Wednesday, August 27, 2008
This site has never been shy of reporting on dangerous Western European dance styles, but it might be time to call it a day. I've met my match. I don't know if it's going to be harder going on or just turning back. Here's what we're dealing with:
I look back on the pleasantly lame days of Tecktonick with autumnal-hued affection now. I can even find a place for the childishly enthusiastic jump. But I never thought I'd happen upon a style of dance that honestly, and unironically, looks like you are dancing on hot coals while suffering explosive diarrhea. Mine has clearly been a sheltered life.
The distinction between Hakken and, um, rapidly walking on the spot is unclear.
But it has left me unhinged.
I have some good things to write about at the moment, but I really don't want to sully the affair by including them in this post. I'm so very, very sorry.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
I was just sitting in the park reading a pretty good book and there was this little kid zooming around on a wooden bike. I think the very existence of small wooden bikes is really great in an indefinable way. This bike has no pedals so it’s just raw push-power that gets this kid about but he was achieving some enviable speed. He was also wearing a jaunty little peaked cap, the sort an old Oxford man would wear while taking a stroll in the woods. His dad (or at least attendant male guardian) looked a bit like Michael Moore in a daggy baseball cap and specs so I don’t think the kid gets his fashion tips from him. Who knows, though? As I write I can still see them out the window, where the kid has left dad to carry the bike while he does some running with two other teeny little kids who’ve shown up. They’re doing quite a lot of running which is understandable at that age. I recall that when I was little random running was a very important part of daily life. Anyway, this kid seems to be living a very successful existence.
I mentioned a while back that I bought a large orchid. I think I also mentioned that I am a real failure when it comes to plants. I just can’t keep them alive. Right now the orchid is doing ok, but barely. It’s lost all its flowers but I think that might be normal. Obviously a better gardener would know or would at least find out but like I said, I’m not that gardener. The other two plants I bought at the same time are faring about as well/not well.
I was thinking today that maybe they would do better if they had names since that would show more care or affection on my part or something. But I’m equally unsure whether plants should really have names. I mean come on. Just in case, though, I’ve named the orchid Great Sage, Equal of Heaven because that sounds like a confidence-boosting name, and the two smaller palms are both named Ghost Guilt because I misread a cardboard box on the street today that initially appeared to be labelled that and thought it was an excellent name for something. I’m not naming the smaller plants separately as first planned because then one name would probably be a bit cooler – Ghost Guilt is obviously a better name than most – and I would end up playing favourites with two plants that are essentially of equal merit (life-wise).
I also think that I am secretly proud or at least overly-accepting of my failures as a green thumb. I wonder if a lot of people unconsciously define themselves by their failures. I fail to enjoy jazz and fail to enjoy football, for instance, but I don’t go out of my way to correct these failings and I’m probably pretty happy with them. My deficiency as a gardener seems to be a kind of cultivated failure.
Cultivated failures are a big part of postmodern performance. Last week the Fondue Set brought their show No Success Like Failure to Melbourne for a few days. It was a likeable show. I liked it. It teetered very close to some of the worst aspects of pomo performance but didn’t topple over. I’m thinking of that kind of show that deliberately seeks to fail and in so doing of course has to succeed. The deliberately bad art work. The one that dodges the possibility of actually failing by seeming to aim for just that.
No Success flirts with this, constantly delaying any kind of pay-off – I mean it’s by three dancer/choreographers and only ends up offering two bits of dance. And it finishes with a lecture on postmodern performance delivered by a woman crying because the show hasn’t worked out the way she’d hoped. But it’s also very funny in parts, and does contain enough content to be more than a purely negatory work. It’s over though so if you wanted to go – YOU FAIL.
Philippe Genty’s Lands End wasn’t a failure… I don’t think art works are productively thought of in terms of success and failure. To judge something that way presupposes that you can tell what was intended by the production from the production, and then criticise it for not achieving those intentions. The fallacy there is that we can never know if the apparent failure wasn’t in fact the intention, since we’re only inferring the intention from the thing itself. Lacking direct access to the Genty, I have to assume that everything that appears in Lands End is just what he intended. So it wasn’t a failure. I did, however, find it boring crap.
Take an excerpt from Genty’s contribution to the program:
To find her again
Something gnaws at him, consumes him, explodes within
Emptiness sets in. He clings to a detail.
To tame this desert which surrounds him.
A chant rises up from the depths of the desert.
What does he do here within this tiny bubble of light?
To smash the emptiness, smash the darkness which surrounds him.
Plunge into this matter he dare not touch, which flees…
Isn’t this bad teenage poetry?
Lands End served up uninspired imagery that rarely resonated with anything. People hopping around in giant toilet rolls. A big mosquito thing flapping around for way too long. People in trenchcoats carrying suitcases around for ages. It was, to paraphrase a friend’s summation of another recent big show, like a Crazy Frog ringtone for the arty crowd. Just a bunch of by-the-numbers images calculated to have people oohing and aahing because they felt they were supposed to. We’ve seen these images before countless times, and none of them push any buttons. The question I kept coming back to was: what’s at stake here? Where are the tensions this piece plays on? Where are the collisions between the world we think we know and the worlds that might be otherwise? A few faceless people batting around giant plastic bags hardly stirs my soul. Even with some pretty blue lights washing over the whole thing. And to think that seven prestigious theatre companies co-produced this. Pure spectacle is 100% fine in my book, but when even the spectacle seems a bit Aldi, I get annoyed that people are asked to pay top dollar.
On the other hand, the tiny, cheap, often amateurish production of Zhang Da Li and the Village of Big Eaters at La Mama is a curious contrast. Produced on no budget by a bunch of newcomers to the theatre, its failings are often its most enjoyable moments as they upend the whole notion of getting it right or wrong in the theatre. The young cast seem to mess around with the script at times in a completely self-indulgent way that made me laugh, and their improv gave the piece a liveliness lacking from many tightly structured, better financed plays.
It’s set in the aftermath of China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and mainly concerns five young male students farting a lot. This might not sound like much of a start, but after about ten minutes of farting and fart-based conversation, it gradually emerges that this flatulent slapstick is due to the terrible famine conditions Mao Zedong’s reforms resulted in. The Great Leap Forward saw Chairman Mao attempt to fast-track an essentially feudal nation into becoming a modern world power in the industrial age in only five years. All the nation’s efforts were to catch up with the West –and in diverting all labour and resources to building factories and the like, nobody was left to grow the food. Starvation was common, though complaining of it was tantamount to treason, and admitting hunger was a form of dangerous sedition. So these kids were forced to live on tree bark or horse feed or pig slops. Hence the farting.
The drama centres around the brash Zhang Da Li’s trial for pinching some carrots from a peasant farm. It seems like pretty minor, domestic stuff and it’s played that way, but an awareness of China’s relatively recent history puts the play in a much larger and more compelling context. Most of that is only hinted at in the script, but it’s an interesting play if you get the deeper implications.
Again, though, it’s delivered in an often hilarious fashion that sees the young actors messing around and having more fun than a professional production would allow. I can’t know for sure, but when one performer says “Toodles!” as he walks off-stage, it seemed an in-joke that would have some directors fuming. It all results in a wildly uneven construction of a world that frequently reminds the viewer that what we’re watching is both an intriguing semi-fictional plot and a bunch of kids having a good time. Is it a good play? I don’t know. But it’s a reminder that failure and success depend on your own aesthetic criteria.
Balletlab’s Axeman Lullaby was a masterpiece in conceptual terror. A bunch of dancers swinging axes tore apart a set of logs and planks and occasionally the Chunky Move studio floor, bathed in blood red light, two musicians destroying piano and violin as they played, and a champion wood-chopper demolished logs upstage the whole while. It was as visceral a performance as you could get, especially as you were watching barefooted dancers skittling over a growing carpet of sharp wood splinters.
And on the night of my attendance, one of the cast copped a flying shard of timber to the cheek and disappeared backstage to have his face stitched up. Choreographer Phillip Adams is a hard taskmaster but he is increasingly creating works unlike anything else around. Last year’s Brindabella was a truly magical harnessing of freefloating libidinal energies that through abstract movement alone managed to stir incredibly submerged feelings of connection, eroticism and creative energy. It was Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life given corporeal form. Axeman Lullaby does a similar thing for fear and anxiety – instead of connecting its audience to the energy of pure, polymorphous desire, it throws our terrifying pre-lingual understanding of death and dismemberment in our faces. To go with the musical comparison, it's more like a messed up remixed Ligeti piece. Hard to watch. Not to be missed. Although you’ve already missed it.
I loved the Imperial Ice Stars’ Cinderella on Ice for a similar reason – it was a gaggle of Russian ice dancers doing things I wouldn’t dare try doing myself. I saw it twice, once in Wellington and once in Melbourne. These people were all whirring blades slashing inches away from faces and no irony or cheesiness to any of it. They attempted impossible things.
Which is kind of what I’m getting at. I have a hugely unreasonable fascination with failure but not with the kind of thing where failure is the aim. I don’t really want to see someone trying to valorise failure in order to make us question our criteria for success. It’s just another way of being successful by redrawing the boundaries. A work which genuinely tries and fails seems much more worthwhile to me. Circus Oz is an instructive case here – go to one of their shows and you’ll see people trying ridiculous feats and failing. Then trying again and, often, failing just as badly. Then, perhaps, trying once more and doing what by now seems impossible.
Do impossible things. Do things where failure ceases to have any negative connotations since your aims are impossible anyway. If you succeed, that’s just icing on the cake. Do impossible things.
Or ride a bike through the park, legs pistoning away before you meet up with your friends and run around or maybe climb a tree and make a list of all the things that excited you when you were a kid, perhaps including directionless running or tree-climbing. These things aren’t really acceptable for adults and I never do them. Which makes them impossible things.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
You may be asking yourself (or me) "How do we know that Arie is the greatest artist in the world?" I know that Arie is the greatest artist in the world because he considerately tells us so. He has a website called The Greatest Artist in the World which is located at the easy to remember URL thegreatestartistintheworld.com.
Arie exhibits at One of a Kind gallery in Sydney. His past exhibits have had confident titles such as "Best of the Best", "The Greatest Artist in the World" and, my favourite, "Nothing But Masterpieces." This is the kind of can-do attitude that will take Arie places, I think.
Arie paints using only a trowel, but Arie can do with his trowel what the great Salvador Dali did with a hundred paint brushes. This is because his works are "crafted with the highest level of skill that has ever been mastered by a painter". He does it because he loves it more than anything else. "Except for sex!" That's good!
Arie's artworks contain great meaning. Take "Cow Cow":
"Cow Cow" tells the story of the first time a bull takes his calf to a meadow full of "heffers".
"The bull and his calf stand observing the herd in the meadow.
The son says to his father 'Hey father, father how about we run down the hill, grab one and have our way with it?'
The father replies to the son 'How about we walk down and have our way with all, one cow at a time, cow cow!'"
Here is a poem by Arie called "Art Fart":
Art fart aint it smart, Do not touch!!! I'll fall apart! Bullshit, rubbish, one will pay for the same junk he chucked away compromising that's the game lucky, me, I'm not the same!I'm just a man with a trowel in my hand trying to help you understand. My art is the best you've seen the rest, now is the right time to invest! So come along with me you don't need an art degree, take a part in history!
Arie's philosophy is a welcome break from the wankery of the art world, setting up (as it does) a useful distinction between two categories of artist: the Best Artist and Everyone Else. This is right thinking! Also here is a handy graph I stumbled upon recently (unrelated).
Anyway, good on you, Arie. I'm not really that sure that "art" is like a competition that someone can win, rendering all other art useless, but I honestly do admire this young man's strong sense of self. I honestly mean that. And like a bull proudly taking every cow in the meadow, I hope you reap all the rewards of a satisfying career as an artist. Cow cow!
In other news, I hope everyone has a great day.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Opening night of Compagnie Phillipe Genty's Lands End.
I can't wait to forget this show.
Hang on... ah, there we go.
I could review this thing but I think you'll thank me instead for referring you to this unreleased, vastly superior and in no way related Soviet Jazz-Funk movie theme.
Now ain't that just the drizzlin' shits. Damn.
This film is one in a long list of 70s and 80s outings dramatising the encounter between the urbanised white Aussie and the terrifying Australian bush. It's filled with a dread of everything ‘natural’ - every plant, animal and crashing ocean wave generates a free-floating fear which could at any time wreak havoc on the two all-too-human bodies which find themselves adrift in a coastal hell. It also features an exciting scene in which a guy gets attacked by a possum. It's not the greatest film I've ever seen.
I can heartily recommend Long Weekend to any fan of Australian cinema or the rural thriller, however. It's a tense, weird movie with lots of animal attacks and unexpected human brutality and long shots of the bush accompanied by ear-splitting abuses of a synthesiser. Post-60s cinema was rife with films that corrected earlier images of rural utopianism. Where once you might have grown up wishing you'd been born and abandoned in a paddock to be raised by wombats or suckled by a dugong, these films pointed out how horrific the countryside could appear to city-slickers with quaint notions of pastoral simplicity. In these films, heading up country for some R&R usually ended up in death, mutilation, rape or plain old getting eaten. It's there in Mad Max, The Cars That Ate Paris, Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock and so on and so forth. The US was doing the same thing at the same time with any number of slasher films featuring dumb kids going to summer camp and taking up the local nutter's invitation to come round for shish kebab Friday.
Long Weekend recreates the uncanny, badly plotted atmosphere of a 70s slasher but turns out to be something different. There are plenty of scenes where assistant directors are clearly throwing bored seagulls at the cast and it's hardly Hitchcock when a wombat plods past the camera to the tune of some screeching horror soundtrack, but this is one of those numbers that works pretty well regardless of any technical deficiencies. It's a beautifully shot rendering of coastal Australia that asks "Where the bloody hell are you?" and provides answers in the same vein.
DEAD END DRIVE-IN
My last MIFF film this year was probably the best – another Ozploitation number, it’s pretty much (spoiler alert) the best Australian film ever made. Well, that might be going a bit far but it’s a long way from the crap that’s dominated our industry for the past decade. It’s (very) loosely adapted from a Peter Carey short story which I took a look at yesterday. Nice story, not much like the film.
The movie follows a weedy guy called Crabs in a nihilistic 80s punk future who finds himself trapped in a drive-in filled with no-hoper junkies and new wave trash and Wilbur Wilde. The government keeps these rabble fed, boozed up and entertained with rubbish movies (in fact they’re all the other films by the dude who directed this one!) while denying escape with electric fences and corrupt machinegun-toting cops. Crabs kind of gets bummed out by the whole forced imprisonment vibe and determines to do a Steve McQueen before discovering that one of his biggest obstacles comes from inside the compound – it turns out that these losers have all grown to love their imprisonment! And then the movie hits you over the head with a metaphor hammer that yells “The drive-in is AUSTRALIA!” Despite the obviousness of the film’s subtext it’s still a great movie that has you thinking a little bit afterwards and wondering if the soundtrack was ever released (on LP and cassette, probably).
The design of the film is truly stunning in a hilarious retro way – it’s like Dogs in Space turned up to 11. Everyone is dressed to the hilt in outrageous get-ups, every surface is covered in graffiti and burning tyres and battered chrome fittings, and everything suggests a huge budget has been thrown at a film that wouldn’t even get off the ground today. I laughed out loud at some of the dialogue – especially when Crabs’ huge boss Frank starts doing a few reps with a barbell then looks at his massive guns and says in all seriousness “Fuck it, I’m big enough”. And what other film ends with a blazing truck driving off a ramp into a huge neon sign to accompanying explosions and a protagonist yelling “BEWDY!” Only in Oz.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
OK, I've just read my books on/by Robert Bresson and he's still a clown. The book by him is a manifesto of the sort that French artist-intellectuals of the 50s-90s excelled at writing. Think Debord, Baudrillard etc. Short disconnected sentences or paragraphs such as:
"Models. Mechanized outwardly, intact, virgin within"
"No possible relations between an actor and a tree. The two belong to different worlds"
"Telephone. His voice makes him visible".
Whatever, don't expect me to keep researching a filmmaker I've managed to avoid this long despite a degree in cinema. I'll just go to the film and complain about it and then probably see some more films by the same guy.
There's one word to sum up my experience of watching this film.
Man, I've never been in a room with so many nerds in my life. My internal nerdometer was going off the scale. It was so nerdy that even the nerds there were commenting loudly on how nerdy the place was. I can make these prejudiced comments because clearly I was nerd enough to have a) bought a ticket to see an obviously nerdy anime that b) I had seen already and c) didn't much like the first time around. Also I saw it alone. When I got home I was so disgusted with myself that I had to do my civic duty and immediately give myself a wedgie, dunk my head in the toilet and scatter my playlunch around the yard.
The Evangelion series is apparently one of those super-anime numbers that ranks up there with the best ever, but when I watched a few episodes of it a while back I couldn't work out what all the fuss was about. It's one of those capers where the world is being attacked by giant space aliens and a couple of kids have to get into giant robot suits and have some fights. Later in the series I think it gets all psychodrama and it turns out that the aliens are something to do with our own thanatoid drives for self-destruction or Oedipal revenge or something, but all I got from the episodes I watched were a few crosses appearing when things blew up and a whiny main character who really, really hates his dad for not smiling when he talks to him. And also for sending him out in a giant robot to battle space aliens.
This new film is a rejigged compilation of the first three or four episodes of the series with a couple of new CGI bits spackled over some of the lamer animation that appeared in the original 90s series. The rest of the series will get the same treatment in the near future. Again, I think it might get better from here on in, but who knows? If you dig giant robot anime you'll probably get a kick from this, but then if you dig giant robot anime you've probably already seen it.
So there's this young Romanian couple who get home and all of their furniture is sitting out in the muddy carpark because they've been evicted and so they go to a graveyard to think and then the guy stands up because he sees some wedding rings in the grass and a bottle flies out of nowhere and knocks him out and then the woman stops a guy driving past in a jeep and the knocked-out guy wakes up in a hospital and he can't find the woman because she's moved in with the jeep driving guy (who is French) and then he gets a job as a giant beer and makes friends with a woman dressed as a giant mobile phone.
That's just the start of this film and I really quite enjoyed it despite myself. It sort of has the weird logic of a dream or, more rightly, of a little kid breathlessly recounting a story with not much control of narrative pacing or dramatic structure. It sort of a comedy, sort of a melancholy drama, sort of a something else entirely. It's the first film by the guy who made the very highly acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and as a first film it does that typical old thing of having three separate stories which overlap and interlink in ways that only gradually become clear. It's shot in a pretty unexciting way and a lot of the plot is a bit humdrum but the interesting performances (everyone acts like they're rehearsing and don't realise the camera is rolling) along with the strange pacing and sometimes very confusing cultural differences of Romanian life make for a good little watch. There's a moment of hilarious casual racism which is incredibly jarring when it occurs, seemingly for laughs, but it sort of redeems itself as the film goes on, making you realise that this is a film made for Romanians who might not initially question their own racist attitudes, I guess.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Having missed a lot of MIFF this year I’ve been feeling really behind on my annual dosage of celluloid gloom – not that MIFF films are all grumbles, but it’s where I usually end up catching enough unremitting bleakness to last me another 12 months. Usually it’s by accident. Pick any baker’s dozen from the program and the odds are that at least one will turn out to be the most depressing film of all time. That’s just simple maths. But having failed to find myself involuntarily subjected to a couple of hours of grey, numbing bleakness this year I found myself oddly missing it and decided to try to find a film that would make up for this. A kind of supercharged movie of relentless despair that would pack all of the usual angst generated by five or six MIFF films into one powerful package.YAHTZEE!
I’d never heard of Ulrich Seidl before I saw his Import Export but he must be like the Michael Bay of miserable movies. This film is utterly, utterly depressing and quite impressive too. To give you a hint, we’re talking about a film that ends with a shot of a (real) hospital ward in which six (real) women in the last days of their life lie muttering, calling out, praying in the (very real) way that only someone whose body is finally losing its struggle can do, as an unmoving camera forces us to confront the imminence of death and the entirely unromantic, unaestheticised reality of what dying really is. And as the frame finally fades to black after two hours of wretchedness, it does so to the sound of one of the women automatically repeating a word that might not even have any meaning to her, the way she keeps saying it. Death. Death. Death.
The film has two threads to it – in one, a Ukrainian nurse is driven to leave her baby and emigrate west to Vienna in order to find sustainable work. Being Ukrainian, this means menial labour and, eventually, a job as a cleaner for a hospital in which she once could have earned a prestigious role. It’s incredibly hard to watch Olga brushing an old woman’s hair and seeing the (real) woman cooing and blinking contentedly, unable to form words but clearly appreciating the touch. And then to cut to a nurse berating Olga for overstepping her role as a cleaner and explaining that whatever she was back home, she’s not a nurse any more.
Import Export’s other thread follows Pauli, a muscle-bound Viennese dude who takes a job as a security guard until he is roughed up, stripped and humiliated by a local gang. He drifts around despondently, degraded further by thugs from whom he’s borrowed money, and tries to reassert his masculinity by buying a butch dog (which loses him his girlfriend) and robbing people on the subway (which ends up an embarrassment). He gradually drifts east with his nasty stepfather, delivering shitty gumball machines and outdated pokies to the eastern bloc countries that are the refuse piles of the west. And, finally, ends up in the very place Olga began.
This is a really hard film to watch at times. It’s all about exploitation – the exploitation which is at the heart of global relations today, played out through individuals whose very participation in the system requires complicity with oppression. Even those suffering most are guilty since the only way out of the pit is by stepping on others or leaving them in their wake.
Which brings me to the film’s (reality). Some of its most difficult scenes aren’t just troubling in an abstract sense. Seidl comes from documentaries, and the film itself feels like a real document. Is the filmmaker exploiting the elderly, apparently senile people who give the film such power? Is he exploiting the real underclass whose bombed-out ghettos he uses as backdrops to gut-wrenching scenes of impoverished lives? Is he exploiting the women who are mocked and sexually degraded in languages they don’t understand? I don’t know. Apparently Seidl is able to make actors appear like real doco subjects, and I can tell you that there are plenty of performances here that I simply couldn’t believe were anything but real. I don’t know. Either way, this is an amazing film that I would be uncomfortable recommending to anybody.
I kept hoping that this film would get better but it didn’t. Someone makes a joke early on about how the situation seems like an episode of Law & Order, but I wouldn’t go making those kinds of jokes in a film that makes TV cop drama look like Dostoevsky. The film follows a lawyer who delves into the Korean underworld of New York in order to solve a murder case being pinned on a 12-year-old. The Korean underworld seems to consist of a bar and about 15 people. The lawyer seems to consist mainly of a massive 80s haircut. I’m sure this film meant well and was hampered by budgetary limitations, but really, it was composed of scenes we’ve seen a thousand times before in better movies. The film does feature Grace Park who is fantastic in Battlestar Galactica but even pretending that her various co-stars are secretly robots can’t make this thing very entertaining. Maybe the script was written by a 12-year-old too.