Thursday, June 30, 2011

The risible fall of M. Night Shyamalan

I used to be the head of the pack; I coulda been a contender. The Guardian's Guide, their Saturday listings magazine, has a regular internet page with all things new and quirky on the web. At the bottom is a column called 'What we learned on the web this week', listing interesting sites or blogs. Far be it from me to blow my own horn, so to speak, but in the space of a few weeks (some time ago) they mentioned several blogs/websites that featured topics I'd written about previously (sometimes just a week or so previously, making me imagine that people were poaching my ideas), such as:

The Dorset village that "died for England" in 1943 (but I got there first); The hidden wonder inside Battersea Power Station [go to Hidden London] (but I got there first); They love watching movies in movies (but I got there first).

Admittedly, the posts are more comprehensive and, okay, better than mine, but, you know, a bit of acknowledgement once in a while wouldn't go amiss. Anyway, a few weeks ago there was a link in The Guide to an article similar to one I'd meant to have written ages ago but never got around to doing: the dramatic decline of M Night Shyamalan. The media loves championing someone almost as much as it relishes their downfall, and when it's the same person, so much the better. There are actually lots of articles about the steady decline of Shyamalan's films, as well as charts and graphs graphically illustrating his fall from grace.

There's a prevailing myth that the films of M. Night Shyamalan have gone from being really good (even esteemed film critic David Thomson was hoodwinked for a while) to really, really bad. I'd like to buck that myth and say they're all really, really bad. But let's start with his stupid, pretentious 'professional' (second) name (adopted whilst at art college): Night. His real name is Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan. Okay, it's not exactly catchy but couldn't he just call himself Simon or Sam instead if he wanted to change his name? No, because he takes himself very seriously indeed. He thinks he's an artist and an auteur, and doesn't listen to criticism. When gleefully cataloguing his downfall, writers like to use the word 'hubris'.

The Sixth Sense, his third film and the one that bought him international attention, is ranked #128 on IMBb's top 250 movies of all time (it wouldn't even be in my top 2,500), a list I don't attach much credence to, what with Leon and Toy Story 3 being in the top 50 and, at #51, The Pianist, perhaps the last Polanski film (except Oliver Twist) I'd have on the list. Likewise with Inglourious Basterds at #92, bizarrely Tarantino's highest rating. People have such short memories.

As I've boasted previously, it took me all of ten minutes to guess what the 'surprise' ending of The Sixth Sense was going to be. Likewise with The Village I sort of guessed that the film wasn't necessarily set in the past (though perhaps I guessed that as I was expecting some kind of twist). The surprise twist at the end of his films became something of a trademark for Shyamalan, so much so that he was able to ignore other cinematic conventions such as plot and character. His films steadily became more and more implausible and ridiculous; the acting hollow and wooden; his once famous surprise twists more like cop-outs. Early, optimistic comparisons to Hitchcock and Spielberg now seemed somewhat premature, though, like Hitchcock, Shyamalan does like to put in a cameo appearance in most of his films.

His last few films I hadn't even heard of, but I could guess that a film called The Last Airbender wasn't going to be great. American critics have descended like vultures on it: "A form of Chinese water torture in which tin-ear line-readings take the place of drips" say The Wall Street Journal; "The current national priorities should be as follows, reduce carbon emissions and stop funding the films of M. Night Shyamalan" writes the Chicago Reader.

Yet his films apparently still make a lot of money. So he's allowed to make more. His next film, a 'dream project' apparently, is a sci-fi adventure starring Will Smith and son. Look out, it's Battlefield Earth Part 2!, one Guardian commentator quipped.

• The M. Night School is a website with a noble aim: to raise enough money to send M. Night back to film school. It states on its homepage: 'Certainly there must be 150,000 of us film lovers out there who are tired of his schlocky plot twists, canned dialogue, and over commercialised image as an "auteur". If we all donate just one dollar, we can send M. Night back to NYU so he gets the help we all so desperately need.' Amazingly, they've raised $693.49 so far. I probably won't donate, seeing as I'd rather he make no more films again.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Recent Barngains

Clockwise from top left: The Congos: Heart of the Congos (2xCD, £1, car boot sale) I can count the reggae albums I own on one hand but apparently this is all I really need. Produced with surprising understatement by Lee Scratch Perry, this is the definite 2-CD version containing all the Congos' Black Ark Studio sessions of the time plus a nice booklet. Now goes for £20+ on eBay/Amazon but probably more sensible buying it new for £10 from label Blood and Wire's website (whose online shop doesn't seem to work at the moment). In the middle of the bizarre collage-like cover is the original album cover.

Laurie Anderson: Big Science (LP, £1, charity shop) Of course I have this on CD but it's nice to have it on vinyl too.

Ian Hunter: You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (LP, 50p, car boot sale) Ex-lead singer of Mott the Hoople's fourth solo LP is arguably his best. Backed by several members of the E-Street Band as well as Mick Ronson, most famous for his work with Bowie, on guitars, it also guests John Cale on one song. 'One of the true gems of late-70s rock & roll', say

Half Man Half Biscuit: Back in the DHSS (LP, £1.50, charity shop) The title might be a reference to the Beatles' Back in the USSR but Half Man Half Biscuit are totally original: post-punk, subversive, whimsical and very funny, this was their first LP, taking shots at minor celebrities and boring, tedious Britain.

Ella Fitzgerald: Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart Songbooks (Two 2xCD box sets, 50p each, car boot sale) Two lavish Verve box sets. Backed by incomparable bands, in the mid-50s Ella could do no wrong; all her Songbook interpretations are superb. Great for listening to on a sunny Sunday afternoon, or at 2am.

The Fall: 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong (2xCD, £3, HMV) There's a constant underwhelming sale on the HMV website but their current in-store clearance sale has far better barngains. Lots of albums released last year are £3; I also picked up several Brian Eno CDs for £3 (including a collaboration with Robert Fripp, Evening Star), The Echo And The Bunnymen 4CD box set, Crystal Days, for £8, and this, perhaps the best overview of The Fall available, with its humorous cover and title a pastiche of Elvis's 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong album.

The Triffids: Born Sandy Devotional (£1, car boot sale) Got this from the same stall as The Congos actually. It was like a dream stall! (Also got some other decent CDs there.) The Triffids, even though they're Australian, are great. This one has bonus tracks and a cool booklet.

Centre: Teal Triggs: Fanzines (book, £1, charity shop) You can't buy anything nowadays without it hurting someone. This excellent overview of fanzines, published last year by Thames & Hudson and packed with over 750 illustrations, has caused some Amazon reviewers to boycott it, mainly those whose fanzines appear in the book but have been uncredited. They've even got a website slagging off the book. Couldn't they spend their time boycotting NestlĂ© or Isreali fruit instead? It seems a bit petty to me, especially in the internet age where millions of bloggers ignore such issues as copyright and permission. I know a published book is different, but at least they're getting some publicity.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Not for all the tea in China

China may produce the most tea in the world but they don't drink the most. That accolade apparently goes to Iraq, with the UK at number four (per capita). We like to pretend (for some reason) that we're now a nation of coffee drinkers (tea perhaps not having the cool, American, on-the-go factor that coffee has – even though coffee shops take forever to make a cup; probably the time it takes me to drink a cup of tea) what with coffee shops (bring back tea shops I say) nestled in between mobile phone shops and estate agents on every bland British high street, but we still consume a lot more tea than coffee. Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, after water.

My tea of preference is probably Sainsbury's Red Label, which I've been drinking steadily for at least twenty five years, though I'm really not that fussy – Tetley, PG Tips, Twinings, Clipper – any tea, really, as long as it's not Lipton's.

Lipton's is, in fact, the number one tea in China (they spend £300m a year on it), a fact I find extraordinary and tragic. Lipton's also does very well in other parts of Asia, Western Europe and the States. In fact, I've not been able to buy any tea apart from Lipton's in these places. Recently in France, using my expert French, I pleaded "Avez vous autre thĂ©?" when presented with a cup of Lipton's in a cafe. I was met with a look of bewilderment.

The thing is: Lipton's is disgusting. It's crap. It doesn't even remotely taste like tea (perhaps that's why it's so successful in over a hundred other countries – countries which wouldn't know a good cup of tea if they fell over one). I'd rather drink Tesco's Value teabags than Lipton's. And you know what? You can't get Lipton's (black) tea in Britain (only their Ice Tea and some herbal ones). That's right. Britain, the birthplace of Lipton's (it's now owned by Unilever) and one of the biggest tea drinking nations in the world, and you can't buy a cup of Lipton's tea. Not that we would if we could, a fact Lipton's must realise, otherwise they'd sell it to us, wouldn't they?

Previously on Barnflakes:
Proud to Serve
Death of the High Street

Elsewhere on Barnflakes:
The T.E.A. Theory

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lego Architecture

Lego ain't just for kids, it's also for big kids – kids who grew up with Lego then never really grew out of Lego. The internet is the perfect place for these adult Lego obsessives to display their wares – there are hundreds of websites with individuals elaborate custom made Lego creations, many of which are extraordinary, often made with more imagination than anything Lego would actually produce (such as Brendan Powell Smith's The Brick Testament – the stories in The Bible made from Lego. Now also a book. See last Friday's post) – but that's the great thing about Lego.

Polish artist Zbigniew Libera created a controversial series of seven Lego sets of concentration camps in 1996. Whilst initially sponsored by Lego (they sent him some free bricks), when they realised what he was creating they immediately backed out, tried suing him, saw they were creating too much attention and finally left him alone. The sets were custom made from other pre-existing sets; presumably the boxes were Photoshopped and created by the artist. Inevitably, perhaps depressingly, people have enquired where to buy them, but these are unique artworks, though the Jewish museum in New York have managed to acquire a set.

For years Lego refused to franchise its products but in the last decade or so there's been numerous film and TV tie-ins including Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Batman, and most recently, Pirates of the Caribbean. There are now hundreds of different themed Lego products and thousands of sets, as well as video and board games, clothes, shops and Legoland (which is me and my daughter's favourite place in the world). Their Digital Designer software, free from their website, allows users to virtually create their own Lego creations (which sort of takes away from the whole point of Lego, but never mind).

Lego have also produced limited edition, 'Hard to Find', 'Exclusive' items (some of which are bizarrely rated 16+), including London's Tower Bridge, which looks identical to the one at Legoland and costs £209.99, a Maersk Container Ship (£102.99) and the Taj Mahal (available on Amazon Marketplace for £589.95), containing 5922 pieces.

Since last year they've produced a small series, presumably aimed mainly at Lego-obsessed adults, called Lego Architecture, featuring famous architectural landmarks including The White House and the Empire State Building, as well as buildings designed by influential architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. Though it's probably possible to custom create the Hard to Find and Architecture sets from other (cheaper) sets or buying the bricks online, the problem then is you miss out on a key component: the box. In the case of Lego Architecture, the boxes are mainly black with white Helvetica text, creating a modern, sophisticated look to them. With Zbigniew Libera's concentration camp sets, it's the boxes (with those shoddy Photoshop clouds) that complete it, making the camps even more chilling and real (in a way) in their 'official' boxes.

For years now I've had a Lego project in mind: Roehampton's Alton Estate, the Grade-II council estate designed in the late 1950s and heavily influenced by Le Corbusier (for more information see Alton Blues). I'd love to see Lego Architecture do a whole series of England's council estates, including, say, famous, iconic examples such as Goldfinger's Trellick Tower as well as the more infamous, such as Broadwater Farm in Haringey. I almost can't believe Lego hasn't produced council estates before, after all, most estates look like they were designed in Lego bricks in the first place.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Star Wars Lego

Friday, June 24, 2011

Random Film Review: Julie & Julia

Dir: Nora Ephron | USA | 2009 | 123mins

I watched this by accident – I actually got it mixed up with Glen or Glenda, the Ed Wood Jr. film about a transvestite and a pseudohermaphrodite. Or maybe I got it confused with Julia, Meryl Streep's first film in 1977. Julie & Julia is actually a blog which became a book which became a film.

The film shuttles between American celebrity chef Julia Child's autobiography of her time in Paris in the 1950s and Julie Powell's blog about cooking one of Julia Child's recipes every day for a year. Child is played with joie de vivre by always-watchable Meryl Streep; Powell is played by average Amy Adams, previously seen in Junebug and Disney's Enchanted. The Streep strand is far more captivating, with the ever-excellent Stanley Tucci playing her husband and Glee actress Jane Lynch as her sister. Unfortunately all Adams has to work with is a bland husband and sulky Chloe from 24 (Mary Lynn Rajskub), playing her best friend.

As with The Social Network, the problem of a film about a blog is it's essentially boring. And though Streep's character and performance is instantly likeable and funny, Julie's character is pretty self-centred and tedious, with her pearls and Vans shoes. It didn't help knowing that her second book, Cleaving: a Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, is partly about an affair she had with someone after the publication of her first book. Even her best friend, Chloe, calls her a bitch.

Director Nora Ephron has all the credentials for making such a film: previously she's captured the technological zeitgeist with the saccharin Sleepless in Seattle (talk radio was becoming big at the time) and You've Got Mail (email was catching on).

One of Ephron's first screen credits was as writer for Silkwood (1983) which also starred Meryl Streep, back when everything she did reeked of seriousness. Like Robert De Niro and Chritsopher Walken (all three of them starring in a film entirely without humour, The Deer Hunter*), Streep in her old age seems to be taking on more lightweight roles and simply enjoying herself, such as recent performances in Adaption, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Altman's A Prairie Home Companion and Mamma Mia. Her latest role, Mommy and Me, is another comedy, directed by her husband in Julie & Julia, Stanley Tucci.

However, let's not forget that she can play the ice maiden very well: The Devil Wears Prada being a case in point, and she's soon to be starring as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady**. I bet she'll still be hot.

In Julie & Julia the real Julie Child reads Julia's blog and hates it. I've glanced through her blog – the amount of comments is astounding; she wrote a bland two-line post about new year's resolutions and got over three hundred comments (admittedly, this was when she was famous-ish; even so, I'm constantly surprised – and bitter – about how many comments even the most boring cookery or fashion blog gets). To have a successful blog – unlike this one, obviously – is to post obsessively about one subject (and make it either funny, obscure, ridiculously simple or appealing to every man), be it Stuff White People Like, Waiter Rants, Garfield Minus Garfield, Stuff on my Cat (why is the internet obsessed with cats?), Sleeveface (People Holding Vinyl Record Sleeves and Covers in Front of their Faces), 1000 Awesome Things, Hot Chicks With Douchebags – all of which have been made into books. Once a blog becomes a book, it inevitably loses some of its individuality and charm; ads get plastered all over it; the writers don't have time to respond to comments; presumably they're busy in meetings with Spielberg discussing the movie version. But bearing in mind that there are now over 156 million blogs in existence, it's a safe bet that your blog about your pet dog or holiday in Turkey won't become a book any time soon (though you never can tell).

*Which also starred Streep's then husband, John Cazale, in his last film. One of the (admittedly, few) advantages of dying young is leaving a great CV. Cazale's films are all great – The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deerhunter. Streep was a devoted wife to her dying husband but after he died, she was married again within six months.

**Recently the assistant prop-buyer from The Iron Lady came and picked up some stuff bought from me on eBay for the film production company's next film. The job of assistant prop-buyer used to be fun – aside from the inevitable tea and coffee making, it involved scouring quirky shops for unusual items. Now it's all done on eBay – except the tea making.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lookalikes #12: Feels and Henry Darger

Feels is a 2005 album by experimental band Animal Collective. Henry Darger is the outsider artist par excellence, a solitary man who worked as a janitor for some fifty years. It wasn't until his death in 1973 that his extraordinary inner life was discovered.

Feels' album cover was created by Animal Collective singer Dave Pornter. According to Wikipedia, Portner 'has been a huge fan of Darger but didn't have Darger in mind while creating the cover art. He found a children's educational guide on the street and thought "the images fit the sound and the lyrics perfectly."'

Which isn't entirely dissimilar to Darger's method: he was often seen picking rubbish off the street and his flat was full of old magazines and newspapers. Not being able to draw figures very well, he used to trace them.

After Darger's death his landlord, photographer Nathan Lerner, started clearing out his flat. Amongst the rubbish, old newspapers and magazines, hundreds of bottles of Pepto-Bismol and a thousand balls of string, Lerner uncovered Darger's twelve volume, 15,000 page magnum opus: The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What Is Known As The Realms Of The Unreal, Of The Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused By The Child Slave Rebellion (arguably the longest work of fiction ever, and with the longest title).

Darger started the book in 1909; it took him eleven years to write it longhand; he then began to type it. Concerning the seven princess Vivian sisters and their battles against an evil regime, it creates an entire world that, presumably, Darger (who had a damaged childhood, naturally) immersed himself in.

Illustrating the epic are some two hundred watercolours, drawings and collages, some A4 in size, some far larger and longer, like scrolls. The pictures contain elaborate, violent and bizarre battle scenes with soldiers and prepubescent girls (some with penises, some with horns) against landscapes of forests, hills and mountain-like clouds. The extraordinary thing about these pictures is the imaginative combination of the innocent, exquisitely detailed and colourful style of painting with the violent, bizarre, sexual and religious content.

Darger also produced, aside from his Vivian Girls story, collages reminiscent, perhaps, of Joseph Cornell's; and while it's impossible for the two to have known each other, it's interesting to note that Cornell was also a somewhat strange and reclusive artist with a suspect interest in young girls.

Henry Darger's epitaph reads 'artist and protector of children'.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Top 10 Debut LPs

1. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
2. Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
3. Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
4. The Doors – The Doors (1967)
5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced? (1967)
6. The Clash – The Clash (1977)
7. Roxy Music – Roxy Music (1972)
8. Suicide – Suicide (1977)
9. Belle and Sebastian – Tigermilk (1996)
10. The Strokes – Is This It? (2001)

We all know the 1960s didn't start properly until 1967, so perhaps it's no surprise it's one of the best years for music, ever. 1971 was also good.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

RIP Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011

Goodbye to The Big Man who died yesterday aged 69.

… I was away at the time so didn't mention the death of another great black musician, Gil Scott-Heron, who died last month aged 62.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Overheard #7

Two elderly men in a charity shop; they don't know each other. The small one approaches the tall one.

– You look just like John Cleese.
– What? [Didn't hear and taken aback]
– You look just like John Cleese.
– What? [Didn't understand]
– You look just like John Cleese, the comedian.
– Oh. Do I? [Confused]
– Yes, you look just like him.
– Oh, the comedian… from…
– Yes, from Fawlty Towers. You look just like him. You're as tall as him and… you've got a moustache. Just like him.
– Oh, really?
– Yes, has no one ever said that to you before? We could do a double act. I could be the waiter and you could be Basil. Basil!
– Oh. Yes. Ha. [Feigning laughter he moves away, perhaps in a Basil Fawltyesque manner]

Friday, June 17, 2011

Job rejection of the week

And I quote: 'We are sorry to inform you that on this occasion you have been successful'.

…Which immediately made me think of The Smiths song, 'I was looking for a job / And then I found a job / And heaven knows I'm miserable now'.

Except I don't think I got the job. But I'm not sure. Maybe I did. It's kinda ambiguous.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Women vs Films

I used to have a theory that there was something sublime about all women and every film – whether good or bad, ugly or beautiful, intelligent or stupid – there's a gesture, a fleeting moment, some element of mystery or beauty, making it all almost worthwhile. All my dreams are films and all my women are dreams.

Every film is worth watching. A film is like a lifetime. Some parts boring. Unfocused. But brief flashes of magic. Making it all. Almost worthwhile. Films are better than people. Films are more satisfying; they're shorter. They have a beginning, middle and end. We just have a beginning and an end. The middle isn't worth watching, or maybe the beginning and the end aren't either.

...In Sydney, Australia, there was a cinema with sofas for seats which served vegetarian Indian food. In New Orleans there was a cinema with sofas, beds and cushions and, on Canal Street, another cinema called Joy which just showed ‘black’ films. From Cairo to Bali the film posters were hand painted, garish and lurid. Apocalypse Now was filmed in the Philippines. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Morocco. Hollywood makes most of its money from selling its films to South America.

– 1999

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Minding your Ps, Ais & iDs

As Adobe Creative Suite gets more and more complicated with each upgrade, its icons get more simplified and dull. Back in the day Adobe Photoshop icons and credit pages used to be inspiring, beautiful images like beaches, feathers and eyes. Since Adobe CS3 however, along with the whole CS range, they've become rather corporate and uninspired. I much preferred their logos when they were illustrated icons rather than two letters in a box, reminding one of the periodic table symbols. An eye was a perfect icon for Photoshop and was kept for years. The new Ps logo is not only ugly and boring, but confusing, especially when you've got all the Creative Suite icons in a row on your dock (if you're Mac; I have no idea what PCs look like nowadays). Ps presumably stands for Photoshop (though Photoshop is only one word; I guess it's to remind us its native file format is .ps; though Ps makes me think of Postscript), yet Ai presumably stands for Adobe Illustrator – so shouldn't Photoshop be AP (Adobe Photoshop)? For a package that prides itself on its consistency, this lack of it is confusing. Anyway, having to read the icons for the right package can take a second or two, so if you've got a whole row of Ps, Ai, ID, Dw, etc, especially when they're all the same size and weight, it's counter-instinctive – you've got to read to decipher it. Before, with the illustrated icons, I'd instinctively go to the eye for Photoshop, Botticelli's Birth of Venus for Illustrator and a butterfly (nicked from the CorelDraw icon) for InDesign. These are visual packages, so a visual identity for each package made sense.

Going from pre-CS icons to CS icons was tough, but I made it through, perhaps even grew to love the feather, flower and butterfly. Didn't even mind too much when they changed colour and shape for CS2 (though initially it was confusing – they changed their colours!). But the icons from CS3 onwards, with their lack of imagination, corporateness, confusion and just plain monotony – for the premiere graphics and design packages, it's just plain wrong.

Perhaps Adobe are trying to appeal to the Microsoft Office/Windows audience, those dull-minded people with their Excel charts and PowerPoint presentations. Maybe Adobe are trying to be more professional and serious. But even the icons for Microsoft Office have a 'bubbly' kind of feel to them (Microsoft trying to appeal to creatives?) with a similar letter-based system but also icons which quickly explain what each package is. The Adobe icons don't look like they've been designed at all, so it comes as quite a surprise that Adobe actually have a Desktop Brand team. Their work must have been really cut out for them going from CS3 to CS4.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

She and I

She was New York;
I was L.A.
She was Tom Jones;
I was Tom Waits.
She was country;
I was city.
She was G&T;
I was cup of tea.
She was ambitious;
I was confused.
She got frustrated;
I had to move.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Searching for a Gem: Bob Dylan obscurities

'In this age of fibreglass,
I'm searching for a gem'
– Bob Dylan, Dirge

So you've got all Dylan's studio albums (even Christmas in the Heart), all his live albums (even Dylan and the Dead), all the Bootleg Series boxed sets (including the 3CD version of Tell Tale Signs)… and you still want more. Well, aside from the hundreds of bootlegs available, which are pretty easy to find on the web, there are lots of other official releases which contain a Dylan gem or two, many of which are worth tracking down.

Soundtrack albums
Bob recorded Band of the Hand (1986) with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for the film of the same name. One I wouldn't bother with, but which appears I have on vinyl, is the soundtrack to the dreadful 1987 film Hearts of Fire, starring 'Fiona' and Dylan. It contains three Dylan tracks, one of which is a cover version. A shimmering You Belong To Me appears on the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers (1994). The Tom Cruise film Jerry McGuire (1996) contains an alternative version of Shelter from the Storm (though I believe it's turned up on a Greatest Hits package now). The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000), about the life of the great folk singer Jack Elliot, contains a very early Dylan performance with Elliot called Acne. Waiting for You is from the soundtrack to Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). There's an alternative version of Tell Ol' Bill on the OST to North Country (2005). The soundtrack to the TV crime series NCSI (Vol.2) contains an early version of Outlaw Blues.

Masked and Anonymous (2004), starring Bob as an iconic rock legend, has a great soundtrack featuring four new Dylan performances, a previously unreleased song performed by the Dixie Hummingbirds, and some foreign language versions of Dylan songs. Truly bizarre. I'm Not There (2008), though it is about the man himself, contains only one previously unreleased track, but a definite gem, the sublime and mysterious I'm Not There, an outtake from The Basement Tapes.

Tribute/Benefit albums
Perhaps unsurprisingly seeing as Guthrie was one of Dylan's early heroes, he's contributed to two Woody Guthrie tribute albums. The first was a tribute concert performed soon after Guthrie's death in 1967. Dylan performs (his first live show since his motorbike accident the year before) three incendiary versions of songs of Woody's with The Band (then known as The Crackers): I Ain't Got No Home, Dear Mrs. Roosevelt and The Grand Coulee Dam. After being long-deleted on LP, it's now available on CD as Tribute to Woody Guthrie.

Twenty years later, Dylan's to be found singing a great version of Woody Guthrie's Pretty Boy Floyd on A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, alongside Bruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson and U2.

George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 contains Dylan's first live performance since The Isle of Wight festival in 1969. He still has some of that country twang in his voice from Nashville Skyline. I get tingles down my spine when George introduces him with 'I'd like to bring on a friend of us all… Mr Bob Dylan'. The 2005 reissue contains a previously unreleased Dylan performance, Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

The Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz, released as a film by Martin Scorsese, contains a few Dylan songs on the 2CD set, and an extra one (Hazel) on the 4CD box set.

On Timeless, a tribute album to Hank Williams released in 2001, Dylan does a fine version of Hank's Can't Get You Off My Mind. On Enjoy Every Sandwich: the Songs of Warren Zevon is a live version of Dylan performing Zevon's Mutineer.

Last but not least, is Dylan's own tribute album, his 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, released in 1997. A great line up, from Stevie Wonder and Lou Reed to Neil Young and Johnny Cash, it's a very mixed bag with Dylan performing a few, rather poor, solo numbers at the end.

On other people's albums
Dylan crops up on lots of albums by other artists – either he's written a song, singing in the background or blowing on his harp (possibly all three).

After the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, Dylan wouldn't play live again until 1974, with the exception of a few (presumably, seeing as he forgets the words) drunken numbers performed with The Band on New Year's Eve 1971. The remastered Rock of Ages CD by The Band contains these songs (When I Paint My Masterpiece, Don't Ya Tell Henry and Like a Rolling Stone) on the bonus disc.

On Leonard Cohen's Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies Man, Dylan can be heard whining on backing vocals for the hilarious Don't Go Home With Your Hard On. Sign Language is a nice, if throwaway, song written by Dylan and sung with Eric Clapton on his No Reason To Cry album. On her Songs For The New Depression album, Bette Midler duets with Dylan on his Buckets of Rain (though they sing it as Nuggets of Rain). Dylan wrote a song on U2's Rattle and Hum double LP.

With the 1980s 'supergroup' The Traveling Wilburys, along with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, Dylan recorded two albums, Vol. 1 and Vol, 3 (there is no Vol. 2). Much of it is great; certainly a lot better than most of Dylan's solo 1980s output. The Rhino reissued version contains a few bonus tracks.

Live at Carnegie Hall 1963 contains six songs from the famous concert. Released as an EP in 2005, I got a free copy from Virgin Records in Oxford Street. HMV likewise gave away Live & Rare EPs 1 and 2, containing three or four live performances from the late 90s-2000.

Mark Ronson's pointless 2007 remix of Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) came out as several Maxi-Singles with the original Dylan version, Ronson's version and a seemingly random live Dylan track from the 2000s, such as Down Along the Cove from June 2004.

Greatest Hits
Greatest Hits and Best Ofs are annoying, for the Dylan fan may be forced to buy them if they contain a rarity or two, which they usually do. But possibly the only one worth owning is More Greatest Hits/Greatest Hits Vol. II, a double LP (the original 1971 American version of which contained the great Milton Glaser Dylan poster inside) and CD containing six rarities: Watching the River Flow, When I Paint My Masterpiece, a live Tomorrow is a Long Time, I Shall Be Released, You Ain't Goin' Nowhere and Down in the Flood (all the Basement Tapes songs are different versions, recorded with Happy Traum in 1971). There's a great transition between the clapping at the end of Tomorrow is a Long Time and the start of of When I Paint My Masterpiece.

Foreign releases
The Australian and Japanese Masterpieces, another Greatest Hits compilation, contains enough rarities to warrant a purchase. Quite rare and expensive nowadays (I got mine cheap when I lived in Sydney), the 3CD set contains a live version of Just Like Tom Thumb Blues (originally the B side of I Want You) from Liverpool in 1966, arguably his most powerful performance ever. The other rarities are Mixed Up Confusion (different mix to the Biograph version), George Jackson, Rita May and Spanish is the Loving Tongue.

Japan's catchily-titled Bob Dylan Live 1961-2000: Thirty-Nine Years Of Great Concert Performances (couldn't they have waited another year to call it an even forty?) has a bunch of live rarities, including three from Portsmouth, England, 2000 (what a concert!), Dead Man, Dead Man from New Orleans 1981, another great concert which needs a Bootleg Series release and Grand Coulee Dam from the Woody Guthrie Tribute.

We English generally wouldn't call something from the States as foreign, but it is, so it gets included here: the Starbucks' Live at the Gaslight 1962 release. Though apparently incomplete, it's great.

Semi-official Bootlegs
There's been lots of these released recently (due to the same lack of applicable copyright as with the recent Springsteen 1975 concert CD), some of dubious quality and value. Transmissions, Re-Transmissions and Classic Airwaves are cheap-looking and priced (got mine at Poundland) containing Dylan TV performance recordings. They get pretty bad reviews on Amazon but I think they're okay. In particular, Classic Airwaves contains three performances from the John Hammond Show, September 1975 (previously available on bootlegs Songs for Patty Valentine and Passed Over and Rolling Thunder). I believe this was the first time Dylan had performed Hurricane and Oh Sister; there's also a great version of Simple Twist of Fate ('She should have caught me in prime / She would have stayed with me') which gets me every time I hear it.

Two recent radio show releases are of great historical value. Folksinger's Choice captures Dylan aged twenty, a complete unknown, chatting away, already mythologising his own past, with Cynthia Gooding and singing eleven songs, mainly covers, in 1962. A perfection companion to this, Studs Terkel's Wax Museum, is just a year later, but now all the songs Dylan sings are originals. He'd just completed his final Freewheelin' session. This, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Eat the Document and Renaldo & Clara are yet to be officially released but Pennebaker's Dont Look Back, Peckinpah's Pat Garratt & Billy the Kid, Scorsese's The Last Waltz and No Direction Home, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There and Murray Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror are all excellent. I have a soft spot for Masked and Anonymous too.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The website contains over 300 web pages, cataloging every Dylan release in the world. I believe it's the work of just one man, Alan Fraser.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Top 10 Films about Writers

1. An Angel At My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)
Funny how the only two vaguely famous NZ authors are female (the other is Katherine Mansfield, in case you're wondering). Jane Campion's film of Janet Frame's life is harrowing yet uplifting and intensely moving.

2. Henry Fool (Hal Hartley, 1997)
One of Hartley's best, with garbageman Simon writing 'the great American poem'.

3. Barton Fink (The Coen Brothers, 1991)
John Turturro as the playwright selling his soul to write a Hollywood movie script.

4. Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000)
Enjoyable college drama/comedy with Michael Douglas as professor Tripp, unable to finish his second novel. Soundtrack includes a healthy dose of Dylan as well as Neil Young and Leonard Cohen.

5. Morvern Caller (Lynne Ramsey, 2002)
Adapted from the excellent book by Alan Warner, and with a great soundtrack featuring Can and Aphex Twin, the film starts with the writer already dead, having finished his novel, committed suicide and left his book to his girlfriend, Samantha Morton. Lynne Ramsey doesn't make nearly enough films. Her first since Morvern Caller, an adaption of We Need to Talk about Kevin, is out later this year.

6. Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000)
The life of Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas.

7. Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg,1991)
Cronenberg was perhaps the best choice for the 'unfilmable' book by William Burroughs, even if the results were somewhat pedestrian. Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore supply the atmospheric music.

8. Prick up your ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)
...Literally! Gary Oldman stars as gay playwright Joe Orton.

9. Tales of Ordinary Madness (Marco Ferreri, 1981) / Barfly (Barbet Schroeder, 1987) / Factotum (Bent Hamer, 2005)
The colourful life of sleazy beat writer Charles Bukowski has inevitably led to some film adaptions, none of which really capture his deadpan blend of poetry and poverty. And Bukowski was a pretty ugly guy – having Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon play him is just plain wrong.

10. The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010)
The most recent on the list, and certainly one of the most original: the life and times of playwright Andrea Dunbar told via mimed tape recordings of family and friends as well as in situ extracts from her play The Arbor. Dunbar is probably now best remembered as the writer of Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, made into a film by Alan Clarke.

Do Say: Where's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Romancing the Stone, Sunset Boulevard, The Player, Adaption, Sideways, Finding Forrester, Total Eclipse, The Squid and the Whale, Gonzo, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Shining and Misery?
Don't Say: Where's Love Actually (Colin Firth strand)?

Saturday, June 04, 2011

In the news…

Good: Prime minister David Cameron is to back a plan to ban shops selling adult, sexually suggestive pre-teen clothes, in a report leaked to the Guardian newspaper. Other measures include displaying lads magazines in brown covers and age ratings for music videos in the review entitled Let Children be Children.
Bad: Conservative-run Wandsworth Council have started charging children to use a local park.

Good: The Whitechapel gallery is showing some of the Government's Art Collection, the first time the art has been shown in a British public art gallery.
Bad: Apparently owned by the British public, the Government Art Collection, along with the Royal Collection and the Arts Council Collection, consists of over 30,000 works of art. The collection is priceless. For example, the Queen has in her 'care' some 600 Leonardo drawings. Seeing as the public – who owns them, remember – is never going to see 99% of the art (nor is anyone else: most of it is in storage) we should just sell it all. Maybe then we wouldn't need all these cuts.

Good: Apparently Krispy Kreme doughnuts are so popular in the UK that they will double their number of outlets in the next five years. It seems many people find them irresistible.
Bad: Get a grip, they're only doughnuts, fatty. Unsold doughnuts are thrown away rather than given away.

Good: We are semi-officially in a new epoch: now is the age of the Anthropocnene, which means the age of man.
Bad: It's the beginning of the end!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Lookalikes #11: Psycho Houses

Clockwise from bottom left: Hitchcock's Psycho (1960); House by Railroad by Edward Hopper (1925); Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978); Phantom Manor, Disneyland Paris (1992). The theme park, located twenty miles from Paris and once called a 'cultural Chernobyl', is Europe's most visited tourist destination.