Sunday, March 29, 2009

Films in Films

The idea of having characters in films watching films (either on TV or at the cinema) didn't really take off until the 1970s. Its recentness suggests a post-modern notion, but for American directors of the 70s, it was rooted in respect for the directors and films they loved. Both Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese, for example, have their characters go see John Ford films in two of their early features – Rio Bravo in The Last Picture Show and The Searchers in Mean Streets respectively.

Joe Dante, king of tongue-in-cheek pastiche and in-movie references, has Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, It's a Wonderful Life, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even Cocteau's Orphée being watched in Gremlins (1984). It's a popular – and obvious – device, particularly used in horror films, of a character watching a film scene almost like a premonition of what's going to happen to them next. Knowing, post-modern horror film Scream (1997) is littered with references to films such as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, and indeed in one scene a character called Randy is watching Halloween, screaming at the screen "He's behind you!" when in fact, the killer is also behind Randy. In Hellboy II, Hellboy watches Bride of Frankenstein.

Cult horror film The Black Cat (1934), starring Béla Lugosi, is being watched in Woody Allen's Melissa and Melissa. Allen's characters have been self-consciously going to the cinema since the 1970s, when they largely went to see Fellini or Bergman films. (I've been meaning to write a post defending Woody Allen for ages, mostly because of all the bad press he gets nowadays. It's now fashionable to trash Allen but let me just state: he's a great film-maker – and whilst I'm at it: think of any film-maker who made great films late in their career – not Kurosawa, not Fellini, not Antonioni, not Altman, not Hitchcock, not Welles; other directors still alive churning out crap – Scorsese, Coppola, Tarentino, Cohen, Scott – don't get as much flack as Allen. I tell you, it's all because he married his daughter. I don't care! His films are still funny and smart, even his bad ones – they're thematically consistent, stylish, sophisticated and still way funnier than all those gross-out Farrelly brothers/Apatow comedies which somehow pass for humour nowadays.)

Anyway, more recently, the idea of films in film seems to have lost its way, with rather random (or rubbish) films being watched in films: Jerry McGuire in Hitch; Hello Dolly in Wall-E.

If the notion makes one self-conscious and aware they're in the process of watching a film, it's also a realistic tact: hey, we go to the movies and watch TV too, we're just like you!

What's always irked me about that so-called 'realistic' genre the soap opera is its characters never watch soap operas. Wouldn't Eastenders be so much more realistic if its characters actually watched Eastenders (or maybe Corrie – watching themselves watching themselves may prove too post-modern for audience and actors)?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Top 10 Chess Openings*

1. King's Indian Classical
2. King's Indian Samisch
3. French Winawer
4. Sicillian Defence Najdorf
5. Sicillian Defence Closed
6. Slav Defence
7. Caro Kann
8. Queen's Gambit Declined
9. King's Gambit
10. French Advance

*With help from Baxy - far more of a chess fanatic than me - he even named his two cats, Benko and Slav, after chess openings.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Top 3 new (and free) art galleries

1. Raven Row - Ray Johnson
We headed east to Alex Sainsbury’s (yes, the supermarket guy - his dad Lord Sainsbury did the National Gallery’s Sainsbury wing dontcha know) new Raven Row gallery, just off Bishopsgate. A lot of money has been spent (some £30m!) turning this 18th century silk merchant’s townhouse into a magnificent exhibition space. Lots of original period details have been kept, such as fireplaces, fittings, cabinets and plasterwork, making it feel a lot homelier than, say, nearby White Cube (which we also visited just to see Margaret Thatcher’s face made out of dildos). Painted white throughout (you can still smell the paint) and with floorboards bare, make no mistake: this is still an East End Gallery.

Its first exhibition is the somewhat obscure (though I’ve had a great book about him for years) pop artist, no – chop artist, no – flop artist, no – mail artist – shall we settle on uncategorisable? – Ray Johnston, who walked out to sea in 1995 and never came back. Consisting mainly of collages, drawings and his famous(ish) letters, Johnston could have been a cool graphic designer as well as artist. Seemingly ahead of his time, Johnston predates Warhol’s (and now everyone’s) obsession with celebrity culture by his Elvis collages (done in the 1950s) and compulsive cataloguing of famous people. But if he has a claim to fame it’s through his mail art, where he would post a collage, or annotated newspaper clipping, photo – in fact any printed matter, to a friend, colleague or indeed stranger. They would add to it, and send it back – hence the title of the exhibition.

There’s a great free booklet and two postcards (one shown above). But no shop or cafe.

2. Haunch of Venison - Mythologies
As a loose follow up to our Horniman visit, my boon companion and I found ourselves in a veritable cabinet of curiosities at the new Haunch of Venison exhibition, now round the back of the Royal Academy in Burlington Gardens (where the old Museum of Mankind used to be). More of a move than a new gallery – the old Haunch of Venison used to be in a yard (Haunch of Venison yard, in fact) off Bond Street. The new building is very grand and spacious but – like the old Saatchi gallery at County Hall on the South Bank – whether it is a suitable space for art is another matter. We found ourselves more interested in the beautifully ornate ceilings than some of the art – never a good sign.

However… a coffin with stuffed birds trying to escape, their mouths wide open and little tongues almost screaming; stuffed dobermans with dead(er) dogs in their mouths; skeletons of Sylvester and Tweety, dead birds in matchboxes; massive blow-ups of dead butterflies – I haven’t felt as uneasy in an exhibition for some time.

Mythologies groups together over 40 international artists – including Damien Hirst, Bill Viola, Keith Tyson, Tony Cragg and design agency (!) M/M (the only ones I’d heard of) – to explore the ‘uncanny and extraordinary’, inspired by ethnographic and anthropological artifacts seen in museums. To us, it seemed as much inspired by horror films and contemporary fears.

No postcards but an expensive catalogue. And dead birds in matchboxes for £1000. And a rather nice pixel man candle by M/M for £50. But who would ever light a £50 candle? Small shop, mainly selling books.

3. The Saatchi Gallery - Unveiled: New art from the Middle East
The Saatchi Gallery reopened in its new location in the Grade II listed Duke of York’s headquarters on the Kings Road last year. Again, another great space for a gallery. Saatchi – never one to shy away from controversy – has mounted a survey of Middle Eastern contemporary art which could offend, well, how shall we put it, certain fundamentalist citizens – as well as your granny.

Doll-like sculptures of Tehran prostitutes, photos of naked homosexual Muslim men, photos of women with domestic objects covering their faces – all the artists are questioning the society of their homeland, whether it be Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia or Syria. We are familiar with much of the ancient art from these countries, from the pyramids and sculptures of ancient Egypt to the wonderful mosques of Syria, Iraq and Turkey but probably have little idea of what young contemporary artists are up to. There is a diverse range of mediums – from painting and photography to sculpture and installation. Much of the material used for the sculptures and installations is telling in itself: concrete breeze blocks, rubber tyres, silver foil and old clothes reflect the poverty and hardships encountered on a daily basis in these countries. It’s also telling that a lot of the artists are now living and working in Europe and the States.

Glossy catalogue booklet £1.50 with black and white photos. Set of 10 postcards £5. Decent shop.

Also seen… The Light Box - Anthony Caro and Eduardo Paolozzi
The Light Box is a beautiful newish (about a year old) gallery in, er, Woking. If this immediately puts you off, it’s understandable, as the gallery stands out like an oasis amongst the ugly concrete malls of the town. Still, it’s worth a visit – only 20 minutes out of London by train. Consisting of two smallish galleries and a museum of Woking (surprisingly interesting) and surrounded by glass (hence the name), I was assured that on a sunny day beautiful coloured light beamed through the coloured windows.

Eduardo Paolozzi is another favourite obscure pop artist of mine who worked in collage, screen printing and sculpture. That his mosaics adorn the interior of Tottenham Court Road tube station probably goes largely unnoticed. Just one room is shared by both Caro and Paolozzi at the Light Box – and can’t possibly do either of them justice. Having not read the literature either, I couldn't work out any similarities between the two artists (maybe that was the point). There was a very enthusiastic elderly woman working there as a volunteer who insisted I draw some of the sculptures (not just me, mind – there are clipboards with paper and coloured pencils encouraging this kind of thing). Five minutes later, when I showed her what I’d done she was even more enthusiastic, praising my abstract scribbles just a bit too much, and telling me she’d hang it up on the wall for all to see. Just don’t sell it for thousands of pounds, I told her.

Fairly unimpressive catalogue and posters available. Small unimpressive shop. Nice café.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Top 10 Graphic Designers

1. Peter Saville
2. Barney Bubbles
3. Milton Glaser
4. Saul Bass
5. Julian House
6. Malcolm Garrett
7. Tibor Kalman
8. David Carson
9. Neville Brody
10. Susan Kare

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Dinosaurs of Crystal Palace

Languishing around the lake at Crystal Palace park, in Sydenham, formerly Kent, now eaten up by SE London (borough of Bromley), are the world's first life-size models of dinosaurs (middle two pictures). Created in 1854, and pre-dating Darwin's Origin of the Species by some six years, in Victorian times this was the visual equivalent of watching Jurassic Park for the first time.

Though some of the impact has inevitably diminished, they are still fabulous (though apparently largely inaccurate). They were upgraded to Grade I listed in 2007. My daughter was somewhat underwhelmed by the concrete beasts, and preferred the bright red plastic play dinosaur in the nearby playground. Some weeks later we visited Wookey Hole which also has dinosaurs - alas, the lurid colours and 'realistic' dinosaur noises made more of an impression on her (picture top left).

The great exhibition of 1851 moved to Sydenham the following year (reopening in 1854) and hence the area became known as Crystal Palace after the great iron building containing over a million feet of glass. Unfortunately it was destroyed in a fire in 1936. The only remnants of former times are grand steps now leading nowhere, colonnades and archways, headless sculptures and several sphinxes (see photo top right) who presumably feel quite at home in the desert-like wasteland of the park.

Crystal Palace town itself also feels somewhat rundown but has some hidden charms. There are several intriguing markets well worth a visit. The Crystal Palace Antiques Warehouse is four floors stacked full of retro/vintage 20th century 'antiques' including furniture, paintings, mirrors, ceramics, and a nice collection of Polish film posters - all quite expensive. Round the corner is Haynes Lane Warehouse Market - last of the flea markets, positively over-flowing with retro rubbish, records, clothes, old toys, books and bric-a-brac - all absolutely fascinating. Best buys: Sylvac bunnies £5 each; Barney Bubbles designed Elvis Costello LPs £1 each. The Alma pub also has a market and an art exhibition (though we didn't make it there); another pub across the road had a fashion shop in it. A further bizarre bric-a-brac shop along the way has a range of electric blue mannequins, leather jackets and E.T. toys.

A couple of decent charity shops - oh yes, and a good CD sale at the library - rounded off a great morning of treasure hunting. We stopped off at the Blackbird bakery for a well earned coffee and carrot cake.

A short bus ride away is the fantastic refurbished Horniman museum from where it's a fifteen minute walk to the Dulwich Picture Gallery - two more of South East London's hidden gems. Frederick Horniman, Victorian tea merchant and collector, founded the Horniman museum in 1904 to house his huge collection of objects - masks, butterflies, spears, mummies, skeletons - amassed whilst travelling the world as a tea merchant. Putting aside any ethical considerations, it is a fantastic collection (but do-able in a day, unlike, say, the British Museum where one needs weeks). The museum is divided into anthropology, natural history and musical instruments. The new wing houses an aquarium, musical room, temporary art exhibitions and research library - with a grass lawn roof.

Designed by Sir John Soane (and you simply must see his house at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London), Dulwich Picture Gallery is England's first purpose-built art gallery (I found this hard to believe too, but the National Gallery, say, wasn't built until 13 years later, in 1824). The collection is mainly old stuff, but good stuff: Rembrandt's gorgeous A Girl at a Window is the jewel in its crown but paintings by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raphael, Veronese, Poussin, Claude, Rubens, Van Dyck and Canaletto aren't bad either.

We ran for a 37 bus from near Dulwich Village and were back in time for tea.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Pop goes the Car Boot Sale

I’d heard the rumour about Sir Peter Blake, grandfather of British pop art - and most famously designer of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover - frequenting the Chiswick car boot sale, but never seen him the few times I’d been there and only half believed the rumour anyway.

After all, this is the man who was as the forefront of British pop art in the 1960s; who has designed album covers for everyone from the Beatles and Brian Wilson to, er, Paul Weller and Oasis; whose iconic paintings and collages fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds. Why would he need to go to car boot sales? Aren’t they for poor people?

But today, after a tip-off from my parents, he was there and I saw him, small, round and mole-like all dressed in black, white haired with white pointy beard, but all eagle-eyed ferreting amongst junk at a stall (please excuse my mixed-up animal metaphors).

He had a small black bag which already contained an old framed print, and was in the process of buying a plastic crucifix and some old cigarette cards. I remembered an article I’d read about his studio, and accompanying photos of it which reminded me of a (good) car boot sale stall - Victoriana, old toys, prints, magazines, records, music memorabilia, postcards, curios.

His paintings and collages too relish in a mish-mash of high and low culture and displaced objects. A painting as early as 1959, On the Balcony, almost looks like a car boot stall selling magazines, paintings, photos and various bits and pieces.

In a moment that happens but once in a lifetime (I wish I‘d had a camera, at least a camera phone), someone actually clutching a vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper's under his arm brushed past Peter Blake. No one else noticed. I wanted to grab the guy and tell him the man he just barged past designed the album he was holding. I didn’t. I also sort of wanted to say hi to the great man himself but he looked like he valued his anonymity (no one else seemed to recognise him). Besides, he looked a bit prickly, haggling as he was for the crucifix he was clutching. Maybe he is poor. He received only £200 for his Beatles cover and never received any royalties.