Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Giant rabbit films or, there's some bunny for everyone

It’s an odd corollary of giant rabbit movies that everyone involved seems preoccupied with the size of their bunny. Generally, they’re about the same height: 'Six-feet high. Or is it six-feet three-and-half?' queries Veta Louise of her brother Elwood P Dowd’s constant companion, Harvey. 'Six feet,' comes the answer from Donnie Darko (2001).

You’ll have to judge for yourself the size of the creature that looms large in the nightmares of Gal (Ray Winstone) in brill Brit gangster flick Sexy Beast (2000). But then, this is one mean hombre of a rabbit, who rides into Gal’s desert dreams on the back of a donkey, and then opens fire with a machine-gun. (He is again armed when we get a very brief glimpse of him as Winstone waits for a showdown with menacing Ian McShane.)

The obvious conflict here is with our preconception of rabbits as frolicking, floppy-eared furballs generally preoccupied with procreation – fecund symbols of springtime and abundance. 'I like rabbits an’ all,' says Donald 'Donnie' Darko in the language symptomatic of US teens ever since The Catcher in the Rye, 'they’re cute and they’re horny.'

Not so Donnie’s new imaginary friend Frank, who’s a sort of Terminator-bunny, albeit one that saves Donnie’s life. Frank persuades Donnie to leave home moments before an errant jet engine obliterates Donnie’s bedroom. It is 2 October 1988, 28 days before the end of the world, according to Frank. (Donnie Darko, 2001, shares with that greatest of films of US childhood, E.T., a climax played out to that backdrop of all-American festivity, Halloween.) Frank then launches Donnie into a series of suitably apocalyptic acts, including fire (at the home of a paedo life coach played by Patrick Swayze) and flooding (at Donnie’s school).

And then there are the rabbit references: Echo and the Bunnymen on the soundtrack – this is the 1980s after all – and Watership Down on video in English class. 'Maybe you and Frank can read this one together,' teacher Drew Barrymore suggests to Donnie of Richard Adams’ book. In the clip we see, Fiver predicts a bloody future for furry kind at the paws of General Woundwort – certainly the nastiest 2D rabbit around. But the animated field is dominated by wily Bugs and pratfalling Roger.

Separated by nearly 40 years, Bob Hoskins’ experience of acting opposite thin air for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? must have mirrored that of James Stewart in Harvey (1950), although in the latter case the only visual hint the audience gets of Stewart’s long-eared sidekick’s existence is a hat with two holes in its top, a gag that was probably too hard to give up for the film’s makers. They should have resisted temptation; after all, Harvey doesn’t exist, does he?

We’re told that Harvey is a Pooka who, rather like Donnie’s Frank, 'protects him' and we’re led to understand that he represents loveable drunk Elwood’s alcoholism (the duo hang out at Charlie’s bar with all the other alkies). But could Harvey instead be a signifier of Elwood’s homosexuality, the fluffy-tailed equivalent of Paul Newman’s plaster-cast leg in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

A sweeter-natured drunk you never will see. We’re told 'he was a great home boy', a man who became 'the biggest screwball in town' after his mother’s death. Briefly, Harvey leaves Elwood for another man, but the philandering bunny almost immediately returns to his old chum. 'I prefer you too,' Elwood replies to Harvey’s unheard statement. And all the time poor Veta Louise is trying to marry off her own daughter. Clearly, you're nobody until some bunny loves you.

Rabbit rabbit rabbit: five more giant bunny films
We’ll probably never really know what Rob Reiner meant by putting Bruce Willis in a giant pink bunny suit in unexpected 1994 mishit North, where Willis plays Elijah Wood’s conscience. Willis appears at other moments as a delivery driver and a cowboy – maybe he just likes the outfits.

As 'costume designer' on Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), Chloë Sevigny dressed youngster Jacob Sewell in pink, felt bunny ears for his role in the cat-baiting Midwestern freakfest. His appearance is as confusing as Willis’s in North - Sewell by turns hangs out, skateboards, plays the accordion or serves as target for two kids who play like homophobic Elmer Fudds: 'Kill the queer wabbit!' (Sevigny, of course, went on to do the honours in Vincent Gallo’s awful blowjob fest, The Brown Bunny.)

Who else but David Lynch would take the theme and hop away with it - from his hare-brained web short Rabbits to psyche-delving Inland Empire (2006). There may be bats in his belfry, there are certainly giant bunnies in the living room.

Ginormous mutant killer rabbits terrorise the American south-west in Night of the Lepus (1972), starring Janet Leigh… while demon bunnies rise again in Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-rabbit (2005), one of Aardman’s final forays into Hollywood with Steven Spielberg’s giant Dreamworks corporation. Funny, as in bunny ha-ha.

A longer version of this article appeared in Little White Lies magazine some time back. The picture, top, may mark the start of my interest in giant bunnies. I'm sure there's a Korean movie I'm missing, if not many more...

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Gangway's Henrik Balling on pop

Over the past two years on this blog I have intermittently celebrated Danish pop band Gangway. This should be the last post based on an interview with the group's main songwriter, Henrik Balling, in Copenhagen.

On writing for popular Japanese actor and singer Masahiro Takashima: 'I never met him because he was doing a movie and he didn't have time. The funny thing was I don't think he had a clue what he was singing about, because he did it in English… [One song was] called The Language of Love and the chorus goes: "It's a shame that the language of love was invented by fools and handsome charlatans/ And people like me who were brought up differently/ On mineral water and Hector Berlioz/ We don't have a chance when we meet up with girls at the local disco." And then there's a line I made him sing: "And I'll never be drunk enough to win the Nobel prize." I thought that was funny because there's a couple of alcoholics who got the Nobel prize like Hemingway, and I thought it was great to hear [Masahiro] sing that.'

On playing Japan in 1995: 'It was quite expensive to go and see us. It was something like £50 for a ticket so people were very quiet during the actual songs - they did applaud and everything - because they really wanted to get everything. I think that's a good idea to have really expensive tickets because then people are very quiet and tend to listen. It's like if you go to see, well, he's dead now, but Frank Sinatra - £200, £300 for a good seat, how can that be a horrible show? It has to be good, no matter how shitty it is, and if he can't sing the high notes, who cares, it was the best show you've ever seen because it was expensive.'

'I really don't want to buy pop albums if the artist is over 35 because I think they tend to get boring. I like that whole battlefield of youth: from 20 to 30 you go out there, fight everybody and get your piece of cake. From 30 to 40 you say, "How much did I get?" You count your money and you try to repeat yourself and get more money and after that, then it's over. I've got nothing against Pink Floyd but I think that's a good example; there's a huge difference between the first and the last album in that sense. They're very popular and people buy their albums whenever they release something; it's a secret career somehow because nobody writes about Pink Floyd do they?'

'CDs are the most horrible way to put out music, even DVDs are better because the cover is soft plastic that won't break. How many of us know the sound of a CD smashing on the floor, and you know that the lid comes off and it's difficult to get the booklet out: you have to squeeze it and you can't really get it. It's a horrible format, I hate it, the covers become blurred after a while, really horrible.'

On trying to write songs in a different way: 'Belgian Lovers [from album That's Life, 1996] is a weird song, I like the music. I did an experiment with the lyrics, trying to write like an idiot, in the sense you start here and then all of a sudden you start to write something else because you can't focus. I thought that was so funny at the time. It's a bit embarrassing now because I come across as an idiot.'

On gig-going in London: 'Just before we started the band, Allan [Jensen, Gangway's lead singer] and I went to London for two weeks to see a lot of bands and we bought Time Out. We saw some bands that we'd read about or knew about and then we just looked at the names - that looks like an interesting name let's go and see them. We went out almost every night to see bands and that was really, really good because we thought of England as this fantastic country for music - pop music, rock music - and it was actually good to see all these bands were crap. Hey, we can do better than them. Of course, all the good bands were there but it was great to see that not all of England was good. If we'd gone to see bands that hadn't released anything and they all were completely great, that would have been horrible. We saw bands that were nothing, just crap from the word go, and that was really good. We enjoyed our stay in London very much.'

On meeting Robert Palmer: 'He sold millions of records all over the world compared to our 100,000 maybe, so I asked him if I could show him one of our videos and get his advice. He said: "It's the snare sound." Isn't that great?'

Merry Christmas and a very happy new year!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Making excuses

I try to stick to the arts and/or London on this blog, so I hope you'll excuse this short digression and place it in the latter category, perhaps. I don't intend to write about the snow that's variously 'paralysed' or 'crippled' the south-east and brought 'the country to its knees', but I am intrigued by a new form of excuse-making, which I trace to the build up to the Iraq war.

BAA spokesman Andrew Teacher told the BBC of the ongoing chaos at Heathrow: 'If there was a crash or a plane skidded off the runway, we would have people saying, "Why didn't you close the runway?"' Yes, you would, because it's your job to manage the runways and, at this moment, a lot of people suspect that you haven't done that very well.

A single snowfall on Saturday morning in London has potentially put a lot of people's Christmas festivities in jeopardy when my local high street, which is under the Heathrow flight path, was completely clear of snow by Sunday morning. And if it's a question that we don't understand the complexities of the situation then you should explain them better, otherwise it looks like you can't do your job.

It reminds me of England football manager Fabio Capello's reaction following November's abysmal defeat to France in a friendly game which came down to: you (the media) told me to field young players, I did and look what happened. Capello is in his job because of his experience - way above that of any member of the press - and what the media, and many fans, were bemoaning was his inability to turn a bad situation round whoever the tools at his disposal.

Another version of this arose following the allegation Saddam Hussein had rockets that could be launched at major targets within 45 minutes prior to Gulf War II. This was extremely well publicised by the Evening Standard but, when it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we were told by people like Alastair Campbell that we had remembered this wrongly and at no point had we believed this was an argument used to justify an illegal attack on another state.

It's the memory of this which may well have led to Adam Boulton's Sky News freak out prior to the election, when he started screeching like a wronged child in an interview with Campbell: 'Don't keep telling me what I think, I'm fed up with you telling me what I think.' It's a tactic that might be labelled a weapon of mass distraction.

Monday, 20 December 2010

London's other underground lines

We're rightly fascinated by London's disused tube stations, deep-level shelters and secret rivers but last week I gained an unexpected insight into the underground telephone infrastructure. I thought the lines lay a few feet beneath pavements but five nights of work outside my flat - until 2am and beyond, zzz - has shown me otherwise.

Two very enthusiastic and loyal BT workers showed me the three-storey drop they had to descend to fix phone lines on my road; at the bottom was water. According to one of them, there's a route at Tottenham Court Road that runs beneath the Underground; he said it's known as the German line because it was built by prisoners of war, though I'm not sure if the chronology tallies on this. If anyone knows any better do let me know.

The repairmen were here as a length of cable had been stolen from along the whole road, affecting 1,600 homes. I was told cable can fetch £5,000 a tonne and, in this case, the thieves had probably made away with £7,500-worth.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Three more great electro albums, 1994-2003

1. Give Up, The Postal Service, 2003
I don't know if you've ever sought out a new band because they cite the groups you love as influences only to discover they sound nothing like those predecessors. Well, the obverse tends to throw up some pretty startling discoveries, take for instance New Order's Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, who might have formed an edgy guitar-rock group but are, instead, Electronic. Something similar happened with the coming together of Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and producer Jimmy Tamborello: Give Up is constructed of delicate bleeps and bloops, underpinned by skittering programmed beats. In the same manner Pet Shops Boys guest on some of Electronic's best tracks, so Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis lends her vocals to much of the record. It's an album of contrasts: Such Great Heights is joyous, while Natural Anthem fractured and brittle. I was introduced to Give Up when staying with a very cool, beautiful woman in San Francisco so it's never going to be bad (I'll always associate the trip with track Sleeping In, I think her favourite was Brand New Colony). However, I do have to question this couplet (from Clark Gable): 'I was waiting for a cross-town train/ In the London Underground,' by which he means the Central Line, presumably.

2. Furious Angels, Rob Dougan, 2001
Rob D's sole album to date was a labour of love, built around his 1995 track Clubbed to Death (Kurayamino Variation) - inspiration for a 1996 film of the same name by Yolande Zaubermann, starring Elodie Bouchez, Béatrice Dalle and Roschdy Zem. It took six years for Dougan to perfect his heavily orchestrated masterwork, raising funds himself to avoid compromise. The result is uplifting, bold and aggressive; the sleeve features images of Dougan on fire, smashed to pieces or shot at. The album's opening, title track is its other most immediate number (along with Clubbed to Death) and begins with Dougan's growling vocals, reminiscent of a Chris Rea who, in the words of Blade Runner, has seen things you people wouldn't believe. This is a mescalined Mad Max with a death wish, exemplified on Speed Me Towards Death and Left Me For Dead ('You searched through my mouth to check for gold teeth/ You were pawning my shoes as I bled... I won't rest my head until hell is your home'). There's rock bottom, though, and there's rock bottom...

3. The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails, 1994
Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor has long professed his admiration for Gary Numan and there's sporadic talk of them working together; the Brit synth godfather is more than a musical influence, if The Downward Spiral is anything to go by, as they share a virulent disregard for god. Reznor moved into the Beverly Hills house where actress Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family in 1969 to work on his second album, and its spirit permeated Piggy and March of the Pigs ('pig' was written on the front door of the house in Tate's blood at the time of the murders). Most of the album was produced with Flood, who had previously worked on NIN's debut, Pretty Hate Machine (1989), as well as with Erasure and Depeche Mode, among others. Some of it is silly (Big Man with a Gun, yeah yeah) but as Reznor strips away layers of humanity we're left with unexpected, beautiful instrumental A Warm Place and Hurt (covered by Johnny Cash). His most recent work was the soundtrack to David Fincher's splendid The Social Network; film scores might be a direction for the apparently blocked Numan to investigate.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Special movie sidekicks

If you're easily offended: hello, how are you? Hope you're very well.

At the turn of 1980s/ '90s, cinema developed a penchant for differently abled siblings. Top of the list was Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), brother to Tom Cruise's Charlie ('Charlie Babbitt is my brother') in Rain Man (1988). Charlie is after the fortune their father left to Raymond and together the brothers end up on a roadtrip that reveals the depths of the latter's autism: Raymond can recall numbers from the phone book he read in a motel; he counts toothpicks; he knows the number of male drivers killed in road accidents in 1986 (46,400) and the number of times Qantas planes have crashed (never). Raymond is also, as he often reminds us, 'an excellent driver'.

Five years later, Johnny Depp's Gilbert Grape was having to care for younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), as well as massively overweight mother Bonnie, when Becky (Juliette Lewis) hits town. Arnie has a predilection for Burger Barn and climbing the town's water tower in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (I haven't included Forrest Gump here as I'm specifically interested in buddy movies though there may be an - admittedly abstruse - argument for including River Phoenix's narcoleptic hustler in My Own Private Idaho, Gus van Sant's 1991 update of Midnight Cowboy, which again starred Dustin Hoffman as a mannered sidekick.)

A slightly different take came when 1996 Belgian circus clown-turned-filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael teamed Down syndrome actor Pascal Duquenne with Daniel Auteuil for The Eighth Day (1996). Auteuil's businessman Harry is separated from his wife and kids when he, almost literally, runs into Duquenne's Georges, who becomes an immovable presence in Harry's life. (Van Dormael is another with huge lacunae in his directing CV: his follow-up to The Eighth Day, Mr Nobody, came 13 years later; his debut feature, Toto the Hero [1991] is especially worth seeking out.)

While Charlie, Gilbert and Harry all discover there is more to life than their own worries, it is harder to accept that we should start living like their charges. It's all good and well looking at life through the eyes of innocents, but if we live this philosophy we end up like The Idiots. Lars von Trier had the final word on cinema's sentimental sympathies in 1998 - as Rain Man Raymond would say, 'Uh-oh.'

Monday, 13 December 2010

In and out of literary fashion

I'm underwhelmed by Tate Modern's Gauguin exhibition, which leaches colour from Paul's famous nudie paintings, although it does highlight a couple of novels in its wake. Featured heavily in the gallery shop is Mario Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise (2003), a double portrait of Gauguin and Gauguin's feminist grandmother Flora Tristan.

The book was further proof of the Peruvian writer's glowing reputation - recently confirmed with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, perhaps the final blow in his feud with Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. The exhibition also references W Somerset Maugham's earlier Gauguin-inspired novella, The Moon and Sixpence (1919; made into a film with the delectable George Sanders in 1942).

Once hugely popular for such titles as Of Human Bondage (adapted for cinema a few times) and The Razor's Edge (filmed with Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney in 1946), a 2006 adaptation of The Painted Veil, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, did little to revive interest. While the sun may have set on Maugham, George Orwell is afforded changing reward: everyone reads Animal Farm and 1984 but continuing reissues by Penguin of his hardy back-catalogue, notably the essays, reap little attention.

A thorough favourite at school, Graham Greene is another whose formidable oeuvre is treated with ambivalence - the legacy of jealousy over the author's contemporary popularity and prolific output or price of Britain's continuing anti-Catholic sentiment? (We can't have one as monarch; see also this last weekend's Wikileaks revelations.) How welcome a reappraisal of The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair (brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore in Neil Jordan's 1999 movie), Our Man in Havana and the rest, ahead of Rowan Joffe's adaptation of Brighton Rock (pictured), starring Sam Riley (Control) and Andrea Riseborough, due out 4 February.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Cinema on track

A friend stuck at home ill recently asked for good movie recommendations via Twitter. My best prescription is Film4's afternoon fare: a B&W thriller, ideally set in wartime. (He preferred the specific suggestions Galaxy Quest, Role Models and Mean Girls.) My favourite 1940s sickbed fodder has the added bonus of being set on trains: movies so good they're worth calling in ill for.

Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1940) is billed in some quarters as a follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938): it features comedy duo Charters and Caldicott reprising their roles as bungling, if doughty, English travellers. Night Train... stars Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison in a tale of industrial espionage played out on a journey to Munich (US fans can enjoy a new edition thanks to Criterion).

Eight years later, Jacques Tourneur returned to the theme of undercover agents with Berlin Express, starring Merle Oberon and Robert Ryan. As well as playing upon the tensions between the four Allied powers holding Berlin - the US, Britain, France and the USSR - the film is notable for its use of real bomb-damaged locations. I wonder if the scenes of an apocalyptic Berlin and, particularly, Frankfurt have the same effect as they do now upon contemporary, war-weary viewers who had suffered their own devastation.

UPDATE An hour after I posted this, @GdnFilmandMusic Tweeted an article by Joe Queenan slagging off train movies, which is just wrong. More4 today rescreened another great piece of post-WWII propaganda, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), which also stars Robert Ryan. Spencer Tracy was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a one-armed man who arrives by train in a desert town where he stirs up a hornets' nest. While the movie ostensibly hangs on the disappearance of a Japanese citizen four years before, in 1941 - the last time the Union Pacific stopped in Black Rock - it becomes a study in tension whether Tracy's character gets to catch the train back out.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Norwegian Wood: Murakami on film

I've always been struck by the beginning to Haruki Murakami's bestselling novel, Norwegian Wood (1987). Thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe is in a 747 coming into land at Hamburg airport when a Muzak version of The Beatles' Norwegian Wood plays over the PA; he is transported back 20 years to when he was a student in Tokyo, specifically his love affairs of the time.

It's a startling introduction that is only referenced very briefly a couple of pages in and never mentioned again: the entire rest of the novel is told in the past. A sonic version of Proust's madeleine, it is a tantalising glimpse of Watanabe's grown-up future but it is ignored by a much-anticipated film version of the book, out 18 March 2011.

Director Tran Anh Hung's Norwegian Wood (pictured) opens with the suicide of Toru's best friend Kizuki, which forms the rest of the drama; Toru falls in love with Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko while being courted by fellow student Midori, 'the kind of girl you notice'. (Norwegian Wood is Naoko's favourite song: 'That song can make me feel so sad… I don't know, I guess I imagine myself wandering in a deep wood. I'm all alone and it's cold and dark, and nobody comes to save me.')

As has been well documented, the massive success of the book provoked a sort of crisis for the author, who fled Japan. It's easy to see why it's so popular: its universal theme of first love is tempered with a seriousness only death (suicide) can bring. It's no way one of Murakami's best, nor is it a particular favourite. At the back of the Vintage edition, translator Jay Rubin seems to offer an apologia for the work, as well as answering criticism aimed at what he calls 'its autobiographicality'.

There are undeniable traces of the author, from the book's late-1960s university setting, with its burgeoning student protest movement, to Watanabe's reading matter: 'Truman Capote, John Updike, F Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, but I didn't see anyone else in my lectures or the dorm reading writers like that. They liked Kazumi Takahashi, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima…'

The film raises questions about Rubin's translation as Tran Anh Hung's take on Murakami's book is slow - at 133-minutes long - and overly reverential. Long takes may have suited Jun Ichikawa's version of Murakami short story Tony Takitani (2004), but the English-language translation of Norwegian Wood is lively and funnier than its big-screen version; Watanabe's comic roommate, nicknamed 'Storm Trooper', is reduced in the movie to a single gag. (Having done a little post namechecking Olivier Assayas the other day, he could be a better fit, even Cédric Klapisch or Christophe Honoré.)

British reviewers will no doubt point to Jonny Greenwood's decidedly odd score, which leaps in, strings blazing, at the film's few moments of heightened emotion. Otherwise old Can tracks take up the best part of the soundtrack, fading in and then being cut off abruptly in a manner that may or may not be reminiscent of the stop-go pacing on Martin Scorsese's remarkable Kundun (1997).

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Bono can seriously damage your career

In interviews to promote his latest film, The American, Dutch photographer/ director Anton Corbijn has been discussing his friendship with Bono. It's not a good sign: German director Wim Wenders' career never recovered after collaborating with the U2 frontman on The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), starring Mel Gibson and Milla Jovovich, which gives you some idea of its awfulness.

Previously, Wenders had worked with a string of novelists, including Peter Handke on The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty (1972), Sam Shepard for Paris, Texas (1984), and Handke again for Wings of Desire (1987). Wenders overreached himself in 1991, however, collaborating with Aussie Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey on Until the End of the World (pictured).

Carey and Wenders' 151-minute, globe-trotting folly is set in a hypothetical 1999 that's way ahead of 2010 in terms of silly hats and clunky telecommunications. The director was closest in imagining a future accompanied by a perpetual soundtrack - the film's features Talking Heads, Neneh Cherry, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Peter Gabriel and, lethally, U2. (Wenders pursued his musical fascinations in 1999 to Cuba and the Buena Vista Social Club.)

While Western filmmakers (Hal Hartley, Sofia Coppola and Gaspar Noé spring to mind) seem to go mad when they tackle Tokyo - one of 15 city stops for stars Solveig Dommartin, William Hurt and Sam Neill - Wenders is more like director Peter Greenaway and musician Thomas Dolby, seduced by the ideas and possibilities of new technologies. Next year, Wenders releases Pina, a groundbreaking documentary about German choreographer Pina Bausch, which combines cinema's format of the moment - 3D - with one of its subjects du jour, dance (La danse, Black Swan…). Here's hoping he's back on form.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A Gangway riddle

This is my 100th post on this blog, so I thought I'd return to Danish band Gangway. After our informal interview, songwriter Henrik Balling and I headed for a floating bar set atop one of Copenhagen's western Lakes and, later, dinner in Christiania.

Balling tells me he used to present a pop programme on Danish TV and had the chance to interview Meatloaf. Knowing Meatloaf is a clever guy, Balling decided to ask him, should there be a different law for the infinitely big and infinitely small?

A Belgian woman who smoked throughout her pregnancy gave birth to twins. All that came from her breasts was smoke and the twins remained absolutely tiny [the narrator holds his fingers no more than a few millimetres apart]. In the struggle for survival, one of the twins kills the other.

In Finland, a pregnant woman walks through something like a nuclear cloud and gives birth to a giant. One day the giant causes an accident that kills hundreds of people. Now, the miniscule twin is never going to harm anyone else; should there be a different law for the two?

Meatloaf's answer was this: you lock the two in a cell together and make the tiny man cook for the giant, who in turn must mend his cellmate's clothes. Lord knows what the ratings were like that night.

To come: Henrik Balling on pop. (Pictured: HB's bicycle.)

Monday, 6 December 2010

Going for the slow burn

One of the cinema highlights we can look forward to next year is Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. The director notoriously leaves a long hiatus beween films - 20 years in the case of Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998). Compared with that, the five-year gap to his last film, The New World, is nothing.

Another director I love who we haven't heard much of in a while is Vincent Ward. The New Zealander made his name in 1988 with The Navigator and followed it up five years later with the epic Map of the Human Heart but then lost his way with mythical What Dreams May Come (1998), starring Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra; I trust we'll hear from Ward again. Basque director Julio Medem is another major talent who's recently reemerged, with the small-scale Room in Rome, which has gone straight to video in the UK.

In difficult times for film funding, it won't come as a surprise if we see more of these lapses in the future, however. (I've written before about Hal Hartley and Whit Stillman.) Some authors are famous for it in the book world: Thomas Pynchon made his debut in 1963 with V. but, perhaps understandably, hit a 17-year silence following Gravity's Rainbow prior to Vineland (1990). Recently he's been downright prolific and the psychedelic prose of his latest, Inherent Vice (coming three years after Against the Day, 2006), makes a damn fine read.

The biggest novel of 2010 - Freedom - came nine years after its predecessor, The Corrections. The same gap followed author Jonathan Franzen's previous work, Strong Motion (1992).

Some of my favourite musicians are famous for having long breaks between albums; take The Blue Nile, who left a five-year gap between beautiful debut A Walk Across the Rooftops (1984) and the equally lush Hats, before waiting a further seven years for the disappointing Peace at Last (1996). Their fourth album, High, was released in 2004, so it's about time for a follow-up.

Even less in a hurry to get back in the studio is the formidable Scritti Politti (Green Gartside). Here are the years of release of his last three albums: 1988, 1999 and 2006. Importantly, every time he does deliver, it's worth the wait. Don't rush back.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Poster post

When I briefly lived in Paris I collected some very big posters for Luc Besson films Le dernier combat (1983), Subway (1985) and The Big Blue (1988). They went up on my walls as a student and I still have Subway on show in my flat, though I've never found a reliable method of securing it.

I wish I'd picked up a - smaller - poster for an early Olivier Assayas film, Paris s'éveille (1991). It's not an amazing film, about a father, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and son who fall for the same woman, but it and Subway showed me the possibilities of cinema. Both movies star beautiful women - Judith Godrèche and Isabelle Adjani, respectively - and the poster images are great (see above).

The films are also notable for their soundtracks, another fascination (the score for Paris s'éveille is by John Cale). As is the way with French actresses, Godrèche recently recorded an album to support her directorial debut, Toutes les filles pleurent (2010). Benjamin Biolay features on the title track, while Piers Faccini guests on the album's stand-out number, Farewell.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Gently does it

One of BBC4's pre-Christmas treats is an adaptation of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which has previously been adapted for Radio 4 with Harry Enfield. Titled simply Dirk Gently, the TV version is scheduled to be broadcast 16 December and stars Stephen Mangan and Helen Baxendale, who's been missing too long from our screens.

DGHDA was a much-anticipated departure from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio and book series that made Adams' name - not least because the author tended to let time lapse between projects; he coined the phrase, 'I like deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.' (The Hitchhiker's trilogy was extended to a quartet by So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish in 1984, while a fifth book, Mostly Harmless, was added in 1992.)

Published in 1987, Dirk Gently allowed Adams to take flight with ideas of the interconnectivity of events - centred on a sofa impossibly wedged in a stairwell - while riffing on various comic themes, including why horoscopes never warn you when you're about to die. A follow-up a year later was called The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, while posthumously published The Salmon of Doubt (2002) is named after a draft for a third Gently novel that is included in the collection.

Haruki Murakami wrote his earliest works before the Dirk Gently novels were published but Adams' spirit can be felt in the Japanese author's freewheeling A Wild Sheep Chase (1982; 1989), Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985; 1991) and Dance Dance Dance (1988; 1994). The first date I've given there is the original publication, with the English translation to follow. Because of the lapse between them, Murakami can feel like Adams' spiritual heir to English-language readers, but he outstrips his potential mentor temporally and in terms of quality.

However much you may wish otherwise, the Dirk Gently books are overly meandering and comically weak; more deadlines should have been allowed to pass in their gestation. At an hour's runtime, the BBC may be looking for a successor to Jonathan Creek's quirky magical detection; tightened up from the books, there's no reason why Dirk Gently can't succeed, though I question whether Christmas party season is the best launch time, iPlayer or no.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Feels like the Richter groove

'You need more than/ the Gerhard Richter hanging on your wall' - Pet Shop Boys, Love etc

The first time I knowingly saw work by German artist Gerhard Richter was MoMA's major retrospective in New York in 2002. It was a special trip: I think it was the first time my then girlfriend had been to the United States, and we saw this. As writer Geoff Dyer says elsewhere, and slightly differently, it was as if these paintings had always been waiting for me.

I love Richter's early paintings from photographs, and even his painted photographs, though equivocate on his bright lines and the like (adapted by designer Farrow for the cover of Pet Shop Boys' last album, Yes, which includes the line quoted top). In the last few years there have been a couple of major exhibitions of Richter's work in this country, including Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Whitechapel Gallery's Atlas and his Paintings from Private Collections at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama promises to be the first major retrospective of the artist in London for 20 years; let's hope its power hasn't been dissipated by these other recent displays. Before then - arriving 19 January 2011 - Tate Modern hosts Gabriel Orozco. I've seen the show in Paris and it's a zinger, up there with the venue's Cildo Meireles exhibition in winter 2008/9, and Francis Alys this past summer.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Etienne Daho's 10 best albums

I have been remiss: I failed to mark the release of French pop star Etienne Daho's new album earlier this month. Le condamné à mort revisits a poem by Jean Genet Daho performed in part earlier in his career, this time accompanied by actress Jeanne Moreau. Genet's first poem, written in prison in 1942, it was dedicated to his muse Maurice Pilorge, who was executed aged 24 in Rennes in 1939. As one reviewer on Amazon France notes, 'à ne pas écouter en présence des enfants.'

Daho is a pop phenomenon, whose equivalent in English-language music might be a mix of Madonna, Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. Born in Oran, Algeria, in 1956, he emerged from the post-punk movement in 1981 as a writer of perfectly formed songs with a quick ear for the happy collaboration, notably with friends from his student days in Rennes.

Le condamné... is his 21st album in a 30-year career, including a couple of EPs (notably Reserection with St Etienne in 1995), a few greatest hits compilations and several live discs. Here's a round-up of his 10 studio albums, many of which were recorded in London, starting with the best:
  • 1. Pour nos vies martiennes, 1988 While Pop satori marks a crucial moment in the development of French pop music, equivalent to Pet Shop Boys' Please around the same time, Daho's song writing has never been consistently stronger than here. It's impossible to pick stand-out tracks from Pour nos vies' menu of acoustic pop classics, whose cover was painted by Rolling Stones and Bowie luminary Guy Peellaert.
  • 2. Pop satori, 1986 Daho's playful mid-1980s take on synthpop includes some of his most popular songs, Epaule tattoo, Paris, le Flore and Duel au soleil. The title track and chain-rattling 4,000 années d'horreur add to the fun, while a deluxe edition released in 2003 included remixes by Fischerspooner, among others.
  • 3. Eden, 1996 Ten years after Pop satori, Daho bravely returned to the electro frontline with this biblically themed concept album, of all things, which builds from opener Au commencement, through slinky Un serpent sans importance to the fractured L'enfer enfin. (Benjamin Biolay provided a form of secular response in 2005 with A l'origine.)
  • 4. La notte, la notte, 1984 Unmissable for its Pierre et Gilles cover, Daho's second album features more of his most famous songs, including Sortir ce soir, Le grand sommeil and Week-end à Rome, retooled with St Etienne for He's On the Phone (1995). Other favourites include Si je m'en vais avant toi and Poppy Gene Tierney. Very poppy indeed.
  • 5. Paris ailleurs, 1991 Non-native language speakers always love a good pun and Daho is no different, beginning with a 'day-o' chorus. This swaggering, confident album, recorded in New York with Edith Fambuena, gave rise to no fewer than five singles, among them opener Des attractions désastres (remixed by PM Dawn) and Comme un igloo (which features one of my favourite French words, farouche), while Toi + Moi and La berlue could have taken that number to seven. Splendid.
  • 6. Mythomane, 1981 Daho's superb pop sense and flair for constructing perfect three-minute moments is immediately recognisable on his debut, which includes perennials L'ete and Mythomane. Even the rudimentary Va t'en and Encore cette chanson hint at more to come.
  • 7. Réévolution, 2003 Back to the territory of Paris ailleurs, with a similar black-and-white portrait cover, Réévolution is notable for a couple of guest appearances from Charlotte Gainsbourg - for single If - and Marianne Faithfull, on Retour à toi, another single. The title track is another stand-out.
  • 8. Corps et armes, 2000 I was initially underwhelmed by this layered entry in Daho's oeuvre but returned to it after Neil Tennant included track La baie on Pet Shop Boys' Back to Mine compilation (alongside Elgar and Biosphere!). Sure enough, numbers like Le brasier, L'année du dragon and San Antonia de la Luna repay dedication.
  • 9. Le condamné a mort, 2010 The poems of Genet set to music by Hélène Martin in a calmer version of Hector Zazou's startling 1992 assault on Rimbaud, Sahara Blue, though it's still strong stuff. The album's released on Daho's Radical Pop Music label and is available on iTunes, which assumes music-buyers aren't interested in any form of additional information.
  • 10. L'invitation, 2007 First single L'invitation makes for a terrific opener, although the songwriting is less immediate than usual for this reunion with Edith Fambuena. A form of counterpoint to the title track, La vie continuera is a heartfelt point to close - outstanding.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Indecent exposure, from the street to our screens

The issue of privacy brought up by a new exhibition and current film remind me of some photocopied photos pasted up in Shoreditch a while back. Those posters (pictured) showed a semi-clad woman captured in compromising positions and they may be another example of street art being ahead of the curve.

The second prize winner for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010 - on show at the National Portrait Gallery until 20 February 2011 - is a relatively explicit picture of a naked woman. Panayiotis Lamprou's candid Portrait of my British wife, 2010, shows her wearing only a vest top, looking relaxed, sated perhaps. Shot outside their Greek holiday home on a hot summer's day, the photo wasn't initially intended for public consumption; its title hints at that other repository for these kind of snaps, Readers' Wives.

The question of whether to publish intimate shots forms the crux of director Ashley Horner's debut film, brilliantlove. Characters Manchester and Noon spend a summer shagging and soon Manchester's photos of their sex soon find their way to a broader audience (without girlfriend Noon's permission). Suddenly they - Manchester, Noon and the pictures - are a very public phenomenon.

A man in New Zealand was recently jailed for posting such a photo of his ex girlfriend on Facebook. In what was described as 'a certain symmetry', the judge ordered the offender to allow himself be photographed by the press. Not poetic, justice.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Book-photography photography books

The earliest photograph in André Kertész's On Reading features barefoot Hungarian children poring over a book in 1915. The collection, first published in 1971, features readers in the important locations of the Hungarian-born photographer's life: Paris, New York, Argentina, where his younger brother emigrated. There are groups of students, presumably, sitting with books in NYC's Washington Square, otherwise many of those captured by Kertész are reading newspapers. The best images are of isolated book-lovers caught surreptitiously on rooftops. Reading is a solitary pleasure and here people have found their own undisturbed space, until Kertész's lens comes snooping.

A friend takes beautiful pictures of people reading. As with Kertész, the book cover is generally obscured but the books lend their titles to the photographs; while these are portraits of people, you can be in no doubt what the subject is. I would have liked to have been photographed on the blue bench outside my old flat, where I could sit on summer evenings. Now it would have to be on my daily commute, when I do the majority of my reading. I'm not sure what I'd be holding, something by Simenon, no doubt. (The pictures accompanying this post are my own, of Shakespeare and Company in Paris.)

In 2002, Cuban-born Abelardo Morrell (famous for his camera obscura images) published a book of photographs of books, A Book of Books. It's not an obvious project but apparently some of the first pictures taken by photographic pioneer Henry Fox Talbot were of his library. Morrell's photos feature some tomes that have been altered, for instance by having a hole drilled in one, though I'm especially drawn to his image of an edition of A Tale of Two Cities, where the print of the reverse side of the page is coming through. Giant storage spaces work well, too, reminiscent of Alain Resnais' 1956 short film about Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale, Toute la mémoire du monde. And then there are heartbreaking images of books damaged by dirt or irreversibly warped by water. Tragic.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Shooting war: art on the frontline

Vietnam changed the art of war forever. Think of the most memorable images of that conflict and they are all photographs: Don McCullin's 1968 photo of a US marine that defines 'thousand-yard stare'; Nick Ut's famous image of naked, scarred nine-year-old Kim Phuc escaping a napalm attack in 1972, and Eddie Adams' picture of Southern Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a suspected Viet Cong with a gunshot to the head (1968).

Of our most recent conflicts the defining images are more remote: footage of the missile attack which wrought 'shock and awe' on Baghdad or black-and-white aerial videos of targets before they are wiped out. On the ground, the most memorable photographs are those connected with the humiliation of our prisoners, whether US soldiers' snapshots of hooded or naked men in Abu Ghraib or the orange-garbed inmate being wheeled on a makeshift trolley in Guantánamo.

In Iraq, official US artist Michael Fay's best sketches are portraits of fellow marines or, again, prisoners. British artist Michael Cook's pictures of Afghanistan are particularly odd - these could be images of an unlikely tourist destination, off the beaten track, superimposed with the paraphernalia of war: a football match where everyone is wearing khaki, with sandbags in the background, a man leading a camel train blocked by an armoured army jeep, or ordinary street scenes, notable for their bullet-pocked buildings.

One of London's best museums, the Imperial War Museum has a great collection of war art, notably from the First World War, including work by Paul Nash, William Orpen and CRW Nevinson (who, Wikipedia informs me, was credited with holding the first cocktail party in England). As well as those haunting images of strobe-lit fields (Futurist Nevinson is especially good on this), some of my favourite paintings feature those behind, in each sense, the carnage: try A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay (1919) by Orpen, or William Nicholson's The Canadian Headquarters Staff (1917-19) - impossible to miss at some two-and-a-half by three metres. (Nicholson is notable for a couple of other war paintings a long way from the frontline, including Ballroom in an Air Raid, 1918, where a trail of red, perhaps a fallen curtain or rolled-up carpet, leads the eye to the centre of this desolate picture.)

Battlefield surgery is a perennial favourite as are flag-draped coffins, which led to the biggest recent controversy over war art. Last year, US defence secretary Robert M Gates announced that the Pentagon had lifted a ban imposed in 1991 on photographing the return of war dead to America. That was five years after Amy Katz and Tami Silicio's picture of an apparently endless line of coffins bearing the Stars and Stripes in an airplane fuselage.

World Press Photo 2010 is at the Royal Festival Hall, on London's South Bank, until 5 December and features pictures of the aftermath of a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, a phosphorus bomb over Gaza City, and a fatally wounded US soldier being treated in Helmand province, Afghanistan, among other images of current conflicts.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Pierre Etaix: The Great Love, slight return

On the night I saw my first film by French director Pierre Etaix, I also met him - at a screening in London's estimable Ciné Lumiere. Etaix was guest of honour and - 10 days short of his 82nd birthday - stepped onto the stage with a bounce; afterwards he happily signed autographs, adding a trademark clown doodle, and retained a sparkle in his eyes despite what must have been a tiring evening. Part of his joy, he said, was to meet Terry Gilliam, who introduced Etaix's The Great Love (Le grand amour, 1969) that night.

A cabaret performer and clown, Etaix served as assistant director to Jacques Tati on Mon oncle (1958), also creating the iconic illustration for the film's poster. Following this apprenticeship of sorts, Etaix went on to direct and star in a series of his own features. While Tati's work is imbued with a sadness at the passing of the past (highlighted nowhere better than in Sylvain Chomet's beautiful The Illusionist, 2010, from a script by Tati), Etaix is more ambivalent, recognising the values of tradition while embracing the new. (In 1989 Etaix worked on a film in a groundbreaking new 3D format, Omnimax, which has no screen but places the audience at the centre of the action.)

His humour has probably dated better than some of Tati's films, too, though that may be because Etaix's films have been hidden from public view for a generation due to what is consistently referred to as a 'legal imbroglio'. There is nothing forced about his work; while Tati can sometimes seem a tad ponderous, The Great Love is at once snappy and measured. Etaix was a contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague and says he was approached by Truffaut to help with a dance scene in Jules et Jim (1962) but the collaboration didn't happen: 'They [the Nouvelle Vague] didn't need me.'

Because I saw Etaix giving a brief introduction before viewing The Great Love, I hadn't been prepared to see him as a young man in the film's main role. Incredible, I thought, how Etaix managed to find a lead actor who looks exactly as he would have done then. It was as if I were seeing the premiere of a new work the 81-year-old director had travelled back 42 years in time to make.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Francesca Woodman: Chasing shadows

In a piece for ArtReview reprinted in his new collection of essays Working the Room, Geoff Dyer, 'eager to demonstrate some awareness of the technical side of photography', asks Michael Ackerman what the latter does to achieve his trademark blurry style. 'That's just how it is,' Dyer is told.

The same might be true of the work of American Francesca Woodman, whose face is routinely blurred in her self-portraits, head fizzing side-to-side during the photographs' exposure, hiding in plain sight. Woodman was famously her own favourite model. As she said: 'It's a matter of convenience, I am always available.' (There is a more playful comment I can't find, how her fellow students must be fed up with seeing her in all these pictures.)

Her identity hidden in this way, it's not always easy to recognise the often nude artist in her work. (A curled metal ring is one cue.) She poses herself like a sculpture in a precariously poised fireplace, lying on top of a wardrobe, or hanging from a doorframe; she creates an Yves Klein-esque imprint of her torso on a dusty studio floor. She uses found props: a pane of glass is pressed over her crotch to create a disorienting reflection or, more dangerously, against a breast. The settings tend to be deserted rooms, wallpaper peeling, the sort we're used to seeing in countless bad movies - this is photography as performance.

I first encountered Woodman's work in the Artist Rooms touring series at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art only last year; about a tenth of her 500-strong oeuvre went on show today at Victoria Miro, in an exhibition running until 22 January. Born in 1958, the daughter of a photographer, Woodman committed suicide in New York by jumping from a window (there is a section on Wikipedia of 'suicides by jumping from a height' but is there not a better term?).

The introduction to a retrospective of her work in Murcia, Spain, last year includes this unfortunate phrase: 'Up until her untimely death at the early age of 22, in a brief albeit extremely intense trajectory, she mapped the territories of estrangement and solitude…' The catalogue is otherwise coy about her death, presumably in keeping with the wishes of the artist's estate; while this does no disservice to her photographs, it's difficult to see portraits of Woodman with coils of silver birch bark wrapped round her wrists like bandages without thinking of her depression.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

From Knowing Me, Knowing You to a-ha

Today The Beatles finally agreed to the inevitable, selling their back catalogue on iTunes (Apple on Apple). Anyone who loves pop music and doesn't acknowledge the Liverpudlian foursome's contribution is a moron but why are all Beatles fans into rock music? Perhaps it's a generational thing, but I don't know anyone hooked on the Fab Four with an interest in fab pop. This makes me wonder if Revolver (1966) or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) could count as the greatest pop album of all time.

I've no doubt shot myself in the foot having suggested that Thomas Dolby's slightly obscure The Golden Age of Wireless represents the highpoint of turn-of-the-1980s synthpop, but I'd like to put forward Abba's The Visitors as the best pop album ever. An outstanding roster of hits, including Take a Chance On Me, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man after Midnight), Lay All Your Love On Me, has its high point with my favourite single of all time, The Winner Takes It All.

In the wake of well-documented splits within the band, this poppiest of pop groups aired its marital trauma for all the world to hear; it's heartbreaking to think of the words put into the mouths of performers Agnetha Falkstog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad from the opening, 'I don't wanna talk/ About the things we've gone through...', to lines 'But tell me does she kiss/ Like I used to kiss you?' and 'Somewhere deep inside/ You must know I miss you'.

This was the spirit songwriters Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus took into their eighth, and final, studio album, creating an unlikely masterpiece. (The only other group I can think of who quit on the heels of their best album is Gangway.) The Visitors, much like The Golden Age of Wireless, pitches the battleground of relationships against global politics. While Dolby's is the more modern album, with its overt use of synths for their own sake, thematically The Golden Age... is the more backward-looking as it harks back to the Second World War, while Abba's 1981 work is set against the backdrop of the contemporary Cold War.

It's a template that has been followed most succesfully by a-ha on album Scoundrel Days (1986), from angular, titular, opener through excellent single I've Been Losing You and epic The Weight of the Wind to the lighter ending, tonally and emotionally; Maybe Maybe for Abba's Two for the Price of One. (Abba, a-ha and Gangway are all Scandinavian - the full compliment of Swedes, Norwegians and Danes, respectively - make of that what you will; I no doubt will make something of it at some point.) Abba would still produce one great, autobiographical, single - The Day Before You Came - before calling it a day. Remarkably, it's a decision they've never gone back on.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Pierre Etaix: The Great Love

'It started badly…' - Pierre

I've just seen the film of the year: it was made in 1968. This evening, Terry Gilliam introduced The Great Love (Le grand amour) at London's wonderful Ciné Lumière with director Pierre Etaix in attendance. The film is a whimsical take on provincial mores and marriage; it's as if Ozu's Late Autumn (1960) were invaded by the spirit of Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), this time not under the hand of Jacques Demy but invested with the anarchical comic outlook of Laurel and Hardy.

Etaix considered filming The Great Love all over France to create a composite city but, much to his producer's relief, settled on Tours, in the middle of the country. The film's centres are its main characters' home, the office, a city park, the railway station and a nearby café, filled with its habitués - the setting of so many bleak Simenon novels invaded by transcendent Technicolor.

Etaix's clown sensibility is captured in a wonderful scene where he, in the lead role, tries to remember whether he met his wife-to-be - played by real-life first wife Annie Fratellini (of a famous circus family) - on the terrace or inside that bar. One central set-piece is a surrealistic dream: Godard's Week End (1967) played out in motorised beds.

The sequence begins with Etaix's character, married Pierre, dreaming of his beautiful new secretary, Agnes. His bed wheels itself out of the marital bedroom and into the wider world (pictured), reminiscent of those beautiful closing scenes in two films separated by generations and temperaments: Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953) and Roy Andersson's You, the Living (2007). They're some of my most-loved sequences in all cinema, to which I can add a new favourite.

Asked for his advice to would-be directors, Etaix's answer could be translated as make what you love, or do what you love. A whole new audience is set to fall in love with his recently restored work; certainly every director should now be expected to perform sleight-of-hand tricks during Q&As, as the soon-to-be 82 year old did.

His debut feature, Le soupirant (1963), screens at the Ciné Lumière tomorrow and, on this showing, I can't recommend it enough. I shall return to Pierre Etaix.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Golden Age of Wireless: the best synthpop album ever?

The burgeoning of synthpop acts in the late 1970s through early '80s didn't produce many great albums; the music from that period by artists like Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and John Foxx is best experienced on greatest hits compilations. By this point, Kraftwerk had released their most influential work, and classic albums by Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, for instance, were a short while off. Other British acts were, however, mining a rich seam of electrosoul - from Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement (1981) through Yazoo's Upstairs at Eric's (1982) to Cupid & Psyche '85 by Scritti Politti.

Against this background came a debut that was very different from everything around it. The first inkling I had was heralded by the opening lines of a single: 'Switch off the mind and let the heart decide/ Who you were meant to to be'. It was a musical challenge. Set against a soundscape of navigation bleeps, Windpower wasn't the first single by English musician Thomas Morgan Robertson but, from the moment those heavily programmed synth drum sounds kicked in, you were hooked.

The cover of the album from which it came, The Golden Age of Wireless (1982), features a mock-up of one of those old illustrated magazine covers, this time featuring Robertson - or Thomas Dolby as he rechristened himself, legal suits apropos the sound system notwithstanding - as a lab technician, skull cut away to show a glowing egg shape. As exemplified by the intro to Windpower, The Golden Age... is fascinated by those currents crackling over our heads (Airwaves); he's a keen sailor and the album conjures images of tramp trawlers on the North Sea, as well as pilots making solo air deliveries, and even those post-apocalyptic motorways created many years later by Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later. (I remember Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows coming out around this time and its drawings would also be a good fit.)

These scenes are striking in their isolation but the tracks are about movement, too, notably Flying North, with its insistent tchk, tchk, tchk drum sound (now spelt !!!): 'Metal bird dip wing of fire/ Whose airlanes comb dark Earth/ The poles are tethers we were born in... Down with the landing gear/ Up goes the useless prayer' - tremendous! While Numan was transcribing the dreams of JG Ballard into his own fantasies - nowhere better than on the post-punk Tubeway Army (1978) - Dolby was creating a future built on an antique heyday of technology and history, personal and otherwise. She Blinded with Me Science made No 5 in the US Billboard chart and was added as the album's upbeat opener; Dolby also cuts loose on another single with a female subject, Europa and the Pirate Twins.

The sea washes back for the final tracks: One of Our Submarines is built on sounds you'd associate with a sub (Dolby's uncle died serving on a submarine in World War II) while Cloudburst on Shingle Street builds slowly ('I've been a cork in the ocean, been bobbing in the North Sea') to a choir repeating the title. Using very synthy synthesizer sounds, Dolby creates a much warmer soundscape than his contemporaries, a good fit for the broken relationships and end of empire he ponders here. Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode are acknowledged masters but Dolby created a coherent masterpiece: the stand-out album of a golden age.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The five best electropop albums, ever

I thought about calling this post 'Was 1990 the best year for electropop, ever?' but two choices fluffed it up.
There used to be an argument that an era's defining music came at its midpoint - so, for the 1980s, that came with Live Aid, for the '90s some might say it was Definitely Maybe. Others, though, manage to be ahead of the curve, setting out to define a decade, and beyond, from its start…

1. Behaviour, Pet Shop Boys (1990)
You won't be surprised I've put this first. For their fourth album of original material, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant decided to return to working with a single producer for the first time since their debut, Please (1986). The duo decamped to Harold 'Axel F' Faltermeyer's Munich home studio, where afternoons were spent sampling the former Giorgio Moroder-programmer's draught beer; in contrast with much contemporary pop built on digital samples, they would use analogue synths. From opener Being boring through to closing number Jealousy (the first song the Boys wrote together) it's uniformly brilliant, with the sole exception of How can you expect to be taken seriously? (later paired as a single with their cover of Where the streets have no name/ Can't take my eyes off you). While Being boring was the group's lowest charting single up to that point it's become a live favourite, heralded by that funky, skittish intro; Behaviour also produced my favourite PSB single, So hard, and some of their best lyrics: 'Tell me why don't we try/ Not to break our hearts and make it so hard for ourselves?'

2. Violator, Depeche Mode (1990)
This is a remarkable album, most notable for singles Enjoy the Silence (with its iconic video) and Personal Jesus (covered by Johnny Cash) but boasting many other great tracks. I was intrigued to read that Pet Shop Boys used Violator as a benchmark for Behaviour. Like that album, Violator makes a lowkey start, with another single, World in My Eyes; producer Flood (who had previously worked on such electro classics as Erasure's The Circus and Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine) immediately sets out the album's very precise sound, typified on Halo, Waiting for the Night, Blue Dress and Clean. I wonder if it's a template the band have tried to replicate for their more recent albums, though without such strong songwriting (or bass, it can sometimes feel). It works best in its use of nuanced vocals and percussive noise, giving way to brushes and guitars for one of my favourite tracks, The Sweetest Perfection, the rockier Personal Jesus - and then there's Enjoy the Silence. The Mode have never been better.

3. Technique, New Order (1989)
Whereas a couple of the albums here
- Behaviour and Chorus -
sport a deliberately retro manifesto that means they still almost sound futurist, Technique was both ahead and very much of its time. I would have sworn it was released after Behaviour and Violator though it hasn't aged quite so well. Pet Shop Boys are well-known for underpinning great pop songs with contemporary club tropes (Can you forgive her? from 1993's Very album springs to mind, the only pop song I know whose title is taken from a novel by Trollope), but the only album other than Technique I can think of that so absorbs dance culture successfully in a pop idiom is The Beloved's Happiness (1990, natch). New Order harnessed the acid house boom and the Manchester foursome immersed themselves in the Balearic scene (the album was partly recorded in Ibiza), while managing to preserve Peter Hook's distinctive basslines (All the Way) and their own roots (Love Less). Round & Round prefigures True Faith while stand-out opener Fine Time includes those bleating sheep samples prevalent in the ambient scene. Great lines, too: 'Hey, sophisticated lady... You've got love technique'.

4. Chorus, Erasure (1991)
Erasure followed the massive success of the gloriously OTT Wild! (1989) - featuring Drama!, Blue Savannah and Star - with the back-to-basics approach espoused by Pet Shop Boys' Behaviour. The opening, title, track is all bleeps, bloops and burrs, in service of a tremendous pop song; catchier still is Love to Hate You, which has the audacity to open with a crowd going wild(!) and harks back to some of the greatest, campest, disco classics. All the artists here are fascinated with remixes but Erasure chose some of the oddest collaborators to rework the singles from this album, notably for the Am I Right EP (including The Grid, below, and tremendous Warp-ers LFO). Since then, the duo's output has been somewhat patchy, which may have lead critics to miss out on the unrivalled songcraft of I Say I Say I Say (1994), Erasure (1995) and Nightbird (2005).

5. Electric Head, The Grid (1990)
Another duo, making quite a different sound. I wouldn't say the debut album by Dave Ball (ex of Soft Cell) and Richard Norris is underrated, instead underknown. I hesitated between the aforementioned Happiness and Electronic's self-titled debut for this slot but Electric Head is hugely influential. The Grid did become more poppy in successive albums 456 (1992) and Evolver (1994) but this has many mindblowing, sampler-delic moments: A Beat Called Love, This Must Be Heaven, Intergalactica and Dr Celine. Floatation, their first single, is the band at its most blissed out and serene, and makes a fine pairing with The Beloved's The Sun Rising (the two bands shared a record label, EastWest).

Monday, 8 November 2010

Retrospective: Pet Shop Boys' 10 best b-sides

Celebrating 25 years of Pet Shop Boys and the pop duo's new singles compilation, Ultimate.

1. After the event (b-side to Did you see me coming?, 2009)
One of Pet Shop Boys' best songs, I have no idea how this ended up as a b-side, it's utterly beautiful. It's built on a circular background of synth chimes that means that you can put it on repeat - I have done, often - and it segues into itself; it grows towards the end with a backing chorus of 'come on, come on'. Lyrically, it appears to be concerned with the pressures of urban life ('Drilling, always someone drilling'; 'The school run has begun/ Mothers all arrive, each in a four-wheel drive') and being oversensitive ('Sometimes someone gets upset/ Doesn't hear the laughter'), followed by Princess Diana's funeral: 'Suddenly someone dies/ Everyone's overreacting, with clichés and bad acting/ Misty in the rain, flowers in their cellophane… ' Lovely, just lovely.

2. The resurrectionist (I'm with stupid, 2004)
I don't like the a-sides of either of the top two songs here; the b-sides are far superior. This song is about nineteenth-century bodysnatchers and I hope I'm right in saying it was inspired by Sarah Wise's book The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London. They would dig up corpses and sell them to hospitals for medical research; the song namechecks a couple of pubs where the bodysnatchers used to hang out: the King of Denmark and the Fortune of War. I love the topographical content; it's rare you can trace the outline of a city (in this case London) from a song: 'Crossing Blackfriar's Bridge to Guy's/ Then back to Bart's for a better price… I met a man down Thieving Lane… On Newgate Street we saw a hanging'. Considering its subject matter this is a remarkably upbeat song - Pet Shop Boys' b-sides tend to be cheerier than their album material - and this is guaranteed to put a spring in your step.

3. Don Juan (Domino dancing, 1988)
This was written by Neil Tennant before he met Chris Lowe and is famously about the crisis in the Balkans in the 1930s: 'King Zog's back from holiday, Marie Lupescu's grey/ And King Alexander is dead in Marseilles.' It's quite cryptic and, from a minimalist start worthy of Miserablism (b-side to Was it worth it?, 1991), goes all cinematic, led by the lyrics: 'The man who will cover for Don Juan's old soothsayer/ Films for a Warner brother or Mr Goldwyn-Mayer/ Think of his starlet, how much will he pay her?' The climax of a string of great b-sides, stretching back to I want a dog (reworked for the Introspective album, 1988) and Do I have to? (revived for the Pandemonium tour).

4. We all feel better in the dark (Being boring, 1990)
According to Tennant in the sleevenotes for Behaviour: Further listening 1990-91, this is 'the most lustful song the Pet Shop Boys have ever recorded'. Lowe stars as a sort of e-ed up Rex Harrison: 'My body surges with energy/ Shivers down my spine/ I look deep into your eyes/ And I know that you'll be mine' with the title softly repeated by Tennant. There is a laid-back, piano-laden remix by Brothers in Rhythm that features the sound of a woman climaxing instead of Lowe's vocals, which is available on the Disco 2 compilation. What times those were.

5. Blue on Blue (Minimal, 2006)
This is tremendous but wasn't easy to listen to initially (it was released on DVD!). I hesitate to say it's got some of Tennant's least inspired lyrics - 'Look over there/ Sky meets the sea/ Blue on blue' - as they work so well, lifting a track that could be backing for an item on Tomorrow's World. Even more contrarily, it is almost like an instrumental, comparable to other PSB-sides Music for boys (DJ Culture, 1991) and Euroboy (Yesterday, when I was mad, 1994), the latter memorable for its brilliant, mad, Afro-Cossack samples.

6. Delusions of grandeur (A red letter day, 1997)
Another hugely upbeat number, based around a chord change from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. 'The idea came from the book Hadrian VII by Baron Corvo, who was an embittered English writer living in Venice at the turn of the century,' according to Tennant. 'His book is about an Englishman with megalomaniac fantasies who becomes pope.' Again it has a sort of chiming base, piano stabs, backing choirs possibly borrowed from the album with which it coincided (Bilingual) and a sample that sounds as if it comes from the start of My October Symphony on the Behaviour album
. A cheery insight into the world of Kim Jong-il, perhaps: 'They said, "We don't understand you"/ And I want revenge'

7. I get excited (you get excited too) (Heart, 1988)
A great song for going out (coming out?) based on the Oscar Wilde quote, 'We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars'. Tennant claims, 'It's never entered my head it had any sexual connotations at all.' Originally recorded with Bobby 'O' in New York, it's about the lure of the Big Apple. It's one of PSB's 'party' b-sides, exemplified elsewhere by the great pair of songs that accompanied Numb in 2006: Party song ('We want a party song with a good-time lyric') and Bright young things ('Lucy's wearing vintage/ Boy's in a rented tux').

8. It must obvious (So hard, 1990) & Bet she's not your girlfriend (How can you expect to be taken seriously?/ Where the streets have no name, 1990)
These two tracks were recorded at the same time, between sessions for the Harold Faltermeyer-produced Behaviour; It must be obvious would fit very well into the analogue sound of that album. These songs share the theme of hidden sexuality - approached very humorously in Bet…, which was inspired by George Michael, apparently, as well as Tennant's experience of going out with a beautiful woman at school in Newcastle. Pet Shop Boys' best songs about being gay, they work as tales of unrequited straight romance: 'Everyone knows when they look at us/ Of course they do, it must be obvious/ I've never asked you now I suppose/ That you're the only one who doesn't know'.

9. Your funny uncle (It's alright, 1989)
A terrifically poignant track, inspired by the funeral of the friend whose party features in Being boring. It's a tone the group strikes again in the untitled closing track on Very (1993) and another lovely b-side, Hey, Headmaster (Can you forgive her?, 1993). Your funny uncle was paired with One of the crowd, one of Pet Shop Boys' very English, funny songs, sung by a Vocoder-ed Lowe ('When I go fishing with my rod/ I often get that urge'), much as Jack the Lad accompanied Paninaro on the back of Suburbia (1986).

10. The ghost of myself (New York city boy, 1999)
In which the Boys wig out, and another song with (this time autobiographical) mentions of London locales: Café Picasso on King's Road, nearby Flood Street and the V&A. It's tempting to imagine the vocalist wandering back further, geographically and temporally, to the earliest track I'll mention here, That's my impression (Love comes quickly, 1985): 'I went looking for someone I couldn't find/ Staring at faces by the Serpentine'. Other b-sides where PSB rock include Disco potential (Somewhere, 1997) and The truck driver and his mate (Before, 1996) which, says Tennant in the sleevenotes to Bilingual: Further listening 1995-1997, is 'a song about male bonding'.