Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Vanity. No Fair. Just Vanity.

You can take it that I wasn't wholly impressed with my former inamorata's solo show at the National Portrait Gallery. It's not that there weren't nice pictures in good frames with lots of pretty colours, but Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 really does justify the inanity of the title.

If I'm being fair, the first section of work - from VF's inception in 1913 to its very timely demise in 1936 - is fascinating and thoughtful. The celebrities caught by such luminaries as Steichen, Beaton and Man Ray are really ordinary writers and artists - from Thomas Hardy to Virginia Woolf - with clearly no interest in media stardom and glossiness. They stare off into the distance, pondering something other than whether Steichen has lit them right.

These pictures - black and white, plainly set - are studies in art and psychology; no doubt one could say that the subjects are projecting a view just as later stars would do, but this is overly cynical. The interest is interior, in the subject's thoughts. There are early examples of personalities and style taking centre stage, such as in dear, crazy Isadora Duncan's Greek-tragic pose in shadows on the Acropolis, taken by Steichen, but they do not dominate.

The change in the modern incarnation of VF (1983-present) is immediately obvious, hideous and damaging. Yes, we are living in the era of the beauty-shot and VF had to compete in glossiness, outrageousness, star wattage (Deneuve and Loren in one picture! Surely the camera must blow!?), but it is at least as much a perpetrator as a victim.

This has produced some artistically arresting or high-powered images - the Hollywood covers, whose grasp of longevity in the movie business is acute; Ronald Reagan and Nancy dancing away; that Demi Moore shot. The majority on show, however, are vapid and worse - faux-important. Hilary Swank striding across a beach like a thoroughbred after a Derby victory has nothing on Steichen's layers. What does a naked Mariel Hemingway tell us? Does a slightly wacky photo of Jack Nicholson do anything for the art? VF has made itself the medium for classy self-creation of a celebrity's image - and we buy into it.

Perhaps worst is the deification of the photographers in VF's personal stable. Annie Leibowitz is not that good an artist, given that her main achievement is assembling celebrities and shooting them glamorously. At least with Mario Testino and Bruce Weber (two other VF regulars) you get what you see, without any undeserved aura of importance. If the point is that there is no interior, it's self-defeating and vacuous. Leibowitz is simply the official recorder of the bullshit.

I do like VF as a magazine, especially its extended political and cultural articles, and I do enjoy the glossy campiness of the celebrity portraits. But when this least worthy part is granted the sort of seriousness that an NPG exhibition confers, it sinks too far into its own hype.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Human Smoke ought to burn

A good review is all well and fine, but a bad review delivered with real scorn and poignancy is something to be apprciated; herewith, a piece from the New York Times on Nicholson Baker's 'Human Smoke', a pacifist history of the road to World War II.

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HUMAN SMOKE

The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

By Nicholson Baker

566 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.

In 1939 the editor of a Zionist newspaper in New York sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi pointing out that in Nazi Germany “a Jewish Gandhi would last about five minutes before he was executed.” Gandhi stuck fast to his nonviolent principles. “I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators,” he replied.

The actual number, of course, was six million, a figure that haunts Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke,” a pacifist interpretation of the events leading to World War II. As Mr. Baker sees it, the United States should never have entered the war; France made a civilized decision when it decided not to fight on; and Roosevelt and Churchill deserve equal billing with Hitler as the grand architects of history’s most destructive war.

Presented as a chronology, with events large and small retold in snippets as brief as a sentence or two, the book begins in 1892, with Alfred Nobel making the prediction that his explosives might very well put an end to all war. It ends in December 1941, shortly after the entry of the United States into the war. In between Mr. Baker arranges his brief dispatches to develop, in contrapuntal fashion, several grand themes: British and American racism and blood lust, Jewish suffering under the Nazi regime, and the brave but futile protests of pacifists and other antiwar activists.

Events and incidents are presented out of context, with no authorial commentary and separated by lots of white space. Often an entry ends with a date, flatly and portentously intoned. “Mary Taylor, a woman from Liverpool, walked to London, holding a banner,” Mr. Baker writes in a characteristic entry. “The banner said: ‘For the sake of children everywhere, I appeal to men to stop this war.’ It was September 1939.”

Muddled and often infuriating, “Human Smoke” sounds its single, solemn note incessantly, like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over. War is bad. Churchill was bad. Roosevelt was bad. Hitler was bad too, but maybe, in the end, no worse than Roosevelt and Churchill. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican congresswoman from Montana, was good, because she cast the lone vote opposing a declaration of war against Japan. It was Dec. 8, 1941.

Mr. Baker’s title, a grim reference to the crematoriums at Auschwitz, effectively demolishes the edifice he tries to construct. Did the war “help anyone who needed help?” Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.

Almost unbelievably, he includes multiple instances in which Churchill and Roosevelt rejected the idea of negotiating with Hitler. Although he offers no commentary on the matter, the reader is forced to draw the conclusion that negotiation was a sensible idea cavalierly tossed aside by leaders who preferred war to peace.

On Nov. 10, 1941, Churchill delivered a ringing speech declaring that Britain would never negotiate with Hitler or with “any party in Germany which represents the Nazi regime.” Mr. Baker, in a rare departure from his affectless delivery, writes, “There would, in other words, be no negotiation with anybody in Germany who was actually in a position to order an end to the fighting.”

Mr. Baker recounts a meeting in Berlin in late 1938 between a delegation of American Quakers and two Gestapo officers. The Quakers read a statement of support for suffering Jews. “We noted a softening effect on their faces,” one of the Quakers later said. Workers at the American Friends Center in Berlin reported that for a short time, after the meeting, they had an easier time making legal and financial arrangements to get Jews out of the country.

Missions of mercy, Mr. Baker implies, might have worked better than threats and bombs. At the same time he dutifully records Hitler’s remark to a Croatian leader that Europe must be purged of every last Jew. Even one surviving Jewish family would constitute “a source of bacilli touching off new infection.”

Writers are free to take on any subject they please. But Mr. Baker’s decision to tackle World War II seems curious. By talent and temperament, on brilliant display in novels like “The Mezzanine” and “Vox,” he is an obsessive miniaturist, a painter wielding a brush with a single hair. In turning to nonfiction, it was completely in character for him to delve into the intricacies of library card catalogs and newspaper archives, the subject of “Double Fold.” War and peace are something else entirely.

He attacks it in little bits and pieces, an approach that allows him a few Bakeresque touches. He notes that a roundup of Italians in Britain netted, on one occasion, “the manager of the Piccadilly Hotel, the head chef of the Cafe Royal and two clowns in the Bertram Mills circus.”

Elsewhere, mordant humor fails him. The sneering identification of an Allied bomber pilot as “a former Australian sheep farmer” seems pointless. Is it absurd, or more reprehensible, if a sheep farmer rather than a dentist or a welder drops the bombs? Outrage sends Mr. Baker racing off in all directions simultaneously. The right emotional tone eludes him.

World War II was a deeply unfortunate conflict in which many lives were lost. Mr. Baker is right about that, but not about much else in this self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book. In dedicating it to the memory of American and British pacifists, Mr. Baker writes, “They failed, but they were right.” Millions of ghosts say otherwise.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Observing the Observer's observer

Chris Riddell, the Observer's cartoonist, has spent a dozen years picturing the world and the week in a single frame. His new exhibition at the Guardian's Newsroom complex (opposite the main building on the Farringdon Road) showcases his choice of clippings, from poking the Major government in black and white to Blair's technicolour farewell.

There are some funny, pointed images: Blair and Chirac embracing, each holding a dagger to the other's back; Blair holding the fish hook of Hutton while caught on the giant hook of WMD. There is also a strong strain of the tragic (or bathetic) - the Hizbollah vulture safe atop the flaming tree of Lebanon is a good example of this.

We can also see the evolution of Riddell's style. His detailed line drawings date from the days when you were lucky if black and white printing brought out what you had created, and these are full of the complex shading and slight lines characteristic of the genre until colour became possible; the detail seems quaint now, fussy even. It is when allowed to use colour that Riddell's artistic ability really shines, with beautiful scarlet curtains framing Blair walking off into a yellow sunset, or the subtle, varied blues of his skies.

He is by no means a bad artist, taking the sharp lines of David Low and Ralph Steadman but more cartoonish than the first and less than the second. What I find annoying is his use of labels and captions to explain things which the pictures can easily represent. We can understand Brown's Bounce from the springing lines, while the poisoned chalice with Blair's face gleaming on it doesn't need the No 10 label. It is either that he underestimates his audience or the conveying capabilities of his own art.

It is an odd - but not unexpectedly so - show. A little like watching old Have I Got News for You, you are taken back to concerns which were so important at the time but now are nostalgia pieces, shaded by recent history. Cartoons are just as valid a statement of the time as news articles and comment pieces, but just like them, once they have had their day, their full measure of wit and weight is lost.

Minghella remembered

The early death of director Anthony Minghella has brought to a sharp end a career which had so much more to give. He was not prolific, releasing a film every three years, but he was ambitious and sensitive in his work, drawing outstanding performances from his cast.

His debut was the ghost-romance Truly Madly Deeply (1990), which managed to steer the right side of mawkishness, unlike Ghost, and produce deep tenderness from Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman.

The great triumph of his career came with the English Patient (1996), a project of epic sweep which took in the North African campaign of World War II but did not lose sight of the romance at its heart, between Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas. The grandeur and the intimacy clearly appealed to the Oscars, since he left with nine, including Best Director.

It is this combination of the personal amid the global which was a hallmark of his work. Cold Mountain (2003) set the relationship of Jude Law and Nicole Kidman against the American Civil War, and despite the emotional honesty of the acting and the evocation of the war, it was a critical and commercial failure.

Minghella’s latest – and now last – project is based on the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, starring soul singer Jill Scott and due to be shown on BBC1 this Easter. It is a new departure for the director, both in geography and in tone – the gentle comedy of a Botswanaian mystery is far from Breaking and Entering’s cold Kings Cross – but in his skilled hands, it will certainly be an accomplished tale.

It is the English Patient which means most to me of his films: I saw it as a teenager when it first came out and it inspired me not just with the harsh poetry of the contemporary scenes – a Tuscan villa, a north African square under the Nazis, the sweeping sands of the desert – but with the way film can embrace the personal and the political in the same frame. His death deprives the film world of a wise and humane craftsman.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Red for blood, red for China

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

In a country of a billion people, regimented and homogenised by a stern government, the death of one does not make even a speck in statistics. It is only duty and pity which make poet-policeman Chief Inspector Chen give the dead girl fished out of the canal a second thought, but it is the Communist party's warnings to Chen to desist which make him persevere with - at first sight - a hopeless case.

The girl was one of the Party's model workers, shining examples of probity and productivity for the nation, but her private life - when Chen finally manages to pry beneath the tightly-drawn surface of Communist devotion and a life bare of comfort - is a roiling mess. A Party official is implicated, and when the irresistible might of the government consequently bears down on Chen, he must decide whether to put Party and career before justice.

While the mystery is not especially compelling - the investigation is methodical and there are no sharp turns on the last page - what distinguishes Death of a Red Heroine is its involving and evocative creation of early nineties Shanghai, complete with the bald poverty of the masses, the reality of an omnipresent government and the imposing protocols which govern all behaviour.

The inner life of the city - just at the point of opening up to the world and its antithetical values - is brilliantly conveyed, such as the alleys where people are stuffed without name or distinction; all are poor alike and the details of this poverty - outdoor stoves, a single telephone for dozens - do not idealise it, as the government would wish. Instead of raucous openness, as represented by some visiting Americans, there is ceremony for all occasions, repression of the individual.

Life is as precise as Chen's poetry, full of dreamy imagery, contrasting with the mess of a policeman's work and the only place for creativity, although even this the government looks over. The forms for addressing a guest are long-established, there is a rule for talking to colleagues. People speak with the formalised, frozen respect which is alien to Britain and which makes frustrating reading until you are swallowed up by the culture.

Xiaolong certainly manages to swallow up the reader. The sounds and smells - even the sweating - of the city surround you, from gaudy bars for foreigners to quiet teahouses. Death of a Red Heroine so fully immerses you in its humidity and landscape that it is a shock to look up and find yourself at Kings Cross.

The oppression of poverty, tradition and government make the book claustrophobic but this does not seem inappropriate or detract from the intrigue: it is hard to imagine China was not, even if under all the strictures, human passions still ruled.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mad Men: back to the future

When men were men, women were women and cigarettes were just about to start killing you, the Madison Avenue ad agencies directed America's behaviour. (La plus ça change...) The fifties promised a revolution in technology, a brighter future after the war years, so what else can a former Sopranos writer do but undermine this?

Matthew Weiner, an alumnus of the David Chase school, has harked back to an era which must be all but mythical to most of his audience. Weiner can thus grasp the style of the fifties - thin ties (back again), Lucky Strikes (still here), drinking at work (come back) - while evoking both contemporary and eternal concerns. How do you sell cigarettes?

Since I've only seen the first episode, it is hard to make too far-reaching a judgement, but we at least have sufficient characters for drama: sensitive war hero ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm); his rivalrous upstart Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser); new secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss); and a full collection of associates, lovers and clients. Tensions are clear and troubles (in love and business) are lining up beyond the Coronamatic.

What impressed me was the subtle(ish) way we are led in - instead of the screaming dramatics which would be so out of place in the fifties tv show but are perfect fodder for Wisteria Lane - things are clearly going to have to build. Insecurities are hinted at as layers of atmosphere and place are created. Instead of screaming out 'racism!', it's acknowledged in behaviour; a closeted gay man tries too hard; the mores of marriage are inferred by the viewer.

The opening credits are also revealing. Parodying the style and values of James Bond, a man of shadow falls off a tall building, past glamorous women in full colour, drinking and laughing. We are not going to be in the simplicity of our imagined fifties - it looks like Mad Men will be selling us drama for some time to come.

Apologies for absence

I'm sure you've felt it terribly too. Alas for the busyness of business! But there are goodies to come:

>>> Review of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3 in Stratford-upon-Avon.

>>> Mad Men: Madison Avenue in the 50s - the new Sopranos?

>>> Hamlet on CD: Simon Russell Beale gives his all as the doubting prince.