A rainbow over rugby (town)

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014 - All rights reserved

There was a debate about whether the chips might come with gravy (they did not to us but apparently special favours can be granted) and about whether the absent Rugby Town goalkeeper really does have a broken toe (unresolved) but what there could be no debate about was that this was a match that poets would have called The Game of the Four Rainbows.

This is half of one of them.  We were heading towards full time and I was back in the main stand.  The one that has the letters “VS” in dark blue against the sky blue of the rest of the block.  VS standing for Valley Sports – Rugby Town’s former name.  The fans still yell “Come on Valley” when feeling particularly exasperated.  They did that a bit today what with their team fluffing a lead twice and almost blowing the game entirely.  2-2 was the final score.

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Film review: Under the Skin

under-the-skin-620x229Reviewing Under the Skin is not a simple thing to do.  It’s a mainstream film that’s more arthouse than a dozen festival entries.  It has a Hollywood star who blends into the Glasgow background.  And it’s adapted from a novel whose plot it barely acknowledges.  In short, we’re dealing with something out of the ordinary.

There is a novel called Under the Skin.  It’s by Michel Faber and should I ever be on Desert Island Discs it will be on the shortlist for inclusion.  A very hard novel to describe, although the Wikipedia entry does a pretty good job, it is one of those whose essential themes and observations stay with you long after the details of the plot have lost their clarity.  Which is just as well as this adaptation takes very little of the plot and leaves us instead with some of the observations and a lot of the eerie and enigmatic interaction between the alien and the human, and the natural world around them, as well as adding a few more layers in between.  To say this is a marmite film would imply marmite had never divided opinion – as an indicator, on Amazon there are 80 five star reviews and 100 one star reviews, with hardly any in between.

The film is set mostly in Glasgow and Scarlett Johannson is our female protagonist.  She abducts lonely and alone men and then, in a ritual more at home in a modern dance production, they are killed whilst nakedly anticipating sex.  But, wordlessly, she is drawn more to the wonder and beauty of the Highlands and to the other things that make life worth living including, but not limited to, a black forest gateau in a quaint hotel.  The story, such as it is, does not end well.  Too much empathy for humanity means no abductions.  Our heroine is doomed, but we pretty much knew that from the start.

Where the film really does triumph is in the direction of ‘real life’ and its soundtrack.  Glasgow’s working class streets are rarely shown and even more rarely are they populated by actual people.  People who are not judged but who are just getting on and whose lives are, genuinely, worthy of intrigued exploration.  This is all very cleverly done by Jonathan Glazer.  The use of strong-accented natives is presumably a way of increasing the disconnect, especially when Johannson talks in straightforward RP.  The music to accompany this is striking in its apparent simplicity.

There is also a strong performance from Johannson.  If you said ‘she uses her body’ you’d think it’d be all lingering shots like a reprise of Lost in Translation.  You would be wrong.  Yes, she does use her body and yes, it is all on display.  But there can’t be many occasions when a genuine Hollywood beauty has had that beauty framed so prosaically or whose increase in wonder at the natural world has been done so tenderly, so subtly.  It is restrained, it is the reason to watch.

But, overall, is this a five star or a one star film?  The problem these days is so few films like Under the Skin make it anywhere near the mainstream.  This isn’t the 1970s when experimentation and weirdness was allowable.  Nobody wants subtle aliens observing snatches of life and then staring at a tree for a bit.  Even if the pay-off for that is the kind of emotional ending that is only possible in wordless art.

So, there’s nothing to compare it against.  Not really.  I’d give it five stars for trying and because I really want there to be more out there like this.  But I don’t think it works totally and I don’t think it’s as well realised as its source novel.  Faber’s work has enough to keep you going back but having seen the film once I’ve no need to see it again.  The direction is clever, the photography and acting top drawer but what’s missing is the thing that our protagonist also lacks: depth.  There is not enough under that skin.

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At the De La Warr Pavilion: One Archive, Three Views

Leonard Freed, Women’s Liberation March at City Hall, NYC, 1970 © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos

Magnum is possibly the only photographic agency that anybody not particularly interested in photography stands an outside chance of having heard about.  Formed in 1947 and focusing primarily on the human interest side of reportage and documentary its pre-digital archive has 68,000 prints covering the span from its foundation to the internet.  From that vast collection three people have been asked to select images that bring out specific areas of interest.  The result is this excellent exhibition at the constantly engaging De La Warr Pavilion.

Elizabeth Edwards (historian and anthropologist according to the notes) is the only one to clearly itemise her selection.  We get ‘Viewpoints’, ‘Anxieties and Pleasures’, ‘Watching’ and ‘Absorption’.  The distinctions are a little arbitrary and some prints could clearly be in any of the four sections.  What Edwards does well is show how human passions cross the class divides of post-war Britain.  That Magnum way of capturing individual and collective emotions really does come through strongly in this opening third.

The next section has been chosen by photographer Hannah Starkey.  The opening image is a self portrait by Eve Arnold.  Already this feels different.  Arnold’s shot is not reportage in the way that what has gone before is.  It is a hidden moment revealed by photography.  And that, in some way, is Starkey’s motivation.  She uses the archive to show a narrative of women’s era. It is a very engaging selection and perhaps the one out of the three that would reward multiple viewings.

The final portion is curated by artist Uriel Orlow.  His concern is the people on the margins – best summed up by possibly the most striking image in the whole exhibition: Philip Jenes Griffiths’ shot of marines landing on a beach in Vietnam – immediately in front of three local young women who watch with various levels of interest whilst they sunbathe.  Again, the standard is high, and the images beautiful in their documentary black and white way.

All in all this is a very smart way of enabling what could be a tired archive – Oh look, dear, it’s another Chris Steele-Perkins shot, I wonder if it’s Blackpool beach again – to be seen again with fresh eyes.  It is revelatory. And at the bargain price of completely free it is well worth a diversion to Bexhill to see.

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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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