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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

'The Armstrong Lie' (2013) directed by Alex Gibney

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

So a guy cheats in a few bike races, what's the big deal?  I can't help but feel like there's some crucial part of the Lance Armstrong story that I'm overlooking, but after watching this documentary it seems like the very definition of a storm in a teacup.  Perhaps this is merely a matter of perspective; firstly I don't care about competitive bicycle racing and secondly you need only pick up a newspaper to read about people getting away with completely screwing over the world - crimes which make the misadventures of a disobedient cyclist pale into insignificance.

Obviously I'd heard of Lance Armstrong, but aside from him being a drugged off cyclist I was pretty much in the dark.  This feels like one of those times where I've missed the popular culture boat; everyone and their mother appears to have some kind of opinion on Lance Armstrong, usually that he's pretty much Dick Dastardly on a bike.  Anyway, he won the Tour De France a bunch of times (a bike race repeatedly and breathlessly described as "the most grueling athletic event in the world"), retired and then had a big comeback in 2009.  It's this comeback that the documentary focuses on, showing us a slightly wrinklier Armstrong who's not as good as cycling as he once was, desperate to show everyone that he's still the best around.  

This all fell apart when it turned out the reason he was such a good cyclist is because he was stuffing himself with drugs that make you into a good cyclist.  After publicly debasing himself for Oprah he was stripped of his athletic achievements, became a sports pariah and was roundly mocked, leaving only his hundreds of millions of dollars and vast mansions to get him through the night. 

This documentary is a bit of an odd duck, most of was made in 2009 prior to Armstrong's disgrace.  The project was put on hold following the controversy, but director Alex Gibney obviously paid attention when he was told "if life hands you lemons, make lemonade", and readjusted the focus of his film to being a history of doping in cycling, concentrating on the methods Lance Armstrong and others used during his cycling career.

I was expecting these illicit drugs to be along the lines of horse steroids with freaky side effects, so it's a little disappointing to learn that the primary doping agent, EPO, does little more than increase red blood cell count to facilitate oxygen transfer.  Even the cyclists themselves appear pretty blase about it, explaining that rather than transform you into a superhero it just makes you tired a little later than usual.  Slightly more interesting are the tales of mid-race blood transfusions.  The idea is that you train at high altitudes, causing your body to react the lower oxygen content and natural up your red blood cell count.  Then you siphon off this blood and transfuse it back in during a low altitude race, giving you a bit of extra pep.  This is nicely ghoulish, the idea of people surreptitiously carting around chilled blood to pop back into the riders is like something out of a vampire movie.

None of this is unique to Lance Armstrong though, and we quickly realise that damn near everyone involved in cycling was at it, with the governing bodies tacitly overlooking and advising cyclists when they're in danger of being caught.  The film does a bit of moralistic hectoring on why it's wrong to break the rules even if everyone else is doing it, but it's difficult not to see the cyclist's point of view.  

But though you can sort of understand why they felt no guilt about getting doped up, it's next to impossible to actually sympathise with the cyclists.  The entire sport is jampacked with complete arseholes with egos the size of a planet, the personality traits that make a top quality cyclist neatly aligning with those of a pushy prat.  Watch these grown men bitching about each other like a bunch of jealous schoolgirls feels utterly surreal: otherwise apparently intelligent people entirely emotionally consumed by cycling - cycling - for god's sake.  

Perhaps the reason I'm so dismissive about all this is that I don't give two shits about competitive sport.  Even so I do usually enjoy sports films, I loved Rush and Senna, both of which manage to elevate racing around in cars to zen mastery.  Even within the narrow genre of bicycle racing films I adore Breaking Away, a film that makes you want to hop on a bike right away and get sweaty. The best sports movies and documentaries use sport as a jumping off point to examine wider themes of passion and drive.  The Armstrong Lie sort of does that, but the baked in layer of paternalist moralising spoils even the simple joy of admiring Armstrong as a successful bastard, yet alone allowing me to enjoy cycling, an activity the film paints as mechanical, miserable and resolutely un-fun.

The Armstrong Lie does explore wider questions: how eager we are to impose fairytale narratives on celebrities, then reacting with disbelief and anger when reality fails to conform to the fiction we've devised.  Lance Armstrong became one of these heroes, happily adopting this narrative and allowing everyone (even himself) to believe in the big lie.  This total deception of public and self is fertile dramatic soil, Armstrong having the potential to be a tragic figure in a classically dramatic sense.  

Undermining all that is that Armstrong, though embodying the tragic hero, was a goddamn cyclist; an essentially meaningless profession that only a moron would truly care about.  And boy do we see hundreds of these morons.  The race spectators are a blur of pissed-up sunburnt flesh, an army of goobering boobs with flags painted on their beer bellies jumping in and out of the path of the cyclists, whooping away their last few brain cells as the clearly annoyed riders shoo them out of the way.  These are the people that bought into the Lance Armstrong fiction and to look at them you can't help but think they were in sore need of a dose of cold reality.  The moral of the story?  If your definition of a hero is someone being able to ride a bike pretty well then you deserve everything you get.

The Armstrong Lie is, at minimum, an interesting window into the murky world of professional cycling.  But crucially it never gets under Lance Armstrong's skin, settling for sternly waggling a finger in his direction and making sure we all know that he's a very naughty boy.


The Armstrong Lie is on general release from January 31st.

Monday, January 27, 2014

'Hannah Arendt' (2012) directed by Margarethe von Trotta

Monday, January 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

In 1961 Hannah Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and coined the phrase "the banality of evil".  That straightforward, iconic phrase quickly came to define one of the most publicised trials of the 20th century, perfectly encapsulating the frustrations of having an architect of one of the most horrific acts in human history on trial, and finding him to be 'just' a boring, run-of-the-mill bureaucrat.  This film chronicles the impact of this trial on Arendt and the wider Jewish diaspora, following her as she travels to Israel to observe the trial, followed by her articles in the New Yorker and her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, whose publication kicked up one hell of a stink.

Though Hannah Arendt keeps its focus on events surrounding the Eichmann trial, it also attempts to give us at least a cursory biography of its subject.  She led a fascinating life, born to German Jews in Hanover, and going on to study philosophy under Martin Heidegger. As a student she entered into a passionate and complex romantic relationship with Heidegger, one severely tested by his support for the Nazi Party and her Jewish ancestry.  As the Nazis tightened their grip on German institutions the life of a German-Jewish political theorist became ever more dangerous and she was forced to flee Germany for Paris in 1933.

In 1940 the Vichy Regime began to deport Jews to Nazi concentration camps.  Arendt was arrested and interned as an "enemy alien".  Again she was forced to flee, this time crossing the Atlantic to New York where she worked on behalf of Jewish organisations to aid those stranded in Europe.  By the time we meet her in this film Arendt is a respected author, thinker and professor at the New School in New York, with a major work The Origins of Totalitarianism under her belt.

Barbara Sukowa plays her as confident and forthright, a woman possessed by the courage of her convictions and more than able to defend her views.  She occupies a rarefied New York intellectual ocean, within which she is regarded as something of a big fish.  Sukowa neatly captures the cloud of intimidation that accompanies people who are not only remarkable thinkers, but are all too aware of their own exceptionality.  This stern, rigorous, chain-smoking exterior softens when she's alone with her beloved husband, but in all other regards the defences are up, the film making much of her stony face, behind which you can practically see the cogs and gears of her impressive mind whirring.

It's of course entirely appropriate that Hannah Arendt should be a cerebral film, and there's a refreshing lack of melodrama, the core premise being the publication of a political work, then subsequently defending it.  As concepts go it's not immediately thrilling; after all, showing someone lying around smoking cigarettes and thinking really hard isn't exactly dynamic cinema.  But rather than try to jazz things up, Von Trotta embraces a kind of no-frills aesthetic; working with a digitally restrained, desaturated colour palette and the absolute bare minimum of directorial frippery.  This avoidance of any hint of studio glamour means the style of the film becomes a reflection of its subject, though that also means its a bit detached.

It's telling that the scenes where you get hints of genuine passion are the lectures/monologues by Arendt (which I assume are verbatim quotes).  This reveals the film's true intention: not to entertain but to teach.  There are moments when the film almost becomes a documentary, particularly during the Eichmann trial sequence where archive footage is cross-cut with a recreation.  Particularly effective is the decision to only use footage of the real Eichmann rather than hire a lookalike.  We can't help but stare into his face as he blithely argues that he was "just following orders". We try our best to somehow spot the monster within, but in the end we must throw up our hands and admit that there's nothing here except Arendt's "banal" man - a tactic that cleverly nudges us towards looking through Arendt's eyes.

Clever though this is it results in a smidge of intellectual myopia.  As controversy builds concerning Arendt's arguments, we're told that numerous rebuttals to her are being published, but we never see them.  This is a film that relies on a certain intelligence in its audience, so when we're confronted by the antagonists - represented as a gaggle of cartoon critics replete with snooty insults - it stands out as weirdly simplistic.  It's totally reasonable for a film to take a certain viewpoint but it displays a curious lack of confidence to deprive us of even considering the opposing view.

It's refreshing to see a film that aims for the head rather than the heart; a film that understands that you don't need to dumb anything down and that simply being interesting and intelligent is more than enough to sustain our attention.  The production design, score and performances are all quietly evocative without being overbearing, and Sukowa manages to make a restrained, frosty and intimidating woman heroic and charismatic at best, and deserving of respect at minimum.  But the best praise I can give to Hannah Arendt is that it acts as a springboard to further learning, giving us a compelling and accurate overview of the life and work of a fascinating political theorist and academic.


'Hannah Arendt' is released on DVD today.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

'The General' (1926) directed by Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman

Thursday, January 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It's tough getting people to watch a silent comedy.  There's a mountain of preconceptions that come with these things, namely that silent comedy is dull, long and, by today's standards, technically obsolete.  But it's not!  It's really, really not!  For better or worse this was a time before safety standards and so you get to see stunts that are dangerously bonkers.  If you're a fan of people risking life and limb for their art then you can't really do better than the films of Buster Keaton.

Born the same year as cinema itself, 1895, Keaton quickly established himself as the scrappy upstart in cinematic comedy: the Rolling Stones to Chaplin's Beatles.  Never quite scaling the same heights in popularity as Chaplin he worked with smaller budgets, but wringing every single drop of humour and excitement out of them.  Though brave and physically impressive, scampering and climbing away from certain death (or at minimum serious maiming) in most of his famous films, Keaton's real secret weapon is his deadpan stare.

It's that famous stone face that makes him so damn relatable, even to a modern audience. Keaton's task is to play straight man to a capricious God with a sadistic sense of humour.  As the world contorts in every more unlikely ways around Keaton, he refuses to buckle under, dealing with whatever's thrown at him with a combination of bravery, intelligence and straightforward luck.  In every Keaton film he usually has one singular goal; winning a woman's heart, a task he'll stop at nothing - nothing - to achieve.

The General slightly subverts this formula, sure there's a girl to rescue, but there's another love here - the titular 'General' - a steam train.  Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer in Georgia as the Civil War breaks out.  Eager to impress the lovely Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) he rushes to enlist, though is turned down as he's too useful to the South as a railroad engineer (though he never realises this, puzzled as to his rejection).  With her brother and father off to war, Annabelle refuses to speak to Johnnie again until she sees him in uniform.

Meanwhile there's a-doin's transpiring up North.  A group of Union spies plan to infiltrate the South, steal a train and travel up the railroad destroying bridges, cutting the South's supply lines. Soon Johnnie's beloved train has been hijacked by this motley gang, along with Annabelle, who had the misfortune to be in the luggage carriage.  Similarly commandeering another train he heads up the rails to win back his two loves, setting the stage for a feature length train-based chase scene and all kinds of Civil War based derring-do.

As Keaton gains ground the villains throw all sorts of hazards in his path; sabotaging the rails, throwing blocks of wood in an attempt to derail him, setting him on fire with burning carriages or just simply shooting at him.  But Keaton powers through, unstoppable in his self-righteous determination, his stony expression unflickering as things get more and more dangerous.  Central to Keaton's films are a focus on action and reaction; consequences and coincidence spiralling out of control into absurdity.  The trains fit into this perfectly, the pumping pistons, smokestacks and the physics of the different carriages banging into each other underlining an idea of a person navigating a mechanical, clockwork world.

What impresses most about The General is the sense of weight and motion.  Even through the silence you sense the momentum and weight of the trains as they rumble down the tracks, Keaton dwarfed and insectlike next to the gigantic machine.  Danger is never far away, and as he perches on the cow-catcher at the front knocking obstacles out of the way you realise that if he messes this up he stands a very real chance being of being actually squashed.  You can draw a direct throughline from Buster Keaton to Jackie Chan and even through to the cast of Jackass, people who recognise that there's a special, subconscious thrill gained when an audience senses genuine danger on camera.

A real train crashing into a real river.  No fakery here.
Having said all that a confession: though Buster Keaton's films are some of my favourite silent films (I prefer him to both Chaplin and Harold Lloyd) I've never quite understood the mountains of praise heaped upon The General in particular.  Widely considered the pinnacle of Keaton's career it's ranked as the 18th best American film of all time by the AFI, made Roger Ebert's 'Top Ten of all Time' and was rated the best silent film of all time by  Don't get me wrong, this is obviously a great film, but to my eye both Sherlock Jr and Steamboat Bill Jr are more impressive demonstrations of Keaton's cinematic imagination and mastery of physical comedy.

At least a part of this is the sour taste left by the loveable Buster Keaton fighting on behalf of the Confederate Army against the sinister North who - can you believe it - want to abolish slavery.  The bastards! Keaton's own explanation was that his character had to be an underdog to get an audience to root for him, and if he was on the eventual winning side the film would seem overly triumphalist.  It has the opposite effect on me, painting the Confederate Army as noble heroes feels queasily wrong.  I get that this film is 88 years and from an alien political context, but I can only honestly watch it as a 2014 viewer and this stuff leaps out at me.

Your best bet is to do your best to politely overlook this and enjoy the film as a remarkable piece of cinema history, though one that's ultimately a product of its time.  Fortunately The General still has the goods, the stunts still thrilling, the weight of the trains still palpable and even after eight decades you sense Buster Keaton's indomitable charisma - still as vital and attractive as it ever was.  With a new 4K master and soundtrack by veteran of silent scores Carl Davis the film has never looked or sounded better.  Seeing this on a big screen with an audience gives the film a vibrancy: silent cinema truly coming alive on the big screen.


The General is screening at the BFI Southbank from 24th January - 8th February. Tickets here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

'Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was Kept in a Box' by Mat Fraser at The Royal College of Physicians, 20th January 2014

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Royal College of Physicians reeks of power and importance.  Walk through the doors and you're judged by a jury of dead men; wigged, white and well-bred they gaze sternly down from the walls at you - the accumulated history so powerful you half expect a lacily cuffed Georgian hand to land firmly on your shoulder and ask just what a person like you is doing here.

The answer, unfortunately for them, is to smash down centuries of entrenched discrimination, to rattle these dusty walls as we dissect the the history of disability - a topic on which the medical establishment doesn't exactly come out of smelling of roses.  Our guide is Mat Fraser: actor, performance artist, musician and activist. Born a thalidomide baby in 1962 he's got first hand experience of the social consequences of living with disability; ranging from fear, anger and bullying through to pity, curiosity, condescension and, most relevant here, the misplaced, messianic desire to 'cure' him.

At the heart of the evening is a tug of war between 'normal' and anomalous.  Mat argues that the way different societies treat the disabled functions as a Rosetta Stone of their deeper psychologies and ethics.  The lecture is inspired by his research of artefacts, specimens and documents held in the collections of the Hunterian, the Science Museum and the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physician .  At the outset he explains that prior to this research he'd intended to come at this from a wryly comedic angle, but quickly became engulfed in a rather depressing tidal wave of history - realising that you just can't be lighthearted about a lot of this stuff.

Mat's obviously sincerely emotionally invested and this transcends a mere history lesson, easily entering the realm of performance - with video interludes, songs and moments that become quasi-cabaret.  Though he always treats the subject with respect he's a natural stand-up comedian, so the lecture is dotted with the odd cheesy joke and sarcastic aside - a pressure valve that allows the audience a much needed opportunity to exhale.

The basic structure is a chronological history of disability, beginning with Victorian freak shows, progressing through the industrial revolution, the post-war period and to the modern day. Fleshing out this skeleton is an explanation of three 'models' of disability; medical, charity and social - each of which roughly map onto various periods of history.  Layered on top of that is a specific focus on how museums and educational institutions represent disability through history and how they can improve.

As an artist who uses his disability as a central part of his performances, Mat shows a clear affection for the carnival world of the Victorian freakshow.  At first this seems surprising; films like David Lynch's The Elephant Man portray these shows as treating the disabled essentially as animals, beaten and whipped for the amusement of chortling crowds.  But there's a slightly warped sincerity to these shows.  From a young age children are told "it's not polite to stare", yet this smokescreen of manners reveals a wider truth - we want to stare - it's natural to be curious.  Mat tells us about his own experiences exhibiting his body to crowds, explaining that if audiences want to gawp at him they're going to have to put up with him talking to them as well - forcing them to acknowledge his personality and politics.

As we reach postwar Britain, the mood of the talk becomes much rawer and personal as Mat talks about medical and social reactions to the Thalidomide scandal.  He talks about his own experiences as a child with disability and how fortunate he was to have parents and doctors who didn't try to crowbar him into some warped idea of normality.  In the most disturbing part of the night he tells us of people who had their limbs operated on to make them more pleasing to the eye, with the side effect of rendering them useless - or worse, amputating them completely.  

Terry Wiles
This is the sharpest criticism of the medical model of disability, which takes the able body as a blueprint and futilely tries to make the patient conform to it - hammering a square peg into a round hole.  In impossibly creepy footage from 1965 we see Terry Wiles strapped into a monstrous gas-powered full prosthesis.  Last week Mat spoke to Terry on Skype about this, and we hear this over the footage.  He vividly recals his distress, fear and confusion at being placed into this contraption.  Though constructed with the purest of motivations, this device is the only truly warped example of humanity we see this evening - a Cronenbergian tangle of child and machine.  What we quickly realise is that this prosthesis isn't for the benefit of the person inside it, it's for our benefit - a way for those looking at Terry to ignore his disability and pretend that everything is hunky dory.

Mat explains the residual guilt of the medical establishment for allowing Thalidomide to be prescribed, outlining experiences with doctors who assure him that nothing like this could ever happen again.  Even now, when attending a GP for something that has nothing to do with his disability they often apologetically ask to feel the bones of his arms, their academic curiosity perhaps understandable, though the effect being to reduce him to his disability minimising him as a person.

It's this throughline of regarding the disabled as a person in their own right rather than just a medical condition that drives his desire to improve disabled representation in museums.  All too often exhibits about disabled life merely feature conditions rather than people - their personalities effectively erased from history.  It's this that Mat rails against, convincingly arguing that museums wield immense educational power, their innate authority meaning that their version of history becomes the accepted narrative. 

Changing perceptions in society can seem like an impossibly complicated job, yet if you pick your battles you can gradually erode the mountain rather than smash it down. Museums thus become a pressure point, where change can not only be easily made, but has the potential to ripple through culture for years to come.  For all the power and passion, this philosophy boils down to simply treating people as people, appreciating their personhood with empathy rather than with sympathy or a detached scientific curiosity.

This is one hell of a lecture, conveyed with such power that it repeatedly strays into performance.  Given the subject matter it feels a little strange to say that I enjoyed it or was entertained, but, well, I did enjoy it and I was entertained.  There's a few musical numbers, Mat variously singing and rapping - the highlight being a heartfelt and ragged rendition of Somewhere from West Side Story set to a slideshow of disability through the ages.  Mat's an excellent and charismatic speaker, totally avoiding even a hint of sentimentality or sanctimoniousness, leavening seriousness with humour but never trivialising.  Tickets for this are going to be hard to get hold of, but I'd highly recommend trying.

Mat Fraser will present three further performances of the show at:

Embrace Arts at University of Leicester on Thursday 23 January - Tickets
The Science Museum, London on Friday 31 January - Tickets 
Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London on Wednesday 5 February  - Tickets

Monday, January 20, 2014

'The Choreography of Things', meeting Choy Ka Fai at arebyte Gallery, 18 January 2014

Monday, January 20, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A century ago the Victorians, obsessed with touching the spiritual plane, seized upon electrification as the key to reviving the dead.  Mary Shelley describes her "extreme astonishment" with the phenomenon in Frankenstein and soon quack scientists were travelling Europe engaging in grisly reanimation shows - referred to as 'galvanism'.  They'd hook up frogs to an electric current, causing them to dance and twitch in a parody of life.  

Now I'm the frog. I sit with electrodes gloopily suckered onto my arms, the sound of static crackling in the air and an artist wearing a neural interface staring intently at me.  My muscles wriggle about under my skin like a couple of badly behaved snakes, fingers curl up in strange patterns and occasionally my entire elbow tightens and jerks towards my body.  This is all the doing of Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai: the man controlling my arm using a NeuroSky brain/computer interface.  Having someone else's brain in control of your body is one of the more odd sensations I've experienced of late - certainly one of the most intimate. And we'd only just met!

Choy Ka Fai working in arebyte Gallery
Surrounded by laptops, cables and various gadgetry, he has the faint aura of the mad scientist to him as he works away in arebyte Gallery.  This residency, titled The Choreography of Things is a continuation of his projects Prospectus for a Future Body and Softmachine - explores neurological and physiological data arising from contemporary dance.  Dance is one of the purer forms of communication, a nonverbal dialogue of human motion instinctively understood by any human being.  But though the dancer exposes themselves to the audience in every movement they make, their mind is still a closed garden.  

Ka Fai throws open the gates of this garden, his performances a combination of lighting, visuals and synth sounds entirely extrapolated from the neural activity of the dancer.  As we watch this we're seeing them inside and out, brain and body as one streamlined communicative device.  In this moment the dancers are 'transparent people', everything exposed.  But this is a two way street; Ka Fai doesn't stop at acting as facilitator, but as controller.  Using electrical stimulation pads, he maps the motions of iconic dance performances onto himself and professional dancers, their bodies automatically responding to sets of electrical stimulations; a human programming language that turns people into puppets.  

I usually make it a rule to stay away from devices labelled "MIND CONTROL TEST".
Using people as puppets has a definite ring of supervillainy to it.  Ka Fai is calm, friendly and open, but even so he still feels just a few steps away from setting up a lair in a creepy abandoned dance studio in Gotham City and battling Batman.  Much of this is down to the immediate intimacy that his technology can't help but create.  Curious as a cat I wanted to check this out for myself, and as you feel the NeuroSky transmitter pressing against your forehead, and the clip gently pinching your earlobe you realise that as of this point you don't really have any secrets from him.

His bespoke software neatly colour codes the data coming out of your brain, first the wildly fluctuating 'Raw' brain wave date data, separate columns marking everything from delta deep sleep 'dreaming' waves, to low beta sensory motor rhythms and theta learning and memory waves.  The software translates this data into sound, the most easy think to detect the *click* as you blink and the sensory data blips.  More interesting are the 'Relax' and 'Focus' columns.  As I close my eyes and imagine a sun-dappled forest I start to chill out, and a rising tone rings out.  When I start to focus by doing some maths in my head another tone begins to sound.  The upshot of all this is that right away you realise that there are no secrets from this machine, as far as I can see you cannot fool it - Ka Fai is literally reading my mind.

After hearing so much about these experiments with dancers, I'm eager to see what it's like to be shocked myself.  Soon I'm strapped up with four electrical pads, my arm plugged into Ka Fai's brain.  The cool adhesive sticking to my arm is reminiscent of a medical exam, but Ka Fai is no doctor and quickly I start to wonder what the hell I've let myself in for.  Adding to the worry is the off-handed remark that "we definitely don't want these pads anywhere near your heart".  It's suspenseful sitting there, wires trailing from you, waiting for the shocks to begin - though as with most things the wait is the worst part. 

The first zap surprises me, my hand immediately curling into a claw and my forearm jerking forwards.  It's not painful but boy it feels odd.  Appropriately, given that I'm now essentially a human puppet, the sensation feels like someone's threaded wire through my muscles and is yanking hard on it, drawing my arm into a series of contorted poses.  It's possible to fight it, but it's easier to go with the flow, to allow my limb to rebel, the sight of my fingers twitching away without any input feeling alien in a tripped out kind of way.

Curious as to how Ka Fai's thinking is moving my arm I ask if I can wear the NeuroSky headset, thus allowing me to shock myself.  Unfortunately, this quickly puts me into a feedback loop - I'm being shocked because I can't focus and I can't focus because I'm being shocked.  Now I'm sat there with my arms outstretched like some screwed up marionette, jerking away as I inadvertently zap myself over and over again.  This is one of the odder Saturdays I've had of late.

All this tinkering with brainwaves and electrical muscle signals leaves me with the disquietingly mortal sensation of body-as-machine.  As we chat about the future potential for work like this Ka Fai mentions an interest in recent cognitive studies by the Max Planck Institute that seem to prove decision-making takes place in the brain up to seven seconds before you consciously 'decideto do something.  Using similar technologies to what we're working with here, scientists can effectively know what you're going to do before you do. This opens a can of worms when it comes to consciousness, suggesting that decision-making is an illusion of the brain.  

These experiments are cutting-edge stuff, art grappling with biomechanics and medicine.  One of the things I enjoy most in art is when something has a physical impact upon me, be it a rush of heat from a flame, tasting something odd or simply being thrilled.  This work literally got inside my head and twisted my body.  Yeah it was weird, but it was also fascinating, and I have huge admiration to Ka Fai in utilising these new technologies in such an accessible ways.  If you're at all interested, I'd recommend heading along to arebyte where you can see a demonstration or (if you're feeling brave) take the plunge yourself.

This is the first residency in arebyte's 2014 programme, which focuses on new media art and performance art, with an eye to exploring the use of new technologies and their intersection with the contemporary environment.  If they carry on like this 2014 is going to be one hell of an interesting year at arebyte.

Choy Ka Fai is in residence at arebyte Gallery, Unit 4, White Post Lane, Queen's Yard, E9 5EN until 2nd February 2014 (Tue-Sat 12-6pm).  There is a closing event on the 30th of January.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

'The Wolf of Wall Street' (2013) directed by Martin Scorsese

Sunday, January 19, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

In The Wolf of Wall Street Martin Scorsese elevates financial trading to a dark religion that promises heaven on earth.  This is a story of mystical market forces, primal chest-beating, mind-bending narcotics and rapt crowds worshipping the most corrupt of high priests. Scorsese serves us up 3 hours of excess; horrible men engaged in horrible acts, their fabulous wealth the product of a million tiny swindles, men stickily fingering their way through our wallets and purses - a fingering we hate to acknowledge we're getting off to.

This is the world of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the film chronicling his progress from ambitious penny stock trader to mentally deranged sociopath.  The meteoric rise and collapse of Jordan Belfort has neat parallels to Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino, completing a thematic trilogy of predatory protagonists getting precisely what they want, then having this world crash down around them.  One of the cleverest decisions Scorsese makes is understanding that the minutia of financial trading is essentially irrelevant to the story.  In a marvellous voice-over, DiCaprio's Belfort often starts beginning a complicated explanation about how pump-and-dump schemes work before reminding us that all we really care about is that he's conjuring dump-trucks full of money apparently from thin air.

Much has been made of the morality of the film; the central criticism being that showcasing excess with such gleeful, stylish verve amounts to an advertisement for it - columnists fretting over reports of audiences of financial traders whooping in recognition as they recognise their own lives.  As I see it you'd have to brain dead to watch this and come to the conclusion that this is something to be sincerely emulated.  That said, it's honest film-making to acknowledge that living a purely hedonistic lifestyle is at minimum superficially attractive. We find ourselves comparing our own lives to this glitzy, chaotic free-for-all - a predatory, materialistic part of us wanting to be in Belfort's shoes as he blows coke up a prostitute's arse or trashes his sports car.

This pretty much sums it up.
The key to all this is the voiceover - revealing Belfort as a deeply unreliable narrator within the first few minutes as he corrects the film, explaining that his Ferrari is white rather than red, the reality of the film immediately warping to accommodate him.  That what we're seeing is malleable and fluid is Scorsese's secret weapon; this is Jordan Belfort's story, and he edits his life to make himself look great.  Sometimes reality peeps through though, like a telling moment when he recounts the story of one of his partners who committed suicide - a grisly crime-scene photo flashing on screen that's at odds with the glossy high-saturation aesthetic.  Almost as if realising that this is a bad route to go down - Belfort quickly skips past this and onto more extreme partying - constantly papering over the cracks in his ugly edifice.

For me, the most illustrative moment in the film is a faux 90s 'Get Rich Quick' infomercial starring Belfort, replete with neon-bikini babes, yachts and fast cars.  "All this could be yours..." informs a smartly suited Belfort.  We scoff at the cheesy production values and obviously manipulative message, yet even as we chortle at the suckers who'd be convinced in by this rubbish we can't help but envy Belfort's material success.  This infomercial is a microcosm of the film as a whole; revealing The Wolf of Wall Street as carefully constructed fantasy, seducing us with a soapy handjob as it exploits our secret, base desires.

It'd be real easy to make a film about Wall Street (or for that matter the City of London) that functions as a cathartic Django Unchained style revenge fantasy, showing us the baddies getting a violent comeuppance.  Scorsese goes deeper than this, showing the character's accumulation and worship of money as something endemic to capitalism, the excess of Belfort merely the logical conclusion of desires instilled in us throughout our lives. No matter what your political convictions, to grow up and live within a consumerist, capitalist society indoctrinates you into a world of possessions and property, a world where, as much as you might convince yourself otherwise, deep down you measure the worth of a person by the amount of money in their bank account.

Jordan Belfort, horrible though he is, is not a particularly unique or surprising kind of monster.  His existence is the inevitable consequence of the free market capitalism espoused by the great and powerful, his insatiable greed and willingness to exploit people leaving him a perfect amoral creature that naturally thrives within an economic system designed to reward his behaviour.  

Though the film doesn't cover the 2008 financial crash, the contemporary caricature of the slimy, profit-obsessed banker looms large in the background.  But again, despicable though these people are, it's us that's in the firing line - every moment we catch ourselves secretly envying Belfort's material success another condemnation of us.  Rubbing salt into the wound, Scorsese goes out of his way to undermine the glitziness by showing the sex as mechanical and unfulfilling, the drug-taking as nauseous and pathetic and the possessions as transitory and destructive - yet even though we know wealth won't bring us happiness we can't help but want it like an addict wants the needle.

Jonah Hill - two time Oscar nominee and deserves to be two time Oscar winner.
The last shot of the film sums it all up.  Belfort is reduced to giving motivational 'Get Rich Quick' talks, facing an audience of gormless, slack jawed nobodies who want to be just as horrible as him.  See that moron in the crowd pathetically dreaming of his shiny Ferrari and model wife?  The person who sees human scum like Belfort trotting around like a pig in shit, ripping off people to maintain his opulent existence and thinks "Oh my god, I could be that human scum!"  That's you that is.  

Scorsese thus posits disasters like the 2008 crash, the election of free-market promoting governments and the exploitation of the poor as symptoms of the beast that squats in our collective capitalist heart.  The events of the film rub our noses in the horrible world, but it's a horrible world that we've created by silent, inactive consensus - and there's no way out. As Žižek famously said, "it's much easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" and so, because of our own limited imaginations and indoctrination, we're condemned to suffer the depredations of infinite Jordan Belforts.  And we probably deserve to.

The Wolf of Wall Street's 3 hours zip by, and the film contains an energy that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a 71 year old director.  It's got an impossibly witty script, is one of the funniest films of the year (there's even a brief sojourn into Mr Bean territory!) and has a dynamite cast - the standouts being DiCaprio, a fantastically demented Jonah Hill and an all too brief yet memorable appearance by Matthew McConaughey.  There's no reason why you shouldn't go and see this.  So go and see it already.


The Wolf of Wall Street is on general release now.

Friday, January 17, 2014

'Dallas Buyers Club' (2013) directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Friday, January 17, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The first thing we see in Dallas Buyers Club is a rodeo cowboy struggling to stay atop a bull. It's shot in tight close-ups of its blank eyes, heaving flanks and bulging muscles: every tactic in the director's arsenal used to impress upon us a power and ferocity.  This bull is AIDS and the cowboy struggling to not to be dashed into dust is Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey).  As symbolism goes it's a heavyhanded but effective, neatly encapsulating the film's view of HIV/AIDS sufferers engaged in a frantic, visceral battle for survival.

Ron Woodroof is not a very nice man.  He swaggers around dispensing casual violence, dull homophobia and sexism like a walking Viz cartoon, a cocktail of testosterone, alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine pumping through his veins.  But unbeknownst to him there's something even more dangerous swimming around his blood; the human immunodeficiency virus.  This is Texas in 1985, a time and place where HIV/AIDS is casually dismissed as "the faggot disease", so when diagnosed he angrily accuses his doctors of insinuating that he's gay.  Given a 30 day life expectancy he rapidly proceeds through denial and grief, settling for miserably guzzling illicitly obtained experimental drugs, cocaine and whiskey.  

28 days later he's a walking skeleton, powered only by anger at the injustice visited upon him.  After a brush with death, saved only by an emergency blood transfusion, he desperately heads to Mexico, where he learns that the experimental drugs he's been taking are destroying his immune system and making him sicker.  His resurrection spurs him on to greater things and so he heads back to Dallas with a car stuffed with unapproved yet effective medicines and sets up the titular 'Dallas Buyers Club', providing quasi-legal medical care to anyone that can stump up $400 a month.  His treatments work, and soon the HIV/AIDS wing of the hospital is emptied, the stage set for an adversarial battle between pharmaceutical companies, the FDA and Woodroof's endearingly ramshackle operation.

Dallas Buyers Club's biggest asset is the brilliant double act of McConaughey and Jared Leto as his trans assistant Rayon.  Both throw themselves into these roles with gusto, totally committing mentally and physically to the reality of these people's lives.  They're fascinating in n purely visual terms, their bony bodies setting them apart from the rest of the world. The men are ostracised for their sickness; doctors wearing breathing masks as they examine them; the public backing away, terrified of becoming infected themselves. At best they're treated with pity and condescension and at worst with fear and disgust - shared experiences that draw the sufferers together, developing a tightly-knit, self supportive community.

Woodroof's epic moral odyssey from asshole to messiah takes just two hours, the one constant in his transformation the tough as nails hustler's edge that allows him to figure out loopholes in the byzantine regulations placed in his path.  His friendship with Rayon is genuinely touching, the highlight being a scene where he sticks up for her against one of his old friends.  Despite the extent of his transformation, the film is mercifully free of scenes where Woodroof has emotional breakthroughs, McConaughey developing layers empathy and kindness literally scene by scene.

In any other film McConaughey would walk away with the acting laurels, but he's more than matched by Leto's astonishing Rayon.  She's an utterly magnetic character, Leto's cut-glass features giving her an aura somewhere between vampire and angel, embodying strength, self confidence and fragility.  As the disease takes its toll on Rayon she gets ever more brittle and desperate, to the point where the audience reflexively lets out a gasp of shock when they see just how little of Leto is left under the trashed out wigs and glam-rock frocks.

The problem with Dallas Buyers Club is that aside from these two brilliant performances there isn't a great deal else going on.  Aside from one or two visually neat moments the direction is competent but invisible.  This is a grittily realistic world, but it's one viewed externally, the director taking care to showcase McConaughey's performance, but never quite letting us into his head.  Another consequence is that any characters who aren't Woodroof or Rayon get pretty short shrift. Jennifer Garner as a doctor suffering a crisis of conscience is faintly unconvincing and restrained, though her secondary role in the plot turns out to be a thankless one that doesn't quite go anywhere.

More egregious problems lie in the script, which has far too many clunky expository infodumps where doctors explain the basics of HIV/AIDS treatment circa 1985.  There's a hell of a lot of "as you knows" in the dialogue, which sounds quite stilted and unnatural in comparison to McConaughey's raw, directness.  The development of effective drugs to combat HIV/AIDS is a just too complicated a story to be relegated to the background of a character study and whenever the focus is shifted onto wider issues the film suffers.  The recent documentary How to Survive a Plague soberly sets out that fight, anyone who's seen that will quickly realise how Dallas Buyers Club vastly simplifies the ethical battle that drives the second half of the film.

That said, it feels a bit cruel to criticise a film that does so much right.  My biggest fear was that the film would eventually devolve into sanctimonious melodrama, replete with vomit-inducing epiphanies and important lessons learned.  This never happens - even within the sadder moments Vallée maintains an earthy, sober tone that grounds things in reality. Given the rather grim subject matter it's fortunate that the film knows when and how to deploy a spot of gallows humour to briefly lighten the mood.  But first and foremost this is an actor's showcase: McConaughey and Leto's gobsmackingly great performances make Dallas Buyers Club a brilliant character study, though perhaps not an outright brilliant film.


Dallas Buyers Club is on general release from February 7th.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013) directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a folk music Sisyphus.  Swaddled in corduroy, guitar strapped to his back he pushes a boulder up a mountain, inch by painful inch.  When he reaches the top the boulder rolls right back down to the bottom and the whole process begins again.  The Coens have always had an eye for splicing mythology with contemporary stories; The Odyssey in O Brother Where Art Thou, or The Book of Job in A Serious Man - here they place a typically Coenesque hero within an inescapable trap of culture, time and space.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a perpetually failing, sofa-surfing bum, though an admittedly obviously talented bum. Greenwich Village, New York in 1961 has its own set of myths, though here we see the flip side of the coin: fatigue, poverty and the icy cold - framed through an omnipresent fug of cigarette smoke.  Like the best Coen protagonists, Llewyn is portrayed as the one clear-eyed figure in a world gone mad, a man who's become the butt of a cosmic joke, having to deal with a gallery of grotesques; the mine of 'funny-lookin' character actors that only Coens appear to be able to tap.

The bright spot in all the misery is a tabby cat, one of the few creatures in this frozen urban landscape to offer even a smidge of unconditional kindness to Llewyn (and even then it escapes at the earliest opportunity).   Aside from the troubles caused by this disobedient cat, Inside Llewyn Davis ditches any semblance of driving narrative early on in the film.  Llewyn bumbles from sofa to sofa, tossed by chance from one situation to the next, trying his best to cope with whatever miseries the universe has decided to buffet him with today.

Even the cat is a good actor.
This lack of a clear narrative isn't a criticism, the subject and setting of the film reverberates around the hazy structure of the story.  Llewyn sings wistful, melancholy songs about characters who are hungry, poor, cold and far from home.  The wry punchline is that Llewyn is essentially living a folk song and hating every moment of it.  The episodic structure of Inside Llewyn Davis, miniature stories as verses punctuated by choruses of musical numbers thus becomes a loose folk song itself.  

The Coens obviously have a soft spot and high artistic regard for folk music, yet they're never afraid to poke fun at its subject matter.  Folk music is, by design, a static genre. Musicians dressed in outfits that no-one would bat an eye at in 1911, 1961 or 2011, sitting on stools, pluck away at beaten-up acoustic guitars, playing the songs written by long dead and anonymous people. This lack of change isn't necessarily a bad thing, but a consequence is that it sets in stone the 'true' folk experience and mindset; an examples in the film is Llewyn's disgust at his friends treating music as a career that'll lead to a comfortable life in the suburbs, or outside the film the vitriol spewed at Dylan when he dared to go electric.

In Llewyn's misery the Coens pinpoint the paradox of folk: success equals failure.  If you're a rich, popular musician touring to sold-out arenas, staying in plush hotels while singing about the melancholy of being broke and riding the rails then you're a hypocrite.  Conversely, if you're playing to empty bars with nothing to your name except the clothes on your back and an acoustic guitar, tumbling through a freefall life with no parachute then you may be hungry, cold and deeply miserable but dammit, at least you're authentic .

This is an classically Coenesque, farcical situation, the film going to great lengths to convey this futile problem of trying really hard to be a success, but in that success losing what made you succeed in the first place.  This psychic torment is written on the face of Oscar Isaac, whose deadpan, increasingly pissed off and sleep-deprived stare speaks volumes as to his state of mind.   Isaac is a great here, and not being a big name I wondered just where the hell he came from to pull out a performance this complete.   I assumed he was new to the screen, so was surprised to learn I've seen him quite a bit, most notably as ex-con Standard in Drive, where he again shares a screen with Carey Mulligan - proof of a chameleonic acting ability that can only bode well for his future in cinema.

Freewheelin' turns out to be less fun than it looks.
The rest of the cast fits snugly into their roles as only the Coens (and perhaps Tarantino) can accomplish.  One of the best arrows in the Coens directorial quiver is the ability to cast the perfect actor in the role, be it A-listers like Justin Timberlake as a more pop-minded folk musician who seems destined for financial success or character actors like Sylvia Kauders, who's great as a faintly absent-minded receptionist.  Perhaps the most oddly touching performance is also the most restrained.  Stan Carp plays Llewyn's apparently catatonic father, who does literally nothing other than looking wistfully out of a window and slightly changing his facial expression, yet manages to instil this most minute of movements with impossible sadness.

I suspect Inside Llewyn Davis is going to divide audiences.  If you prefer a traditionally structured story with a beginning, middle and end you're going to be disappointed.  This is essentially all middle, or, to be reductive, 'just a bunch of stuff that happens'.  But what beautifully written, performed and intelligent stuff!  Even if you're turned off by the loosely structured narrative it's difficult to imagine not being seduced by the great soundtrack, which ranges ranging from the heartfelt to the dopey.  This is a dreamily smart watch, quietly brave watch, and one that slots neatly into the Coen's impressively consistent filmography.


Inside Llewyn Davis is on general release from 24 January

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

'Belle' (2014) directed by Jon Max Spatz

Tuesday, January 14, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

In Belle we see a woman confronted with obsolescence. It's the morning of the sixteenth birthday of her beautiful daughter, Belle and time has come a-knockin' for her mother.  In painful scenes she, perhaps for the first time, truly understands the horror of oncoming decrepitude and suffers a hallucinatory freakout: a blur of bondage, blades, blood and thick gloopy, suffocating makeup.  This is an uncomfortable, claustrophobic and short horror film with the aim of inducing a nightmare state.  And it's all sponsored by the Jobcentre.

As I outlined in my previous article on Belle's production, every Head of Department on the film was assisted by a trainee supplied by the Jobcentre.  These are young people who, perhaps foolishly, explained to their adviser that they wanted to work in film.  As one of the trainees, Guy Larsen, explained, he was ready to be laughed out of the room when he said this, probably figuring his destiny was Workfare slavery in the Poundland salt mines.  But, (I imagine to his surprise) his advisor got him a placement as Assistant Director on Belle

That such a weird little short is preceded by the Jobcentre logo feels like one in the eye for bureaucracy, a subversion of a system designed to produce minimum-wage (or no-wage) slaves.  You'd assume that the natural product of a collaboration between artists and the Jobcentre would be neutered: horror playing it safe with all the awfulness that implies.  But Belle feels like its slipped through the cracks, bypassing the censor's pen and miraculously arriving fully-formed and odd as they come.

Even better, this isn't something the Jobcentre are trying to sweep under the rug; they appear genuinely proud of these results.  At the premiere John Paul-Marks, Work Services Director at Jobcentre Plus, explained his pride in placing young jobseekers in proper creative roles, looking pleased as punch to have something positive to talk for once.  Also speaking was Esther McVey, Minister for Employment, who, presumably after getting a whiff of potentially positive press, attached herself to proceedings like some horrible woman shaped barnacle.

I'm going to assume that neither of these people, especially not McVey, had seen the film prior to the screening.  I like to imagine they felt a quiver of apprehension when they saw what their organisations had begotten.  You can imagine the Daily Mail now; "Your taxes at work as Minister for Employment attends government funded bizarro art horror short." All this background gives the film a pinch of subversive spice that adds a nice extra-textual bite to the night.

Fortunately, though all this behind the scenes funding stuff is fascinating for film production and political geeks, Belle is a pretty wonderful short film.  Though the location is middle class domesticity, the real setting is the face of lead actor Lindsey Readman.  Her character works in fashion and is painfully aware of every crease and sag across her face and body, Spatz mercilessly subjects to her to endless clinical closeups, framing and lighting her features not with an eye to for unflattery, but rather towards honesty.

The pinnacle of this is a shot of Readman getting dressed in the bedroom.  It's full frontal nudity, though relaxed and entirely unsexualised.  This is the kind of image you just don't get to see often in film and works wonders in immediately summarising the aims and ambitions of Belle.  But it's in the facial close-ups, scored to woozily distorted piano that the short finds its true rhythm.  There's a bravery here both in front and behind the camera lens; the actors allowing the audience to scrutinise their beauty and the director in trusting that these images are interesting enough to keep the audience's attention. It's in the (perhaps unconscious) movements of her facial muscles that the mother's character lies, particularly in the scene where she applies makeup with a King Canute-ish weariness.  It's a performance marked by subtlety and attention to detail, and without Readman it's questionable whether the film would have worked half as well as it does.

So, tonally and visually Belle just plain works, my only criticism is the length. To properly grapple with something as weighty as the expectations on women to conform to standards of beauty and wider philosophical notions of mortality and being superceded by youth cries out for a longer run-time.  Though Belle successfully approaches these topics, the limited run time means that it only scratches the surface.  The short finishes at the precise moment it feels like we're going somewhere, the finale not so much a conclusion as the moment when things get really interesting.  The themes that Belle attempts to convey are so resonant that as the credits roll, we wish that we'd just seen the opening of a film rather than a self-contained short.

Still, hungering for more is definitely a good sign.  Belle isn't notable just because of the unique circumstances behind its production, it's an intelligent, technically competent and promising piece of cinema that deserves to be widely seen.  I have no idea if the production team have ambitions to turn it into a full-length feature, but if they do they've sown a fertile thematic field with Belle that should bear a bountiful cinematic harvest.


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