Friday, March 30, 2012

Bradford - city of LURVE (and the National Media Museum)

Last week we used our day off together to got to the National Media Museum in Bradford.

We had intended thought about but were too late in planning/booking to go to Paris for a long weekend. Instead, we opted for Bradford.

Bradford - city of LURVE.... (or as Neil kept saying "We'll always have Bradford")

Anyway: we had a lovely day. I read Kristin Hersh's excellent memoir 'Paradoxical Undressing' (1) on the train journeys, and we had a fabulous time in Bradford itself.

We'll gloss over that they since seem to have elected a self-serving celeb to represent them in parliament.

This is Neil in the City Centre before the new City Pool was flooded (we wondered why the fountains seemed a bit weird...)

We had mainly gone for the Media Museum, which includes film photography, TV, animation, illusion and more - it's well worth a visit!  lots to see and do, and the chance to go in a booth and watch any from a selection of a couple of thousand TV programmes!  We didn't feel we could spare the time and wanted to look around the exhibits instead which include a history of television sets and a studio you can work cameras in!

We made it to 4.30pm before we bought any books: then we found the Wool Exchange branch of Waterstones. Hey ho...

What a great building!

We then, of course, had a curry.  Well it is Bradford!

(1) also published as 'Rat Girl'.


Last week I wore my 'Frock' for the first time - oh I felt sunny!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Could this be the end of the Sitting Tennant caption competition?

Sitting Tennant - a regular feature over at The Medium is Not Enough - started in jest (sort of), got very serious at some moments (well, as serious as something inherently daft can do!) and spurred some of the great caption writing to some of our most brilliantly enjoyable pictures of David Tennant sitting down. I have, on occasion, been known to do pretty well myself at the game(s) of ST, including 2011's competition. After a slow start in the captioning stakes - and a growing realisation that I could not keep up with picture hunting - I settled into providing a regular source of smut and silliness to accompany the great array of images others provided.

But now it could all be coming to an end.

Only the picture competition may be able to continue to please the eyes.

With this possibility in mind, I've gone back to the original source of inspiration - the great Rosby and Marie communications of yore and especially the songs.

Apologies to everyone concerned: I know I can't hit the heights they reached:

[Originally posted at MediumRob's place]

"And now, the end is near,
I've taken up, with cloning puppets,
my friends, it's all so clear
the moments passed
you all are muppets
I've lived a life that's full
I've sat down oft
along the by-ways
you've captioned me
but now no more
it's pictures only -- for ST

For friends, we've had some fun
with those now gone to new adventures
Rosby, went off to learn
there's more in life than sitting tensions
And those who gave me words, who gave me lines
too rude to mention
ah yes, damn Rullsenberg
I'm blushing my way"

Well, thanks everyone for the company: it started as a jest, a response to a plea, and took on a life of its own (even getting mention in the Guardian along with other key features from our great host). It's been a blast and if this is the end, then I thought it was only fair to go out on a high.

"For there were times
I'm sure you knew
when Toby's knowledge of Doctor Who
made captions more than just mere smut
from Sister Chastity and all you lot
Ah Marie
What did you start?
When they cast 'Gods', it broke my heart
For I was sure, I was the one
for all of you, who wrote a song
who gave me lines, daft and perverse
Who read a pose, and made me curse
But now it's o'er
the captions done
And I can't make you all go on
But it's been fun
and there's no doubt
that this has been
the greatest shout
from fans who thought
that sitting down
was a fine prompt
to wit round town
the record shows, you all took blows
and did it your way...."

[with humble apologies to Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra and the original writes of the tune for 'comme d'habitude' which I am sure my memory has mangled]

It's been great fun and the changing community of contributors - both in picture and captioning - has provided much fun to many people. Thanks to everyone and if it continues.... YAY!

Friday, March 16, 2012

The problem is in the play - 'The Taming of the Shrew': RSC on tour, Nottingham Theatre Royal Thursday 15 March 2012

The Taming of the Shrew is a VERY uncomfortable play: there is just no getting around the domestic abuse, the sexual fantasy, the 'surrendered wife' business. Does that make it not worth seeing? Despite the plays difficulties, I was nevertheless sad to miss the Michelle Gomez version the RSC did a couple of years ago, so was pleased to catch this new one as it toured to selected UK venues - including Nottingham's Theatre Royal (til Saturday 17 March 2012).

David Caves and Lisa Dillon make up our turbulent couple this time around. As Petruchio, Caves stands a terrifying foot or more over the petite Dillon, but she's a fierce match for his bravado, in the macho setting of late 1940s Italy. This Katherina is angry at the patriarchal power her father holds over her and her simperingly manipulative sister, furious at the expectations of her gender to be sold to the highest bidder, and is scarcely ever separated from a flask of alcohol from which she regularly imbibes (is drink a means to anaesthetise Kate to her situation, a prop to 'justify' her 'Shrewish' behaviour, or a 'genuine' evidence of her out-of-control lack of appropriately behaved femininity?) It is in the gestures and actions between the lines that one gets the best sense of the power-plays at stake, even as the language can make you wince.*

That this production comes close to offering an admirable and enjoyable version of the play is credit to the combined efforts of the cast and director and set designer.

Set on a giant bed, the production makes use of the (still somewhat) contentious framing device [the Induction] of Christopher Sly - the drunken tinker manipulated by a Lord and his servants into believing he is a lord himself, and for whom the narrative of Petruchio and Katherina is performed as a play within the play. Sly is brilliantly brought to life by a rambunctiously grubby Nick Holder, and his pants - and lack of them - are the source of much entertainment throughout the play. But even here there is an undercurrent of discomfort as we see Sly exploited for entertainment purposes by a bored aristocrat out hunting. At the end, he's thrown back into his previous existence: is the tale of taming a fantasy for him, a projection of the Lord's own frustrations, or is the Induction merely a way of softening the audience to be comfortable with seeing Shrew as farce rather than disturbing and iniquitous in tone?

It's a tricky one, and I feel loathe to be too down on a production that makes the best of such problematic material - I nevertheless cannot help but be unconvinced by male reviewers reactions to this play: whilst it was good to see a 5-star review in the Telegraph, I still grimaced at reading "she finally submits, with humour and grace". Urgh. I can't quite allow my unreconstructed feminist head and heart think that particular phrasing and summary of Kate's big speech to Bianca and the Widow can stand...

Nevertheless, there has to be a way of reconciling that final big speech with the discomfort it induces. Perhaps it is better expressed in Susannah Clapp's review for The Observer which gets close to finding a way to articulate what works about this particular production:
Nothing can make the speech (really the only proper speech in the play) in which she asks women to put their hands under their husbands' feet either sympathetic or good sense. Yet in Bailey's production something mysterious happens. Dillon speaks it with such careful consideration – ironic, gentle, with a thrill of anticipation – that it becomes truly moving. This is Dillon's triumph but it is Caves's too: they act together as if they are reaching not a truce but an understanding, as if dominance and submission were a tease taken seriously only by the dullards around them. They have been partly playing, trying each other out, and now can go to bed in earnest. Bailey has made this ill-natured drama look as if it has a heart. And loins.

Certainly it is easy to miss that as Petruchio 'starves' and 'forces on' Katherina, he is also pushing his own body and appetites as well. There is perhaps (just) a mutuality to the subjugation ---- but I'm not entirely sure. It's an excellent production, well acted and structured: at the end of the day, the problem is the play.


On the back of such problematic material, Neil and I then had an interesting discussion on the way home: should all plays have curtain calls? It arose around such 'problematic' plays, plays of darkness, the thought-provoking, the difficult, even distressing.

I made the argument that although I can see the point against curtain calls being automatic, there is perhaps an even better argument for them when it IS a problem play.

I'm kinda (badly) appropriately some Brechtian-like ideas here: for surely what the curtain call does is shake the audience into awareness that what they have watched is a play. Not 'reality' but acting; these players are but actors, not an actual Kate and Petruchio, dealing in subjugation. To throw off the guise of their characters is a good thing, right? To recognise that these are showing their audience a play, a version of reality/unreality, is surely appropriate, yes?

Because otherwise there is a danger of being unable to distinguish fiction from reality (to believe that actor X really is their character, really is a murderous cheat, and therefore deserves vitriol and scorn in the street away from their acting role). The curtain call therefore draws attention to the artificiality of performance even as it allows a way of acknowledging how convincing the players have been as their characters.** But it remains disturbing the level of 'pleasure' audiences get in seeing a woman subdued, and in that context our applause remains problematic in breaking the spell.

* Both Neil and I do get uncomfortable when audiences - especially blokes - laugh QUITE so uproariously at how Kate is treated and 'tamed'.

** And of course, when directors and set-designers take their bows, the audience can appropriately boo what they inflicted on nevertheless excellent performers, pace the opera 'The Little Mermaid' recently.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Los Angeles Plays Itself - Film Review, Nottingham Contemporary Wednesday 14 March 2012

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is a documentary, originally produced as a teaching tool, which uses clips from a variety of movies and comments on the representation of this strange 'city' and the meanings that have been constructed from those representations. It is a sprawling 169 minute film, and you can - as per the embedded link above - view it all on YouTube.

We took the chance to see it projected on a big screen - an experience that was not without its problems (see end of review) but which was nevertheless a brilliant experience.

Thom Anderson, the constructor and director of the film, discussed in an interview with IndieWire about how the film deconstructs the mythologising of Los Angeles (not L.A. which Anderson sees as 'implicitly contemptuous').

It certainly is an enthralling presentation - lots of great clips (all neatly labelled too - I wish I'd had a crib list of films for Marclay's The Clock) - and lots of wonderfully obscure clips too; films, I'd barely heard of let alone seen, and more that made me want to hunt them out. The architecture plays a starring role in the film, so plenty of the Bradbury Building - most recently seen in the gorgeous Academy Award winner, The Artist.

It was especially lovely to see so many clips from L.A. Confidential, because however mythological its version of Los Angeles is ('Welcome to L.A.'), it's a cracking film with great sets and set-ups.

All in all, fabulous to see. And yet...

Bless, him, Assistant Professor Mark Rawlinson (who introduced the film briefly), must have felt rotten. Because this film was being digitally projected from a laptop - and this meant that (a) the projection to full screen highlighted the flaws of something not really made for that purpose, and (b) it really makes a difference if the person projecting shows the two 'halves' of the film IN THE WRONG ORDER.

Hence, we started straight in 'The City as Subject' and ended at the 'interval' with the film credits, and started the second part of the evening with the opening title sequence, and the opening two sections: City as Background and The City as Character. This meant we ended the evening as a whole at the screen titled 'Intermission' (complete with 50s popcorn jingle).

*Sigh* - very frustrating, because it meant that the evening came to something of an anti-climax, when it really didn't deserve to do so.

Anyway, well worth watching and I'd urge you to at least watch some of it on YouTube!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Theatre Review: Bingo - Scenes of Money and Death: Young Vic, London matinee Saturday 10 March 2012

Erratic reviews have been thrown at this awkward play - from 1 and 2 stars to laudable 4 stars. It's pretty easy to see why there is this diversity of opinion, though I'm not convinced the loathing is deserved. For me, it didn't feel like anything less than 3.5 at my least charitable about the play's premise and probably a 4 given the performances.

The thing is that Bingo is a play ABOUT Shakespeare rather than by Shakespeare - there's one whole job-lot of expectations going to be thrown for a start.

Beyond that, in some ways, it isn't even as explicitly ABOUT Shakespeare as the writer - it's set in Shakespeare's latter days in Stratford, past the point of him actively writing plays (and certainly the 'great' plays). It isn't an exploration of the life in the way that (say) Simon Callow's 'Being Shakespeare' works - in that instance, the audience gets lots of crowd-pleasing quotations of best-loved lines and passages. There is almost nothing of that in Bingo. Problem number two.

Additionally, in many respects, the pre-interval act particularly could be about any land-owning, doubt-ridden older man, frustrated at his living arrangements, powerless to see how to change them, and torn between self (and self-pity) and empathy for the local community in a time of social upheaval, and against a backdrop where religion and attitudes to morality and poverty have been rattled about for quite some time. There's another problem.

But this nevertheless IS Shakespeare and part of the reason why he succumbs to the plans of enclosure that will benefit him but negatively affect his neighbours is likely tied to his own financial insecurity in earlier life (what little we know of Shakespeare senior is a falling off from temporary power and authority into ignominy and insecurity). This does not however make for comfortable viewing for those who want their Shakespeare to be a straightforwardly humane writer, let alone the relatively god-like figure of eloquence he is held up to be by Callow's one-man extravaganza.*

Above all, this is a play by a Marxist with avowedly Marxist themes and characterisations and whilst I personally have no problems with that at all, 2012 - all that cultural Olympiad nonsense being thrown about - is perhaps not a great moment for a 1973 play on such lines to woo audiences to depictions of Shakespeare amidst his servants railing 'was anything done?' in regret for his inaction to do more for the poor.

Bingo therefore makes for uncomfortable viewing - it is not a play presenting easy, enjoyable thoughts and reactions or even easily managed philosophical debates (even the most awkward of Shakespeare's own plays don't hurt their audiences psychology in the way Bond forces his to be hurt). It is a harsh and awkward play, with harsh voices and difficult characters hurt by and causing hurt in unequitable times - there is little that is lovable, likable, and nothing laudable. Only drunken Ben Johnson (and dizzingly cantankerous Richard McCabe berating Shakespeare 'but what are you writing?') brings any kind of light relief and he's hardly a beacon of positivity.

I read the excellent James Shapiro's book 'Contested Will' a while back, and I've become rather drawn to its analysis of how the Shakespeare-worshippers were a goodly part responsible for generating the 'Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare' crap that has been flying around the last few centuries (I'm not watching 'Anonymous' however much you pay me).

It therefore strikes me that as well as carrying Marxist baggage, there is an element of audiences perhaps not getting on board with the character that is 'Shakespeare' being portrayed in a negative (or at least non-positive) light, as irredeemably confused, angry, cruel and frustrated by coming to the end of his life. This is not the Shakespeare they expect and he's too tied to being 'Shakespeare' to be viewed as A.N.Other person of the 1600s. 'Was anything done?' applies not just to Shakespeare's action/inaction over matters of class and poverty but a doubt about his own worth overall - are the plays and poems worth anything if family life can still be miserable, if the poor still starve and the 'rich' can exploit their power? What could have been done to make life better?

Perhaps my personal empathy for the play and the production were also tied with the experience: HLW and I were with my colleague Caroline, a long-term admirer of Sir Patrick Stewart who took the lead role. Sat on row C in the stalls, it was a giddyingly close experience and we may well have felt more out of sorts with the play's tone if we'd been sat further away. Additionally, I'm not easily put off by Marxist intentions and topics: I'm an insufferable old leftie at heart.

And the cast were very good and intense at what the play required them to do - Stewart is unsurprisingly excellent whether delivering lines or simply letting his expressive face communicate his isolation, and McCabe's small role is delivered with characteristic gusto. But in various ways the rest of the cast also deliver the goods, from Ellie Haddington as the housekeeper/confidante to Shakespeare, to Alex Price** as her moralistic son leading the campaign against enclosure. Catherine Cusak has a horrible role to play as Shakespeare's daughter Judith: taught enough to know there is more to life, but not able to break free of home, she lurches from righteous indignation and frustration at her father to lonely despair at managing her mother and father's separate lives. It's a thankless part in a pitiless play where no-one comes out feeling good.

Does that make it a bad play? No: it perhaps makes it a flawed and definitely an awkward play, but not to my mind itself a bad play.

* Don't think I don't like Callow's performance or Bate's script for 'Being Shakespeare': H and I loved it when we saw it in Sheffield a couple of years ago. But it is much more of a crowd-pleaser.

** Yes, he DID play Francesco the vampire fish-man in Doctor Who.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

In Praise of... The Tube

BBC Two are currently screening a documentary series on the London Tube system: The Tube.

What a fabulous programme!

Many travellers are so badly behaved you really do think that people lose their humanity when they go underground. Disillusioned migrant workers - who came to work in the UK for a better life - find their days filled with cleaning the vomit and mess that is left by travellers. No thanks or apologies provided.

But not all the staff are despairing of their customers: one bright and cheery chap at Warwick Avenue station seems to be dedicated to making an engaged smile with passing travellers. Dedicated teams deal with the trauma of 'one under' (Tube-system speak for someone under a train - rarely with a good conclusion) and somehow still keep going: I wonder if they get the same sort of access to counselling that drivers are offered.

It's a great insight into one of the world' great transport infrastructures and the people who keep it going. Brilliant stuff.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Films so far in 2012 - January, February and into March

So: it's been a lively few months on the film front. A mixture of DVDs, cinema visits, TV films, and (thanks to a VERY kind friend's Christmas present) the temporary joys of LoveFilm.

Anyway - I thought I'd log here the pleasures so far.

  • The Artist - see review of Broadway cinema visit
  • In The Loop - LoveFilm: yes, belatedly we caught up with this gem. "Difficult, difficult, lemon, difficult". Great humour, and horribly potentially close to political reality.
  • 36 - LoveFilm: a cracking French film whose denouement was simultaneously predictable and yet utterly fulfilling. Can you really ever hate a film with Daniel Auteuil in it? I've never yet found a film of his I completely hated: he's just so wonderfully watchable.
  • Attack the Block - DVD: another belated catch-up for an awkward yet thrilling film with plenty of satisfying references to past glories of film horror.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (English language version) - see review of Broadway cinema visit
  • Coriolanus - Broadway: a stunning film version of Shakespeare's play with a magnificent performance from Vanessa Redgrave as a terrifying mother (Volumnia) who blew many of the supposedly 'strong' males off the screen. But great performances from lots of people, not least Brian Cox (not the twinkly physics nerd) as Menenius, and James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the gleefully self-serving tribunes Sicinius and Brutus.
  • Panique au Village - DVD: bonkers beyond measure, the kind of stop-motion animation that blows your mind when watching it, and blessed with the kind of surrealism that generates comments like "Toy Story on absinthe". Joyous, but beware letting small children loose on it: you could end up watching it endlessly for weeks...
  • Life in a Day - DVD: thanks to the lovely George, we were able to enjoy this tour of a day in the life of planet earth. All its violence, humanity and humour were there, and it was both despairing and uplifting to dip into the lives of so many diverse people. Crowdsourcing filmic content may seem a lazy way to generate a film, but it is beautifully edited and the final contributor - from a storm-swept car near midnight - makes for a breathtaking ending.
  • The Woman in Black - Broadway with Q&A: I should really have written a review damn me, but here is a shortened commentary instead. It's proven very popular - I suspect in part due to Daniel Potter/Harry Radcliffe - but this is an efficient and enjoyable thriller. The Q&A with local born director James Watkins was great fun as those coming for the film confessed having been scared witless and more literary-driven members debated the legitimacy of the changed ending from Susan Hill's book (I didn't mind the change, and in their own way both worked, though I can appreciate the irritation of those who felt the film copped out somewhat). Recommended viewing with good company and a cushion.
  • Shutter Island - LoveFilm: one I have been wanting to watch for some time, but largely because I LOVE the Max Richter/Dinah Washington combined track version of 'This Bitter Earth'. Atmospheric, beautifully and disturbing to look at and although not an entirely surprising ending, one I had not entirely foreseen and expected. I get the feeling at the end that he knows what he is saying.
  • Submarine - DVD: the most Indie of Indie films one could imagine, with a check, check, check list of likely features and yet NEVER anything less than heartfelt and charming. Two quirky leads, a bunch of great music, and Paddy Considine being a grande arsehole (proving that any foray into comedy, see Hot Fuzz, will give just as cracking a performance as emotional drama).
  • District 9 - LoveFilm: again, we belatedly caught up with this grim but witty alien film. Far more emotional than we expected it to be: a bit more subtle than expected in its satire.
  • La Vie en Rose - LoveFilm: belated, again, but a wonderful central performance from the beautiful Marion Cotillard as the less than beautiful Edith Piaf. Not a happy life but a magnificent jumbled story of a life of pain and passion for singing.
  • The Emperor's New Clothes - DVD: a colleague lent me this some time ago (though not as long ago as the now siege fight that remains over 'City of God' and 'Diva'). A charming little film, it won't set anyone's life aflame but it was a warming way to spend less than two hours. Napoleon escapes from St Helena but finds re-taking his power more complex than imagined and finds himself an unacknowledged power
  • Barton Fink - TV: we found this had just started a few nights ago and revelled in its consummate weirdness and excess. Coen Brothers classic!
  • Kick-Ass - DVD: oh my GOD, where has this movie been all my life?! One of the most gloriously indulgent and OTT films of pure silly pleasure I have seen in a long while. I felt proper BUZZING by the end of it.