Posts from 8th November 2004

Nov 04

No, I didn’t mean to type Klimt…

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 157 views

No, I didn’t mean to type Klimt…

Who was the first abstract painter in the western tradition? Some people will argue for Mondrian or Malevich or Kupka, but most people give the title to Kandinsky, who reached this milestone with a composition just before WWI. But there is an unarguable earlier claimant, a Swedish woman named Hilma af Klint.

She was producing what are unquestionably abstract paintings years before any of the usual names, starting from 1906-07, and she continued to do so (the one pictured here is from 1907). They’re fine paintings too, reminding me at times of later work by Kandinsky (his Paris biomorphic period) and Klee (his post-North Africa and Bauhaus work), and she even produced paintings rather like Jasper Johns’ targets of decades later.

So why is this major innovator almost completely unknown? I’d bet that even many of the educated art fans here are unfamiliar with her. I have a book, The Spiritual In Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (lots of theosophy, a bizarre major influence on Kandinsky and Mondrian, as well as af Klint), produced to go with an exhibition that started in LA in 1986, which claims to include the first ever article about her in English – and the show was the first time her work had been shown outside her native Sweden. This is partly because on her death in 1944 she willed that her works were kept together and not shown publicly for 20 years – she hoped there would be a more receptive public by then. Another 40 years have passed, and she is still unknown, and I am mystified as to why. Admittedly she was way out of the main stream of modern art that centred on Paris, and I’ve seen no evidence that she influenced any of the usually cited pioneers of abstract painting, but even so a unique and extraordinary figure like this surely deserves far wider attention. Even in 2004 I’m inclined to doubt that a man with such achievements would remain as obscure…

Our Tory Shame

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 321 views

We went to Regent Street yesterday to see Busted switch on the Christmas lights, little suspecting that we were to be plunged into a Conservative party rally. “You asked us to join the Euro / AND WE SAID NO!” sang the three well-off young scamps as a huge flashing “BLIAR” sign flickered behind them. “When I say Oliver, you say Letwin!” cheeky Charlie yelled to the screaming crowd….

OK, actually there was no mention of Toryism whatsoever. What shilling there was happened entirely at the behest of Disney, whose The Incredibles dominates the Regest Street lights. I don’t know about you, but little says Christmas to me like a huge illuminated cartoon woman looking like a spider monkey. So the lights themselves have turned out ugly and nasty, but the spectacle of turning them on was… well, it was alright. There really wasn’t very much room around the stage, and a big cordoned off area separated the lucky few at the front from the throngs (quite modest throngs) up and down the street.

The kids seemed to be lovin’ it though, with plenty of Santas wandering round and some of them making an attempt to jive to the modern pop-rock sounds of The Busted. Who played three songs, all hits, all at the mercy of some pretty dreadful sound. I saw one full-on Busted jump and a couple of other attempts at ‘moves’, but the whole performance was a bit perfunctory. Any sense of event was created entirely by the enthusiastic crowd screaming for their favourites (Matt, then James, with Charlie a distant third, and serve him right for being indie). The funniest moment was the MC shouting out “So are we all going to see The Incredibles then?” and being met with near silence. Good marketing there, lads.

I think ‘Mean Girls’ is my favourite American film of the year

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I think ‘Mean Girls’ is my favourite American film of the year, and one of my favourite ever teen movies. Like ‘Cruel Intentions’ it has an 18th century feel which I probably why I also relate it to Eric Rohmer, whose latest, ‘Triple Agent’, is an absolute hoot. Rohmer made his name by co-authoring with Claude Chabrol the first serious study of Hitchcock’s films; but while Chabrol’s suspense films clearly owe much to the big man, Rohmer’s, which, like CC’s, sort of fell into a somewhat cosy pattern circa 1969 (CC: bourgeois families not as stable as they look! ER: this is why they gave cupid wings, see!), belong more to the tradition of Laclos. ‘Triple Agent’ takes the typical Rohmer set-up (‘photographs of people talking’) and scandalously substitutes discussions of international power politics for the usual discourse on the meandering ways of the heart.
The time is 1936-7, the place Paris, and the Popular Front is falling apart on the issue of intervention in Spain, threatened from within and without by the Nazis and their Cagoulard avant-garde. Our White Russian protag has to ratiocinate his way out of being killed by Stalin’s agents — the film could as easily have been made as ‘Sabotage’ by Hitchcock. But there are no bombs on buses: it’s all talk.
The film is funny partly in itself: it’s about the little ironies, like the preference of Whites and Russian Stalinists alike for non-modern representational art, as against the French Stalinist Left. No doubt it’s also funny because Rohmer doing a spy film is a funny idea (S&S front page ‘License to Talk’ nails it). But the film is also the most intelligent political film of the year: politics-as-motivation has always been weak in the cinema, with right-wing directors unable to think outside the individualist box, but with the concept of allegiance to causes on the left remaining a somewhat romantic concern rarely made convincing. Here the way politics is mediated through other loyalties is captured acutely. Never falling prey to psychologism, only the absense of Lindsay Lohan keeps it from minor masterpiece status.


Blog 7Post a comment • 141 views


I couldn’t place the song at first. It was drifting across the courtyard and flaking in the breeze. I wondered where the radio was and why it was playing gringo music. I roused myself and followed the source of the noise.

It wasn’t a radio at all, but a blond-haired guy hunched over a guitar. He didn’t see me approach and I stood silently until he finished playing. The song was About A Girl and the singer? Well, yes, the singer. See, that’s the thing, it was Kurt Cobain.

Except it couldn’t have been, because it was February 2001. I knew the story. Kurt had got bored of his head and removed it with a gun a few years back.

We chatted for a while. He was the first English speaker I’d encountered for a fortnight and the prospect of company surprised us both. The courtyard belonged to a Bolivian hostel. I was retreading the final days of Butch Cassidy’s life. Him? Well, he never really said. Evasive to say the least. American, that much was obvious, but he offered little else. To fill a silence he strummed through Lithium. The voice, the piercing eyes, the unkempt hair. Everything about him was Cobainish. I snapped a photo.

We spent the evening chatting music and discovered a mutual love of the Raincoats. I’d never met anyone who liked the Raincoats. We hit it off. Cheap wine and a shared passion for screechy music can do that. I was never bold enough to probe too deeply and after the third bottle, I was so convinced he’d faked his death and relocated to southern Bolivia, I didn’t want annoying facts to shatter the illusion.

In the morning he disappeared. Gone by the time I woke. I don’t know where he could have gone. There was nowhere to go to. Perhaps he popped over to see Elvis.

In an otherwise perfect camera film, one photo came out totally black.

I’ve just realised the point of the theme song from Alfie*.

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I’ve just realised the point of the theme song from Alfie*. It is not just a question: “What’s it all about Alfie?” Rather it is a question which contains its own answer: “What’s it all about? (Its all about) Alfie.” And all versions, including the seventies US remake/sequel with Alan Price Alfie Darling, is all they are about. Trying to use this slick modern version as a way of judging the mindset of the modern man, or even the modern cad about Manhattan, would be fruitless. Alfie is a barely realistic character. Instead watching the new version is like seeing a film about a domino rally, and at the end marvelling that they all fall down. Law is okay in the role, but he might as well be playing a space alien. Indeed making him an English alien isolates him even more than his womanising. At least the Michael Caine version suggested that Alfie was of a type, that there were lads like him playing the field all over London. Being this solo Brit shag magnet almost gives Alfie his own super-power. And hence makes him as realistic as Spider-Man, just with a moped instead of webs.

*The original Cilla Black version, it does not really make an appearance in the Jude Law remake, judged inferior to some sub-Van Morrison white boy blues by Dave Stewart and Mike Jagger!

“You cannot rewrite history! Not one line.”

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“You cannot rewrite history! Not one line.”

The Aztecs is a Dr Who story from the show’s high-minded early years, when science-fiction adventures were mixed with more educational historical stories. By the time I started watching Who in the late 70s, the ‘historicals’ were no more, and pretty much everybody agreed that this was No Bad Thing as they were boring. Then the video reissues began in the 1980s, and fairly soon The Aztecs was cropping up in fans’ Top Ten Ever lists.

If The Aztecs had been made towards the end of the show’s run it would still be acclaimed, but as a clever meta-comment on the then typical Who formula of

i) Doctor arrives in middle of nasty situation.
ii) Doctor’s intervention sorts it out.
iii) Doctor sneaks away leaving happy situation.

In The Aztecs the Doctor and friends arrive in the time of the Aztecs, intervene, and their intervention makes a bad situation worse and puts their own lives in danger. The story barrels along and you barely notice until it ends the way the heroes’ ‘victory aims’ have elided from “change the world” to “thwart the bad guy” to simply “get out alive”. The ending is perhaps the most downbeat of any Who story, the Doctor’s closing homilies to Barbara ringing entirely false. It’s all terribly well acted, the costumes are gorgeous, the sets pretty convincing and the script never talks down to its assumed kid audience. Basically, a triumph.

And a triumph with a message. For all the Doctor’s mumbling about the ‘laws of time’ it isn’t predestination that stops the heroes changing history, it’s their own arrogance. The realpolitik lesson of The Aztecs – made in 1964 – is that if you’re going to liberate people it’s a good idea to check if they want it first. The story doesn’t flinch from presenting this bit of relativistic advice in fairly stark terms – human sacrifice is as bottom-line a bad thing as you can get, but even so the attempt to stop it (basically by Barbara saying “stop it”) immediately goes wrong. The first-episode cliffhanger, with the sacrifice angrily accusing his ‘saviour’ of dishonouring him before leaping to his death, is one of Who‘s most effective, as you realise quite how badly the heroes have misread the situation.

So is the moral that trying to make the world better (by whoever’s definition) is doomed to backfire? Not really – after all, at the end of the story the Doctor does leave a working wheel lying around, and there are suggestions that an approach based on hints of future doom would have worked better than the line-in-the-sand method used. But imposing morality from above (literally in The Aztecs, whose entire action takes place at the top of a great pyramid, with occasional references to the multitudes in the city below) is a mug’s game.


Do You SeePost a comment • 663 views


(the top one wz in conversation at the nft tonight: he is of course v.funny and charming even tho he only ever made one good film) (clue: not by kubrick)