Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Further comments to the BBC re Jody McIntyre

I have responded to Kevin Bakhurst's editor's blog on the BBC and my comment "awaits moderation." I publish it here just in case it never sees the light of day there.

Dear Mr Bakhurst

It is quite immoral of you to insinuate that the strength of feeling generated by Ben Brown's interrogation (it was not an interview) with Jody McIntyre is some kind of shadowy "internet campaign". I watched the interview yesterday and was appalled by what I saw. I immediately wrote the following complaint to the BBC:
[Here I post my original complaint]

Feeling strongly about it, I then posted the content of the complaint to my blog and tweeted, as I always do with newly published blogs, the fact of its publication. Soon, my tweet had been re-tweeted a number of times and I had been contacted by a number of people who shared my dismay - all of us spontaneously coming to the same conclusions about the interview. We are all individuals but we share a sense of outrage here. Your dismissal of that as an "internet campaign" is insidious, the same insidiousness shown by Ben Brown when insinuating that Mr McIntyre has somehow earned his treatment at the hands of the police.

As for Mr McIntyre being "treated the same" as anyone else, the meanest glance at disability legislation will tell you that provisions must be made for some disabled people so that their treatment can be consistent with the treatment given to others; Ben Brown not allowing a man with cerebral palsy more time to get his answers out, cutting him off and barking at him in the way he might bark at a convicted criminal, is in direct contravention of the act. And as others have said, the suggestion in any case that you would treat Superintendent Julia Pendry or HRH The Prince of Wales in this manner is risible, simply risible.

I am going to take my complaint to Ofcom, as it is clear to me that the BBC is not capable of listening with sensitivity to this complaint.
You can complain to Ofcom here.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The BBC and Jody McIntyre

The following is the text of an email I have written to the BBC news with regard to their appalling interview with Jody McIntyre, a young man of whom footage has come to light of police dragging him from his wheelchair at the student protest in Parliament Square last week.

Dear BBC News

I am writing to express, in the strongest terms, my dismay at your broadcast interview on News24 with Jody McIntyre, a disabled young man who was talking about his experiences with the police at the demonstration in Parliament Square on 9 December 2010. The attitude taken by your interviewer was condescending and accusatory. He even stooped to imply that Mr McIntyre shouting was in some way justification for the police pulling him out of his wheelchair. The interviewee was rightly taken aback by the suggestion and stood up for himself admirably. But the point is that you were not dealing with a convicted criminal nor a career politician and such a bellicose interview technique on a young man who has clearly been the recipient of violence (we have evidence on film of this) is quite beyond the pale.

What I will finally ask you is, if you had interviewed the Prince of Wales or his wife about their experiences that night, would you have taken such a confrontational stance in questioning them? I think that we all know the answer and so we are faced with the truth, that the BBC are taking the side of power and privilege in the reporting of this story - and how many other stories might we say that about? Mr McIntyre was correct to draw a comparison with your reporting of the Palestinian conflict.

I work at a University where we all work very hard at ensuring that especially vulnerable students and staff, for example those with disabilities, are treated with respect and allowed to recount their experience with dignity. No doubt the BBC believes that it practises to the same standard. On the evidence of this interview, in which your journalist showed his opinions and colours only too clearly, you have failed to live up to any kind of civilised standards. If your interviewer were a member of staff here and had spoken to a disabled student in that fashion when listening to a complaint, he would be on disciplinary as a result.

You can follow Jody Mcintyre, and offer your support, on twitter. Details of how you complain about BBC news are here.

UPDATE: The interview is on YouTube now. Every one can see and hopefully many will complain about Ben Brown's appalling behaviour. 

Monday, 8 November 2010

Red, Black and Ignorant and There Will Be More, Cock Tavern Theatre

The final two plays of the Cock Tavern's Edward Bond season are examples of the kinds of plays which either draw the audience member further into an engagement with the writer's extraordinary vision of the world or repel the audience member so much that they react with outrage or attack. Both are pieces for which the word uncompromising might have been invented, although both deserve respect for taking theatre and thought to places which stretch the art and the mind.

Red, Black and Ignorant
is the first play of Bond's enormous War Plays trilogy, first produced by the RSC in 1985 to critical displeasure but rather more successful in Alain Françon's Avignon Festival production of 1995. RB&I presents us with a charred male protagonist, named simply as Monster, who presents scenes of the life he didn't get to live (because of a nuclear war). A series of sketches illustrate the ways in which institutions – school, marriage, capitalism, the army – install an ideology into those within them which erodes and degrades their humanity. The final irony of the piece is that, even without the nuclear war, the Monster finds himself killed by a force within his own nuclear family.

Red, Black and Ignorant, with its short playlet-like scenes, reminds me of both Brecht (notably Fear and Misery in the Third Reich), the agit-prop drama of the 1970s (an era recounted brilliantly in Catherine Itzen's indispensable book Stages in the Revolution) and, at times, the absurdity of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Bond isn’t coy about the idea that the society he portrays ideologically brutalizes its inhabitants and forces them into situations in which the only choice is Hobson's. The play feels to me quite bitty and not altogether achieved but that doesn't strike me as a reason not to perform or see it – it looks forwards, as a set of notes and ideas for development, to both the second and third of the War Plays trilogy and, beyond that, to themes that haunt the last quarter century of his work. A production of it is the theatrical equivalent to those exhibitions which show the sketches and drawings of a major artist which went towards the development of more complete and achieved masterpieces; I was at times reminded of Goya's Distasters of War.  That said, the final scene of Red, Black and Ignorant – in which a boy soldier (Bond was writing about this phenomena long before the children dragged into wars in such countries as Sierra Leone and Uganda became a fashionable subject for bleeding heart liberals to kvetch about) faces with an appalling decision as to whether to kill a member of his own family or a neighbour - is one of the greatest scenes of Bond's career. The place of decision is a crossroads (the same ones at which Laius was murdered by Oedipus, no doubt) and here the play stakes its claim to a dramatic lineage old as theatre itself.

Red, Black and Ignorant
is also an essential document of its 1980s time, when the Greenham common anti-nuclear protests were at their height, the miners were being brutalized and Thatcherism was setting in motion a new kind of society in the UK, in which market values mattered more than people and sub-classes were deliberately created in order that those out of work were made to feel their own situation as a social crime against order (the Coalition's policies since election have simply been a reiteration of what was hammered into being then). I was involved in the anti-nuclear and Stop the City protests at the time, along with many others on what might loosely be called the anarcho-punk scene. Watching Red, Black and Ignorant, I was struck by how close Bond's worldview was to his contemporaries in such bands as Crass and Conflict; the lyrics to the song Bond's soldier sings as he is being dressed for war might have sat comfortably on the seminal Let the Tribe Increase album by The Mob.

A even less obvious comparison with Bond might be between the poetic language and striking, apocalyptic imagery which he puts in the mouths of his actors and the flashing images of the 19th century poet savant Rimbaud and his 20th century follower Bob Dylan – at times, Bond's words would fit happily in a song like A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall or an album like Highway 61 Revisited. I make this comparison to emphasise that Bond is not some lone voice at odds with the culture of his time but very much a part of a movement in literature, music and other arts which flourished in the 1960s and developed into the scenes of the early 80s and beyond.

As a gesture of solidarity with the season, Bond contributes a new play, There Will be More, produced in repertory with RB&I but with different actors and director. Anyone who expected Bond to have matured and calmed down by his mid-70s (anyone who doesn’t know his work very well, that is) would surely be appalled by the feast of horror that is There Will Be More and boy were some of the knee-jerkers who review for the broadsheets bemused, angry and dismissive by turn of the new play.

It is easy to spot the Greek lineage of There Will Be More. In the first scene, an army officer's wife murders his twin sons (one is so flinch-conditioned by Bond's reputation that the sight of a baby on stage immediately makes on fear for the worst) and is raped in return by her raging husband; we are in Medea territory, clearly. This first scene – 20 minutes of odd social comedy mixed (like blood and tonic) with extreme violence – seems to be an odd take on the upper class social comedies of Rattigan or Coward (Hands Around the Throat rather than Hands Across the Sea).  After this (and a provocatively placed interval), we shudder forwards 18 years to when the wife escapes from the lunatic asylum she has been banished to in order to confront both her husband (whose careerism was somewhat hampered by her act) and one of the twin sons born of the rape (the other is fighting in an Orwellian constant war somewhere). The three characters then set about recriminating and destroying one another in scenes which reminded me of Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home sleeve note – "…divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes/subtracted by people constantly torturing each

I've made the Dylan comparison twice now in this blog as I believe that we might gain something from comparing what both artists have been doing in the last few decades of their careers. Both have taken stock of a rather frustrated 1980s and then re-consolidated their voices by going back to the roots of what they are doing – Dylan in old blues and folk songs, Bond in the plays of the Greeks and Shakespeare.

There Will Be More re-imagines elements of Euripides (and Sophocles) into a vision of a contemporary family destroying itself from within. Johnson, Bond's Jason in There Will Be More, is so fixated on his own career in the services and desire for his wife as sexual object that he has no tools with which to understand their situation, resorting to the only tool he knows how to use and wielding it in what used to be sickly and euphemistically referred to as "assault with a friendly weapon" (we might compare the militaristic term "friendly fire").  His mad wife Dea, Bond's Medea, has no insight into why she committed her double filicide and simply blames it on her husband ("you wanted me to" she accuses). If any people ever were lost in a cloud of unknowing, it is this pair.

At the beginning of scene two, she has returned to the family home (rather like zombies or unquiet ghosts in the horror genre return to the places they once inhabited after their deaths), seemingly hoping to settle into the old routine; astonishingly, Johnson is willing to let her as long as his conjugal rights are upheld. Johnson seems to have an absolutely authentic though blind and desperate desire for his wife, a desire which she sets her will against him achieving. Their marriage is like that of two people butting heads, neither of whom ever gets any sense knocked into them. Pity their son Oliver, confined to the house and judged wanting next to his absent, warrior twin: his father wishes to withhold the truth of his mother's identity in order to protect him, his mother wishes to rip his illusions rudely away. More violence follows as well as a strange, appalling, moving and very murky seduction of the son by the mother in which the sleepwalking off-spring is fellated by his Mum in a strange, Oedipal twist. It is notable here that it is the mother that kills the father, as if the Oedipus complex was a set-up designed to indoctrinate the child with guilt. The mother is devouring and the father is controlling – the terrible parents of primal myth lour over the household; it is no wonder that the child, like so many of our youth, clings steadfastly onto a blade he carries with him. In one way, the play can be seen as a reflection on the problem of youth knife crime; it is this but also so much more – no more rational a work than Goya's mighty painting Saturn Devours his Children, which looking back was an entirely justified response to the violence the artist saw around him but which also has a timeless quality.

Euripides, Goya, Shakespeare, Dylan – these are some of the names that flash through my mind when encountering a Bond play; There Will Be More is no less complex and knotty a work of art than any of these at their best. This is not to say that the work is meaningless or merely surreal – but the discomforting and destabilising affect of the play is more to the point than any moral lesson we might attempt to garner from it. One could say that it would be a tiresome fool who came to us suggesting that it might be a better world if it did not involve adults destroying each other and their children for their own psycho-sexual power-game gratifications. Yes, surely we all believe that it would be. "Why then," Bond's plays with a child-like impertinence ask, "is it not that better place?" Unless we confront the most terrible mirrors showing us of the times we live in and how things all too often are, only one thing is certain: there will indeed be more.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Under Room and The Fool, Cock Tavern Theatre

The middle pair of plays in the Cock Tavern's Edward Bond season are very different pieces, one a chamber piece written in 2005 (and now receiving its London premier), the other an epic play first performed by at the Royal Court in 1975. Seeing them close together allows one to focus on how Bond's writing had developed in the intervening period and how he had, by the time of the chronologically latter play incorporated within his dramaturgy what I can only describe as a performed self-consciousness as to what the drama is (what Drama itself is, Bond would say).

The smaller play is The Under Room, and was performed in the cellar of the pub theatre, a location reached by going upstairs, through the regular theatre space and down again into an under room throbbing with the sound of a generator, a rectangular space with low ceilings. On the night I saw the play (the first performance of this production) the cast of The Fool with Bond himself sat directing them were rehearsing as we passed, a weirdly ghostly and haunting scene in an of itself. A complete naïf might have asked "what are they doing?" and then might, with some thought, have found the answer to that downstairs in The Under Room.

The Under Room, like most late Bond plays, is set in a dystopia which is easily believable and which would be arrived at quite quickly should a further financial collapse hit the West's economy. A police state runs Britain and, in an Orwellian act terrifying in its simplicity, allows itself to summarily shoot anyone shoplifting as the crime has been renamed "shop-looting". The story concerns one shop-looter who hides in the basement of a single woman's home and is discovered by her. The singleton, Joan, is extremely leery of the stranger at first but gradually gets drawn into his story. His is a non-European whose past has involved being a boy-soldier, whose first killing for the army who kidnapped him was one of his own parents. The stranger embroils Joan in his situation, involving her in the shady deal his is trying to pull of with a treacherous black-marketer named Jack. Jack is supposed to get the stranger a passport and a way out of the UK but instead rips off his money and blackmails Joan to find more. The stranger's presence in both Jack and Joan's life reveals them.

I structure this last sentence in the way I have so that I can get into talking about the play's central innovation – the stranger is represented by a dummy, his lines being spoken by an actor who stands to the side of the action. This simple device makes what could have been simply a representation of a dramatic situation into a way of thinking about what we do when we represent dramatic situations. Joan and Jack are revealed, they and we find out who they are by their interaction with this effigy. Of course, all dramatic characters are effigies or dummies and the dramas we watch them perform reveal the character of the other figures in the drama. There is something else though – the audience as well is pretending that these characters are real in order to find out something about themselves through the drama: Bond is conscious of the Greek beginnings of dramatic theatre, its coincidence with the beginnings of democratic society and citizenship and the imperative to "Know Thyself".  The dramatic process towards the somewhat ironic ending of The Under Room allows Joan and Jack to find out that she is a person that wanted to help the stranger for rather selfish reasons  - as an end to her singleton existence becoming a couple running away together – whereas Jack is someone who, when called to quit his low down ways and attempt make a positive contribution world with the stranger, finds himself drawn to the stranger's violently unexpected offer. Yet Jack doesn't get the chance to do this, as Joan has ripped the dummy to pieces once she finds herself rejected.

There seems to me to be a mordant critique of contemporary drama built into this. Joan's liberal selfishness, in which motives are more to do with personal wishes and ownership of the other, destroys the opportunity for Jack to change. One of the things this suggests to me is that contemporary drama, in concentrating on a liberal sentiment which demands that the "victims" of the present system be given to them as personal projects, decimates a more immediate drama which might affect a change in the aggressors and the victims themselves. It is certainly true that much of the liberal, soul-searching drama we see points towards liberal consciousness raising amongst the already-liberal middle-classes. Bond's rather caustic suggestion is that these liberals will, rather than give up their hold on the puppet strings of the victimized classes, align themselves with the extreme right and become victimizers themselves.

This could be seen as a rather despairing vision. In his programme note on Hope, Bond writes "The hope is in the audience." The very process of watching The Under Room might change an individual, or at least get them to take a good, hard look at themselves. Maybe that's hoping too much, although I can affirm that it got me feeling and thinking…

The Fool is as epic as The Under Room is condensed; it's concern is with the producer of art in society whereas, for me, The Under Room is concerned with the audience. The play tells, in eight scenes, the story of the 19th century peasant poet John Clare, staging his fringe involvement with the rural protest movement against land enclosures. The land enclosure theme, the central role given to a "great British writer" and the subtitle, Scenes of Bread and Love, show The Fool to be somewhat of a companion piece to Bond's Shakespeare play Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death; Clare's own position as a "nobody" elevated by his talent into the world of the gentry and ruling class make his position somewhat analogous to a Shakespearean fool. Bond directed the Cock Tavern production himself (replacing the advertised director) and did a brilliant job of making this huge play work in the small, pub theatre space; it is an irony that his programme note also includes a satirical pop at the National Theatre, who wanted to do The Fool in the Olivier Theatre but were refused by Bond with a curt
‘You cannot do My Fair Lady one day and Macbeth the next: you cannot be Van Gogh one day and paint green-faced oriental ladies the next. You have to choose, and if you don’t what you do chooses you’. (Saunders, 2004)
The Fool is a intricately patterned play. Clare is shown as a player in a class struggle, contrasted and compared with other players (notably the agitator Darkie) and shown in antagonism with his class enemies, who are ironically also his patrons and benefactors. It is significant, for Bond as a stage writer himself and for a comparison with Bingo, that the first time we see Clare he is taking part in a Mummers play performed for the local Lord of the Manor and his preening houseguests (perhaps this is analogous to Bond's early involvement with productions of his plays at the Royal Court, National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare company). There is a sense within the play that people are locked into their class positions, that they cannot leave them behind nor see beyond them – it is perhaps the most self-consciously Marxist of Bond's plays in terms of how its structure stages the class struggle. This might be problematic in that the play may box in its audience – yet the play is part of not the completion of a process. It is right that Bond on occasion provokes us into thinking about how at liberty a person can be in a class society. He offers a powerful rebuttal of the idea that a person can, in such an environment, be in charge of their own destiny.

The play includes two of Bond's most powerful scenes. In one, the rioting rural workers come across a country parson – an apologist for the ruling class – and proceed to strip him of his finery; when he is naked, they weep as they pluck at his well-fed flesh, mourning that its plenty has been at the expense of them and their children. The scene is striking and unforgettable – the parson (not a sympathetic character) is vulnerable and almost Christ-like in his suffering but his attackers maintain an innocence and child-like quality, as if the Church's Jesus-surrogate were being suffered to come unto the children. There's also a sense in which the scene links to those zombie films, for example Andrea Bianchi's Burial Ground or Romero's Land of the Dead, in which the zombies are used to symbolize the exploitation and revolt of the proletariat against their class oppressors, as Bond's worker's come close to wrenching the parson's flesh from his bones.

The other great scene – as great a scene as has ever been written for the theatre – has Clare taking the air with his upper class patrons in Hyde Park where a vicious boxing match happens to be taking place. The boxers are two prime examples of the victims of English Imperialism – an African and an Irishman – and the alternation of focus between Clare and his literary friends and the participants in the boxing match creates a split of focus which (via their on-stage proximity) encourages an audience  to see the connection between the two groups and their ostensibly dissimilar activities.

Bond's large scale dramas often deal in the on-stage relationships between groups, relationships which stage the economic and social relationships within the societies he is writing about. The Cock Tavern production shows that Bond, even in such a tiny performing space, is adept at grouping his actors in meaningful constellations. The production gives the lie to the idea that Bond is not a good director for his work; here, he shows that he has reached a level of impressive understanding of the stage space and its dynamics, where space and communication consummate a meaningful relationship. That we are unlikely to see him showing us what space we can do on a large scale is a terrible loss for anyone interested in theatre in the UK.

Saunders, G. (2004). 'Edward Bond and the Celebrity of Exile'. Theatre Research International , 29, pp. 256–266.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Pope's Wedding and Olly's Prison, Cock Tavern Theatre

The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn is currently producing a season of the plays of Edward Bond, one play representing each of the decades in which he has been writing since the 1960s. It offers a marvellous opportunity to see plays that are all too rarely performed on English stages, an opportunity made more vital by the fact that the first two plays, Olly's Prison and The Pope's Wedding, have been produced to the very highest standards.

These two plays share some important similarities (both, for example, deal with working class lives contemporary to their composition) as well as showing that Bond can write in very different registers. The Pope's Wedding, Bond's first professionally produced play (1962) is a brooding, minutely detailed and ostensibly naturalistic account of the doomed relationship between a young rural worker, Scopey, and an old outcast, Allen, who live in the same Essex town; it's affect on me was to sadden, producing an air of contemplative melancholia. Olly's Prison, originally a TV play (1992), tells an epic story of a man, Mike, who commits an appalling crime and then spends the next decade or so, in prison and out, coming to terms with what he has done; it's affect on me was both anxiety-inducing, adrenalin-producing and I emerged rather awe-struck and inspired by its reach. What the two plays in performance here have most strongly in common is that they take the audience into the heart of mysteries which are not solved within the play (Bond is never a glib writer) but that they have a solution feels important for myself as viewer, a feeling which has stayed with me long since seeing the plays. A number of (excellent) books have been written about the meaning of Bond's drama but I am not sure that its ability to affect the audience has been sufficiently emphasised. Bond's dramas, I would suggest, are not primarily a series of meaningful, enacted images to be "read" (although you can approach it like that) but rather living theatre experiences (Theatre Events, he calls them) to be involved in; processes undergone rather than processions gazed upon.

The Pope's Wedding is a measured play pace-wise, although never boring. It is also a structurally fragmented piece, being for most of the first half an immersion into the world of a group of working class lads (and a couple of lasses), casual labourers in rural Essex who spend their time moaning about being broke, getting drunk and smoking when they are not, engaging in mild yobbishness and play-acting antagonisms. Occasionally, punctuating the lads' scenes peripheral to this group, we get to meet, an old man, Allen, who lives alone in a ramshackle hut and whose only connection to the "main" story is that one of the girls who hangs out with the gang, Pat, does cleaning for him due to a promise made to her dead mother.

The main story focuses, after some time, on the individuation of one of the gang members, Scopey, who becomes a local sports-hero and wins Pat's hand in marriage. Throughout this first half, an audience could feel somewhat starved of a strong plot-line, although the antics of the lads are engaging enough and Allen offers the promise of mystery and development; we know the two "strands" must come together and both desire it (we want "something" to happen) and fear it (the lads might hurt Allen). This desire of the audience is answered in the second act but in a roundabout way. Scopey's relationship with Pat almost immediately collapses into domestic bickering; Scopey gradually takes over Pat's role of cleaner and cook to Allen and the old seems to fascinate the younger. The air of mystery about the old man is palpable – is he really Pat's father? what is the "work" he is doing with his piles of old newspapers? what does his part experience have to teach the younger man? Scopey pursues, in such a single-minded and dogged fashion that it becomes a monomania, the answers to these questions only to find out something terrible – the old man holds no secrets or knowledge at all, he's "just" a batty old man. By this point, Scopey has ruined his marriage and his position in his peer group, so he takes the only route which he now feels is available to him – he murders the old man and takes his place in the hut…

The sense of Scopey's disappointment is heartbreaking in performance. The audience has seen and, importantly, shared his frustration as part of a world which is going nowhere (that sense of the story not developing in Act One is a dramatic strategy) and ache for his relationship with the old man to be meaningful and enlightening. But it can't be – the old man is too far gone and Scopey hasn't the social skills to bring him back again. The sense of waste becomes palpable – you could say that the play conjures it up – and the final transformation of Scopey into Allen (a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid) is designed to leave the viewer with a palpable sense of frustration and sadness. What the play means is less important than that it does this, creates this feeling of dissatisfaction.  It opens a void which the audience member then has to fill. This all suggests to me that the play-event we are dealing with here is a kind of ceremony – the impossible ceremony of the title, The Pope's Wedding.

The Pope's Wedding is a social event to which we are invited in order to witness no one affirming a commitment to another, perhaps the impossibility of such a commitment; Olly's Prison is another kind of social ritual, a prison visit during which one watches the inmates realise that when they get out, they'll still be incarcerated. This has its own knock-on effect to the audience, as the implication is that we don't leave this play when we leave the theatre, the last line being

"Olly's prison. 'E'll never get out. We're all in it till we understand."
This kind of metatheatricality is apparent in the opening scene. The audience sits in silence whilst we watch the protagonist, Mike, trying to get some words out of a character (his daughter, Sheila) on stage who sits there in silence. The scene is long and testing but by the end of it, the play grips, which mirrors the protagonist's gripping hands on his daughter's throat. He murders her and both he and we spend the rest of the play trying to understand why this happened, what the implications are, what is going on after. Mike is sent to prison for a decade and spends a number of years in despair, before another horrific act propels him into attempting consciousness: a young prisoner hangs himself days before his release. By the end of the play, Mike has grasped that release from an actual prison is not an actual release from imprisonment, to which I'd add that coming out of a piece of theatre isn't actually emerging from the theatre; the play goes on all around us and we remain in it.

Near the end of Olly's Prison, a policeman named Frank, the former boyfriend of Mike's daughter, violently beats up the title character in order to frame Mike for the crime. It is worth emphasising that Frank does not do this because he is himself bad or corrupt; he does it because he is personally convinced that Mike is bad and corrupt. Here we see how a human being, one invested with social authority, can justify using violence against the innocent in order to protect the innocent. But Frank, ready to condemn another man, is not willing to face himself. Earlier in the play, when Frank comes in and sees that Mike has murdered Sheila, he's begins the process of telephoning the authorities when Mike offers him the flat. Frank stops dialling, takes Mike up on his offer and so does well, property-wise, out of the crime. Frank has himself become authority in the final scene, unable to face his own reality and so blaming Mike for everything. This is what Mike, and perhaps the audience, comes to "understand" at the end of the play: criminals are no worse than each of us, we all partake of the same daily bread, and any personal attempt to put oneself "above" criminals as an embodiment of the law makes one worse than them, not better.

About a week after seeing the play, I was watching an afternoon chat show which featured the policeman, PC David Rathband, who was blinded by Raoul Moat. In an odd and convoluted exchange with the host, the blind policeman said it takes a great effort for a human being to remain "good" but that Raoul Moat had been "born evil." It is almost as if PC Rathband is embodying Olly's Prison in his own being. I know of few other living dramatists who can so make one see the world through the prism of the theatre events they create. Then again, it wasn't contemporary dramatists that came to mind when I was watching it: it was Shakespeare, it was the Greek tragedians.

There are four more Bond plays in the coming season, and I will try to write down some thoughts on each – they'll probably be as disorganised and partially formed as the ones above but its important that the season doesn't go by without record, given that so few of the mainstream critics (or, for that matter, non-mainstream reviewers or theatre bloggers) have got themselves down to & written about these first two plays in the season. I'll leave you with the words of a critic who has, Simon Thomas (of MusicOMH):
Anyone serious about English Theatre of the last half century should think twice about missing these and the remaining productions.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Veronika Voss and fascination

Veronika Voss is the last film in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's BRD trilogy, following The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola. All of the films are set in West German in the 1950s and each features a central female protagonist at the centre of a nexus of economics, history, survival and desire. Yet Veronika Voss, Fassbinder's penultimate film before his death in 1982 feels somewhat different to the other two BRD films. The titular protagonist does not find and make herself during the economic miracle - as do Maria and Lola - but has already spent the best part of herself during the war years. Voss is based on the last years of UFA star Sybille Schmitz, a hugely popular actress and favourite of Goebbels whose career never recovered once WW2 was over; she committed suicide in 1955. Using her life as a springboard, Fassbinder creates a glorious black and white noir in which a soccer journalist is drawn into a web by a faded actress, a web which leads to death and despair; it bears some similarities to Sunset Boulevard in the same way that Braun does Mildred Pierce or Lola does The Blue Angel.

The received wisdom about Fassbinder's BRD trilogy is that they are in some ways allegorical portraits of the West German economic miracle (Thomas Elsaesser deals with this critically in his excellent book Fassbinder's Germany: History Identity Subject). Voss feels different because, although it is grounded in a particular time and its lead character has been shaped by a particular historical period, the subject matter of the film leaps beyond history into something more dazzling and dangerous. Veronika Voss is a film about desire and fascination, subject matter which is far more compelling (to my current eyes) than allegorizing history for socio-critical purposes. Voss seems like the last station for Fassbinder before his extraordinary final film Querelle, whereby he jettisons Germany history and all pretence at social realism to give a deeper, wider-ranging vision into fascination, disavowal and the forming of the socially gendered self (see Steven Shaviro's chapter on Querelle in his The Cinematic Body).

The journalist in Veronika Voss becomes fascinated by VV after meeting her after a screening of one of her Nazi era films. He becomes embroiled in her life as she tries to make a comeback, tries to deal with the past and maintains her present morphine addiction. The journalist's girlfriend also gets involved with Voss, leading directly to the girlfriend's death. This fascination of the couple with Voss can be taken as an emblem of audience fascination with stars and celebrities. Whether it is Voss on the silver screen, Voss as public celebrity or Voss as lost cause, at all times the woman is completely compelling and the couple are driven, we and they are  never sure why, to involve themselves with her. From whence does Voss's fascination derive? Fassbinder answers this question partially in the film's mise-en-scene, where she is made available to us through a highly stylized use of black and white cinematography – a film star's appeal is provoked in us partially by their manufactured cinematic presence. Yet this only goes some way to explaining why a star becomes fascinating and continues to be fascinating even when they are no longer doing the things which made them a star. There seems to be a deep need within the central couple, it almost might be deemed a void, which Voss feeds and fills. Yet even as I type this, I am advised by a voice to clarify – Veronika Voss does not criticise the fascination that its protagonist holds; it wallows in it. To merely criticise would be a puritan's pose; Fassbinder was better than a puritan. There is a scene, near the end, where Voss stands at a piano and sings Memories Are Made of This; other characters watch her as the audience do, fascinated even as the performance falters, each experiencing it in a peculiar, personal way. Rosel Zech brings a quality of watchability to this moment which is extraordinary, convincingly conveying that this person is the only person who can perform the song in this way, that we are experiencing the presence of a daring singularity. The idea that an individual can be a singularity, perfectly unlike anything else, is dangerous to the Democratic ideal. This makes fascination a subject which an artist explores at his or her peril, especially in ages such as ours, in which art is supposed to have a socially valuable qualities. Fascination has little to no positive, progressive social value, yet it is difficult to imagine life being as intriguing without it.

Fascination is a quality we most associate with film, music and sports stars; politicians might also fascinate and this is where the subject causes most unease. Yet fascination is not solely the preserve of the (in)famous. How many people owe their relationships and their careers to the fascination they exert over others? Only this week, the Tory politician William Hague has been unable to quite explain why he gave one Christopher Myers a job as his Special Advisor; it could be that Myers fascinated him in the way that, for example, George Villiers the first Duke of Buckingham fascinated James I and his son, Charles I. There is not necessarily an active sexual component to fascination – having sex with the fascinator might be a part of the deal or not – but what is central is that fascination brings a kind of mystery into our lives, the kind of mystery the Saints felt when they pursued their God, even unto their annihilation. Fascination and annihilation go together, the one leading inexorably to the other – perhaps we are fascinated because we wish to lose ourselves, or because we believe that we are lost and wish to find ourselves; in either case, the fascinator is believed to be the one in which we can be lost or found.

To be a fascinating person is a lifelong occupation. Those who fascinate are as addicted to being fascinating  as those fascinated by them are addicted to the fascination. Fascinators often come to bad ends – Voss commits suicide, a death arranged by the morphine-dealing health "carers" who are picking over the last remnants of her wealth in the film; in the age of Kings, favourites like Gaveston, Hugh Despenser or Villiers were killed by political rivals. It is doubtful whether a fascinator can ever stop casting the spell of fascination; the best they can do is become a recluse, like Garbo. One might break the fascinator's spell on oneself, although my suspicion is that life would be then given a fine coating of grey (unless one found another fascinator).

Fassbinder's Veronika Voss is one of the few contemporary, "respectable" works which deal with fascination. It is a lucky coincidence that I watched it in the same week as I re-read Howard Barker's small book Death, the One and the Art of Theatre. Barker is one of the few contemporary theatre artist who takes fascination as a subject. Odd, given that fascination is all around us but then, fascination is, as I suggest, an invitation to death. I write this blog not as a definitive statement but rather as a declaration of interest in fascination as a field of meditation, as a subject area (I am researching the life of the above mentioned Villiers for a film script).  I inch forwards a case that we consider fascination…

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Tannhäuser at Bayerische Staastoper

I attended two operas whilst in Munich, both performed by Bayerische Staatsoper as part of their annual opera festival at the Bavarian National Theatre. The theatre is a beautiful if rather imposing neoclassical edifice, much more welcoming inside, where rococo predominates in the foyers and the auditorium is almost circular, with a very deep stage and five small tier circles; in the centre of the second and third of these is an enormous Royal Box. Above all looms an enormous chandelier. The theatre seats over 2000. Both of the operas I saw were by Richard Wagner, which is appropriate as it was in this theatre (extensively reconstructed to the original pattern after WW2) that the world premiers of Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre took place, albeit that it wasn't any of these I saw.

I don't want to dwell too much on the first production, Richard Jones' 2009 Lohengrin. Whilst I was watching this, I found it irritating when not annoying and mostly unbothered by bringing across the story that Wagner is telling, although a skeleton of it remained. Since the performance, a number of the images have stayed with me and been food for thought, so perhaps this is an experience better recalled in memories that judiciously edit out the more irksome details. Watching Wagner is Germany is always, for good or ill, a testing experience, as directors feel (probably rightly) that they have to deal with those elements of the operas which might tend, in a warped reading, toward reaction and which therefore might perhaps prefigure National Socialism. I could probably eek out some kind of meaning from Jones' mish-mash of Metropolis, Bavarian kitsch, 1984 and Stasiland but the evening was so uniformly ugly (thank to designer Ultz) that it didn't encourage me to want to bother. I have seen far better Jones productions, of operas by other composers and by Wagner (including his recent, very fine Meistersinger for WNO).

Far better I write about David Alden's 1994 version of Tannhäuser, which I saw two days later. I’d seen and enjoyed a DVD of the original cast of this production but seeing it in situ is far more rewarding, especially as the cast on this occasion was so fine (the DVD features a very tired-looking René Kollo past his prime in the title role). Alden's take on the opera elucidates the work's meaning rather than building something other than Wagner on the top, as well as featuring the kind of being in music that I have always seen achieved by performers in Alden's opera productions.

Being in Bavaria and looking around various churches, galleries and palaces, I experienced the intense atmosphere of Catholic religiosity which runs through the region, a religiosity as per usual with Catholicism marked and marred by the veneration of the Virgin; the city's main cathedral is the Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Dear Lady) and the main square is centred around a Marian column. This is highly relevant to Tannhäuser, which tells the story of a historical Meistersinger who became the subject of a legend: he spent time at the Venusberg, repented of his "sin" then went on a pilgrimage to Rome, seeking forgiveness. The Pope, reckoning then as now that sexual "immorality" was the worst form of godlessness, refuses Tannhäuser absolution, saying that it was more likely that his staff will flower. Tannhäuser returns to the Venusberg in a huff, not knowing that in Rome the nasty old Pontiff's staff has indeed miraculously bloomed. Wagner adds a fair deal of his own into the story, most notably giving Venus a foil in the figure of Saint Elizabeth, portrayed as in love with and venerated by Tannhäuser, her finally dying after years of praying for his soul. It is implicit that it is her sacrificial love that causes the staff to bloom. One of the most problematic tendencies in Wagner is his penchant for elevating "purity" as a virtue, a tendency definitely implanted in him by the culture in which he lived.

Alden's portrait of the Venusberg in the ballet at the work's beginning is exemplary and ambiguous; muscle-queens, gimps, nymphs, crocodiles, well-hung sex-slaves and done-up whorish Madames stalk the stage as if in a world created by Clive Barker, creating a kaleidoscope of wearying pleasure for the poor old minstrel who is understandably both attracted to this world and keen to get out of it and breath some fresh air (anyone who has spent an entire night in a Vauxhall club will know how he feels). The relationship of Tannhäuser with Venus herself is complex and stricken; she is cast in standard readings as the villain of the piece but she does have a right to be a more than a little ticked off when the man to whom she's given the utmost pleasure for many moons turns around and, in the midst of telling her how wonderful she is, says that nevertheless "I must go." Go he does. The scene changes to a pastoral clime peopled by a youthful swain , repentant pilgrims carrying stone burdens heading for Rome (reminiscent of Blake's illustrations to Bunyan) and Tannhäuser's fellow minstrels paying court to the imposing Landgrave of Thuringia. The other minstrels here are a right bunch of nobs, ranging from flower-carrying fop Walter to Herr Flick-like leather-coated Biteroff. Only the sensitive Wolfram possesses any humanity but even he is infected by the overarching ideology of the court.

It is in the portrayal of the Landgrave's court and the ensuing song contest that Alden's vision really makes its impact. These are not attractive people but nationalists and idealist poseurs whose world could only be wearisome to bear, tending towards authoritarianism. Their attitude to the Landgrave's niece Elizabeth is rather nauseating, encouraging her holier than thou self-image and worshipping her as the living embodiment of Virginity. It is clear from Alden's direction that she feels trapped by this role; Tannhäuser is also entrapped by her public image of sanctity and foolishly looks to it as a means of rescuing him from the lures of Venus. Yet when the contest begins and the Mastersingers sing their songs, Tannhäuser can no longer keep his cool and he spoils their mutual back-slapping session of bigging up Pure Love with a rousing song in praise of his old mistress, Venus. Elizabeth gets the vapours, the minstrel crew are shocked and only Elizabeth reminding them of Christ's call to forgive sinners saves Tannhäuser from being murdered by his furious old comrades. Tannhäuser is packed off to Rome to beg forgiveness. The genius decision in Alden's version is to have Tannhäuser's hackles begin to rise at the Landgrave's introduction to the contest, where he sings the praises of a Mastersingers' art in which 
"…You have enriched our quality of life.
What if our swords were drawn in righteous anger
called to defend the safety of the state,

both to repel invaders from our borders,
and crush dissent with in our nation's confines?
The art of song has played its part in battle,
For virtue and our ancient customs,
for chastity and true religion
you fought beside us with your art.
and won a victory no less great." 
(Wagner, 1988, p. 76)
The Landgrave's nationalistic regime has used Art for its own sinister purposes. Roni Toren's set for Act II gives us Speer-like architecture over which the giant words Germania Nostra tower. Some might find this a little too much an underlining of the point but the history of Tannhäuser criticism has seen Venus as the problem, when all the while the Landgrave and his lickspittle Artist lackeys have been far more dangerous; the production gives much a needed re-emphasis.

In this reading, Tannhäuser and Elizabeth suffer under a regime of repressive sexual morality which is imposed by a dangerous, nationalist ideology. At the close of the opera, as Venus fails to win her lover back and he dies alongside Elizabeth, worn out by the wrenching contradictions of his life, the Pope's blossoming staff is brought on as a holy relic and the forgiven pilgrims follow worshipping it, swarming over the stage like so many George Romero zombies. The miracle hasn't helped the human beings Tannhäuser and Elizabeth one jot; their dead bodies speak eloquently of a waste of life. Their memory will be appropriated by a bunch of hysterical zealots whose religion misses all of the salient points in the tale.

In giving us such a Tannhäuser, Alden doesn't damage or underestimate or rewrite Wagner, although he does see the work through the prism of a history which has happened since the its composition; how could he not? All of the ingredients for this evening were provided in the text and music of Wagner himself. Alden has teased meaning out in a way which makes them vital, visionary and for us in our time. He takes it as read that Wagner was an astonishing genius who, like Blake's fool who persisted in his folly and became wise, is a visionary because he persisted in telling the truth about his own and his contemporaries' inner lives and the ways in which these were intensely affected by the ideologies of their day; ideologies which still survive today.

The cast were astonishing, with a be-quiffed and looming Peter Seiffert as charming, riven and sensual a Tannhäuser as one could wish for. Kent Nagano encouraged really sensitive and detailed playing from an orchestra which must be surely one of the best in the world, at least in terms of this composer.

Works cited
Wagner, R. (1988). Tannhäuser. (R. Blumer, Trans.) London: John Calder.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Path to Dachau

Whilst in Munich, I paid a visit to the Dachau Memorial Site, which preserves the grounds and some of the buildings of the former Concentration Camp and houses an exhibition, Art works and religious memorials. I went with on a a guided trip with a Munich-based tour company. I was rather nervous as to what this would be like, because the same company sold trips to destinations such as Neuschwanstein Castle and Salzburg; would the site of such horror be reduced to a mere tourist attraction? I was particularly leery of this as, when I visited the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, there were people having their photographs taken smiling with the house in the background (although everyone behaved impeccably in the house).

My fears were not realised as not only was our guide excellent at conveying the horror and the history of the place but for the most part people were very respectful at the site. I've read a fair amount about the Nazis in power and the Holocaust but seeing the actual location of one of the notorious camps is something else. Not, I have to say, because the camp has any residual atmosphere - it was a sunny day when I visited, everything is clean and people were making their way around the site in a relaxed fashion, which mitigated against atmosphere. What struck me at the site itself was the scale of the place and the proximity to the town of Dachau. It has only been since the visit, in digesting the worlds of the guide and the meaning of this particular piece of recent history, that I've felt Dachau's deep impact.

Dachau was the first of the Camps, the one which set the principle for all of the others. The tour guide took us on a route which mirrored the prisoners' induction into the camp. They were marched through the town (the camp at Dachau was public knowledge), then passed through the gate with its infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign. It is in this sign that the Protestant Work Ethic reaches its ultimate conclusion - a world where work kills and where the only freedom is in that death. As prisoners entered, the rest of the inmates would be gathered in the yard. The new arrivals would be brutally beaten before the other prisoners; it was clear that they were entering a world where your fellows will watch you being brutalised and do nothing about it. Then, with broken noses and aching guts from the smashes and jabs of the SS men's fists and elbows, the new prisoners would be taken into the reception area. Here they would be forced to strip naked and hand over all their belongings. Their possessions would be carefully bagged and labelled, creating an idea in the prisoner's mind ("arbeit macht frei") that they might one day get their stuff back on release. A prisoner would be given a number, which would henceforth be their only name. They would have the hair from their entire body removed; the clippers are on display, and they are more designed to rip than shave the hair. Having had their hair ripped out, they would be dipped in a chemical bath (inflaming their wounds) and then given uniforms, which most likely did not fit. As it says in the printed Guide to the Camp:

"By this stage in the admission process, the prisoners had lost their liberty, dignity, property, clothing, bodily hair and their names (...) They had also lost their independence and autonomy; the only thing they had not lost in the maelstrom was the freedom to die." (Mitchell, 2009, p. 19)

Death now lay in wait at every moment. Guards, or the Capos who effectively policed the camp for the SS guards, might arbitrarily pick a prisoner to humiliate unto death. Uniform must be worn at all times, as the lack of it means an attempt to escape. Even the lack of the cap means you are not in uniform. So a guard might take your cap and throw it on the camp perimeter, where snipers will shoot to kill anyone trespassing. So, a choice - either get instantly shot dead fetching the cap or slowly beaten to death for not wearing it. The labouring work prisoners did in the camp and in the local area was itself so burdensome it could be fatal; work made you free to die.

The guide emphasised two things: the process through which the Nazis gained political power (the post WW1 depression which gripped the country, where people watched their  children starve to death, was made vivid; no one in Germany wanted to go back to that in the late 20s/early 30s and would look to anything that would prevent this); and the lack of solidarity between the prisoners in the camp: the Capos (Socialists in this camp) would be as cruel as the guards; some groups of prisoners would be better treated than others, breeding intense resentments; snitching on and stealing from fellow prisoners was rife. The stakes if another prisoner escaped could be your own death. Yet there were appalling acts of kindness, courage and mercy by prisoners for their fellows.

The camp began by imprisoning political opponents of the Nazis: "Communists, Social Democrats, journalists, royalists, trade unionists, Jewish Lawyers and others" (Mitchell, 2009, p. 12) but soon encompassed all kinds of "undesirables" including violent and career criminals (who found themselves in Dachau after serving their sentences in regular prison), homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and, of course, Jews. When the war begun, enemy combatants from the USSR and other countries crowded the camp. Each types of prisoner was identified by a patch, sown into their uniform; the system of categorisation was very sophisticated, so for example if you were a Jewish homosexual you'd get a Star of David made up of interlinking Yellow and Pink Triangles. As a racially Jewish homosexual with anarchist leanings, there would have been at least three reasons why I would have been sent to the camps; constitutionally, I don't think I would have survived for long. Perhaps it is morbid to think this way. I was very saddened to see that the 1960s memorial sculpture In the Machine by Nandor Glid - part of which is made up of triangles which "symbolise the prisoner patches" - omits the pink as well as the black (asocial) and green (criminal)  triangles, as at that time there was still a feeling that some people perhaps deserved to be in Dachau. There is now a large Pink Triangle memorial on site, although hidden away in a room whereas Glid's sculpture has a significant place in the parade ground. Our guide told us that there has been talk of adding the other triangles to the sculpture but this was rejected as the work offers a snapshot of attitudes when it was designed. This is probably right but those 1960s attitude were shameful. The sign in five languages nearby says  "Never Again" and never again should this happen to any of the groups categorised, even the worst of criminals does not deserve anything like this kind of treatment and no society which treated a single one of its citizens thus would be properly human. Someone said that you can measure a society's values by how it treats its criminals...

There is a display about the euthanasia programme, whereby the mentally and physically disabled were murdered by the state, and the medical experiments which doctors carried out on inmates at the Camp. I won't describe these here. The picture of the young man frozen to death in an ice bath will stay with me forever. More chilling even than this is the "commemorative photograph" which the doctors in charge of the euthanasia programme had taken on their appointment to their job, after they'd chosen the first batch of people to be murdered. They look relaxed, happy and proud of themselves. Our guide was very firm in maintaining that these men were not mad - the Nazis made a point of weeding out psychopaths and sociopaths from such position. There were "normal" men who were convinced that murdering other human beings was the best thing for their country.

There is a crematorium at Dachau; in fact, there are two, as an earlier pair of ovens did not suffice to dispose of the many dead the system produced. The newer building, built by prisoner labour, includes gas chambers for delousing clothes, a gas chamber for murdering human beings, a mortuary room and a number of large ovens. There is some doubt that the gas chamber was ever used for mass exterminations - Dachau was a prison camp not a death camp (those were further afield). Despite knowing this, there is no coming to terms with the experience of walking through the second building, a man-made conveyer belt designed to turn living human beings to ash.

There are religious monuments on the site - Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox Churches, a Carmelite monastery and a Jewish memorial. The first four are concentrated places of worship and services go on most Sundays. They appeared to me to be rather melancholy and inadequate responses to the horror of what went on here, although the architects have striven to find imaginative ways of responding to the needs of the place; the crown of thorns in the Catholic Church of Christ's Mortal Agony has barbed wire making its crown of thorns, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation has no right angles (Nazi architecture being obsessed with them) and the Jewish Memorial poetical surveys the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, a granite tunnel leading down to nowhere. The Carmelite nuns, our guide told us, think it is their duty to pray the pain in the place away but this just seemed to me to be hyperbolic superstitious grandstanding of a dubious nature.

It is a week since I went to Dachau. What keeps me going through my mind as I think about the place is not a sense of the absolute apartness of what went on when compared to what happens in our society but rather the sense of the similarities. At the end of Trevor Griffiths' Comedians, the old comic speaks about his experience of visiting a camp shorty after the end of the war and he says "It was the logic of our world... extended" (Griffiths, 1979, p. 64). A word where some people are judged fit to be able to be productive members of society, some people can't or won't produce and some people are distrusted as culturally or politically alien. The whole point of the Camp system was to dehumanise those reckoned to be unfit for society. This came after years of propaganda in which non-productive or alien people were dehumanised through language in newspapers and general conversation. You read a copy of The Sun or Daily Mail or go onto the comment threads at The Guardian even and you can see the dehumanising language that people who have enough wealth to gain access to a computer are using about their fellow human beings.

Something in some ways very predictable but nevertheless very strong is said by the guide at the end of the tour: now that we've have been here, and seen and heard this, We become the custodians of "Never Again." The people of the tour were "ordinary" people, from the UK, the US, Austria, South Africa. It is my faith that all of them came away with as strong a feeling as I did of the need for watchfulness of the language and behaviour we use when referring to or interacting with our fellow human beings, even our political opponents or those whose behaviour or culture scandalises us. May we all also find the courage to point out when we see others dehumanising our fellows that that this is the path to Dachau.

Works Cited
Griffiths, T. (1979). Comedians. London: Faber and Faber.
Mitchell, N. S. (2009). Dachau Concentration Camp: A Guide to the former Concentration Camp and the Memorial Site. Sheffield: Minerva Research.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Direct Gothic Encounter and its Loss

Certain thoughts and feelings have occurred to me on occasions of exploring the major collections housed in European art galleries. The most recent incident was last week, as I ruminated around the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The thoughts and feelings are based around the viewing of any significant gathering of Medieval Art and can be summed up as a kind of inspired melancholy that something was lost in Art after that period, albeit a loss which was for many more than partially compensated for in gains. Yet a part of me loves that which was lost over anything which replaced it.

The Nationalmuseum's Medieval galleries are the finest I've yet encountered. It holds room after room of paintings, wood sculpture, ivory carvings, bronzes and tapestries from the Middle Ages, stretching from the 9th to 14th centuries. The vast majority of this work is Christian and represents stories and characters from the Bible or the lives of Saints. The bulk of the collection is German in origin and Gothic in style, concentrating on the years 1250 to 1530. As I explored the many rooms, I was moved (as I have always and many times been, when I've encountered Art from this period) by the directness of communication that the artists achieve.

One of the pieces which caught my attention here was a painting on wood, dated approx. 1335, from a Viennese Altarpiece, showing Christ Before Pilate. The figures are arranged in a line; beginning (from left to right) with two soldiers, then Christ, then a bearded accuser, the two young noblemen and finally, at the far right, Pilate himself sitting on a canopied wooden throne. Each of the figures has his own specific character – one of the soldiers hangs back, knock-kneed, trying not to be too involved whilst the other shoves his arm up in the air for attention; the bearded accuser points at Christ whilst talking straight at Pilate; one of the young men points out his tongue whilst the other looks stern and serious. Christ himself, taller than the rest, stands calmly and passively with his head bowed but his gaze very much on Pilate; Pilate sits with a finger in the air and the most curious, vacillating, weak and confused expression on his face. The power in the scene is Christ's. With a small bow of the head, he accepts his fate yet his gaze is full of sorrow for the man of supposed power it looks at; it is clear that Pilate is quite befuddled by the whole scene and the man before him.

The impact of the painting has everything to do with its concentration on character within drama. Each of the figures is playing a particular role in the scene and the viewer can immediately identify these roles. The artist shows one man of strength in submission – Christ – and another of power and weakness – Pilate. The viewer is encouraged to put all of their meditations into the implications of this scene; what do we make of Christ, Pilate and the rest here? What is the import of this scene? Who does one admire? Who does one wish to emulate? Who does one really pity? Who would one prefer to be? What is human nobility?

Of course, for a fourteenth century viewer all of these questions would be mediated by their cultural relationship with Christianity and the Church. But surely they would also be affected by one's actual life experience? There is a subversive element to the work, to do with the weakness of the man on the throne and the inner strength Christ's portrayal might potentially inspire in anyone brought before such a power. Yes, these images were used ideologically by the Church to corral and control their congregations but there is something about the drama and characterisations in the scene which transcend ideology and bring us to the realm of story and myth, a realm which encourages each individual to consider his or her place within the relationships portrayed. Although I have no evidence for believing this (other than the paintings themselves), I speculate that the greatest artists of the Gothic period (and the architects) plied their trade in tension with the churchmen who commissioned them, not merely in thrall to them. Truly visionary artists have always had a conflicted relationship between those with the power to pay them and the best have created potent work which transcends the requirements of the commissioner and speaks frankly to the individual in the audience. This is as true of the Art commissioned by commissioned or supported by the contemporary UK Arts Council or Hollywood as it is of the Art of Medieval times. My suspicion is that there are less artists willing to rise above the demands of their commissioners these days than there were in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The walk through these galleries and through the less extensive Medieval ones at the Alte Pinakothek were thrilling experiences. I was again and again arrested by an image and plunged by the artist into dramatic, ethical and spiritual situations which, despite the intervening centuries, were immediately relevant to aspects of my life. The reason for this long-lasting immediacy is the lack in the Art of those times of the very things people usually criticize it for lacking – perspective, ornamentation, historical realism or indeed realism of any other kind, except what I can only describe as a realism of character and dramatic encounter, which are intensely real. In both collections I wandered through the paintings chronologically and was struck, on entering the Renaissance rooms, not on the gains made by the introduction of those lacking things but rather on the loss of dramatic immediacy. Suddenly bodies bulk out, clothing becomes ornately and extravagantly realised, aestheticized beauty replaces sublime simplicity, perspective becomes something to be striven for; these effects later reach their zenith in the Baroque Art of Rubens, whose pictures are all about flesh and its ornamentation and which rarely communicate much drama to this viewer (except a kind of self-dramatizing need to impress).

It is no coincidence that the rise of the Renaissance saw both an opening up of subject matter to include both Greek and Roman mythology and the portraits of nobles and notables. Greek and Roman society was based around a very intense ideological definition of class nobility and the Emperors, Kings, Princes (sacred and profane) and Electors of the Renaissance saw these tales as much more capable of emphasizing and aggrandizing themselves and their power than Biblical stories. These latter remained in Art but in a less forceful form, sometimes with the profanity of the commissioner's face replacing that of the Saint on the Canvas. More important than the art of direct communication of the story to the viewer had develop into the Art of flattering the wealthy and powerful; the beginnings of a bourgeois Art. Art became (as Blake accused Milton and Shakespeare of being) "curb'd by the general malady and infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword." No coincidence again that colonization and the beginning of Empire rear their ugly heads at this juncture of European history. Go into a major collection like this and you can see it all happening up there on the walls.

I don't mean to be Philistine and reject everything from the Renaissance onwards as a loss. But "Everybody must give something back / For something they get" and European Art gave up something very precious at this time. The best Art of the Renaissance (Caravaggio) combines the new techniques with the old directness of drama; artists and movements since – the counter-reformation works of El Greco, Blake, the Pre-Raphaelites – have made extraordinary attempts at regaining the dramatic impact of Gothic Art.

The most important thing is that large collections of early European Art do exist and we can experience it anew, not as mere historical oddity but as it always was, as direct communication of stories that are of vital importance to the whole being of the person who encounters it. Any of us working in the Arts today can glean something very valuable from it.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Getting into Into the Little Hill

Went to the Linbury Studio last night to see a double bill of short operas, Berio's Recital 1 and George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill. The staging of the latter struck me as a good illustration of how a fairly "open" text - one which is not rooted in entirely specific historical or social circumstances - can allow the production team to built another layer on top in the production, a layer which is absolutely detachable from the piece in that it could be produced in quite another way but yet which gives insights which open up the piece for the audience.

Into the Little Hill is a retelling of the 'Ratcatcher of Hamelin' myth, with a libretto by Martin Crimp. In the programme Benjamin says that

Martin and I wanted to tell our lyric tale in the most direct and authentic way possible - not an easy task in the age of television and cinema. Our solution, where the story-telling as well as the multiple roles are shared between just two singers, acknowledges at all times the artificial nature of sung drama, while still permitting dialogue and characterization. Occasionally, particularly in heated moments, it approaches the naturalistic.

Benjamin's phraseology here is a little problematic - "authentic" and "naturalistic" are particularly fraught. The idea that admitting that here are two singers on stage makes something more "authentic" than something which doesn't admit such a thing up front is frankly a little silly - because I should think that nobody ever sat in an audience at an opera and imagined that they were not watching two singers engaged in something entirely artificial (one of the most attractive things about opera is its blatant artifice). This slightly fuzzy thinking results in a Crimp libretto which involves two voices - a soprano and mezzo - who tell the story to the audience and enact some bits of it in dramatised scenes. I suppose Benjamin is using "naturalistic" to mean that, at some moments, the storytellers seem to "disappear" and we are left watching the characters in dramatic conflict.

John Fulljames' production takes Benjamin and Crimp at their words and presents us with an orchestra on stage, three rather abstract hoops of varying sizes and the two singer/performers - Claire Booth and Susan Bickley - in contemporary dress. They sing the narration out front to the audience and interact with each other in the scenes between the characters (they never interact with the orchestra, which is in itself a choice which leads to results). Because the contemporary dress used is exactly what one would expect conservatively stylish middle-class women of Booth and Bickley's status to wear, we are shown a traditional story told to us by two middle-class women. Now, these ARE these two middle-class women - but the mis-en-scene also encourages one to mull over the idea that two relatively well-heeled fictional British women are telling an audience - which may be us or may be some fictive but unspecified audience - the tale. They do so with great thought and concentration - and at times (especially during the later parts of the narration) they seem to be personally considering the events of the tale and disturbed by their considerations...

Crimp has, by a few subtle strokes, make the tale suggestive of not merely ridding a town of vermin as a literal event but also of more sinister and historically recent purges of undesirable elements. At one point, a child insists that the rats look like humans, in coats and with suitcases. Crimp's tale is set in a more modern environment than the medieval version we are traditionally used to. The Mayor is up for democratic election, the rats are accused of stealing not only bread and property but electricity. The Stranger - as the Piper is called in Crimp's version - becomes a sinister figure indeed. All the while in Fulljames' production, even though at times one is drawn into the events of the tale and the fates of its characters, one is conscious of these two middle-class women telling, feeling, considering, being made sad and thoughtful by it.

The piece need not be performed like this. More abstract or mythic consumes could be used; dumb shows could work with the storytelling to enact the events; the storytellers could be a lot more neutralised or removed from the performers. By making them very clearly two well-dressed, contemporary women, the production encouraged me to think about why two bourgeois women might want to tell and consider the Ratcatcher of Hamelin tale. That the women are of different ages - Booth is young enough to be Bickley's daughter - suggests a familiar relationship between the two; that Booth is also visibly pregnant suggests that they have occasion to think about a tale in which society plunges into mass murder and terrible consequences; it certainly makes the moment where Booth plays the child witnessing a rat drop its baby very poignant indeed. A whole imagined situation in which two seemingly comfortable women are nagged at and moved by a strange children's story opens up.

All the while during this, Benjamin's haunting, nagging, insinuating music accompanies the proceedings with its seductive but sinister sheen. That The Stranger uses music in his extermination of the rats makes the story eminently suitable for operatic treatment; that certain regimes have used music as part of their death culture should gives an opera-going audience as well as the makers of opera some pause for thought. Fulljames's production of Benjamin's short opera IS that pause.

'The Ratcatcher of Hamelin' is a discomforting tale. In the end, the town's children disappear because the politicians will not pay the Stranger. The children disappear into the little hill nearby and can be heard following the Stranger further and further down to something which, in Crimp's version, sounds very much like hell. Having gone down into the Linbury Studio and experienced the piece, having seen the two worried women telling and being disturbed by the tale, I came out disturbed by their disturbance, making this a very successful evening of art indeed.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

What changes? What doesn't?

I am currently vexed by questions of change and the unchanging. Last week I attended Middlesex University's annual Learning and Teaching Conference, the title of which was Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy. Much of the conference was spent on the challenges and opportunities offered by new technologies  - Web2.0, social networking sites, new hardware and software – and whether contemporary students really are a new animal, Frankenstein creatures with short attention spans, addicted to being always plugged into the Matrix of iPods and mobile phones. Briefly, my own view is that some of them are a lot, some of them aren't at all and some of them are a bit like this (and this isn't simply true of the younger generation). Figures quoted by one of the keynote speakers, William Wong, bear this out, with something like 27% being native children of the Matrix, 57% using low levels of technology to support their learning and 20% being complete technophobes (Wong, 2010, slide 9), which bears out my own experience in teaching.

One of the moments which struck me at the conference was during another of the keynote sessions, when Steve Wheeler quotes Heraclitus' "The only constant is change." He followed this with a presentation (Wheeler, 2010) taking us through various theories about the ways in which younger people (I should add "in the West") interact with new technologies and how we are living in a world which has changed massively in the last two decades, with the velocity of change ever-increasing, which has been a theory ever since someone came up with the phrase "future shock". At one point, Wheeler mentioned Smart Mobs and quoted one Howard Rheingold saying "Smart Mobs consist of people who are able to act in concert when they don't know each other. [They can] cooperate in ways never before possible." (Rheingold, 2002) This sent me into a bit of a reverie in which I came over a little like the author of Ecclesiastes, wondering whether there was anything new under the sun. Mobs have always existed; certainly the mob that Shakespeare portrays in Julius Caesar act in concert when they riot and kill the poet Cinna simply because he has the same name as one of the conspirators.  Perhaps the ways in which the members of a mob can communicate their mass concerns has developed, certainly it might have increased in reach and velocity. But is this a fundamental change in human behaviour rather than a new way of facilitating behaviour as old as time? Are we in danger of losing site of the wood for the trees? As befits a wanderer in a wood, I was visited by the voice of various bards, ancient and modern. One of them was Dylan, who in his 1985 Biograph booklet interview with Cameron Crowe says

"…I like to stay a part of that stuff that don't change. Actually, it's not that difficult – people still love and they hate, they marry and they have children, still slaves in their minds to their desires, still slap each other in the face, and say 'honey can you turn off the light' just like in ancient Greece. What's changed? When did Abraham break his father's idols? I think it was last Tuesday." (Crowe, 1985)

I also mulled on William Blake's Note in his Descriptive Catalogue with reference to his Canterbury Pilgrims painting, where he writes

"The characters of Chaucer's pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations; as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men; nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can never change nor decay." (Blake, 2009, p. 49)

Blake's point is nuanced and Zen-like here, and he is certainly having his cake and eating it. Nothing occurs in exactly the same way twice but the same things occur again and again in different guises.

This isn't a fashionable view, and can all too easily fall into a bourgeois inability to comprehend that others are not the same as him. As Barthes writes, "The petit bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other." (Barthes, 1993, p. 151).  I was reminded of this only yesterday when I came across some sloppy thinking in the programme note to The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a Neil Simon play revived in London as a vehicle for the excellent (though wasted in this) Jeff Goldblum. Kevin Spacey writes that Simon is "a brilliant writer  (…) with a deep sensitivity for the truths we all share" (Spacey, 2010), a theme which Matt Wolf continues in an article on Simon, writing

"The resonances of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, nearly 40 years on, are due to a playwright grounding his concerns fully in the specifics of the era, only to discover that the uncertainty and fears to which humankind is subject never dates." (Wolf, 2010)

Does this mean anything? Simon's play is about a New York businessman who has a nervous breakdown after he loses his job, his problems compounded by the pressures of city life; the piece also concentrates on his relationship with his wife. Certainly there are themes which link this 1971 play's content to more recent concerns – the crisis in masculinity which everyone was talking about in the 80s and 90s, and the current climate of economic concern and impending job-losses in the public sector. Yet it is hardly surprising that we recognise these factors in Simon's play, as we live under the same economic system as his characters! Would the play's story and characters be able to be translated into Other, more profoundly different times and places? Would the play be able to be re-set in a feudal society, long before the changes wrought by Reformation, Enclosure and Industrialisation? Blake and Dylan suggest that there are works of art and culture which can weather such changes in time; I am not convinced that Neil Simon's play is one of them…

A more convincing claim to long-lasting relevance is made in the programme for the Henry IV plays, currently on at Shakespeare's Globe (I caught Part 2 on Sunday).  Peter Staccio analyses the central dynamic in the relationship between Hal and Falstaff and posits that

"Shakespeare has created one of the governing myths of Western culture. Hal heeds the Protestant ethic: duty, hard work, devotion to public welfare. Falstaff belongs to the counter culture: the ethic of personal warmth, loyalty in friendship, and scepticism about the claims of the establishment." (Staccio, 2010)

Although I am not sure that "devotion to public welfare" is one of Hal's aims (more like devotion to the continuance of the bloodline power he inherited from his father), certainly Hal caught between the twin pull of  blood family and duty (his father, Henry IV) and chosen friendship and irresponsibility (Falstaff) does present us with a choice that most free human beings since civilisation began have faced (even in feudal societies, one could presumably join bands of robbers, prostitutes and ne'er-do-wells). I am tempted to say that it is in the dynamics of the ethical choice(s) portrayed that a work's "universality" is contained, and in the characteristics of those involved in the choice (the suggestion being that not only will Hal's choice be between duty and licence but also that those pulling him in either direction will always share the character of Henry IV or Falstaff).

To come back to the subject of the conference, does my reverie have any bearing on the education of the young? Perhaps not, if what they are learning is a purely technological subject, although surely ethics, which involves thinking about the stuff that never changes as well as the stuff that does, will be involved when developing new forms of technology. But teaching (and writing) as I do working in the imagination, then encouraging the students to see why some stories and characters have more lasting appeal than others must be central to my work.

Returning again to Dylan's statement, I can read about Abraham breaking his father's idols in a print edition of the Bible or on the Bible app I have on my iPhone (along with the Shakespeare and Great Philosophers apps) or in a podcast or a film of the story but the essence of the story remains the same, no matter the medium through which I receive it.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. London: Vintage.
Blake, W. (2009). Seen in my Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures. London: Tate Publishing.
Crowe, C. (1985). Biograph Liner Notes. Sony.
Rheingold, H. (2002). Revolution, Smart Mobs: The Next Social. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Spacey, K. (2010, June 30). Hello. The Prisoner of Second Avenue Vaudeville Theatre Programme.
Staccio, P. (2010, June). Prodigal's Progress. Henry IV Part One & Part Two programme , pp. 7-11.
Wheeler, S. (2010, June 29). Digital Tribes and the Social Web. Retrieved July 7, 2010, from MDX Annual Learning & Teaching Conference 2010 Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy: http://altcmu.blogspot.com/2010/06/steeve-wheelers-keynote-slides.html
Wolf, M. (2010, June 30). New York in the 1970s. The Prisoner of Second Avenue Vaudeville Theatre programme.
Wong, W. (2010, July 2). What Matters? Retrieved July 7, 2010, from MDX Annual Learning & Teaching Conference 2010: Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy: http://altcmu.blogspot.com/

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Some thoughts on the original Morrissey

There's nothing I like better than working my way through the wilder reaches of a filmmaker's oeuvre, especially if their work gets more obscure and more unpopular as their career - well, you can't say progresses, I suppose carries on regardless is the best option. I've an idea that an artist produces their best work when they fall out of public favour, or at least their most uncompromising and honest (which, for me, are synonyms of 'best'). In the past few weeks, I've been looking at some of the later films of Paul Morrissey. Morrissey rose to prominence as the filmmaking crony of Andy Warhol, and it is generally considered that the majority if not all of the filmmaking on such groundbreaking classics as Chelsea Girls and Lonesome Cowboys is Morrissey's. His best known films as credited director are the late 60s/early 70s trilogy Flesh, Trash, Heat, which all feature the awesome Joe Dallasandro (a hustler and porn performer elevated by Morrissey's camera and his own extraordinary cinematic presence to international stardom). These films remain a high-benchmark of American independent cinema, of gay cinema and of cinema realism – but this latter is highly deceptive, as although the films appear on the surface as rather haphazard and improvised things, they are meticulously constructed and artificial works (Flesh, for example, is a series of variations on the theme of human flesh as a commodity).

Morrissey is a strange bird, as although his whole career has been devoted to the "alternative" and the "underground", he himself is a political conservative. Here he is talking about Flesh on the DVD commentary:

“A day in the life of somebody living a silly, absurd life. The simple story is of someone who is living some sort of family life in an age where they are no more rules which apply to anything at all, let alone family life. At the time, it was a story which seemed unusual but that kind of story has become the only kind of story left for filmmakers to tell. I can understand why so many of them want to avoid it. Life today is pretty pointless and has little if any meaning. Unless someone sees the humour and comedy in it,  it's better to avoid the subject altogether and go into violence or special effects or gangsters screaming and making faces at one another. But modern life is a little too depressing and can only be treated well with humour."

Morrissey is an avowed authoritarian Republican and, although no longer a practising Catholic, the religion of his childhood seems to haunt him. He's a contrary figure, because although in his interviews and DVD commentaries he affects to despise his characters and their lifestyles, his films have a celebratory mood and certainly his camera adores to the point of sacred love his performers, so despite the scabrous and critical stance he ostensibly takes, one comes away from most of his films feeling that life has been affirmed. He is a peculiarly American filmmaker and it is hard to imagine anyone in Europe matching his style; in Europe, we've a tendency to become unloving when our critical hat is on.

That said, the film Morrissey made around the same time as the Flesh trilogy is perhaps his least likeable – Women in Revolt is a mean-spirited and scabrous piss-take of the women's liberation movement, acted by a lead trio of transvestites – Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. Each of them try to break free from the patriarchal chains that bind only to find themselves worse of as a result; as the DVD jacket says, they end up "exploited, derelict or abandoned." There's an extraordinary scene where Darling goes to audition for an agent with whom she impersonates Hollywood starlets, gets on the casting couch and gets cast in cheap pornography – Morrissey's wry comment on career advancement for women in the entertainment industry at the time. Structurally, the film has something in common with the multi-strand women's pictures of the 1930s, most obviously George Cukor's The Women. Cukor became quite a fan of Morrissey's films, campaigning to get Woodlawn an Oscar nomination for Trash and inviting Morrissey himself to appear in the final Cukor film, Rich and Famous. It is in the way in which the two directors film their performers that the link between the two is most obvious, the performers are caressed and adored  in such a way that when the films are projected, they become icons. However, Woodlawn's contribution to Women in Revolt is really repellent, playing a nymphomaniac whose violent and humiliating sexual encounters threaten to burst a number of scenes into anarchy and who ends up a homeless alcoholic urinating in doorways. The sheer virulence of the film's attack on contemporary feminism probably has much to do with Valerie Solanas' shooting of Andy Warhol after the publication of her SCUM manifesto. The attempted assassination (which probably did contribute to Warhol's eventual, relatively early, demise) had a traumatic effect on the Factory crowd, and Women in Revolt as well as Lou Reed's much later Songs for Drella number I Believe are a testament to this unhappy event and the rancour it caused; the whole thing feels rather sad and tawdry to me, at this remove.

Morrissey's later films split into two types: historical/literary aberrations (Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula, an unusual and much derided collaboration with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on The Hound of the Baskervilles, a piece of eurotrash depicting Beethoven's Nephew) and contemporary satirical melodramas which continue the themes and feel of the Flesh trilogy but with somewhat better production values.

There has been a noticeable cross-fertilisation between Morrissey and another of my other favourite film-makers, John Waters, who surely wouldn't have made his films with Divine without the influence of Morrissey's earlier transvestite romps; but Waters' influence on Morrissey is evident in 1981's Madame Wang's. In this rather prophetic work, an east German spy attempts to infiltrate Californian culture and inspire a revolution in the USA. He decamps with a group of talentless, fat transvestites living in a pretend family relationship in an abandoned Masonic Temple in LA, a metaphorical image of America if there ever was one. The transvestites dream of stardom at the title character's punk rock club but their hippy/showtune/disco hybrid act is behind the times; the spy himself has more of an opportunity for success when his penchant for masochistic self-harm goes down a treat with the denizens of Madame Wang's, yet our 'spy who stayed in the cold' Soviet is having none of the lures of the American dream; he retreats back to the GDR despondent of America ever becoming a communist state. I've read that Morrissey admires the Soviet bloc "for suppressing liberalism, rock and roll and other modish fatuousness" [1] making it is possible to read the German hero of this film as Morrissey's self-portrait; certainly the scenes of Patrick Schoene's Lutz looking around Wang's club appalled and bored at the antics of the punk crowd are staged to encourage the viewer to be equally judgemental at the silliness and human waste of what is going on, yet the film also allows the girl who lives with the transvestites to counter-accuse Lutz of not being able to let his hair down and enjoy himself. Morrissey is a sophisticated enough artist to allow the viewer to mull over both points of view.  Madame Wang's is often very funny; its portrait of absolute no-talents insisting on their chance at stardom looks forward to the American Idol/Big Brother society of our own time; that they are mostly morbidly obese makes the film even more prescient. One scene, in which the German drives a fat tranny to MacDonald's as she eulogizes Hamburgers is as funny and grotesque as anything in Waters' oeuvre, if less inclined than the Baltimore genius to admire the dysfunctional lifestyle of the character.

1984's Mixed Blood is probably Morrissey's finest post-Warhol achievement. I can remember its release being greeted by a bemused review on the BBC by Michael Parkinson, whose bovine reactionary brainlessness was filling in for Barry Norman's affable banality on Film '84. Parkinson was particularly appalled by lead actor Richard Ulacia's line delivery, which on viewing the film all these years later certainly is unusual. Ulacia honks out every line like a vicious goose, without a single variation of intonation or level; in his defence, he is playing a character who is clearly remedial but I can see why connoisseurs of fine acting might be offended. Yet Parkinson's aggressively performed heterosexuality prevented him from seeing the main merit of Ulacia's screen presence – he is probably the best-looking man to ever grace a cinema screen, with a raw sexual energy to go with the looks. Morrissey's camera stares at Ulacia as if it were caught in the headlights, amazed, appalled and intolerably attracted to what it sees. Perhaps Morrissey's cinema is really only appreciable by women and gay men? Most of his films are transfixed by the beauty of their male protagonists and, loathe their actions as Morrissey and his target audience might, neither he nor they can help but be seduced by their physical perfection. This is certainly challenging and does something intriguing to Morrissey's moralistic stance, making it amoral despite itself.

Mixed Blood is another film highly relevant to contemporary viewers: in it, gangs of ethnically-defined teenage drug dealers shoot and kill each other as the stooges of adults who make a profit from their trade; the kids are quite without moral compasses and their cold-bloodedness is chilling. The film is set in Alphabet City before its regeneration and the gangs live and deal in a maze of derelict buildings. In the DVD commentary, Morrissey reads from contemporary newspaper reports of the drug dealing and crime in that neighbourhood; he took most of his incidents from journalistic reports (kids throwing each other from buildings, too young to be tried for murder, drugs dealt as if they were candy). Morrissey gives a valuable insight into his creative process and aesthetic tastes, saying that journalism translated directly onto film would be boring, so he combined it with classic Hollywood storytelling, the plot of Mixed Blood being somewhat derived from the Pepe Le Moko film Algiers. There's also elements of White Heat about Mixed Blood, as Ulacia's gang leader is under the thumb of his possessive mother, played for all she is worth by the legendary Marília Pêra from Pixote. Morrissey emphasises why he tells his shocking tale with a comic tone – "no modern story is worth taking seriously" – and then elucidates why: America is a wealthy and developed country, and if it wanted to do something about a social situation like Alphabet City, it could; it doesn't, so it becomes funny. This rather reminds me of Orton stating that "I developed a mocking, cynical way of treating events because it prevented them from being too painful…" [2] This seems to be a prevalent tactic for a number of intelligent gay 20th century artists and the really telling thing is that, as opposed to sentimental mainstream artists who might pretend to "care" whilst never really mentioning the horrible truths about society, the likes of Morrissey, Orton or Albee (another similar case) pretend not to care whilst never failing to mention the terrible truths…

Mixed Blood, like most of Morrissey's films, is acted by a cast mixing amateur with professional performers. In the case of Mixed Blood, the non-acting of many of the youths playing the gangsters becomes a statement in itself, as in reality on the streets of the world's cities, children and youths play out versions of gangster films, so the ostensible amateurishness of the acting in the film is actually closer to realism than many mainstream films with professional actors on the same subject. It is again intriguing how many gay filmmakers – Pasolini, Waters, Jarman as well as Morrissey – use non-actors in their works, as if to emphasise the very queer idea that everything in reality is a series of acts, and poorly performed acts at that…

Lastly, I watched Morrissey's most recent fiction film, Spike of Bensonhurst, released in 1988. This has the feel of the same period Waters films, with the filmmakers working on a higher budget with more professional actors in the cast, some of them well-known names. The eye-candy at the centre of Spike of Bensonhurst is Sasha Mitchell, ex-Dallas regular who went on to star in the Kickboxer sequels, and he is supported by Ernest Borgnine as a mafia kingpin. The plot is a kind of amoral Rocky combined with Married to the Mob. Spike is a gorgeous, affable idiot who wants to be a boxing champ but doesn't want to get his face damaged, so he hopes that a local mobster will take him under his wings and fix fights for him; things becomes complicated when Spike falls in love with the mobster's (Borgnine's) daughter. This mobster is a morally confused gentleman who gives money to (corrupt) liberal politicians but savours the idea that the local ethnic populations spend all their welfare on the drugs his minions deal; he wants his daughter to marry a WASP lawyer but likes Spike's threats to beat her up if she gets out of line. The film revels in the moral idiocy of its characters; Spike encourages the local Puerto Rican community to clear out the drug dealers but doesn't understand that these dealers are working for the mob he valorises. Morrissey's film understands only too well the way in which legitimate politicians, drug dealing gangsters, very poor ethnic communities and the fools of faux-individualist ideologies are meshed together in contemporary Capitalist societies; he may be a Republican but his films are socially cannier than all of the liberal Hollywood social-conscience filmmakers put together, as well as being a thousand times more entertaining. Spike of Bensonhurst is, despite its perhaps unpromising subject matter, a gloriously feel-good film, almost as joyous an experience as Waters' contemporaneous Hairspray. Spike's fabulous Coati Mundi soundtrack helps keep things buoyant. A shrewd Broadway team might manage to make as successful a musical from Spike as Shaiman et al did from Hairspray (although perhaps they'd have to fillet the film of its soul, as happened with Waters' paean to miscegenation and dance crazes).

Some of Morrissey's films are still not available on DVD, which is particularly saddening for me in the case of Forty Deuce, which imdb gives perhaps the most promising plotline I've ever seen for a film – " A young hustler tries to get drug money by selling a boy to a middle-aged man; his plans are disrupted when the kid dies." No doubt Morrissey and his star, Kevin Bacon, make this as rib-tickling as it sounds…

Since Spike, Morrissey has only co-directed one documentary, released in 2005. A sad note at the end of his imdb biography reads

"He was always responsible for his films in their entirety, working consistently with mostly young unknown actors, writing and directing with no outside interference of any kind. Once financing from "independent" sources no longer allowed him the freedom from interference that he previously enjoyed, he stopped making films."

I fear that we're unlikely to see many films of the likes of Morrissey's again, as although the ready availability of digital technology makes possible, the difficulties of distribution make it extremely difficult for completely independent filmmakers to get their films shown to wide audiences.  Thus are genuine, unmediated voices of truth denied a place in the mainstream in advanced Capitalism; at least, if we search them out, the films of Morrissey and those like him can show us that once such truths were possible to be told.

[1] Yacowar, Maurice The Films of Paul Morrissey (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 14

[2] Orton, Joe quoted in Lahr, John Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (Allen Lane, 1978), p. 153