Category Archives: things I have liked

Set design and metaphor

Nothing is quite as electrifying in theatre as a good stage metaphor, and no theatre discipline can do stage metaphor quite as BIG as set design.

I met Chloe Lamford last night – very beautifully and kindly, she treated my completely trashed-from-jetlag self with a discounted theatre ticket. Today, I am watching this trailer, which makes Katie Mitchell’s production of Lungs for Schaubuehne almost entirely about the set. Deservedly, I think. The way in which it creates metaphor is absolutely extraordinary.

Tagged , ,

Make Good Art

This is just really beautiful.

‘The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.’

He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’

I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil maybe half a dozen times. An essay-film, not a documentary but certainly plotless, almost 3 hrs in duration, a miracle of dramaturgy. Every time I saw Sans Soleil, I was in company, and each time I was the only one to stay awake until the end.

Watching Sans Soleil has always felt like being inside someone’s head: unspeakably intimate. To see what they see and think what they think, synchronised, have the same associations, same train of thought. Sex doesn’t even come close. Chris Marker was a recluse who gave no interviews, and that is probably why.

Chris Marker is, without a doubt, the only film-maker I can quote by heart. He said: nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments; only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.

Chris Marker died this morning, at the age of 91.

He said, I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. This is from Sans Soleil too, footage of people sleeping on the ferry to Tokyo. Limbs in every way tangled, a socked foot dangling off the armrest.

David Thomson once wrote that La Jetee is the most important film ever made, “never mind if no one named it recently for Sight and Sound in their “10 best” polls. I know that if you went to most of the people polled in that magazine and asked, “What about La Jetée, then?”, they’d say, “Oh, well, of course”, and then (I’m one of them) we’d come up with some fancy excuse about La Jetée being above and beyond the best.” La Jetee, made in 1962, still feels, to this day, like it comes from the future of cinema.

The man who introduced me to Chris Marker was also the worst person I have ever encountered in my life, a vile man, and here we return to the proverbial Jew-gassing Nazionalsozialist and his enjoyment of classical music. To make my life easier, I tell myself stories of how he never appreciated Marker for the real reasons, only the false ones, things like technique or the monochrome stylishness of La Jetee, or Marker’s place in the history of cinema. Not things like dangling feet, or the side observation about the Japanese man ‘making an important discovery in electronics’ before killing himself to follow his wife.

I remember thinking, in the early days, that Chris Marker, despite the name, could not be an Anglophone, because his humour was too soft and diffuse. The bit in …a Valparaiso where the narrator starts inventing reasons for why the city is just so. The tiny commercial break in Letter from Siberia, a sing-song advertisement for reindeer as household appliance. Who does that? Nobody does that. When people do things like that, we fall in love. When we think about why we love people, it’s that calibre of behaviour, nothing bigger or more outwardly significant.

The question that has haunted me for years has been this: why do we get bored watching a film, or reading a book, and yet we can observe a street corner for hours? Sometimes it seems like art couldn’t possibly surpass living reality; and sometimes there come majestic works of art that seem like the only thing worth making, really worth making. Chris Marker created the pinnacle of both possibilities. Sans Soleil, the awe of reality; La Jetee, the perfect artefact, truer than the truth.

It is easy to love La Jetee, I as much as everyone, but Sans Soleil was always my favourite, because it was stronger than sex, because it had not the easy 50s stylishness but the more trying, gravelly 80s video textures, because it was as long as a DJ set, because it kind of was, anyway, a remix of memory. Sans Soleil is messy, and, someone once said, ‘for people who want their lines straight, life itself is a problem’.

As I get older, I realise that this will become more and more common: I will outlive artists important to me. And then, perhaps, one day this time will no longer be my time, among the living artists there won’t be any I adore. There have never been many artists truly, seriously important to me. Perhaps one for every artform (except non-moving visual arts, which I like but do not love). Chris Marker is the first one to die, and I am left a little bit more mortal.

I like to think the spirit of Chris Marker lives on in the work of chelfitsch and Jerome Bel.

Tagged

In this spore borne air,


Edit: I almost forgot to assign this artwork to Anna Garforth. Oops.

Why is this beautiful? Because it’s moss, yes, and so it has a third and fourth dimension over and above normal graffiti or wall writing. But then, after, chiefly because of the comma.

All images tend towards invisibility, and all phrases tend towards noise. In five or ten years, perhaps dangling clauses (or prepositional phrases) will be the primary gimmick of advertising copy, and this just an annoying piece of self-conscious quirkiness in trendy typography. For now, though, periods vastly outnumber commas, and a graffiti of this sort still has the power to follow me round the corner and until the end of my day, uncurtailed by any finite punctuation.

Tagged

Rijeka, or on the meanings of architecture

Whoever is regularly in my vicinity, gets a certain amount of lecturing on how beauty is a function of proportion, not decoration. The building above is a fine example of what I mean by that, proportion, but it is also something else, something entirely more.

Being in Europe, and low-cost flights also being in Europe, it has now become possible for me to do the unthinkable-in-Australia: to fly back to my hometown for a two-day roam-around. And once I was there, it dawned on me immediately (it exploded upon me, even) that I need to do this more, that I need to do it regularly, because having access to Rijeka I have access to my own history. Those two days left me feeling grounded in a way indescribable: they have made me remember where I come from. Losing the sense of my own history is inevitable when I live in Melbourne, Australia, because Australia is the end of the world, far far away from Rijeka. But it takes so little, a few days, a few thorough walks through my hometown – because Rijeka is a distinct place. Very, very distinct.

I have had the good luck to live in some very particular cities: Rijeka; Venice; Berlin. Melbourne was the only place I lived in that could in any way be called normal, a city from which one can extrapolate conclusions that apply to one or more other places as well. But I come from Rijeka; and I don’t come from Venice, Melbourne, or Berlin. Generations of my family have lived in and around Rijeka, but that in and of itself means nothing – Rijeka is a distinct place, as I say. It marks you far faster. It is enough to arrive, get off the bus or train or car, and start walking up and down its steep streets and stairs, and it is as if I suddenly remember how to walk again. It is in this act of walking, in the distinct rhythm of steps that shapes one’s life in a place, and life-in-a-place always being life itself, that I remember who I am (where I have been walking, why I set off). Six years on another continent mean nothing. I have never felt like a stranger in Rijeka. I cannot imagine the number of years I would have to spend in another place (and I have, so far, spent 10 outside Rijeka) before I stopped being from Rijeka and became from somewhere else. Nothing like K, who stops being from Brisbane every so often and becomes from Melbourne – whether because of personal identification, for simplification purposes, or simply because of time invested elsewhere. The city of Rijeka, with its history, geography and culture, is like no other, and my own being-like-no-other starts sitting better within me the moment I start climbing its rocks and jumping over its creeks, cutting rubber soles of my trainers on the shards of limestone, running down its hills through private gardens and along historical staircases.

Rijeka was a part of six different countries only in the past 100 years or so, including a period of 18 months it spent as a self-governed, pirate-anarchist city-state. It has its own dialect, its two winds (bura, the northern mountain wind, bringing cold and dry weather, and jugo, the warm and humid sea wind); its karst landscape, with soft and poround limestone forming tall mountains and deep canyons; and its culture of extreme tolerance to difference, focus on one’s own affairs, and frankness which would be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

The living landscape of Rijeka is one half Mediterranean urbanity, tight stone towns ranging from sizeable to small, built by the sea, between cliffs and gullies, connected with medieval roads that were even then a feat of engineering; and one half complete and utter wilderness, forests and mountain tops and islands and the Adriatic Sea. When our bus stops on the side of the road cutting through makija (or maquis, as it tends to be known in English, the low Mediterranean forest), to drop off a frail old woman seemingly in the middle of nowhere, on a cliff, K is incredulous and concerned. Where is the lady going? I point to the town at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of metres below us, by the sea. But how is she going to get there? There will be a road or a staircase, I say, but K’s good Australian heart is not at peace until he really sees the road, going down the hill at an angle of a ski slope.

This is a cityscape without suburbs. A city can sprawl unchecked and unplanned only on relatively flat land – not when urban growth requires feats of engineering. Among the many distinct topographical formations of the karst landscape, not one is flat. There are 200,000 people living in Rijeka, but one can start walking from the national theatre, with its opera ensemble, ballet ensemble and orchestra, and arrive to the forests in 15 minutes.

It is a city without suburbs. What looks like suburbs, technically is just a lot of edge: city here, nature there. The insistence of Melburnians of all kinds that they are ‘just a suburban boy/girl/family’ is something I cannot relate to, because to me all suburbs look and feel like pitiful wasteland of both nature and culture, and Rijeka has never had any. In our teenage years, we have been known to go hiking on the hills outside the city for hours, then bush-bash our way down the hill and proceed straight to a punk concert or theatre performance. To have to walk, on flat suburban wasteland of houses and petrol stations, for 30 minutes just to get a carton of milk, is to me a personal, non-generalisable tragedy – not so much because it clashes with my values, but because it confuses my sense of walking.

+++

But I wanted to talk about something else – about architecture and beauty.

We walked up and down hills, through the city centre, and arrived at this building, the so-called Mali neboder, ‘Little Skyscraper’. With its 10 1/2 storeys it is hardly a skyscraper, but it was a tall building when it was built, and so the name stuck. I am generally a fan of early modernism in architecture, buildings built not in cookie-cutter repetition, but as thought-through one-offs. The promise of modernism exists in them still: buildings as a promise of the more efficient future, signals for how to make things rationally and intelligently, lighthouses of technological enlightenment, of engineering which makes life better for everyone.

There are many such buildings in Rijeka. They fit in with the Mediterranean sense of beauty (on which hopefully more later), they are unadorned and simple and truthful to their materials. ‘Mali neboder’ is a building made for its location: it respects the curvilinear street and the slope of the hill it sits on; its balconies open up to the view of the bay and the city centre; its colours are muted, and its windows have (FFS) the kind of blinds that buildings in hot climates need. It is a good building in every sense of the word: high-quality, honest, unpretentious, sensitive to the environment, modest. It did not demand changes of context – it was designed to slot in nicely, and yet it has a beauty of form that is distinct, unrepeatable. It is just that bit higher than other buildings on the street to say, hey, this is what human species can do now, let’s discuss where to go from here!. It neither pretends to come from a time before industry, not does it insist on ignoring the entire city before its time. It doesn’t pretend to be in Paris or New York. It simply makes as much New York on that corner as Rijeka can honestly work with. The story goes that the owner built it as tall as he could sell apartments: the building was finished when the market demand ran dry.

Stendhal said nicely: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” The promise of this building, in 1939, was of a future that would be different, and perhaps better, without pretending to forget the past. There are many such buildings in Rijeka, and there has never been any discontent with modernist architecture there. The people of Rijeka never blew up any buildings on the grounds of ugliness. Today, they don’t build medieval-looking houses for a comfortable fantasy of a better past. It is an honesty which could be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

Tagged ,

The original Rolling Stone review of Patti Smith’s Horses (1976)

[from “Patti Smith: Shaman in the Land of a Thousand Dances,” by John Rockwell, Rolling Stone, February 12, 1976.]

Patti Smith is the hottest rock poet to emerge from the fecund wastes of New Jersey since Bruce Springsteen. But Smith is not like Springsteen or anybody else at all.

Springsteen is a rocker; Smith is a chanting rock & roll poet. Springsteen’s followers thought he was a poet too, at first, because of the apparent primacy of his speedy strings of street-life images. But Springsteen himself quickly set matters right by building up his band and revealing his words to have been what words have been for most music all along — conceptual frames on which composers hang their art.

For Smith, the words generate everything else. Her “singing” voice has an eerie allure and her “tunes” conform dimly to the primitive patterns of Fifties rock. But her music would be unthinkable without her words and her way of articulating them — and that remains true even if they are occasionally submerged in sound. Patti Smith is a rock & roll shaman and she needs music as shamans have always needed the cadence of their chanting.

Her first record, Horses, is wonderful in large measure because it recognizes the overwhelming important of words in her work. The words are nearly always audible, as they sometimes aren’t onstage. There are occasional touches that betray the studio: an overall instrumental tightness, subtle twists and overdubs (in “Redondo Beach” for instance) that transcend the three-chord, four-man rock & roll basics that prevail elsewhere on the album. But even in the dizzying mix of two and three vocal tracks in “Land,” the climactic song of the album, the raw primordial feeling of a Patti Smith club date — minus only the between-songs patter and all the quirky humor that involves — is right here. John Cale, the producer, has demonstrated the perfect empathy he might have been expected to have for Smith, and he has done so mostly by not distorting her in any way.

The range of concerns in Horses is huge, far beyond what most rock records even dream of. “Gloria” is about sex (with Patti defiantly thrusting herself into the male of the first song), pop glory and redemption. “Redondo Beach” is about a lesbian suicide. “Birdland” is about the death of a boy’s father and the boy’s vision of being taken up into the “belly of a ship” and rejoining his father as an extraterrestrial. “Free Money” is cosmic anarchism. “Kimberly” is about her younger sister and the sky splitting and the planets hitting. “Break It Up” is about God knows what (no doubt he/she’s told Patti) — for me, it’s about schizophrenic shattering of the identity as a prelude to passing over to a higher reality. “Land,” the most complex of a complex lot, is about a teenaged locker-room attack that turns into a murder and homosexual rape that runs into horses breathing flames and an ominous, ritualistically intoned version of “Land of a Thousand Dances” (“Do you know how to Pony?”). And, finally, “Elegie” is about Jimi Hendrix’s death.

To say that any of these songs is “about” anything in particular is silly — it limits them in a way that hopelessly confines their evocativeness. Like all real poets, Smith offers visions that embrace a multiplicity of meanings, all of them valid if they touch an emotional chord. Her poems are full of UFOs and shining light that illuminated parallel worlds, mirrors you step through and cracks in our common realities. She leaps between meanings of words like an elf across dimensions, deliberately dizzying you with crisscrossings between comfortable perceptions: you see, the see becomes a sea, the sea a sea of possibilities.

But with all her Martian weirdness, Patti Smith doesn’t drift hopelessly beyond comprehension, and her music isn’t synthesized neo-British progressivism. Her visions repay consideration but don’t lose their immediate impact. Partly that’s because she couches them in the common words and experiences of everyday life. And partly it’s because she anchors her imagination with the sturdy ballast of rock & roll.

Smith’s singing voice is more Neil Young than Linda Ronstadt. By that I mean that it doesn’t have much range or natural amplitude or conventionally beautiful tone color. But it is full of individuality and entirely sufficient to support the intuitively apt phrasing to which it is bent.

The underlying instrumental music is the kind of artful rock & roll primitivism that has long characterized the New York underground. She has four men in her band but the leader is clearly Lenny Kaye, who has been with her since her first musically accompanied poetry reading five years ago. Kaye is a rock critic and oldies expert. The songs on Horses are co-written by Smith and either Kaye, Richard Sohl and Ivan Kral of the band, Tom Verlaine of Television (a striking, as yet unrecorded New York avant-garde quartet) or Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult. All eight songs betray a loving fascination with the oldies of rock. The hommage is always implicit — the music just sounds like something you might have heard before, at least in part — and sometimes explicit.

It is Smith’s elaborations of rock standards that provide the most striking songs in her repertory. On her limited-edition, long out-of-print, privately released single of Hendrix’s version of “Hey, Joe,” she spun a Patty Hearst fantasy full of sex and revolutionary apocalypse. On Horses she subjects “Gloria” and “Land of a Thousand Dances” to a similar treatment. Each becomes something far more expansive than their original creators could have dreamed. And with all due respect to Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and all those who recorded “Land of a Thousand Dances,” Patti’s versions are better. The other songs on Horses aren’t so overt in their appropriations of the past, although, as in “Elegie,” with its return to Hendrix and a direct quotation from him, they are permeated with a feeling for rock historicism.

Smith is a genuine original, as original an original as they come. But all these debts to rock’s past may make some in the rock audience wonder about that originality. And indeed, if one looks beyond rock, there are all sorts of other antecedents for her, too, and the question is whether a perception of those antecedents undermines her newness or merely places it in its proper context. The Beat poets are the easiest to spot, and particularly the Romantic/surrealist, Blake/Rimbaud sort of visionary mysticism that has always lurked behind the Beats. Such cosmic quests have rarely been prized by the establishment rationalists, leftist revolutionaries and rock & roll populists among us, but that hasn’t fazed the poets much. One reason is that the whole lower Manhattan avant-garde community has for at least 20 years acted as a self-contained world, incubating art on its own. The art toddles blithely across traditional borders: poets sing, composers dance, dancers orate, painters act, rockers make art. These artists owe everything to one another and far less to the outside, even the outside practitioners within any given medium. Patti Smith cares a lot more about Lou Reed than Robert Lowell.

If hardly took Soho to think up the notion of combining words and music — that goes back far beyond Greek tragedy. But there are more immediate musical poetic antecedents. Allen Ginsberg and the Beats couldn’t keep their hands off music. They read to jazz and chanted mantra fashion for hours on end. Their chanting has flowered into a whole movement among Soho artist today. La Monte Young has spawned a school of wordless chanters who move slowly and precisely up and down the overtone series of a give drone in “eternal,” evening-long performances. Meredith Monk, the dancer, has put out two privately issued records and given concerts of her music, which alternates between Satie-esque little piano and organ pieces full of childlike repetition, and quite amazing chants in which her voice (a voice rather like Smith’s) passes through a rainbow of aural colors in witch-doctor incantations.

Most of these efforts arise out of widespread fascination with cultures and modes of perception foreign to a Western sensibility. Young studies Indian singing; Monk’s debts to primitive shamans are overt. But there is another, related kind of music involvement that embraces the West with a violent vengeance. This is the sexually ambiguous, pornographic-pop sensibility that produced Andy Warhol, pop art, instant celebrities and the Velvet Underground.

Cale is the transitional figure here. Born in Wales and trained in classical music, Cale arrived in America from London in the early Sixties, studies with Iannis Xenakis in Tanglewood, and eventually gravitated to lower Manhattan and Young’s circle, where he spent a couple of years doing Young’s kind of quiescent, Orientalized avant-gardism. But by the mid-Sixties his own, rather more pop self began to emerge, and along with Lou Reed he founded the Velvet Underground, the most influential of all the underground New York rock bands.

Why were artists — Walter De Maria played drums occasionally with members of the Velvet Underground in its formative days — attracted to rock & roll? Well, first of all, by the Sixties it was as integral a part of the American consciousness as soup cans and a lot more powerful than they were. It epitomized rebellious violence that mirrored the meditative quiescence that other avant-gardists were sinking into, and it did so with flash and perverse style. Equally important, its simplicity of structure evoked a response in artists caught up in an aesthetic of minimalism and structural process. The other kind of intellectually respectable popular music, jazz, had drifted off into an anarchistically free chromaticism that was tied up too tightly with black rage.

But all of this, one might argue, happened in the Fifties and the Sixties. Aren’t the Sixties dead? Visual artists provided the impetus behind the Manhattan avant-gardism of the Sixties, and perhaps they have settled down a bit now. But the kinds of activities I’ve been talking about here are just getting into gear, and if New York is still the center of it, the activity is really worldwide, from the English and German progressive rocker to Stockhausen’s chant and ritual pieces to Xenakis in Paris to Terry Riley in Oakland. Even now, in New York, the post-Velvet Underground rock scene is in the midst of a fresh eruption of energy, with bands like the Ramones, Television and Talking Heads about to afflict themselves on the national consciousness.

Originality is always something tricky to prove. An artist’s detractors rush to dredge up antecedents in order to deny the claimant’s newness: the artist’s fans stress what is unprecedented about their idol. In Smith’s case, most of the response so far has focused on her debts to the Velvet Underground, the Stones, Jim Morrison and even Iggy Pop, while ignoring her nonrock roots. Horses is a great record not only because Patti Smith stands alone, but because her uniqueness is lent resonance by the past.

Copyright © John Rockwell 1976

from a patti smith babelogue

Tagged

Masha Qrella: Saga of Jenny

[pro-player type=”mp3″ height=”40″]http://www.guerrillasemiotics.com/music/masha_qrella-saga_of_jenny.mp3[/pro-player]

A nice 2009 version of an old Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin favourite.

Tagged

On dance on film

[pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMrRF4lHflU[/pro-player]

I am posting this by popular request: because so many people recently wanted to know where to see it, because I showed it to my boyfriend two nights ago (someone who knew not a single thing about dance films) without editorial comment and he said, when it ended, ‘I think this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, of any kind, because I re-watched it recently and had a moment of remembering how art can make one feel entirely quiet on the inside, because I sometimes think that I could do nothing but watch dance films my entire life, because dance film is perhaps my favourite art form, in the whole world.

Dance film has a power to draw me like no other form. I have a self-assembled archive. I watch dance films the way I read novels; out of pleasure, slowly, revisiting favourite passages, skipping to bits I particularly like.

I knew and loved dance film much before I knew how to properly look at a painting, much before I stopped giggling in front of conceptual installations, much before I could get to the end of a poem. It made sense to me straight away, just like dance did.

Continue reading “On dance on film” »