Tuesday, July 31, 2012

RIP Chris Marker, 1921-2012

Experimental French filmmaker Chris Marker died a few days ago on his 91st birthday, 29 July. Though he made dozens of films – or film essays – he is most famous for his influential post-apocalyptic time travel cinepoem, La Jetée* (made in 1962), loosely remade by Terry Gilliam as 12 Monkeys (and films such as Inception sharing some common themes). Composed mainly of black and white still images, I remember watching La Jetée at the cinema for the first time many years ago and being mesmerized by it; in particular the only few seconds of moving footage: a woman waking up in bed, opening her eyes (apparently Marker could only borrow a moving film camera for one afternoon). The sudden few seconds of moving footage after all the still images struck me as the art house equivalent of the universe exploding in a blockbuster sci-fi film.

Notoriously private, where he was born remains a mystery and only a few photos of him exist; for publications requesting a picture of him he would supply a photo of a cat. Other notable films by Marker include Sans Soleil (which comes with La Jetée on DVD, a nice introduction to the man's work), AK, Les Astronautes (made with Walerian Borowczyk) and A Grin with a Cat.

*The film has been partly ruined by an ex, who tends to hold no reverence for art house films. She breezed past whilst I was watching it on DVD, and asked why the man (pictured above) had a bra over his eyes. She's also made similar insensitive – but quite amusing – comments about other art house films.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Three Mills

The fabulous Three Mills are situated on the River Lea, near Bromley-by-Bow station. Though its conical towers recall the oast houses of Kent, the mills are tidal and were originally used to ground flour (oast houses were designed for drying hops). Grade I listed and built in 1776, it is apparently the largest tidal mill in the world.

How to get there: from Bromley-by-Bow tube station cross the hideous A12 (there is an underpass), past the ugly, derelict office blocks and burnt out car, and venture through the horrible, massive Tesco's. It's a painful but rewarding journey.

Previously on Barnflakes:
South London Windmills

South London Windmills

Windmills used to be a familiar site in London but now only nine remain intact, including two fine, Grade II* listed examples in South London, one in Brixton and one on Wimbledon common, built within a year of each other.

The Brixton windmill is the only inner London windmill remaining with sails intact. Built in 1817, by 1862 the surrounding area had become too built up by new houses for the sails to function. The sails were removed a few years later and the building used for storage. It was restored last year with Lottery funds and looks magnificent, tucked away in a small, unassuming park off Brixton Hill. In fact, it's almost impossible to see from a distance, being obscured by trees and buildings, so it's quite a surprise when it suddenly appears. My boon companion asked if it was painted black because it's in Brixton. I had to set him straight and say no. Though it was originally brick, it was painted with black tar to make it weatherproof.

Wimbledon windmill was built a year later than the Brixton one, in 1817, and remained operational until 1864, when it was converted into a house. The sails have been restored to their former glory and the building itself is now a museum.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Top ten Dire Straits songs

Mark Knopfler is not an ugly man but Dire Straits were never exactly the best looking or coolest band around. Even so, they were huge in the 1980s, with their 1985 album Brothers in Arms album shifting some 30 million copies. Looking back at Knofler in those days, no, not an ugly man, but kinda average, with bad hair and a bit weedy, and when seen sporting a red suit with a pastel T-shirt and a head sweatband, it's like he committed some of the worst crimes against fashion ever.

In fact, he's looking the best he's ever looked right now, judging by the recent BBC4 documentary about the man, which got me digging out my old Dire Straits records. I was kinda into them as a young teenager when Brothers in Arms came out. Then I didn't listen to them for years; but they're good, a bit pub rock but low-key and melancholic with Knopfler's vocals sometimes just a whisper. He plays the guitar pretty good too.

1. Sultans of Swing (Dire Straits, 1978)
Apparently the perfect song length to boil a hard boiled egg to (5:34).
2. Romeo and Juliet (Making Movies, 1980)
3. Brothers in Arms (Brothers in Arms, 1985)
4. Tunnel of Love (Making Movies, 1980)
5. Walk of Life (Brothers in Arms, 1985)
6. Money for Nothing (Brothers in Arms, 1985)
7. Why Worry? (Brothers in Arms, 1985)
8. Where Do You Think You're Going? (Comminique, 1979)
9. Your Latest Trick (Brothers in Arms, 1985)
10. Telegraph Road (Love Over Gold, 1982)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Landlord’s daughter

With the landlord’s daughter
Should you oughta?
Large, she moves in slow motion–
No commotion or emotion
‘Cause she ain't going
The fat, freckled arms,
Mouth open sleeping, many chins...
Yes, she’s American.
But that's okay
In a laconic kind of way.
She shaved my chest, then the rest.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lionel Richie Tea

When enjoying a nice cup of tea from this lovely Lionel Ritchie teapot and tea cup (via Etsy), it would only seem right to play some classic songs from his back catalogue, such as: Typhoo, Say Me; (Chai) Endless Love; All Night Oolong; Dancing on Darjeeling; My Endless Mug; Three Cups of Lady Grey; Hello (Is It Tea You're Looking For?); My Des-Tea-ny and Brew It To Me One More Time.*

Whilst drinking your tea and listening to the music, why not complete the occasion with a Lionel Rich Tea biscuit?

Previously on Barnflakes:
The New Shape
Postmodern teapots
Not for all the tea in China
Tagalog for Tea

* I can't take credit for most of these dreadful puns – that dubious honour goes to my work colleagues.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


‘What percentage of the world do you think has been photographed?’ he asked.
There was a pause.
‘That’s an interesting question,’ she said, thoughtfully, sincerely.
Then they both burst out laughing. As if.
A butterfly strolled by. A leaf broke out in a cold sweat. Life sure ain’t what it used to be, old bean.

(Ronda, Spain, 1999)

See also: The Stowaway

Monday, July 09, 2012

Three free female exhibitions

Three free retrospectives by three iconic female artists have opened recently, two in London and one in Oxford. All are worth a look.

Yoko Ono: To The Light (Serpentine Gallery)
The 79-year-old conceptual artist has never been much liked by critics or public. Critics call her work either too facile (her anti-war pieces) or too obtuse (everything else) and the public hate her because John Lennon fell in love with her. Go figure. Me, I quite like her. Controversially, I find her music more exciting than Lennon's ever was. I love her last album, 2009's Between My Head And The Sky. Oko was actually an established artist before she ever met John, so she's been producing art and music for some fifty years now. She's had an amazing life and is now a cultural institution more than anything else. See it and smile.

Madge Gill (The Nunnery)
Outsider artist Gill was born in East Ham in 1882 and grew up in an orphanage before spending her teens in Canada. She married her cousin and got very ill after giving birth to a stillborn baby, losing the sight of her left eye. During her return to health Madge became increasingly interested in spiritualism and became possessed by Myrinerest, her spirit-guide. Under the spirit's guidance she produced all kind of art, including drawing, knitting and weaving. In the 1930s she became a medium, conducting seances in her living room. She never sold any drawings in her lifetime (though she did exhibit), fearing it would anger Myrinerest. After her death in 1961, thousands of drawings were discovered in her home.

The small retrospective at the Nunnery, near Bromley-by-Bow tube, shows a selection of her intense, intricate pen and ink drawings.

Jenny Saville (Modern Art Oxford)
Jenny Saville's unflinching large scale paintings will be familiar to most via two Manic Street Preachers' album covers, 1994's The Holy Bible and 2009's Journal for Plague Lovers.

Even though she's been a professional artist since the early 1990s when her entire degree show was bought by Charles Saatchi, and she had her work exhibited with the YBAs (Young British Artists) at the controversial 1997 Sensation exhibition, amazingly this is the first time Saville has had a solo UK exhibition. If you're wondering why it's in Oxford, it's because she lives there (or, as the publicity blurb says, she's 'based' in Oxford. People don't 'live' in places any more, they're 'based', implying some detachment, a lack of commitment, the possibility of uprooting at a moment's notice. Maybe it just sounds cooler. Either way, it comes across as poncy and I don't like it).

Anyway, I love her paintings. Though obviously a figurative painter, in the documentary which accompanies the show, Saville surprisingly describes herself as an abstract and landscape painter. But standing in front of the paintings, it's not so surprising. They're monumental in size (a nipple the size of my head), the folds of female flesh evoking hills and dales. Up close, the large paint strokes appear blotchy, splattered and abstract.

Saville also has two large drawings in the nearby Ashmolean. Almost doing a Banksy in Bristol, where the graffiti artist planted artworks amongst the other – more traditional – exhibits in the gallery, Saville has likewise placed her drawings alongside traditional Italian Renaissance paintings. The comparison doesn't really work, as Saville's are drawings and the rest paintings but her technique is brilliant – one drawing is based on Leonardo's cartoon in the National Gallery and Saville's looks as good as the master's.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Recent Barngain LPs

Often I'll buy a record in a charity shop if it has a nice – or bizarre – cover. Though you shouldn't judge a book by its (usually bad) cover, perhaps one should judge a record by its cover if it's a good'un. All the above, none of which I'd heard of, turned out to be great.

Clockwise from top left: Fargo, I See it Now (1969): religious pop psych from Salt Lake City, Utah; The Butterfield Blues Band, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw (1967); Sharks, Jab It in Yore Eye (1974) and the self-titled debut by Upp (1975), a British rock/jazz fusion band, featuring guitar by Jeff Beck, who also produced the record.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Top 10 Roman Polanski films

1. Chinatown (1974)
2. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
3. Repulsion (1965)
4. Knife in the Water (1962)
5. The Tenant (1976)
6. Cul-de-Sac (1966)
7. Tess (1979)
8. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
9. Bitter Moon (1992)
10. Macbeth (1971)

Whilst discussing Rosemary's Baby with a girlfriend at film school some twenty years ago, we were both amazed to discover our favourite shot in the film was exactly the same one. It wasn't a scary or dramatic scene; it wasn't a particularly arresting or amazing shot (which makes the coincidence more incredible – in case you're wondering, in case you think one of us was making it up – say, to impress the other, we literally both said it at the same time); it occurs approximately 24 minutes into the film, when Rosemary and Guy are having a vodka blush at the Castevet's home – there's a shot of Roman holding the tray and spilling some liquid on the floor; Minnie bends down to wipe it up (a shot echoed at the end when Minnie picks the knife Rosemary has dropped off the floor and rubs the mark made by it). That's it. But there's something innately cinematic and graceful about it; perhaps the shine off the silver tray, the movement of Minnie; I – we – didn't know; there was something unexplained and mysterious, beautiful yet ordinary about it. (I also remember seeing most of the Fearless Vampire Killers for the first time with the same girlfriend on a black & white fuzzy TV in Wales; I was drunk and watched most of it upside down. And loved it.)

This is perhaps what I like about Polanski's films: they may be horrific or surreal, but it's all in the detail and there's always that elegance, no matter what the subject matter. It's fair to say, like Woody Allen, I love all Polanski's films, the good, the bad and the ugly. Also like Allen, I don't really have a huge problem with his sexual shenanigans. These guys are geniuses; let's give them a bit of latitude.

Roman Polanski's personal life is famously as eventful as his cinematic career: he born in 1933 in Paris but soon moved back to Poland with his parents. By the start of World War II his family had been moved into the Krakow Ghetto. His mother was killed at Auschwitz; he saw his father being taken to Mauthausen. Roman himself witnessed many horrors and endured starvation and beatings, surviving the war by remaining in hiding. He was reunited with his father after the war and eventually went to the famous Lotz film school. His first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962), his only film made in Poland and nominated for an Oscar, already shows themes that would feature in all his films: that is, a claustrophobic location; a pessimistic, dark view of life as well as sexual jealousy and psychological games. Three films made in Britain followed: Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-Sac (1966) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Polanski moved to the States to make Rosemary's Baby a year later. It was in 1969 when his second wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was amongst the guests murdered by the Manson Family at Polanski's house in L.A. (while he was in Europe filming).

Controversy would continue to dog Polanski's life. In 1977 he was arrested for sexually assaulting a 13 year-old girl. Polanski fled the States, never to return. There's a theory that Polanski's cinema mirrors his personal life. Indeed, after the murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski directed a bloody version of Macbeth. After the sexual abuse scandal he directed Tess, starring the 15 year old Nastassja Kinski, with whom he had an affair at the time. Both The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2005) mirror Polanski's experiences in wartime Poland.

Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion and The Tenant make up the loose 'apartment trilogy', presumably because they are largely set in apartments. His most recent film, Carnage, recently released on DVD, is wholly set in an apartment. The premise is vaguely reminiscent of Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, in which a group of middle class dinner guests find themselves unable to leave the room for no apparent reason (according to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, this idea was given to Bunuel by Owen Wilson in 1920s Paris), it's also similar to Christos Tsiolkas's novel and TV series The Slap – the catalyst for Carnage is a boy being hit with a stick. The parents of both boys meet up to discuss the incident. The result? Carnage.

Even Carnage – adapted from a play and set in an apartment – has the same innately cinematic feel as all Polanski's films. His films seem to work best when limited to a particular place: the boat in Knife in the water; a west London apartment in Repulsion; the island of Lindisfarne in Cul-de-Sac; the prime minister's isolated house in Ghost Writer.

Polanski's latest film goes one step further than Damon Albarn's album Dr Dee by calling it simply D. It's based on Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish artillery officer falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. He eventually had his name cleared by the french writer Emile Zola. Comparisons to Polanski's own life are already inevitably being drawn.