend.

On the flip side, actors have an equally annoying habit of wanting to be rock stars. Whether to expand their audience base or live the rock'n'roll dream, one thing is certain: it's not for the money. Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves are in bands, as was River Phoenix. Scarlett Johansson and Minnie Driver have recently released albums.

Juliette Lewis is more serious about her music than most of her movie contemporaries and seems to have given up acting altogether to live the dream with her band, The Licks. I saw her a while ago in HMV on Oxford Street. She was (not) signing CDs (there was a distinct lack of fans), I was looking at Pavement CDs, then our eyes met... it looked like as if she winked at me, though she might have had something in her eye.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Selling Their Souls: Authors Writing Movies

Many writers have had their own books turned into films – they may have written the screenplay or they may not have. Neither apply here. These are writers who perhaps (but not necessarily – ie Chandler and Faulkner) have written somewhat unexpected, out of character, okay usually pretty bad, original screenplays for films not based on any book they've written.

Martin Amis: Saturn 3
Samuel Beckett: Film
Ray Bradbury: Moby Dick
Charles Bukowski: Barfly
Truman Capote: Beat the Devil
Raymond Chandler: Double Indemnity
Douglas Coupland: Everything's Gone Green
Roald Dahl: You Only Live Twice
Ian McEwan: The Ploughman's Lunch
John Fante: Walk on the Wild Side
William Faulkner: The Big Sleep
Patrick Lee-Fermour: Roots of Heaven
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Three Comrades
Stephen Fry: Bright Young Things
Don DeLillo: Game 6
Norman Mailer: Maidstone
Dorothy Parker: A Star is Born
Tom Stoppard: Shakespeare in Love
John Steinbeck: Viva Zapata!
HG Wells: Things to Come

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Absolutely Famous

Cabinet reshuffles (is there any other organisation that does this?). Actors and TV presenters writing books. Pop stars acting – and vice versa. Actors doing voice overs, adverts. Just about everyone writing a children's book. Once you're in the public eye (ie rich and famous) for doing one thing, you can pretty much dabble in anything else. It doesn't really matter what. A footballer becomes a chef. A comedian writes a football column in the Guardian. A film director writes restaurant reviews. A chess grandmaster becomes a politician. Soap actors become pop stars. The minister for education becomes the minister for transport. An MP presents a cricket programme on Radio 4. Two actors embark on a motorcycle adventure around the world with only millions on their credit cards and a camera crew filming them. This is released as a TV series, DVD and book. None of it has to do with talent. It's about fame and getting noticed. Celebrities can't just stick to one thing. They are brands and the purpose of a brand is to invade as many media outlets as possible. That's as many books, TV programmes, films, magazines, newspapers, websites, adverts... as possible. Does it sometimes feel like wherever you look you see the same annoying famous face?

Can you imagine this kind of thing happening in real life to normal people? Although we change jobs more often nowadays than, say, thirty years ago, we tend to stick to the same kind of job for most of our careers. Imagine the accountant becoming an actor. The librarian becoming a bricklayer. The doctor becoming a archaeologist. It doesn't really happen (okay, begrudgingly, it does happen; people do retrain). But mainly we tend to be pigeon-holed, we get in a rut. After a few years in a sterile office, the world doesn't present itself as a vast sea of limitless possibilities.

I got thinking about fame reading Alex James's – from the band Blur – autobiography. Towards the end of his music career he got into astronomy and, naturally, instantly managed to meet Patrick Moore and watch scientists putting together the Mars Challenger and now James is a farmer making his own cheese/one-off TV journalist exposing the cocaine trade. Other ex-pop stars have had similar unlikely (this is my point) post-pop careers. Did you know that Alannah Currie from the Thompson Twins now makes macabre furniture with real stuffed animals incorporated?

BBC2's Faking It documentary series suggested even ordinary people could switch to more interesting/exciting jobs (from web designer to professional surfer; bicycle courier to polo player; newsagent to showbiz reporter; punk rocker to classical conductor) with relative ease (after some intense training – the sort you could get if you were rich), given the chance. And that's the crux of the matter. The rich and famous get infinite chances and possibilities to try and do whatever they want.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Elliott School of Rock

When I was at Elliott school in Putney it was an inspirationless, slightly rough dump. I remember my first day. I went to the toilets with a mate. We got cornered by a couple of older students and one of them forced my mate's mouth open and spat down it. Pleasant start.

Elliott's still not that great. But since the 90s it's become the somewhat unlikely denizen of experimental music. Kieran Hebden, founder of post-rock band Fridge and folktronica moniker Four Tet, and now performing under his own name, went there in the 90s. As did Adem Iihan – also in the band Fridge (along with fellow school mate Sam Jeffers) – and now performing under his own name too. William Bevan, aka dubstep producer Burial, is an ex-student. His 2006 self-titled LP received considerable acclaim. Hot Chip, geeky-cool electropop band, met and formed at Elliott. Their second album, The Warning (also 2006) was voted one of the albums of the year in the music press. A few members of So Solid Crew went there (though I think the numerous members went to just about every school in Wandsworth). Less well known are Emma Smith and Vincent Sipprell, members of the innovative Elysian Quartet; indie band The Maccabees, and folk outfit Screamer on the Hill. It's an impressive list of urban, electro, electronic, experimental, folk, indie and classical – which covers just about every musical genre.

Elliott's fine music pedigree isn't just a recent phenomenon. Peter Green, founder of Fleetwood Mac and great blues guitarist of the 60s, was a student in the late 50s and early 60s. Also there in the 1960s was Re Bethe, founder of British heavy metal band Ritual; Max Middleton (keyboardist, Jeff Beck Group); Chris Miller, drummer in The Damned; Ed Spevock (another drummer) and pop band The Pirates formed there... amongst others (ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan was also there in the 60s – currently to be seen in the dreadful Mamma Mia... yes, that's my somewhat tenuous music link).

For the record, absolutely no one from the time I was at Elliott has become famous.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Brief History of Photography (Part One)

I first studied photography during ‘A’ Levels. I didn't study it as an actual ‘A’ Level, but as an after school activity. In those days, the 1980s, you couldn't take all those easy ‘A’ Level subjects like photography or film or media studies. To kids now the 1980s must seem how the 1950s seemed to us in the 1980s (ie a different world).

The first photo I developed took all of us by surprise in the after school slightly geeky photography club. A picture emerged of fellow student Nigel Harrison – or so we thought. Slowly, a tall, geeky guy in a raincoat caught mid-stride in the school playground appeared on the photographic paper. All of us gathered round the chemical solution tray, laughing and mocking him until it was revealed that it was actually me. When the realisation came, it was like magic. First there was Nigel, then more detail came, and it was me. Then there was silence. Then I mumbled, ‘That's me’, like some proof of existence.

At art college I would also study photography and then again at film school. Each time I’d start studying it again, I’d have forgotten all that I’d learnt the time before when I studied it. I’d even bought some photography books I never looked at. It felt too much like maths what with f stops and exposures.

And though I'd used SLRs at college, I’d never actually owned one. I’d always loved taking photos (my favourite subject matter was nothing) but never took very good pictures. For my sixteenth birthday I was given a Fuji instamatic camera – my first ever camera – which I used for the next decade or so (before finally giving it to a charity shop). It had a cover you clicked open before taking the photo, then closed again. I used to like doing that really fast. I felt like a photojournalist doing that.

After that, a friend gave me an instamatic panoramic camera that came free with cigarette tokens. This wasn't a proper panoramic camera where each picture would take up several 35mm film sizes in a roll. This simply chopped the top and bottom off a regular 35mm sized picture, but it took good photos. The panoramic format feels more natural to the eye than a regular 6x4 picture.

In Asia, the panoramic camera was stolen somewhere in the tea plantations of Malaysia. A tourist took pity on me and gave me an instamatic camera in Indonesia – which was stolen in the Philippines, along with exposed rolls of film. I then bought a cheap one in the Philippines (with a separate flash) – but all the pictures turned out foggy (even with flash).

I'd always wanted a Nikon SLR – ever since hearing Paul Simon's song Kodachrome. In New Zealand, when I had no money, I bought one, then took it back to the shop a few days later. It was great – but I couldn't really afford it and it had a slightly protruding film winder located just above the viewfinder so I couldn't actually see through it properly.

My parents bought me a second-hand Olympus OM-30 SLR for my 30th birthday – which was nice, but not the one I wanted. At art college we used Olympus SLRs – beautifully simple models (I couldn't remember which) with only a needle to indicate the exposure. The one I was given had flashing green and red lights and needed about a dozen little batteries to keep them going. I’d fiddle around with the lights and take photos. Not great ones but they turned out okay. Then I bought a Lomo. I’d read about the cult of the Lomo some years back, and finally decided to shell out £80-odd for one. I loved my Lomo.

When we got burgled the first time they took my Lomo and Olympus SLR (and my girlfriend’s Praktica SLR BCA with zoom lens). The second time we got burgled they took another crappy giveaway instamatic panoramic camera.

For my 34th birthday, my partner bought me a Canon SLR camera (from eBay). On the second roll of film I took on it, the film jammed. Now I just stick to a point and shoot digital camera (which had been stolen once – we got a replacement on the insurance when we were burgled the third time). It works out cheaper and easier – obviously.

Total number of cameras stolen: 6
Total number of cameras given away: 2

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Car Boot Sales

Shops are so boring. Know what you want, go in, queue, buy it, go home. Big deal. There's no excitement or mystery to it. Shopping is just a tedious fact of life. Not so with car boot sales, the urban equivalent of beach-combing or fossil hunting. Knowing they'll be 99% rubbish only means searching more valiantly for that 1% of gold, for it is a treasure hunt. And one person's rubbish could be another's treasure.

Charity shops are okay, but they stink and tend to consist of stuff people would have binned otherwise. And they're quite expensive now. Car boot sales (CBS) are pretty cheap by comparison and usually a lot more diverse. Even at a small one in Wiltshire I went to last week there was a stall of Nazi memorabilia next to a stall of cocktail shakers next to a stall of old Star Wars figures. CBS seem so more individual, interesting and bizarre.

I've never been up really early on a Sunday, like 6am, to get to a CBS. I am lazy by nature. I do sometimes think, though, of the early morning bargains that I might have missed. The Clarice Cliffs, The Ant and Bees, The Beanos... Then again, people who I see leaving as I'm arriving usually have absolute crap under their arms, so I figure they buy the rubbish and leave the good stuff for me. I usually arrive around 9am. By about 11am one starts to flag, and a bad cup of tea and greasy bacon butty are essential. By 12pm it is almost certainly all over... though by this stage stall holders wanting to get rid of everything they've got are literally giving it away.

Are to be had in video tapes – which can't be given away. If you have kids, though, it's worth buying Disney videos – Disney DVDs are still quite expensive. Pay up to 50p for a video; up to £2 for a DVD; I rarely pay over £1 for a CD or record. Baby and children's clothes, toys and books are always good value and plentiful. Barngains are also to be had in furniture and electricals.

If you see something and want it, buy it then and there. I've lost count of the amount of times I've thought, oh I'll get that later, then returned and found it gone or haven't been able to find the stall again. Maybe it's just me.

Some good ones
Chiswick school – quite chic and a bit pricey; Peter Blake apparently goes there for inspiration, though I've never seen him – but most stalls are fascinating and do look rather like his studio. Barngain of the day: Tricky and Basement Jaxx CDs 50p each.

Tiffin school, Kingston – only runs up to July but generally pretty good. Barngain of the day: Nick Broomfield sealed DVD box-set for £3.

Nuthill Fruit Farm – Just before the turn for Burpham and Marrow on the A3. Sprawling on a massive field. Barngain of the day: Barbar books 50p each.

Hook Road Arena – Epsom, Surrey. Also pretty big. Barngain of the day: Clarice Cliff jug £2.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Vladimir Tretchikoff: More Than Pigeon's Luck

Another artist's life deserving a full CinemaScope movie treatment* (to be filmed like one of his paintings á la Douglas Sirk meets Vincente Minnelli, and all shot in the studio) is Vladamir Tretchikoff, who died in 2006, aged 92. His part-ghosted autobiography, Pigeon's Luck, has unfortunately been out of print since 1973, but if you can find it on eBay or a second hand bookshop, it is well worth a read. As it says on the cover –' reads like a thriller' – and though the style is somewhat flat, you get the gist of what an amazing life he had.

Born in Russia, his family escaped the Russian revolution of 1917 and fled to China, where Tretchikoff spent his childhood. His self-taught artistic talents flourished young, and by 13 he was painting sets for plays, and at 16 won a prestigious painting competition and moved to Shanghai and then Singapore, as cartoonist on a newspaper. During the war, as the Japanese were invading Singapore, he fled on a boat which was torpeoed. He escaped on a lifeboat with other survivors and spent 19 days rowing to Java – where he was eventually caught by the Japanese. He was a Japanese prisoner of war on Java for most of the war. Apart from some time in solitary confinement, he seemed to have quite a good time, and painted some of his most famous 'exotic' images during this period.

Tretchikoff goes from rags to riches at least three times and does seem to have a lot of luck – but also a lot of sheer determination. In South Africa, where he settled after the war, he attributed this luck to a pigeon which sat on his easel whilst he painted.

There is no mention of the word 'kitsch' in his autobiography – maybe the word wasn't used back then. In the 1960s and 70s his prints sold in the millions (only Picasso sold more) and just about every British household had one of his prints on its walls. By the 80s and 90s his style had become vulgar and kitsch. Now his paintings are post-kitsch or post-ironic iconic – which translates as they're starting to sell well on eBay (though can still be picked up cheap in charity shops and car boot sales). Yes – worse than being deemed kitsch – they've now become trendy.

There are many similarities between the once tacky Tretchikoff and the once way cooler Andy Warhol. Both were shrewd and flamboyant businessmen who wanted as many people as possible to see (and buy) their work via the mass production of their techniques – Warhol with his screenprints and Tretchikoff with his reproductions. But whereas Warhol drew his inspiration from shops (pop art), Tretchikoff actually put his reproductions and paintings in shops. His most popular exhibitions took place not in art galleries but in department stores. Tretchikoff was a man of the people – or at least knew what the people wanted – whereas Warhol knew only what he wanted.

*See post for Arthur Rimbaud

Friday, August 08, 2008

A Jeff Bridges Too Far

I was watching a bad pirate copy of Iron Man. I didn't know Jeff Bridges was in it. Even when watching it, I didn't know it was him – partly because it was a bad copy and partly because Bridges was playing a bald baddie. I didn't know it was him until he took a loud slurp of his drink – and I immediately recognised that slurping as the same slurping in The Big Lebowski.

Jeff Bridges looks like he's never had to make an effort – is this why he was never as big as he should have been? Look at Tom Cruise – someone who has worked ruthlessly hard to get where he is, never mind that he has no talent and has yet to be in a good film – we like people who get somewhere by working hard regardless. Jeff Bridges has ambled by amiably with his lazy charm and youthful good looks. His natural acting style is the opposite to the school of the more popular De Niro and Pacino – a method actor Bridges is not.

I first remember watching him in my childhood playing an alien (in Starman – for which he was Oscar nominated) and in a video game (Tron). I didn't then know that his best films had been the decade previous: The Last Picture Show (watch him strutting out of the motel room after having laid Cybil Shepherd), Fat City (as a small-time boxer and my favourite ending of any film ever), Thunderbolt and Lightbolt (looking good as a woman), Winter Kills and Bad Company (great low-key western directed by the writer of Bonnie and Clyde) are some of the best American films of the decade.

In the 1980s, the noirish Cutter's Way and western flop Heaven's Gate are key films – for better and worse – of the decade. The 90s saw him somewhat frantic in The Fisher King, The Vanishing, Blown Away and Arlington Road until The Big Lebowski (1998) gave him the iconic role of The Dude he was born to play.

Along the way there's been a bag of other decent films too: Jagged Edge, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Tucker – The Man and His Dream, Texasville – a belated follow up to The Last Picture Show, Fearless, Masked and Anonymous (yes, I liked it) with Bob Dylan, Seabiscuit... among many others I haven't seen so shouldn't comment on. He also takes great on set photos.