Friday, December 30, 2011

A Book of Hedgerow Berries

A Book of Hedgerow Berries; Oxford University Press; 1949; Written by Dorothy A Ward; Illustrated by Marjorie Gillies

What a lovely book. There's something quite modest in the way it tells you it's a book, rather than just stating 'Hedgerow Berries'. I love the cover – the design for all the Chameleon Books, I guess (this is number 29). Its size and format are remarkably similar to Ladybird books. The illustrations, which look like watercolour, are excellent.*

The introduction states: 'Our English countryside has the reputation for being one of the most beautiful in the world, and one of its most distinctive features is the hedgerow'. This may well have been true in 1949 (just about), but post-war has seen the amount of hedgerows in England halve.

As the English Hedgerow Trust says: 'Hedgerows are a fundamental part of the heritage of the British countryside, defining the nature of the landscape and providing a major shelter and food source for a huge variety of mammals, birds and insects. Hedgerows are effectively a vibrant ecosystem, a huge nature reserve in our small and (over) intensively farmed country.'

* In fact, my only gripe about the book is, er, it wasn't given to me as a Christmas present, but to a close family member instead.

This is my last post of 2011. Have a Happy New Year and see y'll in 2012, a 2009 disaster movie directed by Roland Emmerich and the end of time according to the Maya calendar. Can't wait.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The seasons of life

The seasons are a well-known metaphor for the four stages of life: birth and childhood being spring, youth and young adulthood summer, autumn is middle age, and winter, old age and death. People seem to want to live in a perpetual spring, with, er, a perpetual spring in their step, youthful-looking hair and skin, good teeth and bones. How boring. Old friends not seen for years think it is the ultimate complement to say, 'You haven't changed a bit!' I, however, think it is the ultimate insult. Life is a journey. I like to see people aged and haggard, weathered and withered, not looking like a goddamn spring chicken all their lives. Grow up and old. Get on with it. I embrace autumn and winter. I've been content in the winter of my discontent for about twenty five years now.
FYI: This is post #500

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lookalikes #17: Timothy Spall and Nicholas Bro

British actor Timothy Spall and Danish actor Nicholas Bro, currently seen as Justice Minister Thomas Buch in the popular TV series The Killing.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lookalikes #16: Officer Crabtree & Inspector Gustav

God moaning: Officer Crabtree (apparently based on Edward Heath!) from 'Allo 'Allo!, played by Arthur Bostrom, and Inspector Gustav, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, from Martin Scorsese's new 'family film', Hugo, a strong contender for worst film of the year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best and worst albums of the year 2011

PJ Harvey Let England Shake
tUnE-yArDs Whokill
Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Paul Simon So Beautiful or So What
Kate Bush 50 Words for Snow
Ry Cooder Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down
Wild Beasts Smother
The Horrors Skying
Real Estate Days
Battles Gloss Drop
Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
M83 Hurry up, we're Dreaming
St. Vincent Strange Mercy
Gil Scott Heron & Jamie XX We’re New Here
Half Man Half Biscuit 90 Bisodol (Crimond)
Josh T. Pearson Last Of The Country Gentlemen
Bon Iver Bon Iver
Atlas Sound Parallax
Onehtrix Point Never
Lou Reed and Metallica Lulu (If only for the opening lines, 'I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski / In the dark of the moon'. I quite like the cover too.)


Throbbing Gristle 20 Jazz Funk Greats
A great, if misleading cover: there aren't 20 songs and they're not exactly jazz or funk or greats. The cover photo isn't the idyllic setting it seems either: it's the popular suicide location Beachy Head. Fine reissue with bonus CD of live tracks.

Serge Gainsbourg Historie de Melody Nelson
Worth the price of admission for the cover alone, but luckily this Deluxe Edition comes with the original album plus a CD of outtakes plus a DVD.

The Beach Boys The SMiLE Sessions
Worth the 43 year wait? Almost.

Can Tago Mago
Deluxe 40th anniversary reissue of the landmark Kraturock album with a second disc of live tracks, marred only by including the vastly inferior original British album cover (and, according to some Amazon reviewers, a poor quality live disc).

The Raincoats Odyshape
This one's been hard to get hold of for a while so good to have it back. Robert Wyatt guests.

Miles Davis Live in Europe 1967
Twenty years after his death, a new Miles Davis album still seems to get released on a monthly basis (not that I'm complaining). Now we have the Bootleg Series Volume 1, consisting of three CDs and a DVD, with the Miles Davis Quintet. Great stuff. Just two years later Miles would be producing a very different kind of music with a completely different band. Also worth a listen, Bitches Brew Live from 1969, came out this year too. (Neither are a reissue -- nor are the SMiLE Sessions technically -- but you know what I mean...)

Adele 21
James Blake James Blake
WU LYF Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Jay-Z & Kanye West Watch the Throne
Radiohead The King of Limbs
Florence and the Machine Ceremonials
The Weeknd House of Balloons
Lady Gaga Born this Way
DJ Shadow The Less you Know, the Better
Drake Take Care

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top 30 albums of 2010

Friday, December 16, 2011

Books of the Year 2011

Following Art Garfunkel's (once again) lead of listing every book he's read, here's the books I've read this year, so not necessarily books released this year. In fact, I don't think any were released this year* (if you're looking for such a list, let me direct you to the Guardian).
The Innocence of Father Brown GK Chesterton
Dirty Havana Trilogy Pedro Juan Gutierrez
Just my Type Simon Garfield
The Mouse and his Child Russell Hoban**
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet David Mitchell
Life Keith Richards
Psychogeography Merlin Coverley
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
Books vs Cigarettes George Orwell
Bound for Glory Woody Guthrie
Seasons of the Heart Alan Spence
But Beautiful Geoff Dyer
Bicycle Diaries David Byrne
The World's Wife Carol Ann Duffy
One Day David Nicholls
On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
The Rings of Saturn WG Sebald
Night Train Martin Amis
Rolling Thunder Logbook Sam Shepherd
Moonfleet J Meade Falkner
Rip it up and Start Again Simon Reynolds
Trouble with Lichen John Wyndham
24 Party People Tony Wilson
Catching the Big Fish David Lynch
Big Baby Charles Burns
Put the Book Back on the Shelf: A Belle & Sebastian Anthology Various
Complete Persepolis Marjane Satrapi
Perverted by Language Various
Black Hole Charles Burns
Four Tales James Hogg
Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk Through Portland, Oregon Chuck Palahniuk
A Time of Gifts Patrick Leigh Fermor
Collected Stories Tennessee Williams [currently reading]

Keen-eyed/well-read readers may spot a few graphic novels and books of poems, which may have taken just an hour or two to read. It's true. But this is more than balanced by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and A Time of Gifts, both of which took me months to get through.

*Unless I'm allowed to include the recently published Saul Bass book which I'm slowly getting through. It's massive! And amazing.

**RIP Russell Hoban, who died a few days ago, aged 86. His Riddley Walker is one of the most amazing books ever written.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lookalikes #15: Azari & III and VU's Squeeze

Azari & III's fine self-titled album, released earlier this year, is a dance record with lashings of soul, electronica and house; and the Velvet Underground's last LP, Squeeze (1973), not really a VU record at all, seeing as Doug Yule was the only original member of the band playing on it. It's pretty bad but quite rare.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Space Invaders Crossword Puzzle #3

3. Rays of light (5)
7. Round and round (7)

1. To -- or not to -- (2)
2. Exist (2)
4. Part of circumference of circle (3)
5. Make believe (3)
6. Question (3)
8. Sun God (2)
9. Musical note (2)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Richard Branson in Vague

I don't throw bombs, I watch films
– Tom Vague

Sir Richard Branson on the cover of Vague No. 21 (1989) wearing a balaclava (is he a rapist or a robber? I guess the metaphor is the same either way). The cover was designed by Sex Pistols-designer and Branson-hater Jamie Reid, still an anarchist after all these years: as well as protesting against the Criminal Justice Bill and the Poll Tax, more recently he was seen at the St Paul's Occupy.

Though Vague magazine includes staples of 1970s DIY punk (or post punk) fanzines, by the 1980s it was a glossy-looking counter culture publication, and the first fanzine to be perfect bound. And it didn't just feature music, going off as it often did into other tangents, including cyber-punk, politics, situationism and psychogeography.

Its creator, Tom Vague, originally a Wiltshire man, (born in Mere, I think, and went to art college in Salisbury. Vague describing a 'punk rock scene' in Salisbury is quite hard to believe… though it was the 1970s), is nowadays a prominent chronicler of Notting Hill (though rich and dull now, it's worth remembering this was the scene of the race riots in 1958 and, up until the 1980s, had a significant alternative and counter culture scene) and has been writing for over thirty years, producing fanzines, pamphlets and CDs.

The inside front cover of the magazine reproduces a leaflet handed out in a new Virgin Megastore in Glasgow (remember this was 1989):

'Hi, mugs!
Put all your money in a pokey bag and give it to me at the NEW
Virgin Hip Super Market

Hello suckers! Us wonderful people at Virgin have arrived in Glasgow! We call ourselves Virgin because we like to attract customers that are young and gullible (if they had any fucking sense they'd rip us off!). Who was it sang 'Do you think it's funny, turning rebellion into money?' Funny? We're laughing all the way to the bank!! And don't forget our new Virgin credit scheme… Be hip and impress your friends in easy monthly repayments!! Bring your giros, small change, your granny's pension book… We'll take it all!! Bring your rebellion and we'll sell it back to you!! ... Must go now… the Russians have got some kind of rebellion in Poland, and they want me to come over and package it and make it harmless…
See ya
Richard Branson'

Vague magazine was usually for sale at Virgin Megastores, yet issue twenty one mysteriously went missing.

In more recent newsRichard Branson has bought Northern Rock for a bargain price, half, in fact, of what British taxpayers have paid out for the ailing bank since 2007. Richard Branson has announced he'll be opening a new luxury game reserve in Kenya. Richard Branson has invited Kate Winslett over for Christmas at his Necker Island, to thank her for saving his 90-year-old mother from a terrifying inferno when the guesthouse caught fire after lightning struck.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Alien Underwear

There are those who think this scene from Alien is the most erotic in cinema history. I'm not going to entirely disagree. I came across this film still from Alien, had a bizarre yet erotic dream involving Sigourney Weaver, then bought the 9-disc Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set the following day. Go figure.

Previously on Barnflakes:
I'm in Love

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Wiltshire loves and hates

Salisbury is sumptuous
And Devizes, divine
Bradford (on Avon), beautiful
Avebury is ace
Lacock, like a peacock
Shrewton, shrewd
Malmesbury has a malthouse
Pewsey is pleasant
Tisbury 'tis interesting
Mere, sincere
Alton Barnes, beguiling
And Honey Street, real sweet.

But Bishopstrow is boring
And Warminster worse
Trowbridge is terrible
Westbury, a curse
I hate Heytesbury
Stonehenge is stern
Codford is fishy
Chitterne: a shit urn
Chippenham's crap
Swindon, a slum
Marlborough, mundane
And Wilton... waning.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Space Invaders Crossword Puzzle #2

This one has a film-related theme (mostly). With thanks to Jude.

1. Old film classification: aged five and over (1)
2. Old film classification: over 18 (1)
5. Out of fashion (5)
9. Show (7)

3. Thank you (2)
4. You and me (2)
6. Slide over snow (3)
7. Thin film director (4)
8. Director of Anatomy of a murder (4)
10. Good movie (3)
11. Small part (3)

Friday, December 09, 2011

Ode to a night

The cheerless baron harks his way across the turmoil moors.
He says she is a witch but we don’t agree.
The bitter figure inherits his own will:
It records the lies he tells it.
The prayer about the angels is a sad indictment of the storm that forever bleeds.
They’re German; they say “bye guys” or is that her name, I don’t know.
Everything sits on the table or moves about.
Tomatoes in the bag, oil on the side.
It feels hard but where’s the (sharp) point?
The emptiness inside is also outside.
If that’s a sin then I don’t know what.
(He believes it was the leaves that made him sneeze).

– 1991

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Tagalog for Tea

When I came back to London from the Philippines, I got a job in the account’s department of an Estate Agent’s in Chelsea. Every morning at 9:30am the maid would come and serve us tea. Dressed in a traditional black and white maid’s uniform, she was a chirpy, chubby middle-aged Filipino woman who looked like she hated us all except once when I tried to thank her in Tagalog, then she burst out laughing and I went bright red. I think my accent was bad. You can tell a lot about people by how they take their tea. Workmen, labourers, plumbers, all manual workers, take two. Media people, contrary to popular belief, take none at all.
– 1999

Previously on Barnflakes:
Not for all the tea in China

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Space Invaders Crossword Puzzle #1

Have you been eating your Barnflakes every morning? Here's a Space Invaders crossword puzzle to test your knowledge of the past year's posts. Send your completed crosswords to me. First person with the correctly completed puzzle will win a copy of Pulp Poetry.

1. Fifteenth letter of the alphabet (1)
2. Letter which best expresses sleep (1)
5. The country Bobby Fischer died in (7)
8. The opposite of them (2)
9. Brimless hat worn by men in the near east (3)
10. The dark, inaccessible part of our personality (2)
12. Bruce, American singer (11)
14. Writer of beat novel On the Road (7)
15. Printer's measurement (2)
16. Egyptian spiritual self (2)

3. The Hammer couldn't be without it (2)
4. Indefinite article (2)
6. From the Danish, meaning 'play well' (4)
7. Effect which occurs in the respiration of barley (5)
8. A 2009 Disney/Pixar animated film (2)
11. Village in Mali (2)
12. Offensive, pejorative word for someone (3)
13. Meaning 'born as' (3)
14. Out for the count (2)

Please note: not all clues are referring to previous posts. Though some are. Also: not all intersecting words strictly make sense. Most do though.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Album cover: Tortoise's TNT

Yesterday's post, Robert Frank's French first edition of The Americans, reminded me of the cover for Tortoise's 1998 album, TNT. In a similar vein to Saul Steinberg's sketch, the cover of TNT is a doodle made by one of the band members on the cover of a blank CD-R. Genius. Good album too.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Book Cover: Robert Frank's Les Americains

Of all the different covers for Robert Frank's The Americans, this French first edition, published in 1958 when no American publisher would touch it with a barge pole, is by far my favourite. It's ironic or even perverse, perhaps, that a now-iconic book of photographs should have what looks like a sketch on graph paper for its front cover. But I love it. With the graph paper lines resembling a skyscraper and the people milling below like ants, it sums up the alienation which informs many of the photos within the book. The drawing was by cartoonist Saul Steinberg, most famous for his illustrations for the New Yorker magazine. Funnily enough, just a few years before, Henri Cartier-Bresson's almost-equally influential photobook, The Decisive Moment, was published in France as Images à la Sauvette (in 1952)… with a cover illustration by Henri Matisse.

As Martin Parr stresses in The Photobook: A History (Volume 1), the French edition of The Americans was a different book altogether to the American version produced in the States the following year. The French version was full of texts about America written by the likes of Steinbeck, Whitman, Miller, Faulkner and Simone de Beauvoir (making it almost look as if Frank's photos were simply illustrating the text) with a decidedly anti-American slant. The American version removed all the French text and put in Jack Kerouac's famous introduction. Nevertheless, Americans didn't get it, both the subject matter ('a degradation of a nation!') and technique ('meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness'). Since then its reputation has soared, with The Americans now considered a masterpiece, and the most influential photobook ever.

According to AbeBooks, the French first edition is the most collectible photography book of all time. I now own two different versions, unfortunately not the first edition, which would cost in excess of £2000.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Robert Frank's Ridiculous Ratios
Random Film Review: Cocksucker Blues

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Top 10 Travel Books

1. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
2. A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis
3. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
4. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
5. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
6. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
7. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
8. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
9. Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca
10. Among the Russians by Colin Thubron

Also recommended: Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue (or anything, really) by Paul Bowles; Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti; Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie; On the Road by Jack Kerouac; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee; The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson; Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West; The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald; Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell; Venice by Jan Morris; An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul; A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne and Yoga for People who can't be Bothered to do it by Geoff Dyer.

Apologies: Bill Bryson fans. I'm not.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top 5 Great Gay Travel Writers

Saturday, December 03, 2011


Extracts from another (see here and here) abandoned 'novel', circa. 1994.

re-frac-to-ry adj

1 : resisting control or authority
2 a : resistant to treatment or cure
b : unresponsive to stimulus
3 : difficult to fuse, corrode, or draw out

He told me he remembers swimming in a flooded gold mine in Borneo during World War II. It still sounds like the most exciting thing I've ever heard.

Empty, sordid discussions in template, tepid surroundings. Used crates of Coca-Cola litter the huge warehouse. Pigeon shit and pigeons. A lot of dark wetness. A purpose-burst water pipe. A couple of torches, a couple of people. No batteries. Disused but used. Manuscripts for post-modern poets. Statues with sliced-off faces (then painted over). Two hermits not kermits. Concise, compressed people. Unable, though, to perform the tasks society asks them to. So they occasionally play blackjack but both pretend every card is a blackjack and can get away with it, as it’s so dark. They lie, though two out of fifty-two cards will indeed be blackjacks. In these instances they are not lying. They lie about twos, aces and others and the probability of lies is less still. These games are pointless or seem pointless. Hey, they pass the time. What they look like no one knows (no one knows about them). Not because of the darkness but who cares at all? They’re kept sane and the same. They get hot then cold then hot then cold just like everybody else. No teeth, though, too much Coke. OTT. Over dose. And it rots the lining of your stomach. Coca-Cola. Oh dear. No Coke left either, though they wouldn’t know that.

These lads haven’t been inside all their lives, of course. No, they did it by choice. And even if they have got into a slight rut at the moment, they’re still happy, but a different, hopeless, depressing kind of happiness. Hey, for all we know they want to do fuck all just so their lives will go slower, seem longer. They don’t have much conception or use for time which is kinda man-made. Then again so are playing cards. Time passes nicely.

There’s a constant supply of poisoned water trickling out from the burst water pipe. A step up from Coca-Cola anyway. They mostly eat raw pigeons and pigeon shit. Rats with wings. The pigeons get in, and if they’re lucky, out, through a small black hole at the top of the building in one of the corners. Their wings echo in the silence. They kill them by throwing up empty cans of Coke. Torn open so as to be sharp and dangerous. Yes, it’s a fairly unhealthy way of life. They smoke cigarettes too. Well, they can’t light them cos they have no light so it can’t be too unhealthy. They’ve had the same pack of ten Marlboros for two years. There’s still ten there. The filters are a touch soggy now, that’s all.

I love therefore I hate... The dark rain caresses, almost masturbates, the almost mutilated (in mind already), (the) thin, long, dead male body in the road or is it more natural in the countryside?

The cold abstract beauty of Le Samourai: 'I like it when you come round because you need me.' It was on TV at the time. Ha. 'I’ve never worn a moustache.' Precise and cold. Clinical. It’s how life is at the moment.

"What do you think about, Costello?"
"I never think." (Le Samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1967)

Before, years before, Max and Ralph go back to Ralph’s house, after some magic mushrooms. Things different, off license a space station, floor moving, teenage girls are aliens, can’t walk properly, laughing like a hyena. This is just after he’s recycled all his magazines and his past, a quite scary and good feeling, feeling freer, naked, after he’s talked to her for over an hour on the phone. Shit, he wishes he knew where he is what he wants what he wants to do, to say. After an embarrassing party full of horrible embarrassing Australians – Trish the Dish being the centre piece. Max feels awkward, doesn’t know what to do, for the first time in a long time. After this, they’re home. They go into the living room where Ralph’s dad, David, has a woman on him, laughing, her hair and face in his lap, she tosses her head back as they come in (she’s quite oldish, orange long straight hair, but could well be Judy Davis from Naked Lunch). David, sitting there, watching TV, cat beside him, cup of tea, relaxed, chatting to Ralph and Max as if there was not a woman perched on his lap. Then, when Max leaves, lots and lots of insects on the outside walls of the house (it’s an alleyway) – two narrow white tall walls now with lights, a little passageway leading to main street. Gets home and doesn’t know who he is. He’s an alien. He watches TV. Ha.

Top and bottom are different, yet the same. The same because they are so different to the mid, the norm, the middle which is where most of us are. So they’re both so far apart from this mid, so unimaginable that they’re both similar in that respect.

You get a telephone call from a girl you like and who likes you. You’re about to go for a bike ride with someone else, you say. (It’s raining and muddy). Can she come over afterwards, she asks. You tell her she can, you’d like to see her. You phone her when you get back. You’re tired, muddy, cold and your legs are killing you, having not cycled for months. You feel refreshed, though. You wake her up, she fell asleep reading Wuthering Heights. She says she’s tired, drowsy, and she does sound like it, she sounds like her mother or a witch. Different, anyway. She needs an hour or so to wake up, she tells you, then she’ll be at your house. An hour or so later she phones you again to say she’s sorry, she’s still feeling tired and drowsy and won’t be coming over. She asks you over, it’s not that far, a short bus ride, but you lie and say you feel the same way (tired). A little while later you both fall asleep. When you wake up you wonder about the point of anything.

On the way home: A couple looking dead blue sitting down together as one, part of the same thing in a car as part of the car (a blue 1970s SAAB V6), in fact, which is also blue in a ghostly way. They were in the blue darkness, lonely and dead. Then: clichéd newspapers blowing in the wind but so dangerously and sharply, wrappingly, kinda like doves or birds in shape somehow. The moth leaves in the black trees. The mad drunk kicking the phone-box that you’re in, scared and silent. Show someone you love them by setting them free / And Molly being nice to me.

Max said something about if you can see someone’s face in your mind then you don't need to see them again because your memory of them is complete, there’s no mystery, no point in seeing them again. If the memory of the face has faded, you need to see them again, there’s a desire to, because something of her is missing from your mind and for a reason.

Life, around this time:
Max: 'What do you expect out of life?'
Ralph: 'Something I'm not expecting.'
He needs to add some life to his spice.

She's reading a book in a library, just casually flicking through the pages. A man's heavy footsteps approach her. She whispers to him: 'Come outside, I'm going to kill myself'. She walks out of the library and into a lift. A man in the lift with her tries to pull down her trousers (she's wearing trousers). She whispers to him: 'Don't do that, I'm too vulnerable'. The man asks: 'Ground?' DING – DOORS OPEN. She runs out of the lift and into a landscape of whistling reeds and rustling leaves. She runs through the leaves and jumps into the bath, splashing around in it.

She stands just outside the house, in the rain. But she has a blue and white polka dot umbrella. Only her eyes are not in shadow. It’s like a film noir. The light in her eyes is from the open door of the house where the man stands. He’s standing on the step and is quite tall, so she looks up at him and asks if he’s sad. He says he’s not, not really, the same as usual. She leaves, looking sad but beautiful with her umbrella. Later, he goes out without an umbrella, hole in one shoe, half to find her, half to find the girl in the phone box. He finds neither, so goes home.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Who to blame

The way this world has panned out is only one possible outcome of billions. There are possibly parallel universes showing alternative versions of this earth. Sometimes I feel as if just one person has designed everything in this world (and his name's not God). Shops? Buildings? Cars? Roads? It often feels and looks so dull. I want to blame this one person, ask them what they were thinking. Why weren't we asked if we wanted things to turn out this way? Barbed wire, guns, estate agents, rat poison, uneven distribution of wealth, McDonald's, cigarettes, capitalism, reality TV. It all seems so unnecessary, so unfair.

But there's no one to blame. Councils, businesses, governments, no one wants to take responsibility. Apparently the onus is all on us, but we feel powerless, dishevelled, worn out. Maybe we're all to blame. Even the locker in my local swimming pool doesn't want to take responsibility for any loss or damages incurred. Everything is 'at your own risk'. Enter, swim, proceed, park at your own risk.

There was a Jorge Luis Borges character who wanted to create a world. So he made houses, provinces, rivers, valleys, tools, fish, lovers, then at the end of his life realises that this 'patient labyrinth is none other than his own portrait'. (For the life of me I can't find the original Borges' story; the above is a Jean Luc Godard quotation referring to the making of Pierrot Le Fou. Ah, to be a French intellectual, eh?)

Previously on Barnflakes:
Don't Blame us

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor, well met by moonlight

Although I had an inkling that the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor had something to do with the film Ill Met by Moonlight, I wasn't sure what, exactly. I assumed he had written it*. So I was somewhat surprised to find on the opening credits (above), Dirk Bogarde actually playing him.

And although there are many films about writers (see my top ten), it's rare to find a film about a writer which has nothing to do with them being a writer. Ill Met by Moonlight is one such film, concerning as it does the audacious yet true plan by two English officers to kidnap a German commander in German-occupied Crete in 1944. The two officers were Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain William Stanley Moss, who wrote about the event in his book Ill Met by Moonlight, published in 1950. Their mission – parachuting into Crete, kidnapping Heinrich Kreipe, Commander of the 22nd Air Landing Infantry Division, taking his car and driving him through 22 manned checkpoints, abandoning the car, being pursued on foot by German soldiers across countryside and mountains, and finally escaping via boat to Egypt – was, amazingly, a success.

The film, adapted from Moss's book, was one of the last films to be made by the director/producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Unfortunately it's a rather pedestrian affair, with lots of stiff upper lips, enlivened slightly by some sumptuous outdoor photography (actually of the Alps, not Crete) and rousing music. Powell and Pressburger's extraordinary series of films, including 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, all made between 1941-1951, would be in decline by the time of Ill Met by Moonlight, 1957. Just around the corner for Michael Powell was Peeping Tom (1960), the film which effectively sealed the end of his film career, certainly in the UK.

With the passing of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, DSO, OBE, in June this year, aged 96, gone is a certain type of English adventurer and gentleman, which stretches back to Lord Byron and includes travel writers such as Wilfred Thesiger and Robert Byron (amazingly, Byron was only ten years older than Fermor, yet seems to belong to another epoch. However, I didn't realise he died so young: he was only 35**). A BBC journalist famously described Leigh Fermor as a 'cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond*** and Graham Greene'.

Though Leigh Fermor's travelling started when he was eighteen, having decided to walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, he wouldn't write about these formative travel years until many years later. A Time of Gifts, first published in 1977, details the first leg of his walk across Europe in 1933, a fascinating time with the continent on the brink of changing forever.

Leigh Fermor's prose is remarkably descriptive and florid, his flights of imagination immense, his references – to architecture, languages, literature, art, customs, geography, culture, history – enlightening and often baffling. It's the sort of book that quotes Latin without any translation. A Time of Gifts is a 284 page book which took me months to finish. I struggled with every single sentence. But it was worth it (I think).

The book is praised by most but has its detractors. Leigh Fermor lost some of his diaries written at the time of the voyage, so critics have pointed out that his remembering the amount of detail in the book over forty years later is extremely improbable. Yet to take the book at face value is perhaps a mistake. As his Telegraph obituary mentions, the book is 'a brilliantly sustained evocation of youthful exhilaration and joy, and perhaps the nearest equivalent in English to Alain-Fournier's masterpiece of nostalgia, Le Grand Meaulnes.'

Leigh Fermor arrived in Istanbul in 1935, then travelled around Greece. He joined the army and fought in Crete and Greece. In Crete he lived for over two years disguised as a shepherd in the mountains, before planning the abduction of General Kreipe. He wrote his first travel book in 1950 and spent much of his life in Greece. He married but had no children.

*He did write one screenplay, based on a novel: The Roots of Heaven (1958), an adventure yarn directed by John Huston and starring Errol Flynn, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles.
**Travel writers seem to die very young… or very old. Bruce Chatwin, who had his ashes scattered near Leigh Fermor's home in Greece, died of AIDS aged 49; whereas Thesiger was 93, Eric Newby was 86 and Rebecca West, 90.
***Leigh Fermor was in fact a close friend of Ian Fleming.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Portland & Austin: tales of two cities

We can never fully imagine a place until we've actually been there and felt it, smelt it. The body needs to smell the coffee, feel the air, the pavement beneath the feet. Reading about a place, hearing about it, seeing photos or videos of it; it doesn't matter – they're all subjective accounts; there's no such thing as armchair travelling – it has to be done in person.

We all have different ideas of what a place will be like before we've been there. I remember Rachel imagining Bangkok to be all wooden shacks (which it wasn't); I imagined New Orleans to be the same – and it was, mostly. Likewise, cities such as San Fransisco, Ho Chi Minh and Jakarta conjured up preconceived ideas before I actually visited them. Once I got there, most of my preconceived ideas went out the window. In a good way.

Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas are two such places I haven't been to but my mind has built them up as semi-mythical cities; liberal, progressive, creative and pleasant to ride a bike in. I know people in both cities; hopefully they'll put me up for a few nights and I'll find out. Both cities are as deeply steeped in myth and mystery (for me) as, say, Damascus and Bethlehem.

The main thing about both towns is they're just so cool. My Own Private Idaho was shot in Portland, and Old Joy, starring Will Oldham, ends there, after a weekend camping in the near-by Cascade mountain range. Steve Jobs quit Reed college, Portland, after a term, but it didn't seem to affect him adversely. Harry Smith, Lance Bangs, Mel Blanc, Matt Greoning, Elliott Smith, Courtney Love, Stephen Malkmus and Gus Van Sant were all born (or live/d) there.

Chuck Palahniuk, writer of Fight Club and resident of Portland, wrote a quirky guide to the city, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon in 2003. The title comes from Katherine Dunn, author of cult novel Geek Love, who calls Portland the home of America's 'Fugitives and refugees'. No ordinary travel guide, Fugitives and Refugees tells you the location of Palahniuk's tonsils (in a bush) before delving into 'strange personal museums, weird annual events, ghost stories and sex clubs'.

Beth Ditto (of Gossip), waxes lyrically about the city in The Guardian way back in 2007, calling it 'The friendliest big little city in America'. She cites its cheapness, temperate climate, creativity, abundance of thrift stores and 'its amazing music scene – Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, the Dandy Warhols and the Shins have all been based in Portland'. I really think she should lay off those waffles, though.

'Keep Portland Weird' is a local bumper sticker slogan, based on the 'Keep Austin Weird' slogan, both of which are intended to promote local businesses and keep the cities individual.

Austin, Texas is the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world. I first remember seeing the place in Richard Linklater's movies Slacker (1991) and a few years later, Dazed and Confused (1993). The city has loads of film and music venues and festivals (such as SXSW). Cool famous people who have lived there include Wes Anderson, Terence Malick, Daniel Johnston and Mike Judge. Uncool famous people who have lived there include Owen Wilson, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world, who live under a bridge. Cult Brit writer Iain Sinclair sold his literary archive, forty years worth of shopping lists, notebooks and dead insects, to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin.

What makes both cities cool is they're not really big tourist destinations, there's no must-see attractions (except the bats). The best things to do in them, from what I gather, is hang out, walk around, listen to music, buy some books and records. The perfect things to do in a city.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Infographic of my music collection

Do you find the above: Confusing? Ugly? Pointless? Yes, yes and yes? Oh good, then check out The Guardian article about the backlash against infographics.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Animal Architecture: London Zoo's Penguin Pool

Just as the residents of many listed council estates in England are probably unaware they're living in architecturally significant buildings, so the penguins of London Zoo's Grade I listed, Berthold Lubetkin-designed Penguin Pool were probably also oblivious to the importance of their modernist habitation.

Though the penguins haven't lived in Lubetkin's creation since 2004, it's doubtful they've given it much thought or missed it since. Especially as earlier this year they moved into the new Penguin Beach, four times the size (making it England's biggest penguin pool) of their last home and a lot more pleasant all round. The penguins certainly seem a lot happier.

The Lubetkin Penguin Pool (built in 1934) is a key modernist structure, being one of the first made using the then-new material reinforced concrete. But Lubetkin, like many architects, whether designing for penguins or people, seems completely oblivious to what it means to actually live in one of their structures. His Penguin Pool seems a sterile and soulless environment for both penguins and visitors, having to look down on the penguins over a wall. Penguin Beach, by contrast, has underwater viewing areas where visitors can watch penguins swim at eye level, or platforms for watching them from above.

After the penguins moved out of Lubetkin's pool, it did retain a water feature. This now seems to have gone and the pool looks a bit dilapidated. Sad but typical of how we look after our listed buildings. I'm not a huge lover of nature (or zoos) but do like a lot of the older buildings at London Zoo, many of which were designed by prominent architects. The zoo holds two Grade I and eight Grade II listed structures. If the animals could speak, I'm sure they wouldn't share my architectural enthusiasms: not many of them look very happy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Warminster folk

Welcome to Warminster

It's tempting coming from a cosmopolitan city to look down on country folk as being simple, narrow-minded, boring and lacking culture (except skittles) and sophistication. But I do feel bad being so harsh on Warminster, Wiltshire (like here and here); okay, so it does consist of the elderly, the disabled, the moronic and the terminally dull, but there are still some good people there. Some of them exude a quiet dignity, grace and contentment you don't often see in the city. In other words, they seem happy. They like to tell a funny tale (usually the same one multiple times), and are warm, giving and entirely unpretentious.

Take Arthur. Of gypsy stock, he was literally born in a circus tent some seventy-six years ago. His parents were gypsies and it's said his pregnant mother was actually dancing before she gave birth to him. And when she did it was on a bed of hay. Then she continued dancing. People were tougher back then.

Arthur's had a colourful life. He was a semi-professional football player and was offered a professional position at Crystal Palace but Arthur's wife, Maureen, didn't want to leave Warminster. 'It's always the women who hold us back' (we joked, some time ago). Arthur married Maureen – whose parents had sawdust on the floor of their home – in his early twenties. Since the football he's had a variety of (mainly menial) jobs: driving trucks for the nearby M.O.D; unpacking bananas in supermarkets; working in local factories. He used to swim across Shearwater lake every day, before and after work. Arthur's also been a singer and actor, and still sings and acts, when they let him, for the local theatre. Even in his seventies, a head full of bright white hair, he keeps busy, as a pheasant beater and still doing some driving. Over the years Arthur has seen UFOs, aliens, ghosts and a huge green man straddling a road as he drove between his legs. He's never been abroad and didn't have a passport until a couple of years ago. It's his ambition to go to the States, 'where the cowboys are'. But he can't find anybody to go with.

One of Arthur's favourite stories is about the deadly, tropical spiders that used to be found in the banana boxes when he worked in the supermarket unpacking them. One night in bed he was woken by a noise on the floor in his bedroom: a spider had got in (from his coat?) and was creeping across the carpet. He got up, threw a blanket over it and stamped on it. A variation on the story involved a friend of Arthur's who stuttered. The two men were in Arthur's home and the man with the stutter pointed to a spider on the floor and wasn't quite able to get the words out: 'T-t-t-t-here's a sp-sp-sp-sp-spider o-o-on the f-f-f-f-floor!' I have heard Arthur's spider stories more times than I have met him.

One of his best and oldest friends is Tom. They still play skittles together sometimes. Tom walks like John Wayne with his bow legs. His wife, who actually can't feel her own legs (but apparently walks fine), wants Tom out of the house all day, every day, so he amuses himself by doing odd jobs like removals.

The man who walks around town singing was in a car accident some years ago and has lost much of his memory. Though he seems loopy wandering around singing, whenever I visit Warminster I find his voice reassuring and soothing. I've overheard him talking to people in shops and he seems surprisingly lucid, talking about his daughters and local matters, so I'm not sure exactly what's wrong with him. He's certainly got a good voice.

Small towns have more than their fair share of gossip, intrigue and scandal. Sometimes the locals are a bit too desperate for gossip. We were alerted recently to a rumour about Jane Silbury, old school friend and mother of three, having a nervous breakdown and seen 'wearing strange clothes and talking nonsense' – but it was a false alarm: she's been wearing strange clothes and talking nonsense most of her life.

At my ex-partner's secondary school, Kingdown, back in the mid-1980s, 50-year-old Heather Arnold, head of maths, became obsessed with fellow maths teacher Paul Sutcliffe, 39. In a fit of jealousy, she butchered his wife Jeanne and their eight-month-old daughter Heidi with an axe at their home in Westbury. The next morning she taught her classes as usual, before going on the run and eventually being caught by police. On her way into court in 1987, some 150 people jeered Arnold and threw 'oranges, dog food and coins' at her. The slightly-built and grey-haired woman broke down in court when she was handed a double life sentence. (She has now apparently been released.)

Kingdown school has now cleaned up its act but in the 1980s and 90s it didn't have a lot of luck with its teachers. Besides the maths teacher being a murderer, two other teachers, Mr Lucas and Mr Kirby, were probable paedophiles (Lucas certainly was; Kirby had an affair with a student and used to talk about sex all the time).

There have been several other grisly murders in recent memory which really affect small towns like Warminster or nearby Westbury (or Hungerford – not that far away – the sleepy, pretty, Berkshire town will forever be known as the place where Michael Ryan killed sixteen people with rifles and a pistol in a Rambo-style massacre in 1987), including the death of Billy the homeless man. Billy lost his job, home and wife, eventually becoming a homeless alcoholic. One night, after getting into an argument with another homeless (and mentally ill) man, he was brutally beaten to death. Another homeless man, Rory, was a brilliant mathematician who looked like a big bird and was usually to be found perched on railings or in the cricket pavilion in the park. He couldn't take normal life; he was a tragic character and some thought he just faded away and died (happily, he is actually alive and well).

Former soldier Miles Evans murdered his nine-year-old stepdaughter, Zoe, in 1997. Her disappearance sparked what was then the biggest ever police search for a missing person. Zoe's body was eventually found in a badger sett near her Warminster home.

There has also recently been a spate of middle-aged (or older) men hanging themselves in the area. This sometimes happens in places where there's not much to do. When people retire (or get made redundant or get divorced) they have even less to do. It's no accident that Warminster's premiere website, Warminster Web, has the phone number of the Samaritans directly above its masthead.

Names have been changed – except for the murderers and paedophiles.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Notes on Beth Gibbons & PJ Harvey

Beth was born in 1965, Polly Jean in 1969; both were raised on farms in Devon and Dorset, respectively; two counties that border each other in the west country of England. Beth Gibbons is lead singer and writer with the band Portishead; she's also recorded an album, Out of Season, with ex-Talk Talk bassist Paul 'Rustin' Man' Webb. In total she's recorded five albums in twenty years (and that's including a live album). PJ Harvey has recorded ten in the same amount of time. Both make popular yet dark, depressing music, some might say. Unlike many British musicians, they didn't go to London to pursue their dreams but stayed put to lead their bucolic existences. Both seem shy, withdrawn, and don't go out much, or do a lot of interviews (though Harvey has done a lot more than Gibbons). Whilst PJ is at least a little odd, Beth seems pretty down to earth, almost one of the girls, and most of the time lives a normal life, until having to perform with Portishead reminds her she's sort of famous. PJ, we imagine, lives the artistic life to the full, sitting in her cottage all day picking at her autoharp. Neither are conventionally beautiful yet exude sensuality and dark passions. Seeing them live only confirmed my suspicion that they are both national treasures and goddesses.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Films of Dario Argento

One hell of a headache... Suspiria

In terms of thematic consistency it's said that all great directors remake the same film over and over. And then there's Dario Argento, who seems to quite literally make the same film over and over again.

The Italian horror maestro started his career as a film critic whilst still at school, then became a screenwriter, most noticeably on Leone's Once Upon in the West (1968). Soon after he directed his first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which perhaps owes a debt to Leone for some of its compositions and close ups; also, perhaps, for its music as Leone regular Ennio Morricone supplies the soundtrack, as he would for the next two Argento features, Cat O'Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Nevertheless, Argento, aided by ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who would go on to work closely with Bertolucci and Coppola), makes the film all his own and it includes what would soon become his trademarks: spectacular, stylised set pieces, misogynist ultra violence, lavish camerawork, bold use of colour and great music, courtesy either of Morricone or the Goblins (who had composed music for George Romero). These elements would reach their peak in such films as Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977), where he dared to go where Hitchcock only dreamt about going.

But, still, it's hard to know exactly where one stands with Argento. On the one hand, I picked up so-called classic DVDs of his in Poundland for – yup – £1 each, where they look like budget exploitation flicks, and indeed I usually think of Argento as a misogynist sleaze merchant. But on the other hand, his work is seriously debated on the blogosphere as high art, and recently many of his films have appeared on Blu-Ray with Suspiria being praised as a semi-surreal masterpiece (though his more recent films aren't received as well).

But I've always felt, with their preposterous plots (where I guess who the murderer is within minutes – it's usually the most unlikely candidate), hammy acting and dodgy dubbing, all we really need to see of Argento's films is the edited highlights – the glorious, gory set pieces – a sort of best of Dario Argento (which you can probably find on YouTube). After all, most bands and singers have a Greatest Hits, so why not filmmakers?

Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est?

Argento himself is quite a weird and creepy-looking guy. There's a funny piece of footage on the extras section of the Poundland DVD of Cat O'Nine Tails. Argento and Tim Burton are being filmed at Argento's geeky horror/sci-fi memorabilia shop and museum in Rome. But whereas Burton is all smiles and autograph signing, Argento is retiring and awkward, looking like a serial killer. Bless. In fact, for such a strange looking man, it's amazing he's fathered such a foxy (in a creepy kind of way) daughter, Asia Argento.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Four funerals and a wedding

People like to divide the world up into two types of people: the rich and the poor, say, or the beautiful and the ugly, the have and the have nots, the givers and the takers. One of my own is those who can talk well and those who can write well (those who can do both well are exceptional). My other is those who get invited to weddings, and those who get invited to funerals. I'm strictly funerals; indeed, in the space of a year I have been invited to one wedding and four funerals.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Top 10 Australian Bands

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
2. AC/DC
3. The Triffids
4. The Birthday Party
5. The Avalanches
6. The Go-Betweens
7. Cut Copy
8. Cold Chisel
9. Midnight Oil
10. Wolfmother

Do say: Couldn't give a XXXX
Don't say: Where's Crowded House, Jet, Silverchair and INXS?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Notes on fashion

Like history, soap operas and, well, virtually everything, the story of fashion is a circular one. But also a tricky one. The actual amount of people indulging in 'pure fashion' in any one period is very slight. When we think of the 1960s we think of flower power, free love, drugs, bell bottoms, Mary Quant and psychedelic tie dye clothing as if everyone in the western world were indulging in such practices. In fact, it was only forty-seven people on a sunny afternoon in Carnaby Street in August 1967. Everyone else was going about their business, wearing old-fashioned suits and flat caps. In fact, take any so-called fashion epoch and the same thing occurs: only a handful of people are indulging in the fashion of the day, and these are the ones who get picked up by the media and photographed (in the postmodern 1980s was everyone wearing either shoulder-padded suits or acid-house 'smiley' T-shirts? Er, perhaps? No. The answer's no). Or, in the old days, the fashionable were the rich, powerful, religious or royal who could afford to have their portrait painted. In 16th century Renaissance Italy we think of everyone wearing flowing robes and capes, but this was only the important people likely to be painted. Most common people were actually walking around in jeans and T-shirts.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On the buses

The bus chugged away towards Walthamstow tube station for a while then conked out and came to a standstill. Unable to get any response from the driver, we patiently waited. And waited. Most passengers got off, including the pretty woman who had sat next to me. I was tired, so I stayed put. The bus was almost empty now, then suddenly revved up and was back in action. Some people piled back on to the bus, others went for the one behind. The same pretty woman came back upstairs and sat back down next to me again like a new formed habit. My mind drifted, briefly, and I imagined she and I were a couple, living in a flat in Walthamstow, on our way to work like we'd done so many times before. There was no need for conversation, we were tired anyway, yet content sitting next to each other staring into space. She gets off, suddenly, without so much as a goodbye. But that's okay, she wasn't really my type, rather prim and dressed in a business suit. What I mean is, I wasn't her type.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Top 10 films about film-making

1. Day for Night (Truffaut, 1973)
2. 8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963)
3. The Player (Altman, 1992)
4. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001)
5. The State of Things (Wenders, 1982)
6. Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)
7. The Last Movie (Hopper, 1971) 
8. Beware of a Holy Whore (Fassbinder, 1971) 
9. Le Mépris* (Godard, 1963)
10. Strangers Kiss (Chapman, 1983)

See also: Living in Oblivion, Shadow of a Vampire, White Hunter Black Heart, Man Bites Dog, Last Tango in Paris, Son of Rambow, Passion*.

But the thing about films about film-making is the films they're making in the films always seem to be rubbish.

*I know, I know, aren't all Godard's films about film-making?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

London through its charity shops #16: Wood Street, E17

Wood Street in Waltham Forest is rather rundown in a nice way, but at first glance, with its fried chicken joints and budget mobile phone shops, perhaps unappealing, but spend some time there and its charms reveal themselves. For a start, it's nice to see a High Street (of sorts) with no boring chain shops.

There are two charity shops. New Life charity shop is cheap and tatty with loads of clothes and bric-a-brac, as well as a fair amount of books and CDs. FEI Education & Cultural Trust charity shop is quite small so half its stock is outside, such as boxes of records (pictured, above right). Inside are a few books, CDs, lots of clothes, including some colourful Indian dresses, one of which my boon companion bought for £4. My barngain of the day: Wild Beasts – Smother, CD as new, £1.

Wood Street also has a charming, if smelly, Antique City Market and Collectors Centre (above left) with lots of interesting stalls and little shops selling records, books, bric-a-brac and tat. Further along the road is a cool Australian-like wooden shack called Second Nature, selling Organic and Wholefoods.

The word plaza is a Spanish word, consisting of an open urban space with a cathedral, administrative centre and law court. Wood Street's recently-built 'plaza' will probably never get confused with one in Spain, consisting as it does of a concrete wasteland and five blocks spelling the word PLAZA (otherwise you wouldn't know it was one). Though it lacks the three Spanish architectural ingredients, it does have three of its own: a monstrous tower block, a post office and an Co-op.

Just off Wood Street is the fascinating Gods Own Junk Yard, an amazing collection of 'New & used neon fantasies, salvaged signs, vintage neons, old movie props and retro displays'. Most recently featured in October's Vogue magazine, above. The owners run their own sign-making business over the road, and will open the Junk Yard up if you ask them. The signs have been collected from films including Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Eyes Wide Shut.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Joseph Cornell: Worlds in a Box

Unable to get to sleep late last night, I pulled off the bookshelf a book of Joseph Cornell's selected diaries, letters and files (called Theater of the Mind). It was just the thing to send me off to sleep, Cornell's diary entries alternating between the list-like and dreamlike.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) made collages and films but is most famous for his exquisite wooden boxes made from every day objects he found and collected. His assemblages have a mysterious, surreal, dreamlike quality with their surprising juxtaposition of objects. They often contain worlds he would never see: of international travel, hotels, flight, European art, theatre and glamour. Joseph Cornell remained strictly on the ground. He lived in the splendidly (and aptly) named Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York, with his mother and disabled brother his entire life, and remained there when he outlived them both.

Entirely self-taught and somewhat reclusive, spending his days scouring secondhand bookshops, junk shops and flea markets, Cornell had all the makings of an outsider artist. But towards the end of his career he became quite well-known, meeting artists including Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol, writers like Susan Sontag and filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Larry Jordan, all of whom embraced his work. Of course, fame didn't affect him at all, except he was able to hire assistants (usually young women).

(Like my theory that all lonely, strange, perverted men could be cured of their woes by the love of a good woman…. all outsider artists could be cured by hanging out with famous artists – which perhaps saved Cornell from total obscurity.)

His short films, too, are like extensions of his boxes and collages: self-contained, dreamlike worlds and found objects. His most popular film, Rose Hobart, 1936, comprises almost entirely of re-edited footage from a B movie in which the actress Rose Hobart starred and Cornell was obsessed with. In Cornell's hands it almost accidentally becomes an experimental, surreal, dreamlike experience. Later, with the help of Brakage, Jordan and Rudy Burckhardt, he shot his own material, usually filmed in parks around New York City and featuring birds and/or young women, such as The Aviary (1955) and the lyrical Nymphlight (1957), both of which now look like direct influences on my Pigeons are People (1993) video.

After his mother and brother died, Cornell produced less work and became more lonely and reclusive. He died, alone, a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

John Carpenter & Kurt Russell

Russell and Carpenter on the set of Big Trouble in Little China, 1986.

Sure, there's Ford and Wayne, Scorsese and DeNiro, Hitchcock and Grant/Stewart, Herzog and Kinski, Burton and Depp but least we forget John Carpenter's string of great films made with Kurt Russell: Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and, er, Escape from LA (1996; unfortunately a pointless remake of his earlier classic). With the exception of Elvis in 1979, a made-for-TV movie (Carpenter had just finished Halloween and wanted to try a non-horror genre; it's actually pretty good), their subsequent films together cast Russell as a tough (yet flawed), cocky, wise-cracking anti-hero. Best seen wearing an eye patch.

John Carpenter has only made one film since 2001's poorly-received Ghosts of Mars (though I loved it) and that's this year's poorly-received The Ward (I hadn't heard of it until like ten minutes ago). And Kurt Russell's not been in a good film since, er, Stargate (1994)? Overboard (1987; hilarious)? It surely must be time for a reunion. Au contraire, reckons Carpenter in a recent interview:

'[Kurt Russell's] so rich, he doesn't need to work with me anymore. He has a vineyard, he has a bottle of wine that he sells. Kurt's an entrepreneur, he doesn't need to work with me again. But it would be fun to work with him again.'

What about a follow up to Big Trouble in Little China? 'Kurt Doesn't want to do it, he's embarrassed by the failure of that movie.'

What about the embarrassment of every movie he's been in since then? Huh? I loved Big Trouble in Little China. It sort of successfully transported my favourite genre(s) – the Hong Kong Kung Fu Comedy Horror Film – to Hollywood. And it had Kurt Russell in it.

Previously on Barnflakes:
The Tedium is the Message mentions a curious, little-known Kurt Russell fact.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Face, Off

Mirror, mirror... Eyes Without A Face, Face of Another and Seconds

With its themes of identity, change, disfigurement, beauty, appearance and superficiality, films about plastic surgery (and obviously, Hollywood is a place where every actor has it done) can make for visual, complex and captivating cinema which explores both the physical and psychological aspects of the process.

Even before plastic surgery was commonplace, films were made about the subject. The Raven from 1935 stars Karloff and Lugosi in an adaptation of Poe's poem. The Face Behind the Mask (1941) stars Peter Lorre as a man facially deformed in an accident who eventually saves up enough money to have a realistic mask created for himself. Dark Passage, 1947, starts Bogart and Bacall. More recently there's been Cronenberg's Rabid (1977) and John Woo's Face/Off (1997). And if we are to take the etymology of plastic surgery from its Greek origins, meaning 'the art of modelling malleable flesh', then there's the revolting Human Centipede films.

Pedro Almodovar's latest film, The Skin I Live In, features Antonio Banderas as a plastic surgeon. Its poster is reminiscent of Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage), made in 1960. At a time when most films were shot in colour, Franju's French masterpiece was made in black and white (as both Hitchcock's Psycho and Wilder's The Apartment were also, in the same year). An unsettling, horrific, yet often poetical and surreal film, Eyes Without a Face concerns a doctor attempting to reconstruct his daughter Christiane's (Edith Scob) disfigured face. He does this by kidnapping young, beautiful women and grafting their skin onto his daughter's. Gross-out scenes include a graphic depiction of a woman having her face removed; poetical scenes include Christiane walking silently around her empty house wearing her blank ghostlike mask, as she does for much of the film. And the justly famous, final shot of Christiane walking away from the house, releasing her father's dogs with the freed white doves flying around her.

Two more notable black and white plastic surgery films from the 1960s are Face of Another (Tanin No Kao) and Seconds, both made in 1966.

Face of Another pairs writer Kobo Abe and director Hiroshi Teshigahara together once again, after they made the extraordinary Woman of the Dunes several years previously. It features a Japanese businessman who receives a lifelike mask after being facially scarred in a fire. The mask gradually changes the man's personality and his wife eventually leaves him.

On paper, Seconds looked like it was going to be a great success. Directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate), photographed by James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success) and starring Rock Hudson, it flopped during its initial release but has since become a cult film. The opening credits (created by Saul Bass, who also designed the – unused – poster, above right) give an indication of what's to come, with a human eye filmed in close-up by a distorted lens (looking like Repulsion's title sequence for a second) to give an unsettling, paranoid feel. The film has the bored, frustrated and middle-aged businessman Arthur Hamilton contacted by a mysterious agency, 'The company', to create a new identity for him. This involves faking the death of his old self and with the help of plastic surgery, giving him a new one, in the form of Tony Wilson, played by Rock Hudson. Wilson tries to adapt to his life as a handsome artist on Malibu beach, a life not all that bad really, but finds something lacking and feels an emptiness inside.

Eyes Without A Face, Face of Another and Seconds form a trilogy of sorts. All are highly stylised, filmed in stark black and white and often alternatively beautiful and frightening. All are thematically rich, exploring ideas about identity, society and image. All have depressing endings. As a general rule, films about plastic surgery tend not to end happily.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Notes on Vincent Gallo

I don't spend much time thinking about Vincent Gallo (b. 1961), and when I see him in a good film, such as this year's Essential Killing (which is essential viewing), where in a starring role he doesn't have a word of dialogue, I can even briefly forget about what a jerk and egomaniac he is. But then I saw his website. It's hard to know whether to take him seriously or not. It's obvious he takes himself very seriously indeed.

I'm still not exactly sure what he's famous for (or what he should be famous for). Sure, he's been a model for Calvin Klein. For a while he was a painter. He's been in a few unknown bands; one of which, Gray, was with a then-unknown Jean Michel Basquiat. Since then he's released some albums, mainly of film music – alarmingly, I find myself owning one of them: Recordings of Music for Film; actually fairly pleasant if monotonous tinkerings. In the extensive, amusingly candid liner notes ('the chubby film student girl paid me $15 to fuck her, clean her apartment, and do the music for her'), as well as consisting of much blagging and slagging off, it mentions that by 1983 he owned 5,000 records, which, if true, is possibly the most impressive fact about Vincent Gallo I've ever read. He is currently in a band called RRIICCEE.

He's been the director of three films, one a near masterpiece, Buffalo 66; one a disaster, Brown Bunny, and one presumably so bad he's decided to shelve it (Promises Written in Water, 2010), along with, apparently, every film he makes from now on. He's also an actor (Goodfellas, Arizona Dream, Palookaville, Coppola's Tetro a few years ago). But even after this impressive and interesting resume, I still think he's most famous for being a narcissistic, weird, offensive*, outspoken jerk. And then there's his website, 'for Vincent Gallo by Vincent Gallo'. Looking like it was designed in the late 1990s, it's mainly pretty standard, consisting of an extensive CV of his acting, directing, music, artwork, writing and photography credits.

Then there's the merchandising section, where you can seemingly buy everything he owns (at a price), from a 'Good Brown Hat', signed, $750 (sold out) to, er, his sperm, for $1,000,000. If, ladies, a million bucks is out of your price range (and assuming you find Gallo irresistible – not everybody does, it seems), for a mere $50,000 you can book an evening or weekend with the man to fulfil your 'wish, dream or fantasy'. Other artifacts range from a childhood bedspread – 'only one available' – still available for $3,120 to a 'spectacular' signed photo from the set of 'his masterpiece' Buffalo 66 for $1,575. And T-shirts, wallets, gloves, helmets, purses, girls skirts, books, paintings, tables, drumsticks, an inflatable Charles Manson… all signed by Gallo. And worryingly, mostly sold out. Or so it says.

The classified section of his website is almost even more bizarre, consisting of his want lists: mainly old Western Electric hi-fi equipment, microphones and guitars. From the liner notes of Recordings of Music for Film I guessed he was pretty into his recording equipment by the way he geekily listed each item he owned: 'a Western Electric 91A amplifier, a Marantz Model 1 and a Western Electric 757 speaker… a Garrard 301 turntable with an Ortofon arm and cartridge'.

Cool or fool, geek or freak? All and more, more or less. Maybe he's lonely. But his ego is that far ahead of his talent that he reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan.

Why Vincent Gallo? is a blog that unfortunately doesn't answer its own question.

*When critic Roger Ebert called The Brown Bunny the worst film in the history of Cannes, Gallo responded by calling him a 'fat pig with the physique of a slave trader'. Gallo then apparently cursed Ebert with cancer, which, er, Ebert actually now has.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My daughter's (aged 5) top twenty films

1. Grease (Kleiser, 1978)
2. Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
3. Sleeping Beauty (Geronimi, 1959)
4. The Fox and the Hound (Berman, 1981)
5. Clash of the Titans (Davis, 1981)
6. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (Hessler, 1974)
7. Pocahontas (Gabriel, 1995)
8. Tarzan (Buck, 1999)
9. Tangled (Greno, 2010)
10. Peter Pan (Geronimi, 1953)
11. The Railway Children (Jeffries, 1970)
12. Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue (Raymond, 2010)
13. Bambi (Hand, 1942)
14. Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964)
15. Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Stevenson, 1971)
16. Aladdin (Clements, 1992)
17. Pirates of the Caribbean (Verbinski, 2003)
18. The Aristocats (Reitherman, 1970)
19. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Hughes, 1968)
20. Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)

I last did a similar list a couple of years ago, when my daughter was three. There I mentioned getting her to watch Jan Svankmajer's version of Alice in Wonderland by the time she's four. Well, it took me a year later, and though it's not on the list, she did love watching it, aged five. Really, though, I don't know how half this stuff gets on her list. Grease? Star Wars? Pirates of the Caribbean? And only three films from the last decade? I'd have a word with her mother.

Previously on Barnflakes:
My daughter's (aged 3) top ten films
Chapman or Chapman (mentions in passing my daughter's film watching habits)