Saturday 24th December

December 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

2011 has been a year of dramatic and catastrophic events. We have had the deaths of dictators and terrorists, revolution across the Arab World and devastating earthquakes in Japan. Closer to home there was the royal wedding (for those who care), the summer riots, and the numerous press scandals, phone hacking and the like.

Indeed the news became news: how it is presented, sourced and framed. Increasingly social media took the gauntlet, with ‘Tweeters’ acting as frontline reporters for the big events of the year. We have long known not to trust the press. Only now with user-generated content on YouTube and Facebook do we see an alternative. It is not necessarily a better option, but it is certainly another perspective. I guess the only truth we can ever know is that which we see for ourselves, and still, without understanding all sides of an argument, how can we make an intelligent judgement on what it is we are seeing?

Even without the cases against Rupert Murdoch’s News International, redtop newspapers have been long regarded as part fiction, or at least “creative with the facts”. It was with interest then, that this week I came across an article in the Daily Mail (through a Facebook link), which presents an imagined 2012, centred around the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. Written by historian Dominic Sandbrook, the article presents a tableau of disasters befalling our shores, from further recession, to the kidnapping of Prince Harry and even the expulsion of the English national football team from the European Championships in the summer (oh no!), with the capture of the Falklands as the centrepiece.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2077813

Sandbrook cites this proposed invasion as a kind of catalyst for a catalogue of embarrassments, in which a crumbling Coalition sputters in to final, fractious demise. Using current events as precursors to this imagined 2012, we are painted a picture in which the British government fails in “their duty to defend Her Majesty’s people”.

There is nothing wrong with imagining the future, pondering the ‘what ifs’. But to present such an intolerant delusion in a newspaper known for an audience of a somewhat “nationalistic” viewpoint… The word irresponsible springs to mind.

Perhaps my lefty middle-class sensibilities are clouding my judgement. Maybe the Daily Mail is a good quality newspaper, with discerning readers. They certainly hate what I hold dear, so it is natural that I should disagree with what they believe in.

The article ranges from “England till I die” fist pumping, paint-by-numbers xenophobia, down to the downright bizarre. But then, have I missed the point? Maybe it’s a piece of deadpan irony? Maybe all Daily Mail articles are fictions? That would explain the interest in fake tans, gastric bands and Kate Middleton.

Maybe I’m just angry because I’m a deluded lefty, a hippy, or gay, foreign, or female. Or maybe it’s because it’s Christmas Eve, and all I want from Santa is for my Self-Assessment Tax Return to complete itself and leave me to my Organic Fairtrade mince pies.

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Thursday 15th December

December 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

So far, this blog has served mainly as a platform for daily observations, a little postulating and an even ‘littler’ amount of research-based enquiry. Today’s post will be my first attempt at a cultural critique/review. It concerns two programmes I have watched recently on television, one is Life’s Too Short, the other Black Mirror.

Life’s Too Short is the latest offering from writer-comedian Ricky Gervais, and long-time collaborator Stephen Merchant. The show takes the format of a mockumentary, and follows actor Warwick Davis through his daily grief, as a jobbing dwarf actor. In many ways, the show is an amalgamation of Gervais’ two earlier comedies, observing some of the “fly-on-the-wall” tactics of The Office, blended with some of the post-modern irony and name-dropping of Extras.

I am a massive fan of The Office, as most people are. It was an incredible work of vision, that was both funnier than most standard sitcoms, and somehow more believable than most documentaries. The format of the show only served to heighten the art, and gave Gervais and Merchant license to explore the idea of the tension between how we choose to present ourselves, and how we really are. At times the presence of the documentary camera crew would be obvious -when David Brent looked to his TV audience for approval, either for his jokes, or when in the doghouse and in need of moral backup- and at other moments invisible to “the observed”; documenting his faux-pas. In this way we could engage with the pathos at the centre of Brent, as his public facade was pulled to pieces, usually by himself.

Life’s Too Short, in contrast, seems to take a less than refined approach to the notion of a crew following the lead around. The first episode introduced the idea, but from there on in there was little sense of the connection between Warwick Davis and his filmers, nor even a definite sense of the documentary pretense being central to the form of the programme.

Davis is presented as highly obnoxious, and overly proud. Much of the comedy is derived from the fact that he doesn’t see his dwarfism as a disability, and often underestimates his physical limitations in different situations. Gervais seems to have focused most of his attention on the physical slapstick of seeing a dwarf fall over, or dressed up in a disemboweled teddybear, or fall in a toilet. We sit and squirm as Davis’ pride gets the better of him. But where was the comedy? I can’t empathise with Davis, so I can’t see the funny side.

When David Brent found himself on the receiving end of our embarrassed gaze -his legendarily grotesque dance routine, kicking a football at a new girl’s face- it was different. It wasn’t superficial like this. His pride was the culprit, and also the victim, rather than his body. We felt for him as he hurt those around him, because we knew deep down that he was just a misunderstood and confused man, with his heart in the right place, but no guidance. We squirmed, but we wished him the best. In one of the episodes of Life’s Too Short, dwarf actors are described, with cool irony, as being like props. The real irony is that Gervais has done exactly that, and stripped a character of all personable traits, and left us with the bile.

There was much more to be made of the relationship between Davis and the documentary crew than Gervais even attempted. Why, when he is trapped in toilets, or can’t reach the buzzer to be let into a building, does he get the help of other people, and not the cameraman? It would have been a brilliant denouement to build up to in the series: small moments of arrogance building up to a point in which he has no choice but to drop the facade and be “helped up” by the documentary crew, to whom he was showing off. With Brent we saw different depths to his personality, hinted at to different degrees across the two series, to build up a picture of a complete man. Perhaps it was easier to achieve this with the show’s solid format. Life’s Too Short changes greatly from show to show, without any real sense of structure, and new characters come and go all the time.

With The Office we had quieter moments; seeing the photocopier reeling of sheets of a4 -described brilliantly in an article I read as being like the applause of an unseen audience- or ambient views of an office at work: overheard conversations often leading into fully-developed scenes. There was a real sense that, as with true documentary, the ‘filmmakers’ in David Brent’s office came without defined aims, but picked up on the interesting relationships and situations that occurred whilst they were filming. We had occasional characters like Keith, who brought a sense of a real world existing beyond the main characters. In Life’s Too Short everyone seems made-up for the camera to see: functional, cold, cynical, creations. At least we have Davis’ PA Cheryl, played by the brilliant Rosamund Hanson, a Nottingham actress who was equally memorable in Shane Meadows’ fantastic This is England. She makes the programme watchable when she is on screen.

Ricky Gervais finds himself a role as Ricky Gervais, in ironic post-modern mode. Other celebrities appear occasionally, much as they did in Extras, sending themselves up. I found the concept of Extras completely without merit. The show was almost void of humour, concerned too much with a post-modern reflexivity, i.e. we, the writers are cleverer than you. If you don’t find it funny, then it’s because you don’t get it. And anyway, you’re not meant to laugh; it’s a different kind of comedy. Would that be “Alternative Comedy” then? The alternative to laughing is… not laughing. This “ironic” self-aggrandizement which Gervais has become known for in recent times is truly galling.

When is Ricky Gervais going to stop pretending he is a good writer, and actually deliver something with a clear a strong vision, like he did with The Office? I feel like he’s somehow been trapped by his fame, and can’t see beyond his own (plush) four walls. It’s not very interesting for average people to see your world again and again, reframed and repackaged, and sealed with a loving kiss on one’s own cheek. (Perhaps a pat on the back would be more anatomically possible?) I have kept watching your shows, and will watch the last episode of Life’s Too Short tonight, because I remember how good you were, and I hope you can get out of this cycle of recycling your old ideas into weaker forms.

Briefly now, I’d like to bring people’s attention to Black Mirror, a three-part drama written by writer-comedian Charlie Brooker. With exceptional storytelling Black Mirror paints pictures of our broken society, from a modern day parable in part 1, to a distorted vision of the future in part 2. I can’t wait for part 3, which is on this Sunday, on Channel 4. What Brooker does best is he brings rich and interesting ideas into realisation in a fictional construct that follows these ideas to their logical end. In many ways, drama like this is the realisation of true art. It is not superficial, nor trite, but can be about the culture of these tendencies, without succumbing to “post-modern irony”.

Life’s Too Short is perhaps the case of an idea taken too far. I often find contemporary art (of all media) is the visual realisation of a pure idea contaminated by pride. So often an idea is complete in itself, without the need to find a physical form. Too often art is the pursuit of the physical from the conceptual, rather than a pursuit of the conceptual whereby physical process can form part of the exploration, not the result. (As an antidote, take a look at the work of Peter Liversidge: www.inglebygallery.com)

That is why we must cherish good art, good drama, good comedy, when it all goes right.

Monday 5th December

December 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

Moving in (and thus simultaneously out) of houses brings with it the duty of fault inspection; checking the quality of paintwork, fittings and so on, against the estate agent’s inventory of imperfections. It’s funny that one’s tenancy in a house is sandwiched between two periods of semi-habitation in which we must engage our most cynical observational skills. When moving in, we are Private Eyes -seeking out the blemishes and faults to establish the truth- and when moving out, we are criminals -disguising new evidence. (During my recent end-of-tenancy inspection I stood on a patch of carpet for ten minutes which I had accidentally burnt months before, whilst the agent inspected the room.)

Houses take up quite a large emotional space in our lives. We do, after all, inhabit them for a great number of hours daily. They can feel like another person in a family, or even a partner, a lover. We establish relationships with buildings which can feel meaningful -when a house is a good fit, and becomes a refuge- or be simply superficial, incidental -filling time before the next meaningful home comes up. Starting a tenancy by documenting faults is in some ways akin to starting an amorous relationship by mentally listing the things you don’t like about the person, in case you needed them for future arguments. Soon after, the faults are all you can see.

Stood in boxes in your new house, your belongings await orientation in this foreign space: which room and where? In many ways it feels like trying to reconstruct your old home in a new building, bound as we are to our old props and elements; objects which have joined the journey of house-hopping in different eras- some veterans of many dwellings, others new to the fellowship. It is like starting dating again, using your “old moves” -the key manoeuvres in your romantic repertoire- on a new consenting objet d’amour. It can feel disheartening. This romantic poem/shelf was meant for a different wall/person, as an original expression of love/utensil retention and elevation. It is no longer original, purpose-built. You look deep into their eyes/rawl plugs, and feel hollow, cheap.

Which big books do you own, but have barely read, that now remain in your ownership just to act as weighty book-ends on shelves for flimsier volumes? In moving in to my new house, mine are now Being and Nothingness by J.P.Sartre, and Don Quixote by M.Cervantes. I couldn’t have chosen a more apposite pairing if I had the freedom of Waterstones. It brought to mind a piece of artwork: http://www.davidraymondconroy.co.uk/balance_hapiness.html

Please share yours if they are interesting. Interaction. The internet. Oooh

Friday 2nd December

December 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

I would like to dispel the myth of “customer service”. Rather than personalising our experience, it is nothing more than dehumanising management speak. “Getting into the mind of the consumer” is for most an unwelcome intrusion, and more often than not, exposes the ignorance of the seller, and the inherent aggression in their intention.

So often good deals conceal hidden charges; spurious taxes justified with flimsy jargon. Estate Agents are a case in point. They should be paid for their work, but they shouldn’t take it in the way that they do- charging you for this, then for that, for the privilege of them doing what they should be doing anyway. Make it clear, please. Be honest about what you cost, don’t “charge less than other Estate Agents”, then make up the difference with ridiculous charges. This would be bad enough if they didn’t then try to personalise your torture.

Don’t ask me how I am.
You don’t need to say “with regards to” so often.
I don’t need complimenting on my clothes.
Don’t tell me it’s good weather for moving boxes.
Professional artists aren’t “arty”, they are professional artists.
I don’t care how annoying you find moving house- your stories are irrelevant.
I don’t need to know that you think my big bucket looks useful.
Don’t apologise for taking my money. If you were really sorry you wouldn’t charge me.
Don’t say “myself” instead of “I”, or “yourself” instead of “you”, or further complicate simple requests and basic sentences with abstract clauses: it doesn’t make you sound any more intelligent.

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