Thursday, January 26, 2012

Spitting at Shakespeare

In 1989 I had the mixed blessing of seeing Dustin Hoffman perform Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. We had almost front row seats. What I remember most – in fact all I remember – is Hoffman quite literally spitting out his lines. In abundance. I thought there was a leak in the roof there was so much liquid coming down. Some years later, in 2005, I saw Michael Gambon in Henry IV at the National Theatre, also spitting as he spake. And just a few days ago at the cinema, I saw Ralph Fiennes in his directorial debut as Coriolanus*, where he can often be seen spitting ('You banish ME?' *Spit* 'I banish YOU!' *Spit*). So it comes as no surprise that, according to a Washington Post blog post, Shakespeare's plays are known to produce more spit than any other playwright. In fact, theatre or film directors are known to request more spit from actors when they are under performing: 'Give me more spit!' is an often-heard line at Shakespeare's Globe theatre.

But spitting – or expectoration – though 'currently' (say Wikipedia) unacceptable in the west – unless you wear a tracksuit and live on a council estate and have a particularly nasty cold – is acceptable in other parts of the world. Like India. If Shakespeare had his way, it would be acceptable the world over. After all, didn't he write, 'The world's a stage, so spit on it'. Or something.

*My boon companion and I – luckily – just missed seeing Ralph Fiennes in the flesh. My friend, having been one of the make-up artists on Coriolanus, had wanted to confront Fiennes in the Q&A session (at the Everyman in Maida Vale) after a showing of the film to ask him why she hadn't been invited to the film's premiere. But after she had a double Jack Daniels and Coke in the cinema bar just before the film, and a double Pimm's and lemonade after it, it was probably for the best that the Q&A tickets had sold out.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Top 10 Scottish Bands

1. Belle and Sebastian
Best album: Tigermilk (1996)
2. Boards of Canada
Best album: Music has the Right to Children (1998)
3. Orange Juice
Best album: You Can't Hide Your Love Forever (1982)
4. Teenage Fanclub
Best album: Bandwagonesque (1991)
5. Cocteau Twins
Best album: Treasure (1984)
6. Incredible String Band
Best album: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (1968)
7. Arab Strap
Best album: Philophobia (1998)
8. The Beta Band
Best album: The Three EPs (1998)
9. Mogwai
Best album: Young Team (1997)
10. The Jesus and Mary Chain
Best album: Psychocandy (1985)

Tonight is Burns Night.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lookalikes #19: Mickey Mouse & Joy Division

Atrocity exhibition: Mickey's Unknown Pleasures T-shirts, top and above, right; Peter Saville's original cover, 1979, above left

I'm still not entirely convinced this isn't a hoax but Disney have apparently starting selling Mickey Mouse T-shirts based on Peter Saville's iconic Joy Division album cover, Unknown Pleasures (according to Pitchfork and Rolling Stone). This is wrong on so many levels I don't know where to start.

Joy Division's name comes from the areas in concentration camps during World War II that operated as brothels where female prisoners were forced into prostitution for Nazi guards. Joy Division made great but depressing music. Lead singer Ian Curtis killed himself in 1980, aged 24. There is nothing remotely child-friendly or Disney-like about Joy Division.

The cover, designed by Peter Saville (who also designed all their subsequent releases), was taken from an image of the first radio pulsar discovered in 1967. I guess in this post-ironic and post-postmodern world, Disney appropriating Saville's appropriation is, well, appropriate. Besides, like with most works of art more than five minutes old, it loses its original meaning and simply become iconic and harmless.

Here's what Disney have to say:

Inspired by the iconic sleeve of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures album, this Waves Mickey Mouse Tee incorporates Mickey's image within the graphic of the pulse of a star. That's appropriate given few stars have made bigger waves than Mickey!

You know what's worst of all, though? I want one!

UPDATE: Disney has seen some sense and withdrawn the T-shirt; one recently sold on eBay for over £200; some bright spark is already selling fake ones on eBay for £12. Bargain.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Banana vs Apple

The Velvet Underground have taken legal action against the Andy Warhol Foundation for trademark infringement of Warhol's iconic banana image, which the band claim is recognisable as the cover of their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico.

The lawsuit was launched when the band discovered The Warhol Foundation had agreed to licence the banana image on cases and bags for Apple iPhones and iPads. Maybe the band just don't like the clash of fruit.

The banana image is already found on plenty of items, from earrings and pillows to shoes and sweets. And no one can accuse the foundation of selling out – Warhol himself would have been delighted to see his art on as many products as possible.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Woody Allen's wise cracks

Woody Allen's film titles – white EF Windsor on black with some old jazz on the soundtrack – have remained reassuringly constant for decades.

I seldom think of Woody Allen as one of my favourite directors, but maybe I should. I mean, I love all his films, even his less successful ones. And though we may think of his films as 'mere' comedies, perhaps they should be taken more seriously. After 41 films, we should be calling Allen an auteur. There aren't many other directors in modern cinema who have produced such a rich, funny, thematically consistent yet stylistically diverse body of work.

Starting today, the BFI are having a season of Allen's films, Wise Cracks: The Comedies of Woody Allen. Of course, Manhattan is already fully booked. have rated every Allen film from worst to best.

More about Woody's favourite font here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Lookalikes #18: breastfeeding big cats LP covers

Singer Lynn Carey of the band Mama Lion breastfeeding a lion cub on the cover of Preserve Wildlife (1972); breastfeeding a tiger on the cover of Tigermilk by Belle and Sebastian (1996).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Nico's top ten lovers

Born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany in 1938, Nico moved with her mother to Berlin, 'a desert of bricks', aged seven. By 15, after a hard childhood, she had success as a model and went on assignment to Ibiza, a place she would love throughout her life. Renamed Nico and now a blonde (apparently at the behest of Ernest Hemingway), whilst in Rome she found herself acting in Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

By 1960, in New York, she was taking acting lessons in the same class as Marilyn Monroe. In 1962 she starred in the French film Strip-Tease, also singing the title track written by Serge Gainsbourg. In 1964 she met Brian Jones and had a record produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, with guitars by Jones and Jimmy Page. Back in New York she worked again as a model and had an affair and a child with Alain Delon. She met Bob Dylan in Paris and he gave her a song.

In New York she was introduced to Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, singing three songs on their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. She left the band, though stayed in contact, performing live with Lou Reed and John Cale for Le Bataclan, Paris, in 1972, and having Cale produce and play instruments on several of her solo albums. Her post-Velvets solo debut, Chelsea Girls, with its pleasant folksy tinkerings, penned by ex-lovers Dylan, Cale, Reed and Browne, does nothing to prepare you for her next three albums: The Marble Index (1969), The Desert Shore (1970) (released together on CD as The Frozen Borderline a few years ago) and The End (1974). Armed with her trademark droning harmonium, haunting, deep, monotone vocals and a stark, chilly atmosphere, these albums make Leonard Cohen's records sound like party music.

Addicted to heroin then methadone and drifting from country to country, the next decade became her wilderness years. She would only release a couple more records, including Camera Obscura (1985), produced again by John Cale. She died in 1988, aged 49, of a cerebral hemorrhage after falling off her bike in Ibiza.

For someone who supposedly didn't like sex, Nico had an impressive series of famous lovers. Jim Morrison was her 'soul brother' who encouraged her to write her own songs. By all accounts she was not a very nice person; perhaps a Nazi sympathiser, perhaps a racist, certainly tortured and depressing but also iconic, beautiful and enigmatic.

1. Jim Morrison
2. Alain Delon
3. Lou Reed
4. Bob Dylan
5. Leonard Cohen
6. Brian Jones
7. Iggy Pop
8. Jackson Browne
9. Jeanne Moreau
10. Philippe Garrel

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

London through its charity shops #18: Pimlico

I have alighted at Pimlico tube station to visit Tate Britain many, many times over the years. I always thought Pimlico, in Westminster SW1, was a quaint, quiet residential area with a few cafes – I never realised there were actual shops there. But having heard good things about its charity shops I decided it was worth investigating.

From Pimlico tube station, the best way to approach Pimlico's charity shops (though many of them seem to be geographically closer to Victoria tube) is to head along Tachbrook Road until you hit a small food market. On the left is a FARA Kids, small but bright and colourful. Keep going then turn left onto Warwick Way; on the opposite side of the road is a regular if pretty chic FARA. Like with a lot of its shops now, there's a downstairs with media and bric-a-brac. Upstairs is a good selection of clothes. Likewise Oxfam, a few doors along, has a downstairs with lots of DVDs, books, CDs and mainly classical records and an upstairs with men's and women's clothes.

Round the corner on Wilton Way is a very nice-looking Trinity Hospice, well-arranged with a slightly vintage vibe to it, also selling knitting wool and accessories. Round another corner on Upper Tachbrook Road is yet another FARA branch – this one called Retromania and selling mainly vintage clothes, though also some records, books and nick-nacks. It's a beautiful, fascinating and unique shop; great to have a rummage around in; you'll find everything from retro Chanel space suit outfits (£630) and Alexander McQueen cocktail dresses (£300) to Libertines-style military jackets. I was only allowed to take one photo (tiger and guitar-playing bear in a cage, above) but IDOL magazine has a feature about it along with some nice pics. A bargain basement had books and other paraphernalia for £1 and upwards.

Back onto Warwick Way for a Sue Ryder, quite average by comparison to Retromania and Hospice of Hope, which is a little further along and across the road. A charity shop blog I occasionally look at is Charity Shop Tourism, which found Pimlico – and Hospice of Hope in particular – a bit overwhelming. Certainly, upon first entering you'd think you were going into an exclusive chic boutique and not a charity shop. The black and white floor tiles, tidy, sparse racks of clothes and the shop assistant with a severe bob and a duster in hand, actually dusting her wares as if they were priceless antiques and not secondhand crap, were all a bit foreboding. Especially as I was the only other person in the shop. But it turned out to be quite good, reasonably priced, with a good selection of CDs. And the woman with the bob even smiled at me eventually.

On my way back to the tube station, quite by accident, I came across Crusaid (an HIV and AIDS charity) on Churton Street. Described by one charity shop reviewer as the 'Harvey Nicks of charity shops', it has a fine and funky range of clothes and bric-a-brac. In the back room are lots of records and books. The books are well-arranged with even foreign language and gay sections.

Up until M16 worker Gareth Williams was found dead in a sports bag in the bath of his Pimlico flat in 2010, Pimlico was most famous for the film Passport to Pimlico (1949) – where the neighbourhood declares independence from the rest of Britain – though it was not actually filmed in Pimlico itself but about a mile outside it. Anyway, it's a curious place that for some reason I've always liked. I'm not the first to say Pimlico has an air of faded gentility about it, but it's one of the things I like about the place.

The shopping part of town is a revelation to me, previously only ever gone to Pimlico to visit the Tate. The shops have a nice vibe to them; a bit posh, yes, but also pretty friendly with a village feel to the area. The charity shops are mostly all pretty interesting and unique; a most welcome respite from the usual bland homogeneous high street charity shops.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

London through its charity shops #17: Tooting

Squinting in one of Tooting's indoor markets we could half-imagine we were in an Istanbul souk. Sort of. Though it lacks the authentic ethnic edge of, say, Dalston, Tooting SW17 still feels a million miles away from, say, Putney (though it in fact only a 270 bus ride away). Tooting may never be cool, also lacking Dalston's hipster quota, but it's a bustling, interesting place with great Indian places to eat along Upper Tooting Road – though I (and Time Out) recommend a tiny Lebanese restaurant called Meza at 34 Trinity Road; booking ahead is essential as there are only five tables in the place.

As well its restaurants and markets, and the clothes shops selling beautiful saris, there are seven charity shops, spread out around Tooting Bec and Broadway tube stations. Our first stop from Tooting Broadway tube was a smart Octavia along Tooting High Street, with a good range of clothes and books. Hidden away under the clothes racks were some records.

Charity shops are usually small, cramped and cluttered. Tooting's Oxfam (pictured above), further along on Upper Tooting Road, is massive but sparse and tatty. With a tiny men's clothes selection versus a huge women's clothes section. And some books.

Wandsworth Oasis Books, opposite Tooting Bec tube on Trinity Road, is very decent. Opposite, and a little further up is another Oasis shop, selling, well, everything apart from books. It's a large space with a fine selection of records and CDs. A little further along is a cluttered and interesting Paws, an animal charity shop, with an upstairs book and records section.

Back to Tooting Broadway and along Mitchum Road, Age UK is small and cramped but has nice stock, including some good art books. There's another Paws just off Mitchum Road on Trinity Road. It's small and cluttered with loads of bric-a-brac and stacks of bad records and, surprisingly, a great selection of CDs. In fact, if post-rock or indie rock is your thing, it's perfect. No Age, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Cat Power, Orange Juice, Dirty Three, Cut Copy... all £2 each. Ergo, my Barngain of the day is the 2CD Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Top 10 Film Musicals

Most people wouldn't admit to musicals being their favourite genre but when they're good, they're sublime. They're still popular once in a while, but it's only every few years when one takes hold of the public imagination, such as Chicago (2002) or the more recent Mamma Mia (2008), which I have recently watched and didn't mind second time around (and noticed it's at least the fourth time Colin Firth has played a homosexual, after Another Country, A Single Man, Relative Values and perhaps Apartment Zero; he's also played someone with a stutter three times).

It's a shame musicals aren't more popular and populous, as at their best they're a perfect blending of emotion, motion and music: the best cinema has to offer. It can sometimes take a while to get used to the artificiality of characters suddenly breaking into song, but once you do, it becomes quite natural and the song and dance becomes more emotional, expressive and meaningful than mere dialogue.

It's great when a non-musical 'serious' director attempts making one, such as Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You), Jean Luc Godard (Une Femme est une Femme), Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd), Martin Scorsese's flawed New York, New York, Robert Altman's underrated Popeye or Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, starring Bjork.

1. Singin' in the Rain (Kelly/Donen, 1952)
2. The Wizard of Oz (Fleming*, 1939)
3. Cabaret (Fosse, 1972)
4. Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964)
5. An American in Paris (Minnelli**, 1951)
6. Grease (Kleiser, 1978)
7. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964)
8. West Side Story (Robbins/Wise, 1961)
9. The Blues Brothers (Landis, 1980)
10. Everyone Says I Love You (Allen, 1996)

*When I first got serious about cinema and reading books about directors I could never understand why the director Victor Fleming wasn't held in high regard by film critics. After all, he directed The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind – in the same year (!). But whereas, say, Hitchcock and Hawkes were lionised for their themes and styles, Fleming was more a craftsman for hire than an auteur. And his two biggest films, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, were also directed by other (uncredited) directors as well as Fleming, and produced by the influential Mervyn LeRoy and David O. Selznick, respectively.

But a recent biography of Victor Fleming called An American Movie Master, written by Michael Spagow, attempts to set the record straight by placing the director amongst the greats.

**Along with Bob Fosse and perhaps Ken Russell, Vincente Minnelli is best known as a director of musicals. He was married to Judy Garland; they were the parents of Liza Minnelli, who starred in Cabaret and New York, New York. And was hilarious in Arrested Development.