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Thursday, February 27, 2014

'Live In Your Dreams!', The Crypt of St Pancras Church, 26th February 2014

Thursday, February 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


When someone asks you if you want to wear a mask made of human hair and stalk around a crypt distributing pomegranate seeds to people there's really only one answer - YES!  This is how I wound up spending my Wednesday night; sequestered in a brick-line, corpse-vacated vault, spookily tip-toeing about, shoving a plate piled high with sticky chunks of redness under innocent noses and demanding they have a gobble. All this was in service of Live In Your Dreams!, an exhibition that aims to reimagine this crypt as a "collective dream", an underworld where subconscious symbols can frolic in the moody subterranean halflight.

This is a mini-labyrinth, a tangle of curved corridors and dusty alcoves.  This space once contained the coffins of those notable enough to be bunged underneath a central London church. They've all gone now, dispatched to wherever it is they send the dead when those in charge want to get rid of a load of dusty bones. Tonight they've been replaced with an art pic n' mix; every nook and cranny home to work covering a vast amount of mediums. This was a high quality exhibition, but though I liked damn near everything on display I don't have time to write about every little thing - so here's my personal highlights.

Susan Beattie - Loop Curtain
First up a big pile of guts.  Susan Beattie's Loop Curtain lurks just inside the entrance. Composed of sheep's intestine, ox bung and raw sheep's fleece it lies in an organic, slightly nauseating, tangle. The whole thing looks maggotty to me; especially the large ox bung (which I think is a cow's rectum/anus) sitting in the middle. A big old heap of maggots isn't exactly a pleasant sight to come across, but then we're in a place expressly designed to accommodate the process of decomposition. As gross as maggots are they're a direct manifestation of new life from death.  It's interesting to look at this place as the home of the evicted dead tenants - and what would the dead have bouncing around their skulls if not maggots?

Susie Calvert - Microcosm
Though a morbid shroud hangs over the crypt there's pinpoints of brightness glimmering in the gloom.  Susie Calvert's Microcosm  consists of pop-inflected urban environments drawn in crayon on plywood. Using a chunk of masonry as a stage they're a shattered kaleidoscope; an individual's snatched memories of a city able to be assembled in infinite configurations. When we dream of a physical place we assemble it from a jigsaw puzzle of subconscious details. A half-glance at a lamp-post, a broken window that catches our eye, the way the sunlight casts shadows across the frontage of buildings - all of these become recombined in our dreams to form a shade: our individual impression of a location. Purely on an aesthetic level it's a breath of fresh air nestled deep in the dank grey and browns of the crypt.

Boris Raux - the space divider - mushrooms version
Similarly lightening things up is Boris Raux' the space divider - mushrooms version. I met Boris before at the Experimentations show last November; there he had condensed seawater into thousands of squishy spheres, here he's created a smell dispersal device: two tubs of coloured liquid with a fan blowing across the top. A sweet smell wafts around the entire gallery, apparently the smell of cave and psilocybin mushrooms. Boris has just a touch of the mad scientist to him, marrying an idiosyncratic personal alchemy onto new kinds of technology. The piece looks vaguely like a satellite, the two pools of liquid solar panels between them.  Physically it's no great shakes; though the liquids glitter and swirl in enjoyable random fractal swirls.  But this art doesn't stop at the borders of the installation, it hangs in the atmosphere - tiny molecules of vaguely hallucinogenic liquids suspended in the air, embedding themselves within the noses of all who enter. So Boris has literally succeeded in getting inside his audience's head; impregnating us with his ideas and philosophies.

Andy Flett - Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
In terms of work that creates an immediate physical impression, there's few things in the gallery that stood out as much as Andy Flett's Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. Dreamland can be understood as an infinite land where anything is possible, where all the impulses, fears and desires that lurk within us come out to play without supervision.  His piece, a roll of paper containing descriptions of his dreams in ever-decreasing type, is an unfiltered gate between his mind and the paper. His dreams, ranging from the banal to the bizarre, are thrown into one long stream of thought. The dreaming mind has no real concern over whether what it's putting out is fun, normal or pleasant - just spewing the disconnected detritus of what's rolling around in our brains back at us.

Mona Choo - Stuck
The final piece I particularly dug was Mona Choo's Stuck. Here the passages of the crypt become home to small, tangled up doodles of people on twisted up acrylic.  They cling to the walls, wrapped around each other with a childlike vulnerability - the plastic rolling up like one of those fortune-telling fish you find inside a Christmas cracker. The figures sway in the drafts that breeze through the tunnels, giving them a strangely quivering sort of life. One pair of tangled up people twirls in the breeze, intertwining in a vaguely Picasso-y way. This felt like the dream of the crypt itself; the spirits of the dead remaining in its memories even though their physical remains have long departed. 

If you like exploring subterranean secrets and touching the fabric of the subconscious, then Live in Your Dreams! is easily worth checking out. The work on display complements the space fantastically, breathing some life and imagination into these dusty old bricks. Aside from what I've mentioned there's a tonne of other great stuff there, so pay a visit - you won't regret it!

Live in Your Dreams finishes on the 3rd of March - opening times 12-6pm.

Monday, February 24, 2014

'Nymph()maniac Parts I & II' (2014) directed by Lars von Trier

Monday, February 24, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


It's perverse that a film where women get repeatedly punched in the face, pissed on, fucked up the arse, slapped, gorily whipped and generally humiliated all round should wind up as one of the most straightforwardly feminist works of cinema around.  But that's Lars von Trier for you.  It's impossible to go into this film without preconceptions, but funnily enough, after all the breathlessly prurient press hype about hot n' heavy porno cinema, there's nothing in these sex scenes that's particularly shocking.  There's a small thrill of novelty in seeing bobbling boners and quivering quims blown up to enormous size across a cinema screen, but all thefucking is in obvious service to an intellectual message and never feels remotely gratuitous or for the matter, particularly erotic.  

Nymph()maniac isn't even a particularly difficult film to decode; von Trier explicitly outlines his argument throughout - that society is shot through with hypocrisy when it comes to dealing with the spectrum of female desire. Over two films comprising four and a half hours, von Trier performs an exhaustive autopsy on misogyny: delving deep into how we instinctively judge 'fallen' women, how we compartmentalise female sexual desire and just how constrictive our supposedly enlightened post-sexism society is.  



All that and we also get lessons on (among other things), fly fishing tactics, the Fibonacci sequence, the 'satanic' tri-tone, Bach's use of polyphony, the perfect way to park a car, a short history of the division between the Eastern and Western Christian churches and the lifesaving qualities of the Prusik knot.  

The primary vehicles for this are the titular nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who finds her bloody and beaten in an alley.  Refusing both ambulance and police, Joe is helped back to Seligman's dingy flat where he gives her a cup of tea and asks what happened to her.  The rest of the film is Joe's self-told life story, beginning with the immortal line "I was two years old when I discovered my cunt." (oh Lars...).  The rest of the run-time is divided into chapters, obliquely titled things like "The Compleat Angler" or "The Little Organ School".

After Antichrist and Melancholia, neither of which can really be described as pleasant experiences, it's surprising how lighthearted much of Nymph()maniac is.  Throughout Part I the cinema rang to the sound of laughter, von Trier confidently creating a kind of farcically absurd atmosphere - a distant comedy relative of Chris Morris' Jam.  It's in Part II where things darken up a bit, though no matter how disturbing things become they're always leavened by the bedrock of humour that underpins the film.  



By anyone's standards this film contains an embarrassment of cinematic treasures; the decadent run-time allowing von Trier the space to properly work through his argument. This is laid out upon a blank cultural canvas; though we see 40 or so years in the life of a woman we don't begin 40 years ago and we don't end in the modern day. The world of Nymph()maniac feels dislocated in time; a kludge of 1980s to contemporary fashion, technology and architecture - landing somewhere between Britain and Scandinavia, but never quite one or the other.  

In terms of performances there's a split between the von Trier veterans and the newcomers. Throughout Part I, which covers the first 25 or so years of Joe's life, she's played by newcomer Stacy Martin.  It's difficult to believe this is her first film, such is the gusto with which she hurls herself into the role - the prime weapon in her arsenal a devastating deadpan indolence. At times there's an eerie numbness as her face peers over the shoulders of the many men humping her  - giving the camera the bored expression you'd see on someone waiting at a bus stop.  At others, when she's at her most predatory, we detect the sadist lurking behind those big eyes, regarding the men around her like a snake might regard a mouse. 

Practically everyone else is great though; from Uma Thurman's bizarre scorned wife to Willem Dafoe's paternal gangster - all launching themselves into the material with total fearlessness. Particularly impressive is Jamie Bell as the s&m dom 'K'.  He runs a strip-lit utilitarian dungeon that looks like what the NHS would come up with if they started running a therapeutic sadomasochism service.  K is unreadable, clinically exacting and horribly violent, yet (as fucked up as this sounds) when he viciously beats Joe you sense the love in his blows.  The only real misstep is Shia LaBeouf as Joe's on/off longterm partner; his accent is one of the dodgiest I've heard for a long time, one moment somewhere around London, the next Sydney - then perhaps a short stop off in Cape Town.  



Though there's a ton a of A-listers here, the real prima donna of Nymph()maniac is von Trier himself. Every frame of this movie beats with his idiosyncratic heartbeat.  There isn't another director alive with an ego big enough to pull off some of this stuff; leaving his audiences open-mouthed as he launches into a stout defence of paedophiles who never act on their urges, pausing to argue that being anti-Zionist doesn't make you anti-semitic or, most bizarrely, a brief debate as to whether its acceptable to use the word 'negro'. At these points the characters (particularly Joe) transparently become mouthpieces for the director. It'd be easy to view this as a flaw in the movie but I enjoy this audacity, the marvellously bonkers self-confidence of a director who'd even consider putting this in a film. Anyway, despite the shaggy dog narrative, the digressions into trivia and the eyebrow-raising sociological arguments the film is never boring - an impressive feat given the gargantuan run-time.

At it's heart, Nymph()maniac is a baldly feminist statement about the hypocrisy of a society that supposedly strives for equality yet instinctively denigrates, slut-shames and abuses women that express themselves sexually.  One of the biggest character developments in the movie comes when Joe finally accepts that her proclivity for promiscuity is neither unnatural nor immoral - refusing to be characterised as a 'sex addict' and proudly adopting the label 'nymphomaniac'.  Throughout we also get jabs against rape culture - von Trier going out of his way to underline that no matter how many men a woman has slept with, no presumptions can be made as to whether she's going to sleep with you.  

The film goes so far as to equate feminine sexuality with religious awakening; orgasm associated with divinity and the labia visually linked to the spiritual 'third eye'.  In this vein, von Trier encourages us to view the beaten, bruised and damaged body of Joe as suffering passion in both the sexual and religious senses of the word, drawing direct parallels between Joe and Jesus Christ, both possessing a divine nature and both suffering under the fists, boots and scorn of a humanity that senses enlightenment and instinctively moves to crush it.



Modern culture tends to the juvenile, and consequently to the prudish - you only need to look as far as the kerfuffle surrounding this film's release to get an idea of just how immature a modern audience can be to a film that has a bit of fucking in it. It's deeply refreshing to see a film that's unapologetically positive about the whole of the sexual spectrum, casting off vestigial puritan moralities and presenting us with an unvarnished view of the world as is. Cinema is an art form that allows us view the world around us through others eyes; yet all too often these visions have blinders on them. In a von Trier film you never sense any restrictions as to what you're seeing - he alone apparently having unfettered access to the full range of human experience on film.

Nymph()maniac is a intelligent, beautiful and brave piece of cinema.  If you don't enjoy it then it speaks more to flaws within you than it does to any problems with the film. To know that there's people like von Trier out there with the guts to make these sprawling, messy, wonderful pieces of art that make this fucked up planet just about tolerable to live on.

★★★★★

Saturday, February 22, 2014

'Curio-City' at Curious Duke Gallery, 20th February 2014

Saturday, February 22, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


My heart lies in Whitecross Street. If I was to be trapped there forever I think I could just about cope: there's a cinema, a supermarket, numerous great restaurants, kickin' takeaways, a world food market and a smattering of art galleries. It's these that I appreciate the most, little cultural flavour bombs - the glace cherry in the middle of a delicious Bakewell tart.

Curious Duke used to be tucked away in a little ground floor / basement shop at the top of the street. It was cosy enough but those heading downstairs risked bonking their heads onthe low ceiling and it was easy to overlook among the throbbing hum of weekday burrito-seeking office workers. Nobody's going to miss Curious Duke now though, they've relocated to the handsome corner space at 173 Whitecross Street.  

With sunlight streaming in through the windows, the faint perfume of baking pizza dough from Cozzo over the road and the clickety-clack of hammer on wood from the framers in the next room its undeniably a step-up for Curious Duke, a chance for them to spread their wings and show the world what they got. So it's appropriate that this opening exhibition is a kind of 'Greatest Hits', a parcelling up of the London-focussed, pop-inflected and gently humorous themes that I've seen across Curious Duke's last few exhibitions.

Watchtower (the Hill has Eyes) - Darragh Powell
As someone that loves London I've always got time for art that explores the psychic undercurrents and symbols that power the city.  So perhaps its predictable that the first thing I gravitate to is Darragh Powell's paintings of London occupied by hordes of crows.  In Watchtower (the Hill has Eyes) we see a familiar piece of street architecture surrounded by a murder of crows in flight.  Everyone is familiar with the legend of the ravens of the Tower of London: "if the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall…".  Fortunately for Queen and country the Tower raven's wings have been sufficiently mutilated to physically prevent them from flying away (which seems like a bit of a loophole to me).  But Powell's crows are in rude health and full flight, making a mockery of their captive cousins.  Perhaps the crow is the more appropriate modern symbol of London anyway; intelligent, beautiful and yet a scavenger - feeding on the remains of others.

London Slithers - Tannaz Oroumchi
Continuing these askew views of London are Tannaz Oroumchi's London Slithers and London Bobble.  They're maps of the City of London and the surrounding neighbourhoods, entirely stripped of all explanation - making them next to useless as aids to navigation, but fascinating as a psychogeograpical way to understand the development of the city.  My favourite of the two, London Slither, shows the street plan of the city as a quasi-organic structure, something you might see growing inside a Petri dish.  It's a reminder of the way this city evolved: Anglo-Saxons walking down ancient Roman roads, Tudors building atop the filth of the middle ages, Victorians cramming slums on top of those ramshackle buildings and finally we Neo-Elizabethans sinking huge towers of steel and glass right through these historical strata, deep into the primordial London clay.

One of Sam Peacock's Unseen Landscapes
This theme of analogue biological fuzziness continues with one of Sam Peacock's Unseen Landscapes.  They're impressively tactile works, odd materials bulging out from the a metal surface, capturing the light flickering across every single crenellation. There's something disconcertingly sludgy about these pieces, the rusty reds and browns on top of metal looking like a toxic waste spill, heavy metals leaching into rivers and streams.  On a slightly more positive note this gooeyness also could be life giving too, the coastline of some faraway planet, or an undersea amoebic soup pregnant with life.  Either way it's pretty neat to look at.

Miracle - Roys People
Much of what's on display here showcases a slightly removed view of the world, something that's at the forefront in Roy's People's miniature dioramas, featuring teeny-weeny models of people engaged in surreal behaviours in urban landscapes.  A man waters a dandelion that's burst through concrete, someone pushes a cart laden with tiny berries across a huge road, but my favourite is I Come in Peace, showing two tiny army men with guns squaring off against a snail.  There's a whiff of 1950s atomic age science fiction to this; the picture in the same tradition as the giant ants of Them! or the prehistoric killer molluscs of The Monster That Challenged the World.  Somehow the snail has a kind of deadpan insouciance, clearly not giving a toss about the guns or barked warnings thrown in his direction.  Roy's People are going to be holding an exhibition here in a few months - I can't wait.

This was a kind of artistic buffet, a manifesto of the themes and imagery that Curious Duke wants to explore. I'm pretty fortunate that a gallery that aligns largely with my own sensibilities has opened up not far from my house, and I can't wait to see what they're going to do with this prominent position on the street.  In the midst of a cold, grey and wet winter, it's stuff like this that brightens up the dull days, sending much-needed shards of sunlight piercing through the clouds.

Curio-City is at the Curious Duke Gallery until 28th March, 173 Whitecross Street, EC1Y 8JT

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

NEW SPACE ] performance o p e n [ by ]performancespace[ 16th February 2014

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


New lands, new spaces and new ambitions:  ]performancespace[, cosily burrowed like a hermit crab into a warehouse near the Hackney Wick canal has upped sticks and moved to nearby Fish Island.  Their new building, squirreled away within a maze of drab Victorian brickwork and sarcastic pop-inflected graffiti, feels like a rabbithole away from the frantic outside world.  The decor here is so new you can smell the paint drying, the cushions unsullied by the crease of human backsides and the walls a pristine, virginal white.  But they wouldn't be pristine for long!

Saturday was the inaugural event at this new location; the building freshly stocked with the fashionably dressed, the interestingly haircutted and the artistically open-minded.  Waiting in the wings was a swarm of artists ready to unleash an embarrassment of performance art that would baptise this place with paint, spices, charcoal, makeup, minerals and marbles.

 Sarah Zaltash
Setting the tone for the night was Sara Zaltash, with a durational performance that lasted most of the night.  Sat on the floor she recited a mantra while drawing a neverending charcoal circle around herself.  Round and round she went, the circle getting thicker and more defined as she used more and more charcoal.  In retrospect these marks outlined the themes we'd be seeing tonight; transforming the space into a canvas.  There's something faintly magical about the idea of sitting within a self-made circle, the lines acting as a protective barrier against the outside world. For me this protection extends outwards; the walls of the gallery allowing the artists to safely explore concepts; the water surrounding Fish Island creating a bubble of artistic expression - we can even go so far as to say that Goldsmith's circles recall the M25 - a protective loop around London itself.

Marita Fox
Marita Fox was up next.  Dressed all in black with circular black shades on she moved with a wiry insectoid grace.  With Kafka hanging gently in the air she writhed like a pupae  in a bubble wrap chrysalis.  Emerging from within she unfolded her limbs and with a sudden thump, elbow-dropped a cardboard box.  Within was more bubble-wrap, cotton wool - and deep within that two white hands.  She cradled these with her own black gloved hands, showing them to us with a look of incomprehension etched upon her face. Visually it was striking as hell, Fox mixing theatricality with the kind of style you'd usually expect to see staring out of a photoshoot from a mid 90s issue of Skin Two.

Zoya Sardashti
Zoya Sardashti was on next, dancing to a projection of graffiti.  The picture was of an emaciated, skull-like Statue of Liberty, and she danced an kind of aggressive, strutting semaphore at it.  With a mean look on her face she stomped back and forth in front of the projection, daring it to respond.  As she marched she kept a fixed, fierce look on her face, often making eye contact with the audience, implicating us within the work and subtly asking us which side of this conflict we're on.  It looked cathartic and personal: an opportunity for her to work out her frustrations with a symbol of the unblinking might of cultural imperialism.

Charlotte Law
Soon after was Charlotte Law with a brief (yet memorable) performance.  Nearly naked, she picked up a handful of ochre (I later found out this was a combination of iron ore and olive oil) and rubbed it all over her body.  Then she smooshed herself against the clean gallery pillars, using her body as a human potato printer and leaving a reddish-brown imperfect silhouette.   Job complete she left, leaving us staring at the handprints and impressions she'd left behind.  Once again we see the gallery undergoing some kind of weird blessing; the minerals Law slapped on inextricably melded with the sterile walls of the gallery.  I'm a big fan of brevity, generally preferring the tightly focussed statement to the meandering and freeform, so I liked this.  Within the space of a few quick actions Law created three striking images; first her own body covered in the ore, then her communing with the pillar; then finally the pillar on its own - pregnant with her presence.  


Luisa Amorim's performance marked a bit of a change of pace.  Miming to a backing track (of her own voice I think), she asked the crowd to perform various tasks while standing in a big tub of blue paint.  Perhaps it was the young girl running around in front of Amorim, but there was an air of children's TV about this.  The clear diction and friendly presence was simultaneously friendly and authoritative, and getting us involved in the various tasks she laid out kept everyone engaged.  Throughout people around us unexpectedly piped up, having been given cue cards in advance - dragging us into her light, eccentrically creative and pleasant world.


Performance art generally concentrates on stimulating our eyes and ears, though the immediate aspect of the medium easily allows for all of our senses to come into play.  With that in mind I always enjoy work that gets taste, touch and, in this performance, smell involved.  Nicolina Stylianou's performance involved her mixing various spices with water and spitting that into a jug.  I'm no spice expert, but I think I could detect the smell of cumin and cinnamon.  When she left there were smears of spices mixed with water on the floor, laid out in mixtures like paint on an easel and a tangy whiff hanging in the air.

Tim Bromage
After this we switched gears to Tim Bromage.  Dressed in a smart suit he launched straight into a solemn poem about the story of Icarus.  My heart sank a bit; "oh well, you can't win them all".  But then with perfect comic timing he broke out of his reverie and flipped things around; raising his eyebrows and remarking candidly that this was all a bit too serious.  En masse, we exhaled in a burst of relieved laughter.  But it was what came next that was truly interesting.  Picking up a banjo he began to play, but stopped mid-way through having, (as he put it) "lost it".   Again he tried and again he stopped.  And again.  The crowd grew anxious. Tim seems like such a nice guy that we all wanted him to succeed - and then it struck me that this collective will for him to succeed might have been the whole point of the exercise.  

Charlotte Hailey-Watts
Next up was Charlotte Hailey-Watts with an audio piece.  With butcher's grass lain on the floor, the scratchy sound of the inner loop of a Tears for Fears record infinitely brushing away, a backing track from a laptop playing and a mic in her hand she slowly constructed a sonic soundscape.  The bit I found the most interesting was how she positioned herself within all this.  Supplicated on a rectangular mat  Hailey-Watts looked as if she was engaged in Salat - the Islamic prayer.  It created a interesting frisson between her free-form, outsider style rubbing up against a thousand years of concrete institutionalism. At the conclusion of the performance she lay down and went to sleep on the mat, creating an oasis of calm.  This dead stop was apparently the cue for another performer to begin, but for me it worked as a much needed meditative break.

Emma Louvelle
Entering the final stretch was Emma Louvelle's dance piece, set to Madonna and a musician I didn't recognise (if anyone knows please comment, it was a nice song!).  Louvelle frolicked within symbols of mainstream femininity: makeup, body hair removal, cuddly toys and pop music; transforming mundanity and fluffy stereotypes into a viciously sharp weapon.  Lit from behind like a detective conducting an interrogation she ran a razor over her legs and smeared rouge over her face, ending up as a shamanic, over-the-top caricature of what a woman 'should' be.


After that was Christian Patracchini, who rolled a series of silver-spray painted marbles against a wall.  After the vicious energy of what had just come before this felt a little too austere for my liking.  Sure you can get a dab of kinetic enjoyment from the clickety-clack of the marbles bumping into each other and the randomness of their interactions was at least pretty interesting to look at, but it seemed oddly subdued compared to what had comed before.  We were heading towards the end of the night now, so this sudden drop in momentum was a bit disappointing.  That said, towards the end he started hurling the marbles at the wall so hard that they pinged back towards the us at high velocity.  That's the kind of stuff I enjoy: particularly watching members of the audience quietly yelping in surprise as they took a high velocity marble to the shin.

Ram Samocha & Gerald Royston Curtis
The final performance was a joint work between Ram Samocha and Gerald Royston Curtis. They popped up two black and white sheets of paper on the wall and began to draw on them with huge, exaggerated motions.  I think Gerald was writing 'zapamiętać' in overlaid letters on his (Polish for 'memorise') while Ram was running through a numeric sequence.  As the drawings became more built up the meanings collapsed into a tangled pile of loops and lines, something compounded when they switched sides and began to draw on each other's work. Consciously or not, these pictures summed up many of the marks we'd already seen made that night; the loops of Sara Zaltash, the smeared iron ore of Charlotte Law, the dust in the air the spice of Nicolina Stylianou and the painted footprints of Luisa Amorim.

At the end of the night the gallery felt properly inaugurated, the space now inhabited by the same spirit of playful adventurousness that characterised everything I enjoyed about the old warehouse.  I'm already looking forward to the next time I'm there!

(apologies for anyone's performance I didn't cover - I had to pop out for a bit and I think I missed at least one.  Let me know if I've gotten anyone's name wrong.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Marijuana Deathsquads at Our Black Heart, 11th February 2014

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Marijuana Deathsquads make one hell of a racket.  Well with a six-armed drummer furiously bashing away they would wouldn't they?  With their lead signer burbling a distorted electronic howl, people twiddling switches and dials, swaying back and forth in front of a pile of musical gadgets - they make a deafening, rhythmic jet plane boom.  I love it.

Marijuana Deathsquads first caught my eye due to their marvellously over the top name,and my curiosity was further aroused when a review of their album in the Guardian described their sound as "[a] genre-busting voyage that hurls in everything from dark psychedelic electronic drum'n'bass to pastoral progressive rock." So when I saw they were playing a gig in Camden I couldn't buy tickets fast enough.

Hailing from Minneapolis, the Deathsquads have a variable line-up consisting of (according to Wikipedia): Ryan Olson, Isaac Gale, Stef Alexander, Ben Ivascu, Mark McGee and Spyder Baybie Raw Dawg.  The venue upstairs in Our Black Heart doesn't have the biggest of stages and three drum kits occupy a whole bunch of space, so the band's equipment projects down into the crowd: a tangle of wires and flickering LEDs creating an environment that looks half like a music studio and half like an intensive care ward.  There are eight people on stage, three drummers, one lead singer, three people on the equipment and one bearded guy standing in the corner singing into a microphone to little effect.

The night is barely managed chaos, the songs melting into one another with few moments for us to applaud or even gasp for breath.  Anchoring the whole affair is an outstanding drum section.  Any single one of them would suffice for a decent band, but the three of them playing at once creates a constant rumble of cymbals and snares - it's like being trapped inside a piece of industrial machinery, the kind of impossibly complex clattering beat that you'd usually expect to hear in a Squarepusher or Aphex Twin track.  As the three play on, scarcely stopping for a break they begin to get covered in sweat.  I watch with sick fascination as the sweat patches grow on the drummer's chest, eventually meeting up in the middle in a kind of damp, sticky Rorschach pattern.  

Down the front of the stage, bouncing into the crowd is lead singer Isaac Gale. Maybe this is a stage name, maybe not - either way 'Gale' is extremely appropriate.  His voice, mangled through a vocoder, comes out as a strangled digital howl - like a robot undergoing surgery without anaesthetic.  What he sings isn't so important, and at any rate picking out particular lyrics from this sea of garbled fury is a fool's errand.  What we do hear is rather morbid; "We know how this ends / We're all gonna die in the ocean / Amid a boiling sea / Under a violet sky / We'll sit and watch the waves / Crash into the burning mountain/ On an endless beach".

Clutching the mic with white knuckles, a thousand yard stare plastered over his sweaty mug, Gale looks like some old-time doomsday preacher.  As the beat kicks in once more he begins to thrash his head around maniacally, giving those of us in the front row a spattering of perspiration.  This is a gross, fucked up baptism, but a baptism nonetheless.  By the time it's all over you've been whacked so hard there's cartoon birds fluttering around your head, your eardrums bludgeoned by a sonic blitzkrieg.

Fun though this all was - there were a few peculiarities that I never quite figured out. Opposite Gale was a guy fiddling with a Macbook and singing into a microphone to no obvious effect.  Maybe he's the only one that knows how to work the sequencer, but is a crap singer, so they give him a disconnected microphone. Maybe there was a technical glitch.  Either way he cut a lonely figure, singing a song to nobody in particular.

Aside from the insistent pulse of the drumming it's difficult to tell exactly what each member of the band is contributing to this cacophony - but the combined result is aggressive, furious and yet strangely danceable.  There's a hint of the distorted punkiness of Atari Teenage Riot here, but combined with  some of the dance poppiness of LCD Soundsystem.  It's a lethal combination, music that both blows your mind and shakes your ass.

My only real disappointment was that there wasn't enough room for an elaborate stage show, Our Black Heart is a touch too small for a band with this many members.  The night before they'd played a church in Brighton and I can only imagine how much better the show wouldve been if the band had had a little more space in which to move around in.  They're on at the Troxy tonight, and I found myself wishing I'd booked that night instead.  That aside, Marijuana Deathsquads more than lived up to my expectations. I only hope I never stop enjoying bouncing like a pinball around a claustrophobic venue to bugfuck mental music.  

(One more thing, while the tickets were a bargain at a couple of quid each, two pints (served by a pretty rude bartender) coming to more than £12 really isn't on, London prices or no London prices.)

Marijuana Deathsquads are supporting Polica at the Troxy tonight: tickets here.

Edit: I have since been informed that the guy speaking into the microphone was coordinating the three drummers.  Which makes sense.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

'The Book Thief' (2013) directed by Brian Percival

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


As we glide through the clouds the voice of Death assures us that we're all going to die and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.  It's a pretty harsh way to open a sentimental film about a young girl, yet his words ring truer the longer the film goes on. The Book Thief is a film about the power of stories; the internal narratives we forge for ourselves, the realities imposed upon us by authority and the liberating power of the written word.  However, as Neil Gaiman correctly identified: "the real problem with stories [is that] if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.”

Adapted from the novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief charts World War II of a young German girl called Liesel (Sophie Nélisse).  It's 1938 and her younger brother is dead, her mother is 'disappeared' Communist - with nowhere else to go she's placed with a non-descript German couple, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson).  After a frosty beginning the three form a close-knit family unit, growing together as Europe tears itself apart.

As the years tick by Liesel gets an abridged version of the domestic German experience during the war; witnessing book burnings, her schoolmates becoming indoctrinated into Nazism, Jews having their shops ransacked and bundled into cars and the men in her life gradually being conscripted into the Nazi war machine.  The most notable development is the arrival of Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish son of an old war buddy of her adoptive father. The family hide him in their cellar and soon he and Liesel form a strong friendship, Liesel reading to Max from banned books she's appropriated from book burnings and private libraries and Max gently encouraging Liesel to express herself creatively through her writing.


For much of The Book Thief the war seems a distant concern.  It's something you hear reports of in the newspaper, but the propagandist stories give little real insight into what's going on in the outside world.  This puts Liesel's picturesque town in a bubble, a close-knit community where Nazism is an alien invader rather than something that's naturally sprung up within the community.  

Pervical's film softly paints a picture that comes close to absolving the average German citizen of responsibility for the rise of Nazism.  The majority of the townspeople we meet in this movie are kind, intelligent and understanding, most of them apparently secretly opposed to Adolf Hitler but intimidated into stepping into line and subsequently into uniform.  The only 'true believers' we meet are obvious villains, cartoon pastiches of cruel bullies.  While the Nazis obviously were cruel bullies The Book Thief presents us with an reductively Manichean world. In this film Nazi indoctrination becomes something that happens to other people, as opposed to the reality that racist, xenophobic, totalitarian fascism is something that, given the right conditions, can take deep root inside every human being.  

Fortunately what the film lacks in narrative subtlety it more than makes up in careful visual storytelling.  From the opening shot of clouds we quickly swoop down to following a train travelling through a snowy white field, white steam billowing from the smoke-stack.  All too often these characters are surrounded by pure white snow, piled in heaps on the ground and gently fluttering down from the sky around them.  This snow is the psychic echo of the pillars of ashes emanating from the ovens of Dachau that, unbeknownst to these townspeople (and certainly to the young Liesel), are burning not so far away.  With the snatching of Jews from their shops, and later ragged, emaciated concentration camp victims marching down the street, they sense that something is deeply wrong but lack the information to articulate it - this unfocussed yet keenly felt guilt drifting in their streets, clogging their gutters and freezing their rivers.

Much like young Liesel, the film has it's heart in the right place yet occasionally struggles to articulate itself.  From Death's opening lines we're know we're building to a morbid conclusion yet we get there by a frustratingly circuitous route: the film is never dull exactly but it comes perilously close.  This largely a structural symptom, there's a few different mini-plots going on at once, and as these end there's pauses in the action where nothing much of interest is happening.

Geoffrey Rush is one of a very small group of actors who can retain our sympathy while dressed in a Nazi uniform.
Preventing this stop-start narrative technique from torpedoing the film are the excellent performances throughout, with particular praise due to Geoffrey Rush's ultra-paternal Max - a rock of warm humanity within the nightmare of fascism.  Emily Watson also impresses as the gradually thawing Rosa, effortlessly morphing from evil stepmother to nobly pragmatist. Roger Allam is a decently ambiguous Death (though his intonation distractingly recalls The Stanley Parable). But it's Sophie Nélisse that deserves the real plaudits, believably portraying the lead character over multiple years - somehow physically embodying every single stage of adolescence.  

The only real problem with the performances is that there's the disappointing decision to have our leads speaking English with wobbly German accents rather than just speaking German.  Annoyingly they decide to pepper the dialogue with the odd German word ('Ja' and 'Nein' instead of 'Yes' and 'No etc), as if they're scared we'll forget this is taking place in Nazi Germany (the omnipresent Swastikas kind of give it away...).  Even more bizarrely they're not consistent about it, so some characters speaking in subtitles and some don't.  This isn't so much of a problem when you're properly engaged in what's on screen but it definitely undercuts more than few dramatic moments.

Nobody is going to argue that the central message of the importance of books and how they teach you to viewing the world through a poetic questioning lens isn't a vital one, yet in my opinion it's a touch too vague, too fluffily humanistic to act as a true riposte to the horrors of Adolf Hitler. That said, the muffled sniffles from the audience as the credits roll is testament to the film at least succeeding on a emotional level.

★★★

The Book Thief is on general release from February 26th

Monday, February 10, 2014

'Seduced and Abandoned' (2013) directed by James Toback

Monday, February 10, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


It's a humid night in Tikrit, soundtracked only by the clatter of distant automatic weapons fire and muffled screaming.  Into a dirty hotel room strides Alec Baldwin, buck naked, fully engorged and humming with sexual potency.  Lying on the bed, softly biting her lower lip as she parts her thighs is a flushed Neve Campbell, her face a cocktail of arousal and disgust. This is The Last Tango in Paris for a modern era: Baldwin's right-wing government operative erotically exploring new frontiers with Neve Campbell's leftist protester.

Now, how much money can we put you down for to make this happen?  $10 million? 20?  

This is the question that powers James Toback's lively documentary about the film industry. And rarely has it seemed more like an industry.  Toback forms a double-act with Alec Baldwin, and the two trek around the 2012 Cannes Film Festival trying to secure funding for the film, which I think is meant to be so ridiculous a concept that it would never be made - though honestly it's far from the silliest pitch I've heard.  To get this made they meet a bevvy of perma-tanned, yacht-based billionaires, all of whom have their own opinions on what kind of movies make money.

Interspersed with these meetings are a series of freewheeling conversations with Hollywood directing luminaries (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford-Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski) and genuine acting A-listers (Ryan Gosling, Jessica Chastain, James Caan, Bérénice Bejo).  It's a hell of a credits reel; and to Toback and Baldwin's credit they seem able to winkle out of them answers that go beyond your usual PR static.

Though these faces twinkle like stars in the sky, the real leading performance is from Cannes as a whole.  It looks like a farmer's market, but rather than livestock on the block there's films.  Here you can buy Amour, or The Big Wedding, or Spring Breakers, less art and more assets that can make the right person a whole lot of money.  Creativity and filmic excellence don't enter into this world, this is where people come to fatten up their wallets.

These well-fed individuals attach themselves like leeches to cinema.  They hold court like feudal lords, halfheartedly tossing off ideas as they reek of privilege.  Alec Baldwin is dismissed as someone only fit for comedy or submarine movies.  Neve Campbell fares even worse, her casual dismissal always preceded by "Well, of course we love Neve but....". Forget Edward Cullen, Blade or Dracula, these people are the real cinematic vampires.  The best illustration of this is coked out racist fascist Taki Theodoracopoulis who, bobbing up and down in his grotesquely opulent yacht, laughs and jokes about how rich he is while guzzling down a banquet.  Still, at least he's a smart evil guy. the same can't be said for the aptly named Denise Rich, who blathers that her ambitions are "peace on earth" and "I want to go to space".  I hope she achieves that last one - and never comes back.

It's these pillars of moral decrepitude that the modern film-maker has to whore themselves out to in order to get a film made.  The 'seduction' of the title seems to work both ways; the film-makers and actors trying to administer an expert handjob to the egos of these bastards, and them in return basking in the radiance of real stars; treating the 'talent' like a particularly interesting accessory to display at a party.  It's dispiriting yet blackly comic stuff - especially as Toback quickly begins to alter his putative film to suit their visions - wondering if he could change the location, the stars or even the basic tenets of the story in order to even start production.

Obviously he is cool as hell in this.
Balance is provided by the interviews with the directors and stars of the films.  Scorsese talks engagingly about the differences in getting a movie made now as opposed to the halcyon days of 'New Hollywood', laying out his philosophies on life and how it relates to his cinematic style.  Ryan Gosling explains the grind of attending constant auditions and never getting parts you want, the existential doubt of feeling like one face in a million hopefuls and never achieving anything.  Granted, these people are enormous successes in their own right, yet you see the dent in their pride (especially in Alex Baldwin) at having made it, yet still having to scrabble around for money to make anything remotely interesting.

Entertaining though this journey is, there's a tinge of hypocrisy to the whole thing.  You feel a tingle of annoyance as Toback and Baldwin casually dismiss a $5 million (!) budget as completely unworkable.  Toback would quite like us to see him and Baldwin as scrappy artistic underdogs up against the brainless Hollywood corporate machine - something that's a bit hard to swallow considering the two are swanning through a sun-kissed heaven and living a life of opulence aboard his A-list friend's yachts.

But this is such good fun that it's easy to put these quivers of annoyance to one side. Toback is a great interviewer, his 'insider' status putting the stars at ease right away.  He's clearly 'one of them', and so they reveal things they perhaps wouldn't normally.  A highlight is Scorsese offhandedly explaining that all his films are about brothers looking out for each other - something so headslappingly simple that you can't believe you've missed it.  

Even better is a sequence where Toback and Baldwin quiz everyone whether they're scared of death.  Hollywood is here defined as a quest for immortality; to live on in the minds of an audience as an icon.  The interviewees seem surprised by the question; some reacting to it philosophically, some obviously not expecting the interview to take this morbid turn - but all revealing something 'true' about themselves in that nanosecond before they respond.

If you're at all interested in the nuts and bolts of movie-financing then Seduced and Abandoned is pretty much required watching.  It's a well-paced, well shot and smart look at a business that ventures into farce the more you learn about it.  No conclusions are reached as to how to improve things, but simply watching the Mammon Machine of cinema in all its debauched glory is easily worth the price of admission.

★★★★

Seduced and Abandoned is available on DVD from February 17th

Friday, February 7, 2014

'The Lebanese Rocket Society' (2012) directed by Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige

Friday, February 7, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Ah space travel, that most romantic of scientific endeavours: defining new frontiers, risking death for knowledge and the joy of sticking a tentative toe in the galactic ocean.  This is the preserve of elite countries with resources and funds to spare: the USA, the Soviet Union, China, Lebanon.  Wait a minute.  Lebanon?!  Yup, unlikely as it might seem, in the 60s Lebanon had its own space programme; the titular Lebanese Rocket Society. They were big news in Lebanon, practically national heroes. And then everyone forgot them.

This documentary seeks to expose this 'secret' history; a noble chapter in the history of Lebanon obscured by civil war, coups and general misery.  The meat of the film is a detective story, Hadjithomas and Joreige scouring microfiche newspapers, the Lebanese film archive and tracking down the men who led this underdog also-ran in the space race.  

The leader is the charmingly erudite Professor Manoug Manougian, now a professor in Tampa, Florida.  Manougian is a great documentary find; a romantic space visionary (he resides in Tampa because it's where Jules Verne said rockets should be launched from) with the intelligence and confidence to put together an academic, scientifically space programme with limited resources in the turbulent Middle East.  The film is at its most interesting as Manougian lays out his society's achievements; from developing their own propellant to firing their first test rockets; so modest they look more like fireworks than anything NASA might come up with.

But soon these fireworks began to grow in size and people began to take note.  Bolstered by glowingly patriotic news coverage, public support and government approval the rockets grew ever bigger and more effective.  Throughout the film there's a repeated underlining that these rockets were the fruit of pure scientific endeavour, though as they chalk up more impressive successes the military soon butt in, the programme having obvious applications as weaponry.



The peak of their achievements was the Cedar IV, an impressive looking piece of rocketry that launched to a height of 90 miles, close to the altitude of low-earth orbit.  Now people started to take them seriously.  The rocket, which laned somewhere south of Cyprus in the Mediterranean, caused a diplomatic stink and with  paranoia rife among Arab countries in the mid-60s the rocket campaign was shut down and subsequently forgotten... until now.

This first half of the film is genuinely interesting material.  Unfortunately, once this history lesson is out of the way The Lebanese Rocket Society runs out of fuel. You sense the film spinning its wheels and though it tries a number of different approaches the film-makers never regain the momentum and curiosity we had over this first sequence.

Hindering them is the unfortunate tendency of reality not to conform to a story with a beginning, middle and end.  The Lebanese space programme has no real climax or breakthrough; efforts to put a mouse into one of their rockets and blast it up into space are stymied by an animal-loving wife, and the ambitions of putting a rudimentary satellite into orbit don't progress past pipe dreams.  Even their actual achievements are difficult to comprehend from the stock footage; the rockets blasting off and disappearing off camera in a second or so.  

As a history lesson the documentary succeeds, but as a piece of cinema it comes up short - noodling around trying to find something to pad out the run time with.  They settle for devoting a full third of the film to constructing a replica rocket to mark the location of the rocket society's laboratory.  It's a noble endeavour but only mildly interesting to watch. What's worse is that they tease you with shots of a rocket under construction, leading to think maybe these film-makers are going to singlehandedly blast off a rocket into space; but this is all a feint.

A low point in terms of interest is a segment detailing the paperwork needed to transport their replica rocket across Beirut to the university.  The procurement of government transportation permits is not exactly dynamic cinema material, especially as the bureaucrats are totally supportive of the venture.  You almost wish there was one stick in the mud who didn't want the hassle of something that looks very much like a weapon taken through his district, but no - apparently everyone wishes the film-makers well. Similarly anticlimactic is the replica rocket's trip across Beirut.  Within the city, a rocket like this is a potent symbol of the past, recalling the bombed out chaos of war that Beirut periodically suffers.  But everyone seems a bit blase, the only real reaction being the odd person snapping a pic on their iPhone.  



That diversion out of the way, the film takes a further swerve with a bizarre animated sequence that imagines an alternate reality Lebanon where the space programme was never cancelled.  From the looks of things having a successful space programme would have solved all of Lebanon's woes, transforming the country into a futuristic science fiction metropolis with Akira motorcycles and zero gravity nightclubs.  It's bonkers, completely at odds with the rest of the film, though at least mad enough to be interesting.

This is inarguably a compelling and worthy subject for a documentary, and when the film is actually exploring this hidden history it's genuinely interesting.  Unfortunately there's just not enough material for a 90 minute runtime and midway through there's a palpable sense of the film-makers having exhausted their resources.  The Lebanese Rocket Society has its heart in the right place, but the maxim "less is more" strongly applies.

★★

The Lebanese Rocket Society is released on DVD on 10th February

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