Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category
I live for coincidences. They briefly give to me the illusion or the hope that there’s a pattern to my life, and if there’s a pattern, then maybe I’m moving toward some kind of destiny where it’s all explained.
It turned out something of a literary day today. It started with a note on this humble blog from an actor interested in Jean Newlove, collaborator of Joan Littlewood and pioneer of movement as a discipline in theatre. The actor in question appeared as a young Alan Turing in ‘The Imitation Game’, growing up into Benedict Cumberbatch (patron of our very own Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley). I interviewed Jean Newlove, mother of the late Kirsty MacColl (who will be coming in to season shortly as the female half of the greatest of all Christmas songs, ‘Fairytale of New York’), for the Littlewood chapter of my not-yet-finished book ‘When Sparks Fly’.
I was keen to read the last couple of chapters of the excellent novel I’ve been reading the last couple of weeks, Amos Oz’s ‘Judas’, so I left a bit early for my first meeting in Old Street and repaired to nearby Bunhill Fields to read in the low yellow winter sunshine. I sat down by John Bunyan’s tomb, inhaling the roll-up smoke of two Eastern European workers on the adjacent bench, and by way of hors-d’oeuvres downloaded a copy of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ to my phone and read the opening. It’s a good complement to ‘Judas’. I then read some of the wizardry of Oz before heading off to my first meeting with a young scriptwriter of the Paul Abbott school. I’m producing a short film for him. On my way over to Silicon Roundabout I remembered there were other literary types in Bunhill Fields and sauntered past them – Daniel Defoe and beside him the great Londoner William Blake, born in Marshall Street, Soho where my very first job (for a film company) was located. I’d spotted on a Twitter post just after the note from the actor that today was Blake’s birthday. I hadn’t paid much attention but once in front of the grave it came back to me and the coincidence of showing up at his death place on the day of his birth delighted me as I have been much taken with coincidences in recent times.
I’ve had two other good ones in the last couple of days. On Saturday night I was on my way to see Michael Keegan-Dolan’s brilliant dance Swan Lake / Loch nEala when I came across One Lost Glove and photographed it as is my wont with a caption playing on a song title as is my wont: Whole Lotta gLove. I was having dinner first with some friends and as I took my seat in Miz En Bouche in St John Street, Islington over their sound system came a version of Led Zep’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ covered by a relatively sedate female singer.
Today, after I’d finished the Oz book, I resumed Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’, winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. In it I read this sentence: “Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised by p values in the .75 range.” I got that it was taking the piss out of a certain kind of academia and social science but I had no idea what p values are, never heard of them before. This evening I’m at a lecture by Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland (who I also interviewed for ‘When Sparks Fly’) on Behavioural Economics. He mentions p values of course.While I’m at it a Blake-related coincidence this time last year which proved very important for me. When BAFTA season is in full flow you get inundated with PR emails from film publicity companies. I normally don’t read them but I did read one entitled A Bigger Splash because that first job of mine in Soho, opposite Blake’s birthplace, was with a film company that made a movie in 1974 entitled ‘A Bigger Splash’, about David Hockney and his circle. So the subject line caught my eye and I scrolled through the email. It was for a new romantic comedy (?) featuring Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton. At the bottom of the email was the address of the publicity company – 35 Marshall Street, the very address of Buzzy Enterprises where I worked. So it was Buzzy’s address and Buzzy’s title united on a single email. What are the chances? Two items with no intrinsic connection. Unlike the hearing the same word for the first time twice on the same day type coincidence there can be no rational explanation for this baby. I ended up sending it to my former boss, director of the original ‘A Bigger Splash’, Jack Hazan, and that triggered a train of events which lead to us working together for the first time in decades, on a documentary based on something he shot three years before ‘A Bigger Splash’.
The first chapter of ‘When Sparks Fly’ is about poet Allen Ginsberg, who was hugely influenced by Blake. The road I crossed to get to Bunhill contains St Luke’s church where I once met Patti Smith, who is also a massive fan of Blake and wrote a song called ‘In My Blakean Year’ (but we talked about two other poets who resided in London, albeit briefly – Rimbaud & Verlaine).
The coincidences, both explicable and inexplicable, are the kind of thing that make life worth living. They suggest pattern, yes, but more importantly they suggest magic.
the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others
― Martin Luther King Jr.
I had a bit of an art blow-out earlier this week with three thoroughly enjoyable exhibitions in a day:
You Say You Want A Revolution? at the V&A which looks at “records and rebels” from 1966 to 1970 – I went with my friend Kathelin Gray who was present at many of the events showcased and knew many of the people referred to, including Allen Ginsberg who is the person who first brought us together when I was on sabbatical writing in 2013-14. Walking through this excellent display with her certainly added a special, personal dimension. For a while we kicked back on beanbags to watch highlights from the Woodstock movie, including Jimi Hendrix’s era-defining rendition of the Stars & Stripes, perfect for US election day.
The Path Beaten at The Halcyon which for the second time in as many years brings together in London a collection of Bob Dylan’s paintings and sculpture. The images which most appealed were ones like ‘Endless Highway’ which seem of a piece with his songs and how they capture the essence of America. Also perfect for an election day when that could easily get lost.
Sandwiched between was a visit to Bowie / Collector at Sotheby’s, a last viewing of Bowie’s personal collection (minus the stuff of sentimental value) before it went under the auctioneer’s hammer on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th November (yesterday and the day before). I went with my friend Doug to whom I picked out a single painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat as The One. As it turned out that canvas went for £7.1M, the top price at an auction which raised double the expected revenue, in this case more than doubling its top estimate of £3.5M. So I reckon I’ve got a good eye. And what that good eye spied on the day were these…
ONE Lot 22: Jean-Michel Basquiat – Air Power (1984)
For all the bullshitWar(se)hol(e)hype around Basquiat, the young man was a really dynamic artist with a beautiful sense of colour. Bowie played Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s biographical movie. The canvas displays Basquiat’s usual mix of lively paint (acrylic) and fat chalky lines (oilstick) looking like the bastard offspring of a blueprint and a Brooklyn wall. The white ladder shape on the chest and body of the main figure reminds me at once of one of those bone breast decorations Red Indians wear and a railway line reaching westwards. In other words JMB seems to really capture that essence of America.
TWO Lot 4: Peter Lanyon – Trevalgan (1951)
Hot on the heals of the excellent Lanyon exhibition, Soaring Flight, at The Courtauld last Christmas, Bowie/Collector afforded an encounter with another group of Lanyon’s fresh, original landscapes, of which this stood out the most. Trevalgan is a landmark work in Lanyon’s journey of reinvention of landscape painting, tilting it up to become a fusion of map, aerial photo and abstract expressionist take on the Cornwall countryside, the horizon curved around the picture surface on which sea, fields, cliffs and sky are transformed into a gigantic emerald of England.
THREE lot 43: Patrick Caulfield – Foyer (1973)
I’ve always had a soft spot for Caulfield as one inclined to a very graphic style in my own drawing and painting. This large acrylic captures much about modern life in a bland space of the hotel lobby variety (which is not much variety) – to get to anything of interest or colour you have to penetrate to the bar, a small bejewelled space of coloured glass and decorated alcoves, tucked away small in the background distance of the image.
FOUR Lot 101: David Jones – Crucifixion (c.1922)
I suspect Bowie bought this one because the artist shares his real name, plus of course Jones was a highly accomplished religious artist in the vein of Eric Gill. This sparse, stripped down pencil and watercolour drawing captures the agony of the Crucifixion, remembering even to bloody the knees, not just the stigmata. He achieves something truly ancient and in touch with the roots of Christianity.
I felt two things as I left the exhibition. (i) There was so much of it. Too much for any one person to own. It made me feel a bit sick being amongst so much. It must have been a relief for Bowie and his family to offload All This Stuff. David Jones #1’s Christ departs with just a delicate blue loin cloth and a crown of thorns. (ii) Having gone to so much trouble assembling some very fine sub-collections among his overall Collection (mainly of the 20th Century British Art I really love) I wonder why he broke it all up again? Why didn’t he donate little groups to museums to keep them together? I suspect his family don’t really need all £33M of the proceeds.
What Bowie did give – from my little perspective – was an introduction to my ideal drawer and one of my favourite artists, Egon Schiele. I heard him talking about this artist (who I, like most people at the time, had never heard of) on Radio 1 around the time of his Lodger record, the last of the Berlin trilogy. From there a life-long love sprouted. If Bowie had any Schiele’s he kept them back from the sale. The nearest is a single Oskar Kokoschka litho and an Eric Heckel woodcut figure with long boney hands. He certainly had a heroic eye for art. (Though he could have gotten arrested by the design police for his taste in furniture.)
The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population — the intelligent ones or the fools?
Just back from the Aesthetica Short Film Festival in York where I had my first official Sell Out as far as I can recall.
I was doing a Masterclass on factual/unscripted short form video. In the Green Room after I met Dr Melanie Williams of UEA where she is Head of Film, Television and Media Studies. She specialises in post-war cinema and has written a monograph on David Lean (very appropriate in that I’m writing this in BAFTA which Lean founded and which Aesthetica feeds into via the Short Film category in the Film Awards). As we chatted the subject of Christine Keeler’s 60s movie came up – see Chairman of the Board below. Well it turns out one of her colleagues at the University of East Anglia has a particular interest in ‘The Keeler Affair’ movie (1963) and in fact (contrary to what I had read) it was made but was never granted a BBFC certificate in the UK, so it only played abroad. Lewis Morley, the photographer who photographed Keeler in That Chair, refers slightly erroneously to: “an intended film which never saw the light of day”.
It also seems to have another title, ‘The Christine Keeler Story‘, and it turns out that Keeler doesn’t exclusively play herself despite posing for the publicity photos – Yvonne Buckingham plays her although Keeler is also listed as “Herself”. Same for Mandy-Rice Davies who both plays herself and is played by Alicia Brandet. I’ve yet to find out how Buckingham & Keeler and Brandet & Rice Davies squared that circle though there are some clues in the clip I found below.
In the synopsis Keeler is referred to as a “teenage prostitute” which seems both harsh and not entirely accurate. I like the term “good-time girl” which is often used to hedge bets in this type of context.
And here’s the bit I found. Quite intriguing. A disco ball in the courtroom… like it.
I went from BAFTA in Piccadilly round the corner to the May Fair Hotel for a BAFTA Film Awards screening of ‘American Pastoral’ with leading man and director Ewan McGregor in attendance. It is a striking and original film, directed with amazing aplomb for a first movie (this is McGregor’s directorial debut). It is a thoughtful interpretation of Philip Roth’s novel, not spoonfeeding the audience and concluding with an uncompromisingly enigmatic end. McGregor spoke with great articulacy and clarity about his method as an actor-director. What came across strongly is that this is an actors’ film – the rehearsal and shooting process, as well as the framing and camera movement, were all focused on enabling the actors to do their thing in an imaginative and fresh way.
So far the best of the BAFTA fare. Also very striking is the disturbing poster – the best I’ve seen in a long while – which takes the all-American idealism of Wyeth and Hopper (the first half of the film derives its colour palette from Hopper), takes the all-American idealism of Wyeth and Hopper – and shakes it the fuck up, torching the Dream.
The other day I got to touch this chair…
The year I was born this chair got to touch the bare bottom of Christine Keeler.
It was as the scandal of the Profumo Affair was exploding in Britain, marking the end of the age of austerity and heralding the new age of permissiveness.
I’ve been writing a script over the summer in which Keeler appears as a minor character so have been immersed in the era of which this photograph is an icon.
The photo session was in Lewis Morley’s studio above The Establishment Club in Soho (18 Greek Street) which was the spiritual home of the emerging anti-establishment of the early 60s. It was founded in 1961 and presented among others, on the small stage on the floor below Morley’s studio, Lenny Bruce, Barry Humphries and Dudley Moore. The club was part-owned by Moore’s partner in crime Peter Cook, another defining character of the era.
Morley was born in Hong Kong to English and Chinese parents, coming to England straight after the war in 1945. He eventually emigrated to Barry Humphries’/Dame Edna Everage’s native Australia in 1971.
The Keeler session was set up to produce images for a film that never happened (The Keeler Affair). Present were Morley, his assistant and the producers.
I recently came across another such movie that was never made featuring Keeler’s partner in crime Mandy Rice Davies. Her picture, by contrast in costume, was shot by Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996), another of the key photographers of the Blow Up generation. His first major retrospective – Speed of Light at the Photographers Gallery, London this summer – brought to light this magazine cover:
Morley decided to use one of a number of chairs he’d recently bought at (probably) Heals as a prop. They are cheap knock-offs of a classic Arne Jacobsen design, the 3107. The chair is more crudely made than its original and has a hand-hole introduced to get round copyright infringement.
At the beginning of the session Keeler was dressed in a leather jerkin, covered (just) but still plenty sexy. Morley shot three rolls of film on the day – on the first two he shot her dressed in this way both on and beside the chair.
Keeler had been a model in her early years in London before getting sucked in to The Scandal. She had also been a showgirl and good-time girl, all these activities and aspirations adjacent in England in the late 50s/early 60s.
The producers then demanded that she pose nude. They insisted that was in her contract. Morley was reluctant and protected Keeler, both with the back of that chair and by clearing everyone but himself out of the studio and averting his eyes while she stripped off and mounted the chair. In this way he protected her dignity whilst fulfilling the terms of the contract.
He then shot the third roll. He tried various angles which you can see on the contact sheet which now lives at the V&A. Morley recounted the end of the session thus:
“I felt that I had shot enough and took a couple of paces back. Looking up I saw what appeared to be a perfect positioning. I released the shutter one more time, in fact, it was the last exposure on the roll of film. Looking at the contact sheet, one can see that this image is smaller than the rest because I had stepped back. It was this pose that became the first published and most used image. The nude session had taken less than five minutes to complete.”
Last shot of the last roll – suitably mythic.
The shot in question can currently be seen in the first room of the You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 exhibition at the V&A. As can the chair.
What’s powerful about the shot is the X-shaped composition made up of her upper arms and thighs, bright in the high contrast, combined with the echo of the top half of that white X (those upper arms joined into a curvaceous triangle by her shoulders) which matches the sensual curved triangle of the chair back. The hands and wrists also make up a mini X, reinforcing the power of the central shape. The dark V of the chair back is a massive amplification of that hidden famous vagina. But topping off the shot is an alluring yet refined face. And a strong one, as challenging as any of the enigmatic eye-to-eye starers of Manet. [see E for Enigma – Manet Picture of the Month]
Morley used the pose again two years later with Joe Orton, the playwright who best captured the essence of the 60s in Britain. I first came across Orton in the Lower 6th (the freest and best year of school) when I was looking for the subject of a project and came across Orton by chance. I’ve loved him since. But I don’t find that the Morley portrait captures him well as it gives no sense of his cheekiness or humour.
Morley also used the pose with TV personality David Frost (in the same year as Keeler), but in a less still way, capturing something of the energy which was to land Frost a chair opposite President Nixon in the next decade (in the famous 1977 interviews which did for the leader of the most powerful nation on earth). Frost, The Establishment, Cook, Private Eye were all part of the same Swinging Sixties circles.
Circles which overlapped with the establishment with a small e and their interface with Soho, pretty girls, gambling dens, sharp-suited gangsters, swinger parties, all the ingredients in the explosive brew that was Profumo.
For a very particular moment – arguably one key frame – Morley managed to transform a 21 year old (who grew up in a converted railway carriage, abandoned by her father), a 21 year old swirling helplessly in a maelstrom of post-war British politics, the Cold War and the breaking down of the class system into a strong and dignified woman, the epitome of Sixties British beauty.
Day 2: Liverpool
So I’m sitting in front of Liverpool Town Hall in the Indian summer afternoon sunshine. I’m discussing a documentary with a Scouse film-maker, the protagonist of the film and the cameraman. We’ve just arrived, the beers have just landed and out of the open balcony door of the Town Hall tumble the strains of Let It Be. Then more Beatles. Then a female singer doing covers of their songs. I couldn’t have scripted or timed it any better. My fantasy Liverpool afternoon. After the meeting I trotted down the street to the Odeon for the world premiere of the Beatles documentary, Eight Days A Week, put together by Ron Howard. The red (actually blue) carpet shenanigans were broadcast live from Leicester Square to this and other cinemas around the country and beyond, including the arrival of Paul and Ringo. Where better to watch it than in Beatlesville. The moment and song that punched out was when John composed Help. It stood out as the point when their song-writing went up a gear or three.
Day 1: Sheffield
Spent the day working with an indie producer in Sheffield – which was fun. After we wrapped for the afternoon, I headed into the city centre from the atmospheric, leafy burbs. In the golden early evening sunlight surveyed the city’s excellent array of street art, not least the excellent work of Rocket01.
After a fine Mexican beano, hung out chatting in the Peace Gardens with their monumental fountain portals and all-round perfect mix of water, stone and grass. I’m usually in the city for DocFest in the summer so it was good to see it under other circumstances. It has some of the finest regeneration in the country, with a brilliant passage from the station up to the Peace Gardens. The blade sculpture bordering the station with a thin layer of water flowing over the gigantic knife-edge of shining steel. The tower of the university bearing a poem by Andrew Motion about standing looking at the tower of the university. The art deco Showroom cinema. The art deco Library and (Graves) Gallery. The wooden ribs and hothouse glass of the Winter Gardens. The Victorian Town Hall, sheltering the Peace Gardens.
Day 2: Sheffield
Began the day at a working breakfast with a Sheffield-based film producer who is a very nice guy. Then a quick visit to the Graves Gallery to look at the hidden treasure that is their permanent collection. Catching my eye this time: Christ Carrying the Cross attributed to Luis de Morales (late C16), a prematurely aged, weary Jesus, right beside a striking painting of a man holding a skull, a dark momento mori where the difference between the head and skull is marginal; The Hours by Burne-Jones, six ladies representing the sweep of the day, their dress ranging from dawn blue to late afternoon russet and back to night-time blue-black; a Paul Nash landscape, an Auerbach cityscape of Mornington Crescent; Sam Taylor-Wood suspended from the ceiling (flashback to young John Lennon); a portrait of Edith Sitwell and her languorous hands – one of the best galleries in the land.
Then the train to Liverpool across the Peak valleys bathed in Indian summer gold.
Day 3: Sheffield
Rain after the early hours thunder, making the work at Roco (a new creative co-operative space) all the cosier. A good creative session, inducing headache in the journey to a possible break-through, wrestling with knotty problems between cups of tea. A burst of sun as we left to mark the conclusion in grand style.
“So we sailed on to the sun”
The Beatles – Yellow Submarine
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
— e e cummings
On the day of the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Paralympics, it’s interesting to contrast the UK television marketing of London 2012 vs Rio 2016