film: “A Dog Called Money” (2019)

This a documentary film about PJ Harvey recording an album, though it might be more accurately described as an art film hung around PJ Harvey recording an album (said album turning out to be The Hope Six Demolition Project from 2016, indicating how long it takes to put this kind of film together). The film intercuts PJ Harvey and her buds (people like John Parish, Mick Harvey, Flood, James Johnston, Terry Edwards etc.) recording with scenes showing Harvey travelling around the world, ostensibly to gain inspiration for her songwriting.

I found the recording scenes fascinating, as the recording process was itself set up as an art project, with people able to come in and gawp at the musicians doing their stuff through a one-way mirror. The globe-trotting scenes were a bit more hit and miss. These saw the Peej heading off to Washington DC (which from memory is pretty obvious from the album, which does a lot of name-checking that city), but also to Afghanistan and Syria. The Washington stuff, which saw Harvey going to a black gospel church and hanging out with the youth seemed a bit too much like that bit in Rattle and Hum where Bongo goes all gospel; all that was really missing was a gospel version of some PJ Harvey classic like ‘Down By The Water’. The stuff in more troubled parts of the world featured some genuinely funny moments (like the bit where a Kabul traffic cop loses it and starts kicking cars) and moments of fascinating musicality, notably Harvey attending what seems to be a Sufi mystical gathering where the music is oddly reminiscent of those chain-gang work-songs from the southern United States, but overall it felt like whitey holidaying in other people’s misery, with an added disturbing fear that Harvey was going to go all Paul Simon and absorb the music of her Afghan pals into her new record. The scene with refugees trying to cross the border between Greece and the Country Formerly Known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is genuinely depressing but as Harvey was not even present there you have to wonder what it is doing in the film.

On balance therefore I rank this film as an embarrassing failure but would still recommend it to everyone who loves the music of PJ Harvey.

image source (Guardian)

film: “In Fabric” (2018)

Seeing this film earlier in the year was me belatedly climbing onboard the Peter Strickland express. It tells of a weird department store and a cursed dress, with the film having the overall sense of being a mashup of Are You Being Served? and the darker works of David Lynch. It all feels very Scarfolk, with the shop seeming to exist in that mysterious long 1970s of yore, an effect accentuated by the curious early synthesiser music soundtrack by Cavern of Anti-Matter; the general aesthetic also feels a bit retro, unsurprising given Strickland’s rep as an aficionado of Italian trash films of the 1970s. That all sounds very appealing but for me the film had considerable problems, the greatest of which was its length. I think it could have done without the whole second plot. The film’s lurches in mood also seemed a bit problematic, with it being at times very funny (in a strange way) before going back to menacing horror. My sense of the film was that it was one where at the beginning the creator(s) threw out every possible idea in a brainstorming session, and then used them all. That would probably explain the length. For all that, I still think the film was worth seeing, given its appealing visual aesthetic, the strong performances from the actors and its general strangeness.

Just before it began I noticed that In Fabric received an 18 certificate from the Irish film censor. Curious readers will be pleased to hear that this most probably is for the scene in which some of the shop assistants sex up a showroom dummy for the delight of a strange voyeuristic onanist.

image source (No More Workhorse)

“Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967)

This is a four episode story from the popular TV series Doctor Who. In this one the second Doctor and his pals Jamie (Scottish) and Victoria (Victorian) land on mysterious planet called Telos and fall in with some space archaeologists, who are looking for the eponymous tomb of the Cybermen. Said tomb turns out to be some class of trap laid by the rubbish cyborgs, though even after a close watching of this story I am still unclear as to what the Cybermen were hoping to accomplish that could not have been accomplished by not entombing themselves. For all the plot problem, the story just about deserves its reputation as a classic of early Doctor Who, with the episode two cliffhanger of the Cybermen waking up and bursting out of their cells being one of the programme’s most memorable. The story also features the great stock character of Doctor Who, the human villain who thinks that by doing some kind of favour to implacable aliens they will assist him (usually him, though in this case also a her) in conquering the Earth; this always ends well.

Tomb of the Cybermen follows directly after Evil of the Daleks, in which said Daleks killed (nay, exterminated) Victoria’s father. There is a quite touching scene in this story in which the Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton) talks to Victoria about grief and her memory of her father, referring obliquely to his own lost loved ones. In days of yore Doctor Who was primarily aimed at children, so I cannot but think this scene was intended as a comfort to any children who might themselves have lost family members.
The story also features Cybermats, which are kind of like rats that have been turned into animal versions of the Cybermen or something. I think they are meant to be threatening, but as is the way of such things they end up looking quite cute.
These days however Tomb of the Cybermen is often noted for its problematic racial stereotyping – Middle Eastern people are shifty while Africans (or the story’s one African) are muscleheads. And Americans are all “gee golly” etc., showing yet again the downpression and negative stereotyping white Americans must endure on a daily basis. I thought maybe the stereotyping was not the worst I have ever seen, but then I am notorious for my unwoke nature.

image source (Wikipedia)

Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip ‘I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper’ (1978)

All the space stuff I was doing over the summer decided me that I wanted to download this amazing tune, which is one of very few instances in which a dance troupe released a record (joined of course by the charming Ms Brightman). Musical flourishes reference popular science fiction themes, while we are provided with lyrics to enjoy such as the following:

Tell me, Captain Strange, do you feel my devotion?
Or are you like a droid, devoid of emotion?
Encounters one and two are not enough for me –
What my body needs is close encounter three!

And then there is the chorus:

I lost my heart to a Starship Trooper!
Crashing light in hyperspace!
Fighting for the Federation!
Hand in hand we’ll conquer space!

This obviously is from before Blake’s 7 turned people against federations.

Don’t waste your time reading my words – play the video and appreciate the tune in all its fabulousness.

image source (Wikipedia)

Derek Jarman corner: one exhibition, two films

Derek Jarman died some time ago but there is currently a retrospective exhibition of his work on in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and I think it is worth your time. I somehow found myself at the opening, where there was free beer, which meant I had a quick viewing but will need to go back to examine it in more detail. The exhibition has considerable audio-visual elements to it, with various of his film work being shown there, including Super8 classics like A Journey to Avebury and the various pop videos he directed (the latter sadly being shown in non-ideal circumstances – a monitor in a corridor at a small-child’s eye level).

The Irish Film Institute has been showing a season of his feature films. Last week I caught his Caravaggio from 1986, which deals impressionistically with the painter’s life, focussing in particular on his relationship with a Roman bruiser (who becomes his model) and the bruiser’s wife, played by Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton respectively; this was one of Bean’s first screen roles and he starts as he means to go on. Caravaggio himself is played by Nigel Terry while various other stars of the British stage and screen show up in a variety of roles. The film looks stunning, despite its all having been filmed indoors in some bunker complex, with the lighting deliberately mirroring the chiaroscuro effect of Caravaggio’s art. It is in some respects impressionistic rather than plot based, but that is not a criticism.

Caravaggio is rather focussed on the artist’s homosexuality, with one particularly memorable and homoerotic scene being the one where the painter throws gold coins to the topless bruiser, who takes them in his mouth. Nevertheless, the film is somewhat restrained in its depiction of homosexuality: although Jarman was keen to push the envelope, there was only so far it could be pushed in 1986. In other respects the film sanitises Caravaggio’s life, downplaying the extent to which he was always killing people in drunken brawls. But it remains a classic of arthouse cinema that I recommend to all readers. If stuck for time the Pet Shop Boys video for ‘It’s A Sin’ is the redux version.

Yesterday I saw Jarman’s Edward II, from 1991. Adapted from Christopher Marlowe’s play (from 1594 or thereabouts). This film is more focussed on narrative than Caravaggio, but it similarly rejects realism, being shot entirely in what seems to be a concrete bunker with anachronistic elements deliberately embraced. It tells the story of that unfortunate king, whose love for another man shocks the establishment, ultimately leading to his overthrow and murder. Tilda Swinton plays the Edward’s queen, whose neglect by her husband drives her into the arms of Mortimer, his main enemy (played in turn by Nigel Terry). I felt a bit like the king’s enemies got the better roles here, with Swinton and Terry shining over Steven Waddington as Edward, though I was also impressed by Andrew Tiernan as Gaveston, the king’s lover.
In contrast to Caravaggio, this film really goes for it in terms of gayness, with the opening scene being Gaveston learning that he is free to return to England while two sailors get it on in the bed he is sharing with them. Jarman tries to present Edward as some kind of gay rights martyr, with at one point his army being a load of protesters waving Outrage banners, but I remained somewhat unconvinced – Edward still comes across as a weak figure and the author of his own misfortunes, who is unwilling to subordinate his private fancies to the needs of the state (compare with Shakespeare’s Henry V and his renunciation of Falstaff on his accession to the throne). Nevertheless, the film is a fascinating piece of work, which left me eager to investigate further both the work of its director and the playwright on whose work it is based.


Derek Jarman (The Quietus)

Title page of 1594 printing of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (Wikipedia: Edward II of England)