And the Real Thing is the Best Thing Yet

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Some time ago I was doing some research into the history of Detroit, and read that this was an integrated city with little disturbances over racial lines. It was the heart of the American motor industry and then a music industry, which have since collapsed and moved elsewhere. Julien Temple’s extraordinary documentary Requiem for Detroit (2009) documents its collapse and attempts at reconstruction. Having done further research, I’m not sure what the author was talking about — and this film centres on a reconstruction of a devastating event at the heart of a disturbance, at the Algiers Hotel.

An illegal drinking venue is raided by largely white police men, arresting largely African American patrons. This leads to unrest on the streets, which the film labels a riot, over a number of days. An aspiring male vocal group, The Dramatics, have their performance cancelled just before they are due to go on, thanks to the curfew, and they try to find their way home. Larry Reed and Fred Temple book a room at a motel and try to pick up two white tourists, Julie Ann and Karen, who introduce them to Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard. Pollard fires a starter gun out of the window, attracting the National Guard, the police — including Philip Krauss, who has shot someone dead in the back — and a security guard, Melvin Dismukes. Krauss starts interviewing every one left in the motel, with sadistic glee, staging mock executions. Then things go really wrong. When the night is over, the white cops and Dismukes are put on trial, with an all-white jury.

There has been a certain amount of fuss about whether this was a story that Bigelow, as a white director can tell this story. It would be interesting to see a John Singleton or Spike Lee version, of this film, but cautious Hollywood rarely gives big budgets to African American directors. Equally, they rarely do so to women — Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and Wonder Woman being rare exceptions — so perhaps we should celebrate a woman being given a $34 million budget, although that is not huge. Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar, so perhaps has the chops to swing the gig for an African American director and act as producer; on the other hand she has had a lot of flops, in the arcane world of film accountancy her films are rarely in profit, making about three times the budget at best. At the moment, Detroit is a flop.

It is not an easy film to navigate, as we take a long time to get to the motel and then we have the aftermath to deal with. All of this is necessary. There are a bewildering range of characters in the first half hour, before the set piece kicks in, and this gives us a portrait of a city in crisis, if not the mundane every day life. The context of unrest in 1967 Detroit is sketched in with drawings and captions — the move of workers from the south to work in the car industry and the slow exodus of the white population (the words “white flight” are not used). We don’t get the fall out from Jim Crow laws, the Civil War and slavery, but that was more in the south anyway. We are told that change is inevitable, although it is not clear when or how. Bigelow slips between documentary footage and reconstruction.

In a sense the film is all reconstruction; we are told that it is not clear what happened, even with court testimony and the memory of survivors. Characters will be compressed into composites, dialogue will be invented, people were on their own. This matters because this is an event of political importance — but the story has to be told. There is violence, but we can’t be sure it is the right violence. Above all, we can never quite get into the heads of Krauss and his fellow cops — of what made them racist. Or to behave as they did. Their interrogation is tactical, but we don’t know who set that up.

Sometimes there is a sense of punches being pulled. John Boyega as Dismukes is a Good Man, and no doubt he is, but I wonder whether the actor is in danger of becoming a British Denzel Washington, a guarantor of uprightness. Equally, there are moments of good deeds by white people just in case we have wanted to insist #notallwhitemen. It is telling that the two central characters are played by British actors. Was it too much of a hot potato?

Bigelow has always been a director of contradictions, a female director who had tried to inhabit supposedly male genres, more likely to create meaty roles for men than women (but don’t forget Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1987)). Her background is in painting and film theory, with auteurial signatures of night shoots and neon lights, often viewed through smoke, but she has worked with and was married to James Cameron. She has worked in art house and television, with a small role in the extraordinary intersectional sf film Born in Flames, but she’s also had big budget. Repeatedly she makes radical films that end up with a whiff of neoconservatism — her vampire film Near Dark (1987) blurs boundaries of sexuality and gender, but white patriarchy and home wins out; her sf Strange Days (1995) has a female African American protagonist, but a white old man saves the day. Detroit was inspired by events in Ferguson, but the dots of true integration still not being achieved are not filled in.

I think this is a film to be seen — even if it’s not a film to like or enjoy — but perhaps on the level that a flawed attempt to tell a story is better than not to tell it. But perhaps the canvas of a thirteen part television series might have been more suitable.

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Flaming Nora

Flaming June: The Making of a Masterpiece (Leighton House, 4 November 2016-2 April 2017)

Limping through the undertubes a couple of months back, I was struck by a poster of a painting of what I took at first to be a marigold, but turned out to be a young woman in a dress. FINAL WEEKS it proclaimed, but I’m not convinced that it gave a closing date. I think I’d gathered it was at Leighton House, a venue in Kensington that was on my radar to visit.

And then I forgot.

A friend went to see it, it was his favourite painting. I paid attention. I plotted. I planned to visit it on a Tuesday, my research day.

Leighton House. Closed Tuesdays.

Good job I checked.

So I postponed an idea of Eastbourne, and decided to combine this with a trip to the RAA and Russian and American art, and navigated via a Caffe Nerd and attempting to remember what the Design Museum on High Street Ken looked like when it was the Commonwealth Institute. It wasn’t yet June, but was about the first sunny day in a while even if I sat outside in the shadows at Nerd. And eventually getting there, and one of those slightly weird negotiations of what are the rules for this exhibition?

In my limited mental picture, he was part of the Pre-Raphs, of which I’m not exactly a fan despite their supposed radicalism (which now looks like a box of fudge waiting to happen). I vaguely remember his paintings coming back to the Tate after an absence (to where?), but I couldn’t picture any. No good, eh? He clearly got lorded, and I vaguely assumed he was an ascendant of someone who taught me.

Anyway, the woman in orange, although popular fiction would call her The Girl in the Flaming Dress, one of five paintings Leighton prepared for the Royal Academy summer exhibition, as he was in the final months of his life. I think one of them has gone missing, as has the one he substituted for one he didn’t like at the last minute.

And apparently it was amazing we have this.

It didn’t sell at the show and was bought by The Graphic to be turned into a print to give away in Christmas 1895. After being shown in their office window, it was loaned to the Ashmolean and dropped out of sight — I’m not the only one to be unimpressed by Victorian confectionary. It turned up in Battersea, boxed in over a chimney, and was nearly bought by a young Andrew Lloyd Webber (make your own snide comments). A Puerto Rican industrialist, Luis A. Ferré, partly in town to buy art for his gallery, saw it in The Maas Gallery, London in 1963 and paid £2,000 for it. Since then, it has been at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, aside from rare loans to other galleries

So we have a woman in an orange dress, curled up almost in a circle, an oleander plant to her top right, a shining sea behind her, and draping cloth around her. It is undeniably attractive, with a striking horizontal line of her leg parallel to the golden frame, the ledge and sea, with a zig zag of her lower legs and arms, an almost circular composition. If you look carefully — and of course you do, since you’ll most likely not be heading off to Puerto Rico in the foreseeable future — there is a hint of nipple, of the skin tone under the diaphanous orange draperies.

Is that a word?

Of course, my gaydar had been triggered earlier by a small male nude on the staircase and a frankly camp Arab Hall of dark green tiles brought in from some grand tour or other. He never married, but there are rumours of affairs with a female model and a close relationship with a male friend. We just don’t know, it seems. Anything else is gossip.

Shrugs.

Next to it is a much smaller painting, a practice perhaps for Flaming, with tiny island in the sea, lost from the final version, and a slightly different top to the picture.

To its left, are the remaining paintings from 1895. ‘Twixt Hope and Fear is an elegantly dressed woman, sat on a chair so she looks over her shoulder at us. The vertical to diagonal arm dominates the composition — as does the double take I had about whether there was an iPhone in her right hand and she was taking a selfie.

Methinks not.

The Maid with the Golden Hair — see, that’s a proper title, but girl would be moderner — has a young girl reading a book, caught in a private moment. They reckon it’s Lena Dene, younger sister of his main model, Dorothy (he’s a friend of… nevermind), but I’d rather know what she is reading.

Verticals are accented in Lachrymae — a woman stood, supporting her head and arm on a fluted pillar bearing an urn, presumably a funerarararary one. The sun glints through the cypress tree behind her — a tree which is a symbol of (guess what?) mourning. At her foot is a wreath.

The final picture is Candida, a head and shoulders portrait, replaced by a (lost) painting Listener (although there’s a colour reproduction of it). So, five (or six) lone women, three of them possibly the same model and a Miss Lloyd.

Then you realise you’ve done this in the wrong order.

Hidden in his bedroom, with a spartan-looking single bed and letters that tempting to touch, and a fur rug that isn’t, is the print from The Graphic, a little worse for wear.

Back in the Silk Room are various preparatory drawings — black and white chalk on paper as he attempted to get the posture of the woman right and, Lo and behold!, a photogavure of his Summer Moon (c. 1872), two women asleep, one of them not unpostured like Flaming Nora, their arms curved in parallel, a circular opening behind them. Another photogravure, The Garden of the Hesperides (1893?), three women asleep under a tree (and now in the Lever collection, so I guess I’ve seen it in Port Sunlight. And then there’s Summer Slumber (1894), also seen in photogravure and notable for the flaming June relief in the wall this slumberer is slumbering on. This strikes me that Flaming June must be a little earlier than suggested. I’m not clear where the actual painting is.

And there are also preparatory pictures for some of the other paintings; in the studio are other paintings of oleanders and a photo of some carvings, although it requires a bit of detective work to work out what you should be looking at. It also took me a while to realise I need to go anti clockwise round the Silk Room and how the painting of an Algiers Courtyard fitted in.

But then I was back to Flaming, to soak her in again.

I can’t say I am converted to Leighton, and I suspect the works normally here are not his best, but it was intriguing to see this rarity.

Take It On the Chin

When publishing, even in academia, your work is sometimes reviewed.

In fact, the only thing worse than being reviewed is not being reviewed.

Perhaps your book is so awful, no one wants to review it?

I’d say I’ve had a mix bag of reviews — and I have to say that I often find myself agreeing with some of the flaws the reviewers spotted. With Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction (2009), we knew that the standard review would consist of “Why didn’t the authors include x, y or z?” and that few would note that that would lead the book to be renamed Fifty-Three Key Figures in Science Fiction. It wasn’t the fifty best, it wasn’t even the fifty key, it was fifty key. Other keys are available. I know one person who seems sweetness and light in person, but who has only really been critical of what I’ve written. So it goes.

So I was sent a review the other day and its author, who I don’t know, didn’t like the work in question. They raise a valid point, but that aside I didn’t get the sense that they’d engaged with the book. I could write a letter of response, get all defensive, but frankly I’ve never seen that kind of thing happen without the complainant looking like a dick.

There was the author a week or so back who demanded a retraction of a one-star review on Good Reads and who proceeded to make themselves look more and more of a dick. Eventually they deleted their comments — but the internet never forgets. Ironically, whilst this has given them all kinds of bad publicity, I would say that  it has probably brought some people to the book, too. In various fora  where there have been Puppies  vs non-Puppies debates, I’ve seen people say that they will now read the book by X because the opposition hate it so much.

No publicity is bad publicity.

So, I’m saying nothing more public or specific about the bad review. I’ve dealt a few myself, and I’m bound to get a few in return.

What I do want to say — and a perverse part of me is sniggering at this — is the reviewer was poorly served by their editor. I recently wrote trust the editor, they are there to save you from yourself. I would hope that the editor could spot the misspelt names in your review, the wrong word being used and the error of fact. Because it’s a thread to pull at in the meantime.

Meanwhile, revenge is filleting negative reviews for pull quotes …

… joking. Honest.