Thursday, May 27, 2010

What if?

She said ‘touch wood’ and looked around for a bit of wood. Not finding any, panicked a bit, then remembered a box of matches in her pocket, with a picture of a fez on the front. Intelligence is just a matter of taste (we all learn different things).

‘What if I told you I could turn into a chair... No... What if you went to the toilet and when you came back I had morphed into that chair beside you?’
‘I’d sit on top of you.’
‘But what if I then said I could turn into a knife?’

‘I wish I could freeze time when I’m lying in bed. Would I be allowed to move? There’d have to be conditions. I’d be allowed to move. But would I be allowed to open a door? Yes, I can move inanimate objects. Would I be able to have a cigarette? Would I be able to produce fire?’

Monday, May 24, 2010

Paul Bowles: Exile on Maghreb Street

2010 marks the centenary of the birth of Paul Bowles (1910-1999). Writer, composer, traveller and musicologist, self-imposed Moroccan exile and cult figure of American letters, he's perhaps best known for his first novel, The Sheltering Sky (filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990), which he didn't write until aged forty.

I've liked his writing, and especially his short stories, since first visiting Morocco in the mid-90s. His fiction often depicts Americans out of their depth in foreign climes, more often than not leading to violent, terrifying consequences (there is no happy ending in a Bowles story). Enigmatic, spare, detached, brutal and mysterious, his short stories are what Gore Vidal called "among the best ever written by an American". Later stories would feature mainly Moroccan characters, and were influenced by kif, which he took regularly, and tales of magic, folklore and superstition. As well as his short stories, he wrote four novels, travel stories, and translated Moroccan writers' work.

Bowles was an only child and an artistic prodigy. He sold paintings and had his surrealist poetry appear in magazines before the age of 20. He gave up poetry (perhaps because Gertrude Stein dismissed it – she also urged him to visit Morocco) and concentrated on music. He became a well-respected composer in New York in the 20s and 30s, studying under Aaron Copland. Now largely forgotten as a composer (in Alex Ross's excellent overview of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise, he gets but a few passing mentions), perhaps because he wrote 'frivolous', light music (in stark contrast to his later writing), for musicals, theatre and some films.

His social circle around this time was – and continued to be for most of his life – staggering. It reads like a who's who of 20th century artists, musicians and writers. He worked with, or was friends with, or met: Gertrude Stein, Kurt Schwitters, Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann, Leonard Bernstein, Max Ernst, Hans Richer, Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, Elia Kazen, Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, Truman Copote, Jean Cocteau, Patricia Highsmith, WH Auden, John Cale, Ezra Pound, Salvador Dali, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Miro, Francis Bacon, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg...

Since the 1930s he travelled constantly – to North Africa, Europe, Latin America, Sri Lanka, India. Even when he lived in New York he seemed to be moving apartments every couple of weeks.

Presumably homosexual (though possibly asexual), it's surprising to hear that he got married, to Jane Auer, a rampant lesbian, in 1937. It seemed to suit both of them, and they were great friends, even if they did tend to live separate lives a lot of the time.

He started writing music reviews – and then short stories – in the mid-40s. By 1949 he had published a collection of short stories and the novel The Sheltering Sky, which was a huge success. By now he had settled more or less permanently in Tangier, Morocco, where he would live for the rest of his life.

In the late 1950s, with the aid of an American grant, he toured Morocco with a tape recorder to record the indigenous music of the country. He amassed a huge and important collection of a dying art, only a fraction of which has been released.

By the 60s he had lost his (mainly American and European) public (his writing was never popular in his adopted Morocco); perhaps because his stories no longer featured American protagonists, and he spent so little time in the literary circles of Europe or New York. But the influx of beat writers to Tangier around this time, including Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs et al, rekindled an interest in his work.

By the 1970s and with the death of his wife, he produced less work. He began to translate Moroccan oral stories, which led to their publication and a greater understanding of Moroccan culture. In the 1980s he produced some fine new collections of short stories, including Midnight Mass and Points in Time, still displaying his by now trademark style of razor sharp prose, ice-cold detachment, foreigners out of their depth, and lashings of violence.

A superb introduction to Bowles as storyteller, composer and collector of traditional Moroccan music can be found in the free (and legal) hour-long 'audio portrait' at, called The Voices of Paul Bowles. It features Bowles reading several of his short stories, as well as extracts from his classical music and the Moroccan music he recorded in the 1950s.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Album Cover Mash-up

The Beastie Boy's Licensed to Ill with Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Animal Furniture

In July 1896, The Strand magazine (where Arthur Conan Doyle first serialised his Sherlock Holmes stories) had an article entitled 'Animal Furniture' (black and white pictures, above), depicting imaginative ways to display ones shot trophy animals. Things have changed slightly since the good ol' Empire days when a man of means would go off to Africa, shoot a baby giraffe, then have it transformed into a chair in their Bloomsbury townhouse.

But they haven't changed that much. Fast forward over a hundred years, and a Renaissance in taxidermy and macabre animal furniture seems to be happening, except now the people doing it are calling themselves artists. Admittedly, the methods of acquiring the animal has changed but the result isn't dissimilar.

Alannah Currie from 80s band the Thompson Twins (named after the Tintin characters, by the way), has re-invented herself as an artist-upholsterer (image, top left). She stresses she's a vegetarian who only uses roadkill. Polly Morgan (top right), likewise points out her work uses only already-dead animals. I'm not sure these arguments entirely justify the result. What next? An armchair made from dead people? Darn, Ed Gein's already done it.

Earlier in the year, we went to Roche Court, a fine sculpture park outside Salisbury, to see an exhibition of Nina Saunders animal sculptures (bottom left). Housed in a white room, the various dead birds and animals attached (or inserted) to pieces of furniture made the place feel like a macabre morgue.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Random Film Review: Pépé Le Moko

Dir: Julien Duvivier | 1937 | France | 94min

In his spotless suits and spats, Pépé’s been hiding out in the dirty black and white Delacroix Casbah for two years now and he’s going a bit mad. It’s become his prison. He’s bored of his gypsy girlfriend, Inès, all bangles and shawls and a shimmering darkness. Personally, I’d never get bored of her. But Pépé misses Paris, and longs for a bit of white. Then Gisèle, or Gaby for short, comes along with her blonde hair and diamonds. She reminds Pépé of Paris. “I like you, you’re beautiful. You remind me of Paris.” And the Paris Metro. He likes her, at first for her diamonds (“The Christian girl, the one with the diamonds.”), then as a chance of escape, away from all the dirt and brothels, the women in their white robes and veils. The girls dance on the roof as Pépé sings one Sunday morning. He’s in love with Gaby. Inès still loves Pépé. “You are what you are,” she says gravely. He beats Inès up from time to time; he has no respect for her. If I had someone like her, I’d respect her. But then the grass is always greener.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Stowaway

'I'm sure your thoughts are not with me,
But with the country to where you're going.'
– Bob Dylan, Boots of Spanish Leather

On our trip we discovered two things: the journey is the destination, and accent is everything. We didn't discover much about each other, but that's not the point of travelling. Ruby always used to tell me I was the most boring aspect of whichever country we visited together. Besides, I didn't talk that much anyway, and Casey stopped talking to me altogether in Tangier.

As I sat upstairs on the number 41 bus going home, the condensation covered the windows. It was 4:30am, the bus was packed and I realised how much I missed her. I felt sleepy and drunk, but liked the way the bus curved the corners and I didn't know where I was or where I was going. It felt like the last mysterious trip, and I felt a sadness as well as a happiness. I missed her as soon as we parted at Victoria station, New Year's eve morning. I hadn't realised how much I liked her. It was an instant hit in the stomach as soon as we parted. Like with love or being punched.

Casey had phoned me on the Saturday to ask me if I wanted to go to Goa, India with her. No, I said, but what about Morocco, it's cheaper and nearer. She thought that was a good idea and on the Sunday I booked two return tickets for Malaga, Spain.

Two or three things I know about her. She will always remember certain things about the trip. The stowaway; the soup in Fes; the cafe in Tetouan; sitting down in the lounge on the boat in Tangier, heading towards Algeciras, Spain, feeling warmth and comfort, a bit of love too, for the first time in days.

Our plane was delayed for four hours at Gatwick. It was my first time at Gatwick. Casey had been there before a few years ago, and noticed that it's changed. All I could see were freaks and geeks, badly dressed ugly people. An airport being a perfect microcosm of society. We sat in a pub for a few hours, with businessman in suits over the way, like they'd just finished work, and we forgot it was an airport. Casey with her Courvoisier and ginger ale, me with my lager. She bought cream shoes at the airport for £40, especially for the journey. The shoes were in a shop a few doors along from the pub. Casey came back and described them to me, and I dashed along to have a look at them. We had all our luggage at the pub, so both of us couldn't look at the shoes together. I think it may have been the fourth time I went to the shop that I saw the right ones, agreed they were nice, and she bought them.

The next morning in Malaga, a crisp, sunshining day with sunglasses, cheap cigarettes and lovely coffee, sitting outside the cafe. It feels nice, the sun, the coffee, Casey. She’s extremely excited and can’t contain herself. We both feel lighter and agree we should live here, which is something I’ve said about every country I’ve ever been to. But we like Spain’s pace of life, and its coffee.

A train through to Algeciras. We both love train rides and the possibility of them. Train systems are also a microcosm of society, but perhaps everything is. Spanish trains are great. You can smoke on them. The seats turn into beds. The landscape rolls by and I realise my smallness and I feel meek but content, just aware of the general scheme of things.

Casey’s got her mind on other things: the man writing opposite us she thinks is a writer. She imagines a life with him, in Ronda, where he gets off. He looks selfish but wears Clark’s shoes, so he must be all right. (We stopped off at Ronda on our way back... maybe Casey had Bruce Chatwin in her thoughts: in 1978 he rented a house in Ronda for five months to write his second book, The Viceroy of Ouidah. He filled twenty yellow legal writing pads with his Mont Blanc pen filled with Asprey's brown ink. He said that Ronda looked like an 'iced cake'. Though gay, Chatwin did like black women with big behinds.)

Rainy and dirty in a cafe in Algerciras as the electricity goes off and everything is dark just as a dirty old gypsy woman tries to sell me her dirty bread.

From Algericas to Ceuta, in Morocco, but Spanish and it was Christmas Eve and we ended up in a cafe with a group of people. Ceuta is just weird. Not exactly Muslim, not exactly Spanish. I don’t think Ceuta itself knows what it is. In the bar in Ceuta the crazy, annoying black woman who just talked and talked and laughed and laughed to me non-stop for hours. She stroked her arm and repeatedly said, 'Allemande, Anglais, yes, Francais, yes, Moroc, no.' Then she’d point upstairs and make a sleeping sign with her hands. ‘Yes?’ No, no, no and no.

Ceuta on Christmas day and everything seems shut, except McDonald's by the beach. We have a Coke. The whole town is deserted. We wander and find a nice cafe, the only one open. Coffee and bread. Merry Christmas.

We start walking to the border: the border into Morocco proper. We start walking in the wrong direction, of course. Then we get a taxi to the border. Overland borders. Kinda fascinating: on one side, Ceuta, cleanliness, on the other, Morocco, what looks like a garbage dump.

Even though Driton, my Kosovan friend at work in London, had been on Ramadan for the past few weeks, for some reason I didn't connect the two. It was only when I lit a cigarette on the other side of Ceuta, which was Morocco, with everyone looking at me, that the realisation came. When finally people started shouting at me then throwing stones at me, I stopped smoking altogether during the day.

Walking by myself in Tetouan to find a pack of cigarettes at night, I feel no weight, just the feeling of the night and strangers greet me, and when I ask one man where I can buy cigarettes he says he doesn't know but gives me one of his Marlboros instead. When I go back I say to Casey, 'I've just realised I'm always going to be alone but that's how I like it.' Casey looks shocked. I say, 'Oh, I don't mean here, now with you. I like being with you. I mean in the general scheme of things, I'm always going to be alone.'

Winter in Fes: something almost romantic about it. We found the only cafe open in Fes during the day. The curtains were drawn, the lights turned off. The door slightly ajar. I felt nervous, and got up and closed it slightly. Other tourists filtered in. The atmosphere was sober. We knew we were being bad. We chained smoked cigarettes and coffee. My stomach felt bad, and I felt guilty.

In the Sheraton hotel, Fes, in happy hour, two beers for the price of one. A bit of luxury and a beer, is all we want. We watch the beautiful white girl with blonde straight hair sitting across the room. Casey thinks she's a model. She chats with the waiter. Next to us a prostitute comes and sits down.

I told Casey of my dream when we were on the boat from Tangier to Algeciras. It was dark and I was in the countryside. There was a huge sewage pipe running through the middle of the countryside. The pipe asked me what I wanted. I could have anything I wanted. I asked the pipe for love. A minute later, out came three pieces of green toast and the pipe told me they were love. Green toast.

Some days later, after we had parted, I had another dream. They are the only two dreams I have remembered in months. I dreamt I kissed her. Just a kiss, but we were locked together, as if forever. Our faces morphed and became one. It wasn't very nice.

The night and the light and the rain of Tangier. Or, as the French Canadians say: 'Danger Tangier'. In the taxi Casey said, 'Maybe we were only meant to meet so we could go to Morocco together.' I said nothing, but hoped that wasn't so. There were other places to go too.

We sat at a waterside restaurant in Tangier. It was cold and raining. I was excited about being in Tangier, but Casey obviously wasn't. We only wanted soup at the restaurant. We hadn't eaten properly for days and soup was all we could manage. 'With chips?' asks our waiter. No, just soup, with bread. A basket of bread was lying on our table. The waiter went to take it away. I pulled it back. Apparently we weren't allowed bread if we only ordered soup, which cost 5 dirhams. The waiter and I were playing tug of war with the basket of bread. Casey got up and stormed out. I shouted at her. She didn't look back. I let her go.

I walked out of the restaurant. I watched her as she walked up the hill to our hotel. I continued walking along the waterfront. A pretty couple sitting at a table outside a restaurant turned and smiled at me. I continued walking. I got to the point where the restaurants ended and it got dark and dodgy. I turned back. I needed some food. I stopped at the restaurant where the pretty couple were sitting. The man said something to me. I said, 'What?' He continued talking to me in French, and I said 'What?' again, and asked him if he spoke English. He said he did and asked me where I was from. 'England,' I said. Him and his girlfriend were French Canadian. They were young and pretty, and just a little boring, but a pleasant respite after days and nights spent with Casey. We spoke of Morocco, and I got my soup, avec du pain, and a Coke. They found me funny. I found them a willing audience. I asked them if they wanted to meet later in a bar, with Casey. I finished my soup and Coke, and agreed to meet them in fifteen minutes. I went back to our hotel room, Casey was moaning and pissed off, but managed to persuade her to come to the Marco Polo bar with me. It took her ten minutes or so to get ready, and we left.

When we arrived in the bar, it was full of prostitutes, dark and sleazy. The women looked more Asian than Arab. The barman wouldn't serve Casey a drink. He thought she was a Muslim, and Muslim women aren't allowed to drink during Ramadan. He inspects her passport for like five minutes, looking up at Casey, and then down again at her passport.

It felt good on the boat back. I was warm and Casey was in better spirits. There was a strange feeling lasting a few minutes where everyone around us seemed relaxed and happy too. Many people were sleeping, some were just relaxing, thinking, drinking, talking. I felt a feeling of love from all around me. I felt it inside myself, permeating my whole body. I told Casey. She said, love comes from without, not from within,' and I knew what she meant. I might have said I felt a love for her, but I didn't. I don't really say things like that to women anymore.

During Ramadan, food began to have a simple, almost spiritual and religious connotation. Our daily evening soup, bread and eggs had a simplicity and ritual significance bordering on the religious. And tasted great too.

On the train to Tangier, the passengers in our carriage felt unique. There was me, English and New Zealand, Casey, English and Jamaican, an Algerian, two young Moroccan men and an old Moroccan guy. The Algerian had a laptop. Casey said he looked like her father. I made everyone laugh with tales of Algeria, but Casey was not amused.

Suddenly, a black hand with pink fingernails appears from under my seat, just like in an old horror film. The hand was attached to a man, who is presently pulled out from under the seat.
'Vous ete derange?' The Algerian asks him.
'Non.' The man with the hand replies. He speaks French and is from Mali. He’s been travelling illegally from Mali for several days.

It's obvious that Casey fancies the Algerian, and when he goes to get up and leave, at a station just before Tangier, Casey goes all flustered and follows him out of the carriage. I feel pangs of jealousy; I can't help it. A minute later, I follow them. The Algerian has already left the train, and Casey is there outside the toilet, still a bit flustered. I wonder if she went to kiss him or swap addresses, but I don't ask. Of course, I love her.

We’d been on the bus to Fes all day. We were starving. When we approach Fes it is almost dark. The bus pulls into the station and everyone literally jumps off and runs into the nearest cafe. We do too. We sit at a table, illuminated by bare light bulb. We wait for our soup, bread and egg. After eating, a Moroccan woman comes over to Casey, sits down next to her, and starts speaking to Casey in Arabic, which Casey doesn’t understand, then French, which Casey doesn’t understand, and finally pigeon English, which Casey does understand, just. The woman thinks Casey is Moroccan and I am her French husband. She wants to know how easy it is for Moroccan women to marry European men. Casey has to explain.

(Spain, Morocco; December 1999)

We went on four journeys together in the space of a year. During the last one, to Dublin, we had a falling out, and never spoke again.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Jean Vigo and L’Atalante

‘A pretty girl’s smile
May hold us a while’

Jean Vigo made only four films in his short lifetime (1905-1934 – he died aged twenty-nine*, just after completing L’Atalante); together his films last just three hours. But these films show such an enthusiasm, love and poetry towards cinema, and life, that they remain fresh, experimental, personal and beautiful, over seventy years after they were made.

L’Atalante (1934) is Vigo’s only full-length feature film. His first two films, A Propos de Nice (1929) and Taris (1931), were both short documentaries, but seem (especially Taris), stylistically, like mock rehearsals for L’Atalante. In Vigo’s original notes for A Propos de Nice he writes that he was going to start it with shots of the sea, then cut to a river, to sewers and then to ice and snow. He eventually abandoned these ideas, but it shows in his thinking already one of the major motifs in L'Atalante: water.

Vigo shot A Propos de Nice with help from Boris Kaufman, younger brother of the Soviet experimental filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Boris went on to shoot Vigo’s two subsequent films, and was a great pioneer of experimental film - he used fast and slow motion, superimposition. It is assumed that Kaufman told Vigo stories of his elder brother’s filmmaking exploits. These stories would have inflamed the young Vigo to experiment and explore film. This shows in A propos de Nice. Some of the film shows the influence of Soviet Kino-Eye techniques – ‘montage attractions’, a series of association shots.

But although Vigo was certainly influenced by other films and film-makers (PE Salles Gomes suggests Foolish Wives, Rene Clair, the German avant-garde and of course Soviet film-making), even in his first film he is finding his own personal style, improvising and experimenting. Eric Rhode: “No other film-maker has used the medium so testingly as a mode of self development.”

Although A Propos de Nice uses trick effects, it is not in a slick, superficial way, unlike many avant-garde filmmakers of the time. The effects are just used to push, as far as possible, what Vigo is trying to express. The film is perhaps naive and ‘primitive’, and Vigo has been called an ‘amateur genius’. But it is also still, surprisingly, modern and fresh. The critic David Thomson praises its camerawork: “strolling, intimate and liberating.”

Vigo went to film in a graveyard. He was fascinated by death all his life – his father, an anarchist, died in prison in ‘mysterious circumstances’. He experimented with camera movement, for example, by trying to make a statue of an angel on a gravestone look as if it were flying. Vigo and Kaufman became excited when they saw a nude statue with a nest and some dirty water between its legs – they went to film it straight away. What comes across is an almost childlike enthusiasm and love for trying things out.

Vigo’s next film was commissioned to him: a short documentary on the French swimming champion, Jean Taris. It lasts only ten minutes and Vigo showed little interest in the project, but it is an important film in his development. There is still the love of experimentation: slow and fast motion, superimposition. reverse shots and jump cuts. Most important of all though is the theme of water. The underwater shots of Taris swimming Vigo would later repeat in L’Atalante.

Vigo’s next film, Zero de Conduite (1933), was his first work of fiction. It is his most personal film so far – partly based on his school days (and the primarily influence on Anderson's If...), and partly based on stories about his father in prison: school as prison. Vigo said about it: “This film is so much my own life as a kid that I’m anxious to go onto something else.” It caused controversy when it came out, in 1932, and was banned in France until the fifties. (A Propos de Nice also caused some controversy because Vigo’s hatred of the middle-aged idle rich on the promenade at Nice made them look grotesque). Zero de Conduite is scathing in its depiction of the teachers, depicting them as midgets, grotesques and perverts. It shows bitter resentment to the institution of school and how unfairly it treats children.

The film is far from perfect: the plot and dialogue are unclear; the acting bad; there’s a lack of rhythm and the script was not prepared well. But it doesn’t matter. The film is pure Vigo: fresh, original, surreal and experimental. Again there is slow motion: in particular, a beautifully poetic scene of children walking through a snowstorm of feathers.

PE Salles Gomes cites the first scene of Zero de Conduite as being most representative of Vigo’s style. It is set in a train compartment and has two children playing around in it. Shot one: it starts in every day reality (the train carriage); two: we move to the bizarre (the children’s objects and toys); three: fantasy (the hazy dream atmosphere of smoke in the carriage).

Later in his book on Vigo, Gomes states that he can find no trace of surrealism in Vigo’s work. But if surrealism is the intrusion of fantasy upon reality, like in a Magritte painting, then Vigo’s work is definitely surreal, albeit subtly. Surrealism has to be based in reality in order for the fantasy to be accepted and believed. David Thomson sums up Vigo’s style well when he talks of his “poetic surrealism”.

L’Atalante was given to Vigo already as a script. At first Vigo felt uninspired by it, but had no choice but to make it. Geoff Andrew writes that Vigo has the “ability to transform mundane reality into pure poetry.” And this is precisely what Vigo does with the mundane script.

Storywise, it is slight. A young married couple start their lives on a barge. They argue (the woman is attracted by the bright lights of Paris; the man is not); split up, and eventually are reunited.

The settings depict harsh reality and working class life: docklands, desolate landscapes, small provincial towns. The realities of life on the barge are emphasised: manning the boat, washing clothes, sewing. The boat is small and cramped. People argue and shout at one another.

But Vigo’s eye is in every shot and shows us the reality to be lyrical, beautiful, dreamy, poetic, surreal and reveals what David Thomson calls “the sensuousness of the image”. This doesn’t detach from the harsh realities of life, but emphasises the richness of it. Indeed, L’Atalante seems more documentary-like, more realistic than Vigo’s other films.

Although there are similarities between Vigo’s first two films and L’Atalante, they are similar in only a superficial way. Although water is used in A Propos de Nice and Taris, it is not to any depth. In L’Atalante it represents a lot more. There is the physical fact that a lot of the action takes place on the boat; this is their home. They are moving away from their home village, and starting a new life. There is also the fact that they are somewhat cut off from the rest of the world, and the tensions that arise from that (Juliette’s longing for Paris, for example).

But the river, water, represents much more. For Vigo, it is symbolic of life and love. It is always moving, flowing and changing. When Jean is searching for Juliette he dives underwater to try and see her – Juliette had said earlier she sees Jean underwater, and he will see her too when he really needs to (but Jean had made fun of her). There is the incredibly intense, and strange, shot of Jean hugging, licking and kissing a large block of ice, desperately trying to feel his wife. And another shot of Jean looking for Juliette, running wildly across a desolate beach. The last shot, a helicopter shot, tracking along the river: life goes on. From beginning to end, water permeates the whole film.

The trick effects, used extensively in A Propos de Nice and Taris, are not used as much in Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante. Slow motion is used, sparingly, in the latter two films. This shows Vigo’s maturity as a filmmaker. The trick effects in Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante come as a surprise: they are almost shocking in their beauty and poetry. The underwater scene with Juliette superimposed on top of Jean, is especially moving. In Vigo’s first two films the effects are amusing, but not quite poetical or enriched with meaning.

There is much humour in all Vigo’s films, and especially in L’Atalante. But in his latter two films the humour comes from the characters rather than, say, dancing women’s legs sped up (A Propos de Nice). The content now dictates the form.

One of the first shots of L'Atalante is of a barge going across the river. It is a long shot. All of a sudden from all the greyness, clouds of white appear at the bottom of the screen. It is an astonishing, arresting shot.

But, like with the film as a whole, it’s hard to actually break it up and say how or why it works. It’s not particularly in the quality of the photography (although it’s partly the light, compositions and angles), or the story, or the acting (though Juliette is delightful and Pere Jules is hilarious). It is a combination of things. David Thomson mentions “the sensuousness of the images”. Some of them, yes. But overall, I would call the images haunting. They stick in my mind, but I’m not sure why (surely the highest praise: a mysterious, unknown beauty, not simply consisting of technique).

There is an upward angle of a church. Out come Pere Jules and the cabin boy to prepare the barge for leaving. The newly weds and their guests follow shortly out of the church. It is all rather formal – they walk in a straight line, in pairs, like school children. They are all dressed in black; what should be a joyous occasion appears more like a funeral. The couple walk arm in arm, looking straight ahead, with blank expressions on their faces. Good use is made of the moving camera tracking along with the couple. The guests can be seen in the background, but they soon disappear as the camera concentrates on the newly weds. This emphasises the couple are leaving to start their new life, they are breaking away to freedom.

Next there is a long shot of the couple walking past large haystacks; it is a beautiful shot, recalling Monet’s paintings of the same subject. The sun is almost setting; there are strong contrasts of light and dark. The couple then walk through a field of tall grass, taller than the couple in fact. They look quite out of place, for the setting looks more like a jungle. Then they walk through a field and are almost silhouetted.

For all these shots the newly weds walk from right to left on the screen, past the camera. This is unnatural to the eye for we read from left to right (in the west). This shows the characters uncertainty of their future.

The shots have a silvery quality to them, and a natural beauty. PE Salles Gomes: “...some of the most beautiful outdoor shots in the history of cinema.” A shot occurs several minutes later which has always stuck in my mind: the cabin boy with the wild flowers. He has so many of them they just about cover him entirely. The background is a grey, menacing sky. It is an arresting, bizarre and surreal image, yet perfectly realistic. Not surreal for surreal sake, like, say, Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (which in fact Vigo admired).

The success of Vigo’s films lies in something quite simple: movement. The actions of Pere Jules and the cabin boy are childlike and almost animalistic. This is in stark contrast to the stiffness and seriousness of the couple and the guests.

The shot of Juliette walking hesitatingly along the barge, the white of her dress against the grey of the water, for what it’s worth, made me cry when I first saw it. The movement of the shot relies on the friction between the barge going one way and Juliette walking the other way. Vigo has expressed his love of the human body and how it moves.

Jean Vigo put so much of himself in his films. During the filming of L’Atalante he was ill, and died soon after its completion (from tuberculosis). Yet his films are filled with the richness of life and there is a “sure note of joy” (David Thomson) in them.

Friends who I’ve persuaded to watch L’Atalante say, at best, that it is a “nice” film. I can see the “niceness” of it: in the beautiful images, the happy ending, and so on. But I also see a haunting, sad film. Maybe because I see so much of Vigo’s tragic life in it.


*Other 'poets' of the cinema to die young include Sadao Yamanaka, who died aged 29, like Vigo; Michael Reeves (director of Witchfinder General; died aged 25 of an accidental overdose) and Humphrey Jennings (aged 43 – okay, I know it's not young but it's not exactly old is it?; directed fine wartime documentaries including Fires were Started; died slipping off a cliff in Greece).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Overheard #3

Two old women in a shop.

– So how's your granddaughter?
– Well, she's still in a coma if that's what you mean.
– Oh.
– But it's a self-induced coma.
– I see. Is that better or worse?
– Well...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tijuana Tales

"But we did nothing, absolutely nothing that day, and I say:

What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A. at 26?"

– Bran Van 3000, Drinking in L.A.

"All I wanna do is have some fun
Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard"
– Sheryl Crow, All I Wanna Do

Just for the record: I have been drinking in L.A. aged 26 and I have driven down Santa Monica Boulevard whilst listening to the Sheryl Crow song.

After staying with some millionaires in a mansion in Pacific Palisades, L.A., I hired a car to go driving round the States. It should be noted this was just weeks after passing my driving test in England. I'd never driven a car without a driving instructor, never been on a motorway, never driven at night or in the rain, in an automatic on the right-hand side. And here I was midday in L.A. I was petrified.

Things started badly. I drove along a four-lane one-way freeway – the wrong way. Just as the lights were changing to green, four lanes of cars started racing towards me. I swerved just in time. Into a bus stop. I stalled up on the kerb. People at the bus-stop were staring at me. Drivers in their open-top jeeps were shouted at me. I tried to concentrate on the driving; it was embarrassing more than anything else. I somehow got off the kerb and started driving normally. A few hours later I'd left LA and started heading north. Things were getting better. But it was now dark and raining, and I found myself driving too fast. A cop car flashed its lights behind me. My heart stopped. Then it overtook me and pulled over the car in front of me.

I eventually made it to Berkeley and stayed with a friend for a week. There was a moment, driving over the Golden Gate bridge, when a car full of Californian girls passed me in an open top car. They all looked over at me, smiling. I smiled back and thought, yes, this is what it's like to be an American.

I drove 3,000 miles around California, Arizona and Nevada over the next few weeks and stopped off in San Diego. In the evening I wondered round the gaslight area. it was nice and gentrified, but i was ready for Tijuana.

I love overland border crossings, they really accentuate the differences between two countries; by flying you hardly notice, for all airports seem the same. However, I felt a bit disappointed by Tijuana. It seemed so tacky – I was expecting an old-fashioned frontier town atmosphere. Instead it was American tourists with their cheap cartons of Marlboro, their prescription-only drugs, their two-for-one Margaritas. I got lost then got a taxi back into town. The driver asked me if I wanted to fuck his wife, mother or daughter. His mother was cheap, his daughter expensive. I wasn't sure he was joking.

I drank two-for-one Margaritas in a loud, tacky bar. I got drunk and out in the street a small, portly Mexican with untrustworthy eyes and a moustache started walking with me. He seemed friendly – and I thought, great, a friendly local and we chatted away. Suddenly he said he's a policeman and he's been watching me. He said 'We believe you are part of an international drugs ring and I'm going to take you down to the police station for questioning.'
At first, I laughed. It sounded funny, like out of a movie. Then I looked at the man. He wasn't laughing.
'You think I am joking?'
He turned nasty.
'This isn't the United States, this isn't Europe. We can do what we want with you here.'

He made a signal to someone in a car, an undercover cop, he told me. He said he was important around here. He was annoying. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I guess I was scared but it just sounded a bit half-baked and I couldn’t really take the short, stubby Mexican too seriously. I asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted money. I told him all I had was travellers cheques (partially true). I can’t remember how long the money conversation went on for – quite some time anyway. Even when you’re being scammed you can haggle, and haggling takes time. I think I gave him like $1 in the end.

Then I bought two cartons of cheap Marlboros and decided to get out of the place. I got worried at the border when I read you couldn’t take more than one carton of cigarettes into the States. I asked someone to carry a carton for me – turned out he was Irish and we chatted till past the border and back into San Diego. Then a young American guy was over-hearing me with the Irish guy that I was new in town and he ended up showing me round all these cool bars. I quite liked him, and it was real kind of him, and we heard some great blues music in some nice bars, but I wasn’t sure what his angle was. A lot of the time we didn’t have much to talk about. I wasn’t sure if he was gay, lonely, over-friendly or an undercover cop. I couldn’t decide what was worse.


Previously unpublished; if you like your travel stories peppered with sex, drugs, loneliness and despair, don't forget my travel book, Gullible Travels, is available to buy from

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Random Short Horror Film Reviews

Dir: Tobe Hooper | 1974 | USA | 84min
With its Vincent Van Gogh sunflowered fields and Salvador Dali clocks on trees, a definite art movie. In the second half, a grotesque sitcom. The most pro-vegetarian film ever made; a metaphor for murderous McDonald’s if ever there was one.

Dir: Don Coscarelli | 1979 | USA | 88min
The women are from Roxy Music record covers; one stands behind a bush holding a knife then turns into the tall old funeral director in the black suit. Little Jawas from Star Wars roam around. God knows what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to matter: it’s all rather abstract, sometimes scary and sometimes beautiful.

Dir: Abel Ferrara | 1979 | USA | 96min
Dir: Mary Harron | 2000 | USA | 101min
Both the film Driller Killer and the book and film American Psycho inhabit very specific settings which at once date them: the art scene of the seventies in Driller Killer and the yuppies of Wall Street in the eighties in American Psycho. Both are set in New York; both are about psychos. Both depict a ‘scene’ and the frustrations and pointlessness of that scene. One has no feelings, the other has too many feelings. But both are really about business and art just not mixing.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Park

The young man is wearing someone else's clothes and a ladies watch from the night before. They are slightly too small for him. Although he did not sleep the night before and tiredness can be seen on his face, this morning he is feeling young, fresh and alive. Yet his surroundings are so sad and depressing that he finds it hard to stay happy. He meows at a cat in an attempt at friendship. The cat meows back, but does not stop its walking nor even look in the man’s direction.

Whilst walking along a road the man comes across a small park with a children’s playground in it. It is opposite a cathedral and graveyard. It is very old, empty and peaceful looking, so he enters. The man walks slowly but firmly around the park. The floor is almost completely covered by leaves. They occasionally follow the man, creeping up behind him. After walking around for a while, the park becomes more hostile. Even so, the man appears to be at one with his surroundings. He walks near the slide, swings and children’s play things and notices that they are old, rusted and unused. Red and yellow and blue climbing frames contrast with the grey, concrete ground. The swings look very unfriendly. On the slide are pieces of eggshell with matches sticking out of them. The still shiny slide reflects into his eyes. The only sound heard is that of an audio cassette hissing.

When the man stands still he notices his shadow is half a mile long. He looks down two deep holes in the floor. He sees two spider webs where nothing but leaves are caught and killed, no longer able to run in the wind. He notices how artificial all the grass and leaves are. He sees lots of shiny silver new fences which are so much more real and strong. Behind one of the fences are some old gravestones. They are at the end of the park, and the man walks towards them. He sees one that is dated 1827. He looks down at the fake green grass and sees a lot of broken glass. It almost seems to be covering the park. Gradually the colour of the grass changes to red. The man is walking towards the exit.

The park is enclosed by houses and in the windows of the houses are women, smiling. This time, though, the man is not looking for a pretty woman to smile at him. He keeps his eyes to the floor. The floor is wet.

When he comes out of the park, everything is the same. He sees a young, fat, unattractive woman walking to work. She is wearing an ill fitting BHS uniform. He smiles at her but she just frowns at him and continues on her way. He sees a man who is slightly older than himself coming towards him. He starts to stare at him because he is attractive. The older man notices and smiles. The young man feels embarrassed but smiles back. They pass each other.

(Newport, Wales, 1992)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Iain Sinclair Dream

We were staying at my parents house. I was in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about the great nap I'd had earlier on. I'd been woken by a thunderstorm. Later I slept and dreamt. I didn't remember the dream until a copy of Iain Sinclair's London Orbital prompted me.

We'd been walking through fields near Bristol where a controversial new way of ploughing was being introduced: black organic monster machines. I was chatting with Peter Ackroyd about not liking this new method. I told him Mel had read London Orbital (I think I thought he was Ian Sinclair, though Ackroyd didn't pick up on this, thankfully). Ackroyd said he knew Iain Sinclair anyway.

Then I was in Fat Face trying on flip-flops but they didn't have my size and it was the end of season anyway. I somehow change out of my trousers and pants, and, finding myself outside, put them back on. Then I'm on a council estate and two men with sticks are having a fight over the way.

(London, 2008)

Friday, May 07, 2010

Random Film Review: Fat City

Dir: John Houston | 1971 | USA | 100min

Photographed by Conrad Hall, Fat City is either bleached out exteriors or dark and dingy interiors. It has the feel of a lazy Sunday afternoon, a feel of a lifetime of lazy Sunday afternoons, of nothing to say, or do. It’s just not worth getting up sometimes. My favourite last scene of any film, ever. Great songs by Kris Kristofferson too.

Which reminds me: Kris Kristofferson's early demos Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Demos 1968-72 is out on Monday.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Seedy Tree

I can’t recall exactly how the note went, but it was something like this:

Tall, dark, handsome man seeks love in the shape of a small chubby woman with leather trousers and nice hair for games of pool and pints of lager. Call me on ––––––––––.

I remembered it being a bit better, but that’s the general gist of it: like a spoof of a lonely-hearts column. I was too nervous to give it to her myself. I’d seen her just about every weekend but we’d never spoken. She was always with her friends and I was always with mine. My friends were all guys, and her friends were all guys, all with skinheads, all from the local estates, not as rough as other housing estates, but certainly rougher than anything I knew.

She was small and plump and wore a checked shirt and leather trousers. I felt a kind of love for her. She kept on looking at me. I kept on looking at her. Large and beautiful, come to bed eyes, blue, checked shirt, always looking tired, eyes heavy, a tired come to bed beauty. Sam called her a slag, not to her face, of course, but to me. I thought that was a bit harsh, but Sam’s scared of slags. I couldn’t get enough of them.

The pub was called the Cedar Tree, but we called it the Seedy Tree, not to be funny or smart, not even because it was particularly seedy, but because that’s what we called it. It just sounded right. It was old fashioned and a bit run down; it must have been the only pub left in town which hadn’t been renovated into a bland chain pub*. We only went there because of the pool tables. It was also the only pub left in our part of town which had them.

So there’s this one Friday when I’ve written the above note. I’m too nervous to give it to her myself, so I give it to Mike to give to her. It takes a few pints for Mike to pluck up the courage. By which time I’ve walked out of the pub and walked a bit up the street, perhaps always realising the possible backfire of the plan. A few seconds later Mike comes running out of the pub shouting to me ‘Run! Run!’ I start running. Mike overtakes me. My legs feel like they’re running in wet concrete. I glance around. Not far behind there’s a bunch of skinheads running after us, shouting. Luckily I live just around the corner, and we both make it back safely.

Mike was about to give her the note, but one of the skinheads had grabbed his arm (her boyfriend, I believe), and asked Mike what he was giving her. Mike gave the skinhead the note, who then let go of his arm, and Mike ran out the pub.

At about midnight, me and Sam are watching TV up in the loft when the phone rings. I know it’s her, and when I answer it, it is. She says she’s just split up with her boyfriend, she’s lonely, she likes me, and she’d like to meet up. She sounds incredibly insincere. My heart sinks, but we agree to meet on Sunday morning, outside the petrol station opposite the estate where she lives. Not the most romantic of locations, but what can you expect from a working class lass?

The next morning I was all set to hop on a bus and meet her. Then my friend Chris phones me just before. I tell him the situation and he thinks I’m insane. He thinks it’s a set up. He says he’ll take me in his car. We take a baseball bat, just in case. As we slowly drive past the petrol station, my girl isn’t there, but her guys are, also armed with baseball bats, just in case.

I left town for about a year, then ended up returning. I went back to the Seedy Tree with Sam one day. The bartender said he didn’t think it was a good idea me having a drink in here. He said the guys still come in, and they were still looking for me a year later. I thought it highly unlikely, but didn’t argue with the bartender, a big man, and excellent at pool.

(London, 1996)

*It has now of course.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Random Film Review: Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein

Dir: Jess Franco | 1972 | Spain | 85min

On one level: crap. But on another: beautiful, terrifying, sublime, mysterious, poetic, erotic and just plain weird. There’s no talking for the first twenty minutes (apart from an out-of-place diary voice-over), and not much after that. Its images recall Dreyer, Hitchcock and Borowczyk. Its camerawork recalls Altman, porno films and botch jobs – a constant moving (in part because of panning-and-scanning, I guess), zooming, going in and out of focus. Its characters recall Bruegel paintings.

It’s a film of astonishing moments and images: the extreme close-ups of the eye of the professor and the dead girl; then the terrifying moment when he puts a spike through her eye, and you see no blood, and the candles go out; the woman with the kinky boots getting undressed and then killed by Dracula; the bat drowning in blood then turning into Dracula; the gypsy scene; the zoom into the woman’s red dress; the same woman rolling around screaming for no apparent reason; the use of windows like in Nosferatu (Dreyer, 1922); the extreme close-ups of medieval Bruegel-like faces; the upward shot of the spiral staircase; the coffin that opens in the middle; the way Dracula can turn into bats, men or women; the women all kinky and sexy and the men all old and ugly; the choral music; the gypsies again; the strong contrasts of light and dark, and people just standing around; no one really talks to anyone; the dance routine with the end zoom shot – the woman taken away and tied up in her underwear; fast motion trees blowing and the bell ringing; the woman’s large eye staring at us through the dark and dirty window; the skeletons in the coffins with branches, and the gypsy on-lookers; the bad make-up... What the hell was going on and did it really matter anyway?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Pink Purse

Just near Liverpool Street station I saw a little Chinese-looking pink purse on the kerb and I picked it up. Inside it were two halves of a white pill; I took them out and without thinking, swallowed them. I wondered around the city, urinated, watched two policemen hold down a drunk man whilst his girlfriend screeched and cried beside him ‘He’s my boyfriend!’, decided the pill was having no effect, and boarded the midnight tube to go back home.

In the carriage were eight teenage black girls all wearing long black coats and short red dresses, except one big girl who was wearing a short white dress and she spread her large legs out wide. Her legs were hairy and she exclaimed, as if only just realising, ‘Darn! My legs is hairy!’

At the next stop, eight large middle-aged Australian rugby fans, all wearing identical rugby tops, board the carriage. They started talking with the black girls. At Victoria they all got off together, the rugby fans and the girls.

A few minutes later I think to myself that maybe the pill did have some effect after all.

(London, 1999)

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Dark Room

Black white, a dark night. Exterior of an interior. A man sweats because he’s tightrope walking from one block of flats to another. Harder than it seems. Harder at night. Harder when monsters of the night want your soul, books and wardrobe. But it’s okay, it’s just one of those nightmares I keep having. Hot and cold, put on night robe. White paper falls from black sky, so high. I pull a white naked woman into my room; do I dream? She’s cold (I’m told); put her to bed. Knock knock on my white door – bailiffs or burglars? – no time to snore. They silently steal my white objects. My, I’m cold. They go out and my wardrobe is but coat hangers and cactus. Ha. I can’t sleep in my dark room. It’s too soon. A film on my wall, so tall. Painted light, so bright, so bright. Leading where…? I stare.