Thursday, 29 September 2011

Last chance to see...

Three highly recommended art exhibitions come to an end this weekend (or nearly) - do catch them if you can:

1. Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century, is at the Royal Academy until Sunday - I wrote about it here.

2. Also closing Sunday is Richard Dadd at Orleans House Gallery (pictured), Twickenham, a fascinating little show of the patricidal Victorian artist's work from the Bethlem Royal Hospital Collection.

3. Due to end 2 October but extended for one more week is another small exhibition: Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera at Chichester's Pallant House Gallery. It features a few of her most iconic self-portraits and some beautiful colour photographs of Kahlo by Hungarian Nickolas Muray.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Three literary sisters

As an antidote to Carsten Jensen's very male We, the Drowned, I recently embarked on three books new to paperback by women authors. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad won this year's Pulitzer Prize and is great fun, a series of interlinked tales equal to the best, early Douglas Coupland novels. It's extremely readable, though finally there's a suspicion Egan doesn't have much to say beneath the literary fireworks.

Siri Hustved never struggles for something to say, but the manner in which she does so may prove trying for readers of her dated feminist tract, The Summer without Men. On retreat to the country following a breakdown inspired by the break-up of her marriage, the book's narrator, Mia Fredricksen, teaches young women poetry and joins a book club with older women.

Fredricksen opines: 'Lots of women read fiction. Men don't. Women read fiction by women and by men. Most men don't. If a man opens a novel, he likes to have a masculine name on the cover; it's reassuring somehow.' (Elsewhere, there is reference to Hustved's husband, the 'prominent American novelist' Paul Auster.)

Like Fredricksen, the narrator of the first section of Great House, Nadia, is a poet, though she's found success as a novelist. And like Egan and Hustved, author Nicole Krauss plays with form and voices in her Orange-shortlisted novel. Following author Polly Courtney's branding dust-up with publishers HarperCollins, it's worth noting none of these books could be categorised as chick lit.

While Krauss's novel seems to be very determinedly pitched at the literary market by publisher Penguin, the same can't be said entirely for the other two - the paperback edition of The Summer without Men has one of the worst covers I've ever seen (I wish I had bought the original imprint). It gives the lie to Fredricksen's admission: 'You will notice that the written word hides the body of the one who writes. For all you know, I might be a MAN in disguise. Unlikely, you say, with all this feminist prattle flying out here and there and everywhere, but can you be sure?'

Monday, 26 September 2011

Premier league Belgium


It's a month to go until the release of The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of three books by Belgian author Hergé. I'll post on Tintin soon but I thought I'd celebrate the film hitting cinemas with weekly posts on Belgium, starting with football.

The national side boasts a number of players we see week in, week out in England, many of them in the Premiership: goalkeeper Simon Mignolet (Sunderland), defenders Vincent Kompany (Man City) and Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), midfielder Marrouane Fellaini (Everton), Moussa Dembélé (Fulham), and Chelsea's 18-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku. Other internationals include Bolton's Dedryck Boyata (Bolton) and Ritchie de Laet, on loan from Man United to Norwich, while Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne are regularly linked to Premier League clubs.

With such a wealth of familiar talent available you'd be forgiven for thinking the national team might rival 1986's World Cup semi-finalists. However, drawn in the same group as Germany for the Euro 2012 qualifiers, Belgium's chances on making next summer's tournament always depended on making the second-place play-offs. A tight defeat followed by a draw to Turkey have left Belgium rueing what may prove to be a fatal draw away to Azerbaijan recently. Even if Turkey lose to Germany on 7 October, a win for Belgium the same night against group whipping-boys Kazakhstan may not be enough as the Turks' final game is against Azerbaijan.

Nor do Belgium's chances of qualifying for World Cup 2014 look more positive, unfortunately, drawn in the same group against Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and - home fans - Scotland and Wales. Their youthful team, however, did fare better at 2008's Olympics. A run of good results would lift the Red Devil's world ranking and put them in a stronger position qualifying for future competitions.

UPDATE In the event, Belgium did lose their final game away to Germany 3-1 (the single goal from Fellaini), while Turkey scraped a 1-0 home victory against Azerbaijan to go through to the Euro 2012 play-offs.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Five great pop b-sides

1. Pet Shop Boys - After the event (/Did you see me coming?, 2009)
I've written about this track before: it's one of the best things Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have ever recorded. One of many great moments for a group rightly lauded for their b-sides.

2. New Order - 1963 (/True Faith, 1987)
To a lovely the tune, the lyrics are said to posit a scenario in which John F Kennedy arranges for a hitman to kill his wife Jackie so he can continue his affair with Marilyn Monroe. The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, famously takes out the wrong target, provoking a further spiral of violence. Splendid, if bonkers.

3. Erasure - La La La (/Love to Hate You, 1991)
The peak of the British synth duo's art came with two consecutive albums in 1989 and 1991: Wild! and Chorus respectively. This song captures all the joy of the former with the analogue sounds of the latter - huge fun, it opens with a sample of what sounds like Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares.

4. Depeche Mode - Dangerous (/Personal Jesus, 1989)
The first single from the Basildon's foursome's best album had a suitably slinky companion - you can hear why it didn't fit into Violator's running order but it's great stuff nonetheless. Other b-sides from the album's singles veered towards the apocalyptic with portentous instrumentals Memphisto (/Enjoy the Silence) and Kaleid (/Policy of Truth).

5. The Divine Comedy - My Lovely Horse (/Gin Soaked Boy, 1999)
Neil Hannon had always given the impression this spoof Eurovision track written for Channel 4's hit comedy series Father Ted - to which The Divine Comedy contributed the theme tune - would never be released but, presumably when things got a bit desperate career-wise, out it came. Try delivering these lines with a straight face: 'My lovely horse, you're a pony no more/ Running around with a man on your back, like a train in the night'. Do also check out the band's splendid Michael Nyman covers on the back of singles Generation Sex and The Certainty of Chance (both 1998).

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Gabin and Simenon - partners in crime

Below is a version of a piece I did to accompany French film channel Cinémoi's Jean Gabin season that I've rewritten to include more of the actor's roles in films based upon novels by Georges Simenon.

Jean Gabin was born in Paris in 1904, the son of cabaret performers; he made his way in music hall before cementing his big-screen reputation in the 1930s. He appeared alongside Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934), was on the run in Algier’s Casbah in Pépé le Moko (1937) and then appeared in a remarkable trio of films in only two years: Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938), Jean Renoir’s visceral Zola adaptation La Bête humaine (same date), and Le jour se lève (1939), again with Carné.

During the war he went to the United States, where he pursued an affair with Marlene Dietrich – when Gabin insisted she be given a role in a film in which he was starring, he was sacked and joined the Free French. He was later decorated for his wartime service fighting in North Africa, and was part of the forces that entered Paris on liberation.

His 1950s citations include Jacques Becker’s classic gangster flick Touchez-pas au grisbi (1954) and the recently re-released French Cancan (Renoir, 1955). Like a more recent giant of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu, Gabin’s physical presence is unmissable but while Depardieu’s increasing girth seems to have encouraged softness in his performances, you can never exclude Gabin as a threat. His performance as a music hall impresario in French Cancan is possessed with powerful watchfulness.

It is this characteristic that made Georges Simenon’s Chief Inspector Maigret such an ideal part in a series of three films directed by Jules Delannoy and Gilles Grangier from 1958 to 1963. Gabin and Simenon were great friends but the author was especially thrilled the actor would take on the role, believing Gabin was the screen incarnation of his character (pictured).

By this time Gabin had starred in a number of films based on Simenon novels, including La Marie du port (1950), once more under Carné, La verité sur Bébé Donge (1952), with Danielle Darieux, and Le sang à la tête (1956, from the novel Le fils Cardinaud), alongside Annie Girardot.

Gabin also starred opposite Brigitte Bardot in En cas de malheur (1958), the Simenon book remade in 1998 as En plein coeur (In All Innocence) with Virginie Ledoyen and Gérard Lanvin. In 1961, Gabin was the lead in Henri Verneuil’s adaptation of Simenon’s controversial politician-in-exile novel, Le président (1961). The list gives some sense of Simenon’s cachet in the period, as well as that of Gabin.

In another Simenon adaptation, Le chat (1971), the actor stars as one half of an ageing couple whose hatred for each other is brought into the open when Gabin’s character becomes convinced his cat has been killed by his partner, played by Simone Signoret. He won Berlin’s Silver Bear award for best actor for what would turn out to be one of his last roles. Gabin died in 1976; Simenon, his elder by nearly one year, died in 1989.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Three career-reviving pop collaborations

1. Tina Turner and British Electric Foundation
The one-time Anna Mae Bullock had already recorded on her own before she left abusive husband Ike in the mid-1970s, but it was an electro cover of The Temptations' Ball of Confusion produced by Heaven 17 offshoot BEF that confirmed her solo career. The track appeared on 1982 album Music of Quality and Distinction - Volume One, and BEF's Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were drafted in to produce a soulful cover of Al Green's Let's Stay Together, which heralded Turner's reinvention as a rock diva. (The BEF album also includes a great version of Suspicious Minds with Gary Glitter, but don't expect any miracles.)

2. Tom Jones and the Art of Noise
When success deserted the Welsh star through the late '70s and early '80s, salvation came from an unlikely source: Dadaist synth supergroup the Art of Noise. By 1987, the group's mainstays - producer Trevor Horn and co-conspirator Paul Morley - had left, and the remaining bandmembers, programmer JJ Jeczalik and arranger Anne Dudley, were making their way covering the Peter Gunn and Dragnet themes. Taking the guitar and horn breaks from those tracks, the band collaborated with Jones on a cover of Prince's Kiss, which remains a highlight of the performer's live show.

3. Dusty Springfield and Pet Shop Boys
Another '60s star, the British soul icon had a quiet 1980s until Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, recently successful with singles West End Girls, Love Comes Quickly and Opportunities, asked Springfield to duet on track What Have I Done to Deserve This?, written with American Allee Willis (who also wrote the theme to Friends). Pet Shop Boys went on to write and record tracks In Private and Nothing Has Been Proved (from the film Scandal) for Springfield's 1990 album Reputation, which the duo have hinted they had more to do with than the credits allow. Pet Shop Boys recorded a great album, Results, with another gay icon, Liza Minnelli, and have also written for Tina Turner, Shirley Bassey, Kylie Minogue and Girls Aloud.

and some that didn't work out, for Gary Numan and...
When the hits fell away for the synth-pop pioneer in the early 1980s, he joined forces with his former backing band to record Love Needs No Disguise as Dramatis. He made a more dramatic decision to team up with Bill Sharpe (pictured) of jazz-funkers Shakatak but singles Change Your Mind and No More Lies had little more effect on the charts. More bizarre was a desperate pairing with Hugh Nicholson for the nonetheless tuneful singles Radio Heart and London Times, plus the woeful Like a Refugee (I Won't Cry). This year, Numan appeared on Battles track My Machines and seems happy working with Ade Fenton, who's produced Numan's new album, Dead Son Rising.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Failing to score

Though I've mentioned film soundtracks in passing on this blog, I'm surprised I haven't posted directly on the subject. This may be because the quality of musicianship in cinema seems to have tailed off markedly in recent years.

There are any number of reasons for this: I suspect the main is budgetary; there is continued reliance on found, usually pop, songs; a lot of the work is formulaic; some - art-house - films often don't have any score at all, or I may not be going to the right movies. For instance, though I'm a fan of composer Max Richter, I haven't seen the last film to which he contributed a soundtrack, Sarah's Key, despite his faintly terrifying contribution to Waltz with Bashir (2008).

It can't be coincidence that one of the greatest of all directors, Alfred Hitchcock, worked with some of the greatest composers in the genre: Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Bernard Herrmann... One soundtrack I would highlight in the last few years is that for Tom Ford's Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man (2009), which not only includes vintage hits but also mixes work by two composers: Shigeru Umebayashi and Abel Korzeniowski (plus a touch of Herrmann).

Composer Michael Nyman, notable for his work on such Peter Greenaway films as Drowning by Numbers (1988; pictured) and The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), as well as Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), is especially scathing on the state of scoring in cinema, citing derivative work and general condescension. At the root of his argument seems to be a lack of respect for the art of a composer to which, I would add in what seems to have become an increasingly (visually) stylised medium, the role of a great soundtrack.

For the record, one of Nyman's favourite bits of his own work occurs, perhaps surprisingly, in Michael Winterbottom's determinedly contemporary London movie, Wonderland (1999). He told a Time Out screening earlier this year, of the scene in which Gina McKee takes the N171 home late at night, with all that entails: 'The bus sequence is the best combination of music and image I've ever been involved in.'

UPDATE The same day I posted this, the wonderful Letters of Note site featured a letter from Audrey Hepburn, thanking Henry Mancini for his score for Breakfast at Tiffany's. It includes this succinct appraisal of a good film soundtrack: 'A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality. Your music has lifted us all up and sent us soaring.'

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Hidden London: stuffed, pickled, embalmed

When considering the form of your final peace, you may wish to heed the indignities suffered by these mammals in our rationalist capital:

Forest Hill's Horniman Museum is famous for its overstuffed walrus - filled by a taxidermist in the 1870s unfamiliar with the beast's multiple folds.

It's not the first thing you expect to see on entering a museum: a jar full of pickled moles, reminiscent of a competition to guess the number of sweets. UCL's Grant Museum boasts all sorts of zoological curiosities but don't, as I did, go immediately after lunch. (Thank you, though, to the enthusiastic woman who encouraged me to smell inside the cabinets!)

UCL has an even stranger corpse on its premises, however. Jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham instructed that his body be preserved upon his death in 1832 and there he is, perched in a glass cabinet. The head is made of wax - the real appendage having suffered all forms of humiliation - but his dressed body remains, at the end of the south cloisters in the university's main building.

Monday, 12 September 2011

'You have to be Hungarian'

I've always had a certain fascination for the exposed insides of demolished buildings (pictured below). This is due to the revelation of secret spaces, as well as the abstract patterns they create (above). It took a photograph by André Kertész, however, to show me how to capture these sites properly. In Landing Pigeon (New York, 1960), which features in Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century, he sets off the angles of vanished stairways with a bird in flight.

The Royal Academy's show concentrates on five big names: Brassaï, Robert Capa, Kertész, Lászlo Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi. You sense the curators have tried their damnedest to draw themes from the displayed work, though they struggle to explain Capa's joshing maxim, 'It's not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian.' This is especially so when for much of the period under review, photography was severely restricted in Hungary, leading most of the names here to practise their art abroad - how to separate Brassaï from his views of Paris or vice versa?

Opening with a folkloric vision, notably espoused by Rudolf Balogh, the exhibition comes full circle in Miklós Rév's Straight Road (Inota, c1955), which pitches a rural idyll against industrial reality. (Tibor Schoen's Ravens - Az Erdekes Ujság, 1915 - is another picture of two halves: a dead soldier in a Christmas card scene.) There's a predictable cavil: the most recent work here is from 1992 - a shame the Royal Academy didn't throw open one of its free rooms to bring the story up to date.

Eyewitness runs until 2 October and the bumper catalogue is now only £14.95.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Five things I'm looking forward to this autumn

Tate Modern's Gerhard Richter: Panorama promises to be a major retrospective of the 80-year-old German artist, to rival MoMA's 40-year survey in New York one decade ago. From 6 Oct 2011-8 Jan 2012.

Look out also for Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, at the Royal Academy 17 Sept-11 Dec, the V&A's latest blockbuster, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, which opens 24 Sept to 25 Jan, plus Tacita Dean takes over Tate Modern's Turbine Hall from 11 Oct.

Haruki Murakami's last big novel, Kafka on the Shore, disappointed despite its heft. Seven years on, the cult author's latest, 1Q84, was so well-received in Japan, he added a third volume to the work's original two parts. They're released here in two books on 18 & 25 Oct respectively.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) tackles John Le Carré's classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with a rattling cast, which includes John Hurt, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch, headed up by Gary Oldman (released 16 Sept).

Hurt also stars in the latest from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, Melancholia, alongside Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Rampling, in cinemas from 30 Sept. Other stand-outs this month include Nicolas Winding Refn's James Sallis adaptation, Drive (23 Sept), and Mademoiselle Chambon (same date), with Sandrine Kimberlain and Vincent Lindon as a couple suddenly drawn to each other. Lynne Ramsay's take on the Lionel Shriver novel We Need to Talk About Kevin opens 21 Oct, boasting a stand-out performance from Tilda Swinton.

I haven't been excited about a new album by Björk for some time, but Biophilia sees the Icelandic pop pixie embracing nature, and technology. Out 10 Oct.

One year after Dust Lane, it looks as if Yann Tiersen is back with a new album, Skyline (pictured), out second half of October. Then there's Erasure entering Tomorrow's World, from 3 Oct.

Danish crime drama The Killing was the cult hit of the winter, and I can't wait for the arrival of follow-up The Killing II on BBC4. Star Sofie Gråbøl promises the 10-episode series is even darker than the first.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A voyage around my bedroom

At the start of the summer I moved my desk (dining table) into my bedroom. A friend remembered that an ex used to warn never to do this as it affects your sleep but my bedroom is at the front of the flat, which gets sunshine most of the day - when it's sunny - and gives me a sense of the bustle on the street when working.

This set-up does mean your bed is soon covered with reference books, scraps of paper and magazines - it's like being a student again. But at least it's not like Proust; in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997; pictured), Alain de Botton quotes a friend of the writer, Marie Nordlinger: 'The apparent discomfort in which he worked was quite incredible; the bed was littered with books and papers, his pillows were all over the place, a bamboo table on his left was piled high, and more often than not, there was no support for whatever he was writing on (no wonder he wrote illegibly), with a cheap wooden penholder or two lying where it had fallen on the floor.' Thank goodness for my laptop.

Five years later, de Botton touched once more upon writing in bedrooms, in his book The Art of Travel. He recounts the tale of 27-year-old author Xavier de Maistre who, in 1790, undertook a Journey Around My Bedroom. Eight years later the Frenchman ventured a little further, to the windowsill, at night, in Nocturnal Expedition Around My Bedroom. It is a genre de Botton dubs 'room-travel'. De Maistre, de Botton writes, 'particularly recommended room-travel to the poor and to those afraid of storms, robberies and high cliffs.'

I've been fortunate to venture a little further this summer but then I did have to pack more than de Maistre, who needed only 'a pair of pink and blue cotton pyjamas'. I do, however, possess such a pair of stripey pyjama bottoms, so perhaps I'm not as ill-equipped for this lifestyle as I feared.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Britain's oldest purpose-built mosque

In the week of the anniversary of 9/11, and amid continuing controversy over the siting of a mosque near New York's Ground Zero, I find myself reading about France's oldest mosque in a beautiful book, Paris Between the Wars (Thames & Hudson). Author Vincent Bouvet writes about the Paris Mosque, construction of which began in 1926: 'The building was intended as a symbol of friendship between France and the Islamic world and as a homage to the Muslims who died fighting for France in the Great War. The city provided the land and the architects drew their inspiration from the mosques in the city of Fez, designing a structure in reinforced concrete decorated with traditional materials from the Maghreb.'

Britain's oldest purpose-built mosque was constructed nearly 40 years earlier, in 1889, by the Hungarian-born Orientalist Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner. The Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking was commissioned by Shah Jahan, the Nawab Begum of Bhopal, alongside the Oriental Institute Leitner had established six years earlier. Leitner's parents were Jewish; when his father died his mother moved to Istanbul where she married a Jewish convert to Christianity. Leitner studied in a madrassa in the city and is said to have spoken eight languages fluently by the age of 15; he was made a professor at King's College London six years later and, aged 24, was appointed head of the Government College, Lahore. His mosque is Grade II-listed and still in use.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Sofie Gråbøl on the writer of The Killing

200th POST

In July I was lucky enough to interview Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl in Copenhagen for an article in this month's Voyager. The conversation revolved around the hit series in which she stars, The Killing, including some lovely jumper philosophy. When we met, shooting was about to start on a third series in Denmark; The Killing II (pictured) is set to screen on BBC4 after the current repeated run of the first series.

After the rigours of the original, 20-episode season she said she'd mainly been tempted to revisit her character, detective inspector Sarah Lund, by the collaboration with writer Søren Sveistrup. Gråbøl was great company; here's what she said about working with Sveistrup, with whom she'd also previously worked on an Emmy award-winning romantic comedy called Nikolaj and Julie:

'I enjoy acting and the basic work but I also enjoy the whole skeleton of the character. Those meetings we have - the collaboration I have with the writer - are really interesting, they’re just as interesting as the actual acting. I like the construction of the character and the script, building the whole skeleton of emotions and he allows me to be involved in that.

'It works in the way that he writes a script that's almost finished and then we gather and we read it and the actors have meetings with him afterwards and you can say whatever you want, you can comment on whatever you want. It allows him to be in a constant dialogue with the project and to me that's extremely fulfilling.

'To me it's a sign of great self-confidence that you are so confident in yourself that you allow other people to influence [you]. You pick the good ideas. People who aren't confident, if you're insecure, it's very easy to say no. To say yes, to be open is frightening at times - also in my work, to throw yourself into a direction you’re not sure of. To me he's very good at that.'

UPDATE The Killing II screens on BBC4 from 19 November 2011.

Related: tracking down Danish band Gangway (100th post)