So, I am down to give a paper in Virginia Woolf at KCL on May the 4th. I’ll be talking about Monsters, Walls and Photographs. Apparently. But frankly at this moment your guess is as good as mine.
So, I am down to give a paper in Virginia Woolf at KCL on May the 4th. I’ll be talking about Monsters, Walls and Photographs. Apparently. But frankly at this moment your guess is as good as mine.
Last night I went to Winchester again.
As best as I can make out, we went in 1984, when we were checking out universities for my big bother and we stayed in Lymington so that we could take a look at Southampton. In fact, I think we went to the New Forest twice — I believe my father was considering retiring there. So we saw the Mary Rose and we went to Salisbury and we were disappointed by Stonehenge…
I think I remember the statue of King Alfred, but above all I remember a narrow medieval street, yellow and grey, possible sandstone walls, and a door off the street into the Great Hall. There was a lot of traffic — I recall a bus almost running us over — and it was pissing down, real cats and dogs.
In the Great Hall, a couple of metres off the floor, was a huge round table, allegedly that of King Arthur — but, oddly, even though I was avidly reading about pyramids and the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs in the Bible, I cried BS.
So, an invite to speak to A Level philosophers at Winchester College gave me a reason to return after thirty years and take another look. I didn’t expect to remember much of the town, and, indeed, nothing seemed familiar.
That narrow street has gone.
Indeed, the Great Hall is in a square, set back from the road. The buildings to the right are pre-twentieth century, the courthouse adjoining is evidently 1970s Brutalist, with a flight of steps.
“Did people used to enter from the other side?” I asked.
No, that’s the barracks.
The table also seems to be higher than I recall, which is odd since I’d be half a metre taller, so it ought to seem lower. The door to the building has moved.
I am convinced that Winchester has changed, but the museum staff must have been sworn to secrecy.
(Am I conflating the Great Hall with a visit to a cafe or a long since lost secondhand bookshop? Is my memory of the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall in York bleeding into it, although I don’t think either side is straight onto a street?)
And in the evening, it began to piss it down again, real cats and dogs. Yes, familiar.
It only seems appropriate that I’d been invited to Winchester to talk about Philip K. Dick and was going to discuss the questions of what is real and what is human. It gave me a new introduction for the talk.
As an incomer to Kent, I’ve always had a guilty preference for Sussex. We lay claim to Turner (hence the Anthea Turner Gallery), Hamish Fulton walks down the road and H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad were locals, but after Tommy Cooper, Mary Tourtel and Peter Firmin there’s a sense that you run out of culture. (Tracey, I forgot Tracey.)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (directed by David Leveaux, Old Vic, cinema relay)
This is a haunted play and I suspect only partly deliberately. I saw the Mark Arden-Stephen Frost-Lionel Blair version at Nottingham Playhouse thirty years ago, which was I now realise a twentieth anniversary of its profession debut at the Old Vic in 1967 after a 1966 Edinburgh Fringe run. It is a play that weaves in and out of Hamlet in an ingenious way — the backstage to the main plot as it were. And every time I see Hamlet, I feel that it is a play full of quotations… even leaving aside any debt to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and an ur-Hamlet.
But it is also Samuel Beckett — the two tramps who are passing time, Waiting for Godot, visited by Lucky and Pozzo, philosophising. And playing games. In Beckett’s play there is a reaching for a deeper meaning, at least on the part of the audience, but without the sense of quite what that is. Not only that, but once we see the barrels on board ship, I am transported back to Happy Days (1961), with characters in barrels.
It might be a young man’s play, with effortless riffing on probability (a coin landing heads ninety times), chaos theory (a hint at the butterfly effect) and other scientific ideas, but there’s also thinking about death, what real death is, whether it can be represented rather than known, the nature of memory. Seeing it again, possibly fifteen years after I saw Stoppard’s intriguing film version with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, twenty years or more after having last read it, I am struck by the cleverness of the structure, the thematic unities between the first and second half (although I think this production moves the interval — certainly Stoppard has done rewrites). The coin toss game leads to the which-hand-is-it-in giving Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) the chance to give back some of the money he won from Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?) at the start of the play. And the looking in barrels for people is somewhere between find the lady and Schrödinger’s cat.
So here we have Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz — the box office gold, although it may be depressing that Stoppard needs a star as draw. Radcliffe wants to show his acting chops — even as he disguises them under an actorly beard. He’s done Equus, another classic, another play where it is hard to place the author’s own point of view. It would be easy to be uncharitable, and here I certainly had the sense he was the weak link. Arden and Frost were a double act, I could almost imagine Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis playing the roles (there’s even a physical resemblance) and I think there’s an instinctive camaraderie that is needed to get the timing pitch perfect. Perhaps it was the distraction of the cameras, but in the first act at least he seemed not quite on cue. It doesn’t help that he is in the dimmer role — his vacant, smiling, rabbit in the headlights seemed a little one note. In the second act he hit his stride — there is more action to set against, and there was a louder audience reaction, even an awww.
His costar, Josh McGuire, is undoubtedly stronger, but table tennis needs two great players. I’ve looked him up, and I don’t remember him from the things he’s in that I have seen. He’s more obvious comic, also a little camp, and at times seems to be acting as the director (of the play of “life”?) in a way I don’t recall from earlier viewings.
In the short film tour of the Old Vic that preceded the play, he is the lead compared to Radcliffe, whom both Chris and I noted was never looking at the camera. Is this the celeb who has learned not to make eye contact? Real shyness as himself? Would the play work if the casting were to be reversed? Radcliffe, the star, as Rosencrantz is the supporting part to a minor role.
I suspect there was a severe rake to the stage, because the other actors towered over them at times. Chris was reminded of The Lord of the Rings and there was a visual affinity to Frodo and Sam — with Radcliffe as Sam. That leaves the idea of Ian McKellen as the Player, here played by David Haig.
Haig is best known as sitcom actor and the Richard Curtis “comedies”, but I have seen him in Chichester’s play version of Yes, Prime Minister as Jim Hacker against Henry Goodman’s Sir Humphrey, foregrounding his insecurities and pettiness against the oily superiority. There is little insecurity here, though, even as the Player craves the audience. He is the cockney actor manager, tough, full of the gift of the gab, and oddly sexually ambivalent — here I think Stoppard has added a few more sexual touches to a play first professionally performed in the year that homosexuality was partially decriminalised. Alfred (Matthew Durkan) as the boy act forced to cross dress rather steals his scenes.
The cast of the main play of Hamlet feel a little slight, and I was slightly confused by the choice of a black actor (Wil Johnson) as Claudius, uncle and now father to a very pale Hamlet (Luke Mullins). Colour blind casting? I guess he and Hamlet sr could be half brothers or… I don’t know, it seemed an odd distraction. Did Theo Ogundipe double as Horatio (son of the white Polonius) and Fortinbrass? Or am I foolish to look for realism in this play?
But, yes, the play took wing towards the end and the relationship between the leads finally fell into place. The creative director of the Old Vic tells he always chooses plays which are politically meaningful, and it is in that second act that we get the lines about not placing faith in England:
Rosencrantz: I don’t believe in it anyway.
Guildenstern: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then?
The words of the almost thirty-year-old Stoppard, né Tomáš Straussler, clearly in love with the language and clearly not afraid to take on the masters of the English theatre.
There were revolutions in Russian art before the turbulent events of 1917. There were artists who painted shape and colour, constructivists, people like Lyubov Popova, who rejected figurative art, and there was Malevich, with his variations on the black square. Revolutionary thinking requires revolutionary representation — except that there’s a line of left wing thinkers who prefer the photographic and the realistic. There’s an argument that realist art — especially in the written form — evolved to document commodities (see the patron and his stuff); soviet socialist realism ended up in a similar place. And the avant garde adapted or died. Or both.
The Royal Academy has brought together a large number of Russian paintings from 1917 to the mid-1930s, tracing some of the routes that artists took over almost two decades, from the October Revolution to the early days of Stalin’s purges. It’s too rich a brew to do full justice to, and I only wish I had my O Level notes on the revolution to hand. There were lots of photos — of workers, of artists, of politicians — and some of them seemed to echo the work of Stieglitz and Strand from about the same time. I’m guessing there’s crossover between the two.
The first room dealt with the image of Vladimir Lenin, the great leader the Germans let through to try and shift the balance on their Eastern Front. The Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government of the February Revolution, nationalised various companies and redistributed land. A massive personality cult clearly developed around cult — suppressing opposition. Isaak Brodsky’s Vladimir Lenin and a Demonstration has the leader in a dark coat, arm stretched out to his right on a sheet of paper, with a crowd behind him, presumably revolting. Behind him is a red sheet, not quite a curtain, too furled to be a flag, red for communism or perhaps red for blood. The same artist’s Lenin in Smolny (1930) is even more realist, depicting Lenin writing in a chair which is covered with a sheet, placed on bare wooden floor boards. The Central Committee of the Soviets was initially located in the Smolny Institute for Young Noble Ladies in Petrograd and this is where a life-size Lenin (dead by 1930, of course) is hard at work he could almost be Thomas Hardy. Kliment Redko’s Insurrection (1925) is an extraordinary image — a rectangular canvas of much darkness, with Lenin in the centre in front of a burning fire, surrounded by soldiers in a diamond shape, with fighting coming from the corners. The painting was hidden until 1980 — Lenin’s icon status forbidden. Georgy Rublev’s Portrait of Joseph Stalin (1930) has the dictator sat in a white, possibly wicker chair, for all the world a Habitat seat, and in a white suit. He is reading a newspaper, I assume Pravda. The background is an orange red, and almost invisible on this is a dog. I’m really not sure how to read this — unsurprisingly the painting was not exhibited whilst Stalin lived.
There was more experimental stuff alongside this realism. Natan Altman’s Russian Labour (1921) is abstract, sculpture as much as painting consisting of paper, enamel and charcoal on mahogany. Several of Popova’s Space-Force Construction (1921) show her stripes and curves of colour. Pavel Filonov’s Formula occurs in several versions, almost superimposed surreal images within images colours, almost like Richard Gadd in their obsessive detail. More experimentation can be found in Ivan Klyun’s Objective Painting According to the Principle of Light-Colour 1921. Then there’s Konstantin Yuon’s extraordinary New Planet (1921): red and yellow planets and moons on a landscape, a group of figures reaching up to a red planet. It is revolution as science fiction.
Of course, Malevich with his black square is one off the most challenging figures — this is a later copy I believe, but we’ve not long seen versions at Tate Modern and The Whitechapel Art Gallery. Malevich is represented from the Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic exhibition, held 1932-33 in what was then Leningrad – a Black Square, Red Square, coloured figures like crash test dummies, small white models, archons, architectural maquettes… remarkably all but one of the paintings survived. In 1932 this was apparently marginalised, but here it is clearly a highlight.
But the avant garde is countered by revolutionary realism and counter revolutionary realism. There are the paintings of peasants and supervisors and the electrification of the Soviet Union — the great shift from feudal society to an attempt at modenrnity, unsurprisingly doomed to failure. And one that led to thousands starving (which was hardly new). Konstantin Rozhdestvensky’s Family in a Field (1932) with spectrum strips of colour blue to red for the fields and horizon and sky, with an impressionist worker with sickle in the foreground. Suprematism meets realism. In a section of Eternal Russia, the art shows nostalgia for the old days and a wish to preserve the old ways, the old religion. We have birch trees by a lake — and I suspect the tree often presents the idea of national identity (see John Dahl and Caspar David Friedrich). Then there’s Marc Chagall’s celebration of his wife, Promenade (1917-18), a flying purple woman levitating above a green self portrait. There’s an almost Cubist green landscape and a pink church.
If you didn’t have a flying wife, then maybe you could avail yourself of one of Vladimir Tatlin’s worker’s flying bicycles — part glider, part dragonfly, likely as successful as Icarus’ feathers and wax, and tempting to see it as a metaphor for the Russian revolution’s utopian project. The Academy suspends a replica in its octagonal room, where I last saw Rothkos, and I was transfixed by the shadows and its slow rotation.
And then a room devoted to Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, whose Beside Lenin’s Coffin was in the first room. He’s lying in a red orange casket, green plants either side, mourners in the background. It is at his trademark raised angle, looking down forty five degrees. Petrov-Vodkin was inspired by Renaissance art he saw in Italy, notably Giotto and Fra Angelico. His Petrograd Madonna (1918 in Petrograd) balances a blue background and pink foreground, with the peasant in a green dress and a head scarf, clearly and definitely not being Mary. The icon tradition lives on.
His landscape Midday. Summer (1917) shows a fecundity the five year plans were grasping for with apples, a farmer, cattle, and in the middle of the landscape, the funeral of the artist’s father. This breaks chronology, of course.
We end with Stalin’s utopia — images of sports, marches, displays, collages and footage of the destruction of a cathedral, alongside a model of a planned replacement. And a photo of Joseph Stalin. Meanwhile, a booth has names and pictures of the shot, the executed, the exiled and the imprisoned. It is sobering.
This is no straight forward celebration of Soviet art and propaganda. You need a tin ear to hear that. Throughout the exhibition we read of the fate of many figures in the arts — disappeared, starved, sidelined. Life under the tzars had not been great — their overthrow hardly improved much. And as for perestroika…. well, we are where we are.
The Boss Baby (Tom McGrath, 2017)
This animation is more fun than it has any right to be — in part because of the vocal talents of Tobey Maguire as the narrator, Steve Buscemi as the villain and, above all, Alec Baldwin as the eponymous baby.
We have a few notes of political subtext — seven-year-old Tim’s imagining life in the jungle seems to be setting up a survival of the fittest philosophy that you imagine may collide with capitalism — but it brings the anxieties of the older offspring feeling edged out by the new baby.
The new baby is a ringer, who had been found to be insufficiently empathic, who has therefore been sidelined into management of Baby Corp and is now clad in a business suit. He has been sent to Tim and the Templeman family to try and discovers why puppies are becoming more popular than babies. Tim has discovered the truth about the baby, but is unable to convince any of the adults about the secret. Inevitably, however, the two have to work together to rescue the parents and stop the baby from growing up.
There is a strange mix of animation — an almost photorealistic style colliding with something rather more impressionistic. Repeatedly there are moments where you sense the animators at just showing off. The Baby Corp sequences are fun (although they have to go to great lengths to protect the naked babies’ modesties) and there are some fun moments of Elvis impersonators.
Of course we have a sense of contradiction here — the massive behemoth of DreamWorks satirising commerce — and sadly the opportunity for the cynical ending is sacrificed in favour of the feel good and the growing up and large hook for a sequel.
But frankly I feel forgiveness for a film that uses Alec Baldwin so well and allowing me the cultural capital of being the only person in the cinema to pick up on a Glen Garry Glen Ross reference.
Life (Daniel Espinosa, 2017)
A year, maybe two years, ago there was viral footage of an octopus sliding around the deck of a ship and eventually escaping through a teeny weeny hole. Cute.
That wasn’t the only moment of déjà vu that I had watching this sf-horror hybrid — most obviously its DNA is infused with Ridley Didley’s Alien, with an alien inadvertantly being brought back on board a spaceship and killing the crew one by one until we’re left with the final girl. On a purely CGI level, you might well be able to make the case that the effects have improved in forty years and I do confess that the tension is satisfactorarily cranked up in the final third, but we will forget about this film before the next Star Wars release.
What was I writing about?
There is also no denying that there is an impressive single continuous take at the opening as we are introduced to a pleasingly international crew on the International Space Station, moving in and out of space and connecting corridors and so forth in a seeming cry of fuck you, Gravity, I can do this too. But this is presumably relatively easy in the motion capture and digital era — imagine what Hitchcock could do with Rope now.
So there’s a probe which has a soil sample (sans potatoes) from Mars that is going to be analysed on the ISS what with quaranteen and all, only it’s approaching too fast and is likely to collide with the ship or the astronaut playing catch. For the sake of the plot, the probe is snagged and, for the sake of no nausea, continuity editing is reestablished.
Ship’s biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) locates a cute little monocell critter, apparently dormant, so he plays around with the atmosphere in the lab vitrine and gives it some ECT and it yawns and says hello daddy. Before you can say that’s not a bleeding obvious subtext, school children have decided that the alien will be christened Alien McAlienface — sorry, no, Calvin. I mean, it’s not as if the crew is going to be divided into the damned and the elect, is it? I may have hallucinated a character saying “I have a bad feeling about this”, but Calvin is pissed at the electronic probing and fights back and escapes. It can squeeze through the tiniest spaces.
And so, eventually, we get a body count and the kind of random disaster plotting that has been played with most recently in The Martian and Passengers — being knocked out of stable orbit, using up too much fuel, losing radio contact with Earth… And having carefully established that each cell can do the same thing as all the other cells, it rapidly becomes apparent that there is more than one Calvin. And fewer crew.
There are further attempts at the Deep and Meaningful — one character is reading The Interpretation of Dreams (“Can you say, ‘Monster from the Id’*”) and a copy of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon is produced as a present for an astronaut who has just become a father (and that presumably has significance if you’ve read it).l
But the film cannot really recover from the sense that the characters are so shallow and lack sufficient back story to really make you care. There are some pretty deaths, and you do kind of root for the characters, but not with any enthusiasm. And even the almost obligatory genre ending can’t really redeem it.
* Anachronistic joke, obviously, as Interpretation is 1899, 1900, and The Ego and the Id (1923).