Monday, 27 December 2010

What I am looking forward to in 2011

The Invisible Province has already got its beady eye on a number of cultural events in 2011. I am sure there will be many others that will come along and grab its attention, but I thought I might share these with Invisible Province readers:


Slowly I learnt the ways of humans: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie.

Frankenstein at the National Theatre. I've already booked simply because I consider Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to be one of the great novels of the nineteenth century. This production (written by the playwright, Nick Dear, who I am hoping will not neglect the epic sense of sadness that is so much part of the novel) is being directed by the film director, Danny Boyle. I must confess that after Trainspotting, Danny Boyle films have left me stirred but never shaken. Slumdog Millionaire may have pulled at the commercial heartstrings, but it was artistically overrated. Yet he's a home grown talent and one cannot deny that his films have a popular appeal (he's also got the gig to stage the opening of the 2012 Olympics). But can he transfer his cinematic skills to the stage of the Olivier Theatre? The production also includes two good British actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller who will alternate the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. This may not be the theatre event of 2011 but it is bound to be interesting.

2. I missed Clybourne Park when it was at the Royal Court and have been kicking myself ever since. But now that it is transferring to the West End I have been given another chance. This is a play that explores the limits of political correctness and how, on its own, it cannot keep a lid on racial tensions...the play is also meant to be very funny.

In 1959 Russ and Bev are selling their desirable two-bed at a knock-down price. This enables the first Black family to move into the neighbourhood, creating ripples of discontent amongst the cosy white urbanites of Clybourne Park. In 2009, the same property is being bought by Lindsey and Steve whose plans to raze the house and start again is met with a similar response. Are the issues festering beneath the floorboards actually the same fifty years on?

3. A new Terence Malick film is an event for anyone who claims to love cinema. His films are, in the words of the poet, Louis MacNeice, alive with "the drunkenness of things being various". I have always come away from a Malick film deeply affected and having felt I've witnessed something of our transient existence through a clearer, purer lens. I can hardly contain my excitement about The Tree of Life. The only worry is that Brad Pitt is in it...

4. Has Steven Speilberg made a decent film since Schindler's List? Well, this year he offers us two films: The Adventures of Tintin and Warhorse. Not so interested in Tintin (I was always an Asterix the Gaul boy) but I am fascinated to see what he does with Michael Morpurgo's Warhorse. The acclaimed National Theatre production is currently on in London's West End. Speilberg now brings it to the screen and if anyone can make a success of doing so then it must be him. I'm willing this film to be a great Speilberg movie. Can he do for the First World War trenches what he did for the extermination camps? We'll see.

5. Two big sculpture exhibitions this year. Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy and The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture at the Saatchi Gallery on the Kings Road. Although, when the blurb for the Royal Academy exhibition says:
The exhibition will take a fresh approach, replacing the traditional survey with a provocative set of juxtapositions that will challenge the viewer to make new connections and break the mould of old conceptions.

I want to run to the hills. Still, if I can mentally shield myself from the curator's radical juxtapositions, then I hope to still be able to enjoy work by Alfred Gilbert, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Anthony Caro and co.

6. New REM album, Collapse into Now. New Elbow album. New Plan B, The Ballad of Belmarsh. New Mumford and Sons. So lots of interesting pop sounds in 2011.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My top SIX albums of the year

2010 was a superb year for music. The synthesiser made a comeback which for a child of the eighties like myself was electronica to my ears. Just as the New Romantics were a reaction against punk, so this was a reaction against that which is deemed street and "real" in favour of something more synthetic, glamorous and playful. At the same time, there were some great dance records. And at the further reaches of music, my ears pricked up (thanks to Radio 1's Zane Lowe) to a whole host of innovative sounds that have not made it into my top SIX (I just couldn't leave out Plan B) this year but could well do so in 2011...we will see. In the meantime here are my favourites of 2010.

Janelle Monae's debut album, The Archandroid, is breathtakingly inventive and exciting. It is a concept album (remember those?) with a narrative arc but achieved with such a lightness of touch and musical playfulness that it never becomes an exercise in musical onanism. Like some diligent art student, Monae pilfers from the musical canon only those sounds and riffs that will give her sound its unique musical texture. This snatch 'n' grab approach is audacious, daring and it works. She bounces from genre to genre (rap, r'n'b, folk, disco, cabaret, film scores, etc) with effortless dexterity and sure footedness. In less gifted hands this could have ended up as a pretentious mess. Here, however, every song is crafted to perfection and performed with a soulful confidence. This is Aretha meets Stevie meets Prince. There's not a weak moment in this album. Above, Cold War - not just a great song but also a video moment to rival Sinead O'Connor's famous tears in Nothing Compares to You. My album of the year just because it reminded me that pop music still has a revelatory power.

Let's get her age out of the way. Laura Marling is twenty years old. If I and everybody who writes about Marling hadn't mentioned this fact then you would think I speak because I can exhibits the emotional maturity and musical range of someone twice that age. Setting poetic language to music is a devilishly difficult business but Marling places her finely tuned lyrics on a musical framework of contrasting dynamics that both support and expose her ideas. Rambling Man is an example of this. These lyrics are polished with the finest emery board of creative intelligence. They exhibit a gemstone translucence and honesty. I Speak because I can are miniature hymns of the highest order to love, loss and beauty.

Cee Lo Green's Forget You was one of the big hits of the last year. It is a cleaned up version of Green's potty mouthed assault on an ex-lover given to a cheerful Motown beat. In The Ladykiller, Green successfully channels Motown polish, Stax sassiness and Philly soul for the twenty first century. This is barrelhouse soul, big lunged and finger lickin' good. Stadium sized melodies, horns and strings combine to make one of the great pop albums of the last year...some say, the decade?

This is music that seems designed for the eyeliner brigade and those with complexions so pale that they blister should daylight touch them. But the eerie, multi-layered soundscapes in Stridulum have a sinuous power. They have escaped from the suburban bedrooms of teenage goths and have infected a wider public with their crooked beats and wall of sound synths. Zola Jesus's lead singer, Nika Roza Danilov, has a Siouxsie Sioux vocal range that mesmerises and chills. She is a siren calling us to the darker undercurrents of contemporary living. Stridulum has an independence of vision that lifts the black veil on all the shadows that inhabit our imaginations. This is music for the twilight hours when all seems strange and feverish. It draws you in and once in, you just can't stop listening.

If Stridulum is the dark side of synth pop, then Happiness by Hurts is the New Romantic pop side. So perfect is the mimicry in every musical detail that I can imagine having heard this music in La Beat Route or the Blitz club in the 1980's. With its glacial rhythms and edgy lines - part Ultravox, part ABC - this is a homage to the icy dance music of an era but made accessible to a new audience. For those of you who have been waiting for a duo with sharp suits, slick haircuts and a monumental sound, this is it. If you haven't been waiting for this, what's wrong with you?

Plan B's The Defamation of Strickland Banks is stylish soul music for a new generation of absolute beginners. Ben Drew's conceptual Motown conjures up a world of smoky East End night clubs (owned by The Krays) where if you weren't on your guard, someone would nick your new tie pin at knifepoint. Stonking tunes - all horn hooks, blues guitars and full orchestra sounds - only just mask the air of threat and menace. It is this edginess that stops this album from becoming just another indolent foray into retro-Amy- Winehouse-soul.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

My Favourite Films of 2010

It’s that time of year when newspapers and magazines start to list their cultural highlights of the year. So not wanting to feel left out, here are The Invisible Province’s top five movies of 2010.


Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois). Film making doesn’t get much more luminous than this. This is based on the real life story of seven monks in a North African monastery who are threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. The narrative exhibited a complete lack of pretension, irony or religious cliché. This is a sublime study of religious vocation and sacrificial love. I am not ashamed to say that this deeply moving film brought me to tears. If this doesn’t win the Oscar for best foreign film I’ll eat my biretta.

I am Love (Io sono l'amore) (Luca Guadagnino). This was a flawed film, but these were flaws in a diamond. The story of a frigid bourgeois Milanese family coming apart at the haute couture seams was told with ravishing imagery and an opulence that made love to the senses. Tilda Swinton’s central performance – part ice-maiden, part Lady Chatterley, all pent up sexual repression – was a master class in melodrama. Oh, and then there was that bowl of soup...

Another Year (Mike Leigh). It was the tenderness and humanity of Mike Leigh's latest film that impressed me. Yet, it is a film that has split audiences. I side with the view that the shifting, moral complexity of the characters does not undermine the central thesis that human beings are made for goodness. A film that reveals the sadness and serenity found in the human condition and why we would not have it any other way.

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom). The only film that made me flinch and turn away from the images of brutality on the screen. Yet, this was as far from the current trend in torture porn as you can imagine. A serious analysis of sadism and masochism that months after seeing it has left questions in my mind about what makes us moral beings and what degrades us. Not an easy watch but one that is thought provoking which is more than can be said for most films.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik). For me the performance of the year goes to Jennifer Lawrence who seemed to inhabit her 17 year old character in a way that appeared to make acting redundant. This was a film that could have played to all the “white trailer trash” stereotypes but stubbornly refused to do so. Instead, we were given an austere portrait of the damage eking a poverty-stricken life from a harsh environment can do to human beings.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Of Gods and Men

Save us, Lord, whilst we watch!
Keep us, Lord, whilst we sleep!
And we shall watch with Christ
And we shall rest in peace…

It’s hard to believe that a film about seven Cistercian monks living in a remote monastery in Algeria, five of whom were murdered by Islamic extremists in 1995 ever made it past the financiers to the screen. Of Gods and Men did and then went on to win the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and became an overnight sensation in that most secular of countries, France. If nothing else, this catalogue of unexpected success is a small miracle.

The screenwriter, Etienne Comar, has taken the historical facts about this monastic community and with, Xavier Beauvois, the director, transformed them through the alchemy of art into something that explores “the dignity of difference” and how God “takes the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness to Him.” Neither Comar or Beauvois would describe themselves as “believers” in any conventional sense, but with an utter lack of irony, they have dared to combine secular interests and spiritual truths in such a way that an audience is given creative permission to glimpse a reality that lies beyond empirical measure or psychological explanation. Few films have managed to achieve this – Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, Alain Cavalier’s Therese – but Of Gods and Men does partly because it approaches its subject matter with a reverence and sense that our lives are imbued with a meaning, a Braille that can only be deciphered with the most sensitive, finely tuned spiritual touch. Quoted in The Times newspaper, Beauvois comments:

“I never wanted it to be a Catholic film. It comes from left and right; it is about men more than about gods. But it is true that something in this story resonates with people. The culture of crashing banks, conspicuous consumption, and others working hard for less and less, all those problems mean people want breathing space for a few hours, an escape. They have a need for growth, spirituality, silence...Nowadays it’s rare to die for what you believe in, to have conviction and passion...”

The film opens with a question that echoes for the remaining 121 minutes running time. The monastery’s elderly monk medic, Brother Luc (played with a rugged earthiness and generosity by Michael Lonsdale) is asked by a young woman if he has ever been in love. “Many times,” he replies ruefully, “but then I found a greater love.” It is the question of what makes for a vocation, a love that one is prepared to sacrifice all other loves for that becomes the main centre of interest for Beauvois. The film eschews pious melodrama or political rhetoric. Instead, it is the life of faith both at the communal and individual level that provides the film with its existential drive. The film's soundtrack, used to sublime effect, are the hymns and chants of the Divine Office that mark human time with resonances of the eternal.

We are privy to each brother’s response to the question of whether collectively they should stay (with the inevitability that they will be murdered) or leave and save themselves. On the one hand, Brother Luc says, “I’m not scared of terrorists, even less the army. I’m not scared of death. I am a free man.” At the same time, the much younger Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) is tormented by the decision he is being forced to make. “Help me. Help me,” he cries to God in the dead of night, as his fellow brothers listen from their cells. Community life exists to support the brothers in friendship and sustain them by the rhythms of prayer, but ultimately the life of faith remains an individual response to a terrifying gift.

Nowhere is this struggle explored more poignantly than in the monastery’s Abbot, Christian (Lambert Wilson). The final decision weighs heavy on him. He understands that if the community stays that this will inevitably lead to the deaths of the men he loves. In a scene of fatherly tenderness, he says to Brother Christophe that by entering the order, “you've already given your life”. In accepting to follow Christ, Christian recognises that he and his brothers have already laid down their lives and that they can no longer be defeated by any earthly power. “To leave is to die”, as one other brother remarks. But their commitment is not to the place but to their vocation. This commitment is total because it is not to acquiesce to an idea or philosophy, but to surrender to a person that can be known and loved - Jesus. In a final voice over, Abbot Christian says, “This country and Islam for me..are a body and soul...God willing, I will merge my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with Him His children of Islam, as He sees them.”

Too much cinema today operates at the emotive level, as a desperate form of distraction. Of Gods and Men possesses a quiet intensity and passion, combined with a directness of storytelling, that has engaged audiences at an interior level and brought them to tears. It releases a depth charge into the very soul of man and stirs from the silt of our beings something that is irresistible and hard to ignore, no matter how hard we may try. You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate what a tremendous piece of film making this is, you just have to be human.