Film review: Frank

There aren’t many films out there that successfully probe suburban aspiration, artistic integrity, pretension, modern celebrity and the pressures of working together.  Fewer still will do so with wry humour, intelligence and a ‘through the looking glass’ approach to reality.  And none, until now, have done so by using the large fake head of the late Frank Sidebottom as a launchpad.

Penned by Jon Ronson, Frank, is ‘inspired by’ the life of Frank Sidebottom. Or at least, the life and ‘outsider spirit’ (as the dedication has it) of Chris Sievey who was Frank and who died a few years before this film was made.  Ronson was keyboardist for a time in Frank Sidebottom’s group and he has used his own writing on that subject as the basis for the story of ‘Jon’, a keyboardist yearning for popular acclaim but seemingly lacking the talent to write anything more complicated than riffs on It Must Be Love, who by freak circumstance becomes keyboardist in ‘Frank”s band and who then winds up being an integral part of the creation of a record in darkest, remotest Ireland.

The cast around Jon and Frank includes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara – a theramin player with a mean attitude and harsh haircut – and Scoot McNairy’s Don whose love for mannequins and occasional insanity seem remarkably un-out-of-place.  There are others too, and it is a pleasure to spend time in their company, safe in the knowledge that they can’t actually hurt you.

Frank‘s performances, notably Michael Fassbender as Frank and Domhnall Gleeson as Jon, are very good but it truly is the writing that keeps you going.  The dialogue crackles nicely and there are many, many wonderful, subtle observations about the human condition (especially in the age of social media) that reflect the best of Ronson’s extensive work in the field.

So, there is a lot to enjoy packed into 95 tight minutes.  Just don’t expect to be able to describe it adequately to the next person you meet: There’s this guy in a head, and he’s in a band and … well, just see it.  You can thank me later.


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There’s a world outside your window

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014

The things you see from the train window as you head into work.  Signs advertising insurance jobs, shapes made by the morning sun, unused disabled ramps, and people strutting like it’s not 9.10 in the morning in Tunbridge Wells.

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Watching cranes

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014 - All rights reserved

Well, crane singular but it’s still a floating beast of a thing.  It drifted across the channel and settled beside Hastings Pier – its job is to, silently and diligently, do those tasks required at the far end of the construction that will enable the pier to reopen next year.  It is doing so under the watchful gaze of many of the denizens of Hastings (& St Leonards).

When it came into site on the pier’s webcam there were comments by the dozen.  Even when the sea mist descends there are always several people sitting in contemplation as the crane goes about its work.  A few months ago it was raising the Concordia and now its assembling a people’s pier.  Such is the life of a crane.

My photo shows the fog descending yesterday.  About an hour before, bathed in sun, the whole barrier had been filled with people – most taking photies.  Should you want a live update, the webcam for the pier is here.

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John Bulmer

There’s what looks like being a well-worth-visiting exhibition in Wolverhampton showing the work of John Bulmer, the British documentary photographer famous for his images of working-class life.  Bulmer himself was far from working class but has a wonderful ability to place people’s lives in their wider context by including in his wide angle views the streets, buildings and industry that dominate people’s existence.

In the absence of a visit to Wolverhampton, here’s a splendid interview recorded by some students in Hereford in connection with an earlier exhibition:

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At the Lucy Bell Gallery: Russell Dorey – Paintings

It’s nice to stumble into an exhibition and find that the artistic statement says, “I might get the hang of this painting thing one day” rather than going on for 274 lines about meaning.  Sometimes a still life is just a still life – even if it is fun, playful and well-executed.  Sometimes the meaning, and the pleasure, is all in what’s on the wall and there’s not too much need to consult a catalogue to tell you what you’ve just seen.  And so it is with Russell Dorey at the Lucy Bell Gallery.

The images are small in scale, feature a scarce handful of everyday objects and use a bold but narrow range of colours.  Lines and perspective are simple.  Nothing about any of these screams technical mastery.  But far from being mundane or dull there is a joy in seeing things put together, in seeing a bottle of Duval or Pelforth next to a couple of empty bottles and a key, in seeing a Vermeer postcard next to a pencil and a beaker.  It’s a pleasure that’s hard to explain beyond just saying: roll with it.  Dorey obviously enjoyed painting this so you can enjoy looking at it.

Too often art likes to only aim for the highbrow or the obscure.  Here are works that concentrate on what was in front of the artist’s nose – like a poet writing a sonnet to his half empty coffee cup on the desk rather than the field outside the window.  It reminded me a bit of seeing Hammershoi at the Royal Academy a few years ago – almost shocking for just being normal.

But there’s not enough ‘normal’ in art galleries and when it’s there we should celebrate it.

There’s more about the exhibition here.

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I wrote a thing about Scotland (and England)

I’m writing this from the south coast of England.  According to Google I could be in Germany more quickly than I could be in Scotland (it’d take 6 hours to drive to Duisburg, 6.5 to get to Gretna Green without stopping). The country I am writing this in – let’s call it England again – is in two unions.  It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and it is in the European Union.  On Friday morning it may wake up to discover that one of those unions has just been cleft in twain.

I used to live much nearer to Scotland.  One of the many places I called home was about a twenty minute drive from the border.  I used to watch Queen of the South in the flesh and BBC Scotland from the sofa.  I liked that Scotland was very recognisably the same country as England and yet also very recognisably not the same country.  The similarities don’t need repeating really but those differences from dialect to ‘Not Proven’ seemed on occasion to be greater than the differences between New Hampshire and New Mexico.  The first flight I took after getting married was to Aberdeen and we then spent our honeymoon on the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney.  As one old bloke put it to us, “Edinburgh’s as remote as London, really.  We just get on with it.”

Scotland by then had a devolved parliament and, at some point, acquired that god ugly parliament building to go with it.  Its politics, at least measured by representation if not necessarily by public opinion or actual votes, drifted more towards the left than England’s and its nationalism changed from something that seemed content to be different within a union to something that would be satisfied only with independence.  Even then, though, only a quarter of the eligible population voted SNP at the Holyrood election – the overall disaffection with the political class reflected in the fact that 45% didn’t vote at all.

And yet, somehow, here we are. That political class seems to have completely misjudged the contempt in which its held by virtually everyone not actually a part of it.  I include within that class pretty much every journalist and commentator in the English media as they all seem to emerge from the same pool.  What should have been an easy victory for the union is now too close to call – although it seems that a the union is the slight favourite.  Every shout from the ‘No’ lobby, so much of it either English accented or from those Scots who do well out of sounding a bit English, seems almost calculated to have enthused the independence supporters.

Salmond, the SNP leader, hasn’t even had to play a particularly smart campaign.  The man who overrides local wishes to make sure Donald Trump gets a golf course, manges to play the same role that teflon-coated Nigel Farage does for Ukip.  And the argument is much the same: under independence Scotland will be led by Scots who know Scotland’s unique circumstances and who will thus act for the good of Scotland.  Don’t trust politicians, says this politician, but vote to give more power to your local politicians.

I call bullshit – but I’d probably still vote for independence.  The United Kingdom is sick and its body politic is perverse.  Its most deprived areas receive the least.  London, the richest area, receives the most public subsidy in all aspects of its life, and has a devolved government to lobby for more public and private investment.  The rest of England gets shat on and fights, without any power, for scraps.  Wales and Scotland are devolved to confusingly different degrees and have used that devolution to create client states.  The least said about a Northern Ireland assembly the better but at least by and large they’re not shooting each other.

And this has all been done because the political class do not trust the people.  We are a union of four nations and countless communities but we are ruled as if we are one giant constituency.  Except for the bits where we’re not which have not been integrated into the whole.  Federalism, which would ensure at least some pretence of democratic representation, is rejected because its fiddly and, worse, European.  So we end up with these bizarre situations where to make the union stronger it is necessary to give bits of it more and more whilst hoping the others don’t get too bitter about it.  And all the while the numbers voting fall because there becomes less and less point.  The UK as it is set up now is unmanageable.

One would have hoped that somebody would have grasped this. That somebody, not the nationalists tied to their flags and whimsical notions of destiny, might have twigged that sorting things out for everyone within a union within a bigger union might have been a better option than umm and ahhing at the sidelines.  But better to shake fists at Brussels or get angry that Aberdeen doesn’t seem very grateful or that that London is a right bastard.

So were I Scottish in Scotland, I’d vote yes.  I’d do so reluctantly.  I’d think about the promises and realise that none of them could be kept in the form they’d been made.  I’d think over the number of times the Scottish (and devolved London) leaders seem to find themselves shaking the hands of disagreeable people.  I’d think that the future would lie in being fit for business and I’d be aware that that will screw over a lot of people.  I’d know all that and I’d still vote yes.  Because, frankly, at the end of the day I’d rather have some semblance of democratic control than none at all.

So, on Friday, morning I may wake up on the south coast to find myself in something called rUK and switch on the news to find people cheering iScotland.  I don’t think I will.  And I don’t think it will matter for us down here.  Our politicians will still not grasp what needs to be done – they will cover up cracks and hope nobody notices.  They may give more powers to Scotland and throw some crumbs Wales’s way.  And come the general election they will care more about drowning out Ukip than on untangling the mess.  And half the country won’t vote, and the sneering columnists will wonder why, some may even tweet a photo of a Pankhurst to make a point.

But the point, after all this waffle is this: whatever Scotland votes the issues that affect the majority in this country called England run a lot deeper than whether I’ll need a passport after my 6.5 hour drive to Gretna Green – and whether Scotland is attached or not the political set-up in the United Kingdom is in no state to meet those issues.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the car.  I hear Duisburg calling.


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Footballers’ lives (in the 80s)

What a splendid idea from the Guardian: home shots of some of the 1980s more famous players surrounded by friends, family, trophies and, in Adrian Heath’s case, washing up.

Trevor Brooking shows that he leads the way in fashion by taking a selfie – is it a collective amnesia that pretends that people didn’t self-portrait with their arms out before camera phones? – Graeme Souness looks like a cross between a Bond villain and the Man from Del Monte, and more crimes are committed against taste, decency and knitwear than seems possible in such a small selection.

The overarching theme though is how comparatively humble they look.  Obviously better than most people could afford at the time but just bigger houses on the same estates (mostly).  These days the same people would be living a very different life.  That’s neither good nor bad, just different.

The whole set is here.

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