Nomaldland scours the American landscape, lifting the rocks and scraping at what clings beneath to survey what’s left behind as the great American Dream rolls across the country.
Blending documentary and scripted drama, Nomadland encapsulates the essence of capitalism with a softer hand than might have taken place in pure documentary format. It tells the story of what happens when a community based around a single enterprise (in this case Gypsum mining) moves on when there’s no more mining to be done. Or as is often the case, the shareholders can no longer rinse huge profits from the enterprise.
Chloé Zhao film doesn’t position the characters as victims of capitalism though. Rather than continually layering despondency on the circumstances they find themselves in, she allows the character we meet (fictional and real) to frame their circumstances as a sort of On the Road for the 21st Century. These are a disconnected informal nation of people who through differing circumstances have fallen out fo the American Dream, but refused to bed down back into it. They take to their camper vans to travel the country: meeting at predetermined locations or drifting off in different directions when it feels like a social situation too reminiscent of what they’ve escaped is forming.
Few (Hollywood) actors could deploy the subtle nuances needed to capture the emotional power of a film like Nomadland. (possibly Kate Winslet, at her best in recent Mare of Eastown?). While Frances McDormand has always been cast as the everywomen of American culture in many roles, the reason is obvious in Nomadland. She represents solid working-class grounded practicalities along with the emotional range to hint at something going on deep within her character, that we can only guess at. Her portrayal of Fern, widow and former substitute teacher, now taking zero-contract jobs in Amazon warehouses or diners takes us from the practical, realistic and empathic engagement with the people she meets on the road, to the merest hint that, either before or since being away from social niceties, she’s become a changed person.
Many of the people she meets are those thrown into their vans by the 2008 financial crash. Their acceptance of their fate could have led to resentment anger and fatalism. Instead, there’s an awakening to the real necessities of life. How much does a person need the latest mobile phone? How vital is it to have ‘things’? To be in possession of the by-products of modern economies always driving forward, almost hysterical desperation to make us consume?
Fern’s sister comments that Fern is living a similar lifestyle to the first (European) settlers in America. But the film’s connection with the past is a tighter loop than that. This is a 20th-century idea of American freedom, out of the city and roaming the great American land.
If Nomadland lacks anything though, it’s some reference to the original owners of the land, and what happens when a new nation travels across the ocean and decides to decimate their land.
In some ways, these Nomads are the American Dream, but the dream of freedom and desire to create a nation based on their own rules and to explore what lays beyond the last house on the last street in the town on the edge of the desert.
Landscapes move in slow time in Harry Macqueen’s Supernova, but it’s always Autumn. It’s always that last glimmer of warmth reflecting off the water’s edge before the seasons change.
Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) are taking one last journey together, visiting family and taking in the Scottish landscape. The leisurely pacing is a sleight of hand, as we come to discover that Tusker has early-onset dementia.
The road trip disconnects them from any assumptions we might layer over their lives, but they have a comfortable, upper-middle-class lifestyle that affords them privileges, but unfortunately not resolves, from a disease that affects at least 42,325 in the UK alone.
Tusker is a successful writer and in another movie, this would have been an excuse to explore the loss of creativity, in Supernova it’s used to demonstrate the loss of a couple’s chance to celebrate each other’s lives. Or to while away time sharing thoughts about the day’s work. Sam is reading one of Tusker’s novels and the scene plays out as though it’s the first time he’s ever encountered the work. There’s that aspect fo the film that suggests these are the moments, in the final months, when you really take a look at someone you love, like it’s the first time. Trying to stare so hard that the eye still retains the after image for the longest time.
When Tusker sits in the garden after a gathering of family and friends, talking to Sam’s goddaughter, he tells her that every particle of her body once belonged to a star, and each particle is from a different star. It’s an attempt to remind us that, even when we’re gone, the things that follow have a mote of our essence in them.
The soundtrack by Keaton Henson ebbs and flows beautifully with the long lingering shots of the Scottish landscape, working in counter-balance to the near stillness of cinematographer Dick Pope’s beautiful lingering shots.
While in other hands, the landscape and the soundtrack could have been heavy-handed foreshadowing, here it feels like a gently laid palette of colours that are used to build the central themes from. We’re not being told what to think at every turn in the road, instead the score backs away and allows the occasional scene its own silent space. When Sam goes outside to gaze up at the stars after the couple have argued about a pivotal revelation in the film, everything withdraws and only the stars and Colin Firth remain, laying on the ground, trying to see the stars as Tusker sees them, or searching for his supernova.
Tucci and Firth’s performance makes the most of the understated acting style of both performers. And the generosity and obvious warmth they have for each other ‘outside of work’ allows each to give focus to the other when needed while being present enough to give each other something to work against and the space to bring their character’s internal dilemma to the surface. This works in often subtle ways that aren’t desperate to prove that this is a gay couple.
That this is a film not ‘about a gay couple’ could be read as either a post-queer cinema or gay cinema for straight people. This might as easily be about a close brotherly friendship playing out. A gentle holding and kiss to the back of a hand (seen through the windshield of the camper van) reveals as much about the first moment this couple fell in love as any dialogue does. The film sidesteps gay culture and struggles and I can’t decide if that good because not every film about a gay couple needs to tell that story, or there still needs to be more stories about the experience of gay couples. Or maybe the film is more mainstream than at first appears and Colin Firth is still open to Mr Darcy roles?
It turns out, that when you drink wine and beer in one session, you want to watch 1950s musicals. Maybe it’s the clash of the two styles and social protocols that go with each drink, perfectly reflecting the strange emotional heft that comes when two (or more) people break into song the moment a far-off piano or string section chimes in?
Maybe it’s the saturated technicolour that Instagram fans (guilty) can only dream of or the co(s)mic self-awareness that our enlightened times might miss (we forget how many of our contemporary jokes are a reworking of decades-old classics. OR maybe It’s the gluten-free beer and 2017 Rioja? And you know what? I’m down with all of those.
Last night we watched Singin’ in the Rain. Made in 1952 and starring Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, playing Cosmo Brown. O’Connor performs a musical number in the film which might be eligible as the saving grace for all the other crimes Hollywood cinema has committed over the years: Make ’em Laugh.
Make ’em Laugh’s slapstick, vaudeville madness has stuck with me over the years as firmly as any teen band discovery made as I emerged from my early teens into the self-concious seriousness of goth/industrial bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and Psychick TV. While some of those gags (walking through a door into a brick wall: classic), may seem twee and obvious now, it’s worth remembering that back in the 50s, these may have been the first time some of those jokes were seen outside of musical halls.
Classic songs and achingly perfect dance routines melt into one long escapist ride. And while the Inception-like state of the narrative goes into over-drive when Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly dance in the Broadway Melody sequence, the whole story perfectly suits the chopped up reality that is the bread and butter of musicals.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, made in 1953, directed by Howard Hawkes. From a novel by Anita Loos. A crashing amalgam of so many thoughts on the male gaze versus the power of women in the Hollywood film industry and who, ultimately, owns that power. Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe star. Again, awareness of the public image of the stars plays out, especially in the courtroom scene where Jane Russell fakes being Monroe for… reasons? Breathy and dumb, it’s hard to think that Monroe wasn’t in on the joke. But such is the cruelty of Hollywood that the premiere could have been the first time she saw the scene.
Much has been written on the power structures within the movie and who controls who. My money is on the women controlling and using the power they have in 50s western culture. Mostly, the men are played as dumb, horny and gullible. The Jane Russell sequence where she sings while the Olympic gymnast team balance, dive and… errr… do callisthenics(?) is a beautiful (back)flip on the standard sexy backing singers routines.
Unlike 1950s musicals, blog posts don’t always have satisfactory ending.
Ideas of Noise festival is still a low key new(ish) entry to the musical calendar of the Midlands. I only discovered it at the last minute due to Supersonic festival posting on Instagram from the Experimental Writing on Experimental Music workshop on the Friday (I nearly wept, realising I’d missed that workshop!). Hence, this is less a round-up of the whole festival and more a snapshot of the three main bands I managed to catch on the Saturday evening.
Ideas of Noise festival is how I imagine Miles Davis would have sounded, if he’d lived long enough to own a MacBook. A line of thought that leads to the realisation that anyone who complains that electronic musicians spend too much of the gig head down over the laptop forget what it was like to watch a jazz drummer lost in a near fugue state, following a beat down a rabbit hole.
Anna Palmer, also of Dorcha brings her box of archive tricks and live vocals to the stage for a set that ebbs and flows between harmonic and overflowing chaos (this being an avant-festival, it’s the good kind of chaos). The sounds come thick and fast, tasters of ideas and potential future avenues of exploration. What Palmer dishes out in half an hour (more or less) other bands would make several albums of. Mixing live vocals and archived sounds, we’re taken down several possible avenues, where we root around and uncover hidden gems before ending on a wave of beautifully sung lyrics. Occasionally she brings a live guitar into the mix which, to my ears at least, added a noise/funk vibe to one track midway through the set.
Gonimoblast Duo plays as a stripped-down version of Chris Mapp’s usual five piece band. Bass player Chris being joined by Birmingham-based Annie Mahtami, composer and sound artist for this gig. Imagine being lured down a back alley and discovering an abandoned flying saucer. That’s what this set felt like. We slowly rise up on slow melodious soundscapes and the audience lose themselves in reverie. Playing comfortably within acceptable musical and sonic boundaries for the first half of the set, the two-piece lure you in. Then you discover the hidden sonic torture chamber. Judging by the thumbs up two gents in the audience gave each other as a high pitched sonic wave crashed on to the shores of our inner minds (and inner ears), this is the room we were searching for all along. Eventually we touch back down to earth, returning to the harmonious rhythms again. Gonimoblast Duo Deliver a solid set that feels like you’ve been to alpha centauri and reluctantly brought back to Earth.
Strobes, being keyboardist Dan Nicholls (Squarepusher, Vula Viel), drummer Dave Smith (Robert Plant, Outhouse) and Matt Calvert (Three Trapped Tigers) on guitar and synthesisers. Strobes, bounce into the high notes and keep us there in a whirligig of playful semi-improvisation that belies their complex melodies. We’re hit with a funk groooove (extra ‘o’s intentional) that has a taste all of their very own making. Cranking up the reverb and the crashing drums, they’re the perfect end to the Saturday night. Echo from the output fills the room and then cuts to a funk bassline stirring the audience and working magic on our hips as we run over the 11 o’clock finish time.
Ideas of Noise is still a small, intimate sort of festival nestled in he Edge, an artists’ space in Birmingham with some events at Vivid Projects, just over the road at Minerva Works. Go while it still feels like a unique, exclusive discovery; but tell all your friends, because it deserves to be discovered by everyone.
Resident advisor has just posted a short piece about artists pulling out of Resonate festival in Belgrade, Serbia. It doesn’t come as a great surprise. The emotion is closer to disappointment, but not in the artists.
Artists don’t become such for the big money. It’s a career choice that is a gamble on hopefully earning enough to be comfortable at best, survive at the very least. Along with that frail economy comes a certain amount of trust and mutual support. Digital arts are a small subset of the broader art world and as such, the community is smaller. Which is why the Serbian festival always had such potential as a community building space, and felt like it could do something different from, say, Ars Electronica or Transmediale.
Resonate has always been small enough that you could fall into discussions with artists at the edges of the festival, yet large enough that you could lose yourself for a couple of hours of contemplation in the reasonably large crowds attending the talks and performances. It felt like the kind of festival that was exactly the size that you needed it to be, depending on where you were in your creative practice.
Having attended five years of the festival, I’d grown to love it the way you love an old family cat that still likes a cuddle but won’t stop shitting all over your new furniture. At the core of every complaint from attendees was the organisational incontinence that resulted in chaos if you hadn’t reached the point where, like my group of fellow attendees, you could throw your hands up in the air and laughingly say, “Welcome to Serbia!” Which was how a box office official greeted us one year when we turned up in plenty of time to collect our passes, only to find they had closed an hour or so earlier for no apparent reason. But like the family pet, we persisted in trying to show it love, despite the shit getting everywhere.
Eventually, after the 2017 festival, rumours started to circulate about non-payment to artists and it became harder to ignore as time went on. Remember, this is a smallish coterie of artists across the globe. If you know say, five artists at a festival, then you’re probably only one removed from the rest of them. These are people who are often friends and, at the least, potential work colleagues of the future. Besides which, who wants to see workers not being paid for their hard graft? The rumours turned into conversations about whether it was right to attend or to show solidarity for those who hadn’t been paid. Eventually, many of us fell on the side of solidarity with colleagues and friends and agreed we weren’t attending this year. Personally, I was undecided until almost two weeks before when I had a conversation with an artist who I had attended the festival with every year (in fact, they were one of the two artists who had introduced me to the festival). I think we made the right decision to not attend this year.
Where does that leave the future for Resonate? Maybe, just maybe, they will remember where all those unpaid invoices were kept (in the same drawer as the British government keep the Windrush generation’s landing cards)? And maybe the organisers can turn things around and come back stronger next year with a cheque book, some solid event organisers and still find some artists who trust them. Personally, I’d happily go back to the festival. I’ve discovered some great artists and musicians, met some amazing people and had a great time at the various nightspots in the city. And yet. And yet, despite all the love and affection I have for the old family pet, sometimes you just have to take it out to the backyard and say your fond farewells.
There would appear, despite claims of the opposite, to be a steady flow of engaging, imaginative art events around/in Coventry of late, that confound and challenge expectations. One organisation at the forefront of making that happen is Ludic Rooms: the Coventry-based digital arts organisation headed by Creative Director, Dom Breadmore and Associate Producer Anne Forgan.
Past events have included hosting the Random String symposium, bringing together world-class digital art practitioners to discuss and share ideas, and insights into their practice. This year, in lieu of the symposium, they have dialled things down. Friday night we shuffled cautiously into the Goose Nest, a temporary space at Warwick Arts Centre that seemed to be built from plywood, to watch a show by PIPS:lab.
Inside was a traditional theatre performance space: dark stage, traditional raked seating. Which is probably where tradition ends. The stage was littered with various bits of technology which the Amsterdam-based organisation make no attempt to hide. Instead of trying to hide the gadgets PIPS:lab opt to reveal and expose the audience to the software and the equipment, to invite people to question their complicity in a world where everything we do online is fodder for the data farmers to sell to marketing departments.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what a PIPS:lab event is, and even in the post- show Q&A this became more obvious. Instead of being pinned to any particular mode of expression, they talked about the multiple aspects of what they do and how it feeds into what we had just seen. The team, in fact, are made of of people from different disciplines, including theatre practitioners, programmers, musicians and videographers. This multi-discipline approach reflects something fundamental about the people using digital technology over the past few years. As the knowledge needed to access the means of digital production has shifted from computer science skills, to broader, one might say everyday skills, many of us have the ability to craft from the building blocks of software and hardware. Or at least, the entry ramp is easier to climb. The shiny spectacle of technology has started to fade into the background, and the need for broader human narrative has filtered in. Something that the RSC attempted with their recent production of The Tempest, with mixed results.The RSC show felt like they had opted for sensory overload, but it still came down to good performance to sell us the story. Rather than being drowned out by the electronics, groups like PIPS:lab allow the technology to shift around them and allow for error and (that over abused phrase in the arts) playfulness.
Shadows in the Clouds, the show PIPS:lab performed on the night, looks at how willing we are to surrender our data. In this case, our visual data. With volunteers from the audience, they used motion capture cameras and scanners to capture body shapes, colours and micro-performance elements of the volunteers. These were then used to fashion a short sci-fi film as the final performance of the evening.
There’s a beautifully simplistic, almost retro feel to the imagery ofShadows in the Clouds. The lo-fi feel, probably a result of the need to render in real time. But it suits the performance. We aren’t here for the latest Marvel blockbuster. It’s the interaction and the humour of working live that engages the audience, not the awe and shock of CGI.
That audience was a mix of school kids and curious adults, PIPS:lab may have emerged from the “dark corners of the underground Amsterdam party scene” but their shows are fully child-friendly and intellectually accessible without playing down to people. They want you to leave the theatre smiling, thinking and less afraid to question your complicit surrendering to the technology that we all carry around in our pockets every day.
Things not mentioned in this review: Cabaret Voltaire, Expanded Cinema, Jane Horrocks, Malcolm LeGrice, Live Coding, BFI cocktail lounge, eroticism.
As part of their Sonic Cinema strand, Friday 9th brought Wrangler, Tash Tung and Jessica and Mica Levi to Screen 1 of the BFI for The Unfilmables. As a concept, the premise of The Unfilmables is simple enough: what if someone made a version of those great classic unmade scripts? The introduction text references David Lynch’s Return of the Jedi, which surely would have been the greatest Star Wars of all time, along with the more well known unmade version of Dune from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Again, an unmade version that would have been infinitely better than any of the all too literal translations to screen that have been made so far (even Lynch’s feels as though it lost something, at least by the time it was in the editing room). So it was that Colm McAuliffe, Creative Producer, and Lisa Rook, Director of Live Cinema U.K. along with Tim Brown of CineCity Brighton brought us The Unfilmables: two films, two live musical scores.
Francesca Levi‘s particularly British version of Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates reinterprets the obscure biography of the Armenian ashug Sayat-Nova (King of Song) as a British classic in the vein of the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s (which included Lindsay Anderson amongst its practitioners). Francesca Levi’s film is a trip to Blackpool (on a National Express coach, according to Francesca’s introduction on the night). But this version is half nightmarish dive into repeated motifs of tarot readings and amusement arcade scenes mixed with window shots of passing landscapes. Its lo-fi production values ground the film in a cinéma-vérité reality that defies the shine and polish of many mobile phone videos that haunt our social media streams. This lowered production aesthetic sidesteps any contemporary faux nostalgia trips that might have been otherwise made by the use of contemporary mobile technology and Instagram filters.
All of this was shown to a live score by Francesca’s sister Mica, who has been carving out a name as the composer of some of the most unnerving and beatific soundtracks of recent years. Her work on Under the Skin and Jackie, proving her understanding of the complexities of filmic scoring that might not have always been an obvious departure for one third of the group Micachu and the Shapes. A departure from the familiar sounds of those two soundtracks for The Colour of Chips, Mica mixed an actor’s voice playing the role of fortuneteller with what may have been field recordings from the filming, with electronic fluctuations across a range of rhythms and beats. This combined with the Colour of Chips video to create a mad, sprawling exploration of colour and tradition, with one audience member claiming that they really wanted to visit Blackpool now. A vision of tourist boards across the U.K. hiring experimental filmmakers and electronica outfits seems to be just crazy enough to work, post-Brexit!
In the interval Creative Producer, Colm McAuliffe alerted the audience to the shortness of the break but that anyone who was a fan of stray electronic frequencies should stick around while Wrangler set up. He had us at stray, frankly.
London-based Tash Tung, who has worked on videos for Gazelle Twin, Hannah Peel and Wrangler presented her reading (‘interpretation’ seems to Hollywood reimagineering for The Unfilmables) of screenwriter Clair Noto’s unproduced sci-fi/horror film, The Tourist. Noto’s script was set in 80s Manhattan, following Grace Ripley, one of a small group of exiled aliens living on Earth. The script nearly came to production a few times, and you can find H.R. Giger’s concept art on the Internet, along with a lengthy essay about the film and Noto’s experiences. After flapping around in pre-production hell in a story that would make its own great movie, it finally settled into the dust of cinema legend, despite featuring aliens having sex in Manhattan nightclubs. How could this have been left unmade?
Tung’s version of the movie strips everything back down to pure abstracted narrative, with the text of the original script appearing in a stark black strip near the top of the screen. Even with Stephen Mallinder of Wrangler, reading the script, we’re given very few narrative clues to the structure of the film. What we do get is the flow of imagery that gives Tash Tung’s work its individual take on the Ballardian aesthetic (Her work on Gazelle Twin’s Kingdom Come, with Chris Turner, particularly brought that aspect of her work to the fore). Tung’s film is a sweaty, erotic dive into the untapped potential of the original story. Anyone who has ever found themselves alienated and out of place in a nightclub will already recognise the feeling of unease that the film brings to the fore. Meanwhile, the live visual mixing by Dan Conway, (taking to the stage, flanked by Wrangler on the other side), did nothing to ease the sense of dread that rises in the pit of the stomach while watching the film, as he ‘Brion Gysin-ed’ the film as it played.
After releasing two albums over the past four years, Wrangler have devoted this year to live soundtrack work. As well as supplying the music and script reading for The Tourist, they contribute the soundscape/soundtrack to Cotton Panic, later this year at the Manchester International Festival. The soundtrack for The Tourist references the heavy beats of a club night but with enough sonic overlaying to please even the hardiest electronica fan. My only criticism would be that Wrangler is a band that should never sit down to play their music.
The Unfilmables is the antidote to anyone who worries that too many terrible scripts are being made into multi-million dollar (and it is invariable dollars) blockbusters, while potential greats go unmade. But it’s a bold step to create these two films. There’s untapped potential in a script never going into production that can have more energy stored within it, like a coiled spring, cranking up unrealised expectation, than the fully fleshed out version we get presented with. To respond to those films, to hold a particularly British mirror to Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates, and to breath life into Clair Noto’s The Tourist, could have been awkward and uncomfortable to have sat through. As it is, these two films and the live music performances show that British experimental cinema is still a strong force of creativity and inspiration for younger filmmakers and musicians looking to forge a path beyond the narrow lanes of the multiplex.
Artists talk about creative practice, so I guess I could call my involvement with the art world critical practice? Then I’d say it’s about evolving forms of critical engagement with the arts. So this is part of that critical practice then. Here’s a short documentary I produced and finally published this week.
This was a great chance to catch up with the artist, Hollis who I’d only spoken to via Facebook and email before, and who I knew through some shared music interests. We had a great day together filming and chatting about everything in general. For me, what was nice about this video is that it became a good collaboration piece, where we shared ideas back and forth. For example, I couldn’t get copyright clearance on my first choice for the soundtrack, so we tried some options. Firstly mine, then this final track by Hollis himself. What made the process work was that we were both comfortable telling each other what we did or didn’t like about each other’s choices. Anyway, hope you enjoy the video.
Art, as we all know, attempts to reflect our universe back to us, through a (hopefully) shattered mirror. Superimposed over that mirror, is of course, also a reflection of the artist. In what we can only assume is a pastiche/homage to the blighted concept of artist genius, from the late 19th, early 20th Century, they have their finger on the mystic pulse of modern life. Don’t they?
That’s why we have to honour them and give them freedom to pursue ideas and challenge the status quo, free of the constraints that hold the rest of us plebs in check. Why can’t we all be given an arts council funding for one project, at least? Maybe it should be like maternity/paternity cover? Granting creative freedom to everyone beyond the art world may well result in chaos and utter anarchy – keep up the good work, Arts Council. Implicit in that gift of freedom to artists is of course the unspoken promise that they’ll continue to point out that the world is exactly how we imagined it all along, while we all pretend they’re upsetting the Tory apple cart. Who ever left a gallery or performance and really felt they’d had their world view changed? Exhibitions are nothing more than Trump rallies, riling up the already indoctrinated.
In an era when even COUM are considered worthy of Hull City of Culture support and appear on the BBC News (celebrated, this time, rather than vilified – take that, avant-garde), it seems the only person capable of truly winding people up continues to be old punks like John Lydon, who in a recent interview declared Trump was a good guy. How rude!
“What I dislike is the left-wing media in America are trying to smear the bloke as a racist and that’s completely not true.
“There are many, many problems with him as a human being but he’s not that and there just might be a chance something good will come out of that situation because he terrifies politicians.” – John Lydon
Lydon doesn’t play the accepted narrative we’ve assigned to him, the wanker! Somewhere along the way, we’ve assumed he’s a liberal, Guardian reading, pinko arts lover like the rest of us. He’s the Kate Bush of the 70s. But so is Kate Bush, come to think of it. Why do we struggle so much when artists don’t do as we demand of them, and yet we ask them to think outside of the box and strategise beyond our generic, corporate lives. No wonder they’re confused and struggling to apply for grants.
The art world isn’t nearly full of enough wankers right now: but remember, you get the artists your times deserve. Welcome to your new conservatism.