Saturday, August 29, 2015

Growing old gracefully

We worship the cult of youth and beauty at the expense of character and depth but it's interesting to notice actors (or indeed, just regular people) who have aged well (without plastic surgery) and look better now than in their youth. There are plenty (and yes, it does seem to be men more than women – I guess men acquire dignity and character which they may lack when younger). Or maybe it's just they looked bad at the time because of the awful fashions and haircuts.

I was reminded of this when watching two specific actors – Sam Neil and William Devane. I don't know, when they were young, they looked pretty terrible; Sam Neil was bland and William Devane looked cheesy and always had a shit-eating grin on his face.

Contrast Sam Neil in Possession (a bizarre cult horror film from 1981) and the Tudors (2007-2010), where he plays Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. In the 1980s, anything William Devane was in was pretty tacky but fast forward to 24 (2005-2007), where he plays President of the United States and Interstellar (2014), which he's in for about thirty seconds. Both actors acquired gravitas, partly to do with the roles – you couldn't have a 20 year old playing the President or a Cardinal, but still, it just looks like they've not only matured in age but in ability too, and seem comfortable in their bodies.

Even Paul Giamatti, not exactly leading man material in 2010's Sideways (though he does get the girl) but by San Andreas (2015), playing a seismologist, he looks quite distinguished and far more attractive. Someone like Tom Cruise, on the other hand, looks basically the same as he did twenty years ago, and still appearing in the same crappy kind of films too. He lacks character, maturity and depth – and has never been in a great film (maybe Magnolia comes close). I would probably say the same of Brad Pitt too.

Creative people, whether it be actors, artists, writers, film directors or photographers, seem to work until they die. Most of us look forward to retiring (I have been since about the age of twenty one, when I probably wasn't actually working, but just had an inkling that to fast forward forty years and get to retirement would be bliss), work is something to do 9-5 five days a week, then switch off when not doing it, and count the days to retirement. But for creatives it's a way of life, a passion that lasts throughout their lives, no matter what their age.

Previously on Barnflakes:
The seasons of life

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

City Syndromes

There aren't many cities which have a syndrome named after them – Stockholm is probably the most well-known but there are a few others, including Helsinki, Lima, Oslo, Paris, Florence and Jerusalem. Going to any one of these cities made me think I'd automatically succumb to their syndromes – but I haven't so far. Stockholm syndrome is the phenomenon where victims of a crime, such as hostages in a robbery, express positive emotions towards their captors. The term comes from a bank robbery in Stockholm in 1973.

Less well known is the Helsinki syndrome, usually referred to when mistakenly meaning Stockholm syndrome, such as in the movie Die Hard, for example, and by Richard Hammond on Top Gear, but it actually originates from the Helsinki Accord of 1975, which attempted to thaw relations between the communist bloc and the west. It was non-binding. The syndrome alludes to a psychological lack of attention, for example if you'd run over a deer in your car but blocked out all memory of it (as it was too upsetting).

Other cities with syndromes sound like they're just getting on the city syndrome bandwagon: Lima syndrome, coined in 1996, is the opposite of Stockholm, so it's where the criminals feel sympathy for their hostages. Oslo syndrome posited the theory that Stockholm syndrome can be applied to an entire people – in the case of Kenneth Levin's 2005 book, The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege, it's the Arab-Israel conflict.

By the time we get to the Paris syndrome, things are getting odd: it's a delusional state which can occur whilst visiting the city. Affecting mainly Japanese tourists, it's apparently an extreme form of culture shock and is blamed on Japanese magazines which feature idealised images of Paris. Florence syndrome, or Stendhal's syndrome, is a similar occurrence, which can produce fainting and confusion when exposed to beauty and art, such as is found in the Italian city. Jerusalem syndrome involves psychotic decompensation when visiting the city.

Paris, Florence and Jerusalem are the only three syndromes that pertain to being in the actual city (and all involve the difference between the city of the imagination, and being unable to cope with the actual reality of the place); with the others it doesn't matter. For example, you can suffer from Oslo syndrome in Jakarta and Stockholm syndrome in London, as long as you get kidnapped, of course.

In the news recently: there was a China syndrome of sorts the other day when the Chinese stock market suffered heavy losses. The term actually refers to a nuclear meltdown, from the somewhat outdated notion that the meltdown would go far down to the other side of the world (apparently, China). Also a fine 1979 thriller starring Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A guide to photography for tourists

Stand directly in front of the building/object you are taking the photo of. Don't look at it except through the viewfinder/screen of your camera/phone. Be ruthless – obscure anyone else's view if necessary: your photos are more important than theirs. Take thirty photos of the same thing and move on. It is important not to look at what you are taking a photo of except through the screen. This was a recent experience of tourists in the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg (above, Leonardo's Madonna Litta, which may not even be painted by him). God, tourists are arrogant morons. Just buy a postcard! A photo of an object behind glass is never going to turn out well. Whilst I'm at it, tourists love using the flash, when, 1. They're not meant to (when there are No Flash! signs near a painting for example), or, 2. When it's going to ruin the photo (when it's of a reflective surface such as glass or when it's at night and they want to take photo of a cityscape, say). I often want to go over to them and tell them their photos are awful, if you're going to be compulsive about it, you may as well get to know some basics (don't zoom, flash is ugly, the golden rule of thirds etc). They're just oblivious.

Photography has pretty much always been an obsessive, cataloging thing, be it Bernd and Hilla Becher's industrial buildings and structures, Erwin Elliott's dogs, Walker Evans' shop fronts or, more recently, Stephen Zirwes' German public pools and Adrian Skenderovic's Down the river series.

But digital photography and social media have taken obsessive photography to a whole new level, where there's no need to look at anything anymore, just take a photo of it and upload it. The proof of having been there/done that is in the photo. It doesn't matter about the subject matter or the quality – the photo is the proof of existence. Where posting your breakfast on Instragram is the norm, the internet has made ordering, collating, curating and obsessing acceptable behaviour.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Lookalikes #26: Holiday adverts 
A brief history of photography

Saturday, August 15, 2015


The dumped chest of drawers covered in rubbish beside the council estate bins was worthless, until it was taken home, cleaned, and flogged for £150 at a vintage fair. The tack at the car boot sale was worth next to nothing, until identical items appear in vintage shops in Columbian road, EC1, then it becomes vintage, retro crap, I mean chic, and sells for ten times as much. What I'm getting at is that stuff is all about context. And people are all about context too.

My ex bemoans the fact that I (and my parents too actually) like seeing my daughter in context (ie where she lives, not just visiting me) but like seeing animals in a zoo as compared to seeing them in the wild, context is everything.

In a Ted Talk, educationist Ken Robinson talks about creativity in education. He argues that creativity is largely squeezed out of children at a young age in favour of maths, English and the sciences; he believes this is wrong – and cites the example of a now-famous ballet dancer who at school displayed signs of ADHD (this was before the term was invented, mind) and would have been wrongly diagnosed had it not been for an attentive teacher – who realised she just wanted to dance. She went on to start her own dance company and perform in such shows as Cats the Musical.

Many of us are stifled at school and work unable to fulfil our full potential in either. We need to be in the right environment and context to perform well at school and work – all institutions have a tendency to pigeon hole and fail - or don't give a shit – to spot our true talents.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Absolutely famous

Friday, August 14, 2015

Womb vs world

Life is full of the internal and external battle. It starts in the womb – we don't want to leave and come out screaming, against our will. The womb vs world battle is the one we probably never grow out of, so to speak, and every subsequent battle is just a replay of that first massive jolt from inner to outer. We spend nine months in the comfort of the womb, with no idea of what's ahead in the outside world.

Once into adulthood, most of our battles are firmly in place. Getting out of bed in the morning is the first of the day; the morning alarm disrupts the womb-like feel of the warm bed and we go from that dark warmth, comfort and absolute bliss into the cold, blaring light of day. Going from home to work is the next battle – the comfort and sanctity of the home is in marked contrast to the sterile, impersonal environment of the office. Even having to wear clothes is a kind of battle for me – the freedom of nudity and the cost, hassle and uncomfortable, constricting feeling of clothes.

People's move from country to city is another kind of womb vs world battle: now, for the first time in history, more people live in urban areas than rural (54%). Country is nature, spirituality and freedom; it's our natural habitat. The city is crime-ridden, over-populated, cramped and dirty – it hardly feels like a natural environment for humans. Obviously there are many reasons for the move towards urban areas – jobs being one of the main ones, but the move from country to city is such a seismic shift of the hundred years.

If given the choice, I wonder how many of us would choose to ever leave the womb. We should be given the option as we're about to exit the womb to either stay or go.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

People are stories

American historian Richard Carrier spent six years researching the idea that Jesus was never a real person. Well, okay. But does it matter? Religion in general seems to me a series of stories, myths and legends invented by humans as guides to living a good life. Jesus and God are no different to, say, Zeus, Apollo or Winnie the Pooh. Helen said to me: everyone becomes a story in the end, which made me stop and think. This is immediately apparent when someone dies; at their funeral we swap stories of the recently deceased and may even find out something about them we didn't know. Their life has become a story; it's the main way we keep them alive – by relating stories about them: 'Do you remember when so-and-so did this or that?' Living people are stories too. Unless we're actually with that person, their life to us is a series of stories, be it recitals, anecdotes or gossip.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Top ten London creatures

1. Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Seriously, they're the main reason I moved there.

2. Elephant at Elephant and Castle

3. Albino Bat at Natural History Museum

4. Catford Cat
The best thing about Catford.

5. Camel at The Camel & Artichoke, Waterloo

6. Crystal Palace Sphinxes
Second reason I moved there.

7. Brick Lane Space Invader

8. Kentish Town Camel

9. Hampton Court Panther

10. Pacman Ghost on The Windmill Pub, Lambeth High St

Previously on Barnflakes:
Dick Whittington's Cat
Giro the Nazi Dog

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Lookalikes #37: Robert Frank and George Michael

No, not Robert Frank himself but a photo he took for his hugely influential book of photos, The Americans, published in the States in 1959; and George Michael, around the time of his album Faith (1987).

Previously on Barnflakes:
Book cover: Robert Frank's Les Americains
Robert Frank's ridiculous ratios