Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Blogs Vs. Diaries

When blogs first started appearing, people were worried about their loss of privacy. Couldn't anyone access a blog, and potentially read someone's innermost personal, private thoughts? Well, yes, but how, exactly? If they don't know the person or the URL, it's unlikely they'll come across their blog by chance – considering there are now some 70 million blogs in existence.


If anyone is reading, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I'll see y'll in the new year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Peasants

There should be a rule against buying Christmas (or birthday) presents from: any supermarket, Superdrug, Woolworth's (RIP – though serve it right for selling crap for so long – even cheap crap is still crap), Boots, Argos, W H Smith. Come on – get some imagination! This isn't the 1970s – you're meant to have good taste now, you haven't even got an excuse because you live in some craphole in the middle of nowhere (i.e. not London) – get online!

On the other hand, around this time of year, we have ads telling us to buy iPods, laptops (!), dental hygiene products (?) as presents. Amazon emailed me the other week – a 'bargain buy' for 'my' Christmas stocking. The quote marks are mine: I'm not sure if I'm meant to buy my own Christmas stocking present or buy it for someone else – either way, a food mixer for £129 or a digital camera for £99 probably wouldn't fit and certainly isn't a bargain. My own boyhood Christmas stockings consisted of walnuts, tangerines and chocolate. I mean, shit, we're not made of money – isn't this (partly) why we're in a recession in the first place? But also, an electronic item seems to lack warmth, personality and soul, you know. I say (and this is my other hand saying it), raid the charity shops, CBS (car boot sales) and antique/junk shops for that unique and special present that says you've hunted and thought about. Branded clothes, perfume and electrical goods do not count.

On the other hand (I handily have three), for me personally, if you're stuck, I'm pretty happy with art books, post-rock CDs or obscure foreign movie DVD box-sets (but not just any – please check with me first).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

More Ladybird Book Covers


Russ Abbott loved a party with a happy atmosphere, and though happy and Joy Division aren't often seen together on the same line, they did also write a song called Atmosphere.

Atmosphere is important. Atmosphere is everything. Whether it be a party, restaurant, bar, pub, city, funeral, shop, someone's house... all we really need is a good atmosphere and the rest falls into place. You can't buy or sell atmosphere and it's not tangible; it's like love – it's something you feel. You know instantly if a place has a good atmosphere. And then it just feels right.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sherman and Sherman

Think of movie soundtracks and you might say Ennio Morricone or Bernard Herrmann or Danny Elfman (say). Or even Elton John. But you probably wouldn't think of the Sherman Brothers, Robert B (b.1925) and his younger brother, Richard M (b.1928), who, between them, have probably written more popular songs for the movies than anyone else.

Whilst re-watching Disney films with my daughter I started noticing the Sherman brothers name cropping up over and over again. Chim Chim Cher-ee? Check. Bare Necessities? Uh huh. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? Yup. (As they wrote the song, I'm guessing they invented the word. How cool is that, inventing a word?). They are responsible for all those annoying songs you first hear as a naive child and remember for the rest of your life.

Between them they've written award-winning songs for loads of Disney films including The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, The Aristocats, Bedknobs & Broomsticks and The Lion King, as well as songs in other films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Beverley Hills Cop III, The Fabulous Baker Boys, War of the Worlds and Bewitched. They are absolute geniuses.

But isn't it funny when a musician who excels in their field starts tinkering with painting in the later years of their life? And then claims it's their true vocation and music is just their "side line"? But it's obvious their painting is rubbish and they should have just stuck to their music and put the paintings in the attic. I mean like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Robert B Sherman (and also like Henri Cartier-Bresson though he was obviously a photographer but like a few years before he died stopped taking photos and concentrated on drawing, saying he preferred it to photography). Oh well, I can guess we can forgive the great their foibles.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Scary Signs

Clockwise from bottom left: Death – it's art, innit; No urinating on Battersea Power Station; Danger Rabies – on a farm; Tanks crossing, sudden gunfire in Dorset; No Street Cries in Whitby; No cigarettes, alcohol, fires or needles in a children's playground, Camden Town, London

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


The apple is the king of fruit, the cause of the fall of Man, as British as the Queen, yet our supermarkets are full of cheap, imported, bland French and New Zealand varieties that travel 12,000 miles, with only one or two English ones – a Cox or Bramley, probably. There are 2,000 varieties of apple in Britain, and while I'm not suggesting supermarkets should stock them all, they could at least show a little patriotism – for the environment if nothing else. Some have great names like Hoary Morning, Winter Banana, Laxton's Rearguard, Pigs Nose Pippin and Surfleet Sour. Yet our apple trees are disappearing at an alarming rate. People don't pick them. People would rather buy bland apples from the bland supermarket. As I write, apples all over the country are falling on the ground, left to rot. Recently we picked three different varieties in a space of half a mile – all tasting completely different (and delicious) – but most of them were left to rot on the ground. Farmers destroy orchards because they get more money from cattle on the land. As usual, the government is short-sighted, and profits go before anything else. One day, in the not so distant future, we will all probably be trying to live off the land. An apple a day would be good.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Top 10 Magazines (I don't buy...*)

1. The Wire
2. Eye
3. Colors
4. Vice (free where available)
5. Sight & Sound
6. Creative Review
7. Playboy (it has good writing in it, ya know)
8. New Statesman (only since its redesign)
9. Found
10. Little White Lies

*But would if I had more money, interest, time, intelligence, creativity, etc.

Quality Dichotomy

I'm in a quandary about quality. On the one hand we don't seem to mind watching millions of videos a day in terrible, jerky, pixelated quality via youtube and its ilk; we also don't seem to mind compressed images or audio files as in jpegs or mp3s. We watch downloaded films and TV shows where the sound isn't synced and the action stutters. We squint to watch programmes or films 6x5" on youtube, on our iPods and our phones. Photos that should last for generations are taken on a phone and are so low-res they can't be blown up to 6x4 without distortion. This is all seems fine – because the image is so temporary. Delete and move on.

On the other hand we all must have the latest HD digital television set (with surround sound speakers) broadcasting HD digital TV programmes – even when, say, watching Freeview on them is often pixelated and jerky. DVDs (and now Blu-Ray – do we care it's four times better quality than DVD? In my book it's already an obsolete format) are meant to be high quality but the discs are of lower quality than CDs and more prone to scratching, jumping and skipping due to dust or fingerprints. Look closely at these TVs and see the dancing pixels. We then watch terrible quality pirate DVDs (complete with moving audience heads) on these high quality HD TVs and don't see a contradiction.

These two extremes – although there is overlap – seem to be co-existing. I've never been too fussed about the quality of the image, as long as the quality of the content is good (it usually isn't of course – and HD is only going to exacerbate the ugly soap characters, their bad acting, the cliched and recycled scripts, the over-lit interiors). But has, to quote Marshall McLuhan, the medium become the (somewhat pixelated, out of focus) message? We shall see – or not.

My Childhood Just Flew By

Sight & Sound magazine has just released its end of year issue, which includes critics' favourite DVDs. On my hypothetical list would go Bill Douglas's 1970s childhood trilogy of films My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home (shot over eight years). Released this year on DVD for the first time by the BFI, the films bear a superficial resemblance to other, perhaps more famous, childhood trilogies such as the Terence Davies Trilogy (shot over seven years), Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy (shot over five years) and Truffaut's Adventures of Antoine Doinel (actually four features plus a short, shot over twenty years). What most of the films do have in common is an economy of style and poetry not often seen in the cinema nowadays.

Set in a mining town in Scotland just after World War II, the largely autobiographical My Childhood films chart the poverty-stricken, deprived and frankly depressing childhood of Jamie, played with scary conviction (he doesn't look as if he's acting) by Stephen Archibald, who would die in real life of drug-related causes aged 39. He never acted in any other films.

The bleakness of Douglas's vision would be unbearable if it wasn't for the moments of humour and poetry. The austere black and white industrial locations, and the sometimes stilted, bizarre, awkward performances recall Lynch's Eraserhead. The characters frozen, as if posing for a photo, are stylistically reminiscent of Buffalo 66. The poetry recalls the Jean Vigo of Zero de Conduite. The films as a whole hark back to an age when images rather than dialogue were used to tell a story and show emotion.

The films are short – which is a blessing (they're not easy viewing). The first, My Childhood, is 46 minutes; the second, My Ain Folk, 55 minutes and My Way Home, the most positive of the films, which offers Jamie a possible way out, is 71 minutes. Together they are only slightly longer than, say, The Dark Knight (152 minutes – see below) but whereas the Batman film has the emotional depth and imagination of an X-Factor contestant, Bill Douglas's trilogy is a wholly original, emotionally-draining but ultimately uplifting cinematic treat.

Around this time I was also watching another trilogy of films – Aki Kaurismaki's worker trilogy – also fairly depressing (well it is Finnish), with minimal dialogue (are there even 20 sentences spoken in Match Factory Girl?), minimal acting, and also short, clocking in at just over an hour each, but with elements of (so deadpan you're not sure) humour and poetry and image-led story telling where the audience has to use its imagination.

I had the misfortune to finally get around to seeing Christopher Nolan's much over-hyped sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, recently voted (presumably by 12 year olds or those with short memories who can't remember any films older than the last month) on the IMDB as the best movie ever. The concensus on the Dark Knight is that it's, er, Dark. In fact, it's the Darkest ever Dark Batman film – until the next one. This one is said to be more in tone with Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel which came out in 1986 (hence the similar title?). 1986 was over twenty years ago. Isn't it time to get over this whole Dark thing? Tim Burton's Batman film was made just a few years after Miller's Batman, in 1989. This too was meant to be Dark. Well, The Dark Knight is a whole lot darker. Is it just me or have we got Darker as a planet since 1989? How Dark are we going to get? The night can only get so dark, then the sun rises. In The Dark Knight, The Dark is synonymous with violence, corruption and, er, nighttime. That's the core of it: The Dark Knight is Dark because a lot of it is set at night. Go figure.

The Dark Knight is way too long at 152 minutes (a film, unless you're Béla Tarr or Jacques Rivette – and let's face it, you're probably not – should not be over 90 minutes; whilst I'm at it... a novel not over 350 pages; an album no longer than 45 minutes – anything more and it's wasting time). There's too much fetishising of gadgets (Morgan Freeman is like Bond's M and Bruce Wayne could be Bond). There are too many cliches. It's all been done before. It's an example of a film that should work in purely visual terms but relies on dialogue and an over-plotted narrative – in other words, it could be a TV movie. Look instead to, say, Sin City (or Popeye for that matter) for an original comic book adaption.

Mark my words, in years to come, the bright-pop-art-tongue-in-cheek-camp-comic-book-like Batman TV series from the 1960s will look darker than anything Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan had to offer us.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Winter Wiltshire Haiku

Burning chairs to keep warm
Muddy paths after the storm
Car boot sales at dawn.

Friday, December 05, 2008