Monday, 17 December 2012

Paris posers

I meant to take Penguin's reprint of Julian Green's Paris with me to the French capital but, in a moment worthy of Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage, forgot it at home. So I visited Green's impressions of the city of his birth while on the London Underground instead.

Like the author on his return to the USA during World War II, 'It was a Paris of visions in which I took my walks now, a Paris that, though intensely real, was imperceptibly migrating from flesh to spirit.' In her idiosyncratic yet incisive introduction, Lila Azam Zanganeh rightly challenges Green's nostalgia and even his tendency to exclude others from experiencing 'the Paris of the Parisians'.

In my favourite chapter, 'Museums, streets, seasons, faces', Green contends: 'The posers you could set, even for teachers, just by running through the history of our city (what happened to the mummies brought back from Egypt, where were they buried, what lies beneath the column on which the spirit of the Bastille is forever taking wing, where did they divert the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake, who posed for the statue of Pierre de Wissant, who lived in the château des Brouillards?), but in Paris you may always be sure there will be someone, secretly in love with his city, who will know all the answers.' That must be true of London nowadays, too.

(The answers to Green's posers can be found at the back of the Penguin Modern Classics Paris.)

Monday, 15 October 2012

Berlin brought to book

In his latest pre-WWII thriller, Mission to Paris, author Alan Furst's film star hero, Fredric Stahl, briefly checks into Berlin's Hotel Adlon. It seems an intrusion into the territory of another wartime character: Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther, who becomes the hotel's house detective in If the Dead Rise Not (2009).

Just over 80 years ago, the city was the setting for another detective, a child: Emil Tischbein. In Emil and the Detectives (1931), Erich Kästner's plucky hero teams up with local kids to retrieve his stolen money after Emil takes the train to Berlin. Kästner is as careful in his description of the boys' attempts to recover the cash as he is in his portrayal of the city:

'The noise was indescribable, and on the pavements crowds of people kept hurrying by. Out of every turning vans and lorries, trams and double-decker buses swarmed into the main thoroughfare. There were newspaper stands at every corner, with men shouting the latest headlines. Wherever Emil looked there were gay shop windows filled with flowers and fruit, books, clothes, fine silk underwear, gold watches and clocks. And all the buildings stretched up and up into the sky. So this was Berlin!'

The chase leads the gang from Friedrichstrasse station, along Kaiserdamm, Trautenaustrasse, to Nollendorfplatz. In a sentiment that might be replicated by Hans Fallada, Emil initially believes, 'No one has time for other people's troubles in a city. They've all troubles enough of their own.'

Writing just one year after Emil..., in Little Man, What Now? Fallada has 'little man' Pinneberg trudge the city's streets in a pattern also recognisable from Alfred Döblin's earlier Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), which was adapted as a 15-and-a-half hour film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980. In the latter books it is not children who dominate the streets but the unemployed, hopeless and hucksters.

Pinneberg realises Berlin is not the place for him following an altercation with a policeman on Friedrichstrasse: 'Then Pinneberg went on his way, one step at a time, through Berlin. But nowhere was completely dark, and going past policemen was particularly difficult.'

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Outsiders' London

Tate Britain's 'Another London' comes to an end this weekend. Subtitled 'International photographers capture city life 1930-1980', the show is a roll call of refugees fleeing the Nazis pre-World War II: Ellen Auerbach, Dorothy Bohm, Hans Casparius, Herbert List, Felix H Man...

Prime among them is Bill Brandt, born in Munich, and moved to London in 1933. The handful of his works chosen here, from the Eric and Louise Franck London Collection, are symptomatic of the exhibition as a whole: they're all exterior shots.

As if to underline the outsider status of these emigrés and visitors, the vast majority of the photos show familiar landmarks and everyday characters but rarely scratch beneath the city's surface. James Barnor's 'Mike Eghan at Piccadilly Circus, London' (c1967) is typical, and full of incidental information (posters in the background advertise Doctor Zhivago, Michael Caine in Funeral in Berlin and Lionel Bart's Oliver!, 'London's longest running musical'), although there is no explanation of who Mike Eghan is, unless I missed it.

Ghanaian Barnor (Eghan is a compatriot broadcaster) has one of the few indoor shots on show - 'Flamingo cover girl Sarah with friend, London' (c1965) - and how atmospheric it is: we all know these stairwells of shared accommodation. Eve Arnold goes one step further and invades the bathroom for 'One of four girls who share a flat in Knightsbridge' (1961). Along with Willy Ronis' 1955 interior of a barely changed French House, these are the exhibition's best images.

I've always been troubled by Bill Brandt's latent sadism, but how I longed for one of his nudes - 'The Policeman's Daughter, Hampstead' (1945), say, or 'Eaton Place Nude' (1951). The Eaton Place images are unforgettable to anyone who has ever visited any of the central London townhouses, while the former hints at the perversions perpetrated behind our close doors.

And if not these, why not his 'Late night coffee stall' (1939), 'Alice at the Crooked Billet' (1939), 'Young woman at Charlie Brown's' (1946) or Brandt's 1941 portrait of Dylan Thomas in the Salisbury pub. In his work, perhaps more than in any of the images on show, the German was someone who never lost his outsider's eye, but was part of British life, exactly as he wanted.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Snapping up the Munch bunch

Almost 20 years after the last major Edvard Munch retrospective in London - at the National Gallery - the Norwegian artist is being celebrated at Tate Modern until 14 October. The National Gallery show was based on the Frieze of Life series and the Tate exhibition also emphasises the cycles in Munch's work, more successfully than for Gerhard Richter in its recent blockbuster.

The emphasis does shift between the National Gallery and Tate shows, and not just because the former included a version of The Scream - notably from the figure of Tulla Larsen, with whom Munch had a relationship from 1899 to 1902, to Rosa Meissner, a model who came from Berlin in 1907, along with her sister, Olga. And while the exhibition at the National Gallery was preoccupied with an incident in which Munch accidentally shot himself after an argument with Tulla (presumably the source of the X-ray of a bullet in Munch's hand, which goes unexplained at the Tate), the Tate survey concentrates on an incident at a party when the artist threatened to shoot a younger artist, Ludvig Karsten.

While the National Gallery catalogue contains contemporary photographs of Munch's exhibitions, the Tate makes much more of the artist's photographs, in line with the current vogue. The main exhibit could be said to be a photograph of Rosa Meissner naked in a room, which inspired the series Weeping Woman. (Interested in auras and spiritualism - as well as blurs and odd angles - Munch creates a spooky shadow in the photo, reminiscent of Francesca Woodman's self-portraits, although the spectre is Rosa's sister, Olga.)

'Edvard Munch belongs to a generation of artists - that of Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton... and others - all born around 1860, who achieved their first stylistic maturity in the final two decades of the nineteenth century, at the time of the great boom in amateur photography,' writes Clément Chéroux in the Tate catalogue. This overlaps with a recent exhibition, 'Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard', whose companion published by Easton is well worth snapping up, however: 'What fundamentally distinguishes Munch from the other painters who practised photography at the same time is the quantity of self-portraits he produced.'

Many of them are included in this exhibition; they form a sort of autobiography. While he painted himself with deliberation in such wonderful works as Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-3) - one of my favourite self-portraits of any artist - in these snaps he seems to have been looking for answers to questions he didn't know how to pose.

Though the National Gallery may have presented visitors with the broader survey of Munch's work, this great show at Tate Modern has touches of Paul Gauguin, 'who Munch considered to be the greatest artist of his time' (Arne Eggum in the Tate catalogue) - see Red Virginia Creeper (1898-1900) - and Vallotton (check out the shapes in The Kiss, 1897, or the figures in the doorway of Jealousy, 1907, inspired by Munch's unhappy relationship with Tulla Larsen). His influence can even be found, more recently, in the work of another wonderful storyteller: Peter Doig - compare Ashes and Summer Night's Dream: The Voice with Doig's Echo Lake (1998) and 100 Years Ago (Carrera), 2001.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Portraits of the artists

Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, The Map and the Territory - recently out in paperback - is a neat spin on that favourite of novelists, filmmakers and, indeed, artists: a portrait of the artist. Houellebecq's work, which varies wildly in tone (translator Gavin Boyd is masochistically faithful to the original French), has an artist invade the life of a reclusive writer - Houellebecq himself.

The author is gloriously unflattering about his subject. The 'author of Platform' - the book apes the language of Wikipedia or even technical manuals - is discovered as a reticent recluse, gasping for a drink, spouting non-sequiturs. 'He stank a little, but less than a corpse...' '"I've relapsed,"' he tells his visitor, '"I've completely relapsed into charcuterie."'

It made me return to one of my favourite pen portraits of an artist: W Somerset Maugham's fictional take on the life of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence (1919). Maugham's novel is just as reflexive as The Map... as it is told by another writer, an acquaintance of the subject, Charles Strickland (the fictive Gauguin).

Maugham reflects on the narrator's early days as a writer in a manner that seems little changed: 'Then it was a distinction to be under forty, but now to be more than twenty-five is absurd.' Although the venues may have returned to type: 'Chelsea and Bloomsbury have taken the place of Hampstead, Notting Hill Gate, and High Street, Kensington.'

Nor is Maugham any less sharp than Houellebecq: 'Mrs Strickland had the gift of sympathy. It is a charming faculty, but one often abused by those who are conscious of its possession: for there is something ghoulish in the avidity with which they will pounce upon the misfortune of their friends so that they may exercise their dexterity. It gushes forth like an oil-well... There are bosoms on which so many tears have been shed that I cannot bedew them with mine.'

And, later: 'I had not yet learnt how contradictory human nature is; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, or how much goodness in the reprobate.'

W Somerset Maugham's 1928 play The Sacred Flame is at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, 13-22 September.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Thomson wins

Bloomsbury has just republished all eight of Rupert Thomson's novels. It's a brave move for a strangely undercelebrated writer. Perhaps his publisher's vote of confidence and the lack of attention Thomson seems to attract are due to his almost old-fashioned dedication to novel writing. These are chunky, thoughtful works, that perhaps only went slightly off course mid-career, with marketing-inspired Soft (1998) and The Book of Revelation (1999), which was made into a film with Greta Scacchi in 2006.

Thomson first came to attention in 1987 with Dreams of Leaving, his vision of a police-run village, New Egypt.  There followed a terrific run - The Five Gates of Hell (1991) and Air & Fire (1993) - before probably my favourite work of his: The Insult (1996). It's a tremendous celebration of imagination: a blind man goes in search of the invisible man, who's disappeared!

I've written before about how his Divided Kingdom (2005) reflected my emotional history growing up, while Thomson's most recent work - The Party's Got to Stop (published by Granta), is a retelling of his own relationship with his brothers. Like Geoff Dyer, Thomson is in part inspired by living in different places - The Book of Revelation grew out of a stint in Amsterdam and more recently he moved to Barcelona. The Book was also reflected in his last novel, Death of a Murderer (2007), inspired by Myra Hindley, which he told me was another work about 'a man in a room'.

Nine books isn't a bad return over 25 years. His next, Secrecy - a historical novel set in Florence - is due next spring and I can't wait.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Leos Carax' work in five easy steps

1. The characters in French filmmaker Leos Carax’ early films complain about the heat but look ineffably cool. It’s a look borrowed from across cinema (Melville, Godard, Dreyer, Vigo…), notably for black-and-white debut Boy Meets Girl (1984), which begins with a series of break-ups overtaken by maundering dialogue.

2. Carax favourite Denis Lavant thankfully has less to say in the stand-out, futuristic crime caper Mauvais Sang (The Night is Young, 1986), when he joins Michel Piccoli’s gang, out to steal a vaccine to the ‘STBO retrovirus’.

3. Both films are luminously shot – by Jean-Yves Escoffier (Gummo) – whose final collaboration with Carax is the director’s magnificent folly, Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991) featuring a hallucinatory affair between homeless Lavant and Juliette Binoche.

4. By the time of Pola X (1999) Carax may be trying to buck his influences much as gilded author Guillaume Depardieu decides to throw off his privileged background. The result, for all concerned, is exceedingly tiresome and deeply unedifying.

5. After a hiatus of 13 years - interrupted only by a short for Tokyo! (2008) - Carax' latest, Holy Motors (pictured top), received its premiere at Cannes earlier this year. The film sees the director tackle his fascination with cinema and reunites him with Lavant and Piccoli, plus Eva Mendes and, erm, Kylie Minogue.

The 65th Festival del film Locarno kicks off on 1 August and features a retrospective dedicated to Leos Carax, who'll be in Switzerland to accept the festival's Pardo d'onore. I'd love to go but will be busy with a thing in London, which may also mean this is my last post for a few weeks.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock: the early years

However exciting the chance to see many of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent movies with new scores in the BFI’s splendid summer season dedicated to the director, it’s telling how the burgeoning of his cinematic art coincided with the arrival of sound. Early silent stand-outs include The Lodger (1926), now soundtracked by Nitin Sawhney - live at the Barbican on 21 July - and The Ring (1927), an expressionistic romance set in the world of sideshow boxing that screens at Hackney Empire this Friday.

Key for me is 1929’s Blackmail, a superb thriller in which Hitchcock shows his immediate mastery of the new talking technology (he even uses silence to great effect!). He steps up the confident rhythm of the preceding films and continues to experiment with his visuals; there’s an early signatory cameo – being attacked by a child in a tube carriage – plus a tumultuous chase after the blackmailer of the title in the British Museum onto the roof of the reading room. (Blackmail screened at the British Museum on Friday.)

If you want to check out some other lesser-known (talkie) numbers, the trademark spectacular finales continue in courtroom drama Murder! (1930), while another film based on a play, The Skin Game (1931), is the cruel tale of landed gentry taking on nouveau incomers that is still as surprisingly successful as when it was released. The same year's Rich and Strange is a curio, a self-scripted tale of a childless couple’s disastrous global travels, while Number 17 (1932) is a ludicrous splurge containing all the clichés of the thriller genre: stolen jewels, double-crossing thieves, confused identity, runaway trains, a hijacked bus and – a favourite of the director – trussed up heroines. 

Courtesy of Hitchcock’s pre-eminent position in the industry the early films boast great scenery and lavish sets but it’s with sound he realised thrillers were his thing and, just as importantly, discovered the perversity – both morally and in terms of his little fetishes – that mark his particular genius.

Monday, 2 July 2012

About the author

In these days of brisk author biographies, it's a pleasure to discover the - presumably self-composed - details of Janwillem van de Wetering published in his Soho Crime works. Born in Rotterdam in 1931, we're informed, the writer studied 'Zen in Daitoku-ji monastery, Kyoto, and philosophy in London, and has lived as well in Amsterdam, Cornwall, Cape Town, Bogota, Lima and Brisbane.'

There's a reassurance as to the books' provenance: 'His Amsterdam Cops series that features Adjutant Grijpstra and Sergeant de Gier... was conceived when the author served with the Amsterdam Reserve Constabulary.' And fun, too: 'His joys are an ongoing study of nihilism, keeping a wooden lobster boat afloat and getting older.'

Georges Simenon's biographies on the back of old Penguins also acknowledge the great crime writer's boating activities: 'He has travelled all over the world, and at one time lived in a cutter, with his wife as second-in-command, making long journeys of exploration round the coasts of northern Europe.' I particularly like the line: 'His recreations are riding, fishing and golf.'

My favourite biography, however, has to be that for Giovanni Guareschi (again in Penguin); 'His father had a heavy black moustache under his nose: Giovanni grew one just like it. He still has it and is proud of it. He is not bald, has written eight books, and is five feet ten inches tall.

'"I also have a brother," Guareschi says, adding "but I prefer not to discuss him. And I have a motorcycle with four cylinders, an automobile with six cylinders, and a wife and two children."' Now don't you want to read his Don Camillo series of books? You should!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Hitchcock's favourite: Shadow of a Doubt

Inspired by the Guardian's My favourite Hitchcock series - and eschewing biggies PsychoVertigo and North by Northwest - I thought I'd throw Shadow of a Doubt (1943) into the ring. It's a remarkable psycho-sexual drama, not least because we're some way in before the director makes explicit what's going on: beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) has gone to stay with his sister and her family in Santa Rosa to escape the police, who are hunting a killer dubbed the 'Merry Widow murderer' for his habit of befriending and killing wealthy women.

Hitchcock is a master of the everyday-man wrongly suspected of a crime scenario, but here we're looking for clues that Charlie's a wrong 'un. Quick to pick up the trail is his adoring niece, played by Teresa Wright, who's so close to her uncle she's known as 'young Charlie'; she even believes there's an extrasensory link between them and he's come to town precisely because he sensed she was bored.

Young Charlie's sharper than the rest of her family - including dad, who discusses amateur criminology with his neighbour, a young Hume Cronyn, and is taken in by the gift of a watch - but also smitten with her uncle. The interest is reciprocated, but it's only when one of the detectives falls for her that the case begins to fall into place - when Uncle Charlie gives his niece a stolen ring in a cod wedding scene.

Much is made of the film's small-town setting - Thornton Wilder worked on the script - but I particularly like the opening scenes in Philadelphia, which so cleverly set up Uncle Charlie's character, and are filled with rundown fire escapes and desolate city streets that presage the start of Psycho seven years later.

Best of all is the sense of restrained, almost insouciant, menace in Cotten's performance. This was a year or two after Orson Welles had cast the stage actor - and one-time theatre critic - in Citizen Kane (1941). Cotten made his name as a romantic lead but this is one of his most compelling performances - his slyness contrasts nicely with the character he was to take on in Welles's The Third Man (1949).

When he's found out, Hitchcock even gives Cotten a speech to match Welles's famous outburst atop the ferris wheel in Vienna. 'The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows,' Charlie tells his niece, 'husbands dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women?

'You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewellery but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women... Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?'

There's a great piece of mathematical business in Shadow of a Doubt ('1888! Fifty-three years ago') that places the action on the eve of the USA's entry into World War II and it's initially tempting to suspect Uncle Charlie may be a Nazi spy; he's unwilling to have his picture taken, mysterious about the source of his money - and his sister, the sweet-as-apple-pie matriarch, seems too good to be true. Even her efforts to place Charlie in their family history seem suspicious.

Made just two years after Saboteur, which makes the link to Nazi spies explicit, it's easy to imagine these siblings as German sleepers, only that the sister's gone native and settled into her hometown life. It's masterfully done - full, as the title would lead you to believe, of brilliantly shot shadows, notably on the landing outside young Charlie's bedroom, where much of the action takes place.

Six years later Max Ophüls visited small-town America for The Reckless Moment. This is a less-innocent world - closer to the big city - where reputation is all. This time the mother (Joan Bennett) does try and protect her child, by covering up the death of her daughter's no-good boyfriend. There are lots of stairways again.

In both films, it's left to the women to get the better of their tormentors - the threats to their family lives. Hitchcock thought Shadow of a Doubt the best of his American movies, and who am I to disagree?

Monday, 11 June 2012

Hidden London: Do you need the service?

I love these old petrol stations (this one, above, is in East Sheen). One of the best used to be on Store Street, WC1; the Bloomsbury service station was a lovely, idiosyncratic sight that had stood in the centre of London since 1926. Subject to redevelopment, the bland new structure alludes to its more illustrious predecessor. I quite like the nearby mural but suspect it isn't made of real tiles.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012


In his introduction to Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, Robert Chandler makes the point that individual chapters in the book read like short stories (specifically Chekhov). They are beautiful vignettes, often ending on triumphant sentences, such as: 'The Gestapo limousine sped down the autumn autobahn.'

It's a line Laurent Binet could be said to riff on in HHhH - much as the book's cover draws on Gerhard Richter's portraiture - when he dreams of writing the phrase: 'A black Mercedes slid along the road like a snake.' Mercedes cars recur in the young French writer's book about World War II's Operation Anthropoid and its target, Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Hangman, the Butcher of Prague or - by his own men - the Blond Beast.

I'd be loath to drag Geoff Dyer into yet another post if such work as The Missing of the Somme weren't an obvious touchstone for this 'personal' portrait. Dyer's non-fiction is the writing of the book he would have written if he hadn't written about writing that book instead. Or, as he puts it in Out of Sheer Rage, his book about writing a book about DH Lawrence: 'There are people who like to complete all the reading, all the research, and then, when they have attained complete mastery of the material, then and only then do they sit down and write it up. Not me. Once I know enough about a subject to begin writing about it I lose interest in it immediately.'

There are episodes that preempt Binet: Dyer finds he can't work without his copy of Lawrence's Complete Poems, 'crammed with notes and annotations', which he has left in Paris. Having regained it thanks to a friend, Dyer then leaves the 'talismanic' book in Rome. Unable to work in Greece he could blame his 'inability to get started on having left my copy of The Complete Poems in Rome', except: 'At the last possible moment, with the taxi rumbling downstairs, I had dashed back up, retrieved my copy...'

Binet recounts how he regrets not having snapped up, for 250 euros, a book called Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher (Living with a War Criminal) written by Heydrich's wife, Lina, after the war : 'I've reached the point in the story where I have to recount Heydrich's first meeting with his wife. Here more than for any other section, that extremely rare and costly tome would undoubtedly have been a great help.' Later he tells us, parenthetically, however: 'I admit it, I ended up buying the book.'

'Actually I don't know...'; 'I've been talking rubbish...' HHhH is strewn with such caveats. 'I said before that one of the characters in Chaplin's Great Dictator was based on Heydrich, but it's not true.'

Nevertheless Binet and Dyer are meticulous in their research, even if the former seems to garner much of his inspiration from films, notably Hitler's Madman (directed by Douglas Sirk and starring John Carradine) and Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943). There's more recent fare, too, including Conspiracy ('only five euros [on DVD] - postage and handling included'), DownfallThe Pianist, The CounterfeitersBlack Book and Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent - 'Heydrich in a Rohmer film! I still can't get over it.'

Binet's girlfriend, Natacha, teases that he may be turning into a fascist, as if he were the obsessive narrator at the centre of Roberto Bolano's war-gaming novel The Third Reich. Binet wields his real-life characters deftly but if I have one quibble about HHhH, it's in the editing: at times the construction means the reader is missing certain important facts, while at others the detail is repetitive.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Miroslav Tichy and the ongoing impulse

There's a section towards the end of Jonathan Dee's 2010 novel The Privileges that reads like a bad Paul Auster extract (and there's enough of that about). A character, Jonas, goes on the hunt for outsider art: 'The rule of thumb seemed to be that the further a particular artist's own mind had pushed him toward society's border, the more you could charge for his work. It was revolting and thrilling at the same time.'

With the help of an expert, Jonas tries to separate the real deal from fraudsters: '...outsider art is overrun by thieves and hacks and opportunists and corrupters... The difference here is that the artists themselves can't be corrupted by it.' He's advised a good test is to meet the artist and, in this case, the artist turns out to be a true wacko, someone with a 'total absence of self-consciousness'.

It's a definition that could apply to Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy, who died last year aged 85. A student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague he suffered first when the communists came to power in 1948 and then, in 1957, when he had a mental breakdown.

He moved back to his hometown, Kyjov, and began taking pictures using homemade cameras. I'll leave it to a biography for the Wilkinson gallery, which hosted an exhibition of his work soon after his death, to take up the story: 'He mainly photographed the local women; the curvaceous contours of a body in motion, captured moments of sartorial revelation, smooth calves truncating from underneath full skirts... He worked with a homemade camera that he fashioned from used materials, such as shoeboxes, rubber bands and tin cans, complete with makeshift telephoto lenses, polished with toothpaste and ashes.'

'He honoured women in bikinis' according to the gallery or, as writer Geoff Dyer has it: 'he spent the 1960s and '70s perving around Kyjov.' The local swimming pool was a favourite haunt - from the outside of the mesh fence - or, if not that, a line of bras hanging to dry would do.

There's something of Victorian artist Edward Linley Sambourne here, who would hang around in Kensington taking pictures of schoolgirls using a camera that took pictures at a right angle to the direction in which it was pointed. Dyer links Tichy's pictures with an unrequited summer of longing in Paris, images that are no doubt conjured again in these hot days. The oddest part of Tichy's pictures is that there's something nostalgic about his unguarded moments, of unlikely hairstyles and retro costumes.

Like the artist in Dee's book, Tichy was apparently oblivious to his own work: he used a homemade enlarger to print his images, sometimes scribbling in the detail. Then he might use them as beer mats or drop them onto the floor, where they were nibbled by rats.

Monday, 7 May 2012

'I'd had enough of photography'

Earlier this year Dutch publisher Parvenu released an English catalogue of the work of Marianne Breslauer. Originally published in 2009 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the German photographer's birth, Marianne Breslauer - Photographs focuses on nine years of serene work from 1927 to 1936.

At the age of 20, Breslauer went to Paris to study photography under Man Ray who decides she has nothing to learn from him but extends her the use of his studio. In photographing the banks of the Seine and the Jardin du Luxembourg, she inevitably invokes Jacques Henri Lartigue (there's also something of his albums here), Ilse Bing, ubiquitous Atget and, of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Her work tends to series: best of all is a set taken at an art auction, Vente S&S, attended by Pablo Picasso and Ambroise Vollard, among others. The spirit of two shots of Berlin's Lützowbrücke (1930) is revisited from 1932-36 when Breslauer photographs the same Amsterdam canal: two shots have the same laundry hanging on the same boat with the same car parked alongside (there's even a reverse shot from the canal side, though this time it's a different boat decorated with different laundry).

Circus, Berlin 1931 is a series of six pictures of the same androgynous child; a year later, writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach is similarly androgynous in two striking portraits. The portraits become increasingly mature, from the cover shot (Ruth von Morgen, Berlin 1934, pictured) to delicate images of Oskar Kokoschka and Albert Barnes, but the key to her oeuvre must be the self-portraits.

In an essay, Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat make a great deal of a 1929 image the photographer took of herself, looking askance, hair pulled over one eye. In 1933 she is naked in a dressing gown and again not looking at the viewer but into her camera, which looks out at us (and at her). She is the only nude in the book in a manner reminiscent of another young prodigy, Francesca Woodman - in such short careers, the catalogue of both inevitably leans on student work.

The changing situation in Europe notwithstanding, Breslauer seems to have felt she had exhausted all she could achieve as a photographer and laid down her camera some time around 1937. 'If I had worked longer in this area, I would have gone into film,' she said. 'I'd had enough of photography.' The final snaps here date from 1938, and there's Breslauer, again in her housecoat, partially exposed, but bearing her camera.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The collaborators?

As well as racism and anti-semitism, a familiar charge levelled against Georges Remi (Hergé) is one of collaboration. When the Allies liberated Brussels in September 1944, the Belgian creator of cartoon hero Tintin was arrested as a traitor and questioned.

Hergé had decided to stay in Belgium following the country's invasion by the Nazis, and continued to produce comic strips for the German-run Le Soir newspaper. During World War II, he retreated into the apolitical fantasies of The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure (recently made into a film by Steven Spielberg, of course) and The Seven Crystal Balls.

The Shooting Star (1942) is undoubtedly anti-semitic but its apocalyptic atmosphere can surely only have been informed by the arrival of the Nazis, while the pre-war King's Ottokar's Sceptre is decidedly anti-fascist (though only Tintin in America and The Black Island were banned by the Nazis).

Nevertheless, the first form of official pardon for Hergé came as late as 1958, when he was met by the Belgian ambassador on a visit to London. According to biographer Harry Thompson, the author 'remained bitter at the treatment meted out to those who - as he saw it - had stuck with Belgium in her hour of need.'

One of the reasons Hergé gave for remaining in the country was because his beloved king (Leopold III) had also stayed and, indeed, urged his subjects to work as usual. Another possibility may be that Hergé was not disposed to living in another country, as was the case with German Hans Fallada - real name, Rudolf Ditzen - currently much celebrated for Alone in Berlin and A Small Circus.

Fallada had any number of opportunities to leave Germany during the Nazis' rise, but decided to stick it out. In 1944 he wrote: 'I am a German, I say that today with pride and sorrow, I love Germany, I don't want to live or work anywhere else in the world. I probably couldn't live or work anywhere else.' (Quoted in Jenny Williams' biography More Lives than One.)

His novels show a fine judge of the human spirit, though whether his political judgement was so sharp remains open to question. In November 1937 he accepted an approach to write a novel 'dealing with the fate of a German family from 1914 until around 1933'.

When Fallada brought Iron Gustav to a close in 1928, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, intervened to ensure the writer fulfilled the detail of his contract, which meant Fallada had to cover the rise of the National Socialists. Williams writes: '[Fallada] later tried to justify his capitulation in the following terms: "I do not like grand gestures, being slaughtered before the tyrant's throne, senselessly, to the benefit of no one and to the detriment of my children, that is not my way."'

He may have found some sympathy from Vasily Grossman, the Russian celebrated for Everything Flows and Life and Fate, his massive novel centred on the battle for Stalingrad. For three years from 1943, Grossman contributed to an astounding narrative of Jewish massacres in Poland and the Soviet Union - informing some of Life and Fate - and yet, in 1952, he signed an official letter condemning Stalin's Jewish doctors for a plot to kill the dictator.

Perhaps only someone who has experienced such extremes can write, as Grossman does in Life and Fate: 'Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian state depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and worldwide triumph of the dictatorial state is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian state is doomed.'

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Lifting the lid on Jarre

On Friday Chicane plays London's Koko in support of new album Thousand Mile Stare, whose sleeve photography riffs on the cover of Jean-Michel Jarre's Magnetic Fields (pictured, 1981). It's unusual for anyone to so openly acknowledge the influence of composer Maurice Jarre's son, who became in Britain a figure of French fun - for his marriage to Charlotte Rampling and glorified son et lumière shows around the world.

Unusual, too, to choose to copy this particular image, rather than paying homage to Jarre's early Oxygène (1976) and Equinox (1978) albums, which are granted a grudging pioneering status for fans of electronica, though no way on a par with Kraftwerk, or Depeche Mode for that matter. Perhaps it's not surprising, given the British electronic artist's age that he should be attracted to Magnetic Fields.

It's a melodic, enchanting work, no doubt inspired by Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express (1977), the Düsseldorf quartet's best work. After that moment, Jarre became involved in the development of the ungainly, sci-fi laser harp and was set to perform track Rendez-Vous 6 with Ron McNair playing the saxophone live in space, before the astronaut was killed in the Challenger explosion.

A pioneer of the ambient scene - it's difficult to imagine The Orb existing without him, for instance - there have been sporadic attempts to restore Jarre's reputation, not least some stonking Slam remixes in 1994. His influence can be heard in Pet Shop Boys' soundtrack for silent film Battleship Potemkin (notably on track Full Steam Ahead) and in work by other French artists, such as Air.

In 2000, Jarre returned the compliment, on the noticeably Air-y Metamorphoses album, which features Natacha Atlas, Sharon Corr and Laurie Anderson. Anderson had previously featured on oddity Zoolook (1984), with its sample-heavy soundscape, for which the American musician complained she'd never had to sing so high.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Don't cry for me...

On Sunday lyricist Tim Rice was presented with a special Olivier Award for his contribution to musical theatre. For all the sledging of Jesus Christ Superstar, written with Andrew Lloyd Webber, I've always had a soft spot for another of their collaborations: Evita.

The works are notably of their time - Lloyd Webber's music derivative of choral and classical music, plus the worst '70s rock - but the book for Evita is surprisingly representative of historical events. And what an unusual subject to choose, especially compared with Lloyd Webber's later projects, including Starlight Express and The Phantom of the Opera.

Some 20 years after the 1976 musical, Tomás Eloy Martinez tackled Argentina's sainted leader in novel Santa Evita, which was heaped with praise though it didn't add to what I'd learned from Rice-Webber. Perhaps because of this, when I saw Terrence Malick's cold take on the story of Captain John Smith, The New World (2005), I regretted not having seen Disney's Pocahontas (1995), which I hope might be a more emotionally fulfilling version of history. (I still haven't had a chance to see it.)

Monday, 16 April 2012

Get it on, Vallotton

One of the highlights of the €20m refurb to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, which was unveiled late last year, is the space afforded to the Nabis, including such artists as Bonnard, Denis and Vuillard. The collection highlights the work of Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) - this painting was acquired just last year - who seems to be hugely under celebrated in Britain.

Edouard Vuillard was the focus of a show at London's Royal Academy in 2004 - accompanied by one of the largest catalogues ever - but I can't think of a UK exhibition devoted to his Swiss colleague. The artist has always appealed to me for his illustrative style (check out his woodcuts) and interiors, including Sentimental Discussion (1898) and The Visit (1899). As well as the usual femmes à toilette, Vallotton is especially notable for his depictions of department stores, such as tryptique Le bon marché.

The Musée d'Orsay (pictured) is home to one of his most recognisable works, The Ball (1899), as well as Manet's Olympia, upon which Vallotton riffed in The White Woman and the Black Woman (1913). If you happen to visit before 6 May, the gallery is also currently hosting Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela's icy Lake Keitele (1905), which is owned by the National Gallery, London, and broadcaster Jon Snow's favourite painting.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Neue Slowenische Kun..

On Saturday fearsome Slovenes Laibach appear at Tate Modern. The band's performance is the climax of a day of events at the gallery examining the work of the art collective of which they're part, Neue Slovenische Kunst.

In 2004, Laibach released a greatest hits compilation, Anthems, which included a booklet featuring 'essential' paintings. The accompanying sleevenotes posited their work - bombastic cover versions of such pop fodder as The Final Countdown, Life is Life and Queen's One Vision - as 'ready mades', and now they're appearing at Tate Modern, home to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain.

The terminology shifts the accusations of fascism typically levelled at the band onto the songs themselves. The audience at the last Laibach concert I went to - supporting their album of re-versions of national anthems - was all long leather trenchcoats and sharp haircuts but was less threatening than that at other '80s electro bands' gigs I've been to, notably for Martin Gore and Heaven 17, when a fight broke out.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Dance Dance Dance

Having written about how much I like Gary Numan's early, punk-inspired work, I've become increasingly obsessed with 1981's laidback, jazz-funk outing, Dance (pictured). It features Japan's Mick Karn on bass, two of the first four tracks are nearly 10 minutes long, it only really gets going at the start of side two - with She's Got Claws and Crash - and if you're after any obvious singles, you're best off looking to the the following year's I, Assassin album, and numbers Music for Chameleons, We Take Mystery (To Bed) and White Boys and Heroes.

After Replicas, The Pleasure Principle (both 1979) and Telekon (1980), Dance - the last thing you're likely to do to this album - represented something of a sidestep, artistically and financially. In his 1997 autobiography, Praying to the Aliens, Numan notes that he'd made something like £4.5m by this point. 'Although experimental and atmospheric, commercially speaking, Dance was the wrong album to release at a time when I badly needed to pick momentum,' he says.

The book, written with Steve Malins, recalls in a naive tone Numan's fascination with flying, and other fan-boy activities, alongside long-remembered run-ins and petty feuds. Maybe there's something in the musician's claims of having mild Asperger's. There's quite a lot about the songs' lyrical content but very little on the music itself, though there are some great, double-take lines.

'I think I saw a UFO once on my way home from one of those Dance sessions,' Numan says. And, later: 'The subject matter of the [album's] new songs was full of reflections on the previous two years, but one or two in particular were inspired by a relationship which turned very bitter. In 1980 I had gone out with a particular girl for a few months. She gave me three different names while I was with her, so to this day I'm still not sure what her real name was...'

Monday, 26 March 2012

A hit and Amis

Martin Amis's magnificent, most-recent novel, The Pregnant Widow (cover detail, pictured), is largely set in the Italian countryside in 1970 but there are some lovely London bits. When central character Keith Nearing's stay in a castle with at least three beautiful young women ends, Amis reflects: 'This summer was the climax of his youth. It had come and gone, it was over... Now he thought of London and its million girls.'

Forty-seven pages later: 'He went out among the women of London. And it was the strangest thing. Each and every one of them hated him already.'

Monday, 12 March 2012

Entering Lars von Trier's The Kingdom

Amid justified excitement about political drama Borgen and two series of The Killing it's been overlooked that 18 years ago producer Danmarks Radio was behind another landmark series, directed by one of contemporary cinema's most reliable directors. Lars von Trier created horror drama The Kingdom (Riget) after securing his reputation with breakout feature Europa (1991).

The series could take its cue from a line in William Blake's poem Vala: 'The dark religions are departed and sweet science reigns.' Von Trier peoples his technologically advanced hospital, the Kingdom, with eccentrics and ghosts. Malingering spiritualist Mrs Drusse is the first to notice the cries of a young girl, and then there's the ghostly ambulance that calls in at night from another time...

As in The Killing, there is a nod to that foreign neighbour, Sweden, in the form of pompous consultant neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (a career-defining portrayal from Ernst-Hugo Järegård), whose cry goes up in each episode: 'Danish scum!' He is caught between cunning junior registrar Hook and the management speak of Professor Moesgaard, a role that runs to parallel to that of Colonel Potter in one of the greatest TV series ever, M*A*S*H. Helmer can only console himself with a litany of Swedish greatness: Tetra Pak, Björn Borg, Volvo...

The eight episodes of The Kingdom, split over two series, are steeped in a sepia of rust and blood - von Trier deliberately deteriorated the condition of the film stock as far as possible. The chorus is provided by two hospital dishwashers, played by actors with Down syndrome, and there are moments that cause a cold wash to come over you. There is startling imagery, including floating pavements and other moments reminiscent of Europa - the direction is never less than assured throughout.

There are moments, too, that presage Antichrist (2009), while elsewhere there are elements of Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (2011), the familiar tropes of hospital drama (this ran concurrently with yet another great US TV series, ER) and even jokey nods to Ghostbusters (1984). Amid the grotesquerie and high comedy there may even be moments presaging Swedish director Roy Andersson, while the corridors - we're told the hospital has 30km of passageways - are all David Lynch.

There is, also, obsessed researcher Dr Bondo, played by Baard Owe, who stars as the wholly different lead in Bent Hamer's lovely O'Horten (2007). German actor Udo Kier, who appears in a host of von Trier's work, here makes the all-time great screen entrance. He had previously made a name for himself for campy turns on Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), and he has a greater role in 1997's second series - what is the relationship between his Little Brother and the Little Father of last year's magnificent Melancholia?

By now both the humour and the focus are broader, potentially to the detriment of The Kingdom II and, like many long series, it appears to lose its way - the total time runs to something like nine-and-a-half hours, so that's a good use of a weekend. In 2004, the series was picked up by horror maestro Stephen King for Kingdom Hospital, starring Andrew McCarthy and Bruce Davison.

They will have missed one of the highlights of the Danish original, which is von Trier's closing skit following every episode. In the mould of a mischievous Alfred Hitchcock, each time he sketches the sign of the cross, followed by the devil's horns, and reminds us all to 'take the good with the evil.'

Monday, 5 March 2012

Top five unexpected film dance scenes

5. Damsels in Distress (2011)
The tremendous Whit Stillman is back after a 13-year hiatus with only his fourth feature (the first, Metropolitan, came out in 1989). There's a musical element to his latest as Greta Gerwig's character, Violet (pictured above, far right), aims to cure her fellow students' suicidal impulses with the therapeutic influence of tap dancing. Violet, too, dreams of creating her own international dance craze - Sambola! - to match the Charleston and others. But the cast breaks into an impromptu number, reminiscent of (500) Days of Summer (below), that ends atop an ornamental pond - look out for the campus security guard.

4. Inland Empire (2006)
I was inspired to write this post after catching David Lynch's three-hour mindbender in the BFI Southbank's February season. Inland Empire boasts an outstanding central turn from Lynch fave Laura Dern but such is its opacity it would sit happily alongside anything by Christian Marclay, Douglas Gordon or Matthew Barney in an art gallery. Just when the film's flagging Lynch throws in a roomful of finger-clicking, dancing prostitutes (or former loves of Dern's husband, perhaps) doing the locomotion. The director certainly knows how to end on a high. Sweet!

3. (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Posting a link to a North Korean military parade, Douglas Coupland once commented on Twitter that he imagined such scenes every day when he left home. It's not quite the same level, but greetings card copywriter Tom (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) has a fairly whacky walk to work the morning after he finally cops off with the kooky girl of everyone's dreams, Zooey Deschanel. Instead of military music, there's Hall & Oates, workmen, a marching band and a cartoon bird.

2. Simple Men (1992)
'I can't stand the quiet!' Whit Stillman's contemporary Hal Hartley likes chucking a snappy dance sequence into his movies out of the blue, but none is as good as seeing Elina Löwensohn frug out with Martin Donovan and company to Sonic Youth's Kool Thing, which is pretty cool in itself. Look out for Donovan dancing in character - as Graham Fuller writes of a brief dance in Hartley's earlier Surviving Desire, 'the dancers wear no Gene Kelly smiles; here is the quintessential American music number, shorn of classical artifice and genre tropes.' And it owes it all to...

1. Bande à part (1964)
The ultimate unexpected dance scene occurs in Jean-Luc Godard's movie. Robin Wood suggests Anna Karina and co's impromptu dance in the café has 'the classic function of dance numbers in a musical, that of giving expression to dimensions of the characters which can only be hinted at in naturalistic action...' For him: 'The dance suggests our final separateness. Although the dancers are linked by the beat and steps of the routine, each appears entirely self-absorbed, unaware of the existence of the others...'

Damsels in Distress is out 27 April.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Aki Kaurismäki recommends... Teuvo Tulio

The new edition of Little White Lies features an interview I did with fantastic Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. We start off by talking about his latest film, Le Havre, which was inspired by TV documentaries about people trafficking into Europe. 'Lots of crooks cheated people to come here with a dream,' he explains.

Despite its dispiriting origins, Le Havre is lovely and uplifting - the type of film I could watch every day of the week and be a happy man. It reminds me of Mystery Train (Jarmusch is the only director whose work Kaurismäki will go out to see), Tarr's The Man from London and The Young Ones; there are elements of Carné, Fassbender, Melville, Sirk...

A confirmed cinephile, the director eulogises when we meet about the work of fellow Finn Teuvo Tulio, whose work stretches from the silent period through the 1950s. According to Kaurismäki, half of Tulio's work was destroyed in a laboratory accident; the director made his last film in 1973 and died in 2000 aged 87. I wish I'd caught a retrospective of his work at the ICA in December 2011, now. (Pictured: a still from one of Tulio's films, The Cross of Love, 1946, featuring his partner - and regular star - Regina Linnanheimo. She looks like my kind of trouble.)

Le Havre is out 6 April for the Easter weekend - and do check out the latest issue of LWL, it's ace!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Football's odd man out on film: Substitute

If you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend the film Substitute, which screened last week in Ciné Lumière's Ready Steady Doc! sporting season. The film was made by French footballer Vikash Dhorasoo, who shot his experiences of World Cup 2006 on a Super 8 camera given to him by his friend Fred Poulet, the film's co-director.

A midfielder who played for Lyon, AC Milan and PSG, among others, Dhorasoo helped France qualify, but once Raymond Domenech's team reaches the tournament he finds himself abandoned. He plays only 16 minutes of football.

He voices his frustration in phone calls to Poulet, who follows him around Germany for games. (The film could also serve as a nice little portrait of the country: it feels very familiar.) Dhorasoo speaks eloquently of his role, in the main avoiding the clichés to which we're permanently subjected in the English game. (Can we make out books by Jonathan Coe and Stefan Zweig in blurry shot, or am I imagining it?)

Redemption for the player comes when he decides to throw himself wholeheartedly into the documentary project, though this could as easily be his undoing, alienating him from teammates and the management (he quit not long after). Poulet makes the most of the initial footage Dhorasoo shoots to underline the footballer's estrangement from the squad but it is, too, a convenient fiction.

Dhorasoo can't show his clunky camera in public - nor film other protagonists privately without their permission - so we're left with the world of the footballer-traveller: hotel rooms, hotel corridors; there are several poignant shots of the team schedule, including matches in which Dhorasoo will never play. The technology he's given, which gives the film a nostalgic look redolent of the 1970s, contrasts with the 17 cameras trained on Zinedine Zidane by Douglas Gordon in the same year for film Zidane.

Zidane's availability, of course, is the main reason Dhorasoo is not playing and it is Zidane's outrageous act in the final that condemns France to finishing as runners-up. Throughout the film sports fans are confronted by the foreknowledge of the team's results and Poulet expends little energy filling us in; instead we have Dhorasoo wandering onto the pitch on his own at the final whistle of a game to salute the fans, or training with two other players who seem to have been left to have their own kickabout on the fringes of the main squad.

There's uncommon serendipity: Poulet films Dhorasoo in the grounds of the team hotel when, unnoticed by both, a branch falls from a tree to the ground behind the footballer. If a branch falls from a tree and nobody notices... A beautiful film, which I must try and get on DVD.

Ready Steady Doc! closes this Thursday, 23 February, with a look at the London 1948 Olympic Games through the eyes of the visiting Belgian team. The screening is due to be attended 98-year-old Yvonne Van Bets, who was a member of that team.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Cult viewing: Alex Cox and Moviedrome

For the current generation of nascent film buffs, there is Mark Cousins but the bolstering of my cinema knowledge came from director Alex Cox, presenter of BBC2's gloriously idiosyncratic Moviedrome. In the second guide to this cult film series of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cox warns: 'If you love big, glossy Hollywood productions starring Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, beware: the 'Drome may damage your taste!' (Substitute De Niro for Redford and little has changed.)

The first three seasons featured Big Wednesday, The Honeymoon Killers, One-Eyed-Jacks, Rumblefish... Peckinpah, Romero, Malick, Godard, Kubrick, Carpenter, Raimi and Craven are all present and correct . 'If there's a typical Moviedrome film,' Cox writes, 'it was probably financed by a major studio that fired the director half-way through and then pulled out entirely, leaving the cast to pool their savings and finish the film in another country, under the directorship of a generous used-car dealer.'

This could almost be the formula for Cox's own productions; his Walker featured here. Made in Nicaragua, it stars a Michael Fassbender-like Ed Harris as the eponymous, psychotic adventurer anti-hero and was written by Rudy Wurlitzer (author of Two-Lane Blacktop, which is one of those films that has such a groundswell of supporters currently it barely qualifies as a cult movie; it just needs somebody to screen it). 'There's not much... I can say about this film, since I am its director,' Cox says, 'I personally am very fond of it.'

It's worth pointing out The Long Hair of Death (1964), a 'spaghetti horror' directed by Anthony Dawson, which could form a counterpiece to Hammer's much fêted Witchfinder General (1968, Michael Reeves) - also included. There are, naturally, spaghetti westerns, given Cox's fascination, including Django (1966) and The Big Silence (1969) by Sergio Corbucci, A Bullet for the General (1966, Damiano Damiani), plus Sergio Sollima's Face to Face (1967), and Requiescant (1968, Carlo Lizzani)

Don Siegel features, of course - there's The Beguiled (1971) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979) - as well as John Sayles (for Alligator, 1980) and Sam Fuller, for Verboten! (1958) and Run of the Arrow (1957). There are several films by Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The California Dolls, Ulzana's Raid and The Big Knife), none of which I've seen, aargh!

Other curios spike my curiosity, too: Inserts (1975, John Byrum) and Romance of a Horse Thief (1971, Abraham Polonsky). A big fan of Vincent Ward - whose brilliant 1988 film The Navigator received a Moviedrome screening - I'm also intrigued by other contemporary choices, including Wayne Coe's Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and James Foley's At Close Range (1986), with Sean Penn, Christopher Walken and Mary Stuart Masterson.

Given that BBC2 separately celebrated Russian, Japanese and French cinema it's perhaps understandable Solaris (1972) was Moviedrome's first Soviet film. Cox recommends war film Come and See (1985): 'The Russians are our neighbours, right? And 20 million of them died on our side in World War II.'

Do also check out Cox's work: start with the excellent Highway Patrolman (1991). And, if you get the chance, dig out his introduction to the hugely underrated Bird (1988), directed by Clint Eastwood, who rightly also received a Moviedrome screening for Play Misty for Me (1971). Film clubs aren't a new phenomenon, but rarely can one have had such far-reaching appeal.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Dotty for Yayoi

Yayoi Kusama has been in town to launch a major retrospective at Tate Modern. In the summer of 2009 the Japanese artist - who famously is said to have chosen to reside in a mental hospital - decorated South Bank trees as part of the Hayward Gallery's Walking in My Mind (pictured above). This time round there is new work at Victoria Miro reminiscent of Austrialian aboriginal art, with touches of Cocteau and Niki de Saint Phalle, plus this version of outdoor installation Narcissus Garden (1966), which looked great locked in the ice on launch night:

Friday, 10 February 2012

Hungary's legendary Sindbad

I don't feel yesterday's post works, on Austrian-Hungarian literature available in English translation, alongside the tragic ends of the authors. I was inspired by New York Review Books' edition of Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy's short story collection The Adventures of Sindbad.

In his excellent historical introduction, George Szirtes suggests the book might have served 'a young Hungarian man of the 1920s... as a working manual of sexual relations.' Within a couple of chapters, Krúdy's semi-autobiographical hero is dead, but Sindbad's pursuit of women continues nonetheless.

'He liked lies, illusions, fictions and imagination - he would love to have swung from the high trapeze in a rose-pink vest or been an organist at a princely residence, or a confessor in a Jesuit church! A sought-after gynaecologist in Pest or a young tutor in a girls' school!'

I love his description of an elderly passerby's attention to a former paramour: 'The old gentleman's eyes rolled over her like a beer barrel across a yard.' Sindbad's thoughts infuse Ginsberg with melancholy: 'Frivolous, holy, holy and wearisome life! How nice it would be to start again!' A feeling underlined in the next story: 'A pity I am too old to begin my life anew.'

In its Classics series, NYRB could be accused of assembling a nice bunch of misogynists, including Georges Simenon and Alberto Moravia (Boredom). With them Kruda offers a prayer: 'Lord... give me untroubled dreams and a quiet night. Stop my ears against words poured into it by women. Help me forget the scent of their hair, the strange lightning of their eyes, the taste of their hands and the moist kisses of their mouths.

'Lord, you who are wise, advise when they are lying, which is always. Remind me that the truth is something they never tell. That they never do love. Lord, up there, far beyond the tower, think occasionally of me, a poor foolish man, an admirer of women, who believes in their smiles, their kisses, their tickling and their blessed lies... Lord protect me, never let me fall into the hands of women.'

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The empire strikes back

250th post: Ill health, suicide; ill health, suicide

Literature of the Austro-Hungarian empire has gained an increasing hold in English, kickstarted almost a generation ago by poet Michael Hofmann (latterly behind a revival of interest in Hans Fallada). Hofmann has just translated and edited Roth's Life in Letters, but German-language voices have been bolstered by such Hungarians as Sandor Márai and Gyula Krúdy.

Hofmann's translations of Joseph Roth are vital reading, notably his portrait of the collapse of the Habsburgs, The Radetzky March (1932). In 1933, Roth settled in Paris, where he died in 1939. Roth's final years were marked by the alcoholism he outlined in final novel The Legend of the Holy Drinker ('his last detail,' according to Hofmann), which was filmed by Ermanno Olmi. Rutger Hauer was the perhaps unlikely star of this miraculous homeless drama, which closes with the unforgettable: 'May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death!'

Hofmann takes up the tale of Roth's death: 'In 1938, he went to Horváth's funeral, and told friends that the next obituary they would write would be his own. It was the news of another friend's death, the suicide of the playwright Ernst Toller, that precipitated his own collapse...' He died aged 44.

Through his descent into poverty, Roth was supported by compatriot Stefan Zweig who has caught imaginations for his novel Beware of Pity (1939). There is, too, The Post Office Girl, which was found among the author's manuscripts after his death and has been republished by Sort of Books (with a quote from Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant on the cover).

The author of short fiction The Royal Game and Letter from an Unknown Woman (filmed by Max Ophüls) left Austria in 1935 and became a naturalised Briton. He travelled to the US and onto Brazil where, on 22 February 1942 - an anniversary that occurs soon - he and his wife committed suicide.

For more short stories I especially recommend a collection by a Hungarian writer of the period: Life is a Dream (1931) is published in Penguin's Central European Classics series. Author Gyula Krúdy is also served by New York Review Books, which publishes a couple of his works, including The Adventures of Sindbad. The rogueish author is another who ended his life in poverty, inspiring compatriot Sándor Márai to lead a reappraisal with his own Sindbad Comes Home (1940).

Márai was also rediscovered posthumously thanks to the German publication of his Embers (Die Glut) in 1999 (it was later adapted by Christopher Hampton for a London stage production starring Jeremy Irons), followed by Conversations in Bolzano (alternately Casanova in Bolzano) and The Rebels. Márai's publishers made much play of the author's unhappy end: having survived the Nazis and Communists, he fled to the US where, in 1989, he too killed himself - just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return of democracy to central Europe, is the line.

Monday, 6 February 2012

ROA in Brussels

Some work by the Belgian graffiti artist, in his home country. Click here for more of his animals on the loose in London.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Pet Shop Boys iconography

On Monday 6 February, Pet Shop Boys release their second collection of non-album tracks, Format, covering 1996-2009. I've written elsewhere about the synth duo's best b-sides so I thought I'd look at some of my favourite PSB sleeves, which are tackled exhaustively in Philip Hoare and Chris Heath's five-year-old Catalogue (Thames & Hudson) - quoted below.

1. Graphic
For many, the covers for the group's first two albums - 1986's Please and the following year's Actually - represent iconic moments, but my favourite is this graphic interpretation for their third, dance-y outing. In the same manner they played with Cindy Palmano's photograph for the Actually sleeve for greatest hits Discography - with Neil Tennant arching his eyebrow instead of yawning - so this could be said to be the starting point for the colourful tick that heralded their last album, Yes (2009). The band's regular designer Mark Farrow found the image looking through a professional book of colour combinations. Tennant says, 'It's our least favourite sleeve.'

2. Portrait
Photographer Eric Watson has shot many Pet Shop Boys' covers and this is one of my favourites, in great part due to my anticipation at the time for what is my favourite PSB single. He also shot the four photos that make up the centrepiece of accompanying album, Behaviour (1990), although second single Being Boring features some great, separate shots of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe by the Douglas Brothers. So Hard's 12" sleeve featured large lettering and numbers, a device developed on...

3. Typographic
The fourth and final single from the Actually album, Heart (1988), was written for Madonna but the Boys' decided to keep it for themselves. As with so many of Watson's pictures of Tennant and Lowe, this featured the duo in some new clothes they were keen to show off. Different formats give an indication of Farrow's predilection for playing with fonts and words: on the 12", he replaced the title with the word 'Remix'. As early as 1986's Suburbia single, the designer had given up on lettering altogether, deciding a picture of Lowe in denim cap, Issey Miyake shades and a stripey T-shirt was enough to represent them. 'It's everything about Pet Shop Boys summed up to me in a photo,' Farrow says. 'That's something I've never backed away from - I've always thought that if the photograph is strong enough to do the work on its own then I don't really need to do anything. In my mind at that time... the way Chris looked was the logo of the Pet Shop Boys.'

4. Arty
I don't know about you, I find the covers for Disco 3, London, I get along... pretty unexciting, so I went for this lo-fi number instead. The first of the band's remix albums, the cover image for Disco (1986) was taken from a video Tennant and Lowe filmed in Milan themselves for song Paninaro. The inner sleeve features Tennant in a cowboy hat from the same shoot, which is pretty cool. The album's title was intended as deliberate provocation at the time - notably in the US - while the image, to me, represents a surprisingly home-made approach, despite the neon colours and pixellation. It's not for nothing their 2003 compilation is called Pop Art.

5. Offbeat
In 1993, Pet Shop Boys reached the peak of their pop sensibility with album Very, and matched it with a revolutionary CD box that went up for all sorts of awards and features in design exhibitions to this day. After that, well, things went a bit odd - I haven't even uploaded 1999's Nightlife to my iPod, and only half of Release (2002). Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for album Bilingual (1996), which featured another attempt to rework the CD box, and further off-guard snaps of the Boys. This image, for single A red letter day, was shot by Pennie Smith in Notting Hill and seems surprisingly informal but perhaps a little unnerving, too; Smith is best known for photographing rock stars like the Rolling Stones. This isn't how we expect to see the band. In typically extravagant manner, the outer sleeves were entirely red - a reversal of Behaviour's inner, red lining.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

A rare theatre post

While the Palace Theatre was (relatively) dark recently, passersby in central London could see the building's exterior unhindered by gaudy advertising (above). Before the current primary-coloured umbrellas had gone up, there was also the chance to see backstage as new show Singin' in the Rain, which opens on 4 February, was installed:

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Stitches in time: the tailor in fiction

It's with creeping inevitably that I pick up from last week's post and the reference to Louis Garrel's short The Little Tailor to search out further tailors in fiction, starting with The Tailor of Panama. John le Carré's 1996 novel, inspired by Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, was filmed in 2001, providing a star turn - and a break from Bond - for Pierce Brosnan.

Brosnan's character has been discarded by MI6 in Panama, where he leans on Geoffrey Rush's tailor to find a way to secure his return to the fold. This tailor is typical of what we come to expect in screen depictions of the type: grasping, out-of-his-depth, a little bit sleazy.

The archetype is, of course, described by Georges Simenon in Les Fiançailles de Monsieur Hire (1933), filmed by Patrice Leconte in one of my favourite adaptations of the Belgian author's work. Michel Blanc stars as the eponymous M Hire, who spies on his beautiful neighbour, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, and is incriminated in the killing of another young woman nearby. In Anna Moschovakis' translation (for the 2007 NYRB edition), '... one sensed in him neither flesh nor bone, nothing but soft, flaccid matter, so soft and so flaccid that his movements were hard to make out.'

Like Simenon's tailor, Garrel's is Jewish and, as the young director noted, anachronistic. (I like, too, Garrel's admission that he tried to make a longer, feature, film but he cut and cut, and was left with 45 minutes.) For timeless tailors who have given us a byword for cutting down pretension we look to Hans Christian Andersen's swindlers, who pose as weavers in The Emperor's New Clothes (1837).

But my favourite fictional tailors come in Rohinton Mistry's wondrous A Fine Balance (1995), starting with unfortunate young widow Dina Shroff, who is encouraged to set up her own tailoring business to maintain her independence. She hires villagers Ishvar and his nephew Om and makes a quilt from the workers' scraps.

Later on it evokes memories of their time together '... that's the rule to remember, the whole quilt is much more important than any single square.' And there is a gap, yet to be completed: 'Before you can name that corner,' continues Ishvar, 'our future must become past.'

It is also a book of the city, Mumbai, which I don't think is ever named. After another adventure the tailors return to their favoured haunt, the Vishram restaurant:
'You fellows are amazing,' the sweaty cook roared over the stoves. 'Everything happens to you only. Each time you come here, you have a new adventure story to entertain us.'
'It's not us, it's the city,' said Om. 'A story factory, that's what it is, a spinning mill.'

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Free French films online

From tomorrow, French-film fans will be able to watch a host of shorts and full-length features online for free and vote for their favourites. The My French Film Festival offering features a couple of highly acclaimed movies that had big-screen releases in the UK last year, including Love Like Poison and Living On Love Alone, a highly watchable look at the plight of a young woman looking for work - and self-esteem.

The star of the latter, Anaïs Demoustier, features alongside another name that dominates the programme - Léa Seydoux (recently of Midnight in Paris, Mysteries of Lisbon and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) - in Rebecca Zlotowski's Dear Prudence, a sort of 1950s cautionary tale seen through a '70s filter. Seydoux is also the lead in Louis Garrel's self-penned, sophomore directorial outing, The Little Tailor (pictured), that feels happily out of time.

The actor concedes that his 45-minute movie, which received a cinematic release in France, is indebted to the films of his hero, François Truffaut, notably La peau douce (1964) and short Antoine et Colette (1962). Garrel is open about The Little Tailor's shortcomings, including a poorly sketched role for Seydoux, but it's great fun nonetheless, and definitely worth a watch - and your vote.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

New year at Ciné lumière

For a single-screen rep cinema, Ciné lumière can boast much imaginative programming, such as a season of Spirituality in Cinema to accompany the release of Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men (2010) and Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Can Recall His Past Lives. Perhaps inspired by The Iron Lady, which opens there this Friday, the South Ken institute launches a series of films about government.

The Corridors of Power season kicks off on Sunday with lengthy De Gaulle biopic, Le Grand Charles, from 2005. Current fare includes The Conquest, again starring Denis Podalydès - this time about Sarkozy's rise to the French presidency - L'exercice de l'etat, with Michel Blanc, and Alain Cavalier's Pater, starring Cavalier and Vincent Lindon.

Two classics of the last decade also feature: The Last Mitterand (2004) - which won Blanc won a César for his portrayal of François Miterrrand - and 1974: une partie de campagne (2001), Raymond Depardon's Giscard d'Estaing doc. There's no place for powerful Georges Simenon adaptation The President (1961), starring Jean Gabin and Bernard Blier, presumably because a subtitled print isn't available. Simenon fans will, however, be tempted separately by Maigret's Mistake (1994), a feature-length episode of the French TV series starring Bruno Cremer.

The highlight of this month's programme focuses on TV: Totally Serialized, a celebration of French and British small-screen offerings on the big screen, runs 19-22 January. Alongside an all-night Misfits marathon (on Saturday 21 January), there's a free screening of an episode of Elite Squad the next morning, a script-writing workshop attended by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) and Eric de Barahir (Spiral) among others, plus the first episode of This is England '88 followed by a Q&A with the cast. I'd also pick out a screening of the opening episode of gritty cop series Braquo (22 January) attended by director Olivier Marchal and star Jean Hugues Anglade (Betty Blue, Subway).