Nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown – Nomadland

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.

Slow time in Macqueen’s Supernova

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.

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in Macqueen’s Supernova

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?

A culture clash of one

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.

Is it time to put down the family cat?

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.

Where are all the art world wankers?

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?

Kate and Johnny 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.

katebushIn 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.

A soundtrack for the dying light of contemporary dreams – Mica Levi’s Jackie.

Jackie-1-620x620There are no uplifting, emotional highpoints in Mica Levi’s soundtrack for director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie. As you might imagine from the composer of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (2013), Mica Levi’s compositions are as much about the unseen, unspoken, as they are about those gleaming gravity wells of emotion that filmmakers work so hard to draw us towards. In Jackie, Levi finds space to further explore those spaces and the subject matter gives over to it so well.

As with Jackie Kennedy’s own, post-assasination life, there’s no release from the existential pain of loss here, and even Tears, at, 54 seconds, refuses to give in to the weight of human suffering. As though it would be too human to reveal emotions for too long. On Walk to the Capital, s the strings suggest a nation sobbing around Jackie, even as she refuses to release her grip on her stoicism under public scrutiny.

The stageplay of Camelot (by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe), starring Richard Burton, was a favourite of the Kennedys. They often played it at the end of the day and in many ways it became a symbol of the Kennedy era. As the only other music in the film, this 1960s soundtrack should feel at odds with the contemporary Mica Levi: yet it feels appropriately juxtaposed with her drone-like compositions. Perhaps this is because there is a subtle hint of the strings from that musical echoed in Empty White House track. The final track on the album, Credits, has short xylophone motifs running through it, hinting again at the Camelot references.

None of which is to say that Levi has merely paid homage to another soundtrack. This is music very much rooted in the performances of the film and echo so much of the underplayed emotional range that Natalie Portman uses in the title role. As has been hinted at elsewhere, as much as the soundtrack is an emotion guide to the film, in the mode of more traditional soundtracks, this one is very definitely a character with a protagonist’s in the film.

It would come as no surprise if Levi’s next soundtrack was for a film set in outer space, (but perhaps one directed by Cronenberg?) Her sliding, drone-esque work marks out the spaces and distances that exist between ourselves and every other human being. The gulf that means we’ll never truly connect, just as Jackie Kennedy in the film never truly connects with anyone else: children, friends or otherwise. Despite there being an intellectual pleasure to be taken from enjoying the Jackie soundtrack, there’s no easy answers for anyone looking for escapism. If Jackie seems to hint at the dying light of one brief moment that was Camelot, it’s hard to imagine a more relevant film and soundtrack for the rise of fascism in Trump’s current Presidency. While some old rockers look to guitar heroes for songs of rebellion, maybe Mica Levi’s strings are the better accompaniment to our dying light of contemporary dreams?

Mica Levi’s Jackie is available from

Resonate 2015

Festivals can be lonely events. Whether you’re knee deep in the back end of a tight crowd of music lovers, or sitting listening to a band twisting electronics and drawing out notes that have no right to exist in someone’s throat. Ultimately, all you have are your own thoughts reflected back at you. So it’s important to make sure you find the right stimulation to trigger those thoughts. Resonate does the job, taking place in Belgrade, Serbia: a city with enough architectural glitches and emerging potential to please any digital creative with a passing interest in the haunted spaces of the future past.

Mixing hands-on workshops with talks and live music events in the evenings, it can feel like a hack-fest or hipster party at times. Like many parties, this one is often a slightly shambolic affair. A point that can both endear and infuriate attendees.

All that aside, this year’s festival showed some real signs of leaping forward and getting to grips with its place in the media arts landscape. For one thing, there’s the first official festival exhibition.

The workshops are the thing which gives the festival its focus on creators, rather than, say, curators or critics. Hands on opportunities to work with a range of the more well known figures in the digital world.

Resonate 2015's main venue boasts a wide selection of black balloons.
Resonate 2015’s main venue boasts a wide selection of black balloons.

Joanie Lemercier and Juliette Bibasse’s workshop on manipulating light to transform reality, took attendees on a journey to discover the mechanisms of our visual perception, coupled with the possibilities of using coding to manipulate reality. In other words, transforming “physical 3D and 2D objects into canvases with an artistic approach.” Elsewhere in the elegant, slick architectural space of Belgrade’s Kinoteka, Andreas Müller was hosting his brilliantly named, “I am a one trick pony, come and learn my trick!” workshop. The blurb promised: “This workshop consists of concrete examples of how to use noise to achieve your dreams, or failing that, make things real pretty.” More power to humour in the digital arts.

Anything that name-checks Guy Debord wins my support, and so it goes with James George and Alexander Porter, with their Exquisite City workshop lasting a full three days. Students captured 3D data scans of buildings using photogrammetry. This information was then joined together to create an virtual city block. The Exquisite City idea, building from the ideas of psychogeography and the practice of Dérive to create a digital exquisite corpse ( an idea originally devised by the surrealists). The final result was like Heironymus Bosch had discovered World of Warcraft.

Curated by Nora O’ Murchú, the exhibition at G12 Hub gallery, The New Black presented pieces from Alexander Porter, Eva Papamargariti, FIELD, Isabella Streffen, NORMALS in collaboration with V3GA, Rick Silva and Sabrina Ratté. The work was a response to a narrative written by O’ Murchú, looking at the alienation of the worker, particularly in the creative industries, where there can often be a blurring of the line between work time and non-work time, when the tools for both are the same artefact. Some of the work in The New Black explores this potential psychosis. A thoughtfully curated exhibition, where the subtlety of work such as Kim Asendorf’s piece is a reminder that the digital doesn’t have to overwhelm and bombard the viewer, to have meaning.

On the official opening night, the music comes from, amongst others Lichen. Ricocheting his sonic sweeps and zen-like audio compositions across the cavern-like ceiling of Drugstore. One of the delights of Resonate is their ability to find the most obscure location for gigs. Drugstore is a seemingly abandoned venue, above what may have been a warehouse or a market place (the outside was almost pitch black on the night) entered up a long metal staircase on the outside. Senyawa deliver what could only be described as an invocation of demons from some obscure hell portal via Rully Shabara’s throat.

Work from The New Black exhibitionDom Omladine, the city’s most formal music location, seemed incredibly tame by comparison on the other nights. Olga Bell and Emika taking up the cause for women in electronic music (is that even a thing worth mentioning still?). Both of whom also gave talks during the festival.

If you’ve heard Blixa Bargeld’s adverts for the German DIY company Hornbach knows the man has gravitas and vocal scope equal to any German actor (let’s not mention Klaus Kinski). So it’s no surprise that, as the headline act on closing night, the only instrument he has is his voice and a delay machine, and excellent sound man. Taking us out from Earth, across the solar system in a gradual building of Bargeld-made sounds, the result was impressive to say the least.

Fennesz & Lillevan, by comparison, felt like such a mainstream performance, despite the guitar work, electronics and impressive visuals. There’s a lot there but at times, and this is true of much electronica that makes use of guitars, it borders occasionally on prog-rock tropes. Lenhart Tapes, with a mixture of loops, muslim chants and again heavy-metal guitar tropes, is more fun and free, attempting to crash everything together and see what comes out.

Resonate’s development is also the growth and expansion of the digital arts scene. At times chaotically organised and under-funded, it still maintains an air of enthusiasm and self-awareness, always willing to embrace newcomers.

Resonate takes place every year during April, in Belgrade, Serbia.

Good wholesome loveliness – Sleaford Mods at Zephyr Lounge

If John Cooper Clark and The Streets had a baby that was raised by Mark Fisher-reading anarcho-punks, it would probably grow up to form the Sleaford Mods.

Sleaford Mods at the Zephyr Lounge, Leamington Spa put on a great show. There’s two support acts with enough distance between their styles to remind you that we live in an era where it’s okay to choose your music references and go on to create your own sound, without having to first decide which counter-culture tribe you’re going to fit into.  Anyway, the first support act work the growing crowd. Of which, there’s enough people to remind you that Leamington has some good underground music fans that can get there early enough to enjoy everything on offer. Either that or there were only early buses? The second act, Purple are something entirely different. In a good way (aside: jailbait).

In the same way that to try to understand the riots of a few years ago as purely outpouring of political unrest, is to miss the basic attraction of pure chaos, so it is that focussing on the swearing in the lyrics of Sleaford Mods is to miss the point that there’s also some clever  social/political observation shenanigans going on.  Both exist in comfortable co-existence. Not necessarily layered, which would suggest that one builds on the other but intertwined and building each other up. Additionally, the swearing feels like a welcome relief and counterpoints the arch observational irony of the lyrics. Of course, lead singer Jason Williamson, in stage persona at least, would argue against any kind of analysis of the band as a critic just trying too hard. Unfortunately, this also makes the band brilliantly perfect for the second decade of the 21st Century. Music wise, you can’t help but dance along. The sound is familiar, but not sampled, with beats but not quite dance music.

A Sleaford Mods gig feels like a riot about to happen. There’s a blokeish tension in the air and plenty of middle-aged, ex-punks who know how to kick off if it needs it. Except they (we?) need to be fit enough in the morning to get up and go to work. These gig tickets don’t pay for themselves you know. But that’s okay, it’s a relief to know that there’s new bands coming along that can inspire that emotion. And for all the Red Stripe drinking, cocaine chopping, fist pumping masculinity that fuels the air, on and off stage, (it’s a timely reminder that blokeish doesn’t mean Jeremy Clarkson), there’s something for everyone.

No matter what you hear about a Mods gig, and no matter how polarising the responses are, it’s important to remember that they’re also sweaty, clean fun. You’ll leave deaf, danced out and laughing. They’ve got more in common with One Direction than they realise.


Jan Svankmajer films at Ikon

Great to see some Jan Švankmajer films at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery this week. The Czech filmmaker’s work was being shown as part of the Behind the Curtain Festival, currently running up until tomorrow (29th November), so you’ll have to be quick! I only made it to the Jan Švankmajer films, but they were great.

When you watch a selection of Jan Švankmajer films, you can immediately identify the strong influence he’s cast over animation. There’s the obvious Terry Gilliam influences, but there’s also that cultural influence that, if you’re old enough, I guess, you can feel that quirky stop-motion influence in so much of children’s animations from the sixties onwards. And of course, if you do get a chance to see any of them (away from YouTube) then don’t be put off by the idea that they’re surrealist works. They much less po-faced and fun than you might imagine art-house animations could be. We all laughed.

Also, Ikon, please put aside some money for heating the place in the evenings.