Saturday, December 29, 2007

Love and lust

In a juxtaposition so perfect it seems that the cinematic gods might have been smiling down amid the fog and freeze, I caught Closer and Breakfast at Tiffany's on consecutive days last week. While shockingly different in tone and approach, they are nevertheless both love stories.

Breakfast is a sweet story about Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard trying to escape their lives as genteel prostitutes (ignore the facile, much-repeated line about this being hard to detect - it's quite clear); in their worlds, they look for stability and love, which are not necessarily found in the same place.

Closer, on the other hand, is a hard-hearted bastard of a film (based on Patrick Marber's play), whose characters spend most of their time intuiting who their partner has screwed and then blowing up; given that the choices in the love-square are Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman, it's paradoxically hard to envision either fidelity or infidelity as attractive options.

The films appear to take opposite means of approach - Closer with a viciousness best found in divorce courts, Breakfast with a sweetness all the more surprisingly given that it stems from Truman Capote's pen. But they are both metropolitan scenes, just in completely alien worlds. Had Marber's foursome been bed-hopping in early sixties New York, where people still wore suits to parties whose samba soundtrack wasn't ironic, no doubt they would have eloquently expressed their indignation and had a good cry. Mutatis mutandis, in glittering, harsh twenty-first century London, Hepburn and Peppard would have been calling each other fucked-up assholes.

This is all to say that both films are in fact similar at heart (or whatever passes for a heart in Closer). Each couple finds apparent stability, only for the heart (Closer: loins) to tear them away. Hepburn's Holly Golightly achingly drifts from plutocrat to plutocrat in the hope of escaping her prosaic rural past and rescuing her abandoned brother, sent to Korea to fight, but happily her heart leads her to Peppard, who in turn is kept afloat by une grande maitresse.

If Breakfast ends up with the right pair, Closer so often swaps combinations and guilt that it is hard to know if they all deserve each other or not. It is a cycle of revenge as bitter as hemlock, and just as poisonous. This coldness left me feeling slightly empty and unsure: it is easy to immerse yourself in the passions and problems of Breakfast, since the characters are desperately human, but Closer makes its cast so repulsive it is impossible to empathise or even care. It may be intriguing to find out where the human carousel stops, but it was not involving. Is Marber showing the emptiness of modern love and modern life?

Despite their very different worlds, Breakfast and Closer are certainly bed-fellows, albeit two who appear most mismatched. I would not, however, recommend consuming these as a double-bill: so much candy and so much acid are not a happy combination.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Books in brief

Herewith, some short reviews of books I have read lately.

>>> Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth
I stand second to none in my love of Roth's work - he is truly America's greatest living novelist (as I have mentioned elsewhere). Simultaneously, Roth makes his books intimate tales of not-so-ordinary lives and great analyses of history and man's place in it. Both aspects are written with emotional fire yet humane understanding. The success of his recent run of books in these aspects - the magisterial Everyman, his American trilogy - makes Exit Ghost the more disappointing.

It is not a bad book by any stretch. It continues (and concludes?) the story of Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of several previous Roth novels: now impotent and incontinent thanks to a prostatectomy, he has spent a decade as a rural recluse, but returns to New York for a medical procedure. While there, he up-ends his life by swapping apartments with a young literary couple, firmly embedded in the time (2004 election) and the city.

He Lear-like falls prey to his passions and the aggressors of senescence - disease, memory loss, desire without act - but without any real passion felt behind the words. Roth's style does not evoke Zuckerman's feelings, but instead seems chilly and distant, as if to insulate himself from Zuckerman's decline. It doesn't help that Zuckerman fantasises about conversations in the form of play dialogue, distancing himself and thus us from the true roiling emotions.

>>> The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich
There is no more famous introduction to art through the ages than Gombrich's much-reprinted book, now in a wonderful pocket version, with translucent pages and full colour illustrations. Gombrich, who professed himself astonished at the limitless editions his book has gone through, wrote it for late-teenagers or undergraduates. This does mean he takes a rather - if we were being kind - grandfatherly tone in narration. It is a bit like being taken through your first alphabet.

I can see why he wanted it to be didactic, since it is covering the most important bases of art theory and art history, and I'm certainly not claiming I haven't learnt a lot from it - it starts with pre-historic art and winds its way through centuries and continents. It just gets a little wearing, being led by the hand through gardens of earthly delight.

Having complained, I must certainly still commend The Story of Art, since it overturns so many thoughtless prejudices. For example, my foolish understanding of ancient depictions of the human form had been that artists were not as skilful at representing it as they are today; what Gombrich points out is that they could do so if they wanted to, but their depictions depend on their purpose - a horrific central American sculpture of the god of death naturally demands a horrific face.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Oh Olivo

In a world where everything (and everyone) is getting larger (and lardier), it pays to look at things in miniature - to consider the small details of the big picture. Olivo Barbieri, an Italian photographer, has seized on this idea of details: by using a tilt-shift lens (explanation imminent), he makes real-life photos look like captures of matchstick worlds.

(The Coliseum, Rome)

What a tilt-shift lens does, according to this helpful NYT article, is allow the camera to focus on a very specific plane of the scene, giving this a very high level of detail and clarity; from this point outwards, the images grows increasingly blurred. The result of this intensity of focus is the apperance of being minuscule.

(Paris hotel and casino, Las Vegas)

Barbieri says that he is interested less in the clarity but in the blur, reflecting our ambiguous, uncertain world. This is valid, of course, but perhaps facile and certainly not a capacious idea. To my mind, the value of his pictures is precisely the focus on details, making us re-examine our ideas of what things look like. If we could build a city in miniature, perhaps we would have a better idea of its overall look, proportions, character, style - not just the eyeline skyline. In the absence of London-to-scale, Barbieri helps us on our way.

Metropolis Magazine has a nice set of photos and a brief article on Barbieri.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Forthcoming attractions

I'm currently en vacances, so posts will probably not resume until this weekend, but when I get back, such delights await:

>>> Closer and Breakfast at Tiffany's: love stories as far apart as Freud and Starbucks.

>>> The Queen: duty before self? Self before duty? Corgis before consort?

>>> The Painting of Modern Life.

And no doubt much, much more.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Bacchae, back again

Dramas never change – only the cast. Take illegal donations, now starring Brown, not Blair. Or take (more artistically) Euripides’ great tragedy, the Bacchae, which has just received the break-dancing treatment courtesy of Renegade Theatre, mere months after Alan Cumming brought his seductive, demonic Dionysus to town.

The play tells of the god Dionysus’ return to Thebes to punish his relatives who deny his divinity. He brings with him his Bacchants, women engaged in his orgiastic rites where decency and clothes are cast off in favour of wine and religious ecstasy. Dionysus ultimately sets his Bacchants onto his cousin and chief mocker Pentheus, king of Thebes, who is torn apart by – among others – his maddened mother.

The Renegade production, on last weekend in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, removed the words but added acrobatic, vital forms of dancing and movement, which neatly represented the Bacchic possession but also sketched the story. The Cumming production, at the Lyric Hammersmith, induced maenadic fervour in the audience with its power-chorus of rock and gospel songs, transporting us out of the theatre, surely as Euripides intended.

But it is the subjects of the play which make it eternally relevant and insightful, just as with Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Euripides creates a series of contrasts: between the buttoned-up city with its tyrannical ruler and the open country with its licentious god and orgies, between man, god and beast, between fear and faith. What we see enacted on stage is the tension between living our lives by social norms, which restrict us and forbid us from indulging in pleasures we might enjoy, and giving into our true nature, which can prove unconquerable and inhumane.

These themes speak to our lives today, as they have for centuries. People have always tried to move beyond what society decrees, whether positively in opposing apartheid in South Africa or negatively in trying to marry farm animals. (It’s not a life choice, it’s just odd.) Euripides shows the sort of insight into the human psyche that would remain buried until Freud enticed people onto his couch: we are in a constant battle between our transgressive desires and what we think we ought to do.

Euripides has another revival on at the moment, with Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy. While I am really looking forward to that, it is very specifically of this moment, dealing with the fall-out of war; the Bacchae, with its questions of unchanging human nature, stands outside time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

There's something about Marilyn

A strong contender for the best exhibition of the year, Pop Art Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery is a thrilling investigation of the revolutionary principles behind Pop Art and a display of some of the last century's most enthralling works.

More than the Pop Art response to commercialism, as typified by the Eduardo Paolozzi collages of actors and modern technology set in sterile suburbia (left), I was really interested in what seemed to be Pop Art operating at a fundamental level of art, questioning its basic ideas.

Whereas portraiture had always been about representation - even the tarted-up representation of the patron - Pop Art undermined this: is a portrait still a portrait if its subject is hidden? or fictional? or coloured like highlighter pens exploded over the canvas? (You can see to whom this leads.) Pop Art challenged the primacy of the image.

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (with one of his trademark combines) depicted people atraditionally, Johns using a facial cast under an abstract collage, Rauschenberg drawing Johns by objects and symbols. These are radical, perhaps unacceptably radical for popular art, which is why the much more aesthetically pleasing Andy Warhol, Patrick Caulfield and Roy Lichtenstein are more famous and popular. Larry Rivers' 'Mr Art' (1962) is a halfway house, smacking of Bacon, with a half-erased head.

One room contains three gems. Warhol's 'Self-portrait' (1964), Lichtenstein's 'In the Car' (1963) and Caulfield's 'Portrait of Juan Gris' (1963) are all archetypes of different approaches to this re-examination. Warhol removes definition and personal participation (it's a screenprint), while Lichtenstein adds absurd definition: because his subjects are taken from a comic, he paints all the dots of the printing, revealing their fictionality. Caulfield takes a similar route to Warhol, but emphasises the unreality with his zig-zag lines. The very concept of the image is being reinforced, since - post-Kandinsky - it could have been abandoned altogether, but simultaneously undermined.

Warhol was the genius of Pop Art, and not just for his perceptive remarks about fame, but for combining both aesthetic brilliance and a true understanding of what the modern era meant for art and its givens. (More on this in my review of The Painting of Modern Life.) This is evoked in his use of screenprinting, mechanising the production of the image, changing our perception of its value without destroying it.

Forced us to look and to turn away, in truth. The final room of the show is dedicated to various Pop Art Marilyns, since she was the perfect, tragic sign of the modern dissociation of image and reality. In the dimmed setting, coming on ten of Warhol's Marilyns on one wall is a revelatory, crushing experience. The colours are more brilliant and vibrant than can ever be reproduced, so I'm not going to insult them by putting them up here. The turquouises, pinks, yellows, greys - the whole rainbow, really - are shocking and pleasing.

They strike you with an aesthetic overload first, and then their artistic and cultural importance rushed up. These are some of the most reproduced, imitated and influential images ever made (thanks to mass media), so to be in their presence is like standing in front of Princess Diana or Madonna - you cannot quite believe they are real. And they are the summation of Warhol's work in the image - the face but not the face. You can't look because they are so overaweing.

What the NPG has done is explore an undervalued theme in modern art - expanding, not reinforcing what its audience knows - and do it with some fabulous paintings. The stars of Pop Art shine in their genius, Warhol above all, Warhol who forced us to look at the image again.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Egypt for dummies

There is a reasonable chance that I'll never visit Egypt or China, so seeing the Tutankhamun and terracotta warriors exhibitions is a worthwhile experience. Sadly, I would probably have learnt more about Egypt from B&Q than from Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the O2.

The experience is a very shallow introduction to Egypt, which would be unobjectionable except that £20 is rather steep and the hype rather excessive, given that the British Museum does similar with its permanent collection, without cost or fuss. It's blockbuster, where the busted blocks were at the boy-king's tomb entrance.

Some of the objects are undoubtedly beautiful and in stunning condition; the dry heat of a sealed tomb is perfect for preservation, so you have the vivid turquoise of millennia-old faience (pottery whose glaze contains tin) as brilliant now as then. This goes for paint as well: a wooden model of a boat still has its red, blue, green and black geometrical design, the sort of thing lost from Greek sculptures and buildings because of their exposure. It's hard to believe there has been no restoration.

"Modern" principles of design are in evidence, with a chair made for Tut with a bowed seat, curving neatly for a superior posterior. A modern preference for life-like representations of subjects is also noteworthy, given the centuries of ideal types which preceded and followed.

The lack of explanation of stylistic (dis)continuity is typical of the featherweight approach to some of the big questions which remain unaddressed. If Tut's father demanded a unique style of elongated features for his statues, why did this persist even when his audacious religious reforms were swept away? Why are we so uncertain about genealogy, resulting in 'possibly's and 'maybe's everywhere? What was Tut's legacy? There is nothing remotely socio-political here to provide intellectual background, and if this is my only chance to see these objects, I'd like to understand them better.

Enough has been said elsewhere about the lack of Tutankhamun's actual mask (too fragile) and corpse (too dead) in the show; obviously it would be interesting (and ghoulish) to see them, but at least there's sufficient respect for the preservation of antiquities not to ship them around the world.

From the narration of Omar Sharif to the mysterious ambient music which pursues you throughout the show, it's all a bit too numinous for me, as if Peter Ackroyd had been let loose in the Valley of the Kings (tho' without his considerable brainpower). These objects and this history are wondrous and fascinating without the Disneyfying 'experience'.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Forthcoming attractions

Sorry for being so remiss in posting of late, but I've been gathering plenty of material to post about.

>>> Tutankhamun at the O2, or Egypt for Dummies.

>>> Pop Art Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, or There's Something About Marilyn.

>>> Caged at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, or Greek tragedy by break-dancing.

>>> The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery, or painting is dead! long live painting!

All coming soon, to a website near you.