Saturday, August 29, 2009

No Directions Home

I have the worst sense of direction of anyone I know. And I'm an even worse map reader. I've been lost all over the world, and occasionally even get lost in the one horse town I live in. I'm actually slightly better without a map. With a map, I'll invariably end up going the complete opposite direction I'm meant to be going. Without a map, and with a bit of luck, I might actually get slightly nearer the intended destination.

It all depends if I'm on foot or driving. At least if I'm on foot, I can ask for directions. It usually takes asking at least three or four people for the way, and I'll get there in the end. Driving, I'm useless. All roads look the same to me.

But you know what, I don't care. People are so in a rush to get to their chosen destination, there's no time any more to get off the beaten track, explore, get lost, wander. At heart, I am a flâneur. And, after all, the journey is the destination.

I was recently introduced to the wonders of the satnav. So Bob Dylan's announcement he's going to lend his voice to a satnav system filled me with joy. Especially when the troubadour elaborated: "I think it would be good if you are looking for directions and hear my voice saying something like: 'Left at the next street, no a right – you know what? Just go straight.'"

But the funny thing is, people ask me for directions all the time. No matter where I am. About once a week or so on average. Usually I'm honest and say I have no idea. Other times I'll feel more adventurous and proffer either a general direction (it's sort of over there somewhere) or some complicated left, right, straight on, right again, third on your left. Either way, I make a hasty getaway afterwards.

Friday, August 28, 2009

More Ex-Ex Elliott

Since my blog about Elliott school's musical alumni, another band, The xx, have hailed from the south west London comprehensive. Pitched, if you will, somewhere between New Order, the Cocteau Twins and Young Marble Giants – with a hint of electronica and R&B (so say Amazon), they're meant to be pretty good. An 8.7 from Pitchfork too.

Which reminds me (sort of): during a recent viewing of the dreadful Love Actually, Elliott school features prominently towards the end when PM Hugh Grant goes with chirpy Martine McCutcheon to see the Nativity Concert. So now you know.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Longleat Lion Seeks Soulmate

Reads suspiciously like the one and only Lord Bath searching for possible wifelets who read the Guardian. From last Saturday's Guardian Guide. [Click on image to enlarge]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Davis & Dylan: Eggshells and Glue

Bob Dylan (b.1941) and Miles Davis (1926-1991), for better or worse, have always been at least one – and usually three or four – steps ahead of their critics and fans. Never pandering to what's expected of themselves, they've always done what they've wanted, endlessly reinventing themselves: both have had at least four musical reincarnations. And kept going when the going has got tough. One uses his voice as a musical instrument (Dylan) and the other uses his instrument (his trumpet) as a voice (Davis).

They both came from middle class families in small towns and escaped to New York (though in this they were not unique). They started playing music young, in small jazz and folk clubs. Miles Davis played in Harlem and the Greenwich coffee houses in the 1950s, where Dylan would play a decade later. Both were iconic and cool beyond belief in the 60s and 70s; both had a difficult 1980s. A recent poll conducted by Music for Grown-Ups of all-time top 10 musicians listed Dylan as number one and Davis as number two.

Other jazz musicians may have been more influential (and better!) – Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong – but the groups Davis put together and the albums he made were the thing. Similarly, Dylan has a knack for putting together a great band (such as The Band and the Rolling Thunder Revue) and making his records treasured items. Davis' Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, and Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are four of the most influential and amazing albums you'll ever hear. They have both made more than 30 studio albums each – all of which are worth listening to.

Detractors say neither can play or sing. David Bowie (though he is a fan) sang on Song for Bob Dylan that Dylan's voice was like "sand and glue", and Miles Davis' tone has been described as "a man walking on eggshells". Their harsh tones can make for difficult listening to outsiders, but once you get them, you're hooked. Both have also expressed themselves with painting – and taken it pretty seriously, though the results have generally been disappointing.

Both were fond of improvising in the studio and on stage, with band members often struggling to keep up with them – sometimes not knowing what they were meant to be playing. Dylan's band still does struggle on occasion, judging by the stern looks he was giving them at a recent concert I went to. It's sometimes seen as if they Davis and Dylan have disdain for their audiences whilst on stage – Davis used to turn his back to his audience; Dylan usually has no interaction at all with them. But they are there just to play the music; all the rest is meaningless.

They possibly met together a few times in the mid-70s and there are rumours they collaborated on some music. I can't imagine how it would sound – like walking on eggshells whilst eating sand and glue, I guess.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Top 10 British Film Directors

God, it was hard thinking of any ten, let alone a top ten. I toyed with Alan Parker, Ridley and Tony Scott et al but they're virtually yanks now. And only ever really made glorified adverts anyway. John Boorman and Neil Jordan were close contenders, but never quite fulfilled their early promise.

1. Nic Roeg
2. Derek Jarman
3. Michael Powell
4. Ken Russell
5. David Lean
6. Lindsay Anderson
7. Michael Winterbottom
8. Peter Greenaway
9. Bill Douglas
10. Terence Davies

It's almost tragic that now when thinking of British cinema inevitably the words 'crap' and 'gangster' come to mind when it was – at least up until the 1970s – a vibrant, social and imaginative force rather than an embarrassment.

Nic Roeg has never really got the full credit he deserves. He's an endlessly creative and innovative film maker who has made some of the most visually exciting films ever made – in particular, the four films he directed from 1970 to 1976, are extraordinary – Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don't Look Now. But even his 'minor' films are worth watching: The Witches, Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance, Track 29. He started off as a Director of Photography in the 1960s with Far from the Madding Crowd, Masque of the Red Death, Doctor Zhivago, Fahrenheit 451 and Lawrence of Arabia – these alone would have secured him a place in cinematic history.

His directorial debut, Performance, was co-directed with Donald Cammell, who seems to get more of the credit than Roeg amongst film critics – presumably because he's more of a cult figure. He even stylishly and pretentiously committed suicide by shooting himself in the head but was alive for 45 minutes before dying. He asked his wife for a mirror so he could watch himself die and asked her, 'Do you see the picture of Borges?'* Let it be known he also directed pop videos for U2**. Oh, he was also good-looking and had starred in a Kenneth Anger film. Film buffs adore him. Nic Roeg, on the other hand, looks like your bald uncle, retired plumber or school teacher. Though he did manage to marry steamy Theresa Russell.

Time has shown Roeg as the superior director. Donald Cammell's other films before he died were mediocre to say the least, whilst Roeg has continually pushed the limit with his imagery, cut-up editing, steamy sex scenes and Altman-like juggling of genres.

Performance (1969) starred a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) living in a basement in Notting Hill. His house is invaded by gangster on the run James Fox. Only superficially a gangster movie, it's also experimental and intellectual, and about identity, drugs and London at the end of the 1960s. Senses of Cinema say it's moving between the worlds of the Kray twins and the Rolling Stones. Full of amazing imagery, editing and music, lashings of sex and violence, Anita Pallenberg and even a not too bad performance by Mick Jagger, it's a great trip that Warner Brothers didn't know what to do with and promptly buried it whereupon it was destined to become a cult movie.

Walkabout (1971) was about as far as Roeg could go after Performance – literally. Largely filmed in the Australian outback, it told the story of two school children who go wandering in the desert and are befriended and helped by an Aborigine youth. Again, full of beautiful, mesmerising and mysterious imagery. A teenage Jenny Agutter is one of the children, and not since Helen Mirren in Age of Consent (Michael Powell, 1969) has a young woman swimming nude been so erotically observed.

The highly disturbing Don't Look Now, 1973, came next (not to be confused with Dylan's Don't Look Back). I still have nightmares about Donald Sutherland in the nude, no, I mean the evil little pixie woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. Never has Venice looked so haunting. Again, there's the extraordinary imagery, narrative-slicing editing and explicit sex scenes. This was followed by The Man who Fell to Earth (1976), starring another rock star, David Bowie, as an alien who lands on earth. Once again noticeable for its amazing, surreal imagery, sex scenes and a good performance by Bowie as an alien (he didn't need to act). Roeg would employ another musician as an actor on his next film Bad Timing (1980) – Art Garfunkel, with more lashings of sex and narrative splitting-editing.

His output has declined since the 1980s (though he made three films in 1995), and Puffball (2007) is the only film he's made in the 00s. He had a retrospective of his work at the Riverside studios in Hammersmith in 2008.

*A reference to a scene in Performance where Jagger is shot in the head and the bullet travels through to reveal a picture of blind Argentinian writer Jean Luis Borges.

** Cult directors last films can be disappointing. Sam Peckinpah's last piece of movie making was a pop promo for Julian Lennon.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Desire, Hope & Bourbon

Here's an extract from Desire, Hope & Bourbon: On the Streets of New Orleans, a 35min. video documentary I made way back in 1996. It was made with a lot of help from Ivan, who I met up last weekend – the first time we've seen each other since 1996. That makes us old. Anyway, this fits in nicely with Gullible Travels as some of the best stories in the book are about the characters of the once fine city.

Find Barnflakes's Homeless Movies on YouTube here. I'll be adding lots more films and videos in the months to come.