Thursday 22 December 2011

When I was a kid, about seven or eight, so around 1977 or 1978, I asked my Dad what the future would be like.

I remember his answer clearly as just after he’d finished telling me we had an accident.

We were driving out of Barrow-in-Furness and into the Lake District at the time, along what’s known as the Coast Road. This must have been in August because it was a beautiful day and because the shipyard had a fixed holiday in August every year known as “Vickers' Fortnight”, two weeks when the Yard closed down. The car we were in was rented, we never owned one, my parents perceiving them as a waste of money. Why would anyone really need a car in a town the size of Barrow-in-Furness?

I don’t know why I chose this particular moment to ask, certainly I had lots of questions about the future I was growing up into and, even as a child, a sort of melancholy that there were all kinds of things I wouldn’t live long enough to see, life on other planets, immortality, robots, space travel. Though now, as an adult, it feels as though these things are really possible within my lifetime. On reflection, this confluence, my father’s optimistic description of the future everyone believed to be over the horizon, our little working class family in its rented car going off on a day trip and the car that came swinging round the far bend, windshield glittering in the mid-day sun, and onto our side of the road seems too perfect to have been real. Nonetheless, it happened.

The future, my dad explained to me, would be The Leisure Society. We currently lived in what was called The Affluent Society and this would be the next stage in the forward progress of mankind. As technology and automation reduced the need for people to work and as things became more efficient and durable, so we would shift to being primarily consumers of goods and services: we would work less because we would have fewer needs in some ways. His example was the light bulb. In the future you would have light-bulbs that lasted indefinitely, meaning that you would buy one in a lifetime and that built-in-disposability would become a thing of the past. Freed from onerous work we would concentrate on the higher things, no doubt, poetry, love, the cultivation of interpersonal relationships and so on. You may well say, on reflection, that my father was naive, but this was a broadly held notion at the time, that technology was liberating and fundamentally, would liberate us from work. The machines would suffer for us, they would produce vastly more than we could manage to and we would live on the fruit of their labour.

I was thrilled to hear this of course, as a seven year old who had been past the Shipyard that seemed to be most people in the town’s destiny numerous times and seen the men coming in and out, heard the whistle in the morning that meant that work had started, the whistles at dinner time and at the end of the day, who lived and went to school near the vast, noisy sheds that dominated the road into the town. My dad didn’t like work, no-one liked it as far as I could tell and to be told that it might slowly evaporate as I grew toward it, minimising and reducing year on year until I was free of it all together lifted a lid off the future. The sun was streaming in through the car windows, the sky was vast and turquoise blue, we were on holiday and I was sitting on the edge of the back seat, straight-backed, bolt upright with attention. My dad was perhaps as caught up in this vision of what was to come as I was and this is why, perhaps, he didn’t see the oncoming car until it was almost too late.

Suddenly we were swerving wildly to the left as the other vehicle cut across the white line and into a potential head-on collision, the hedgerow came whipping in through the open window, the tyres bumping and rattling, there was a tremendous thud as the other car went into the left side of us, sent the moulded plastic ashtray that they used to fix into car doors in the Seventies leaping across the backseat and into my lap.

The other car pulled back to the right and then accelerated away. My dad made a U-turn after a few moments of recovering from the impact and checking we were all OK, then, much to my  excitement, set off in pursuit. but the car eventually disappeared among the back roads and in the end, after protests from my mum, he gave up.

What happened on the rest of the day I can’t remember, probably we drove out somewhere in the Lakes and had a picnic, I swam, or threw a Frisbee around with my sister, or read a comic in the sun.

 But despite the unprecedented shock of the accident and the drama of the chase, still, it wasn’t quite enough to wipe away that image of the future my father gave me.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Robert Altman's 3 Women, Peter Weir's The Last Wave, Francis Bacon's Landscape and a conversation in a hotel in 1978

“See the cliffs again, be again between the cliffs and the sea, reeling shrinking with your hands over your ears, headlong, innocent, suspect, noxious” - Beckett

Concierge: Good evening sir, how was tonight’s event?

Screenwriter: …

Concierge: Sir?

Screenwriter: I had the worst conversation with a woman at a party. Just the worst. The kind of conversation where things slip out of your control before you’ve even opened you mouth. You watch the words skip down out of reach like goats on a hillside. Your self so exposed and yet strange. Just the worst.

Concierge: I’m sorry to hear that sir, but I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you’ve described, these things always sound worse to ourselves than to the other party.

Screenwriter: Yes sure, but this is different, this is important, this was at an industry party and things have a tendency to get around. No, things just do get around, you say something or do something at one of those things and it's like piss in the swimming pool, it’s everywhere, and you can’t get it back in the tube. The worst thing is, that wasn’t me last night. I don’t know what happened. I’m a writer, I control language and yet there I was talking to this girl and everything was totally, totally out of my control.

Concierge: I’m sorry to hear that sir, would you like to talk about it?

Screenwriter: Maybe. I said some stupid stuff though, I was trying to impress her, talk about the projects I was doing but then I realised that no one cares about these stupid little gigs, a scene here and a scene there on some useless studio-built production so I tried to bulk it out a bit, bring it somewhere unexpected and told her I was working on a radio play that I’m also directing.

Concierge: Well done sir that sounds like a fascinating project.

Screenwriter: But it isn’t! I mean, I’m not working on one! That’s really just the start of the problem too, I don’t know anything about these sorts of things either but this talking at the party was  just got out of hand. It continued to roll away from me down the hill and the words were coming from god knows where, but I started pitching this whole thing to this girl right then and there.

Concierge: Pitching the radio play which you haven’t written?

Screenwriter: Yes! It was about two characters from films last year, Altman’s 3 Women and The Last Wave directed by some Australian guy. I told her about how both of these films finished with the ending of the world in some manner, and some sort of direct transformation and obliteration of the characters.

Concierge: Obliteration sir?

Screenwriter: Yeah, they go up and out and change completely. There’s a guy in one and a girl in the other and the end of each film is a merging of the world around them into something alien and unearthly and they ascend to a higher plane but that wasn’t really the concern of my radio play, it was more like the run up. In my play these people, Chris and Willie are now in a place together, like everything else has merged together and it’s just them that bob up above it, like they both came up from a sinking ship or country and here they are, in this new space.

Concierge: In the water sir? In the sea?

Screenwriter: No, in a bar, like this one in this hotel and they’re here in a booth drinking whatever, drinking cokes and above them they realise is a painting and they have a conversation about this dumb painting and what it means to them and where they’re from and where they’ve been. That’s my radio play. Sounds utterly amazing and a money in the bank right! This aboriginal rock star and this lady that does sand paintings and hardly talks having a conversation about a painting!I’m probably ruined already!

Concierge: I’m sure its… oh… What was the painting of sir?

Screenwriter: It’s a painting I saw in a magazine the other day by Francis Bacon, it was shown in France. Usually, I don’t like his stuff, it’s so incredibly drab, but this I liked because its was really blue and looked modern, it was just called Landscape which is a really modern title so I put it in the story. I think. I’m not sure, it just wound up in the story, perhaps its the first painting I thought of, I should have put something better in but this was what came out. Like I said, those goats were frolicking and bounding down the hillside, I don’t know what was going on with my mouth. I just kept talking and this stuff kept coming and the girl, well the girl to her credit didn’t look as bored as she had every right to be. I mean, two stolen characters talking about a painting on the radio? That’s what I’m going to be know for, everyone’s going to think this is hilarious, utterly hilarious. The guys are going to get a lot of mileage out of that little story when its gets around, and it will get around soon if it hasn’t already, stories like that always do, with a few extra additions I imagine, everyone’s going to want to put their little flourish on my eulogy.

Concierge: What were they talking about?

Screenwriter: What? They’re talk about how I was trying to impress some girl in a bar with a pitch for an imaginary Swedish coffee advert that’s what they’ll say!

Concierge: No sir, I meant the two in the hotel bar drinking cokes, what did they say about the painting? You said they were talking about the painting, what did they say about it?

Screenwriter: What? Oh. Yes, I can’t remember. Something about space. No I remember now. I started with a discussion about the blue in the painting. The painting is mostly blue like I said, which is one of the reasons I like it, that guy’s paintings a normally a dirty yellow which I hate. Coincidentally, that is actually one of the reasons I didn’t like 3 Women very much either, I remember telling someone that about a month ago. I thought is looked like “a piss in the prairie”. The Last Wave though, I did like the cinematography on that. It was a bit more regular and looked a bit cheap, but there were some nice moments, and I loved the underwater shot at the end, all the rushing water and bubbles like a 60s surf movie. It made me think about how when a camera films under water it is enveloped. The camera doesn’t just look at something, it’s surrounded and it has this stuff all over it, not just the lens. It is effected. Held.

Concierge: Is this what the characters talked about sir?

Screenwriter: Yeah, no, a bit I think. No, really they were talking about the blue of the painting, how the blue is neither a solid depicted space or the empty space of the surface of the canvas, how it was both at once and something else entirely. I say they, but the way I pitched it to the girl, it was the girl in my story, Willie, that was saying all of this. She’s an artist in the Altman picture so it made sense to have her riff on Francis Bacon. Also I think I wanted to make her, the girl in the bar, aware that I’m all for strong intelligent female characters in my stories! Modern women! More modern than Altman’s women anyway! So she talks about this plane being a third space, neither the language of the painting ground nor the language of a pictorial space, another dimension. Then she starts talking about how this is like the film The Last Wave, which as you remember is the film that the other guy is from! I don’t know what happened there, I must have gotten confused or something but that’s where the story starting running so I just ran along side it trying desperately to keep the legs moving as fast as my body! Willie says this is like The Last Wave, that the “tribal space” of the aboriginal people in Sydney, that’s denied by the white population, is “just such a third space”.

Concierge: What does the other gentleman say about this sir?

Screenwriter: Good question! Well this guy agrees with her, he says that the whites can only comprehend there being two spaces, either the space of representation using of language of ideas, and a space of stuff, which he said was also a space of language anyway but that white people ignored that part too. I remember that at this point I nearly had him getting all righteous about the damage done to his people by the whites but I cooled it in time, I’m getting wary enough about that stuff, how it can come off ridiculous trying to write that sort of character. People are getting tired of it you know? So Chris, this aboriginal character, agrees that this third space is hidden, his explanation is that it is too large to be seen and regardless of this the whites have constructed a system for looking at the world that doesn't include it so they don’t see its there. He says they must know its there but they have an expression they use that sort of acknowledges something but then simultaneously negates it, puts it in a box to be dealt with… well the way I had this character say it in really calm tone it was as if this thing was never to be dealt with. The girl, the girl Willie that is, in my story, she pipes up here and starts talking again about the The Last Wave again. She says that this is just like the court room scene in the film. She says that the whites acknowledge the aborigine people, how they feel this guilt about displacing and killing them,but not enough to actually do anything different for them, so they make these verbal concessions that box up the problem, appearing to address it but effectively putting it into a void. She talks about how the whites can’t be seen to refute the aboriginal people’s beliefs publicly so they say that aboriginal law only applies to a certain kind of aboriginal person which they call “Tribal” and how this means an uncivilised exotic sort of person.

Concierge: Are the aborigines in that film not all “tribal” then?

Screenwriter: Not in the film no, and I had the character talk about this a bit more actually. In the film the whites can’t declare out and out that what the aborigines believe in is untrue so they have it only apply to these “Tribals”. What’s really important about the definition of a “Tribal” is that they are not here. The film takes place in Sydney and the story makes it clear that “Tribals” are always “other”, of rather, “doubly other” they are firstly not white and they are also not here. “There are no tribals in the city” is something that’s said a few times in The Last Wave, the tribal people live somewhere else. The aborigines are therefore something else and beholden to the rules that the whites put to them.

Concierge: Why is that important sir?

Screenwriter: Well this is a good bit! I’m pretty impressed with this myself, the girl Willie says something like “this is important because the aboriginal spirituality is not just a belief system but a metaphysics”. She goes on to explain that tribal people believe not just in abstracts but in physical, actual manifestations of things. They believe not just in a different ideology but in a different physical orchestration of the world. Willie talks us through a scene in the film where Chris describes how his family is able to contact him when they need his help by affecting his body. He gets asked by someone how this happens, and in response he pulls at the skin on his forearm and says it is like that.

Concierge: Like a pinch?

Screenwriter: more like a tic in the muscle. I liked that scene in the film so I had Willie talk about it some more, and so she elaborates. She says that this is like the blue space in the painting, its neither the language of representation or the language of the physical thing. Its something else entirely which isn’t language, it is the Real. She goes on a bit about The Last Wave, how it’s a development of Lovecraft’s stories but better, and how the power underneath everything, the power that’s indescribable is always this immense things beyond language of all kinds, how its too big for the words to wrap around it so they just can’t. She says we just walk around what she describes as a “huge sleeping tiger” oblivious because it’s too big for us to acknowledge it, we can’t find it’s edges. It is really quite a monologue that she launches into here, I think with the right actress it could be real award material. At one point she sticks her fingers in her Coke and dribbles the liquid on the table top and it’s a really visceral scene. Willie talks about water surface tension in order to describe the blue plane in Bacon’s painting, how it it pulls tight to the edges of everything else, rather then existing behind or in front of it. Willie says that it is a plane which can’t be broken and that actions at one point directly affect all the other edges. She says this is just like the plane which exists between Chris and his family. She says this is just like the plane that exists between all things past and future and how they all meet now.

Concierge: You don’t have the other chap talk very much in this script do you sir?

Screenwriter: No, you’re right, he doesn’t talk much. I liked the idea of this girl who doesn’t say word one in her own film, having all this stuff to say after the film’s over, I mean after 3 Women is over. It's like she spent that Robert Altman movie in the margins of the story as an object working something out that had nothing much to do with the other characters, and then in my radio play it’s ready to be articulated, with this other guy and with the Francis Bacon painting. One point of the triangle of 3 Women also forms another triangle in a different dimension, like a repeating pattern. That’s quite nice actually, I’ll remember that.

Concierge: So was that the end of your pitch sir?

Screenwriter: Yes. No actually, there’s a sort of coda at the end. They sit slulping their cokes for a bit longer. They play a Jimi Hendrix cover of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say on the jukebox and talk about its importance in the history of Rock and Roll along with some other things I can't remember. Old jokes mainly, they laugh a lot and it’s cozy. Then after a pause the Chris character looks at the painting again and says the pampas grass looking landscape in the centre is a figure, but not a representation of a figure made out of the land, he says it is a figure as a gesture, an “ever changing roster of forces in a state of hyper-chaos”. He says this is a bit like the instability of character in 3 Women, how no one character is able to keep their “self” constant and how they all begin to collapse and grow and merge in a non-linear manner both through misleading stories told about one character by another but also through the film’s direction which fragments the identities of the characters, leaving them uncertain by exploiting the cracks in the medium itself. He says this is what makes that film great. He finishes by saying that the use and merging of the crack in the medium and cracks within the narrative are what make Robert Altman such an important director. He says the same could be said for Bacon, and probably sometimes for the Australian guy that did The Last Wave too.


Screenwriter: …

Concierge: Is there anything I can get you sir?

Screenwriter: No, nothing thanks, I’ll go up to my room now I think. Good night.

Concierge: See you in the morning sir, sleep well.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Life’s A Cabaret

"I set out to be a winner. I don't want to lose. I spent four years in a hospital but I never expected favours from anyone. I don't give sympathy because I don't expect it. Nice guys don't make it."

- Steve Harley

In many ways the 1970’s, with their energy crises and industrial and social unrest, were an exclusive preview of what I call The Crap Future - the slow, grinding, irreversible economic decline that we are currently in the early stages of. What marks the Seventies as different was that, absent a 30-year bombardment of Neoliberal growth-propaganda and 24-7 media dis-infotainment, there was a greater willingness to entertain the notion that Western culture was living through its End Times. One way this acceptance was expressed was through that most decadent of art forms, the cabaret, which exuded a kind of cadaverous frivolity, a need to eat, drink and be merry, in the face of decline.

Two bands in particular embraced the cabaret form, both based around charismatic front men who clearly saw the wreckage that surrounded them, and yet whose responses were significantly different. Cockney Rebel were fronted by the cynical, shark-like Steve Harley. Harley had contracted polio as a child, which had necessitated years of hospital treatment, and his slow, isolated recovery had helped to instill a steely, individualist streak in his character. Always an enthusiastic Tory, his proto-Thatcherite take on his bohemian surroundings, "The Human Menagerie", was pitiless and irredeemable - a world populated by the addicted, the weak, and those that prey on them. The band’s most famous hit, "Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)", is typical Harley, a poison-pen letter to his former band mates dressed up in an irresistibly catchy melody. It was this cold individualism that correctly identified Cockney Rebel as forerunners of punk, but Harley’s Game Theory attitude to the music business proved to be no more a successful strategy than any other; as the decade progressed his career entered the same ignominious decline as the majority of his peers.

Alex Harvey’s vision was often as bleak and hopeless as Harley’s, but with one important exception - Harvey did want redemption, both for himself and the world around him. Coming from a tough Glaswegian background that allegedly included a stint as a lion tamer, like many Seventies glam rock stars he had orbited around the fringes of the Sixties music scene until he hit on a flamboyant, theatrical style that was perfectly suited to the introduction of colour television at the turn of the decade (the day the world turned day-glo). Equally at home covering Jacques Brel and Tom Jones, and finding the absurdity and profundity in both, Harvey the Faith Healer was like a musical R.D. Laing, responding to the violent, traumatic death throes of a dying system with the shamanistic fervour of the Last Believer. The energetic excess of his stage shows was too much for Harvey himself, and he prematurely retired from the music business in 1976, before returning a couple of years later only to die of a heart attack in 1982, too early to see the false rebirth of a world that would think the anxieties that informed both his and Steve Harley’s work banished forever.