Sunday, June 24, 2007

Auction fever

I've just spent two week behind the scenes, all access, at Sotheby's, the auction house, and I've written about it for the Guardian. Here's a link to the news piece about the week, and the link for my longer, much more atmospheric and intimate essay will follow.

Friday, June 22, 2007

American Dreamz: custard pie or subtle knife?

When does humorous criticism become satire? Is it satire when you take the piss out of George W. Bush? Doesn’t satire imply a target slightly less easy to hit?

This is what I was thinking when I watched American Dreamz, the 2006 comedy about a Pop Idol-esque show which manages to pit a blonde down-home country girl (Mandy Moore) against a would-be Muslim suicide bomber (Sam Golzari) in a singing contest judged by Hugh Grant and a suspiciously Bush-like President (Dennis Quaid).

Perhaps in order to hit something, American Dreamz (written and directed by Paul Weitz) aims at everything. The film takes a fairly broad-brush approach at first to the President, a dullard ruled by his Cheney (Willem Defoe, looking every inch the Dick). The President suddenly discovers that there is a greater world out there than he’s been led to believe (“Did you know there are two kinds of Iraqistanis?”) and then hides himself away to read the papers. His appearance on American Dreamz is an attempt to restore his fading popularity.

This to me does not seem like satire, or at least not anything new in satire. Enough jokes have been had at Bush and Cheney’s expense to make another 90 minutes’ worth redundant. Nor does the film have anything amazingly interesting to say about the reality ‘talent’ contest genre: yes, we know its hosts are arrogant tossers; yes, it’s clear that the heartless blonde bitch will always win.

But the satire kicks in when things get more complicated and start to turn in on themselves – when we reach the point where less obvious targets are hit in less obvious means. The “War on Terror” comes up several times, both as the motivation for the show-tune loving suicide bomber and as the destination for Mandy Moore’s newly ex-boyfriend.

Instead, however, of showing how empty the “War on Terror” project is, it turns proto-terrorists into mass consumers of American culture and patriotic Americans into suicide bombers. This is a new, sharp angle on an omnipresent facet of our recent lives, humorously tackling and transforming heavy situations and stereotypes into weapons of mass deconstruction.

Satire is not a custard pie in George W’s face, but should be subtler and less expected. Although I struggled to see all of American Dreamz as satirical, some of its best moments certainly were – and it got me that bit closer to understanding quite what makes something satirical.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Shortbus revisited, Metro-style

Here's my review of Shortbus from today's Metro.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Save the Sagrada Familia

While I'm not a great fan of the Church, I do rather like churches, and in particular Gaudi's incomplete art nouveau behemoth, the Sagrada Familia. Hence, my slight worry that it might be torn down for a train tunnel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Simpsons: 400 and out

The Simpsons has passionate lovers and haters. For its lovers – and I included myself among them – its 400th episode, broadcast last night on Sky One, should have been a cause for celebration. Instead, it left me wishing that the show, much like the Bush administration and Big Brother, be put out of our misery forthwith.

The plot was promising, if not entirely new ground. Homer spills scalding coffee over the TV news anchorman Kent Brockman live on air, prompting an obscenity (unheard, sadly) so foul Kent is fired. Betrayed by the dumbed-down media, Kent follows the well-worn Network route: he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. He uses the internet to spew the awful truth about the Fox Network’s collusion with the Republican Party, but is soon paid off and returns to TV.

It gets in a couple of good jabs, including when Lisa tries to tell Homer the truth about poisonous media-political collusion: instead of their voices, we hear a Fox spokesman lauding his network’s products. But this is a tired pony, one they’ve ridden many times before. There doesn’t seem to be anything new or useful they can contribute to the debate.

Where is the show that drew Rupert Murdoch having trouble writing his signature? That had novelty, cruelty and relevance. The only shining moment of recent episodes has been having Stephen Sondheim write a jingle where he rhymes ‘Buzz Cola’ with ‘Ayatollah’.

Even something which, after 399 attempts, should now be perfect was shocking. The plot’s pacing was akin to a rollercoaster, with great longueurs barren of comedy alternating with some sharp-shot jokes. This has been a feature of recent series (never mind episodes). Even Friends (Friends, for god’s sake!) had the decency to keep the laughs coming. Perhaps the distraction of also having to script the Simpsons Movie (out July 27th) is to blame.

The show’s decline has not been hard to trace. The more explicit it has become, the less acute and amusing are its jokes. Marge getting her enlarged breasts out to distract an elephant signalled bloat in more ways than just the obvious, and presaged the long-term deterioration last night’s episode made so clear.

By forsaking a deep strike at Fox and the wider media for a glancing blow and a semi-amusing movie parody, the Simpsons shows that it has given up the ghost: it has become satire-lite. It’s time to turn off Springfield’s lights.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Untold London, told

I've started writing for the Museum of London's Untold London website (, so I'm also going to link thither hence.

Here's a piece on the Wellcome Trust's Library on Euston Road and its amazing collection of Indian artefacts.

Here's one on the Jewish Museum in Camden and its exhibition Ghetto Warriors, about ethnic minority boxers.

Untold London has many wonderful stories, so it's always worth a visit.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Spec(ta)tor trials

Depending on how closely you follow American celebrity trials – and lord knows there are enough to follow – you may or may not be aware that music guru Phil Spector is on trial for murder. A B-movie actress, Lana Clarkson, was shot in Spector’s home; he claims it was suicide, the prosecution allege otherwise. Whether convicted or not, Spector has already entered the long and inglorious Hollywood slaying hall of fame.

In 1921, when Hollywood starlets still knew what glamour was (a ball-gown and large diamonds, not letting it all hang out like Lindsay and Britney), Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was reigning comedy king of Hollywood. One of those starlets, Virginia Rappe, was found with Arbuckle in a bedroom at a party, apparently drunk.

When she died a few days later from an infection due to a ruptured bladder (possible as a result of rape), the corpulent Arbuckle was charged with her rape and murder, and despite an acquittal after three trials, he went down as the first murderer in Hollywood history.

Jump to the other end of the 20th century, when Hollywood has lost its allure of glamour, mystique and luxury and become known as the home of over-paid stars and their over-inflated egos, churning out bland pictures in their hundreds. Former American football star and actor OJ Simpson found himself accused of the murder of his wife, Nicole, and her lover, Ronald Goodman.

There was something for everyone in this trial: celebrity, race (an African-American man accused of murdering two white people), marital infidelity, blood-covered evidence, grand-standing attorneys, corrupt cops, even a bizarre slow-speed chase by the accused.

But what really made this “the trial of the century” (copyright: every newspaper and gossip magazine in America at that time) was the televising of the proceedings. Millions of TV sets across America – and even more across the globe – were tuned into every stage of the trial, with apparently 150 million people watching the not guilty verdict. I remember watching it on CNN in rapt fascination.

But in between Arbuckle and OJ lies a trail of the mysterious deaths of the celebrated – or caused by the celebrated. Lana Turner’s violent gangster lover was beaten to death by her daughter, who was never charged with the crime. Marlon Brando’s son Christian killed his step-sister’s boyfriend. And don’t forget the swirl of conspiracy theories which still surround the death of Marilyn Monroe.

It is all these killings which have contributed to the new mystique, a dark, anti-Hollywood mythology. Phil Spector is just the latest to play his role in it.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Festivities at the Royal Festival Hall

If you need something to do this weekend and you live in London, head for the South Bank’s newly reopened Royal Festival Hall, which is hosting three days of concerts and events in every style of music you can imagine. Saying that there’s something for everyone is underselling it. After all, where else can you move from a silent disco to a gamelanathon (all will become clear below) in 30 seconds?

After its £110m refit – everything from auditorium acoustics to terrace tiles has been changed – the RFH has laid itself open, filling every floor with sound and spectacle. The two don’t have to go together, however, as shown by Friday night’s silent disco, which is where revellers don headphones and dance to tunes only they can hear. It is surreal to see hundreds of people dancing on the terrace outside the RFH without music, as though possessed, but it seemed perfectly normal when I was engrossed in my headphones. It is happening again on Saturday night.

The gamelanathon was similarly wonderful and weird. A gamelan is a traditional Indonesian ensemble of xylophones, glockenspiels, drums and gongs, and it’s rare enough to find one in England, so to bring 26 together at once (hence ‘gamelanathon’) is some feat. The result is musical and mystical, and can be heard all weekend.

Across the rest of the weekend are events covering every genre of music you can imagine. Billy Bragg, the angrier, less melodic British Bob Dylan, is performing just behind the RFH in the South Bank Centre Square on Saturday night, while cult indie trio Saint Etienne are compèring two days of their choice of tunes on Level 6.

If choirs are your thing, then practically every choir in London is there at some point, from the BBC Symphony Chorus and the African Gospel Choir to the six choirs ferried along the Thames on a barge before being set down in front of the RFH to perform. This was a highlight of Friday night and is sure to crown Saturday too.

Classical guitarist Xuefei Yang, human beatboxer Shlomo, Million Dead frontman Frank Turner, a Bollywood brass band, a surfeit of clarinettists, Tudor ensemble The Sixteen, Paco Pena the flamenco genius: there is such a variety of performances (and dozens beyond these) that at least one thing must activate your sense of rhythm. If not, I’d check for a pulse.

If the RFH can live up to this overture, embracing not just the big international classical stars but home-grown musicians from every genre, it will become the beating heart of Britain’s music scene. Welcome back, Royal Festival Hall!