Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Random film review: Andrei Rublev

Iconic: a still from Andrei Rublev

Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky | Soviet Union | 1966 | 183 mins.

There's a running joke between my daughter, partner and myself that when we're deciding on a film to watch of an evening, I always say how about a four-hour Russian black and white movie? They always sigh, and say no. The four-hour Russian black and white film I'm always referring to is Andrei Rublev (actually just over three hours long but I exaggerate for effect). I first watched it aged 18 as an art student, and watched it again recently.

Maybe it's the black and white combined with the brutally realistic depiction of medieval Russia but I look on the film as a virtual documentary on the life of the icon painter Andrei Rublev (circa. 1360-1430) though at least 90% of it is presumably made up, seeing as little is known of his actual life. Nevertheless, it feels a truthful, spiritual, and profoundly moving experience watching the film as we follow the monk Rublev (played by Tarkovsky regular Anatoly Solonitsyn) wandering the harsh Russian landscape looking for work as an icon painter and encountering naked pagan rituals, brutal Tatar raids, famine, war and, finally, the casting of a giant bell, where Rublev breaks his vow of silence and desires to return to painting (he'd had years of self-doubt, questioning the role of the artist in society and the point of art amid so much war and bloodshed). The epilogue is the only colour segment of the film, where we see close-ups of Rublev's paintings.

However, not a lot of actual painting is seen during the film (so, no, it's not like watching paint dry). In fact, the guy doesn't even so much as pick up a paintbrush in over three hours (though there's one scene when Rublev is seen sketching an icon). For those looking for the clues to his genius, there is none. It's more like an anti-biopic. After two hours he goes on a vowel of silence. Then gives up painting altogether. In old age he becomes an extra in his own biopic (doesn't that happen to us all eventually? We just become an extra in our own life?).

When I went to Russia a few years ago, aside from the churches and brutalist Soviet architecture, the main thing I wanted to see was Rublev's paintings in the flesh. And they were stunning and beautiful, the colours still fresh and bold. The film had haunted me for many years, and it felt a profound experience to see the paintings, which no doubt I wouldn't have heard of if it wasn't for the film, over twenty years after first watching it.

– 5/5 

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top ten films about painters
Andrei Tarkovsky's top ten films
Top ten foreign sci-fi movies

Random film review: I, Daniel Blake

Dir: Ken Loach | UK | 2016 | 100 mins.

England on celluloid is one of extremes: it's either Richard Curtis or Ken Loach. Real life is somewhere in between for most of us, hopefully. But a few lives are like a Richard Curtis film, far more, most likely, are like a Ken Loach film.

First off, I, Daniel Blake is an important and moving film, charting as it does the benefits hell of Geordie Daniel Blake, who is unable to claim Employment and Support Allowance following a heart attack. His doctor has found him unfit to work but a five minute Work Capability Assessment deems him fit and able, so he has to make a claim for Jobseeker's Allowance. This means he has to actively search for work and provide evidence, but he has to turn work down on the advice of his doctor.

Caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of benefit bureaucracy, what comes across is the seemingly intentional dehumanisation and humiliation of people caught in the benefits system, where through no fault of ones own – accident, loss, illness, redundancy – a person has to turn to the state for help and is treated like a number. What saves the film from being totally depressing is the spirit and humour of Daniel Blake (played by comedian Dave Johns) and his friendship with Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mum of two from London, recently arrived in Newcastle.

I'm glad Ken Loach is making films, but too often find him didactic, his characters mere pawns to express his view on society. It seems hard to believe that, Blake, a man in his 50s with a decent job (carpenter) would never have used a computer or the internet before (though I realise we still live in a country where some people can't read or write). Hence we have a scene in the library where Blake puts his mouse against the computer screen to move the cursor, having never seen or used such a device in his life. Other elements verge on cinematic clich̩ РKatie turning to escort work, for example, rather than looking for work in a bar or shop.

At the risk of sounding facetious, the film sometimes came across as a DIY manual – how to heat your home with bubble wrap, tea lights and a flower pot, for example, and I was thinking (after a bit of internet training, natch) Blake should launch a YouTube channel of instructional videos. Seriously though, he could at least have set up a small carpentry business; it's a great skill to have, and very much in demand. If he did small projects (like his treasured mobiles, the only thing in his flat he wouldn't sell), it wouldn't have affected his heart. 

After it ended, I did imagine a Hollywood remake: Blake takes an Uzi into the job centre and guns everyone down, blows the building up and runs off to Mexico to live with Katie. But it's a Loach film, and there was no happy ending.

– 4/5

Be good to your fiends


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Top ten missed vinyl barngains

 One that got away... Popol Vuh's soundtrack to Herzog's classic 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath of God (though it only contains two tracks from the actual film)

Missed, lost chances and regrets swirl around in my head, whether it be job opportunities, friends, lovers, photos, books or records. I have no explanation for why I didn't buy these records, most of which were under a tenner, and all of which I now of course desperately want.

1. Bob Dylan – The 50th Anniversary Collection 1963 
(6 LP set)
This is the only one I will probably never have the chance to buy again, seeing as it was released in a limited edition of 100 (snuck out by Sony/Legacy to prevent the recordings entering the public domain) and now sells for about £500. I can't remember why I was in Sister Ray early one Saturday morning in November 2013 but I saw it there. For £30. Seemed expensive at the time.

2. Popol Vuh – Aguirre (pictured above)
This one isn't worth a huge amount – about £40 – but the original pressing seems fairly rare. I'd seen it for £5 at a record stall at a car boot sale a few years back. I held it in my hands, put it back. Went back to the stall half an hour later – it was still there – again, held it in my hands, ummed and ahhed, but didn't buy it.

(Recently my mum returned from the V&A with a bunch of greetings cards – including one with the Indian painting of the lotuses on the cover of Aguirre – which even my daughter recognised immediately, as I'd been going on about it so much. For years. Sigh.)

3. Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers 
The one with the famous Andy Warhol crotch shot cover with an actual zipper on the original LP,  I saw this at the record stall in Barnes Fair. Quite rare for the cover to be in perfect condition (with an intact zipper, so to speak) but the vinyl had a large scratch on it so I passed. £4.

4. Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet
£2 in a charity shop in Richmond, this one wasn't in very good condition.

5. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited / 
Bringing it all Back Home
Two classic Dylan albums in great condition at a car boot sale for £3 each. Don't ask.

6. Every single Steeleye Span album
I love Steeleye Span but don't have any of their albums. About a dozen or so had turned up in a charity shop, as well as solo stuff by Maddy Prior. They were all in perfect condition, and £2 each. I wasn't sure which ones to buy – aside from all of them – so opted for none. But I did get Liege & Leaf by Fairport Convention.

7. Crates of classic rock LPs including Led Zeppelin, 
David Bowie etc.
A van pulled up at the Chiswick car boot sale and unloaded about twenty crates of vinyl. Middle-aged men swarmed around them. I had a good look, they were all £2 each, but I felt a bit overwhelmed. There were multiple copies of, say, the first Led Zeppelin album, with different coloured covers. I couldn't remember which the valuable pressings were, so didn't buy anything.

8. Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica
Classic experimental album that is very painful to listen to. I've probably heard the whole album once. Nevertheless, seeing the first pressing, double LP in mint condition in a charity shop was tempting. But not for £20. I went back a few times, waiting for it to be reduced in price. The third time I went, all the vinyl was half price, but Trout Mask Replica was gone. There was other stuff left – including Safe as Milk for £5. I should have got it. But didn't.

9. The Beatles – White Album
Never much liked the Beatles anyway*. £6 a bit steep. Mentioned previously.

10. Crazy Horse – Crazy Horse
The debut album of Neil Young's backing band for £1 in a Crystal Palace charity shop seems a no-brainer but it was a bit tatty.

I very rarely make this mistake any more (i.e. if it's a pound or two, I'll  take a chance – go crazy – and buy it), and the amount of barngains I have bought runs to hundreds, so I'm grateful for what I've managed to find – but these missed ones nag at me like a sore tooth for some reason.


*I remember reading in Nick Hornby's 31 Songs how he wasn't a big Dylan fan but realised he owned about a dozen of his albums anyway. I'm the same with the Beatles (and David Bowie) – I wouldn't call myself a fan of either, but find I own, on vinyl and CD, virtually every album they ever released (as well as some rarieties).

I'm also not a fan of James Corden – but found myself watching his recent Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney. It was surprisingly moving as Macca visits his old haunts in Liverpool, then does a surprise gig in a pub he used to drink in as a lad.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Missed Photos
Letting the barngains go
Recent barngain LPs
Recent barngains
The month's musical barngains
Top 10 greatest missed  barngains
Top 10 most valuable CDs (Consistently one of my post popular posts for some reason)

Elsewhere on Barnflakes:

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Corn + Wall = Cornwall

50 Shades of Ray / Catching some Rays

Just two (for the price of one) concepts from the 28-page book that is It's A Shame About Ray.

Here's what people are already saying about it:

"U r a fucking genius!!!!!!"
– Christian

"Makes me want to meet the legend"
– Mel

"You must have a lot of time on your hands"
– Caspar

"Brilliant work"
– Narinder

"No comment"
– Ray

Top ten London buildings

1. Natural History Museum, SW7*
2. Michelin House, SW3* (pictured)
3. Battersea Power Station, SW8*
4. Horniman Museum, SE23
5. Space House, WC2
6. Gala Bingo Hall, SW17*
7. Peckham Library, SE15
8. Crossness Pumping Station, SE2
9. Southgate Tube Station, N14
10. St Pancras railway station, N1C

*What can I say? South west is best.

Inspirational demotivational business slogans

Previously on Barnflakes:
Aspire to be average
Don't just be yourself
Dream job is an oxymoron; T-1000 came up with 'Nightmare job is a tautology' but it's just the flip side of the coin – I would have thought of it eventually.
Top five office moments

Elsewhere on Barnflakes:
The BARNACLES page has been updated and 'redesigned' (i.e. font made bigger), with choice bon mots now added regularly.

A brief history of photography (part two)

At the risk of sounding pretentious (though I never thought there was anything wrong with that), I feel photography's always been in my blood. My grandfather, who I never met, was a keen photographer and amateur filmmaker; he worked for Kodak and experimented with 16mm colour film before it was available to the public. My uncle, who sadly passed away recently (I helped write his obituary in the Guardian), was a successful food photographer in the 1970s (I remember the surprise of seeing a poster of his in Athena whilst at school and thinking 'He's famous'!) and made adverts in the 1980s. My dad barely ever takes a picture, but my brother and I have always taken them. I would say it was travelling, like with many people, which got both of us into photography. We take similar photos too – of doorways, pavements and faded posters, for example.

Photography was always there in my travels – even if I wasn't the one taking the photos. For example, whilst in a belly dancing club in Cairo in the mid-1990s, my girlfriend at the time and I met two photographers taking pictures of the dancers, and of my girlfriend too when she got up on stage to have a go at belly dancing. They were using a Rolleiflex film camera and promised to post us prints but never did.

Said girlfriend was anti-photography, as I have been too at various times, so I didn't take many photos in Egypt (but obviously, the ones I did are great, such as this and this) or Morocco or most of SE Asia (I took about ten rolls of 36 photos in six months; I might take that in a week now with my iPhone); unique photo opportunities, perhaps, in my travelling days – hitching rides on the back of trucks full of Berbers and goats in the Sahara desert; narrowly missing massacres and revolutions (stuck in Jakarta with dengue fever during the riots and revolution for the fall of Soherto in May 1998, I was surrounded by photo journalists and used to hang out with them in the bars around Jalan Jaksa. I hardly took any photos – I was trying to make a video with a cheap camcorder until it got stolen by a prostitute – see my book Gullible Travels if you're interested). I curse myself now for not buying an SLR and taking lots of photos; it was a different world back then. The things I saw I'll never see again.

But I always felt I was a photographer, just one who didn't necessarily take photos (like Isabelle Huppert in Hal Hartley's film Amateur – the nymphomaniac who doesn't have sex), hence I'm doing a book of Missed Photos (there's something about the photos I didn't take that are always better than the ones I did). Didn't the Japanese used to say – which always seemed to me a bit ironic for them – cameras are an intrusion as they see into the window of the soul? Back then, it felt like I was living life, and photos were just an impingement on life (I always thought photography, like writing, a lonely existence; that's why I think I went into film, a collaborative process).

As mentioned in part one, I learnt how to use an SLR at 'A' Levels, then forgot how; I learnt at art college, then forgot how; I learnt at film school, then forgot how. The first 'proper' camera I bought was a Lomo (it felt proper to me). I loved my Lomo – shooting from the hip was their motto. I worked with a guy called Ken who was annoyingly good at whatever he tried his hand at, including Lomo photography. He took amazing photos with his, and had one published in a magazine, but he had no real interest in photography. I took okay ones, such as this and this.

My Lomo got stolen (also mentioned in part one); in fact I've had about half a dozen cameras stolen from me over the years. I should take heed. Like when my skateboard broke in half (a lovely Mark Gonzales board by Santa Cruz), I knew it was time to quit. I was crap skater (but liked the lifestyle).

Eventually the internet came. I went off photography again in the early internet age, and didn't take any good pics for years. It's like men who think they have a reasonably-sized dick until they come across porn on the internet, and they think 'What the fuck? Is that for real?' (or indeed women who think their boyfriend is pretty well-endowed...). Whatever talent you think you have – genital size, photography, writing, graphic design, illustration... there's a million other people who are bigger, better and more popular than you. Comparisons are inevitable if fruitless at best, destructive at worst.

I enjoy many things – chess, tennis, films, music, writing, photography, travel, for example – but not being brilliant at anything (or even just gaining the respect of my peers or being popular on social media; encouragement from my daughter and girlfriend don't count – that's unfair; of course they do, they're my biggest fans who keep me going – but you know what I mean... they may be biased) is, well, extremely frustrating. Unfortunately, lack of ambition and self-confidence aren't a good combination and don't really help.

With the internet, there's so much talent, sure, but also so much rubbish (or worse still, so much average stuff). A friend told me recently it’s the worst time ever to want to become a photographer – everyone’s a photographer; every day millions of photos are being uploaded. Exactly, I replied, there’s more crap than ever before.

(But Instagram, ah, Instagram. It doesn't even matter what your photos are like. It's about being popular. If you're a popular person, your photos are popular. It reminds me of being at school. The internet is one big popularity contest. Is it just me – yes, I know it is – but the popular photos and blog posts are just inundated with complements: 'amazing photo!', 'great post!', etc – if I ever get any comments, they're mainly piss-takes.)

In a recent interview, Joel Meyerowitz, famous street photographer of the 1960s, declared contemporary street photography dead – the streets are filled with people glued to their phones, he said. I think street photography is the hardest but most exciting genre of photography: you never know what you're going to come across. I love the idea of being a flaneur, wondering the city armed with a camera (which I've been doing on – but mainly off – for 25 years all over the world). Walking down any street, you may stumble across a great photo with a click of the shutter (such as this – which, you know, I love, but think in this day and age, with most people pretty visually astute, maybe six out of ten people walking past it would have taken a shot of it with their phone, and come up with a similar result. The main difference being they probably don't work for Magnum).

(This is what gets me about most office work – you know exactly what you're going to do, every single day. There's no surprises, no eureka moments – but photography, and street photography in particular, you can be walking around the most boring neighbourhood, but if your wits are about you, you may happen upon something beautiful and unexpected.)

The truth is, I've lived most of my life in my head (have I mentioned this before? Oh yes, here somewhere). I read biographies and autobiographies all the time – of film-makers, artists, mathematicians (Alan Turing, if you're wondering), travellers, musicians – from Miles Davis and Malcolm Lowry to Bruce Chatwin and Alan Lomax. What I'm always looking for, in a way, is a clue to how they did it, how they succeeded, and, in a way I suppose, where I went wrong in life. Just as in the film Life of a Leader (excellent, though almost too opaque even for me; the soundtrack the most accessible thing about it, which is saying something for latter-day Scott Walker) looks at the childhood and possible clues as to what ingredients go towards making a fascist dictator (presumably Hitler). So I endlessly pore over clues to what maketh the man (yes, usually a man) a successful artist in his field (Malcolm Gladwell says it's 10,000 hours of practise but I'm not so sure). In other words, to put it another way, why do I feel such a failure (in this area of my life)?

(What can I say? I have friends working in film, advertising, music and fashion; I know people who have published books and directed films; some are earning over £100K a year... I'm genuinely happy for them, if that's what they want. Most of them don't have time to spend their money, let alone spend time with their partners and children. A lot of these so-called glamorous jobs are actually fairly dull; either a lot of waiting around, or not ever leaving the Mac screen. I've worked in most of these fields and though I've been paid well, I've not had any job satisfaction at all. I'll always go my own way, plough my own furrow.)

It might be that I spend more watching my old videos on YouTube, looking at my photos on Flickr and Instagram and reading old blog posts more than anyone else does. I look at other people's work a lot too, and spend time thinking about photography and film, but get disheartened by the sheer volume and talent of it all – and then the comparison thing comes back. I love my films, designs, photos and writing. This is the crux of my failure – no one else agrees with me! At the risk of sounding pretentious again, I try to be creative every single day. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but this is what I've always done, and always will. It's what keeps me going.

Living in my head, I sometimes fantasise that my writing/films/photography/design will be 'discovered' (isn't that how it works? The good stuff rises to the top?) and I'll gain recognition in one of the fields. And make some money! Doing what I like doing! But I'll be aged 82, maybe, sitting in an old people's home, imagining the same thing – I’ll be thinking a Hollywood exec will read a treatment of a film I've written and buy the rights to it; a gallery will call to request an exhibition of my photos; a company will call to use a photo of mine for a billboard campaign; my videos will get millions of hits on YouTube... you get the idea. But meanwhile...

It feels like everything's passed me by. All my interests and passions – films, photography, graphic design, car boot sales, charity shops, old records, books and magazines, art history, travel, my paintings, doodles and writing, my impeccable taste – I just thought it would all lead somewhere. I often think I just want to chuck it all up into the air and have it all land in a different position so I can find a way forward. And get rich and famous.

Turned out to be slightly longer than brief, and perhaps more personal than I envisaged. Luckily no one reads my long blog posts. Thanks for listening if you made it this far.

Previously on Barnflakes:
A brief history of photography (part one)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Top 10 films with men in drag

1. Divine
Pink Flamingos (1972)

2. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis
Some Like it Hot (1959)

3. Dustin Hoffman
Tootsie (1982)

4. Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) 

5. Jeff Bridges
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) 

6. Kurt Russell
Tango and Cash (1989)

7. Tim Curry
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

8. John Travolta
Hairspray (2007)

9. Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo
To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)

10. Robin Williams
Mrs Doubtfire (1993)

Monday, June 04, 2018

Saatchi gallery barngains

It's a shame when the gallery or museum shop is more stimulating than the exhibits on show, but such was the case at the Saatchi gallery this weekend, whose current exhibition, Known Unknowns, failed to excite me or my daughter. The gallery shop, however, was full of wonders. Aside from charity shops, gallery and museum shops are my favourite kind of shops. I'd like to see a whole shopping centre of them, largely to save having to visit the galleries themselves, and to buy all my Christmas presents in one fell swoop. Imagine, shops of the British Museum, Tate, V&A, Natural History museum, etc, all under one roof. Retail and cultural bliss combined.

The Saatchi gallery shop has lots of reduced books, including The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape, a neat book which informs you which fonts are which in the city, from shop signs to train station signage. Reduced from £16.99 to £6.95.

In the gallery itself, French Lebanese artist Mouna Rebeiz has gone to town on the freebie front. Her exhibition The Trash-ic or Trash in the Face of Beauty, is giving away lavish A3 catalogues of the exhibition, as well as an English edition of the French art magazine connaissance des arts (usual price: £7.80), which features – yup – her exhibition. I don't know who's paying for this free promotion for Rebeiz (presumably not her). Finally, Saatchi's surprisingly consistently boring gallery magazine, Art  & Music, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, was also picked up for free. Oh, the gallery is also free to visit, should you feel the need to go.

I don't know, I just figured as my daughter (almost 12) is into girl power, she might like the exhibition of 17 female artists. I didn't think it would be exploring mainly adult themes – spurting bodily fluids, sex, human trafficking – and my daughter wasn't impressed. Some of it actually looked quite interesting, but we had to rush through it – there was a shop to get to.