Saturday, January 27, 2007

Gallery fever

To Cork Street, Mayfair, for the exhibition Picasso La Californie and many subsequent pleasant surprises.

First, the surprises. In my art naivete I hadn't realised that the Helly Nahmad Gallery was in fact one of those galleries which sells its works, i.e. more a Fortnum & Mason for the eyes than a Royal Academy. Hence it was with some interest that I saw the price tags for the Picassos. $15,000,000? I'll take two!

The second surprise was more of a set of surprises - little Russian dolls emerging one after the other. It turns out that Cork Street is in fact famous for having a dozen commercial galleries on it, each having as its exhibition its stock and each open to the public. So if you want a cross-section of modern art, you could do far worse than visit these galleries.

But back to Picasso. The paintings are taken from the period 1955-61, when the master lived in a villa called La Californie near Cannes. They are Matisse-like in their palate, springing from electric blues to canary yellows to hungry reds, all of which (certainly on one level at least) may reflect domestic and artistic contentment. There is little sign of struggle or anger; they are perhaps the paintings you would expect someone to produce in the south of France.

I found the series of atelier paintings particularly thought-provoking as reflections on the nature and process of artistic creativity. "This is where I work - how do I conceive of it?" In one painting (to the left), a blank canvas is the focus of the scene - Picasso is struggling with his conception of what painting should be and thus cannot fill it. Or perhaps it's a joke - a blank canvas in the midst of such productivity. Or perhaps it's just a holiday snap, admittedly much slower than a polaroid but nicer too.

After Helly Nahmad, we took in some more little treasure boxes on Cork Street, each with their own collection of shiny jewels. At the Waddington Gallery was Peter Blake's wonderful Marcel Duchamp's World Tour: Playing Chess with Tracey, where the art world collapses in on itself as Blake paints Tracey Emin in a series about Marcel Duchamp. The painting is worth having for its hallucinatory qualities alone. There are also John Chamberlain's twisted and painted rolls of steel, which to me seem even more relevant and meaningful in the post-9/11 world as a symbol of metal as defeat, not strength.

The Mayor Gallery had a wonderful exhibition of Joachim Mogarra's photos of Smurfs (that's right, Smurfs) done up as modern artists. As well as being a little witty (e.g. Christo Smurf in bandages, Francis Bacon Smurf with an egg), they are genuinely funny for the shock value. It's worth walking past these, too, since there's much of interest in the back section of the gallery, including some oddly expensive bent paperclip-like works.

Finally, Robert Sandelson, where they have what might politely be described as the world's most painful artwork: one of Victor Vasarely's pieces of geometric abstract art, or as it appeared to me, a migraine on canvas.

Imagine the painting to the right but in reds, purples, greens and blues all at once, and with squares, not circles. Trying to take in even a section of the work around the bulge gave me head pains. On the plus side, this wasn't some numb piece of painting; the very opposite, in truth.

So head to Cork Street - nowhere else will you find such various and exquisite collections. And who knows, with $15,000,000 to spare, you could own some of them too.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Death to clowns!

To the Royal Albert Hall for Cirque du Soleil's feast of over-calculated whimsy and back-breaking acrobatics, Alegrìa. Or, given the quality of so much of the performance, Generìa.

Cirque are generally considered the world's pre-eminent troupe of bendy women, purple-haired men and galloping dwarves, but on the evidence of Alegrìa, I am at a loss as to why this is.

Yes, the acrobatics were spectacular. I'm much more cocktail bars than Russian bars, so the balance and skill of the acrobats hurling themselves along a rubbery length six inches across was suitably impressive. And when later that evening I tried to contort myself as the flexible women had, well, let's just say in future back and front are going to stay where they should. But even their airborne gyrations were nothing you can't see in any professional troupe - they lacked originality, supposedly Cirque's forte.

I can really see the point of acrobats. They have so much to say about the capability of the human body and grace and wonder; they are physical poets.

But clowns? These one-trick charlatans wore thin their welcome quickly. Gags about pretend motor cycles and miniature airplanes have neither originality nor humour to commend them. The only time the clowns made me laugh was when they hauled an audience member on stage, to make him participate; they're so bad they need someone else to make them funny. There was a particularly bizarre scene involving a paper-snow storm and a train set which made little sense and less laughter.

What made the evening truly unbearable was the music. I say music, but it was rather like aggressive musak, background tunes with a woman being murdered while trying to hold a tune. Multi-cultural music is good; world music is eye-opening. This was neither. It was a series of stereotypes of what various countries' musical styles should sound like. There was a deep southern jazz beat, some French-style wailing, some Italian-style wailing, some more jazz beats and some more wailing.

The crowning nonsense was the lyrics to the dirges: these were in a dialect known as 'Circlish', which is a meaningless hum of various foreign phrases jammed together.

I understand that the point of the 'world' music, the Circlish, the acrobatics, the wordless clowns is to embrace the whole world. All can understand music and movement and incomprehensible lyrics. But instead of global inclusiveness, we get generic ethnic stew.

So after an ass-numbing two hours, with little innovation, less humour and minimal music quality, I will not be returning for any more false awe at Cirque's big ring.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bricking it

To the DVD player for film noir-goes-adolescent Brick - it's Raymond Chandler doing GCSEs.

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (superb in the outstanding, traumatic Mysterious Skin) as a high school gumshoe drawn into a web of drugs and violence after his girlfriend's murder, Brick is a disturbing glimpse into a world we've all experienced: school.

The story is as complex as all the best films noirs: Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) finds his estranged girlfriend's corpse in a stream (a nod to Chinatown) while investigating an anguished call from her; it turns out she was involved in the school's drug-dealing clique. Brendan, who is no innocent himself, plunges headfirst into the underworld, meeting the mysterious Laura (Nora Zehetner, channeling Barbara Stanwyck), the thuggish Tug (Noah Fleiss) and the devilish drug-dealing king pin (Lukas Haas) as the dead ends and deceptions pile up.

Who is telling the truth? Who had a motive to kill the girl? Who can Brendan trust? As you might expect, there are double crosses aplenty.

The plot is intriguing, if not wholly original, but Brick succeeds on so many other levels too. Take the evocation of classics noirs with double-speed 30s patter: "Maybe I'll just sit here and bleed at you" is classic Bogart, hard-boiled, while the Vice Principal's "You've helped this office out before" is met with "No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed." It's so rapid and tight that it takes a while to cotton on, but it really sets the mood. Writer and director Rian Johnson must have been eating Raymond Chandler's books for breakfast.

Perhaps the best aspect of Brick is that it fully fleshes out the terrifying world of teenagers without simultaneously undermining it: it doesn't go, Oh, aren't these kids silly with their murder and drug deals! but treats them with deadly seriousness. Setting the film in a school only makes it more frightening: it expands on the rivalries and tensions we have all experienced in the playground and fills it out into full-blown menace. There is a genius moment of humour when the adult world hits the kids' world, but the threat is only temporarily defused, and not even that - it's still lurking just below the surface.

This world is fully realised in all its dark shades, especially where the emotionless violence is concerned. Brendan is the punchbag of a number of hoodlums but gives as good as he gets. He ends up walking round with a permanently bleeding face as a result of his investigations, but Jack Nicholson does have his nose sliced open in Chinatown, so we're still in traditional noir mode.

What contributes most to the dark mood is not just the plot or the patois or even the violence but the visual scheme. The scene is blue and black throughout, often contrasted directly against the barren and bright landscape. Brendan's girlfriend is found at the black, gaping entrance to a tunnel; instead of just leaving us there, we are several times taken right into the pitch blackness. At other times we are hurled blindly into a basement or just see Brendan's bedside clock glowing vividly. The gloom is overwhelming.

Brick has all the darkness, suffering, cruelty and mystery of cinema's best noirs, this time just set in a world where the school game is murder. With another uniquely-textured performance from Gordon-Levitt, Brick takes us all the way into a fully-realised nightmare from which - for Brendan and for us - escape is impossible.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Pan[ic]'s Labyrinth

To the Curzon Soho for Guillermo Del Toro's terrifying tour de force of nightmarish fairy tales and Spanish fascism, Pan's Labyrinth. If you were expecting, as I was, an Iberian Fantasia, instead add Snow White to the Godfather and multiply by The Omen and you'll be closer.

The film is set in 1944 in the backwoods of Spain, with its newly-minted fascist state under Franco. A young girl is being taken to live with a general in the army because her mother, pregnant with his child, is to marry him. The girl, Ofelia (a terrific 11-year old Ivana Baquero), has more interest in fairy stories. When you see the new life she has to experience, you can understand why.

Escape from the terrible world of the general (Sergi López), who takes pleasure in torturing anti-Franco partisans, comes as a fairy leads Ofelia through a maze adjacent to her house and down into an underworld of terrifying-looking creatures, including a faun (Pan of the title). Ofelia, he says, is a princess from the underworld who must do three tasks before she can be returned to her rightful, golden place.

The tasks involve hideous creatures, including one who looks like a pale version of the Alien but has his eyes in his palms. When he chases after Ofelia, you're short of breath from terror. See if you don't scream.

Meanwhile, in the real (or semi-real or nightmare) world above ground, the general (a step-father fulfilling the traditional evil step-mother's role) is trying to root out the rebels, who are being helped by his housekeeper and doctor, from the hills. When he catches one, the torture's result is horrific.

The aesthetic of the film is grim greys and blacks, almost a washed-out, darkened version of reality to reflect the fear and hopelessness of the time. Instead of Hollywoodised Harry Potter horror (although Alfonso Cuaron, also a young Mexican director like Del Toro, made HP4 darker and better), the atmosphere is unremitting, suiting the action. The general rules by terror and force, a figure with no redeeming qualities; even his attempt at valour is self-regarding. Del Toro has made him a monster, but then he is trying to illustrate a horrific period.

One of Pan's Labyrinth's strengths is that it does not shy away from violence. Del Toro sanitises nothing, preferring to show the terror of fascist Spain and the terror of fairy tales together; there is no hiding place but death. The violence is not unbearable - it's no Irreversible - but only just. Worse is the constant implied violence in every scene with the captain.

The film is utterly terrifying. There's no getting around it. It is, tho', also a masterclass in weaving politics and fairy stories together to create a world where reality and fantasy are shades of one another, but neither is one you'd want to be in. Even the baby's birth, with attendant fairy tale consequence, is not your saviour-trope - Spain still has 30 years before it is free of fascism.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Devil Wears Betty

To the television for the American telenovela Ugly Betty, ripped from the south American original.

It's funny, certainly. Not Sex and the City-funny, definitely not Arrested Development-funny, but enough to make me watch the next episode. The cartoon villain Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams) with her fawning assistant make up for woodenness elsewhere, while Betty herself is sweetly the hero-victim.

But as it covers much of the same ground as recent Meryl Streep-starrer The Devil Wears Prada, how do they compare? Who wins the catwalk catfight?

The earnestness of Betty (America Ferrera) and Andy (Anne Hathaway from Devil) are similar entry-points, as are the high-gloss workplaces, but more is vastly different. Devil tries (and succeeds) at being a sharp look at what goes on in the fashion world, the prices its stars pay, the influence it wields. It spares no-one. Even its heroine is questionably good.;

Betty is much woollier (so far). Its characters are fresh from the sitcom cliche store (catty receptionist £9.99! Buy one publishing big daddy, get a hunky son free!), with nothing to indicate anything beyond standard televisual traits. The storyline is pilot-predictable, which is to say that sitcom pilots tend to have the same ups-and-downs, broad character lines and closing triumph. The worst of it is that there's no sign of the complex and progressive analysis of the fashion and magazine industries - we're just given familiar fights and climb-downs, the same old picture.

Quite fairly you could say this is judging too early - there's a whole season to go - but it doesn't bode well. Devil did everything in two hours.

But I think the problem is deeper and less fixable than just early nerves. The genres of the American sitcom and the south American telenovela are in themselves rigid. It takes a lot for a sitcom to be exceptional, and even then (Arrested Dev, Curb Your Enthusiasm) it's not a traditional sitcom. Both of those genres live inside fairly standard lines. Just as Betty parodied the telenovela within itself, it also can't escape from it. Combining this with a sitcom weighed it down with even more rules.

I guess it's not really a fair question. It's like comparing Alexander McQueen and C&A, or Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith. One wants to be sharp, ahead of the game, piercingly analytical, the other comforting, sweet, reassuring. Both succeed where they mean to, but my personal preference is for the style and smarts of Devil over the homely and uninspired Betty.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

It's like the Da Vinci Code. But with a brain

To the bookshelf where I'm gently re-inserting Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, a time-split tale of Satanic architecture and emotionless detectives.

It's giving nothing away to say that Nicholas Dyer, the anti-hero of the eighteenth century part of Hawksmoor, is a Satan-worshipper who is designing churches with demonic features and murdering people in them to consecrate them; all this is made clear early on. His twentieth-century counterpart is Nicholas Hawksmoor, a detective now faced with a series of murders at Dyer's churches.

If this sounds simple, it is and it isn't. Ackroyd alternates Dyer and Hawksmoor chapters, creating parallel narratives in which similar murders occur. So we have two almost identical stories, the modern inspired by the earlier.

The parallelism is taken to an intriguing depth. As well as identical actions (Dyer and Hawksmoor walk through the same streets in consecutive chapters, and when Dyer sees an autopsy, Hawksmoor then does), the same phrases and songs recur, and those who are murdered in each church share names and biographies. This both is an intellectual parlour game and has a serious point: Ackroyd meshes past and present, showing the same situations and ideas from different views, showing their (im)mutability.

Time as an idea is vital to the book. Dyer wants to create churches which will forever endure so his demonic wainscoting does, and both he and Hawksmoor debate the importance of time. Hawksmoor is original in its dual narrative and ultimately the stories confound time.

If you thought that was the confusing part, then turn away now. For one, the actual name of the architect who built several churches in London post-Great Fire was Nicholas Hawksmoor; Dyer is fictional. Immediately our ideas of reality are thrown out, as with the time-theme. (Given Ackroyd's intricate patterning, the identical first name is an obvious clue, while 'Dyer' is surely to evoke 'die'.)

The real Hawksmoor's C18 associates are present: the architects Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh turn up and are dragged into parallelism. Wren's visit to an asylum is met by Hawksmoor's visit to his senile father.

Initially adding to the confusion is Ackroyd's use of eighteenth century language for Dyer's chapters. It takes a while to get your ear in, to adjust to the capitals on nouns and the variety of spellings for the same words, but it becomes not only comprehensible but extremely evocative.

The eighteenth century sections are much richer for their language, their characters and their interactions. The modern chapters are drier, whether by intent, to evoke the emotionless and oblivious Hawksmoor, or just because so much energy has gone into Dyer. Dyer is much more interesting, despite or because of his ramblings and affection for Satan. But in both cases, we get convincing portraits of descents into madness.

The similarity with the Da Vinci Code comes from the hidden symbolism of the buildings, but whereas Dan Brown writes from his colon, Ackroyd set himself the challenge of manipulating great ideas (time, evil) in a literary form and succeeds admirably. The book is also tremendously frightening at points; its first modern murders are disturbing because Ackroyd spends so long shaping the victims' characters. Their deaths are desolating, and I freely admit after reading it in bed I slept uneasily.

If all the recurrent phrases and events become a little tiresome, their point is clear. The Hawksmoor chapters do tend to frustrate because of his lack of progress and dead inner self, which means you are eager to return to the fascinating, dark Dyer.

But by the end, Ackroyd has whirled a maelstrom of ideas and images. The dark heart of the book's themes endures just as do Dyer's (that is, Hawksmoor's) churches, which are themselves part of the dark heart. You see, it's complicated.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Billy, briefly

To the Victoria Palace Theatre to see Elton John and Stephen Daldry's smash-hit musical, Billy Elliot.

I'll be brief: it was terrible. If you imagine the grit, atmosphere, music and strong acting of the original movie, you'll be very disappointed. Instead of the period music (e.g. the fabulous and evocative T-Rex), you get an entirely generic score by Elton. It really could be any musical by any second-rate composer. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber has the decency to include at least one memorable song. 'Electricity' aimed for heart-felt but hit bathetic.

Does anyone else see a distasteful irony in the whole show? We are paying £60 in the West End to see a musical about one of the most difficult periods in Britain's recent history, the 1984 miners' strike, when thousands were about to lose their jobs. (My ticket was a gift.) Yes, shows should be made about difficult subjects (West Side Story is an excellent example), but there was none of the anger or grimness of the film. We had caricatures of suffering, by-the-numbers outrage. It really undercut what was going on, whereas the film reinforced it.

The dancing, however, was superb. The boy (pass on his name) was fluid and graceful. The best parts were when he was dancing by himself, especially the scene in which his rage is danced against the police's riot shields in the semi-dark. It was brilliant and fierce, much more passionate than the rest of the enterprise.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Caroline, don't change

To the National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre for an opera about a black maid in a Jewish household after the Kennedy assassination. Obviously.

Caroline, or Change has a book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, author of the incomparable epic Angels in America, so I had the highest expectations in dramatic and textual terms. I was unsure about what the music would be like, having not heard Jeanine Tesori's work before.

The plot is fairly simple: Caroline (the outstanding Tonya Pinkins, who played her on Broadway) is a maid to the Gellman family in New Orleans. Noah Gellman's new step-mother, Rose (Anna Francolini), says Caroline can have all the change forgetful Noah leaves in his pockets. When he leaves a $20 bill, trouble starts as turns against Caroline, heretofore a maternal figure. This is set against the unhappy domestic background of the widower Stuart Gellman (Richard Henders) and new wife Rose and - of course - the civil rights struggle.

The acting and singing are strong on all sides, particularly Pinkins, who hits a difficult medley of themes and melodies with every grief- and defeat- and hope-stricken note she's got. She's a complete knockout, reducing half the audience to tears and the other half to ecstasy. Instead of the unrealistic cliché of the woman overcoming, Pinkins and Kushner give us a lifelike portrait, striving for stability in a difficult world and not necessarily triumphing.

It's hard to comment specifically on the child-actors (Noah and two of Caroline's children) because they alternate and I'm not sure whom I saw, but they were wonderful, regardless. Quite the little movers and singers.

Words-wise, happily Kushner lived up to his Tony-laden reputation. The lyrics and book (really recitative) are dense and typically eloquent, full of darting humour and pitch-perfect. To do them justice really would require another viewing at least. But as with Angels and his Homebody/Kabul (on which more another time), you're blown away by the ranges and emotions he can evoke.

The music is as complex as the lyrics. Instead of your typical musical, with song-applause-speech-song-applause-speech, each song complete and 'satisfying', Tesori has people sing snatches or verses or even verses and choruses, but we never get your standard song the whole way through. This is a rough texture of sweet and painful music, but it works in portraying the fracturing world. The songs are more like themes, to reappear at certain moments. When they collide, they are truly powerful.

Enough has been written in the papers about the many types of change (or not) in the show, so I'll leave those, except to say that the lyrics ('Change come fast and change come slow but everything changes') hold out some hope of progress, as manifested in Caroline's radical daughter.

The last performance is tonight, so I'm afraid it's rather late for a review, but it was so heart-breaking and powerful and well done that I thought I should record it.