Tuesday 31 May 2011

George Ttoouli - Notes towards a review of Ashbery's Planisphere (with analysis)

George Ttoouli discovers notes made over a year ago in red ink on a scratty piece of lined A4 paper, upon speed-reading Ashbery's Planisphere (Carcanet, 2009), ISBN: 978-1-84777-089-9.

Each poem feels tricksy, yet chatty.


The colloquial style is engaging, but also distracting.

"The land stretched away like jelly into a confused cleft." ('Planisphere')

"Why what a lovely street /
blank canvas / pause / orb /
old person / new song / milestone /
caned seat this is!" ('Tous les Regretz')

Elements occur where writing about writing becomes a dominant theme. At these points Ashbery's verbal dexterity shines.

The collage effect means, ultimately, most of the poems don't in themselves work by contextual build, accrued overall power. If anything they seem anti-framework, against the idea of interest and meaning.

Some poems seem gentler, more cohered, less playful, but where he works in the dominant mode I'm familiar with from reading earlier work, these are extremely satisfying, perhaps more conventionally shaped, but dialect play + voice + colloquialism is pushed and tested and delightful.


[NB. I read the book in about an hour, made the notes as I went along. This seems a more effective review than anything coherent I could shape out of the notes.]

Monday 30 May 2011

Simon Turner - Rain(e)ing on Craig's Parade

Obviously, I knew I probably shouldn't have expected a balanced appraisal of the Vorticists from Craig Raine (the occasion: an exhibition at Tate Britain starting mid-June), as if there's anything that our Craig does with any degree of competence, it's robust critical invective (and very entertaining it is too).  Besides anything else, he's entitled to his opinions, and I don't have any real disagreement with the main thrust of his argument: the Vorticists were, as Raine asserts, rather belated and parochial in comparison with their continental cousins in the Cubist and Futurist camps, even if individual artists and writers - Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, CRW Nevinson - were exceptional, and need to be judged on their own merits.  However, I did want to address a couple of minor points in the article which gave me pause.

[1]: The dismissal of Nevinson.  Raine, early on in his article, provides a list of artists affiliated with the Vorticist movement - including CRW Nevinson - and rather high-handedly asserts that none of them were "touched by talent" (not 'genius', note, but 'talent').  I can't speak as to the quality or otherwise of the majority of the artists in Raine's Rollcall of the Talentless, as I'm largely unfamiliar with their work, but Nevinson, frankly, deserves better than this.  During the First World War, he spent time at the front, and produced some of the most startling and enduring art of the conflict: he's second only to Paul Nash in this regard.  If his post-war work failed to match up to the high standard he set himself in wartime, this fact should in no way tarnish the achievement of those visual dispatches from the front.  There's an exhibition of Nevinson's Great War paintings at the Imperial War Museum which is running until the end of June, if anyone's interested in making their own minds up as to Nevinson's contribution to Modernism.

[2]: Problematic points of comparison (i).  Raine, it must be said, can 'do' analogy (apparently he wrote an epoch-defining poem some decades ago about a guy called Martin writing a post it note for his parents, which was composed almost entirely of analogies), and in his description of Gaudier-Brzeska's 'Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound' he proves this again, comparing the back view of G-B's monumental sculpture of the poet to "a scrotum and an impressive glans".  Not only did this make me laugh out loud, but it succeeded, neatly and economically, in getting to the heart of the dick-swinging, chest-beating, hyper-macho dogma underpinning the Vorticist movement.  All well and good; but in the same appraisal, Raine notes how G-B has managed to tame Pound's notoriously wild mane of hair, so that it "resembles a Zadie Smith turban", which phrase rather stuck in my craw.  Why not simply "turban"?  To draw Zadie Smith into the analogy feels gratuitous, a motiveless judgmental sneer at Smith's (entirely practical and reasonable) sartorial choices.  Must do better, Mr. Raine, must do better.

[3]: Problematic points of comparison (ii).  During a discussion of two works - one by Gaudier-Brzeska, the other by Brancusi - both entitled 'Fish', Raine pulls this arresting phrase from his writer's toolkit: "Brzeska's Fish has some of the ugly angularity of modern Israeli jewellery".  I'm not sure if I can see the function of this.  Is modern Israeli jewellery any more 'ugly' and 'angular' than its equivalent from any other country?  Not that I can see: a great deal of modern jewellery seems to be almost uniformly hideous, regardless of its national origin.  Is it any uglier or more angular than a motorway pileup or a building site or a Portsmouth multistorey carpark?  Or, indeed, anything in the world to which the adjectives 'ugly' and 'angular' can be attached?  Again, as with the jibe at Zadie Smith noted above, this feels to me like a burst of directionless opprobrium, serving no other function (as far as I can tell) than to elicit snorts of elevated derision from the no doubt hyper-liberal and entirely prejudice-free readers of the Guardian Review ("Ugly angularity is exactly what one would expect from modern Israeli jewellery, isn't it, Crispin?"  "Of course, Jocasta.  Another Fairtrade latte?"), which amounts to little more than Pavlovian bell-ringing dressed up as normative and reasonable critical opinion.  Frankly, I would expect more from the mainstream media. 

In spite of Raine's rather flailing attempts to dampen my enthusiasm for the Tate's exhibition of Vorticism, I'm still planning on finding time in my diary to make a visit.  I'd urge you to do the same.  I can think of far less productive ways of spending my time: stewing impotently for days on end over Craig Raine articles and then venting (equally impotently) on my blog, for example.       

Sunday 22 May 2011

Simon Turner - Post-Apocalypso

A triffid, yesterday.

I've spent the week, on the back of the Guardian Review's feature on science fiction last Saturday (which fulfilled the Review's remit of publishing at least one interesting article every six or seven months) immersing myself in post-apocalyptic fiction, because I'm exactly the kind of happy-go-lucky, optimistic type who revels in tales of speculative human catastrophe.  Let's leave aside for now the thorny issue of mainstream reviewing's tendency to ghettoise genre fiction as though it were 'literary' fiction's (Christ, I despise that term: it's utterly rancid with received notions of what the novel is expected and permitted to do, and there's an unhealthy sheen of snobbery attached to it as well, as if anything not originating from the pens of Atwood or Amis were deemed un- or anti-literary) dunce of a cousin (periodically patronising it with its own feature, just because the British Library has an SF exhibition on, which translates roughly as 'That's our populist remit out of the way: now we can get back to artificially inflating the reputation of whichever lyrical realist mediocrity we happen to be salivating over this month'), because it's not why we're here, and besides, it only makes me angry (see above).  The fact of the matter is that SF, considered as a cogent body of work in every narrative field, represents one of the cornerstones of human imaginative achievement.  It extrapolates from our current situation and considers the possible ramifications of certain developments (sometimes scientific, sometimes social), showing us not only where we might be heading but, often in the starkest and most troubling of terms, where we already are.  In effect, science fiction is a subset of the novel of ideas, but unlike 'literary' novels of ideas, SF deals with concepts and ideas that matter, that people might actually care about.

This is where post-apocalyptic fiction and film fits in, as the extrapolations and projections from the contemporary world in this instance are injected with an urgency that is absent from other breeds of SF.  We're not only looking to possible futures in works like I Am Legend or The Day of the Triffids, but possible futures where mankind has well and truly fucked things up.  In that regard, post-apocalyptic SF doesn't really have to take the form of SF at all: it might be, say, a perfectly normal virus that screws us, or a famine, or an atomic holocaust, all of which events have been, and remain, horribly plausible.  It's not the event itself that's of import (Cormac McCarthy's The Road takes this to an extreme, giving us the sketchiest apocalypse in literary history: it might be a nuclear war that wipes out human civilisation, or it might be environmental degradation, or a combination of the two, or neither - it might as well be the Rapture for all the information we're given.  What matters to McCarthy is the (monstrous) behaviour of those left behind) but rather the aftermath.  In effect, the post-apocalyptic scenario is a projection, not of society as it is, but of how the author conceives of society.  Which is to say that what happens post-event will match the political and social ideas of the author.  Two post-apocalyptic novels roughly contemporary with one another - John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) and John Christopher's The Death of Grass (1956) - bear this out quite neatly.  Wyndham's novel is the better known, having been filmed a number of times (most recently by the BBC), and its opening scene - the hero comes to in hospital to find the world irreversibly changed, and wanders dazed through the empty streets of a shattered metropolis - has influenced any number of other post-apocalyptic narratives: see 28 Days Later for an excellent homage (HBO's The Walking Dead more recently pulled a similar trick).  It's also strangely quaint, very much the product of a society that had just defeated Nazism and, in the process, created the NHS and laid the foundations of the welfare state.  Wyndham is, in short, an optimistic left-leaning liberal democrat (that's small l and small d: I don't want to insult the man), and the message of the book seems to be that, however grim things get, some form of British left-leaning liberal democracy will survive: in this instance, on a heavily fortified Isle of Wight (and, no, I didn't make that up).  Tellingly, his apocalypse is man-made: not malicious, just horribly short-sighted (appropriately enough, in a novel where most of the world's population gets blinded in the opening pages).  The triffids have been farmed (and perhaps genetically engineered) as a cheap source of cooking oil, whilst the 'comet shower' that causes the mass blindness I've already mentioned might not be a comet shower at all, but the result of a malfunctioning series of weapons satellites.  And a man-made apocalypse can be overturned, or at least countered, by the same inventiveness and cunning that created it, at least in the optimistic universe that Wyndham's characters inhabit.

 A tripod, yesterday.

Far bleaker is Christopher's The Death of Grass.  Readers of a certain age might remember the BBC's adaptation of his genuinely harrowing childrens' books The Tripods, which has haunted me to this day.  I suspect, having just read it, that The Death of Grass will likewise shadow me for the remainder of my life.  It's a truly shocking and troubling book, the dark and brutal flipside to Wyndham's Bevanite optimism.  The scenario is simple: a virus emerges in China that wipes out rice crops.  It swiftly mutates to decimate all grass crops, including wheat, rye and barley, leaving the entire world facing starvation.  The novel concerns the attempts of one family and a number of hangers on to make their way from London to the north of England, where the protagonist's brother keeps a (now-fortified and famine-ready) farm.  Anything else I might add would likely ruin the novel for any newcomers, so I won't pull any spoilers from my sleeves.  But I will say that I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.  It's still in print (there's a Penguin Modern Classics edition, in fact, and rightly so), so there is, frankly, no excuse.

But these are very English apocalypses.  Across the pond, the States has a rich record of post-apocalyptic scenarios of its own, and one of the most interesting is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954).  Like The Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend has been something of a draw for film-makers: most recently, Will Smith was given the lead in a rather flaccid adaptation, and in the 70s, Charlton Heston (the king of post-apocalyptic science fiction movies, having appeared in Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, both of which rule, in a pessimistic, post-Altamont kind of way) starred in The Omega Man, which is far better than the more recent attempt in every way, but still oddly unsatisfactory as an adaptation of the novel.  Part of the problem for any cinematic translation is that I Am Legend is very literary, very self-aware, and much of the novel's energy is given over to a critique of the genre from which it arose.  Matheson's novel proposes that vampires, far from being creatures of legend and folklore, are real and scientifically explicable: in the wake of an atomic war, a plague, the symptoms of which are eerily similar to vampirism as defined in classic horror and Gothic fiction, has ravaged the planet, leaving the novel's protagonist Robert Neville as (potentially) the last human alive in the States, or at least in LA.  Different in temperament though Wyndham's and Christopher's novels are, they share at least a sense of forward momentum: they're linear narratives, warped hangovers of the Medieval quest, with their protagonists searching for (and mostly failing to find) safe haven.  Matheson's novel is comparably static and claustrophobic: Neville spends his time holed up in his fortified house, his wife and daughter long ago having succumbed to the plague, fending off nightly attacks from marauding vampires, and spending his days desperately (and futilely) searching for a cure for the plague.  Neville isn't a typical resourceful SF hero: he drinks, he's inarticulate (mostly through isolation), sexually frustrated ... Indeed, there's far more in common between Neville and the narrators of Richard Ford's novels or Raymond Carver's stories, than between Neville and his adventurous and resourceful precursors in Wells or Verne, another facet that's failed to translate across into the movie adaptations: Charlton Heston and Will Smith are too heroic, frankly.  This is Matheson's greatest innovation, arguably, and it makes the horror of the situation all the more troubling.  The end of the world won't be survived by strong-jawed messiahs who'll save the human race at the eleventh hour: the last man on earth will be you, or me, and we'll be utterly powerless and monstrously alone.  I think I need a stiff drink.                                                          

Saturday 14 May 2011

Simon Turner - Bergonzi on war poetry

This is not so much an article, more a signpost to an interesting online resource that might otherwise be overlooked: earlier today I read the text of Bernard Bergonzi's 1990 Byron Foundation Lecture, which is available here.  The lecture, entitled 'The Problem of War Poetry' (a markedly similar title to a paper I gave at BAAS last year, which might suggest an unacknowledged influence, but I can honestly claim, hand on heart, that I wasn't aware of Bergonzi's lecture until today), has as its main argumentative thrust the thesis that the poetry of the Great War has, in spite of its strengths, a problematic effect upon subsequent poetry of conflict.  In effect, when we collectively speak of 'war poets', it's Owen, Sassoon, Graves and Rosenberg that we invoke with the term, reducing poets of comparable calibre (Douglas and Lewis spring readily to mind) to the status of a footnote to their achievements.  In addition, Bergonzi - pre-empting, in embryonic form, the underlying arguments in Nicholas Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth - asserts, correctly, that a problematic mis-reading of the poetry of the trenches as being chiefly anti-war in character has created the impression that all war poetry in the 20th century must therefore be pacifist in order to be of literary value, with moral and aesthetic 'good' becoming problematically conflated.  That's a summary, at least, and I have probably done Bergonzi's ideas a disservice through over-simplification: hence the link above.  Well worth reading: it's though-provoking and compellingly argued.             

Tuesday 10 May 2011

A New Addition to the Links Sidebar

Oliver Dixon, who was kind enough to comment on my rather unwieldy post from a few days back, also has his own blog, entitled Ictus, which is very good.  I was particularly pleased to see a video of Swell Maps posted a few weeks back.  Swell Maps, in case you were wondering, are the second best post-punk band to come from Birmingham.  These guys are the best: fact.  Just listen to the woozy, echoey guitar loping into view at around three and a half minutes, and the squalling saxaphone it drags in its wake: just plain lovely, in a discordant way.     

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Simon Turner - Recent War Poetry Criticism

In the conclusion to a review of Ivor Gurney's Collected Poems, republished in Ways of Life (2008), Andrew Motion asserted that: "Gurney, like - [Edward] Thomas - secured and sustained a poetic line that was specifically English but nevertheless flexible and inclusive, at precisely the moment when the radical, cosmopolitan techniques of Pound and Eliot seemed to overwhelm it.  For a long time we have been told that the modernists were a race completely apart, and the only people to face up to the modern period.  Now we are beginning to know better."

In effect, the closing moments of Motion's review essay are a quiet and unassuming manifesto for a form of fractured Georgianism: Ivor Gurney, like many of the poets of the First World War, was a writer firmly in the 'English line', with a close affinity to a particular rural landscape (in Gurney's case, Gloucestershire), whose pastoral aesthetic was challenged, maybe irrevocably damaged, by the abrupt intrusion of the war.  Gurney, though not included in the Georgian anthologies, wrote of them positively in a number of his war-time letters, and shared the underpinning creeds and enthusiasms of the poets gathered under the Georgian tag.  The literary response to the conflict, in fact - David Jones' In Parenthesis and Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End aside - is almost exclusively Georgian or Georgian-affiliated in character.  Whatever our feelings on Modernism and its aesthetic antagonists, Motion's assessment of the period is valid, and needs to be acknowledged. 

And yet it is telling that this reading of Georgian poetics as just another means of being modern in a crowded literary marketplace should appear in the guise of a critical consideration of a war poet.  The First World War, for all its devastating effect upon the lives of an entire European generation, was responsible, paradoxically, for keeping the Georgian flame alive.  When schoolchildren are spoon-fed Owen, Sassoon and Blunden, they're officially learning about 'war poetry', but they're simultaneously imbibing Georgian poetics unawares, via intravenous drip.  The question, of course, presents itself: Would Georgian poetics have survived without the War intervening as a subject that could ennoble the output of the movement's more notable affiliates?  Literary history is, of course, full of 'what ifs?' - what if, say, Max Brod had taken Kafka at his word and burned his as-yet-unpublished manuscripts? - and it's rarely very fruitful pondering them, but in this instance it's inevitable.  Any revisionist reading of the Georgians must also be, by default, a critical appraisal of the poetry of the Great War.

Two recent studies of the war poets - Nicholas Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth and Harry Ricketts' Strange Meetings - would seem to bear this out.  Both books tackle the Georgian influence on the poetry of the war (Murray chiefly in an early chapter delineating the literary squabbles of the period, whilst for Ricketts, a radical re-examination of the Georgian inheritance forms the backbone of his thesis), but in both cases the more original aspects of the authors' work feel strangely clandestine, as if they were at odds with what might be expected of a mainstream study of war poetry aimed at a general rather than academic readership.  The covers themselves give some indication of the tensions involved, falling back as they do on the visual shorthand of poppies 'n' Tommies to convey the message "This is a solemn account of the hardships and sacrifices endured in the trenches by those who fought" as swiftly and as simply as possible.  The packaging of both books, sadly, does each a great disservice, as I hope to show.            

Ricketts' Strange Meetings takes a more abstracted approach to its subject than Murray's more linear narrative in The Red Sweet Wine, but both studies throw up their fair share of surprises.  Ricketts' approach, as his title suggests, is to structure his chapters around meetings between a number of the key poets of the war, some of which are familiar, others far less so.  Indeed, it's the most tangential 'meetings' in the book that are the most interesting: Owen and Sassoon's encounter in Craiglockhart War Hospital will be familiar to anyone who's read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, and, though deftly handled, is less essential reading than the account of the awkward and tentative meeting between David Jones and Siegfried Sassoon, with which Ricketts closes his narrative.  It's interesting to note, in fact, that the most effective chapters are precisely those where the focus is honed upon the literary tussles of the period, rather than the effect of the conflict upon its poetic practitioners.  Ricketts' account of the 'meeting' between Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas is exemplary of this: Ricketts delineates Thomas' strained attempts to write a fair review of Brooke's 1914 & Other Poems and, in the process, renders concrete the abstract truism that Brooke's poems, for the later war poets, represented a kind of negative example of naive and Romanticised heroism that simply became impossible to sustain as the scale of the war's mechanised destruction grew more and more apparent. 

The real strength of Ricketts' study, however, lies in its re-examination of the Georgians.  For a long time, the Modernist caricature of the Georgians - that they were a Romantic hangover, with an atavistic preference for formal poetics that went hand in hand with a pastoral subject matter that seemed blithely unaware that the Industrial Revolution had been going on for some decades - seems to have been taken at face value in readings of the period.  Ricketts, however, makes a strong case for the Georgians not as the antithesis of Modernism, but rather as its counterpart: the Georgians, remember, saw themselves as supremely modern, and were as concerned with reversing the deadening effect of late Victorian abstraction on poetic composition as Ezra Pound at his most aggressively polemical.  Their differences might simply be a matter of degree: Pound and his cohorts were arguably the more absolutist camp, whilst the Georgians saw their modernity as arising naturally, organically, from an existing English tradition [1].  Moreover, and more radically, Ricketts notes that some of the Georgians - for a while at least - had the march on the Modernists, with the trench poetry of Robert Nichols arriving at a far greater degree of disruptive deconstruction of poetic form and meaning than, say, Eliot had achieved at that point in his career.     

Read in this light, the concluding meeting between Jones (the neglected High Modernist whose density of allusion makes the Cantos read like Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis) and Sassoon (almost parodically exemplary of the Georgian camp: an arch-traditionalist in matters of verse composition, crashingly posh, and a big fan of horses) comes across as a (failed) motion towards a rapprochement between Georgian and Modernist aesthetics.  Tellingly, it's Sassoon who's most snippy in the aftermath of their chat, describing Jones some weeks later to a friend as "a pathetic, helpless seeming little man [...] Have you tried reading him?  Father Sebastian specialised in The Anathemata - quite beyond me".  Jones, meanwhile, betrays a charming degree of boyish enthusiasm in his own account: Sassoon, he wrote in a letter to René Hague, was "extremely nice, gentle and pleasant [...] he couldn't have been more friendly and agreeable."  That's also quite a concise summation of Ricketts' strengths as an author. 

Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth, though superficially the more conventional study of the two, is arguably more radical in its intentions and critical processes.  First and foremost, as Murray states in his preface, the book is motivated by the desire to counter the misrepresentation of the poetry of WWI as anti-war in character, a misrepresentation that Murray, framing his argument (as Ricketts does in his own preface, oddly enough) in terms of a personal reminiscence from his own school days, places squarely at the feet of educators.  Rather, Murray posits, "the British poets of the First World War were not anti-war but 'anti-heroic'", which is to say that they critiqued the language of heroism by which the war was justified through their unsparing depictions of trench life, taking a 'pragmatic' rather than ideological approach to the conflict.  In this regard, Murray's book is a breath of fresh air, a counter to the more sentimental (mis)readings of Owen and Sassoon that can arise when we falsely conceive of them as pacifists themselves.  

One of the other outcomes of Murray's study is an increased focus upon the quality and centrality of his chosen poets' prose.  Indeed, for a study of war poetry, there's remarkably little poetry discussed with the same level of depth and precision as the prose accounts, letters and memoirs of the protagonists.  In Murray's appraisal of the work of Edmund Blunden, for example, Blunden's poetry feels strangely incidental to proceedings, with far more weight being given to the various prose narratives that Blunden published throughout his lifetime.  Arguably, this editorial decision is correct (Blunden's reputation as a war writer rests far more squarely upon the reminiscences in Undertones of War than on his charming but comparatively minor poetry), but still seems incongruous in the context of a study of war poets put out by a mainstream publisher.  Of course, it might equally be a natural correlative to Murray's stated counter-intuitive critical intent: just as he rescues Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg and company from the damnation of classroom mis-interpretation, so Murray places greater emphasis upon the prose of the poets under discussion precisely because it isn't as well known.  This is, obviously, speculation, but if that was Murray's intention, it's worked, and there are a number of leads in the book that I feel a strong need to follow up, not the least of which is Blunden's De Bello Germanico.  (Amazon's claims of unavailability be damned: I will acquire a copy before the month is out.) 

The flaws in both books arise (at least to my mind) because of the essential tension between authorial intent and marketplace function.  Both books' rather cliched covers have already been noted, but I think a more generalised tension can be detected in the texts themselves.  During Murray's discussion of Sassoon, for example, a great deal of time is devoted to Douglas Jerrold's 1930 study The Lie About the War, a cantankerous appraisal of the spate of war memoirs that sprang up in the years between 1928 and 1930.  Jerrold's take on the situation is that by focusing upon the sufferings of the individual, memoirs such as Graves' Goodbye to All That and Blunden's Undertones served to elide the socio-political actualities of the war, providing instead "a peculiar, unhistoric, and absurdly romantic vision of war which was popular, and that under the clever pretence of telling the truth about war, a farrago of highly sentimentalised and romantic story-telling was being foisted on to a new, simple and too eagerly humanitarian public."  Strong stuff, and quite a nice surprise to find overlooked material like this in a mass market, as opposed to academic, publication.  The problem is that not enough time and space is allowed to really get to grips with the implications of Jerrold's argument - some close textual analysis of, say, Graves or Blunden would serve either as refutation of, or support for, Jerrold's case against the memoirists - so that the matter is too swiftly dropped, Sassoon is returned to, and Jerrold's counter-attack continues to hover unmentioned in the textual background, like Banquo's tattered ghost.       

One can sense Ricketts and Murray striving to break away from the potential conventions and pitfalls that a study of war poetry might engender, Ricketts through his tangential structure that, through necessity, almost elides the front line altogether, Murray through his refusal to fall back on sentimental GCSE cliche, and his inclusion of unexpected primary and secondary sources that favour, surprisingly, prose over poetry.  Moreover, both Murray and Ricketts, by foregrounding the old debates between Modernist and Georgian poetics, have between them snuck in, Trojan-style, a fascinating, perhaps even radical, reappraisal of the Georgian contribution to the poetics of the twentieth century.  In less bombastic terms, though, both The Red Sweet Wine of Youth and Strange Meetings offer some incidental pleasures, due to the shock of recognition that these debates between opposing aesthetics (from the Georgians and the Modernists, through the Movement's over-throw of the New Apocalyptic crowd, on into the controversies of the Poetry Wars in the 1970s and their aftermath on the contemporary poetry scene) are as old as the hills, and don't become any less heated, however many times they're rehearsed in new settings.  Pleasure, too, upon learning that, for all the vituperative invective fuelling these aesthetic contretemps, the great British public stuck to their preferences for Kipling and Bridges during wartime: the new poetry, whatever flavour it came in - Georgian or Imagist; Futurist or Symbolist - failed to make the slightest blip on their radar.  Quite a liberating thought, that.                                      


[1] Those who are interested in such things might want to read Alexandra Harris' Romantic Moderns, a recent winner of the Guardian first book award.  Harris study looks at the ways in which continental Modernism was absorbed and modified by the native English traditions in painting, design and literature, creating a kind of meliorative aesthetic that is distinctly 'modern', but which eschews the more polemical tendencies of that adjective's attendant 'ism' to draw inspiration from the English landscape, folk traditions and architectural heritage.  It's a compelling account, though flawed: Harris is much stronger on painting than literature, and some of her literary choices (the Sitwells, Vita Sackville-West) seem marginal figures in comparison to the more vitally modern work being produced by Eric Ravilious, Ivon Hitchens and John Piper in the same period.    

Tuesday 3 May 2011

THOR! (George Ttoouli + Hammer + Horned Helmet = Happy Rampage)

The other morning I was running around shouting "THOOOOR!!" loudly, calling for mead and dusting off the mallet in the toolbox, in anticipation of Kenneth Branagh's new film. I would have gone to see it anyway, but the thought of Mr. Shakespeare's LoveChild (tm) himself directing this was so amusing to me that I decided it would only be fair to go in fancy dress. This was an 11am screening, so I thought the kids might even ask for my autograph, with questions like, "Are you a real viking?" to which I would respond with a growl, like what bears do in clichés when heroes enter caves that obviously haven't been bear-filled for decades.

From the trailer, I was convinced I'd be going into a braindead bash up, slightly camp, not taking itself too seriously, even though Anthony Hopkins was in it. I don't think I've ever seen him take on a role where he didn't get to be slightly melodramatic. Kind of like putting the end of The Fellowship of the Ring film in straitjackets.The sidekicks, done up like extras from Xena, but with a budget that extended well beyond 'bits of brown cloth that look like they might have been animal skins in a version of ancient Greece that never existed', looked marvellously like characters straight out of my childhood tabletop D&D imaginations. Impractically cool bits of metal armour, gung ho expressions, big shiny weapons... My subconscious actually started providing a non-existent soundtrack of dice rolls as they swiped and hacked at the Frost Giants.

Yes, well, you've guessed it: how wrong I was. The reviews have been great, putting this way up alongside The Dark Knight, possibly the best of comic book adaptations. In terms of quality, I wouldn't make that comparison lightly, knowing how my co-editor, in his own words, "Understands The Dark Knight better than Christopher Nolan himself". They're very different beasts, however, and as a companion to it, Thor shows how ideas of terror, militancy and stupidity can play out in a far more beautiful and exhilarating fashion.

The first twenty minutes or so didn't do too much to undermine my expectations. I was delighted by how well-crafted and intensely satisfying it all was, though, from the lush graphics, the stunning costumes and scene sets, the wonderful presence of the cast members, the camera angles that always seemed to be at Odin's feet when Hopkins appeared, to the gung ho 'let's invade' dialogue, which, although playing out familiar tropes in some ways, managed to stay within character-building reference points at all times.

I can pin down the point where I realised the film's intelligence very accurately. Early on, Thor and his adventuring party (the segment so deliberately played up to RPGs for this episode) invade the land of the Frost Giants and, towards the end a giant beast is unleashed. Thor's response is a typical escalation of violence, launching himself at it with his flying hammer. It's very subtle, but listen carefully: the soundtrack, as Thor flies through the air, straight as a rocket, is very much that of a missile's engines.

Let's be specific here: a cruise missile? Why not? That's what I thought. And then, suddenly, it all began to fit into place. Frost Giants: penned into a tiny prison island, physically frightening, psychologically alien; Asgard: self-promoting masters-of-the-universe race, patriarchs of the lesser worlds.

At first the film plays up to the allegory well, interrogates ideas of representation, good vs. evil and so on.(*) And that's all part of the film's subtle contextualising of the ridicule to come. Once Thor comes down out of the clouds (literally and metaphorically), the realism (and 'scuse me French here, kids) kicks the shit out of him. Steadily the film begins its deconstruction of the political in favour of the personal; Thor's character development is what this is about, and what Thor represents isn't so much the US Govt. or affiliated warmongers, but everyday people and their views. The scene where he's cooking breakfast for the scientists, you can imagine him in checked shirt and baseball cap, an Average Joe, bottle of beer and barbecue man.

This is Shakespeare, in many ways. Branagh's feel for stage directing leads to seamless scene changes, a kind of fluidity in how he moves the camera to show the next set piece already establishing itself beside the current scene. It's the characterisation, above all, that does it for me: yes, Thor is royalty; yes, he's a bit of a meathead; but that doesn't preclude compassion, a learning curve. Tradition dictates that gods of mythology are spoiled brats, playing out the urges and whims of children with no checks to their power and ability to meddle except the older, only marginally wiser gods. Yet they also play out the fears of mortals, of what would happen if we tried to behave in the same way.

The most Shakespearian tribute here, however, is to use the Norse Sagas and the comic book's ideas not just to play out an allegory. The film deviates from consistently obvious (at least to me) recent political events by returning to the unique quirks of Norse myth. This provides a freshness, more space to translate the film not only into commentary, but into a personal journey of one's own. Yes, it's ultimately a story we've seen before: the dumb, impulsive coming-of-age lessons; but it's done in such rich terms, I forgave it for all of my preconceived ideas. Branagh stays utterly in control of how each segment of the film is perceived, he knows exactly what you're thinking at each moment; and the direction is completely generous is how it manipulates you into reading Thor's personality, playing on your sympathies.

As a final point, I ought to relate this to discussions of convention and ideology that I've been pasting on G&P with sticky tape. I can see, through and through, Thor is a 'conventional' film. While I may have come across as tub-thumpingly pro-experimentation, I'm not zealously ascribed to it, but I am concerned with ideas of stagnation, when derivatives take over the vast bulk of publication.

Mr. Co-editor put it to me recently, in one of our late evening, over-caffeinated conversations, that the avant garde (whatever they are, Simon) are always at least one step ahead of what's just been published. Yet in terms of what's been published, we can still look at work and judge it by the merits of tradition and experimentation. If the work isn't yet in circulation, then it can't form part of a circle of reference points for reviewers, critics and even practitioners, unless we're in the community of experimenters, maintaining dialogue at the rockface of creativity. So we have to look at the published work to learn about where to experiment next, or how to assimilate new ideas into traditions.

Branagh sets out to exist within a tradition that allies itself not with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, but with Shakespeare's drama. He's fully in control of the film's style, structure, character - all the technical elements, pretty much - by being an expert on the genre and an expert reader of how each element in the film can be perceived. (That makes me wish I knew a bit more about the editing process for Thor, given how tight the final result is.)

Arguably, there is something original to how he goes about this, by not adapting a Shakespearean story into the godawful conventions of a highschool teen drama, or similar crud. Instead he's adapting a comic book series, which is in itself an adaptation of Norse mythology, using the techniques of Shakespearean theatre directing, but positioning it within a marketplace of story/plot conventions that could be considered part of a Hollywood/mainstream US filmmaking cannon. Where other films (Kick-Ass, Iron Man) flounder dramatically in resorting to story and plot conventions that are utterly prevalent today and undermine any superficial entertainment these provide for me, or moral commentary they seem to be attempting to carry on their overloaded camel's backs, Thor kicks these aside it makes its way towards the podium of best comic book adaptations available. It rises above the genre, as Nolan's Batman films have done, but doesn't set out to imitate those films, or others immediately and obviously connected to the genre.

What I'm trying to say in summary is, don't miss it. And I'm hoping co-editor will run over and see it, then throw up a more detailed comparison of it to The Dark Knight, as he's far more knowledgeable than any mortal ought to be about it.

A Note on 3D:

I really didn't want to have to throw up such a dud aside about this stuff, but I have to. It's an unfortunate sign of things to come when credit sequences make better use of 3D technology than the rest of a film. Thor is incredibly lush, even without 3D, but what 3D there is makes feeble use of depth throughout. The juicier CGI sequences didn't really gain much scope from teching up, and the big shots, e.g. of Asgard, seemed static, as if only the camera was moving. As bad as it was as a story, Avatar is a great example of 3D use, extremely immersive, without being showy. Films like Thor, with the punch of story, script, tight editing and brilliant characterisation, don't need this crap. The visual medium is secondary to the aural experience. Once again, an example of studios trampling over the fanbase. (On that note, this is fun, but note: a faux-trailer.) Homogenising bastards, all of them.

(*) Can't work out where to insert this, so it's a footnote. A small niggle early on with the presentation of Asgard's backstory - Peter Jackson did it brilliantly in LOTR, the history of the severing of the ring from Sauron's finger; and he set a template for future epic fantasies which no one has tried hard enough to dismantle. The slightly distanced narrative perspective, serious voice over, the hordes of static CGI-ed combatants lined up implausibly in some kind of WWE face off, big sweeping battle scenes. Yes, it's a helpful shorthand for storytelling, but no, no, no. Unless you're going to make some serious comment on Jackson's style, Tolkien's campness and LOTR generally, why? Here's a challenge: why not let readers use their imaginations and set up a field on a table, with metalcast miniatures - painted Warhammer moulds and papier-maché landscapes. Has anyone done that yet? Probably cost a shitload less than CGI and look as beautiful. All you'd need is a decent soundtrack.

Here, look at this. Now imagine the intro and other intertitles read by James Earl Jones. And the sub/surtitles as stage directions. You can also note the realism of the set up: units formed into small squadrons, with a clear chain of hierarchy spreading through the different unit types. Multiple points of attack, multiple points of contact on a single battlefield... I'd better stop here, my geekery is getting the better of me. But it's a footnote, so that's OK, boy's and girls.

Monday 2 May 2011

Ponytail - Celebrate the Body Electric

Subtitle: (It Came from an Angel)

Simon told me to listen to this and it's rilly gud. No I mean that, even though I spelled it in a sarcastic way. I don't know why I spelled it in a sarcastic way.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Simon Turner - Heard Melodies Are Sweet: scraps from an abandoned work

The greatest piece of music I ever heard was a recording of a ball bearing falling down what sounded like a metal chute. The sample was first of all played in its singular state, then doubled, then the doubling was doubled and so on, until what remained was a liquid wash of noise, all traces of the metallic element of the ball bearing falling having been eradicated in the process of repetition. I only ever heard this piece once, on the radio, and never learned its name, or the name of its composer. It is unlikely I will ever hear it again, but it is more firmly lodged in my mind as an idea - indeed, as an ideal, something to strive towards - than any number of pieces of music I can instantly lay my hands on, either in my record collection or in my memory. It is the greatest piece of music I have ever heard precisely because I cannot recall it, except in the vaguest of terms. Language, after all, is what we fall back on when music fails us, and any attempt I might make to replicate the music in words will be a failure before the venture has even begun.

On a similar note, on a Christmas shopping trip last year, my girlfriend and I found an amazing marble run in a toyshop in Warwick. Its design was simple: a wooden pillar on a wooden stand set with, at regular intervals, wooded discs placed at an angle, and diminishing in size as they neared the pillar's top. When a marble was dropped, it would chime a series of notes in its falling, like a kind of interractive arpeggio engine. We kept telling ourselves that we would go back for this toy at some point in the future. Not today, obviously, as it's raining; and next week's a bitch because we're heading down to London or some other nowhere place. We'll got the week after that, maybe? Last week, we finally went back: the toyshop had closed.

Sometimes, when I'm not writing a great deal in my waking life, my dreams tend to create alternative modes of artistic expression as a gesture towards compensation, and, more often than not, these dreams take the form of musical composition. Over the years - I can neither read nor notate music, and I cannot play a musical instrument any more sophisticated than a tambourine or a kazoo - I must have lost hundreds upon hundreds of these compositions at the moment of waking. Light oozes in through the curtains, soft but insistent, and the dull unimpressive thoughts of the day clamour for attention, and gradually drown my musical dreams out in a welter of semi-lucid messages, silencing them forever. Maybe get a coffee, put on the washing, write this letter, pay that bill. Of course, if I could remember the music, even a fragment, the everyday clamour would still be there, but it would take on a different significance if interepersed with the symphonic ghosts of those dreams. Even a fragment, half a bar at the most, rescued from the wreckage would make the loss of the dreams at least partway bearable.