Liverpool Biennal 2014:
The Bluecoat.

Art Here’s how I met Whistler’s mother. It’s Paris in 2001 (isn’t it always) and I’m visiting the Musee d’Orsay having entirely forgotten in the heat and having seen about a dozen other paintings of world importance that Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 is part of its collection too. Having completely destroyed my feet the day before doing the Doctor Who thing on the Eiffel Tower, I needed to rest my pins many times during that museum visit and having entered yet another small, packed room, noticed an empty seat and quickly sat down or as quickly as my feet would allow, sat down. After surreptitiously taking a drink of water, I glanced around and there she was, sitting, literally, on the wall to the side of me mirroring the position of the gallery bench, almost as though we were in audience.

The Musee d’Orsay in Paris is the kind of institution which has such an abundance of paintings of world importance that what would be put in the “average” position in a regional gallery is the sort of thing which would otherwise be given its own room in a regional gallery so here she was on a side wall, only really visible from this seat the visitor’s head cocked to the side. For minutes I sit scrutinising, dodging other tourists as they stand in the tiny space between the bench and the wall or almost in my lap trying to get the decent look which is only really possible from this position on this bench. Eventually my feet begin working again and I totter onward having become rather blasé about the occasion, which is just what happens when you’ve just recently seen about a dozen other paintings of world importance.

All of which makes it deeply unfair of me to say that the best artist I’ve seen so far at this Biennial is James McNeill Whistler because he’s James McNeill Whistler. But James McNeill Whistler is the best artist I’ve seen so far at this Biennial and it’s important to say at the outset that the existence of this exhibition is a blessing. As I have discussed and over-discussed at length elsewhere, Liverpool tends to be overwhelmed with exhibitions of post 1900 art, most often post-WWII art so the chance to see work which was created in the middle of the century before last outside of a permanent collection display, is, yes, a blessing. That in the unusual setting of the Bluecoat, which usually offers the most contemporary of contemporary art and exists due to the curatorial decision of Liverpool Biennial usually considered one of the most contemporary of festival is a brill curiosity.

But Whistler was a contemporary artist himself when the work was originally created and the big theme of the exhibition is justification. One room dedicates itself to the libel trial in which the painter sued the art critic (etc) John Ruskin, who’d taken umbrage at Whistler’s impressionistic artistic style and one painting in particular saying that he “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.” Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket is daring stuff and you can see that Ruskin, and Punch who also took a dislike to Whistler judging by the many cartoons included in the exhibition unable to cope with the idea that more than one artistic tradition could co-exist, that this cloudy blue surface could have the same emotional depth and poetry as the fine detail of a pre-Raphaelite scene.

Whistler (spoiler) won his trial due to Ruskin not being able to defend himself and so unable to provide the necessary defence, he did at least do art history the favour of putting the artist on the back foot and forcing him to justify his existence or at least the paintings that sustained his existence. In an exchange from the trial, he’s asked by his inquisitor exactly why as per Ruskin, The Falling Rocket, "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?" to which Whistler replies "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime” thereby explaining for that time onward the worth of painting and sculpture which are about thought rather than action or at least in which on balance the ratio tips more towards the former than the latter.

Anyone who visits as many exhibitions as I do will hopefully agree with me that we see a lot of crap art, utter, abject rubbish that not even a well worded explanatory label can morally justify. It’s a hazard of “culture” as defined by the section on The Guardian’s website that there’ll be a largish percentage of dreck, because there has to be, because “culture” thrives on mistakes. But, it could be argued, there might be less of it if artists were forced into a similar position as Whistler, of having to stand behind the work, of being able to not just explain what it means (assuming they can be bothered) but justifying what it’s doing in the world and how they hope it adds to human experience. In other words, why don’t artists (or indeed curators) have to face the same scrutiny and politicians and sports people?

The other theme of the exhibition is reproduction. Set designer Olivia de Monceau has been tasked with recreating Blue and Silver: Screen with Old Battersea Bridge (original at Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow) and a free-standing cross section of one wall of Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (original at the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.). The painting featured in the Biennial booklet, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre appears in the form of a digital print on Foamex (because the notion of borrowing the original from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco with the connected insurance costs would presumably be prohibitive) and Ruta Staseviciute's recreation of Arrangement in Black (The Lady in the Yellow Buskin) (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The display also contains a number of good etchings including the atmospheric Two Doorways from his Venice set, with its mysterious figures in silhouette.

But arguably the best work in the exhibition is one of the smallest and a watercolour, one of the few occasions when the artist himself is directly present. Nocturne in Great and Gold – Piccadilly captures the metropolis at its most impressionistic, vehicles, buildings and people lost in the fog. Like Turner, like the Abstract Expressionists later, it’s a painting which initially appears indistinct but repays our time as the artist’s craft in suggesting details through apparently uncontrolled brush stokes, motioning towards emotional realism through the viewers memory of what it’s actually like to me in that kind of fog. Presumably the street scenes of Atkinson Grimshaw would have been more Ruskin’s sort of thing. But as I think we’ve somewhat forgotten ourselves now, it’s possible for both to co-exist.

Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock: 20 February 1885: Public Lecture (recording by Mr P Cock, 2014)

This is a lecture the artist gave at Prince's Hall, Piccadilly on as the title states, 20 February 1885. Here’s a transcript and here’s an essay by Oscar Wilde (who was in attendance) written in response. It’s featured in the exhibition in the form of an audio reading played through speakers in “The Vide” section of the Bluecoat, the concrete area just past the lockers and round the corner from the toilets and notice boards which is more often used for installation art. It’s not a video, of course, but I didn’t want to break format too much so I’m ushering this piece of audio into the project even though I’m not sure what’s primarily of the most importance, its existence as a thing or the content, Whistler’s words. There are also reproductions of those words on a coffee table in the space so I expect that’s the point.

Except I haven’t really had a chance to experience those words. When I arrived at 10:25, the recording hadn’t been turned on. I asked a volunteer about this and after I sat at the table, eventually someone arrived to go behind the scenes and begin the recording. The words played clearly from the wall mounted speakers, “It is with great hesitation and much misgiving that I appear before you, in the character of – The Preacher …” then a lift arrived with a friendly “doors opening”. A staff member walked out. Another lift. More people walking past. The other lift. Clatter. Folded up furniture being moved. Chatter. Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock: 20 February 1885: Public Lecture is being played in the second most trafficked area for humanity on the ground floor of the building besides the entrance hall.

Fairly quickly I picked up one of the transcriptions determined to read along and like the video pieces at other venues stick it out to the end. But Whistler is making an argument, essentially reading an essay, and that requires concentration, especially since the language is just slightly more arcane and alien to our ears, and it’s difficult to concentrate when life is happening all around. Of course this isn’t life’s fault. Life has every justification for doing whatever it is that it’s doing. But eventually I gave up not entirely sure what the point was and is in presenting the lecture in this manner. Headphones would limit the audience, but you could argue the audience for this is limited anyway, predicated as it is on a person sitting in a gallery space for half an hour, ad-hoc, listening to a lecture.  Podcast?

Cherbourg Cleaning.

Film For fans of this sort of thing, which is probably all of you, a short piece from Criterion about the restoration of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The videos features Agnes Varda and all the family, including Mathieu Demy, the French Andrew Collins it seems. Spoiler warning: it gives away the ending.

Robot Ergon.

TV Robot Chicken have done Doctor Who and as is so often the case when they tackle anything outside Star Wars it's about as funny as a hernia (as I know from experience) making all the same mistakes as that stupid Extras thing with David Tennant of not actually referencing anything in particular from the show other than the relatively iconic stuff which wasn't even particularly amusing when Lenny Henry or French & Saunders did them decades ago.  Oh and the obvious sense that they haven't watched the revival at all which makes them look even less relevant.  Plus, Whizz Kid?  Hello?

G! because we DIY!

Music Just watching the Live in Edinburgh Concert on BBC One which is what it is. They have at least had the good grace to invite Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, what remains of The Beautiful South. They sang this:

With its surprisingly familiar sounding chorus which is basically this:

I wonder if it's a direct homage and if so, well, goodie, goodie, yum, yum.

The Films I've Watched This Year #26

Film To break format briefly, this has been a rich old week for film with any of the following being a potential film of the week in previous lists.  That one actually does rise above them reminds me exactly why film is my cultural medium of choice.  Missing from the below list is all the football I watched last weekend, the many episodes of Damages and the first episode of Stig Larsson's Millenium, meaning the first half of the television version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo which as I guessed, oh so long ago, does flow much better structurally than the edited version which turned up on our cinema screens.  I'll still be interested to see if Lisbeth does have more to do in the second half, disappears as she does from the theatrical cut.  But that's for next week, I'm taking this slowly.  Anything else?  There was the FACT visit of course, but I think I've said everything I'm going to say about that.

City of Ember
Army of Darkness
The Dark Knight Rises
The Great Gatsby
Evil Dead
The Invisible Woman

Boyhood is one of the greatest films of all time.  Within six months to a year, articles will appear in film journals.  Within ten years it'll appear relatively high in the Sight and Sound film poll and within twenty it'll be in the top ten.  Along with Gravity, it's a demonstration of how every generation is still capable of producing works as thoughtful and mighty as Citizen Kane, Sunrise, La Règle du jeu or Tokyo Story, that in these moments when it seems that film has plateaued or become stagnant, that there will always be a work can stand amongst the greats.  If you've not seen it yet, go now before it disappears from cinemas so that in years to come when you're talking about it you can say you saw it at an auditorium on release rather than streamed it.  Or indeed go because it also feels like the final celebration of celluloid, the last gasp of a medium which as the filmmakers explain became increasingly difficult to shoot on as the project proceeded.

What will those film essays consider?  Most filmmakers change their style somewhat over time, especially directors as industrious as Linklater so we could ask about the extent to which that impacted on the creative decisions he made during shooting.  Is it possible to see his own creativity develop and change across the film along with his characters or is the resulting work different to how it might have been when he started out?  What about the element of nostalgia or as Linklater has himself identified in interviews the way in which he was shooting a kind of contemporary period piece knowing full well that what was cutting edge technology would seem archaic by the time the film was released.  As he also says, the ambience of society hasn't changed as much in these twelve years as it did between, for example the late 60s and the early 80s, the same period in years as his work on this has.

The film's production began at the same time as this blog.  I think of this blog as an ageing relic sometimes, so what must it have been like for the Linklater to edit this film?  What of the cast, who hadn't seen any of what was shot before it had been put together, not least Ellar Coltrane who was apparently entirely discombobulated by the experience of seeing the six year old version of him acting for the first time.  The film's big achievement, I think, is that it's constantly possible to forget the effort and simply enjoy the result even if sometimes it is possible to guess which other project Ethan Hawke was working on depending on the extent of his facial hair and girth.  There's also the clever Harry Potter element in which he acknowledges the kinship with that other film series which shows young actors growing with their parts.  But the intents have been different, Linklater's level of creative will greater.

Time's short so I'll give the rest the short shift they barely deserve.  City of Ember is Dark City for kids, obviously and just as unseen and unmemorable, despite the presence of Bill Murray as the mayor of a town lost for two hundred years beneath the Earth and Saoirse Ronan on the edge of ascendancy.  The real star is the set, which was the biggest ever at the time of shooting, a massive, completely practical edifice built in Belfast which unlike a CG replacement gives a real epic sense to a piece which would feet perfectly in the Moffat era of Doctor Who.  And yes, that's a compliment.  But The Great Gatsby is just as beautiful because of the way it utilised CG to create impossible shots as the imaginary camera sweeps across the landscape as is The Invisible Woman because like Boyhood it's interested in life's incidentals, like mechanics of going to the toilet in the Dickens household.

Doctor Who began filming this day ten years ago.

Travel ... and my first impulse on hearing this information was to book two days in Cardiff so that I could see the city before it became a tourist attraction, a trip I catalogued in a series of posts on this blog. Example:
"In the event, the only time I brushed past one of the main reasons for going to Cardiff was in a really undernourished coffee shop near the castle. One of the baristas, a tall, loud theatrical man was loudly telling his colleagues and by proxy everyone else in the place that he'd received a call from Cardiff Casting asking if he wanted to do a few days on Doctor Who. Ironically he seemed only to be thinking about it. I would have left my job and home and moved to Cardiff just to walk past in the background. They'd apparently been looking at him because he was a particular height, weight and proportion. I took comfort in the fact that if he took the job he'd more than likely be encased in latex and wouldn't be seen anyway, sweating his way through the three days. I'm not bitter about these things you see."
Yes, right.  In case you're wondering, because for some reason I failed to mention, the film I saw that evening was The Motorcycle Diaries at the Chapter Arts Centre.  There's no way I would have let a detail like that slip through now.

"Manic Pixies, it’s time to put you to rest."

Film Nathan Rabin, the culturalist who coined the term "manic pixie dream girl" has now disowned and apologised for creating the term "manic pixie dream girl". Writing for Salon, he says:
"I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to pop culture: I’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster. Seven years after I typed that fateful phrase, I’d like to join Kazan and Green in calling for the death of the “Patriarchal Lie” of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. I would welcome its erasure from public discourse. I’d applaud an end to articles about its countless different permutations. Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness. But in the meantime, Manic Pixies, it’s time to put you to rest."
I can think of about a dozen films I utterly adore which feature a character like this. Half of those feature Zooey, a couple of Megs, a Natalie or two and some Kirstins. Ok, so actually more than twelve. I appreciate this is problematic especially since I'm also one of the first people to bemoan the lack of autonomous female protagonists (see recent moan about La Grande Bellezza) and how as was noted in the original articles these characters exist simply as motivational plot points but there's also an extent to which some films are fantasy and can and should work on that level, especially if they're only ninety minutes long. I liked Elizabethtown.

The problem is that there's no gender reversed equivalent that I can think of and we're still living through a moment when they're often the only portrayal of young women on screen.  That's the problem.  It's especially galling in films like Cemetary Junction or Love and Other Drugs when the MPDG figure is suddenly given a scene or twos worth of narrative agency in the worst kind of tokenism imaginable and only so that they can either make the big decision as to whether they're going chase after the male protagonist or put them in a position so that the male protagonist has to go find them and learn something about themselves anyway.

As the Norah Ephron scripted Meg Ryan films, Friends with Benefits and Easy A have demonstrated, balance is possible in romantic comedies and there have been other moments when female leads have been in the ascendency, notably in the eighties teen cycle.  Kazan's being slightly disingenuous about Ruby Sparks since at least under my reading its actively criticising the writers who create these characters even if it ultimately bottles it at the very end.  The character she plays therein is a MPDG as a way of demonstrating how disastrous in creative terms the worst excesses of these characters can be.  Which is all to the good, because it's only when you point this stuff out that anyone learns anything, or something.

Liverpool Biennial 2014:
Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT)

Art The first important piece of information you need to know about FACT Liverpool exhibition is that it opens at 11am. The other venues open at 10am. Having checked the Biennial website before today’s visit which said “Weekdays and Sunday 12pm - 6pm”, I was actually on Bold Street and in FACT briefly at five to eleven but then spent the next hour trying to find something to do, which in this case amounted to visiting Forbidden Planet and then wandering down to Marks & Spencers to buy a jar of marmalade when I didn’t need to. I mean I didn’t need to kill time rather than needing marmalade. You should always have a jar of marmalade in the house. But I could have bought it after visiting the exhibition rather than before. During the writing of this piece the website has actually been corrected to give the right opening hours (old version cached here) necessitating the replacement of the sentence which previous appeared here with this one. But remember, 11am.

FACT also demonstrates the “danger” of spreading out your Biennial experience across weeks and assigning a day to each. The venue is highlighting the work of a single artist, Sharon Lockhart, and focuses on just a few pieces across its massive spaces. Within the context of a day spent wandering around the whole Biennial or a number of venues this is presumably less of a problem than if it’s your only destination, where the experience is to be brutally honest a bit sparse. I was in and out in an hour and that included a good fifteen minute chat with one of the volunteers about the implications of one of the works in relation to visitor expectations. The artist is also curating a film series and premiering a new piece later in the year, but the fact remains (sorry) that this is one of Liverpool’s primary art venues and for the next three months it’s displaying something that previously would have more naturally found a home at one of the temporary spaces which are fewer in number this time.

Podworka (Sharon Lockhart, 2009)

The single piece massive gallery one space on the ground floor, Podworka is projected onto a giant, square screen resting on the floor, with a long bench or seat opposite. On that screen we see footage, half an hour of footage, of the same children, more or less, playing in a series of urban locales, car parks, derelict commercial properties, around bus stops and alleyways. We’re in Lodz, the third largest city in Poland (location of the national film school) and witnessing the creativity of children and their ability to find stimulation in the degrading remnants of humanity, of the disintegrating architecture which tends to destroy the hope of adults. Where we see a dangerous pothole full of dirty rain water, a small boy with a bicycle enjoys experimentation shifting the wheels of his vehicle in and out marvelling at how the water leaves patterns on the concrete or noticing how he can see the depth of the pool from how far the wheels have submerged.

The only adult appearis in the car park scene, in the very far distance supervising as the kids ride their bicycles around and round. Towards the end of that vignette, all of the children wander over and they embrace and we assume this must be a parent. But since we’re also sitting on a bench in front of each of these static scenes, are supposed to be experiencing what it’s like to be a parent or at least a supervising figure in these children’s lives? Certainly as two boys fearlessly climb up the side and onto the roof of a graffiti strewn building which looks as though it’s about to collapse at any moment, our natural impulse is firstly of fear and secondly to almost call out to them to be careful. But we’re also behavioural anthropologists guessing the implications of play and how the children interact with one another and if we can easily tell if they’re in long term friendships or simply at a loss that day and enjoying each other’s company however briefly.

As this rather good survey from The Seventh Art blog demonstrates, Lockhart’s approach is to lock off her camera in various locales and capture the results, a kind of long form, in motion version of still photography. But people interested in film will see parallels with slow cinema, notable Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte with its seemingly endless shots capturing the life of a goat farmer or for the (somewhat) more mainstream option Michael Hanneke’s Cache, in which important plot details are almost in hidden in full view in frame within lengthy mater shots of buildings or the view from a dashboard. There’s also perhaps some kinship with Atom Egoyan’s Calendar, which also plays on the intersection between a locked off moving image having similar properties to a still camera as he let part of his action play out against a backdrop of images of churches in Armenia in preparation to be taken (see here for a review).

But all of those are a fiction and have narrative intent, whereas Lockhart’s is a documentary vision, which is fine, but after the second or third vignettes, I was bored, the point having apparently been made. Because of my decision to watch through all of the film and video work on display at the Biennial, I stuck it out until the end, but most visitors drifted in and out, some watching a couple of vignettes, some barely most of one. If we are supposed to be in the position of supervising these children, perhaps boredom is the intent. Perhaps it’s simply that the vignettes are too long, on average about five minutes. It’s also notable that there’s no shape to Podworka, no credits, so it wasn’t until the first vignette I’d seen reappeared that I’d known I’d seen them all. Which was the first? Are we supposed to know? Or is the first whatever we see first, Lockhart conscious of the display of video and film art in a gallery setting where its usually near impossible not to mooch in at the middle and then after to stay after credits to see how it begins.

I’m also not sure what it’s for, or at least what we’re supposed to gain from it. There’s a certain poignancy in the way that it captures a moment in these child’s lives and evokes our own memory of similar modes of play when we were their age (which is especially true for me growing up in Speke in the 70s & 80s) and you can see why Lockhart has chosen to include  Richard Linklater's Boyhood within the series of film’s she’s presenting at FACT which does something similar across a much longer form. During the making of the piece, the artist one of the teenagers which led to a five year residency in Poland, the results of which appear in the rest of the gallery, but before seeing that, just watching this purely without context I was constantly wondering if I was learning anything particularly new about childhood and a child’s imagination that indeed my own memories don’t otherwise provide. Perhaps the best audience for the work will be these children, all grown up, being reminded of what it was like for them.

Mise en scène dans Quand Harry rencontre Sally...

Film The Vulture has a slide show demonstrating how the use of space on screen, and the physical position of Harry and Sally in When Harry Met Sally changes depending on how close the characters are emotionally:
"It's safe to assume that the main theme of When Harry Met Sally is about whether men and women can be friends, since the characters talk about it a bunch. However, on the 25th anniversary of the film's release, I'd like to offer another reading: When Harry Met Sally, with all of those cute old couple interviews, is a movie about how people come together. Not only is that the story Nora Ephron was telling with the plot, but it's also the one told visually by director Rob Reiner. In every scene involving Harry and Sally, the physical distance between the two in the frame reflects where they are emotionally. And I mean every scene. Here’s a scene-by-scene slideshow of screenshots, GIFs, and videos that explains what I'm getting at and illustrates how Reiner used spacing in the mise-en-scène to tell this love story. You'll never be able to watch When Harry Met Sally the same way again."

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0:
Your House.

Written by Alanis Morissette & Glen Ballard
[from: 'Jagged Little Pill', Maverick, 1995]

Music  This is my favourite Morissette track. It captures the essence of what she’s been trying to do, with all the props and guitars which usually flood her tracks entirely absent. Unlike everything else it doesn’t have many words syndrome, but like her best songs it’s a list. When she performs it live, it’s always with a minor guitar accompaniment which seems out of place as though someone else has joined her trek through her ex-lover’s new life. Keep it natural [originally written twelve years ago].

[Commentary:  This is still my favourite Morissette track.  It captures he essence was what seemed like she was trying to do before the props and guitars really began to flood her tracks.  Unlike everything it doesn't have many words syndrome, even though considered her recent excesses it is a list.  When she recreated it for the acoustic album, it was with a guitar accompaniment which was out of place and along with the vocals made it sound like a sub-Sarah McLachlan b-side.  Keep it natural.]

Molly Ringwald on her struggle to have a child.

"So when I was six years old I recorded a jazz album..."

Film Hosted at The Guardian, Molly Ringwald's turn at The Moth, the storytelling thingymajigy which is often the source for more stories of This American Life [see here].

Squirrel Girl!

Film Kevin Feige has commented on Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man and this really does, as I speculated, sound like the Torchwood problem. Key quotes from The Guardian piece:
"We sat round a table and we realised it was not working," he said. "A part of me wishes we could have figured that out in the eight years we were working on it. But better for us and for Edgar that we figure it out then, and not move it through production.

"We said let's do this together and put out a statement. What do we say? 'Creative differences'. I said: 'That's what they always say and no-one ever believes it.' Edgar said: 'But in this case it's true … '"
The more I scrutinise at this, the more it looks like Feige and Wright were desperate for two entirely different film making styles and creative modes to coalesce, so desperate that they recklessly went ahead anyway but ultimately, in the end, shrugs.

Watch this:

Edgar Wright - How to Do Visual Comedy from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

The idea that Wright could direct a Marvel film and have it do all of the above and retain his directorial vision is ludicrous for all the reasons, however much some of us would love to see it, Woody Allen's never directed a Western or straight science fiction film.  Or Alfred Hitchcock.  His fans would hate the thing because however much he tried he'd end up watering down those things they like about his films because of the needs of the 'verse and that's exactly what was happening as it edged towards production. MARVEL fans would hate it because it couldn't deliver on the things they expect, though it might have done some of the usual box office, it would have been the odd Ant-Man out.

Both sides have been pretty silly about the whole thing, especially MARVEL which is now saddled with this strange project which will still be a half-way house under Peyton Reid.  Is it still a straight up comedy?  Was it ever?  MARVEL could have cancelled this five years ago, but the cache of having Wright on board presumably gave the studio a certain cool and Wright was on a passion project.  The whole thing remains a mess, frankly, and if I was MARVEL I'd cancel the whole thing, or at least fill the production gap with something else (Squirrel Girl!) until they figure out exactly what a proper Ant-Man film should be like in the MARVEL universe.  Starring Amy Acker as The Wasp.

Senses of Gravity.

Film Senses of Cinema considers the sound design in the film Gravity, and how its "realism" was as a result of a series of very conscious choices rooted within the visuals and narrative:
"Techniques which defamiliarize a film’s soundtrack can be effective devices that create a disturbing, unsettling sensation for the audience that “shocks” them in an “immediate” way. The absence of explosion sounds for instance is not shocking merely because it is unconventional, but also because the defamiliarizing effect encourages the audience to focus on the disintegrating debris which in an ordinary film might escape such close attention as it would be in one sense just an embedded part of the overall mise-en-scene. By stripping away the expected explosion sounds Gravity demands more crucial apprehension of its visual details—just as the remote sound of the contact microphone recordings of Stone’s tools in the opening sequence focus the audience’s attention onto the exceptionally photorealistic virtual space environment."

The Doctor meets #leveson.

Education Liverpool John Moores University has updated a short video of their graduation ceremony featuring the university's chancellor, Lord Leveson and Paul McGann who was receiving an honorary degree at an event which took place at the Anglican Cathedral yesterday.

People With Enough Disposable Income To Ignore The Event They Paid For [PWEDITITETPF].

Music The Gothamist has an excellent rant which explains the 50% of the reason why I don't attend concerts any more which isn't about mobile phones:
"At Tuesday night's otherwise exquisite Andrew Bird performance in Central Park, I had to repeatedly ask people around me to please stop talking. Yes, at a performance by Andrew Bird, an indie recording artist known for his soulful whistling. You'd think the uniformly twee audience at an Andrew Bird show would be a reverent, bespectacled vacuum, but it turns out that people of all stripes are willing to wait on a very long line for the privilege of vapidly chatting over achingly sublime music. A young man next to me, who spent the entire concert gabbing with his friend about unrelated bullshit, added to the mix by occasionally CRUNCHING an empty plastic water bottle in time with the music. While continuing to talk. I asked him to stop, and he looked at me with incredulity, as if I was senile old man. Back in my day, we drank water from fountains."
Truth be told I tried attending the classical music portion of the Liverpool International Music Festival last year and ended up walking away for all these reasons. Stood next to the stage I spent my time watching and listening to people with smart phones and giant fucking camera lenses taking pictures of the event, clicking and beeping away during the music and if you were sat in the crowd you couldn't hear the music over the incessant chatter of people talking about they'd done that day, would be doing the next day or eating their way through the fast food being sold on site.  Just because it's a free event doesn't give people the right to be disrespectful, does it?  I really can't afford to pay for a similar experience any more.

Obligatory Doctor Who trailer post.

TV I'll be quick because the #GER #ARG match is still on ("Come on my continental neighbours!"). But three things *

(1) The prominence of Clara.  Now that she's no longer a walking plot point, she'll presumably assume the more standard audience POV position and therefore be better liked by that most fickle of audiences, the audience.

(2) The prominence of Capaldi. I hadn't expected this much footage of him in character this early.

(3) Doctor Who Into Darkness.

(4) "I'm 2000 years old..." It's going to take a while for us to get used to the hundreds of years he spent on Christmas.

(5) Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

(6) Nice new library in the console room. The mini is parked just off camera, presumably.

(7)  Isn't that the same castle from The Almost People and Nightmare in Silver?  Hope it's a better episode than either of those two.

* It's never three things.

Streaming Forgotten Films. Nina!

Film Back in 2007 I spent a month reviewing a series of films which fell out of view within minutes of being released hadn't been seen since, which included the Laura San Giacomo starring minor classic, Nina Takes A Lover, which I wrote about here.

Well goodness. Only ever available on VHS in this country and well deleted on R1 dvd, this morning, Amazon Prime UK added it to their subscription, which is an unexpected pleasing surprise, and as you can see from the above image it's a nice, clean widescreen HD transfer (and thanks to Maft for the tip).

In 2012, I went through the list again to check on availability and this seems like the perfect nudge for me to try again.  Not much has changed.

I'm With Lucy (2002)
Still some availability on dvd, though it looks to have been deleted.  Are some copies from between £.01 to £3.50 depending on where you're looking.  Available on Lovefilm on dvd.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
On dvd.  On Amazon, for rental and streaming.

Magic Town (1947)
Meanwhile on dvd to buy and rent.

The Hour of the Pig (1993)
Only available on dvd via an expensive R1 copy under the rubbish title The Advocate.  Otherwise its still only available in the UK on a Curzon Video.  Sometimes turns up on BBC Four in a terrible cropped print.

The Red Violin (1998)
Available amazingly cheaply now on dvd at Amazon.  Reached BD in the US.  Dvd to rent at Lovefilm.

A Thousand Acres (1997)
Budget dvd at Amazon which is rentable at Lovefilm.

Barfly (1987)
Available in multiple versions and formats to buy.

Late Night Shopping (2001)
Available on dvd in various flavours.  Also at Lovefilm.

Loser (2000)
Second hand dvds plentiful.  Streamable at Lovefilm and Netflix but curiously not rentable by post.

All World Cinema (1895 - present)
Link included here for completion sake.  But I'd still recommend all the films listed.

The Core (2003)
Of all the films on this list to be available on region-free BD it had to be this.  Dvd too and in a double bill with Deep Impact which is practically a tragedy remake.  Lovefilm link.  Also added to Netflix today.

11:14 (2003)
Amazon, Lovefilm.

Hostile Hostages (1994)
DVD under its UK title, The Ref.  Lovefilm on shiny disc.

Quinceanera (Echo Park LA) (2006)
Amazon, Lovefilm (streaming and by post)

The Tribe (1996)
Still only available on R1 dvd, and even more expensive now than in 2007 or 2012.

Stealing Beauty (1996)
Amazon, Lovefilm.

Visions of Light (1992)
Some dvd copies still floating around for sale and available at Lovefilm.

View From The Top (2003)
The worst film on the list is still one of the most available.  Amazon, and on Lovefilm by post and streaming (so you can skip directly to the scene I'm writing about).  It's on Netflix now too.

Next (1989)

Life Story (1987)
One of the best films on the list is the least available.  The BBC Education VHS copy doesn't look likely now though there is a low grade copy on YouTube.

Nina Takes A Lover (1994)
Status hasn't changed in five years.  R1 only.

Love and Other Catastrophes (1996)
Status hasn't changed in five years.  VHS only, despite that cast.  I mean look at that cast.  Was available briefly to stream on Lovefilm.  Gone now.

Chacun cherche son chat (1996)
Available on R2 import for £20.

Memento: The Beginning of the End
Is an Easter egg on the special dvd edition of the film.

The Red Siren (2002)

One Night Stand (1984)
Not available.  Not even the VHS version I bought ex-rental in the mid-90s.  There are two clips on YouTube now though.  Here and here.

The Family Stone (2005)
Of course it is.  It's The Family Stone.  Happy Christmas.  Amazon.

Happy Endings (2005)
No, not the sitcom.  It's a Don Roos film.  Was available on R2 for about three seconds so there are copies floating around.  Lovefilm also have it and Amazon Prime has a purchasable SD version. Along with the sitcom.

The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968)
Amazon, Lovefilm.

The Whistleblowe (2010)
Cheap dvd.  Or Netflix.  Or by post.

The Films I've Watched This Year #25

Film We painted the kitchen.

The Great Beauty
How I Live Now
This Means War
Two Lovers

This deeply average week for films was probably the last thing I needed given the situation described above the list.  Since I chose to watch two of them from streaming services it was partially my own fault.  That's especially true of This Means War which I knew was going to be rubbish before watching but having enjoyed McG's previous output, especially Charlie's Angels, held out some hope that it might not be awful.  It's awful.  Mugging, charisma-free unfunny performances from the three leads, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as two spies chasing one girl Reece Witherspoon, perfunctory action sequences and a conclusion which sets feminism back fifty years.

If however you do find yourself having to choose between this and Little Man as the only two choices other than sitting in silence looking at a wall if you've gone on holiday by mistake, you can take some comfort as you put the dvd on that the cliched wisecracking best friend Trish (yes, it's a character so generic she's called Trish) is played by Chelsea Handler is involved in at least three decent laughs and that you'll also have the "entertainment" of trying to work out what the excised material was because this looks it had a torturous post-production, offering reaction shots clearly meant for something else and the casting of Angela Bassett in a nothing role that must have been larger in some original version.

The Great Beauty was the greater disappointment because of the critical acclaim and the general sense of it being an important film and I tend to quite like important films.  But despite the winning performances, the lustrous visuals and the gorgeous music, I was bored, which considering that in many ways there isn't anything especially boring about it in the traditional sense is probably quite an odd reaction.  Glancing through those reviews in the post-match confusion, I realised that although I understood what Paolo Sorrentino's experiment in Italian decadence was trying to do, I simply didn't care, not least because he isn't adding anything new, simply reiterating the same notions as Rossellini and Fellini but utilising the language of the perfume commercials which appear on television at Christmas.

But part of me knows that my boredom stems from the sheer predictability of seeing an aging male writer going through these creative philosophical motions.  There are some good female roles in there, not least of his editor, but in general they're part of the visual landscape, to be gazed at.  I wonder what a film in this world would be like with a female protagonist, if we'd watched the story of his editor or one of the any number of contessas who feature or indeed if the writer had simply been female.  Instead we're offered another iteration of a particular tradition, in which the narrow potential both in viewer expectation and commercial viability have led to repetition rather than innovation.  Not that you can or should blame The Great Beauty for the entire industry's lack of imagination.  Probably.

The same defeatist, unfair argument could be made against Prisoners, which has Hugh Jackman as a distraught father and Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop searching for his abducted daughter, a thriller which would automatically be a hundred times more interesting if it had been gender reversed.  As it is, it's a two hour wait for confirmation of a twist which is obvious within the first twenty-minutes because, as a friend joked to me on Twitter, "Obvious casting is obvious."  Paul Dano plays the bloke fingered with the abduction and although that's not quite enough for the whole story to reveal itself, anyone who's seen enough of this kind of thing before will be left watching Gyllenhaal wilfully ignoring obvious clues because narrative structure needs him to, leading us to wonder if we're supposed to be ahead of him.

Denis Villeneuve wasn't an obvious choice for directing the material and it's true that a certain point Bryan Singer was attached with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in the central roles.  Leonardo Di Caprio was on the project for a while too.  Presumably that iteration was more generic in form.  But Villeneuve steers it more towards statement and austerity, long on psychological investigation, Roger Deakins's moody blue photography suggesting a piece which is more interested in form rather than story.  Perhaps in resting on clues for long enough for us to notice them, he is deliberately tipping his hand so that we're not strictly watching a mystery but a meditation on the inevitability of human behaviour, a subtler version of the game played by Hitch in the second half of Vertigo.

Which leaves How I Live Now as my film of the week.  Essentially the German film Lore with an unknown futuristic antagonist but without the socio-political tension, this has Saoirse Ronan's American teenager wandering the British countryside attempting to avoid "the other" whilst searching for her new boyfriend and protecting her neice.  Just the sort of thing which could be mucked up in the wrong hands, there's an alternative reality version of this somewhere presented as found footage, director Kevin Macdonald keeps much of the focus on Ronan (not all, see below) so that we share her confusion about the threat but continually wants to surprise us with her strength of will, subverting the expectations we have of the character superbly developed in the opening half hour.

If there's a problem it's that MacDonald and I'm guessing his producers, are desperate for the piece not to come across as too artsy, sacrificing some of the subtlety.  At a certain point Macdonald cuts away from an important conversation that Ronan is having with an official in her living room (you'll understand when you see it) to the boyfriend watching from outside the house in order to create some tension and empathy for him, when this really should just be just her story, her conflict.  Plus there's an absolutely godawful concluding voiceover, a poetic philosophical mush, which ploddingly sets out how Ronan's character's feelings and where the world is.  It feels imposed and undercuts a conclusion which would have worked perfectly well with just the existing visuals and music.  Sigh.

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0:
Minneapolis #1

[from: 'Eroica: Piano Improvisions', Virgin, 1990]

Music  I attended a concert for piano students at a local Christian Church in Liverpool's Chinese community, to give my mate Fani some moral support as she performed. For two hours the ills of the world dissolved for everyone as they sat watching children playing nursery rhymes and masters play traditional chinese instruments. Blinding moment at the start as the priest asked for everyone turn off their mobile phone and everyone went for their pockets and bags. How can we as a people have the ability to communicate but at the same time can't find a way to talk to one another? [Originally posted 14th October 2001]

[Commentary: Well, quite, and at this point it's impossible to go to a public event where someone isn't using their mobile phone to do something during the action.  If this was now, everyone would have their phones out recording the thing, including the priest and as ever there'd be some of us wondering exactly how much of it they're really hearing or seeing or experiencing.]

"Would you like to write a new Doctor Who story?"

Books Marcus Sedgwick has written a short piece for The Guardian about the process of writing The Spear of Destiny, Puffin Doctor Who e-book from last year. Here's how he got the commission:
Four days before Christmas, the phone call went like this:

Editor: Would you like to write a new Doctor Who story?
Me: You had me at "Would you like to write".
Editor: It's a crash schedule.
Me: Scare me.
Editor: You have four days to submit a synopsis.
Me: Ulp.
Editor: And a week to write it.
Me: *strange strangled duck like noise*
Editor: *hangs up*

About five minutes after that, the reality of what I had agreed to dawned on me. For a good few reasons, I was, well, let's say apprehensive.
Under this pressure he arguably wrote the best of the series, entirely in keeping with the Pertwee era, especially in the characterisation of the Doctor and Jo, paying homage to it and also trying something new.

Do they have those rights?

Film Because we all have our own addiction, because I can never have enough film, I'm still receiving shiny discs by post and maintain subscriptions to both Amazon Prime and Netflix. Something which is becoming an increasingly nefarious problem is navigating who has the rights to films from which companies, the reason being that all too often I've received a film by disc only to have it turn up on Netflix a week later (Frances Ha) which, now that I'm only receiving two discs at a time through the mail is a bit of a waste.

In an ideal world I'd simply cancel the dvds (finally!) but thanks to the segmentation of services and the Murdoch exclusivity problem, some films don't appear on other services at all or for at least a couple of years. Plus back catalogue is all over the place. After the Century of Chinese Cinema season, I'm planning to work my way through all of Bergman finally and not all of his work is available to stream. Studio Gibli doesn't appear on either services. Disney is patchy.  Oh and some of the Amazon Prime streams slightly ropey old dvd masters.

With that in mind I'm going to start compiling an ad-hoc list of companies I think have been carved up between Amazon Prime UK and Netflix on the assumption that if a film is from any of these companies I needn't add them to my by-post list. I'm posting the list here for easy access / editing. Just to add: these are the studio names as utilised by the database on "Lovefilm".  Plus, this is for pre-release.  If it's been released and isn't on the relevant streaming service, it's probably been and gone.

I've also noticed the odd StudioCanal thing turning up on Netflix after its first run on Amazon Prime, but I'm sticking with first run here.  Some back catalogue for Lionsgate and Disney turns up on both services simultaneously too.  Plus quite often, once its dropped from one of these services I'm back to shiny disc again.  Also just to confuse things, the same company's films can be split between the two depending on who which theatrical label they used.  E1 Momentum's stuff is at Netflix, just E1 is at Amazon Prime UK.  Blaawhhehh.


Arrow Films (six months)
Artificial Eye (six months)
Brit Doc Films (near simultaneous)
Buena Vista International (not on Lovefilm)
Curzon Film World
Dogwoof Digital
Elevation Sales (not Anchor Bay) (including Chelsea Films)
Fusion Media Sales (four months?)
Independent Films
Kaleidoscope Entertainment (six months?)
Kotch Media (six months)
Lace Group
New Wave (about eighteen months)
Masters of Cinema (new releases)
Metrodome (four months)
Momentum Pictures (six months?)
Paramount Home Entertainment (unclear - three to six months? A year?)
Universal (Vertigo)

Amazon Prime UK

Entertainment One
Lionsgate (Television only?)
Momentum Pictures
Showbox Media Entertainment / CineAsia
Twentieth Century Fox (big delay possibly as long as eighteen months available for about six months)
Universal Pictures (big delay?) (also actually Universal Home Entertainment)
Warner Home Video (big delay?)

Elsewhere (only available by post)

Axiom Films
Entertainment on Film/Video
Revolver Entertainment
Third Window Films
Universal Pictures (The Works)

I'll keep updating this with more information as and when.  You can hardly wait.  It is hard to keep an eye on because the studio name on Lovefilm's database doesn't always reflect the actual studio or has variety of synonyms (Entertainment One, E1 Entertainment, E One Ltd etc).

Plus some of these are under advisement thanks to release windows and the like (checkable by comparing adding dates on the streaming service to the availability date on the rental service).  Warner and Disney take an age to get to the Prime, so it's up to the viewer as to how quickly they need to see Dream House and such.  I'll try to add some accurate data on how quickly after the shiny disc release these as I can.

Your Letters: The Stephens/Moore Conundrum solved.

TV I don't often receive comments, but I found this on The Stephens/Moore Conundrum post from last year:
"Thank you. This post just quickly and efficiently helped me resolve an argument with my husband, who thought they were the same person. x"
That probably makes this the most useful post from last year.

(Spoilers!!) (duh..)

TV Well here we are again, then. Less than more than a few weeks before the new series of Doctor Who and we're all battening down the hatches, engaging the usual filters and hoping against hope not to suddenly have a massive spoiler turn up in open conversation on Twitter.

Of course, the difference between this and say, Elementary, is that this isn't something which has already been broadcast, but rather like Rose all those years ago turned up online because someone somewhere decided that he'd upload the first five scripts to the internets.

Unlike Rose, this increasingly looking like an administrative cock-up in the style of the blu-rays being sent out early.  This security expert says they were left on a public server and Google simply indexed them.  No hacking, just poor security at an office somewhere from someone who didn't understand how the web works [link via].

Despite having Likelyed through hours and hours of just reading the usual dozen news items about the scripts being leaked, I still managed to stumble into a blog post which listed the titles and authors of those first five episodes, three of which we're almost certainly not supposed to know yet.  Or until DWM is published.

People who call themselves fans but really aren't (because let's take a position on this) are already posting "spoiler-free" reviews in the usual places based on what they've read.  Positive or negative, doesn't matter.  Until broadcast, the content of those scripts was none of their business and it's not ours either.

This essentially:

Unless they're all fake like the Not Justice League screenplay written by Kevin Smith. Yes, that must be it.

The Films I've Watched This Year #24

Film Surprisingly given that I spent most of last weekend watching Glastonbury, the Arena about the New York Review of Books, annotating the New York Review of Books and the Biennial, this is a surprisingly busy list.  Of course there's a grey area as to whether at least two of the items on the list count as films, but both the Inside Llewyn Davis concert and Behind The Candelabra received theatrical releases somewhere so I'm keeping them below rather than up here.  It's quite some time since I paid this much attention to Glastonbury.  I'm still working through the individual shows on the iPlayer, with Haim and Anna Calvi definite favourites so far.  I had thought to watch everything, and began in that vein, but some of the material isn't to me taste at all and I've decided that it's ok to digitally drift away if I'm not enjoying a show.  I do wonder about the psychology of that at the actual festival.  How easy is it to walk away from one show and join another?

A Touch of Zen
Another Day, Another Time - Celebrating The Music Of Inside Llewyn Davis
Side Effects
Ender's Game
Don Jon
Behind The Candelabra

Let's begin with the Don Jon, because I want to create a spoiler buffer for Ender's Game which I want to talk about in detail in the next paragraph or two.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut is a remarkable film and indicates that he's a real talent who understands what film's capable of in a way that his peers simply don't.  He appreciates that with ninety minutes to play with its possible to be simplistic and complex as he tells the story of a sexual troglodyte repenting and for all the content, which at one point almost caused a NC-17 from the MPAA until Levitt agreed to par it down, it's the classics he looks to, When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall and Groundhog Day (and I think The Fast Show!) in appreciating the comic but also the emotional potential of repetition, of presenting the routine of a character's life and reflecting on what happens when external forces disrupt that routine.

Spoiler mode activated.  Isn't Ender's Game annoying?  It's pretty generic entertainment for much of its duration, unashamedly working through the Propp/Campbell Benjamin Sniddlegrass, Harry Potter in space tropes in a way which suggests the novel was an ur-text in much the same way as John Carter (of Mars) was and then makes the bizarre decision presumably from the original material where it hopefully worked better, of robbing the audience of its climactic catharsis.  In storytelling terms, making one triumph, beating a simulation, into something more sinister is a thrilling choice, flying the face of expectation but it also cheats the viewer emotionally even if the message, with its Klaatu barada nikto, surprises intellectually.  Perhaps if this had begat the sequel suggested by the climax it would have worked as the end of an episode or chapter.  As it stands it renders the previous couple of hours of character arc rather pointless.

If Side Effects is to Soderbergh's final official theatrical release, it's quite a way to go out and also rather fitting because it's business as usual.  As ever, he's commenting on a particular genre, on this occasion the kind of Hitchcockian thriller most recently directed by Adrian Lyne (he watched Fatal Attraction a lot during production apparently) or starring Michael Douglas or both but also absorbing its every trope.  Watching the first season of Damages recently, I have noticed that this is just the sort of mid-tier material which has shifted to television, a genre forgotten by studios producing either ultra-expensive blockbusters or cheap comedies, yet here it is being reinvented by Steven.  It's also a useful reminder of just how good Jude Law can be at the sort of thing he does, which tends to be appearing he sort of mid-tier material forgotten by studios producing either ultra-expensive blockbusters or cheap comedies.

If Behind The Candelabra is to be Soderbergh's final film altogether then it's also quite fitting because up until its final moments it also feels like business as usual in that he's producing his version of the true life tv movie of the kind which is usually show on Five* or Sky Living over here, items like Growing Up Brady or The Karen Carpenter Story, and queer cinema.  Since it's for HBO he's able to work in the material which would ordinarily be glossed over even when it's supposed to be the "insider's story" but not in a sensationalist way.  Both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon turn in the performances of their careers, but that's potentially true of all the cast, especially Rob Lowe who's plastic surgeon is somehow both obviously Rob Lowe and entirely unrecognisable.  I'm too close to it now to really make a judgement, but I wonder if it fits with his other low budget works or his studio material.  I really don't know.

When I completed the Hitchwatch, I said that I wanted his final film to be summation.  What I'd failed to realise was that Psycho had actually been is final film and that everything after that was about him simply fulfilling a public obligation which is why so many of them are artistically suspect.  He'd unconsciously or otherwise, I think, reached the end of his experiment, presented his findings and was then effectively in the Q&A section of his symposium.  For all his creative resurgence, Woody's arguably in the same place post-New York, post-Melinda, though to stretch the analogy, it's almost as though he's resubmitting his paper for further consultation, especially in his returns to New York, or commenting on the work of other practitioners in his European films in a way which he simply didn't before, especially his London films, for all their variable comedy.

I simply don't get that with Soderbergh.  Soderbergh feels like a scientist who's had his budget taken away because the funding authority wasn't happy with the research he was carrying out and his interim results, but rather than chipping away in the hopes of gaining sponsorship from elsewhere so he can continue has simply walked away.  But to run away from that analogy, kicking and indeed screaming I also think in Candelabra he allows himself a Shakespearean moment, with Liberace as his Prospero.  As Lee ascends to heaven in those closing moments, full of Man of La Mancha describing what Scott means to him, it's almost like Soderbergh's talking to his viewers, with Matt Damon, one of the key actors from across his career as our avatar on screen.  Which is probably bullshit, but brought a tear to my eye and some closure as I completed my watch through all of his movies.  The tv series will be his Pericles obviously.

Mark Spain's Water Meadow.

Serial Koenig.

Radio Ira from This American Life has announced what sounds like it could be a gamechanger:
"I have exciting news today. We’re starting a new show! We’ve never done this before. It’s coming out in the fall. It’s called Serial and it’ll be a weekly podcast, not a radio show at all. The main way it’s different from This American Life is that instead of bringing you a different theme each week, every episode of Serial will bring you back not just to the same theme but to the same story, to bring you the next chapter. We’re starting with a crime story, that’ll run for about a dozen episodes. Our hope is that it’ll play like a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving."
Sounds like its going to be fact rather than fiction too and presumably they're in the unknown themselves as to whether a given real life crime story can sustain itself over twelve weeks in this intensive manner. Perhaps it'll appropriate the structure of something like Law & Order but over the long form format of Murder One, but in real life, each hour covering a different aspect of the story.

Liverpool Biennial 2014:
John Moores Painting Prize 2014:
Press Announcement.

Art This afternoon the John Moore's Painting Prize announced the shortlist of five artists who will be in the running to win the £25,000 first prize and I was invited along with proper press people, all of the artists in the show and supporters to witness the events first hand.  As you can imagine I was very pleased to attend, because this is the sort of thing which has previously taken place just outside my view, literally in some cases as I watched it happen from a distance behind glass doors at previous Biennials and now here I was for the second time in my life in the same room as the DJ from Revelation of the Daleks (Alexei Sayle is presenting a documentary about the history of the prize which is due to go out in September) (here was the first).

Writing this blog opened those glass doors (thanks Laura) and as I wandered into the main exhibitions space filled with tables and paintings and podium and food I couldn't help giggling, my eyes boggling at the sheer fact of being there.  It's about as you might expect, a kind of a private view with no alcohol as people huddle around the edges of the room supping orange, water and beverages glancing at the art now and then.  As you can see from the illustrative image I tried desperately not to look at the paintings because I want to return and "do" the exhibition "properly" but my own glances suggest that the judges which include Tim "possibly taught me everything I know about Mondrian" Marlow, in narrowing their selection to fifty, also upped the quality of the work chosen.  I'll talk some more about it in my venue review.

After a while we were asked to sit, and a kind of musical chairs ensued in which people who realised they were standing next to the seating reserved for artists and supporters rushed to the other end of the room.  Settling down we quite naturally introduced ourselves to our nearest neighbours, finishing just in time for the announcements.  I've included the press release at the bottom of this with further illustrative images of the paintings themselves.  Trying to at least look like I knew I was doing, I scrawled the names of the winners in my moleskin notebook leading to what seemed to be the prevailing condition throughout the press in the room of not knowing whether to applaud or make a note of the winners as they're announced.  In the end I managed to do a bit of both not that I can actually read my own handwriting now anyway.

Then the mad dash for the buffet tables for the very nice food on offer which for me meant scouse, a kind of unspicy puff pastry samosa and salad.  Then conversation and smalltalk and all of the things that people do at events like this.  Bumping into old friends, making new acquaintances.  I'm a bit bolder now when handing out the ostentatious business cards I created with this blog's URL on then.  If I wasn't too embarrassed to have send them, I shouldn't equally be ashamed of producing them from my wallet.  Hello to you too if you're reading.  Sorry if none of this is what you were expecting.  Then after a raspberry tart and a lemon and poppy seed cake, some more talking and chat, I said goodbye to the people it was necessary to say goodbye to and left, giggling again as I skipped out of the building into the rain.


Five artists in running for UK's biggest painting prize.

Five artists have made the shortlist to one of British art’s most prestigious awards.

The prizewinners of the John Moores Painting Prize 2014 are (in alphabetical order): Rae Hicks, Juliette Losq, Mandy Payne, Alessandro Raho and Rose Wylie.

The five are now in the running for the £25,000 first prize, sponsored by David M Robinson to be announced on 19 September 2014.

A major part of the Liverpool Biennial, the John Moores Painting Prize runs from 5 July to 30 November 2014. Fifty paintings (including the prizewinners) have been selected for exhibition from more than 2,500 entries.

The prizewinning works represent the nature of the John Moores to seek out the most outstanding in contemporary painting and do not conform to any particular style or theme. In fact the paintings are starkly different with only their medium in common:

Sometimes I Forget That You're Gone by Rae Hicks, a recent graduate of Goldsmiths (2012) and the youngest prizewinner (b.1988). An intriguing painting where the ‘props’ of the scene appear unassembled and awaiting their final destination.

Vinculum by Juliette Losq, winner of the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2005. The large-scale image belies the traditional understated nature of watercolour. Built up through multiple layers the painting creates an optical illusion which immerses the viewer into its world.

Brutal by Mandy Payne is spray painted directly onto concrete. An almost symmetrical scene from Sheffield’s Park Hill, a Grade II listed 1960s council estate, currently undergoing regeneration. Payne’s rendition of one of Britain’s largest examples of Brutalist architecture deals with the human memories and history indelibly weaved into it.

Jessica by Alessandro Raho, an artist with an international reputation. A painting of the artist’s stepsister against a plain white background is typical of the way that Raho uses family and friends as models, drawing upon personal relationships to create a parallel world within his work.

PV Windows and Floorboards by 80 year old artist Rose Wylie. The lively painting features four seemingly disconnected figures. Working from direct observation and memory, her work is informed by a fascination with film and current events. Rose had a BP Spotlight exhibition at Tate Britain in May 2013.

Dubbed the 'Oscars of the painting world', the Prize, organised in partnership with the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition Trust, has been keeping its finger on the pulse of contemporary painting for almost 60 years. Past winners include David Hockney (1967), Mary Martin (1969), Peter Doig (1993) and most recently, Sarah Pickstone (2012).

The 2014 judges are Tim Marlow, Director of Artistic Programmes at the Royal Academy and artists Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Zeng Fanzhi, Chantal Joffe and Tom Benson.

Judge Tim Marlow said: “It’s for the visitors to make their own minds up about the state of contemporary painting in Britain but based on my experience of judging the John Moores this year I’d say it was quietly confident, expansive, hard-won, self-critical, vital and engaging.”

Judge Lynette Yiadom-Boakye said: “What was wonderful was seeing the range of different approaches to painting. It was a shame to have to choose only five prize winners.”

Sandra Penketh, Director of Art Galleries said: “The quality of painting in this year’s exhibition is very exciting. We are delighted to have such a strong exhibition of 50 works which reflect the climate of contemporary British painting. Among them the judges have selected five worthy works which will challenge, delight and intrigue visitors.”

The John Moores Painting Prize is part of National Museums Liverpool's Modern Masters series, part funded by the European Union - the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

It is also supported by our exhibition partner Weightmans and sponsor Investec.

For a full list of exhibiting artists:

Twitter: @johnmoores2014 #jm2014


The John Moores Painting Prize is the subject of a BBC 4 documentary, presented by writer and comedian Alexei Sayle. The programme, which examines the history of the Prize as well as its place within contemporary art, will be aired in September.

Jennifer Lawrence's Cardinals. News, Weather

"Let's do this."

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0:
Tom's Diner.

Written by Suzanne Vega
[from: 'Soltude Standing', A&M, 1987]

Music  I went to Starbucks the other day. As you know, I work in Manchester. In Liverpool we get by with only two Starbucks. But Manchester seems to have hundreds. Trouble is when I'm in line I squint at the menu and simply can't decide what to have, so by the time I get the counter I panic ... and ask the clerk what they're favourite flavour is ... and just have that.
So it's lunch time from the job I can't mention the other day and I'm there again. The girl clerk waits patiently before I say:
"Oh I don't know err ... what would you have?"
"Well I'd have a hot chocolate ... so ..."
"Come on. They all taste the same."
"You're not suppose to say that."
"OK ... we at Starbucks offer a whole range of flavours to suit all tastes."
"Well do you want something sweet or bitter?"
"Sweet." I answer definately.
"Well there is ... mumble .... mumble .... mumble .... something with caramel." People who work in coffeehouses have their own language. They should hire translators. I try and jump in...
"That sounds nice. I'll have that."
"Which one?"
"Oh .. the first one ..."
"Large or small."
"Small. I'm not going to be here long."
I pay and join the queue. The business couple who came in after me are served their Lattes first.
Girl clerk: "Yours is a work of art so it'll just take a little bit longer."
A boy clerk is working on my order. He looks like a mad scientist putting parts on a new machine as he pours syrups and milks together.
Two minutes later a mug arrives in the centre of the counter. The boy clerks throw his hands in the air in victory.
"Taa daa." He shouts.
I find myself clapping slightly.
I sip the coffee. It tastes like a little piece of heaven.
Who knew just ordering a coffee could be so much fun?
[Originally posted 13th May 2002]

[Commentary:  My new trick, most of the time, is to simply order whatever's new in stock, or the seasonal choice on the occasions I visit Starbucks which is less often than it used to be, not for ethical reason, it's just that the atmosphere has changed considerably since chain coffee shops really became a thing.  Most of the time I'm wandering through to stock up on Via.  Reposting this does finally offer the opportunity to link to one of the best pieces of writing I've seen this year, the piece from The Awl in which  Molly Osberg who built a career working in coffee shops talks about the life.  Plenty of what she says chimes with other service industry jobs, especially of the kind I've enjoyed.]

Liverpool Biennial 2014:
The Old Blind School.

Art “Am I t’wirly?” I asked as I wandered into the old Blind School this morning for the Liverpool Biennial press view. As it turned out, yes, yes, I was, by fifteen minutes at least, so was asked to come back. Which I did after visiting the newsagents opposite the venue on Hardman Street to buy a pen and striding up to Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral to use their toilet. Fifteen minutes later, I allowed entry, gave the name of this website, which never gets old obviously, and was handed a lovely black canvas bag containing the press releases, various booklets and a copy of the catalogue (come chance to investigate the festivals themes) and a bright yellow VIP badge. As I dangled it about my neck I thought, as various proper press people arrived, not the first time, “What am I doing here?”

If that all seems like a bewildering way to begin what some people are expecting to be a review it’s because this year’s Biennial already seems bewildering, especially today as I glanced through the press releases. Which it probably should given that it’s called “A Needle Walks Into A Haystack” or “A Nee Dlew Alksi Ntoah Aystack” as this year’s festival’s logo has it. But glancing at the itinerary for the day, which offered the chance to visit almost every venue and be given an introductory talk in each and realising that the Biennial was open for four months this time, I decided that I’d best pace myself rather than trying to see everything in a morning. So while the proper press people followed that plan, I decided to simply stay in this opening group show. Which I did for the next five or six hours.

But the old Blind School is like the proverbial haystack. It’s huge, with room after room of art across three floors. Not as big as the old postal sorting office from 2012, and I’ll lament the lack of City States some other time, but there’s still the sense of art upon art upon art, and even with the aid of a map, turning corner after corner, entering room on room and discovering something else. It’s very easy to get lost and I did on multiple occasions, especially on my way to the toilet which, and I think it’s important to say, is surprisingly adequate, which hasn’t always been the case at temporary Biennial venues of the past which either involved a portaloo in the yard at the back or nipping around the corner to FACT. Yes, it seems that these days, so long as there’s some decent art and an adequate toilet, I’m happy.

Like the Copperas Hill venue, we’re also visiting an otherwise private space that is also a very public landmark. RIBA will be running monthly tours of the building during the Biennial but irrespective of the art its still interesting to see the its multiple uses across the years evident in the multiple paint jobs on the walls and the architectural features. Some rooms have large woodchip panels across the corners of the floors.  What must they have been for?  Look up below a circular atrium and find a fresco charting what I think is union history in a state of disrepair. Not that everything has been sympathetically treated; at the press launch the room which now doubles as the entrance was covered with the artwork and poetry of a school which used the building towards the end of its life. That’s all whitewashed away now.

What of the artwork and how to connect with that? You might remember that in 2012, my approach to the Biennial was to visit the venues in numerical order as listed in the booklet and then choose a single artwork in each to write about which as you also remember meant I didn’t end up at the main venue and the best work for at least a month. This time I’m going to be much more "as and when", partly because there are far fewer official venues this time (for reason explained here) but also because not everything is opening this weekend. Bloomberg New Contemporaries doesn’t arrive until September. But I will still be limiting the types of artwork I’m going write about and since this year seems to be my "special" year of film, I’ve decided to focus on the video art at each of the venues and what I remember of them.

Having made that decision, I’m immediately left with trying to judge what constitutes “video art”? My previous assumption was that it’s generally a short film, obscure of narrative, generally surreal, often abstract, projected in a gallery space with the visitors asked to stand or sit and watch events or non-events as they unfold before them. Except as I was reminded of today, video can also constitute one section of a mixed media piece like Leavitt’s Arctic Earth in which imagery of our planet entering a second ice age is projected onto a screen through the patio windows of a theatrical set or Camplin’s The DV Technology experience projected across a table and in both cases we’re not being asked to consider the moving image on its own terms but as part of a greater whole. It’s probably best to be inclusive rather than exclusive, I suppose.

Untitled (Peter Waghler, 2013)
Untitled (Crutches) (Peter Waghler, 2013)
Untitled (Peter Waghler, 2013)
The Waterway (Louise Herve and Chloe Maillet, 2014)
Arctic Earth (William Leavitt, 2013)
The Donut Gang (Uri Aran, 2009)
Company (Chris Evans, 2009)
Turen (Judith Hopf and Henrik Olsesen, 2007)
A Recess and a Reconstruction (Louise Herve and Chloe Maillet, 2014)
The DV Technology (Bonnie Camplin, 2014)

Undoubtedly the best piece in the venue also happens to have the strongest narrative. The Waterway compares humanity’s aging process with that of sea creatures and how our approach to longevity differs to that of the marine life. We see archaeologists diving for the remains of lost civilisations, which preserves their existence albeit in an abstract way. We see retirees in a bathhouse attempting to preserve their existence through massage and exercise. We see what seems like a group of biologists explaining how lobsters and the like don’t age they just get bigger. We then see a suggestion of what might happen if a human took on similar characteristics to comic effect (and in a way which will be familiar to viewers ‎of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle) (oddly).

The piece is being projected in a room filled with cinema seats which left me nostalgic for screen two at the 051 cinema on Mount Pleasant, which is fitting because the artists “make films that look at specific histories through the lens of science fiction, re-telling the present by way of writing new mythologies” something which, I suppose should be true of all science fiction, especially of the kind projected in screen two at the 051 cinema on Mount Pleasant. But this has a much greater sense of being a documentary as we’re presented with a series of outrageous facts of the “Ripley’s Believe it or not” variety which we’re inevitably left to wonder if we do believe them or not. Intercut with shots of swimming classes and voxpops in a format not unlike the old BBC Modern Times documentaries. Odd, in a good way.

Equally, odd in a different way are Peter Waghler’s various untitled works, notable what’s probably best described at the one with the rat and the bowling ball. Over a repeating animation of a cartoon rodent lifting a bowling ball onto a table in his medieval habitation before jumping into bed then awaking the next morning to repeat the action, or so it seems, we’re treated to a voiceover which I came to the conclusion is supposed to sound like one of Alanis Morissette’s list songs constructed by working through the suggestions appropriated by entering the opening phrase into Google and jotting down the suggestions. Or at least the artist wants us to believe that because the words are far too poetic and piercing for that to be possible, at random at least. Listen for long enough, and you should listen to it all, there are many subtle truths.

Through his repetitious visuals and philosophical words we’re unable to escape the utterly routine horror of existence. The rat's Sisyphean life, in which the bowling ball will simply not remain on the table reminds us of the cloying horror of what we live through, just as the words, and there are many, many words like rationalisations seem relevant and revealing but there’s so many of them they’re gone before we can really absorb them. Understand them. Respond to them. All I remember is the phrase “my fuck you all week” largely because it feels like every week to me at the moment, especially what I’ve called hermitage weeks when I ignore the rest of the world, reducing it to the space between me and whatever book I’m reading. When you see the piece, see how much of it you can concentrate on, what you remember. That’s probably you.

The other notable piece can’t be missed, though you might, hidden beneath a PVC curtain in the middle of a room. Turen is how I imagine most of the ITV police dramas I don’t watch must be like, especially since one of the actors involved looks like a young Helen Mirren. The kinds of people you’d find in a police station, cops, detectives and witnesses are shown walking along corridors (which might explain my affinity for it) sometimes opening doors and entering rooms depending if they’re locked or there’s someone inside to let them in. Sometimes they greet in corridors and share a few terse words, but in general, they’re in and out of rooms, in and out of doors and as I sit writing this, I imagine its rather how visitors to the old Blind School might also look to an omnipotent observer.

On a loop of about five minutes, it’s a perfect demonstration of video art at its best because it provides a clear idea, cleanly executed. The press notes indicate the artist is interested in the “relations between the individual and the context with which an object is associated” and the viewer, so used to seeing these characters in a genre context immediately attempts to fill in the gaps, suggest narrative pathways. What is the relationship between these people? Why are three of them entering a room together and why does someone different leave that room seemingly moments later? What’s the significance of the traditional folk band and does that sort of thing happen in Law & Order? We’ll never know because all we have are the bridging scenes, the visual, establishing material which is so left out of television drama now anyway.