Monthly Archives: January 2007

  • He Who gets Slapped – Victor Sjostrom (aka Seastrom) – 1924

    No clowning about
    He who gets slapped presents as a film about collusive victimhood, a subject area at the core of European and American political sensibilities. Authoritarian cultures and societies develop mechanisms through which scapegoat becomes a role voluntarily adapted by despised and excluded groups as a strategy for their survival.

    He Who gets Slapped – Victor Sjostrom (aka Seastrom)  –  1924 – with piano accompaniment
    Paulette Goddard Lon Chaney John Gilbert,
    Seen Star and Shadow –  17 12 06 – ticket price £3-50

    It seems useful when the opportunity arises to appraise films long forgotten and submit them to a contemporary critique.  Its also interesting to speculate who might have been exposed to the thought forms and influences of films such as ‘He who gets Slapped’.   Did Sergei Eisenstein Fritz Lang Orson Welles  von Sternberg or Wilder see it?  Sjostrom often seen as the father of Swedish Cinema made many films including this one in Hollywood for MGM.

    No clowning about
    He who gets slapped presents as a film about collusive victimhood, a subject area at the core of European and American political sensibilities.  Authoritarian cultures and societies develop mechanisms through which scapegoat becomes a role voluntarily adapted by despised and excluded groups as a strategy for their survival.
    The film is set in the world of the circus – which is represented as a transposed variation of bourgeois life.  It is a film about clowns with no clowns: a film about clowns that involves no clowning.  Sjostrom’s film is energised by his  vision of a world created out of spiralling vectors.  In some of the key shots everything moves with a dynamic of circular fluidity.  Sjostrom endows his film with a centrifugal force which governs the core aspects of its realisation: the script, the settings, the camera work and the special effects.  They’re all informed with the powerful movement principle of the film that sucks matter out of the centre to the periphery before guiding it back to the centre again.  This centrifugal action works both actually and morally creating a complex interplay of ideas and technical skill. 

    This understanding of the world as a moral spiralling motion is most strongly realised in the beautiful special effect transition sequence which takes us from the world of the humiliated bourgeois professor to his reincarnation as clown.   Using mattes and in camera effects, the huge spinning globe to which the professor clings resolves magically and unexpectedly into a circus ring.  The effect is breathtaking as the professor sitting astride the giant globe is thrown to the edge of the world by the centrifugal forces in play.  For a moment he is threatened with being hurled off the face of the world into oblivion, only for the edged outline of the world to dissolve and transform into the perimeter blocks of the circus ring.  We are in the world of the circus:  a world whose rationale is circularity and non stop centrifugal motion. 

    The film contains both ourselves and the performers in this circuitous motion.  None   more so than the ridiculed professor who has transformed himself into the eponymous clown called: He who gets Slapped (HWGS).  HWGS is clown reinvented as a sado/masochistic iconic scapegoat.   The clown figure invented for the circus spectators – the masses – who have come to laugh at the clown’s slapstick pain.  It is difficult to escape the notion that at the core of Sjostrom’s filming is a political/social idea: that the enjoyment of another’s pain is the basis of certain political psychic forms.  A political psyche characteristic of hierarchic societies which exploit sadistic humour to undermine and demean attempts by individuals seen as representatives of despised groups to challenge in any way the established order.   The use of poisoned  humour to humiliate is a key weapon favoured by societies based on suppression through stereotypes.  HWGS is famous and popular as a clown simply for his ability to be slapped hurt and abused as the circus geek.  HWGS takes his public humiliation with a smile and comes back for more:  more pain equates with more laughs.  In one shot, an extraordinary superimposition, a huge blazing lit up sign erected over the big  top, shows HWGS in neon getting whacked and bouncing back. Masochism has become an addictive and collusive survival technique raised to an art form in societies that are grounded in the abasement of t groups and individuals through corrective humiliation.

    There is a powerful mechanicality in Sjostrom’s filming of  the circus scenes.  Like other social performers such as prostitutes, clowns however they feel, have to play out a utopian entertainment ethos to the spectator.    In the sequence where a crowd of 60 clowns erupts into the ring, the performers are filmed as if they were clockwork toy soldiers (vide Laurel and Hardy in Toyland) with a relentless and impassive automative intent to entertain.  The clowns with their white emaciated features have two faces: one turned to the public that represents the desire to entertain, the other turned in on itself.  
    In a compelling way the film creates out of the circus a world that either seems to anticipate the concentration camps, or perhaps recalls the POW camps of the First World War.   There is something in the compressed collective experience suggested in some of the circus sequences that call up ominous portents.  The circus seems a place of confinement.  The shots in the changing room, where men turn themselves into white-faced clowns and in the arena where they have to play the clown, have the quality of punishment parks.   Sjoberg seems to understand the entertainment business as a very dark metaphor for a world in which you are made to be the hand maiden of your own psychic mutilation (vide Singing in the Rain the big production number “Make ‘em Laugh”):  for a world in which one day there will be whole races and peoples forced to act out their own roles – as victims.  A world of the future where Jews Palestinians Tibetans (perhaps in another sense Big Brother Wannabees) will be reduced simply to the status of He Who Gets Slapped and find themselves powerless to be anything other than victims who provide political entertainment for the hierarchies that define them. 

    The clown facial make-up devised for HWGS anticipates this type of social development.  HWGS doesn’t make-up to look like a clown.  The design of his make up turns him into a mutant, a freak of nature who should have been strangled at birth.  The make up effect is extraordinarily powerful in its effect as a justifier for abuse, and a righteous excuse for the crude childish enjoyment of the spectators in his pain.   There are disturbing resonances again in the way that in the future the costume and appearance of the Jew, of the Palestinian and other minority groups will be exploited as a source of ridicule and contempt.

    The film ends by having recourse to the natural world albeit from the periphery of the circus.  The circus lion effects the end of the sources of evil in the film.  Sjostrom seems to be saying that the powerless cannot by themselves resolve the problems of their exploitation and abuse.  Once a certain stage of descent into powerlessness is reached the only solution is to invoke or call in outside powers.    Sjostrom in his resolution of the problem, whilst it might not tally with the ethos of self assertion,  at least avoids the fake pat solutions more usual in Hollywood plots, in which the hero transformed by his negative experiences returns to the fray with the weapons and knowledge to defeat the power of evil.  Sjostrum  declines the fake romanticism of the returning hero and opts for an outside intervention from the natural world,  as the equaliser. 
    adrin neatrour

  • Pan’s Labyrinth, dir. Guillermo del Toro (Spain 2006, English subtitles)

    Between a Roc and a Hard Place by Tom Jennings.
    Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 1, January 2007Between a Roc and a Hard Place by Tom Jennings 
    [film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 1, January 2007]
    Pan’s Labyrinth, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro (in Spanish with subtitles)
    This unusual film follows twelve year-old Ofelia to Galicia, North-West Spain, when her mother marries a vicious Civil Guard captain mopping up anti-fascist resistance in 1944. Servants and villagers variously bow and scrape or surreptitiously support the freedom fighters, and as the skirmishes become more threatening Ofelia withdraws into her love of classic children’s literature, imagining herself as fairy princess returning to paradise. The resolutions to both real-life and mythical quests neatly hinge on mature ethical choices of bravery, altruism and solidarity, with appropriate ambivalence. So the princess returns to her faerie dreamworld only in death, just as rites of passage formalise childhood’s end. Conversely, we know that the guerillas’ final triumph is, sadly, very local and temporary. Unfortunately, to convince, such ambitious magical realism would require unconscious and external dynamics to fully intermingle in Ofelia’s awareness and behaviour – growing up being a long gradual process rather than a short set of arbitrary rituals. In neglecting her depths, attention is lavished instead on those of the labyrinth.
    The Mexican writer-director’s supreme reputation among horror-fantasy cognoscenti is certainly justified by the beautifully realised fauns, fairies and monsters. The latter nicely encapsulate the Francoist ideology of National Catholicism, trumpeted as ‘cleansing’ Spain but instead dirtying it for decades. Del Toro interprets the appalling Pale Man, with disembodied eyes in stigmata’d hands, as symbolising the Catholic church. Surely, though, it embodies the military as rulers-by-divine-right, mechanically activated into cruel brutality when insubordinates act to satisfy their desires. In that case, the revolting gigantic toad under the fig tree, smothering the roots (and hence fruits) of the land and its people with rapacious parasitic greed, better represents the church – which, nevertheless, conceals the instrument of liberation within its guts; the spiritual key to defeating the Pale Man and collectivising his private banquet.
    Del Toro’s cult genre experiments always yield outstanding narrative invention, visual imagination and cinematic flair. The two Spanish civil war dramas, however, reference older conventions – of the fairytale (here) and ghost story (The Devil’s Backbone, 2001). Ironically, his work which avoids explicit politics tends to contain more sophisticated social and philosophical critique. Perhaps concern to depict the fascist plague accurately – which florid embellishment might spoil – constrained the liberties taken in the fantasy register. Also, given the scarcity of mainstream fictional treatments covering this period in Spain, it seems churlish to complain. But after the oversimplifications of Ay Carmela (Carlos Saura, 1990) and Land and Freedom (Ken Loach, 1995), I’d hoped for more than a routine feudal fable – of infantile patriarchal utopia as regressive palliative, merely paralleling the monstrous reality of moral dictatorship.

  • Spank the Monkey, and The ‘G’ Word, Baltic Centre

    High Street Art-Lite, and Bombing Babylon, by Tom Jennings.
    Art reviews published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 24, December 2006; and Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 8, April 2007.High Street Art-Lite, and Bombing Babylon by Tom Jennings 
    [art reviews published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 24, December 2006, and Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 8, April 2007]

    High Street Art-Lite 
    The Baltic’s ‘street art’ exhibition bites off much more than it can chew, according to Tom Jennings
    Spank the Monkey, at Gateshead’s Baltic Centre, claims to straddle contemporary art and graphics, urban interventions and global youth culture, with work chosen by director Peter Doroshenko and independent curator Pedro Alonso. Three floors of the building and a handful of outdoor venues around Tyneside have since September hosted a bewildering confusion of commissioned graffiti, poster and billboard pieces, massive doodlings and small stylised sketchings, multi-media and found-object sculptures and installations, slick manga-inspired dreamscapes, psychedelic fantasias on canvas and computer-generated cartoons, topped off with a garishly-painted skateboard ramp. To make sense of the apparently random juxtapositions, visitors are helpfully advised that the artists featured, from all around the world, earned their stripes outside the conventional gallery system. ‘So what?’ you might ask. Proximity to official approval may fascinate those who aspire to it, but affords no coherence whatsoever to this ramshackle mish-mash of a show.
    Spank the Monkey was inspired by the success of the American travelling exhibition Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture (2004) in exhaustively detailing the development of forms of visual expression associated with diverse US youth subcultures since the sixties. The often countercultural concerns of their exponents were mapped onto the local contexts in which their activities became differentiated as ‘art’, with varying levels of subsequent incorporation into the mainstream alongside cross-fertilisation with prevailing styles fashionable in conceptualism, installation, film, photography and graphic design. Work by original graffiti art stars Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring was included (early Haring sketches are also currently showing at the Baltic) alongside hundreds of others (Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee and Ryan McGinness being represented in both shows), but its focus on the social scenes out of which the art emerged lent the project a depth and integrity entirely absent at the Baltic – where ‘art-market versus supermarket’ is the nearest we get to profundity.
    So the tame, desultory efforts permitted at Metro stations betray no sign of the tagger’s lawless compulsion to mark alienated space. Inside the gallery, heart and guts are similarly at a premium. At least Faile’s cut-and-paste posters deploying press headlines about the Israel-Hezbollah clash effectively parallel media bombardment when plastered up and down walls, while seeming innocuous when isolated in frames surrounded by white space. Better still, Brazilian duo Os Gemeos’ shack with ski-masked accoutrements mixes shanty deprivation with outlaw soul, whereas Shepard Fairey’s impressive billboards achieve the opposite with his ‘Obey’ range pastiche of Soviet modernism, spinning empty radical chic with the usual heroic suspects – Ché, Mao, Black Panthers, Castro, Subcommandante Marcos, whoever … Whether he’s drawing attention to or celebrating big business authoritarianism while pocketing paychecks from Nike, the implied inevitability of assimilation from underground into mass commercial media is facile and tendentious, dismissing the imaginative and subversive potential of independence, even when a decent living alongside self-determination is sought from design and thematic innovation.
    And such potential’s not hard to find – for example, designs by James Cauty (ex-KLF, K-Foundation, anti-Turner Prize pop/art outsider based at the Aquarium, London) are also showing in Newcastle. Exploiting the decidedly low-brow tradition of stamp collecting, the CNPD (Cautese National Postal Disservice) first day covers, prints and books – marketed as low-priced limited editions – comment pointedly on the absurdities of national identity, art and iconography. Past provocations include images of the queen in a gas mask, and burning Houses of Parliament with the legend ‘5/11′; now supplemented with the ‘America Shut Up’ series and the Angel of the North upside down with its head in bedrock, ridiculing the “we’ve never had it so good” cultural triumphalism of the Sage, Baltic et al. Unfortunately, irreverent title aside, Spank the Monkey risks barely a glimmer of such reflexive humility or humour – surely showing the insecurity beneath the arrogance of power which, moreover, so many contemporary urban stencilists and adbusters deliberately expose.
     Banksy presumably saw the writing on the wall (so to speak). His sole contribution is an old master-type portrait of some anonymous grandee just after being custard-pied – succinctly puncturing the pretensions of art institutions and patrons, even as he cashes in on the commodity status they sanction. More abject still is Barry McGee’s giant ‘Smash the State’ daubed in red on the opposite wall as a reminder of the energy and anger that can animate autonomous public art when its makers (or curators, for that matter) neither prostitute themselves for government funding nor speculate on niche market cool. Spank the Monkey may bolster the Baltic’s ‘edgy’, ‘relevant’, ‘youf-friendly’ credentials as the end of Lottery support looms, but promoting Sony Playstation and selling rat stencil merchandise to a few skater kids scarcely scratches the surface of the significance of grassroots street-level creative endeavour.
    So, domesticated urban graffiti, Mexican tattoos, Japanese polaroid porn, etc, are wrenched from their complex origins – which are ignored, along with the vast majority of producers shunning respectable careers for collective work, self-publishing, artist-led networks and other marginal, occasionally politicised and/or illegal activities. Proposing trendy ‘guerilla marketing’ (any cultural economics not corporate-controlled) as common denominator simply projects the gallery’s own recuperative desire onto an infinitely more variegated and engaged field than the organisers can acknowledge in their haste to kowtow to capital. Ironically, rhetoric about global youth hawking their aesthetics to the highest bidder, while undoubtedly accurate for some, renders most of these exhibits more, not less, unintelligible. Naturally, the far more salient sidestepping of elitist and hierarchical disciplining is anathema to the British contemporary arts establishment (and other cultural industries). No prizes, then, for guessing whose Monkey is really being Spanked.
    Spank the Monkey and the Keith Haring exhibition are at the Baltic Centre, South Shore Road, Gateshead until 7th January, followed by G-Word showcasing North-East graffiti artists until the 21st. James Cauty is showing at Electrik Sheep, Pink Lane, Newcastle through December.

    Bombing Babylon  by Tom Jennings 
    [art review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 8, April 2007]
    The ‘G’ Word, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, January 2007
    Postscripting the disappointing Spank The Monkey international street art and design extravanganza (see Freedom, 16th December 2006), thirteen local graffitists filled one floor of the Baltic for ten days with massive wall pieces, a thumping soundtrack, and a large van in the middle submerged in aerosol bodywork. Encompassing many popular styles, most were based on conventional building blocks – expanding and exploding graphic signatures (tags) to transcend the grey desolation of urban environments and experience with vibrant spraypaint dreamscapes, sexualised cartoon fantasies, and generally inventively troubling renunciations of the domesticated surfaces of institutions and egos. This 360-degree in-your-face sensory riot of colour and shape urged emotional immersion, making no concessions to ‘white cube’ architecture’s clinical bleaching out of passion in rarefied distance from the fragmented packaging of sanitised art.
    These artists typically commit surreptitious ‘mindless vandalism’ rather than having everything laid on – and with several actively sought by the law for their exploits, the arms-length New Line Graffiti conferred anonmyity. This pragmatic necessity allowed several conventional artworld pomposities to be pleasingly traduced. The traditional ‘private view’ opening barred the usual worthy suspects in favour of a piss-up for artists, friends and families – who in turn comprehensively tagged the entrance. Having ascribed authorship to social networks rather than individual creative genius, the collective nature of the work was further emphasised by a speeded-up video projection in a side-room showing its convivial accomplishment. Despite the legendary competitiveness of the scene, the crucial role of successive overlayerings of rival tags as substrate and embellishment also makes explicit the sedimented history of sites and emphasises the ongoing rebellion of daring to claim expressive space.
                    Most of The ‘G’ Word contributors simulated a dirty, flaking, crumbling background for the monstrous beauty of their creations, suggesting that this was an exhibition about graffiti rather than the ‘real’ thing. But then it has no proper context, specifically perverting ‘official’ contours of geography, ownership and activity. Whereas illegal graffiti is only anti-social if the obscenities of modern capitalism represent an otherwise healthy urban garden sullied by such artistic weeds – and its subject matter routinely asserts otherwise, as in Zee TTK rendering the Tyneside skyline as simultaneously alien, exotic and toxic, or Inch adding architectural features to make sense of a dysfunctional gallery surface. So while bureaucrats and politicians inevitably bleat about providing opportunities for safe, legal locations for inoffensive muralism, the passionate determination and painstaking skill demonstrated here originated and developed precisely beyond the pale of polite society.

  • London to Brighton – Paul Williams – UK 2006 – Lorraine Stanley; Johnny Harris

    Happy Days are Here Again
    It’s hard to see why this film has been so heaped with praise, except that the Brit film reviewers have a proclivity to fete new Brit directors after one ‘successful’ feature. Much like their colleagues on the sports pages who billboard every new Caucasian pugilist as the next great white hope after their first winning fight. In contrast to many Brit first timers whose disaster prone cameras have been larded with Lott’s money, Paul Williams, as director/writer (auteur!) of London to Brighton shows a utilitarian competence in assembling his film. In truth London to Brighton is just another gangster movie, populated with the usual stereotyped heavies, replete with the usual violent gestes and looking to squeeze extra mileage out of the pursuit / chase plot by giving it a fashionable paedophilic nexus.London to Brighton – Paul Williams – UK 2006  – Lorraine Stanley; Johnny Harris   
    Viewed  23 Dec 06 Tyneside Cinema at Gateshead Town Hall Ticket price £6-20

    Happy Days are Here Again
    It’s hard to see why this film has been so heaped with praise, except that the Brit film reviewers have a proclivity to fete new Brit directors after one ‘successful’  feature.  Much like their colleagues on the sports pages who billboard every new Caucasian pugilist as the next great white hope after their first winning fight.  In contrast to many Brit first timers whose disaster prone cameras have been larded with Lott’s money, Paul Williams, as director/writer (auteur!) of  London to Brighton shows a utilitarian competence in assembling his film.  In truth London to Brighton is just another gangster movie, populated with the usual stereotyped heavies, replete with the usual violent gestes and looking to squeeze extra mileage out of the pursuit / chase plot by giving it a fashionable paedophilic nexus.

    In the action image movie locations replace worlds.  In London to Brighton the film opens with lots of handheld energy with lots of big close ups.  But this energy only compounds itself quantitatively repeating the same set of camera tricks – edgy camera, angled lenses, more close ups – for ever decreasing returns.  The film never suggests that it might effect a qualitative change in form and open up the possibility of entering rather than exploiting the idea of different worlds.  London to Brighton stays true to the limitations of genre and satisfies itself indulging in the ostentatious flaunting of backdrop.  The scene in which the little nasty heavy(Derek) gets called to account by the big nasty heavy(Stuart) is a case in point.  The meeting is arranged by a railway arch on  the wall of which is a huge amazing mural – a riot of colour movement and interplay of graffiti.   The setting is obviously carefully chosen by Williams, perhaps even commissioned(?) but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a vacuous thing devoid of function.  If anything it detracts from the action between the two heavies, and its existence in the film seems to be to fill out the emptiness of the plot. The use made of the graffiti in this sequence typifies the use of locations and settings.  The gangsters location, the prostitute locations, the Brighton locations, the interiors don’t exist as worlds they are simply backdrops to action sequences generated by the narrative: a certain act of violence has been committed to which there are certain consequences from which a woman and a girl child flee. 

    If there are no externalities in the film neither are there internalities.  In London to Brighton there are no subjective or affective worlds, which for a film with a child at its centre begs the question as to why the film was conceived with a child as its central subject.  In London to Brighton the child, Joanne, comes across simply as a cipher, the  mechanical means of the realisation of the plot, an object for the director’s instructions.  As a child she does not exist in the film either as an affect or as a conscious entity. The Dardennes brother’s film Le Fils  has a child at its centre.  The boy in the film is minimally expressive but through the careful camera strategy of the directors, we are aware that he is the focus of a fixated and intense scrutiny by his carpentry instructor: a scrutiny that feeds back through the circuitry of the film’s connections an increasing intensifying affect.  In the same way that a photo of a dead child can come alive through the intensity of emotion lived through it, so the child in Le Fils becomes an increasingly charged affective image understood through the eye of an engaged adult.  There is no affective image in London to Brighton neither is there is the Point of View of the Child.  We never understand any of the events from the child’s angle or from within the world of the child.  In fact the role we see played out in London to Brighton is not that of a child but rather of an adult.  The child is allowed a few gestural actions and reactions that are supposed to sign her as a child.  But in reality the film can’t really cope with a child at its centre – its much too complex a notion for its simplistic approach – so Paul Williams elides the child into the adult for most of the film.  In fact the story didn’t really need a child at its centre.  To have written in a young woman as the victim in the script would have made no difference to the plot except it would have lacked the paedo shock effect.  And that exemplifies why London to Brighton is deficient as a film.  All the elements seem to have been assembled for their wow/shock factor.  The violence the child abuse  the locations, none of them mean anything except as shock ingredients to pad out and justify a trite villain drama.    

    At the end, in the last couple of reels, the film runs on empty.  With no tricks to pull out of the bag, no real tensions in play, with repetition of effect the characteristic motif,  the energy dries up and Paul Williams is left  with nothing else to do, nowhere else to go other than through the motions of tieing up the loose ends.  At this point the film gets absurd but not in an interesting way, absurd on its own terms.   Trying against its own grain to go internal, Stuart the big heavy is dealt by the writers a self justifying monologue inserted into the film to account for and explain the twisted nature of his psyche.  In this piece of cod retro-rationalisation Stuart tells how after being caught smoking he was forced to eat a box of cigarettes by his father.  The monologue comes across as banal and fatuous as disconnected to the London to Brighton plot as its coda.  The coda sees Joanne  delivered to the bucolic setting of her Aunt’s house in Dorset .  The implication in the way it is filmed is that the happy days of  childhood will be her own.   

    In both these sequences of justification London to Brighton exposes itself as a film that is lacking the belief of its own convictions as a contemporary exemplar of its genre.