Wednesday, 30 December 2015

FUCKING LEMMY

Ian Fraser 'Lemmy' Kilmister has died, and lots of people are sad.

I am not going to write some sort of douchebag THEY SHOULDN'T BE YOU KNOW blog. But it is interesting to me why his death has touched so many people.

Both he and his band Motörhead have maintained a profile that far outstrips their actual commercial success – they've not really been what you'd call meaningfully 'popular' since about 1982, and folk memory has essentially whittled the sum total of their achievements to one (admittedly awesome) song (The Ace of Spades, obv). That's not to be disparaging: from the ever-accurate social barometer that is BTL on The Guardian, Motörhead fans seem as bemused/irritated as anyone at the scale of the mourning for the man.

It is very apparent that it is Lemmy's unapologetically hard-drinkin' etc lifestyle that was key to his appeal as this almost sort of folkloric figure: he was ugly and unfashionable in a way that transcended ugliness and fashion, he looked broadly the same throughout all 40 years of Motörhead's existence, and people used to fondly joke about his indestructibility, especially with regards to The Booze and The Drugs.

It's good that The Booze and The Drugs didn't kill him (not directly, anyway) because that might have felt like some sort of awful cautionary tale about drinking and drugging too much. But no! Drink away. Drug away.

So that's a victory. Maybe a major victory. I think on some level people are sad that Lemmy is gone because we had colluded in this myth of his being indestructible, and though none of us *believed* it, we wanted it to be true. I can't link to it, but a friend posted a cracking anecdote on Facebook that strongly suggests Lemmy didn't really drink a huge amount after the '80s, but thought it very important to 'keep up appearances', not (I would imagine) because he gave a shit about the Motörhead 'brand', but because he knew he'd disappoint millions of people if he gave the public appearance of mellowing. We believed in Lemmy's indestructibility less than, say, gravity, but more than Father Christmas.

I am 34 and for my generation and the generation before and maybe even the generation before that (I am always hazy on how long 'a generation' is) Lemmy was a constant – he was simply THERE, less a human being, more an archetype (if you're feeling extravagant you might even say he occupied a position tantamount to a minor god of the modern cultural pantheon). I think maybe him going is upsetting to far more people than those who knew him or who were serious fans of his music because he was one of the great constants of our age and he has winked out: for me there has always been a Lemmy, there has always been a Paul McCartney, there has always been a Queen Elizabeth, there has always been a Morgan Freeman, there has always been a Keith Richards, there has always been a Stevie Wonder… they have always seemed about as old to me, mostly because all of them have essentially spent their entire lives playing the same role, and it'll be a shock when they go (and in probably 20 years they'll all be gone).

He was a 70-year-old man who played his last ever gig – a full-on rock gig, probably louder than then ones he was playing 40 years ago – a fortnight before he was diagnosed with cancer. He died two days after that. He didn't fade out or retire. I honestly don't think that's how I want to go (provided I can still write I quite like the idea of twilight years), but there's something intensely admirable about it all: Ian Kilmister was Lemmy until the very end, and then he stopped. It's not a tragedy that he's gone, but it is a diminishment.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

STAR FUCKING WARS

My memories of the 1999 release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace are numerous but hazy: there was definitely a lot of hype, and for some reason I remember the guy who played Darth Maul (Ray Park?) doing a lot of telly promo (surely Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman must have done some as well..?? I genuinely don't remember them doing any) and I remember that the conventional cultural wisdom that it was awful was definitely not formed straight away… but I don't feel like I was overwhelmed by excitement and I don't think I saw it at the cinema upon release (this despite having gone to see all three rereleased editions of the originals a couple of years beforehand) though when I started uni I did catch it at some random cinema in Leeds that I never went to again.

That was almost half my lifetime ago, but I feel like the film was treated differently to Episode VII: The Force Awakens not because it was a long time ago (in a university far far away) but because the (perversely reflective) cultural narrative of the original trilogy being degraded by the prequels and needing redemption via a new, younger generation had not yet been established.

With The Force Awakens I'm fascinated by the extent to which we – and I certainly include myself – find ourselves wishing to believe in the greatness of what is nominally the least cool sort of art going, the seventh film in a blockbuster SFX series of space films created by bastard evil corporate bastards Disney. People are not only excited about it but terrified of having it 'spoilered', lest the purity of the experience be contaminated for them (though as a sidenote it was probably surprisingly difficult to have a film spoilered in '99 unless somebody explicitly talked you through the plot). It's difficult to think of another artform that could elicit the equivalent reaction: there is no theatre or visual art or book that is too big for cynicism.

But maybe that's the point: the Star Wars films and series are of such monolithic scale and ubiquity – a scale and ubiquity that could only be achieved by a Hollywood blockbuster – that they can act as a form of common ground between far more members of the human race than any other medium could hope for.

Maybe that's not quite right: they represent the IDEAL of a meaningful shared experience between all of us, the hope or promise that their appeal lies not in series of weary, familiar, loud, button-pushing gestures a la so many blockbusters, but because they have heart and imagination and even a degree of depth: their appeal is 'of value' compared to Michael Bay-style garbage. (On a sort of connected sidenote: my friend Andy is a live artist who sees and curates an intimidating amount of experimental theatre and roundly despises every mainstream theatre show I take him to – admittedly I tend to deliberately take him to shit ones – but he absolutely fucking loves the films of Kevin Costner. He's explained to me that a lot of the appeal lies in the essential charm of Costner's unswerving, all-American, everyman decency – he doesn't have much acting range, but what range he has connects with large numbers of people in a positive way: you feel enriched rather than manipulated after watching Costner be Costner).

And at the very least it's difficult to regard the Star Wars with serious antipathy. All of them are a lot better than probably 95% of films with the equivalent or higher budgets, they have wonderful characters, the vivid palette of quirky aliens in the original trilogy in particular is just gloriously imaginative, and if only by dint of its cultural ubiquity the notion of 'The Force' feels like an acceptable reclaimation of the idea that goodness, decency, etc is something to be aspired to that's not couched in either schmaltz or religion.

It genuinely delighted me when esteemed theatre blogger and professional cynic Andrew Haydon – admittedly a lot cheerier these days – did a Facebook status update that simply ran 'Star Wars seen!! :)' – because if he's not going to be cynical about Star Wars, then maybe part of its appeal is that it exists as a thing that none of us need to be cynical about, or if we are cynical about certain aspects of it – ie Disney – then the grand sum of Star Wars is somehow removed from all this.

PERVERSELY, it's the very scale of the Star Wars love has sort of brought out my obsessive need to devil's advocate, not least for the poor benighted (smash hit, multimillion dollar) prequels. I remember when I first started getting into REM in about 1997 and there was a sort of underlying received wisdom that Monster wasn't very good – it had sold a truckload of copies but it became a bargain bin staple shortly thereafter. As this was the pre-streaming age and I didn't have much money I think I probably put off getting it for something like two years because of its reputation, which was stupid because it is a fucking righteous album. A lot better in fact than The Phantom Menace, but MY FUCKING POINT OKAY is that I think it's pretty rare that the cultural narrative wherein a hitherto beloved artist or series of works suddenly loses all merit – especially when people appear to have only decided this in retrospect – is entirely accurate.

I rewatched the second two prequels recently and they're not horrible: grandiose and overblown and rambling and a bit CGI-shiny and with crappy dialogue, but I liked (most) of the characters, the fights are genuinely remarkable, and Revenge of the Sith has a pretty cracking story and could probably be described as a pretty successful film. Moreover, despite often shooting himself in the foot with a needlessly elaborate CGI-rendered space cannon, it does at least feel that George Lucas has a story to tell (even if much of it doesn't kick in until Sith).

So I feel a bit mistrustful of the new narrative PREQUELS BAD! NEW FILM BRILLIANT because ultimately there are flaws with the new film that are in some respects as palpable as those in the prequels. Also the third coming of Star Wars feels like a special cultural moment at present: I'm genuinely curious as to how all this goodwill holds up in a decade's time, when we'll have had at least four further Disney Star Wars films foisted upon us.

I suppose my conclusion is that I'm delighted Star Wars is back, but I'm torn between awe at its cynicism-levelling qualities and wanting to participate in the love in, and a desire to equivocate a bit without actually spoiling either my fun or anybody else's.

I want to be cynical, but I want to do so with love.

(Is that just the definition of a critic?).

SOME THINGS I LIKED ABOUT THE FORCE AWAKENS

1. It is very good for charmingly random incidental aliens. You could call it all a homage to the original films but obviously require imagination in their own right. Favourites include the massive mega-pig thing that butted Finn away from a water trough, and teh sort of hysterically ponderous scavenger dude who captures the droid BB8 in a net early on.
1b. It is quite good for charmingly random cameos from British theatre actors. Kate Fleetwood as a Star Destroyer pilot! Harriet Walter as a twinkly-eyed medic who humours Chewie about his injuries! It's fun rather than that that sort of 'oh, those poor Brit actors scrabbling for work in an American film.'
2. I like how director JJ Abrams has this eye for looking at the original world and asking 'what if?'. Much as I'm a bit iffy about his relentless post-modernism/self-referencing, a lot of his more compelling ideas – what if we got to meet the person under a Stormtrooper's mask? What if we saw inside a Tie-Fighter? What if we saw a Star Destroyer crashed down to earth? – kind of riff on the originals in an interesting way, zooming in disorientatingly rather than blowing everything up to alienating immensity.
3. Adam Driver is very good. You kind of feel like the character has a bit of coming together to do in the next film to really make sense, but Driver is great as this vulnerable, petulant, not-quite-psychopath.
4. The CGI is good. Much as it's been billed as some sort of return to brass tacks, you can't not use CGI in a modern film and a lot of it is beautiful: the X-Wings hovering in over the spray of the lake is an amazing, imaginative imaginary shot, while the visual realisation of Starkiler Base almost gets around the general silliness of Starkiller Base.
5. It is funny in the right way. If there was one area the prequels unquestionably fucked up it was in the (ironically Disney-ish) deployment of crass light relief characters. Here people just get decent one-liners - huzzah!

SOME THINGS I DIDN'T LIKE ABOUT THE FORCE AWAKENS

1. It is basically a remake of A New Hope. This seems to have bothered me more than a lot of people, but it really nagged, partly because there is the sense that it's ripping up and starting again rather than attempting to carry on 'the story' in the most satisfying way possible, mostly because there's a paucity of original ideas done with the excuse of homage. I mean, there is literally no way George Lucas could have got away with effectively doing the Death Star a third time, but it's okay here because it's somebody else referencing George Lucas doing the Death Star, so that's fine. It feels like it has used homage and (light) post-modernism as a crutch – it is 'clever' because it recycles and references, but is there not an underlying jadedness to that oddly counter to the spirit of the ordiginals?
2. Starkiller Base gets stupider the more you think about it. Kind of a continuation of prev point, insofar as it only appears to exist as a homage to the Death Star. But everything about it is daft, from the physics of it to the idea that nobody had noticed to being built, to the peculiarly underwhelming way Abrams has it murder several billion people but nobody is really THAT bothered about what is by some measure the worst thing that occurs in any of the films.
3. The new good guys aren't that good. Rey is tough and competent. Poe is suave and competent. Finn is more flawed and it's a lovely performance from John Boyega, but actually he's basically a generic joker-out-of-his-depth (interesting that this is a fole often given to black dudes) and much less interesting than he could have been given the character's background. Everyone's just a bit polished, like they're all professional heroes, unlike the dynsfunctional original bunch.
4. There is almost no sense of time passing. People just appear straight away in whatever part of the galaxy is convenient to them, which didn't happen in the original. (UPDATE: As my friend Jim pointed out, it rather undermines the notion of stuff happening on backwater planets, give you seem to literally be able to get anywhere in less time than my daily commute). And while you might explain that as some blah to do with hyperdrive, the final scene is ridiculous: Starkiller Base is blowing up, with the strong suggestion that it's taken about two minutes to do so, but a single line of dialogue – Snoke telling Hux to pick up Kylo/Ben and leave – seems to confidently suggest the bad guys have more than enough time to escape while failing to in any way suggest how this was possible.
5. It aspires to importance bit is often pretty stoopid. Thanks largely to the fanatically secretive launch, The Force Awakens has probably elicited the most obsessively anti-spoiler cult of any cinematic release ever, which gives the feel that its contents are all terribly significant. And I can't help but feel this air of faux-significance has given the moments of sloppiness – that surely wouldn't have been that hard to fix – a free pass. The most glaring bit is the finding of Luke's lightsaber (so glaring they have to acknowledge it), but stuff like Poe's survival and reappearance, Rey's rapid acquisition of superpowers, all the bad guys escaping at the end, EVERYTHING ABOUT STARKILLER BASE is borderline Michael Bay stoopid, but it's been let off the hook BECAUSE WE WANT TO BELIEVE. And maybe that's as it should be, I just can't help but feel the most anticipated film of all time could have been slightly better with minimal effort. Still. It's a larf like.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

HARRY FUCKING POTTER

There has been some brouhaha on the internet about the casting of the black actor Noma Dumezweni as the middle-aged incarnation of the fictional wizard Hermione Granger in the forthcoming theatre play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

When I thought about writing this I thought I was going to say that I wasn't sure you could definitely say that any of the people objecting to Dumezweni's casting were racist, though having looked at the comments on a Guardian article about it, it's clear that I was being optimistic and some of the people objecting to Dumezweni's casting definitely are massive racists.

But the point I wanted to make is that I still think the majority of objectors are doing so not because they are awful people, but because of the Insidious Cult Of Naturalism !!! that has come to define the screen.

No arts writers in the world sound cleverer than really clever – pref American – film critics, so I am not going to bang on about this too much when I am not a clever American film critic. But it strikes me that with advances in technology and technique, screen – especially the telly – has gone from a medium almost equally as 'artificial' as theatre – wherein it's basically impossible to pretend you're anywhere other than in a theatre – to something that aspires to simulate reality (ironically by using a whole heap of artificial devices to distract you from its contrivance).

There are obviously plenty of stylised (not to mention supernatural) films and dramas, and certainly it's difficult to wag one's finger at the screen versus the stage when it comes to ethnic diversity generally. You can't (as a rule) colourblind cast a TV show where ethnicity is of prime importance (but the same obviously goes for theatre).

But it's fascinating that in the last few decades, and for all its faults, the stage (or at least the subsidised mainstream and the commercial sector that dips from the same pool) has largely got over the idea that it really matters whether, say, the actors playing two family members are of the same ethnicity or whatever. Because it doesn't. There's not really a particularly advanced point in that – it actually just doesn't.

You can make casting decisions that are so weird it can distract the audience (though film is as bad as anything at casting bizarrely young women as the mothers of bizarrely old men) and you may well offend the odd old duffer/the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, but as a rule 'we' have simply stopped giving a fuck.

I'm not totally sure why – I suspect increased diversity was visited upon theatre as both a generational thing and via the Arts Council (plus probably the need to find something else to do with Hamlet) and it just turned out the sky didn't fall in and now everyone's cool.

OBVIOUSLY it would be the height of foolishness to pretend British theatre is some sort of post-racial utopia. But you know. I saw Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar the other night and all three leads were white so whatever, but one of the main supporting cast was a black actor playing a white actor's mum and you know – if it had been the telly then the recent furore over the BBC's The Musketeers would suggest that sections of a mainstream telly audience would be baffled at the presence of a black woman in a pretend 18th century France in which everyone speaks English. Probably political correctness would be deemed to have taken over the asylum over the same black woman MASQUERADING as the birth mother of a white woman. But at the Donmar – more radical than it used to be, but still pretty cosy – literally no-one gave a shit, because it didn't matter.

This seems to be threatening to turn into a rant about why theatre is awesomer than the tellybox, which wasn't really what I meant.

What I mean is that contemporary British theatre has to some extent 'come out the other side' in terms of colourblind casting. But I think it's unfair to call people who don't usually 'do' theatre racist for being confused over Noma Dumezweni's presence as Hermione when they have been brought up on an all-pervasive diet of naturalistic screen casting.

The one really obvious reason why Hermione is assumed to be white is that she has been aesthetically defined by being played by the white actor Emma Watson in the eight Harry Potter films. There are arguments as to why you could assume she was white for other reasons, but the fact is that if she'd been played by a black actor in the films, she would be generally assumed to be black. With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child being billed as the official new Harry Potter adventure, I think perhaps it is understandable that some folk raised on TV and films are taken aback as to the exact meaning of casting an actor who it would be difficult to pass off as an older Watson. A lot of people really fret about 'canon' and 'continuity' and I think on some level there is the worry that the casting of Noma Dumezweni somehow either invalidates the Emma Watson Hermione or – perhaps more likely – underscores the fact that Hermione is not a real person. I suspect these sort of worries are a bit like 'the spoiler' – a nagging bit of modern entertainment paranoia based upon one's anticipation of a piece of work ('what if I can't believe in this Hermione?') rather than one's actual experience of it.

Anyway, it's a great piece of casting and perhaps a really worthwhile one – if the play is good then an entire generation of folk unused to colourblind casting will see there's nothing to panic about, and a few high horses (broomsticks?) can be dismounted from on the other side, I hope.