Sunday, March 27, 2011

Top 10 Road Movies

Americans do them best, naturally, for they're really just modern westerns, but a German named Wim also did some great ones. One English addition is worth watching too: Chris Petit's Radio On, an anti-road movie of sorts, heavily influenced by Wenders with cinematography and a soundtrack to match.

1.Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)
Existentialism at its bleakest with musicians James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson (whose fine solo album Pacific Ocean Blue was finally released on CD a few years back) racing against Warren Oates and the destruction of the celluloid itself.
2. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
For better or worse, the one that started it all.
3. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
Malick's astonishing debut with Martin Sheen as the James Dean lookalike shooting his way across the Midwest with oblivious Sissy Spacek in tow. Warren Oates has a cameo.
4. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)
Beatty and Dunaway never looked so fine.
5. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
Jack Nicholson as the gifted, middle class drifter.
6. Kings Of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976)
A three-hour black and white German road movie with very little dialogue, anyone?
7. National Lampoon’s Vacation (Harold Ramis, 1983)
Well, after Wenders and Hellman, we need a bit of light relief.
8. Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)
Jaws as truck.
9. Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
Who says women are bad drivers?
10. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987)
We may never fully recover from the pillow scene.

See also: Alice in the Cities, Midnight Run, The Hitcher, Vanishing Point, The Brown Bunny, The Driver, The Getaway, Mad Max, Detour

Friday, March 25, 2011

Literature into Music

Rock music has always been inspired by literature – not really for any deep, intellectual reason but mainly, I suspect, because some books and writers just sound cool. Or, to be more charitable, band names are thought of at the beginning of careers, possibly when the musicians were students; poor, hungry, reading Kafka in a squat (Josef K got their name from the protagonist in The Trial).

The band Soft Machine got their name from the book by William Burroughs. Steely Dan is a, er, talking dildo from Burroughs' The Naked Lunch. The Soft Boys, a post-punk band from Cambridge, combined two of Burroughs' books, Soft Machine and Wild Boys, to get their name. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of Burroughs, resulting in him contributing guitar to a spoken word recording of Burroughs. Countless bands, from The Rolling Stones and Bowie to Cabaret Voltaire, have been influenced by Burroughs' cut-up technique.

The sublime In The Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel was supposedly inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank. The Boo Radley's got their name from a character in To Kill A Mocking Bird. The Klaxon's song Gravity's Rainbow is the title of the almost-unreadable book by Thomas Pynchon, and their album Myths of the Near Future is from a JD Ballard short story. Steppenwolf is from the book by Herman Hesse. Autobiography of a Supertramp by RE Davies gave Supertramp their name. Uriah Heep comes from a character in David Copperfield. Genesis is from The Bible. Heaven 17 are a fictitious band mentioned in Kubrick's adaption of A Clockwork Orange. Scritti Politti is the title of a book by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Savage Garden is an Ann Rice novel. The Fall were inspired by an Albert Camus novel of the same name, and Killing an Arab, The Cure song, also comes from Camus. A gang in Woody Guthrie's autobiography Bound for Glory gave The Boomtown Rats their name. Kate Bush wrote her song Wuthering Heights aged fourteen, obviously about the Brontë classic, but also: The Sensual World was inspired by Ulysses and Cloudbusting was based on A Book Of Dreams, by Peter Reich about his father, the psychologist Wilhelm Reich.

An early band of Nick Cave's, The Birthday Party is from the play by Harold Pinter (and I'm sure I've heard Nick Cave occasionally mention Charles Bukowski in his songs, as well as employing his writing style in his novels; he also references Milton, apparently. And The Lyre of Orpheus is a novel, as well as a myth). The Doors named themselves after a William Blake line. Marillion was inspired by Tolkien's Silmarillion. Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, perhaps after the poet Dylan Thomas. Aerosmith might have come from Arrowsmith, a 1925 book by Sinclair Lewis. Level 42 is from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (as the answer to life, the universe and everything). From a sado-masochistic novel, The House of Dolls by Karol Cetinsky comes Joy Division, the division of Jewish women forced into prostitution by Nazis in concentration camps. Joy Division's song Atrocity Exhibition is from the JD Ballard book. Bruce Springsteen's underrated The Ghost of Tom Joad was inspired by the main character in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (though I think Sprinsteen's only seen the John Ford film).

The Velvet Underground was a book about the secret sexual subculture of the early 60s; a band in New York liked the name and used it to name their band; it reminded them of 'underground cinema'. Lou Reed had by this time already written the song Venus in Furs, itself inspired by the book of masochism by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. More recently Lou recorded The Raven, based on the Poe poem.

The Thompson Twins, The Mekons, The Teardrop Explodes and Suicide all got their names from comics– respectively: Tintin, Dan Dare, a panel from a Daredevil comic and the title of a Ghost Rider comic. Twee bookish band Belle and Sebastian got their name from a French book for children. I'm sure they've written several songs about books. But are they the only band to have had a collection of comic strips based on their songs?

Previously on Barnflakes:
Band names from other bands' songs

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Censor the Census?

Everyone should be included in the census – all people, households and overnight visitors. It is used to help plan and fund services for your community – services like transport, education and health. Taking part in the census is very important and it's also compulsory. You could face a fine if you don't participate or if you supply false information.

That's what the website tells us. What it doesn't tell us is that the second largest arms manufacturer in the world, American firm Lockheed Martin, responsible for arming dictatorships around the world, were awarded the £150m contract to run the census and process the data.

There are protests planned across the UK on Saturday and many people are refusing to fill in the form, at the risk of a £1000 fine and a criminal record. However, not filling in the form may deprive councils – and us – of much-needed funds if there are large numbers of people unaccounted for. It's a tough one.

Do write: Religion: Jedi
Don't write: Occupation: Terrorist (you'll probably get a phone call from a Lockheed Martin representative asking if you'd be interested in purchasing any missiles.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lookalikes #8: Paul Anderson & Paul Anderson

Okay, they don't look alike at all, but confusion might arise from their names, which are pretty similar (it goes without saying I thought they were the same person for years), and their jobs, which are also pretty similar (both are film directors). Luckily they're easy to distinguish by their films. Paul Anderson, or Paul W S Anderson, was born in Newcastle, England, and makes crap films like Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat and Death Race. The other Paul Anderson, also known as Paul Thomas Anderson, was born in California, and makes almost-great but slightly pretentious films like Magnolia, Punch-Love Drunk and There will be Blood. Both of them, perhaps to avoid the whole common name confusion thing being passed onto another generation, have given their children uniquely ridiculous names: PWSA has called his child Ever Gabo whilst PTA named his Pearl Minnie.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Notes on Afflictions

The World Federation of Neurology defines dyslexia as 'a disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and sociocultural opportunity'. A friend of mine describes it (controversially!) as a euphemism for laziness. In her skepticism of the affliction she is not alone. In 2009 a Labour MP claimed dyslexia was a myth invented by education chiefs to cover up poor teaching (also controversial!).

A 37-year-old friend of mine was recently diagnosed with dyslexia. Which means he got through thirty-seven years of his life without it bothering him or without him even knowing about it. He completed school, went to university, had jobs, girlfriends etc; in other words he was a functioning member of society. He's never read a book for pleasure, but this has never bothered him.

Other friends and colleagues have been diagnosed with dyslexia and actually got a free Apple Mac computer (!). Nowadays, everyone seems to be dyslexic (in the UK 1 in 10 people are meant to be 'sufferers'); friends of mine have even bragged about it, as if being labelled with it has somehow provided them with a legitimate excuse for their inability to read a book. Said friend of mine with her euphemism and the Labour MP may have a point. Nowadays you can't call people stupid or bone idle; there needs to be a medical definition. Followed by therapy or medication. And then a free Apple Mac.

To me it seems amazing that many people get through much of their life without even knowing they've got dyslexia, without it really affecting them, and even getting perks for it (said Apple Mac) and indeed more sympathy and understanding than, say, stutterers, who face a lifetime of frustration, abuse and embarrassment (and no free gift). Dyslexia is certainly more widespread and accepted than stuttering, with only 1% of the UK population suffering from stuttering, and stutterers employing various techniques to hide their affliction, the most effective of which I found was not talking at all.

Nowadays, with texting, tweeting and emailing, correct spelling and grammar seems a thing of the past. Whilst people with dyslexia have no doubt embraced this new found excuse for sloppy spelling, stutterers opinions about new technology is mixed. On the one hand, email, the internet and texting is a blessing for them; on the other, mobile phones ringing in public is a constant source of terror (I still turn my phone off on trains and buses).

Neither affliction has a cure or an understood cause, but dyslexic sufferers can definitely get through life without it affecting them in the slightest. Stutterers will be bullied, victimised and bullied from day one, from school into adulthood, with botched job interviews, terrible first dates and hampered social interaction plaguing them for life.

There's a proliferation of syndromes nowadays that didn't seem to exist, say, thirty years ago. Everyone seems to have a special need or disorder or some sort, be it ADHD or OCD. For the i generation of iPods, iPhones and Wiis, the illness of choice (with the most apt acronym) is M.E., standing for Myalgic Encephalopathy, otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or CLS (Chronic Laziness Syndrome). Then there's children who can't concentrate for more than five minutes at a time, and get labelled with autism or Asperger's.

Other disabilities have their perks too. Blind people, of which there are 1 million sufferers in the UK, have had tactile paving (raised dimpled paving which can be felt underfoot) installed on just about every pavement corner in the UK (not to mention annoying noises at traffic lights for crossing roads), presumably for their benefit. This seems completely over the top, considering 60% of blind people don't go out on their own (they have a carer or guide dog) and only 3% of blind people are completely blind.

Similarly, there is now wheelchair access in most places for disabled people. But with only 750,000 people full-time wheelchair users, it might have been cheaper and easier to build a whole new wheelchair-friendly city for them all to live in.

Old people (though age obviously isn't a disability) feel marginalised and ignored, but get great perks like free public transport and cut-price cinema tickets. In my opinion, they should pay double and the young – who probably have a lot less money than the old, who have had a lifetime to save and probably own property – should get the discounts.

I've known quite a few couples who have got together without knowing they shared a similar affliction or family trait. This has included manic depression, dyslexia, epilepsy, diabetes and even coming from similar (broken) family backgrounds. This may of course just be coincidence but seems more like destiny (that phrase sounds familiar. Didn't I write it yesterday?).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Forward to the Past: Riddley Walker

"Dyou mean to tel me them befor us by the time they done 1997 years they had boats in the air and all them things and here we are weve done 2347 years and mor and stil slogging in the mud?"
– From Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

If the line above strikes you as being full of typos, rest assured, it's meant to be like that. Riddley Walker has its own dialect, a crude yet eloquent blend of Kent accent, Chaucerian English, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and Burgess's Nadsat language from A Clockwork Orange.

Post-apocalyptic books, films and TV shows are always topical, tapping into our fears of global warming, terrorism, nuclear weapons and various natural disasters. Set some two thousand years in the future after an unspecified event (presumably nuclear) has destroyed much of civilisation as we know it, the 'Inland' (England) of Riddley Walker, the eponymous twelve-year-old hero of the novel, is a savage, dangerous and desolate place, thrust back to an Iron Age existence where all technological and scientific knowledge has been lost, yet the people have a vague knowledge of man's once power (as the above quote illustrates). Dogs have become human's enemy, and travelling alone is not advised. It is a primitive world of superstition and fear, largely based on ignorance.

The characters in the book try and make sense of the few surviving cultural relics they've dug up by ascribing (usually false and misleading) cultural or mythical meaning to them. The book is laden with symbolic and geographical references (roads are still referred to by their motorway numbers). The Legend of Saint Eustace becomes a thread running throughout the book, with the 'Eusa' puppet shows serving as explaining their central creation myth: that man's greediness and thirst for knowledge caused civilisation's downfall.

I've always found Punch & Judy shows slightly sinister. Puppets are a bit creepy in themselves, and added with the random, repetitive violence… But mainly it's after reading Riddley Walker that I look at Punch & Judy shows in a new light. Riddley finds a puppet whilst digging at work and the Punch & Judy show becomes another creation myth with the devil as the destroyer of humanity. Riddley – being one of the few characters able to read – recognises that the quest for man's past glories will eventually result in destruction.

One of my all-time favourite books, Riddley Walker (first published in 1980) is a masterpiece; one of those novels which seemed to come from nowhere – previously Hoban had written children's books (though a contemporary review of one of his children's books, The Mouse and his Child (1967), perhaps hints at things to come, where Isabel Quigly in the Spectator writes of it: 'coincidence seems like destiny') and since Riddley Walker Hoban's books have been quirky, fun and light – flippant comedies, perhaps even lazy, like Ballard's later books – but Riddley Walker is so fully-realised and absorbing that it takes you into another world. Perhaps that's why it's called science fiction but that's doing it an injustice.

• Fans of the book include writers David Mitchell and Will Self, whose Book of Dave also employs an invented language.

• There are far better articles than this about Riddley Walker. I consulted this, this and this (which is almost as heavy going as the book itself).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shot in N.O., L.A.

Post-any kind of disaster, there are people, agencies, governments and multinationals out there who rub their hands with glee, for there is money to be made (see Naomi Klein's book Shock Doctrine, which looks at disaster capitalism). The same could be said of film-makers and TV producers who love a bit of (free) post-apocalyptic mise-on-scène.

In recent post-Katrina years New Orleans, Louisiana, has seen its desolation used to cinematic effect in films including The Road (2009) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (also 2009). Treme – the latest TV series from the writers of The Wire (no, I still haven't seen it) – likewise utilises New Orleans' post-Katrina atmosphere to dramatic effect.

Spike Lee has made two documentaries about post-Katrina New Orleans: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) and its follow up, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise (2010). Several documentaries sprung up in 2010, the five-year anniversary of the disaster: The Sunken City: Rebuilding Post-Katrina New Orleans and Harry Shearer's (yes, the guy who does voiceovers for the Simpsons is a resident of N.O.) The Big Uneasy.

There are films which have ignored the aftermath of Katrina and use New Orleans for its tax breaks and great old buildings, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (or: The Curious Case of How it Received any Oscar Nominations at All, Let Alone Won Three), 2008, and The Expendables (2010). Finally, there's Disney's The Princess and the Frog (2009), which wins the award for the most New Orleans clichés in one film since Jim McBride's The Big Easy (1986)... though I guiltily enjoyed both of them.

But my favourite New Orleans-set film has to be Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law (1986), starring Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni, with sumptuous black & white photography by Robby Müller.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Viva Cohen!

Singer songwriter Rufus Wainwright, son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle (who died last year), and brother of also singer songwriter Martha, has recently announced the birth of his daughter, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen. The mother, Lorca Cohen, is Leonard Cohen's daughter. Rufus has stressed on his website that he's going to be a proper father, he's 'no surrogate', and is going to help raise the child with his partner, Jörn Weisbrodt, whom he was recently engaged to.

A few things immediately struck me when I read this news. First, Rufus is gay (call me old-fashioned but in my day gay men would marry women, have children with them and be closet homosexuals…. Rufus appears to be doing the exact opposite). Second, I knew Rufus was a fan of Leonard's, but isn't this taking things a bit far? Third, that baby has one hell of a musical pedigree.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fox-hunting in London

Yesterday's incident of a fox calming walking across the cricket ground at Twickenham in front of 82,000 spectators has re-ignited the whole foxes in urban areas debate. Last summer, two baby sisters were seriously injured after being attacked by two foxes at their home. Though such an attack is extremely rare, Hackney council went as far as to distribute leaflets through people's doors advising them to close their windows at night (which you'd think anyone living in Hackney would do anyway).

Apparently only 16% of foxes live in urban areas, a statistic I find hard to believe, as I hardly ever saw a fox when I lived in the country and see them on a daily basis in London. They are hardly a pestilence or something to be afraid of, yet their growing urban numbers, their lack of fear of humans and usual media hysteria about one or two isolated incidents has perhaps presented them as something of a problem.

The sport of fox-hunting was officially banned in 2004 (though it still occurs), but why not introduce it in cities such as London? Since the ban, the country set are no doubt sitting around twiddling their thumbs on a weekend, with only pheasants to shoot, but let them come into the cities, with their horses (who'll be good at jumping garden fences and walls) and hounds, and have them hunt foxes to keep their numbers down (after all, culling happens all the time with other animals – Richmond Park, for example, kills hundreds of deer on a yearly basis). It could be the new urban extreme sport.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Random Film Review: The American Friend

Dir: Wim Wenders | Germany | 1977 | 127mins

“What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?”
– Dennis Hopper in The American Friend

Like the character Robinson (who I've written about previously), Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley is a nefarious, chameleon-like character, charming but sly, and a sociopath. So it seems perfect that Dennis Hopper, whilst self-exiled in Europe for much of the 1970s, should play him in Wim Wender's The American Friend, a fine adaption of Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game.

Hopper plays Ripley as an existentialist out-of-place cowboy in Hamburg. He's a dodgy art dealer who draws innocent picture framer Johnathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz, a Wenders regular, recently seen playing Hitler in Downfall) into his underworld activities, eventually convincing him to assassinate a few people. The film contrasts Zimmerman as the family man with Ripley as the enigmatic yet amoral and rootless loner. Ripley spends a lot of time taking Polaroids of himself (whilst looking slightly like Andy Warhol) and recording his voice: 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself'.

I hadn't seen this film for years and had forgotten how good it was. Robbie Muller's moody and stylised photography is, as usual, superb, and here it gets the chance to explore the genre of film-noir with striking compositions, dark dealings and bold use of colour, in particular reds and greens. He might have looked at a Edward Hopper painting or two.

Wenders peppers the film with cultural and cinematic in-jokes; from a scene early on when Dennis Hopper sings a song from a film he acted in and directed: Easy Rider's theme music, The Ballad of Easy Rider (a throwaway by Dylan given to McGuinn); to the final scene with Hopper singing Dylan's I Pity the Poor Immigrant (and Bruno Ganz's character is called Zimmermann... an early Wender's short, Alabama: 2000 Light Years From Home, is about the differences between Dylan's version of All Along the Watchtower, and Hendrix's. Hopper and Dylan did eventually appear in a film together, the Hopper-directed Catchfire, renamed Backtrack, with Dylan playing a 'chainsaw artist'. Hopper disliked the film so much that the director credit was given to one Alan Smithee, a pseudonym used by directors who want nothing to do with their – usually butchered by the studio – film. I quite liked it).

Also acting in the film are two veteran directors of crime films: Nicholas Ray (an art forger with an eye patch) and Samuel Fuller (a gangster). Ray directed James Dean in Rebel without a Cause which was also, funnily enough, Dennis Hopper's first main screen role. Though most famous for Rebel, Ray made other great films in the 1940s and 50s, including They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground.

Both directors were lionised in the 1950s and 60s by the French New Wave directors. Which brings us onto two other actors in the film, Gerard Blain (also playing a gangster), who acted in numerous French New Wave films in the 1950s and 60s, and Jean Eustache, a French film director.

If Wender's cinematic references leaves one breathless, fear not, they are not essential to the film, which is great to look at, finely acted and taut.

Though famous for his acting and directing, Hopper was also an accomplished artist (as well as art collector) and photographer. Taschen have recently published a lavish book of his photographs.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Saturday, March 05, 2011

My Moon

Moon has cleared
The night is not lost
Can all be ours
At no cost.
Birds sing
Not to be kept in
(Like us)
But to be lost
For the shadows play havoc in their head
(No one tells them go to bed).
Energy, Exhaustion, Ecstasy:
(All one thing, Berbers say).
The city hot
(Smells heightened
Genitals reek
Easy to seek
Out, enveloping
The city old
hardness protrudes
in tight tracksuit
Don’t be tired
There’s lots of people
To meet
Then sleep.
But like a moth
At night
Attracted and Detracted
By the moon
(All of a sudden)
has gone to bed too soon.
Poor Moon
used and bruised
by so many watchers.
Don’t keep on being used
it’s got no respect
and you’re better than it,
My moon.

– 1994

Friday, March 04, 2011

If my thought dreams could be seen

…they'd be a very boring sight indeed.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Lookalikes #7: Michael Cera & Jesse Eisenberg

Probably it's just me, but until about a week ago I thought these two were the same person (NB: They look more alike if you don't see them side by side).

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Dick Whittington's Cat

In an unassuming, old-fashioned pub on Highgate Hill in Archway, North London, is the macabre, grisly sight of Dick Whittington's mummified cat in a glass (well, it was; the glass broke and it's now protected by, er, cling film) cabinet on the wall. Nearby is the Whittington hospital and on the pavement outside stands a statue of his famous cat. Highgate Hill is the spot where Whittington, about to leave London for good, hears the Bow Bells ringing and decides to stay in the city. It's then that his adventures begin; his cat is a great rat catcher, Dick becomes rich, marries and becomes thrice Mayor of London (just as the Bow Bells told him).

The folk tale Dick Whittington and His Cat, well-known to children from books and pantomimes, is partly based on fact. There was a Dick Whittington (c.1354-1423), who came to London and became Mayor of the city. However, he wasn't poor and he didn't have a cat.

So the cat in the pub probably wasn't Whittington's after all. It was unearthed some time ago when building work was taking place. Anyway, the Whittington & Cat is a fine, friendly Irish old man's pub with net curtains and smells to match. It looks like it hasn't changed since at least the 1970s. The building next to it has just been demolished and the pub is probably next in line, which is a great pity.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Giro the Nazi Dog