Review: Doc/Fest – Sheffield Documentary Festival 2013

By Helen Swire

This year has seen the 20th anniversary of Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the top three documentary festivals in the world. Over the past five days, over one hundred films have been showcased across the city, some of which are experiencing their global premiere.

Coming to Doc/Fest for the first time, I was initially overwhelmed by the choice of films, however having negotiated with my viewing partner, we established a timetable allowing us to see at least one documentary each day. Knowing the city was certainly helpful, however all relevant timetabling information and maps are provided on the Doc/Fest website.

Price has hardly been an object. Hailing from London, I am used to paying around £9 or £10 for a film ticket – this week however I have seen six documentaries for £18. For the truly passionate viewers, there is also a five-day pass giving access to all the shows for only £40. Meanwhile, several of the films are also screened for free during the week at an outdoor screen.

Practically it is also good value – many pubs and cafes around the city take advantage of the trade provided by the festival by putting on special offers, for example discounted food with tickets, passes or wristbands.

So, a brief run-down of my documentary diary:

Day One: Not Criminally Responsible (Dir: John Kastner): An enlightening, touching and at times surprisingly humorous view of the question of the mental health aspect of criminality and one man’s quest for freedom, atonement and social rehabilitation through the medication of his schizophrenia.

Day Two: A Man Vanishes (Dir: Shôhei Imamura): On the surface this Japanese documentary seeks to investigate the fate of a man who has disappeared without trace – but leaves the audience questioning the difference between reality and fiction, and even the documentary genre itself.

Day Two: Google and the World Brain (Dir: Ben Lewis): A discussion of Google’s ambitious attempts to scan the world’s books and the ensuing debate surrounding copyright laws and freedom of speech.

Day Three: After Tiller (Dir: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson): The thought-provoking film follows the four remaining third-trimester abortion doctors in America after the fifth, George Tiller, was assassinated by pro-life extremists. After Tiller is a compassionate look at the decisions and struggles of the working – and personal – lives of these doctors, who have lost in Tiller both a colleague and a friend.

Day Four: Project Wild Thing (Dir: David Bond): The audience follows the director’s sweet and humorous journey to ‘market’ nature to families, and thus bring children back outside – all while discussing contemporary family life.

Day Five: Electro Moscow (Dir: Elena Tikhonova, Dominik Spritzendorfer): A Russian-language documentary which reveals the fascinating history behind the electronic arts movement in the Soviet Union, showing the innovative techniques used to overcome the lack of musical technology behind the Iron Curtain.

As a recent and as yet unemployed graduate, the cost of travel from London has been more than worthwhile given the value for money of the festival. Over the past few days I have been moved to laughter and tears, debated with other viewers, changed my opinions and had my eyes opened. I have watched social and moral commentaries on nature and technology, thought-provoking films about mental illness and abortion, and philosophical foreign-language films. Michael Palin, Alan Yentob and Jarvis Cocker have given Q & A sessions. Perhaps more importantly, many directors, both new and established, have been given platforms to give their films a wider exposure and have been given the opportunity to broaden public perspective on issues.

At its most expensive, Doc/Fest is still eminently available to the public – and worth every penny both for the viewing public and for the documentary crews who are putting their work out. This year I have seen six films as a first-timer. Next year I’ll definitely be back for more.

More information is available at http://sheffdocfest.com/

 

Laure Prouvost serves an all-consuming sensual platter.

By John Newton

Laure Prouvost’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is billed as being two-part ‘immersive’ piece. This is certainly apparent; as you enter the space there is a large curved wall that seems to protect the inner video installation Swallow. The outer wall is covered in Shwitters-esque collage. It’s probably worth noting here that Prouvost has made a piece which is currently featured in Tate Britain’s Shwitters in Britain exhibition. In a similar way to her piece there, physical structure seems to an important part of the work.

It becomes clear as the piece slowly unfurls itself that this fortification is a practical necessity but is itself artistically superfluous. The physical separation from the outer-world into this purely sensual realm is one which is executed through the subtle and nuanced cinematic craftsmanship of the central piece, with the structure providing merely the machinery that houses this all-consuming oesophagus. Inescapably this seems to be the static corpus that houses the more vital and capricious inner-working of the main piece, which centres on fragments of video that variously depict nude bathers, birds, squashed fruits and wayward clouds.

Swallow, begins with and is punctuated by, the heavy breathing of a disembodied mouth. This is the heartbeat of the work. Alone in the dark in the opening seconds, there is nothing but the breathing of the mouth on the screen and inevitability your own, quite probably shallower faster breaths reflecting it. This serves as a lynchpin for the rest of the piece. Prouvost is obviously acutely aware of her audience and the piece repeatedly and knowingly reaches out to the viewer.

Another more obvious manifestation of this is through Prouvost’s narration. She addressed us directly, and there are many subtle changes in tone and intonation which lead us through the piece. Similarly with the relentless breathing, this attains an ambiguity which is paramount to achieving the total consumption of the viewer. The voice vacillates between very stark direct statements, “The water is naked”, to childishly oblique whimsy, describing a lost cloud falling from the skies and the empty pile of clothes left by a disappearing man.

These dexterously administered changes in tone occur around the central trope of nude women bathing in a waterfall. This at times static image apes classical scenes such as Titian’s portrayal of Diana bathing with her Nymphs.

Again Prouvost’s central aim seems to be to convey the sensuality depicted in palpable terms to the viewer, imploring us to “feel the sunshine in your mouth”. This is a work thats currency is the purveying of sensation. Food is a recurrent theme as is swallowing generally. It is difficult not to draw some parallel to the Freudian concept of Oral Gratification which Prouvost seems to have identified as the most basic sensual denominator and by exploiting this, aims to lead us through the entire sensual palette – tasting everything along the way from the piece’s nascent breaths onwards through the flowers and the fruit of life and experience.

Prouvost achieves this through a number of subtle techniques. She uses this oral prediction to let us into the piece through vivid images of torn fruit and the glistening of sunlight on cool waters before distorting and refracting our expectations of it. Fresh raspberries are messily trampled onto rocks; cut fruit suckles at a naked human breast, butterflies swarm around luridly coloured trainers. It is easy to draw parallels with the work of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, whose mantra “we are juicy creatures” seems to strike a particular resonance with Prouvost’s sensual joyousness. Prouvost seems to be aware of how deftly she has executed her sensual structures and is confident enough to then subvert and pick over them.

The boundaries of the idyllic are pressed as the images evolve from the essential and relatively abstract into the clichéd and pastiche. This is most clearly embodied through several long languorous shots of ice-cream. This starts very much in the idyllic idealised mode before descending into a more Mr Whippy-ish seaside picture-postcard image. Having created a sequestered paradise Prouvost delicately and mischievously takes us on holiday. Once again Prouvost shows not only the desire but the ability to reach out to the viewer to lead us through the artistic spectrum, from what seems sublime to something we can directly relate to, spanning the arcane to the ironic.

This, while seeming to be achieved relatively effortlessly, shows the real craft in Provoust’s work. Video installations would seem to be the easiest form of art to execute but are surely one of the most difficult to get right. Provoust handles her materials with a masterfully dexterity, never overplaying her hand or leaving the viewer behind. The nudity is never gratuitous, the whimsy never contrived. This is achieved through the many faceted interwoven layers in the work. The breathing and the narration work together to push the work forwards and to embellish and contextualise the images of screen.

This leaves plenty of room for artistic counter-point – the narration is not synonymous with authority and occasionally collides joyfully with the apparent meaning of the images. Similarly the breathing while continuous is not consistent. It variously nips at the air in ecstasy or gulps it in extremis. This work is precocious and alert. Shimmering and refracted, it washes over the audience with texture and symbolism but remains rooted in the expertly executed formal constructions.

Prouvost successfully spins a complete web – sinuous and glistening – woven from the fibres of life. Once you are arrested in it she seizes her chance and swallows you whole. So, as the piece ends, sitting in the darkness your senses ring with the echoes of the colours and textures you yourself have just imbibed.

http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/max-mara-art-prize-for-women-laure-prouvost

Sun, Sea and Smuggling Cigars

By Robert Hainault

When I’m not blogging about poker, I’m a composer. And the time came – as it does in every project – to write up scores, which is the mindless paperwork of my profession. So rather than sitting at home, shivering and filling my cheeks with endless crumpets I went away with my father to the ever-sunny island of Tenerife to bask saurian in the warming rays.

In true British style we opted for an all-inclusive getaway to Costa Adeje on the south coast: a strip of tobacco and liquor stores and karaoke bars. Karaoke has never been my idea of good fun, but tobacco and liquor certainly is. If there is one thing that endears a place to me it is cheap fags and booze and sweet Jesus did this have them in abundance. Twenty L&M Red came in at €2.30. That’s £1.99 to you and me. And though I might not have a great singing voice, (the smoking probably doesn’t help) a pint of Dorada – the ‘official beer of the Canarian way of life’ – was the same price as a small coffee in the bars. Upon my return my producer perspicaciously observed that my scores looked ‘as though they had been written drunk’.

Apart from the bountifully-carcinogenic shops, Tenerife has plenty to offer the curious tourist. I could tell you about the striking landscape forged from volcanic eruptions over millions of years, or El Teide which is the third-highest volcano in the world. But I’m not a geologist. Let me instead tell you about the bananas.

Tenerife has acres upon acres of banana plantations, obscured from view by great net tents, and they are one of the island’s primary exports (as well as carmine dye which is made by mixing the crushed bodies of the cochineals that live on their cacti with aluminium or calcium salts). The Canarian banana is smaller, sweeter, and more aromatic than the ones usually imported to Britain, and its skin is covered in small black spots. They’re absolutely delicious and our hotel had dozens of them. As I’m fond of saying, a banana a day means you can eat more custard.

Tenerife offers more than just kicks for banana-fanciers. Fish-fanciers are well-looked-after, too. Along the south coast there are few beaches, and the rocky coastline offers both a wealth of fishing opportunities as well as a wealth of fish, with piscine markets in most towns. One of the smallest but most charming we stumbled across was that at Las Galletas where the fish would be gutted before your eyes and sold by the kilo at generous prices.

However, if you don’t like cigarettes, volcanoes, bananas or fish, you might be a little disappointed. The south of Tenerife is a tourist hotspot for Brits abroad and, as such, attracts plenty of the kinds of people you don’t want to meet in a dark bar. Which is exactly where you’ll meet them.

The ‘world-famous’ Rumpot in Los Americas became my haunt because it had free wi-fi whereas my hotel charged €4/hour for the privilege. A charming bar in the daytime, the genial atmosphere quickly evaporated to reveal a bedrock of mindless entertainment in the evenings. For three consecutive nights I was accosted by MCs with the line ‘look, it’s Harry Potter heading to the toilet’. On the third night ‘top comedian’ Billy Porter followed me in there and did ten minutes of material about my giant penis. Which I would have found funnier if I actually had a giant penis, or if I hadn’t had to wait with grudging anticipation for him to make a dozen wand jokes before I was allowed to go back to the game of poker I was playing on my computer (and not until I was promised that if I let him make me breakfast I would wake up to ‘sauce between your chops’.)

But, if you steer clear of the bars in the evening, take some knitting and join the many geriatrics who flood the island in the winter you might have fun hoofing cigarettes and building up the beer belly. (And you can make a scarf to bring back with you to the wintry chill of Blighty.)

But one word of caution. Customs and Excise do not recognise the Canary Islands as being part of the EU. Something I only discovered upon landing back in Britain with 600 cigarettes, 50 cigars, and two litres of spirit, putting me decidedly in the ‘something to declare’ category.

The resolute Right-winger that I am I decided to flout the law and smuggle my goods in without declaring them. Having never been stopped at customs before it was bound to happen when I was illegally bringing in a tobacco plantation.

Did they notice? No. They were only x-raying the bags. My sun-blanched aromatic leaves were safe. Hainault one, Her Majesty zero.

Aside from having a hundred people laugh about my penis and escaping a cavity search by a whisker, it was a good holiday, and I would recommend Tenerife to every hardened smoker, drinker and banana-fancier. Thankfully I am all of those things. If you are not, perhaps try mainland Spain. They have better art galleries. And blood sports, too!

Big Mistakes and Lots of Luck But Rémi Castaignon Blunders Through EPT Deauville

By Robert Hainault

Before the Main Event of the European Poker Tour Deauville you might have been excused for asking, ‘Who is Rémi Castaignon?’ The 29-year-old Frenchman has lifetime winnings of $1,059,266, but until February 9th he had never cashed in a live tournament.

Castaignon, who won his seat through an online qualifier, arrived at the final table as the clear chip leader with over 40% of the chips in play and three times the stack of his nearest rival, Lebanese player Walid Bou Habib.

It might have been a relaxed first few hands for Castaignon but around him the action was less leisurely. Jeffrey Hakim who came to the table with only 11 big blinds was knocked out in the very first hand when he shoved with ace king and unfortunately ran into the pocket aces of brightly-hatted German Enrico Rudelitz.

Castaignon had certainly earned his place at the final table having knocked out eight of the fifteen players the day before, including the last three, and with his easy lead couldn’t stay out of the action for long, losing 3 million in chips with hole fives to Rudelitz’s top set on the sixth hand and going down to second place.

It might have been a bad read by Castaignon, or his lack of experience playing in live tournaments, but faced by a three-bet pre-flop by Rudelitz, a chunky continuation bet on the flop itself, a bet of one million on the turn and an all-in bet on the river, on a board with three overcards it was hard to figure out what Castaignon thought he was beating shy of a maniacal bluff.

However, it was these kinds of big calls, combined with lucky turns and rivers that got Castaignon to the final table in the first place. When he turned his set into tens full of jacks on the river against Rudelitz to hammer his German rival’s already-dwindling stack I began to think – with a lot of help from lady luck and perhaps a bit too much heart – the online qualifier might be fated to take down Deauville’s ninth EPT. An hour and a half later he was heads-up against Walid Bou Habib and had nearly two thirds of the chips in play.

Bou Habib might have had experience on his side with six previous EPT main event cashes since 2008, but – even despite his distractingly shiny pate – against Castiagnon’s impressive chip lead it was always going to be difficult to take the title.

Despite more fishy calls from Castaignon – such as peeling off a total of 1.32 million in chips by calling a board with flush, straight, and top set possibilities with only ace high in his pocket and no draws (which wouldn’t beat even the lightest of semi-bluffs) – the Frenchman drove on, skilfully exploiting his stack size and constantly putting pressure on his opponent. It might have been reckless egotism that saw him paying for too many feather-light hands according to poker strategists, but from a meta-game angle the message was clear, if unintentional: if you want to bluff the mammoth stack, you’d better watch out because Castaignon is coming to call. A few hands later he woke up with queens and with a little trappy play shot up to 7-3 favourite to win.

Before long, Bou Habib had gone all in with king eight suited and Castaignon called with his pair of treys. The flop came six, four, five rainbow giving Castiagnon the up-and-down straight draw, but a seven, eight or king would kill Castaignon’s hand. A ten on the turn helped neither of them. Bou Habib still needed his seven, eight or king when the river revealed an ace making Catastaignon’s first ever live cash an impressive 770,000 euros to go with his new title as EPT Deauville Main Event champion 2013.

It might have been a rocky road with some big mistakes for the obscure Frenchman, but his aggressive style coupled with some serious luck took him to victory. He might not have been the best player at the table, but he had the heart to see himself through. Even though my eyes will be on Bou Habib and Rudelitz in future tournaments, now no-one who follows poker can ask: ‘Who is Rémi Castaignon?’

The acquired taste for horsemeat

By Chris Waller

I’ve been trying to rationalise just why I’ve been enjoying the ongoing horsemeat affair so much in the recent weeks and I am fairly sure it’s not the flowering economy of horse puns that one could easily mistake as the reason for the ongoing prevalence of this story. Alongside the serious need to be able to trust in the industry that provides us with the necessities of life and the clear breach in trust that has effected many homes in the UK  there is a very organic sense of rejoicing that this event carries with it. With each new finding I have found myself desperately scanning the list of products to determine whether I can be part of the joke. The middle-class foodie in me is crying out to say that I’ve tried horse, and yet it seems that my class is exactly the reason why I am left yearning. Though the only people who seem to be outraged by this affair are the politicians, I think that if we are to risk taking a serious tone in these encouragingly farcical events then it should be along the lines of class.

Simply put, there has been a huge division in the quality of food consumed between low income and middle-class households in the last 30 years with the emergence of convenient, low-cost, processed-foods. This uptake reflects changes in family structures and labour which mean amongst other things that the time and inclination to make food from scratch is just not available. This point continues to be made by many more qualified commentators than myself but it is worth noting because I think in an inverse way it explains why the horsemeat scandal seems to be propelled so much by its inherent humour.

Firstly, horsemeat as a concept is already fairly well established as classification for suspicious foods. Off-brand products and fast-food outlets tend to be subject to speculation of this sort by existing outside of our normal practices. Distinguishing ‘the good kebab shop’ tends to say more about the limitations of our experience than of our connoisseurial approach to kebab consumption.
Secondly, this reaction is a somewhat cathartic response to an ideology in British food culture over the last decade that reflects a poorly masked smugness in relation to produce and cooking. In the past, for better or worse, food programming concerned itself with middle-class audiences and their taste for haute-cuisine or exotic dishes from across the world. As ideology began to attach itself to food, the middle-class sensibilities prevailed but presenters began to make clear judgements as to what was to be valued. With his good intentions and outcomes taken into account, Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners was amongst the first and most important of this breed of value laden food television. Soon a host of celebrity chefs began involving themselves in this cause with the predominant aim of making the nation cook like diligent and responsible middle-class people. With economic and environmental causes being added to the list of concerns the notions of locally and sustainably sourced produce began to fill our screens with chefs and politicians alike praising British produce as amongst the best in the world. This may well be true, but world class produce for the most part takes a well trodden route straight to world class restaurants and rarely to supermarkets or homes.

The result is that the food programming and the culture surrounding it puts pressure on us to conform to its morally framed expectations. The presentation of a dish is normally married with an acknowledgment that we’re ‘all so busy’ and that food shouldn’t be stressful. The food is prepared before segueing into a montage where the presenter enacts some instance of their bleakly food-centred lifestyle before returning home to serve a vibrant and delicious meal to a tellingly transient group of friends. The format varies but the message does not; ‘good food is easy to make; there are no excuses.’

Aside from its good nutritional value and its status as a delicacy in many parts of the world this is surely another reason to relish horsemeat. The joy of this story and the reason for its continual strength is that it deflates this sanctimonious attitude that the food industry has deployed to its benefit in recent years. This base and somewhat medieval saga is exactly the antidote to an ideology which has long lost its focus and legitimacy. We should take this as an opportunity to think pragmatically about food as a necessity rather than an elusive constellation of moralistic sentiments that ultimately sells strawberries to those that can afford them and horse to everyone else.

The Vibe’s look at 2013 in film

The continued pull of cinema can be encapsulated by the month just ended; in January, Les Miserables, Django Unchained and Lincoln were showing at the same time in theatres. Despite the economic crisis, moviegoers across the world are still flocking to cinemas to see the latest films, and there is little to suggest that this trend is about to change. The film industry is in rude health, and 2013 looks likely to be a year in which many excellent films are released. Here is The Vibe’s preview of films in 2013, beginning with new Culture Editor Jane Singer’s take on upcoming films.

Film preview of 2013

Jane Singer

There is a superb array of films set to hit our screens this year.  Two in particular to which I am looking forward are Oz The Great and Powerful and Pacific Rim.

Perhaps it is a yearning for my childhood and the magic of the Emerald City, seen first in The Wizard of Oz and then the 1985 Return to Oz, but I am very excited to see the return of the ruby slippers.  

Like the teaser-trailer that debuted in July and 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the film starts out in black-and-white Kansas before arriving in the colourful Land of Oz. Disney’s fantastical adventure Oz The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi, imagines the origins of L. Frank Baum’s beloved character, the Wizard of Oz. When Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, is hurled away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot – fame and fortune are his for the taking – that is until he meets three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone’s been expecting.  Reluctantly drawn into the epic problems facing the Land of Oz and its inhabitants, Oscar must find out who is good and who is evil before it is too late. Putting his magical arts to use through illusion, ingenuity – and even a bit of wizardry – Oscar transforms himself not only into the great and powerful Wizard of Oz but into a better man too.

This year welcomes back Guillermo del Toro after a few turbulent years.  Having seen success in 2006 with the Oscar winning Pan’s Labyrinth and in 2008 with Hellboy II, his path seemed set. However, after leaving The Hobbit due to delays and disagreements with Peter Jackson in 2010 and then witnessing the collapse of At the Mountains of Madness after Universal balked at its planned R rating, Del Toro returns to ours screens with Pacific Rim.  Set in Asia, the film is about giant robots fighting against giant monsters for the future of mankind.  The sci-fi epic sees Del Toro back to his best.

For my sins, I will admit that I am also looking forward to Top Gun 3D – what’s not to like – and the return of Bruce Willis in A Good Day To Die Hard, where he reprises his well-known character, John McClane.  Looking at the indie movies, two stand out in particular, Don Jon’s Addiction and American Promise.  The first is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut which portrays a modern day Don Juan who objectifies everything in his life, especially women.  However, his addiction to porn has made him dissatisfied with life and he sets out on a journey to find a more gratifying sex life.  However, he ends up seeing the bigger picture and learning more about life and love through two different women.  The latter chronicles the journey of two African-American boys from carefree kindergarteners to mature high school graduates.

Finally, don’t forget to see The Great Gatsby.  The cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann features an all-star cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher. and Jason Clarke.

Motorsport films

 Simon Stiel

Motorsport fans have been well served by excellent documentaries on the TV but the Senna film in 2011 was groundbreaking in that it captured the attention of the wider public in cinemas across the UK and the world.

We will see whether Rush will achieve that effect this autumn. It is directed by Ron Howard of Apollo 13; A Beautiful Mind fame with Hans Zimmer composing the soundtrack and Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) wrote the screenplay. It will chronicle the friendship and rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).  The two would be vying for the F1 World Championship in 1976, a year that is regarded as one of the most exciting seasons in the history of F1. As of now, the film is in the final stage of editing.

Rush is another example of prosthetic memory: an event in the past not being depicted in documentary form but by the tropes of thrillers and fiction. At best, audience members who were not fans of F1 either in the 1970s or now could be engaged about the sport. Whatever the critical response may be, it’s a notable event that a motorsport film is being made with a director of Howard’s repute at the helm. Rush will hold its premiere in September.

In contrast to Rush’s $100 million budget, independent film-maker Amber Fares used indiegogo, a site to enable donations for films and other art to raise money for her film Speed Sisters. The money was needed to cover production expenses and editing. The target amount was $35,000. The public response or crowdfunding netted $46,438.

Speed Sisters is about the Middle East’s first all women motorsport team and they’re from Palestine. They have competed in autotests held at Nablus, Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem as well as Aqaba, Jordan.  The team has gained international attention too.  In December 2011, one of its members Noor Daoud finished third in a race held in Israel at Eilat.   In January 2012, the team tested cars at Silverstone, the prestigious host circuit of the British Grand Prix and visited the popular Autosport International Show at the Birmingham NEC.

Speed Sisters features Palestinian women who are victims in that they have their daily lives controlled by occupation. They are also promising participants in one of the toughest sports in the world. It is hoped Speed Sisters will be completed in September and be released to festivals worldwide.

Political films

 Alex Bryan

The big political film of the year is one that has already been released. Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis as the protagonist, is hyped as one of the biggest movies of the year, arriving in the UK having received 12 Oscar nominations and general acclaim. For the American political heart, divided (not quite as) sharply in two as it was in the 1860’s, this film will perhaps be more than simply a retelling of the story of the nation’s most revered son. But regardless of the modern-day state of the American political system, Lincoln is certain to be memorable; after all this is a film about Abraham Lincoln made by Steven Spielberg. Be sure to watch it.

From an epic take on the most momentous age of American politics to a slightly less realistic endeavour, if you scan through a list of films coming up this year Olympus Has Fallen will inevitably catch your eye. For one thing, it’s called Olympus Has Fallen, which gives the film potential to be inadvertently hilarious from the outset. From another, the official poster is a picture of the White House on fire. The cast list is impressive; Morgan Freeman, Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhardt just a few of the established names. The plot  – a secret service agent must save the President, who has been kidnapped by terrorists – is remarkably similar (if not identical) to White House Down, also set to be released this year. While the films seem remarkably alike, the superior cast of White House Down (including Jamie Foxx as the President) may bring in viewers who shun Olympus Has Fallen.

A more explicitly political film than either is No, the third of Pablo Larrain’s trilogy of films about Pinochet’s Chile. After being show at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, No has been talked about as a serious political movie done well. The story is taken up in 1988, in the run-up to Chile’s first democratic election. No is a film that is likely to teach something to every viewer – even if it is only to watch the previous two films of the series.

As a film about a girl in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda is inherently political. Due to be released in April in the UK, the film tells the tale of a fun-loving 10-year old girl who wants a bicycle, but is refused it by her mother, who fears the consequences. As a film exploring human nature as much as the Saudi Arabian political system, Wadjda is a must-see this year.

 

Notice the form, or, Looking up at music culture from the underground.

By Patrick Lee

And so to be brought reluctantly to the task of writing about music, an act memorialised by a post-ironical tee shirt that fittingly (pun intended) declares, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. “Memorialised” is the correct word as the tee shirt predicts, describes and celebrates the death of an act of expressing expressions on the already expressed. It is hard to imagine more fertile ground for soppy, pretentious and fledgling weaklings to plant their mossy heads but as this is the current task let’s briefly indulge in the really great aspect of the tee-shirt’s witticism, using a famous but pretentious aphorism: a witticism is an epigraph on the death of a feeling.

This article, for those who are already turning up a nose, will continue in the same vein so be advised: this may be the last piece of writing you ever read about music so you would do well to proceed. The Dandy Warhols get it down better than anyone else has at the start of their Odditorium when ringside announcer, well, announces: “By the time Gene Vincent, B.B King, and Elvis Presley heard this Warhol sound, they were calling it “Rock and Roll”. Front man, Courtney Taylor Taylor was quoted as saying “I know it’s only Rock and Roll, but I think I like it”. I’m Bill Curtis, and you’re listening to a piece of history.” Quoted and typed quickly and verbatim (as is, I confess, the majority of this article), such is the power and ability of those words in introducing such an excellent album. The point, and here we come to dangerously fertile but nonetheless necessary terrain: Alternative culture, music culture, American culture, anti-culture, and especially, people, youth culture has undergone a process called pre-corporation. It has been packaged, sold and materialised as mainstream alternative culture and what’s more there is quite literally no escape from it (Kurt Kobain, trapped by the enormity of his own commercial success, made this point with his shotgun, which I suppose is an escape or sorts). The history you are listening to a piece of is the endless chasm of history created at history’s end (see the same author of the death of the witticism quote above[1]), and writing about this history is not just like dancing about architecture, it’s more like dancing about dancing about architecture. At the end of creative, alternative, youth culture, the main option for an artist is to progress ironically, using a mosaic pattern of previous, more “genuine” days gone by, and to do this in a celebratory tone (it’s true: Tarantino’s later films are very comparable to late Dandy Warhol material – two truly contemporary artists[2]). And while we’re at it, please reflect on the un-accidental choice of the Dandy’s to nominate and modernise the name “Warhol”.

It is true, then, that this is more of an article about articles about music, and unfortunately in a world where to make a certain point about the inescapability of consumer culture people have to shoot themselves in the head, criticism (sweet criticism) has to draw some cultural blood. Get ready for it then Christopher Nosnibor, because you’re about to be quoted:

 

Granted, a band as hot as White Firs are going to attract more than their fare share of hipster hangers-on, and the duffel-coat wearing popped-collar brigade are out in full force tonight, standing right at the front talking loudly and posturing hard. Forget ‘em. it’s all about the music…

 

I think I might have been (depending on the time of the paragraph taking place) one of the “hipster hangers-on”, and whereas I am, I think, borderline complimented by this, I do take exception to the duffel-coat criticism, wanting to take the chance here to express admiration both for the duffel coat itself, and for those daring enough to wear it inside at a gig as “hot” as the one The White Firs produced. The quotation marks on “hot” there meant more as a satire on the tepid description, rather than my feelings on the band’s performance.

The talking referenced might also have been in relation to me as, alas, I confess to talking during the show. Now, obviously talkers are an issue during times when quiet ostensibly rules supreme[3], but to criticise those voicing an opinion during bands like Bull and The White Firs would be an error. Daring to pursue, tackle, render lifeless and then begin a post-mortem on this error is, as noted, daring, as splitting open an ugly error of such bizarre and complex proportions is likely to result in being covered in surgical smelling entrails; but, dragged here as we have been, we might as well cover ourselves in the grizzly innards of the thing, and hopefully be left cathartically and metaphorically cleansed by the end. A crucial question has been left unasked by the typical, cliché-ridden reviewer of music: What do The White Firs do?

For both purposes of relevance and brevity, Bull will also be included in this description. The talking referenced by Nosnibor during Bull may well have been me referring to them as “Weezer meets Teenage Fanclub, with a side plate of Pavement” a metaphor which has since been upgraded to a more nuanced food metaphor, in which Pavement is symbolised by vinegar. Nonetheless, a positive review. Very positive, in fact, and as terrible it is to say it must be acknowledged that their performance and sound was intelligent, in the same way that The Dandy Warhol’s intro is intelligent, and the way that Tame Impala (et al) have forced themselves into being very credible and highly enjoyable bands. They are catchy and simultaneously both serious and fun. I can pay no higher compliment to (is it still kosher to describe instrumentalists in this way?) the rhythm guitarist, and truly hope he takes it as a compliment, when I say that no man has ever been so obviously a Thurston Moore fan, a friend of mine noting “from the top of his scalp to the very tips of his toes”. He was great, put briefly. Originality, brilliance, achieved in reference and pastiche: Bull, you passed the test. You have furthered the cause.

This began, however, as a description of main event The White Firs. A final digression, though, for the sake of Muttley, who, sadly, fill the otherwise empty void which, God help us, would otherwise have had to be filled with conversation; playing the dreaded early evening spot to which I was not present, as it was far too early, and so you will for now be confined, potentially permanently, to history’s chasm as mentioned earlier. Don’t give up. We all have to try to claw our way out. The White Firs, though, they do something. I’ve recently heard that York is now somewhere high up (I believe either third or seventh) on a respectable publishers list of most influential cities in terms of music. This is no accident. Firs’ Front man Danny Barton, previously of The Federals acerbically observing “it only took us seven years”. As many reviewers currently and will continue to notice, The White Firs have kept The Federal’s scuzzy garage sound so easily comparable to The Stooges while at the same time developing a more melodic, unashamedly pop centred façade. Please note: “façade”. They are, and will continue to be, difficult to pin down, reference, pigeonhole and atomize. Credit must go to James Barton for seemingly adding the level of maturity and frivolity to brother Danny and Jack Holdstock’s obvious musical accomplishments. Further kudos goes to The Dutchess for honouring a musical occurrence of such originality with a new, more intimate and less conventional setting. It worked. Back to task: What The White Firs have brought to York, and to those lucky enough to be in the The Dutchess’s innovative space is an excellent local band who have both the potential to be enjoyed by a mass audience while at the same time somehow being totally incapable of being packaged and sold on any obvious mainstream scale. This is not to say that they are unmarketable; all run the risk, and constant change is necessary to avoid the giant rat or monkey or however you envision the consumer beast, but The Firs are highly original and accessible now. The sound is there; the influences a vague shadow, but their presence and the phonological result is unapologetically original and almost dangerous. Barton’s voice, as well as Holdstock’s drumming and the song writing as a whole are entirely their own. It is, unfortunately, rare to find a band that fits such a description.

This is in danger of turning into a description of sounds as interpreted by me, in turn expressed to you which is a trap I’d hoped to avoid. A description of the meaning of this sound, however, does necessitate treading the dangerously mossy pretentious ground, but is necessary all the same.

There can be a lot of speculation as to the next step for culture that is trapped in a constant state of ironic self-reflection, a relentless re-packaging of days gone by (the word “retro” always comes to mind while describing the sterile state of the early twenty-first century, but please believe and explore: it goes much deeper than that. Late capitalism affects more than just a culture’s notion of self-perception and forms of expression). I would argue that The White Firs have furthered the debate. While Bull fit satisfyingly into the bracket of ironic contemporaneity (forgive the use of word, I am on mossy ground) reflecting ironically days gone by, of the celebratory form of scuzzy indie pop, The White Firs announce themselves as being simply there. This sounds like a cop-out for a review, and is in truth a difficult form to describe. Consider the difference in the writing of Ernest Hemmingway and Bret Easton Ellis[4]. Both employ minimalist technique, sparse and equally effective, yet used to totally different effects. Hemmingway (here comes my layman interpretation) reflecting on the indescribability of war, trauma, among other themes, while Ellis inverts the rhetoric and technique of modern consumer society: juxtapositions of nihilism, violence and constant desire; constant sensory saturation inverted. A better example would be alt-lit king Tao Lin (much as I am loathed to describe him as such, it is true, he is a king of a certain genre), who uses literature and the same minimalist technique for its most simple basic function: description & communication. His point being that the technique reflects the state of modern life: the response to constant self-reflection is to not reflect at all, but rather to simply, unapologetically be[5]. This is not to say that The White Firs’ sound is minimal, the comparison instead is supposed to draw attention to the fact that they have used something old to represent something totally modern. There are arguments, on the literature side of this progression of expression, that this is essential in the continuation of expression fundamentally, an ultimatum which is difficult not to over-exaggerate. The White Firs, yes, that local band that played to an audience of maybe one hundred, I argue, have introduced the debate into our music scene. Unlike bands referenced above (and ones that come to mind now of similar vein: Tame Impala, Wilco, Smog, etc. etc., please free feel to fill in blanks) it is hard to find an obvious bracket or market for their sound or attitude. They simply, excellently are. And in the atmosphere of the odd, intimate setting of the venue, dare I even say it, in the context of the introduction of the New Year, they almost seemed to show us where we are all going. They are something new. Something as yet unnamed.


[1] Particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[2] Or maybe just past the point of contemporary, as will be seen.

[3] I, for example, am currently sat in a sparsely occupied “Quiet” train carriage. Empty except for me, a small, frizzy haired, bespectacled comic book harassed looking woman holding a cage containing a quieting kitten which is learning to adjust to the shakes of the train; and a very annoying young Cockney geezer type who is quite literally leaving the same message again and again on different answer machines re: the amount of trains it takes for him to travel wherever his A-B actually is. This, Nosnibor, is the quiet carriage. Not a live gig. This is where we’re meant to shut up.

[4] The recently increasingly terribly opinioned, over-rated Bret-Easton Ellis, my favourite description of which is that it’s just “such a shame that the man can write”.

[5] There is, of course, much more to say on the themes of Tao Lin and the instruction of his form…but this is for another day.

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