Friday, 29 April 2011

That wedding frock

That frock. Just two words: Alexander McQueen. McQueen's protegee and successor, Sarah Burton, designed this wedding dress but it looked as if McQueen had cut the fabric himself. The attention to detail. The precise tailoring. The understated romance. 'Alexander McQueen's designs are all about bringing contrasts together to create startling and beautiful clothes and I hope that by marrying traditional fabrics and lacework, with a modern structure and design we have created a beautiful dress for Catherine on her wedding day.Catherine looked absolutely stunning today, and the team at Alexander McQueen are very proud of what we have created,' said Burton.

Who would have thought that it would be the label of the enfant terrible bovver-boy that would parade in front of the English establishment and leave them open mouthed?

Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost

The first time I heard the jagged, fractured rhythms of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was at a Siouxsie and the Banshees concert. The following day I bought a tape (that shows how long ago it was) of the modernist ballet score and it still remains with me (although I did upgrade to a c.d. at some point). Wim Wenders opens his film documentary, Pina, with an arresting excerpt from the German choreographer Pina Bausch’s version of The Rite of Spring.

Bausch interprets Stravinsky’s music with the confidence of a master. Dancers move in synchronised unison or singly. Men are stripped to the waist – their torsos muscular and hard. Women wear gossamer shifts that give them an added fragility and softness. Together they stomp their terrors, longings and violence into brown earth as the sacrificial ritual of the music unfolds through the primitive blockbeats. The physical tics and visual silhouettes that are so much part of Bausch’s dance language are all contained in this opening sequence.

Pina is also in 3D. Let me immediately confess that I am unconvinced by 3D films. It seems to me that the technology does not meet the expectations of the audience. There are always images that remain blurred at the periphery of one’s vision, items on screen that float when they are not meant to and are disconnected from the canvas of the screen. With Avatar the technology did take a quantum leap forward, but not enough to make one believe that films in 2D were on the way out.

The use of 3D in Pina is the most successful that I have seen. In part, this is because the 3D is not there to heighten a visual CGI effect. It is not a piece of cinematic cabaret. 3D in Pina aims to place the dancers in space. It has a specific and refined function. The physicality of their movement is given a proper depth. Here, 3D is not used as a cinematic gimmick but as a vital expression of how we encounter dancers in motion. It accentuates, rather than detracts, from the beauty of the performance.

Five days after being diagnosed with cancer, Pina Bausch died on 30 June 2009. This film is a tribute to her work. She, in fact, appears in brief documentary footage only a couple of times in the whole film. We are to approach her and her unique sensibility, through her sublime and, at times, disturbing choreography. Wim Wenders has decided that the work is the thing and not the personality or biography. In the 1970's Bausch’s work began to make an impact on a wide audience and was critically applauded. The Rite of Spring and Café Müller became her signature pieces and they provide the main substance of Wim Wender’s film.

Though we live in increasingly hypersexualised societies, our bodies are becoming more alien to us. We view them as additions to who we are, appendages rather than as integral to the reality of our being. We risk seeing ourselves and others through a pronographic lens. The work of an artist such as Pina Bausch challenges this view more eloquently and persuasively than any lecture or learned article. She shows that our bodies and what we do with them speak of the mysterious depths within us. They differentiate gender and in turn, exhibit different characteristics that are both complementary and together create a convincing integrity.

But this is no mere biological reductivism or simple gender stereotyping, because what Bausch is concerned with is the human body in motion and flight. She captures those moments - the scratch of a nose, the awkward tilt of a head, the collapse of a physical position - when the male or female body hints at that within us which normally remains hidden. “Pina made us feel more than human,” says one of the dancers in the film.

What would feeling more than human look like? This remarkable film offers some tentative answers to that question. Don’t let the idea of a film about contemporary dance put you off. Don’t let the prospect of wearing 3D specs put you off. Go and experience a film that will shift your understanding of what it means to be an embodied person...and, maybe, even make you want to dance.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Source Code

The director is Duncan Jones. That is not his real name. His real name is Zowie Bowie. Who? He is the son of David Bowie but Duncan Jones doesn’t want you to know that he is the son of rock 'n' roll royalty. He wants you to think something else, to have you relocate his identity elsewhere or as far away as possible from his famous father. By the way, David Bowie (aka Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, etc) once starred as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi classic, The Man who Fell to Earth.

And if you are beginning to think this introduction is unnecessarily head-scrambling, then that’s nothing compared to Duncan Jones’s time-warp, sci-fi thriller, Source Code.

An American soldier, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaall), wakes up on a commuter Chicago train. Sitting opposite him is Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who relates to him as if she is his wife or girlfriend. He, however, has no idea who she is. Eight minutes later, the train explodes. Gyllenhaall wakes up in an isolation booth where through some impenetrable quantum-physics babble he is sent back to the train using “time reassignment” technology. Each time, he is given a task (find the bomb, find the terrorist) by his handler. He must complete the task within eight minutes before the train blows up again. So far, so confused? Imagine Speed and Groundhog Day as if written by Professor Stephen Hawking....and that probably won't help.

Unfortunately, for Duncan Jones, his film has none of the popcorn thrills of Speed nor the wit of Groundhog Day. The riffing on a familiar scene does have a hypnotic quality as new details are revealed to the audience but this is at the expense of real race-against-the-clock white-knuckle tension. Source Code exists in two parallel cinematic universes. On the one hand, it wants to be a mainstream audience pleasing thriller and on the other, it wants to be an intelligent character study of a man who comes to knowledge of himself through endless repetition. Familiarity breeds self-knowledge might be the film’s existential premise.

In fact, the film does not exist in two, but three universes. It also wants to be a brief encounter romance and to tease a romantic lead performance from Gyllenhaall. With each eight minute trip to the train he becomes more attracted to the mysterious woman opposite him. However, while the train has no trouble igniting, their relationship fails to produce a believable spark. Gyllenhaall is condemned to running up and down the train aisle in a wild-eyed fashion until he snatches a final kiss from his true love and the audience are left with some Chinese cookie philosophy to choke on.

Source Code is slick and stylish. It is also very silly and not as clever as it would like us to believe it is. Unfortunately, it was just eight minutes too long for me.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Let England Shake

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The singer-songwriter, P J Harvey, has reinvented herself as a contemporary Wilfred Owen on her eighth album, Let England Shake. After eighteen months of research, Harvey has crafted a suite of ambivalent, beautiful songs about war and imperialism. In a bold statement of intent, Harvey chose to premiere her new album not, as you might expect, on Later with Jools Holland, but on The Andrew Marr Show, where she sang in front of an unimpressed, Gordon Brown.

Such promotional antics could have become another rock star’s desperate attempt to be taken seriously as a political animal. Yet, there is no political posturing in these songs. There is never a moment when Harvey sounds like a would-be soap box preacher rather than a singer at the very top of her creative game. Using a mesmerising range of vocal registers, she inhabits her descriptions of man’s inhumanity to man with a shocking lyricism.

With creative audacity, Harvey can, for example, combine English folk music and nursery rhyme to devastating effect. Hummable tunes are skewed by shrapnel rhythms and unpredictable stresses that leave one disorientated as if caught in the mist of a musical gas attack. At the same time, the lyrics oscillate between an opaqueness (I live and die through England./It leaves sadness) and a gut-punching directness (What is the glorious fruit of our land?/Its fruit is orphan children).

Songs do reference particular conflicts, especially the Gallipoli campaign or a survivor’s account from the First World War (Walker’s in the wire/limbs pointing upwards./There are no birds singing/ “The White Cliffs of Dover”). Yet, there is a universal quality to these songs. They could be about any historical battle zone from Thermopylae to the Somme to Basra. This remarkable collection of songs and lamentations sound as if they are echoing down through the centuries of violence. All this is achieved with a voice so contemporary and unique that Let England Shake is evidence of P J Harvey's claim to be a national musical treasure, but one that has the power to make us collectively uncomfortable.