Monthly Archives: October 2013

Pop Art Design – Barbican

The Barbican has a pretty good track record for its art gallery exhibitions. Bauhaus: Art as Life last year was my first visit, quickly followed by Everything was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s, both of which were excellent and very accessible. The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns was a bit on the pretentious side even for me; the Duchamp pieces were ok, not really to my taste, but I thought the rest was nonsense – a piece of string dropped onto a plank of wood isn’t the manifestation of chaos, it’s litter! Nonetheless hopes were high for the latest showcase, Pop Art Design, and happily it doesn’t disappoint.

This exhibition takes you back to the multi-coloured world of the 1960s where artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein influenced designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, and vice versa. So we began to see everyday objects represented as art including advertising, cartoon strips and mundane kitchen equipment, whilst the objects themselves began to take on more artistic forms. And there’s plenty to see here; painting, sculpture, furniture, film, fashion, photography and much more. The most important thing about this exhibition is that it’s fun! A sofa in the shape of giant red lips, a dress made from zipped panels that you can rearrange according to your mood, a life-sized cowboy made of cloth, a giant angle-poised lamp, a heart shaped cone chair, a giant plastic cloud light, the iconic 60s ball chair, a sewn coffee and donuts set, Warhol’s Campbell’s soup tin as a stool, a cactus coat stand and more than 200 other amazing pieces. They even show you the opening titles of From Russia with Love – can’t go wrong with a Bond reference!

This is all very convincingly put together and you can’t help but be impressed by the imagination of those featured. Not everything is explained so there’s plenty of room to interpret for yourself, and the Barbican is always very good are mixing recognisable with less famous works, so whatever your level of interest something should appeal. If you’re a fan of Pop Art then this is a must see, with plenty of overall information on the themes and interpretations; if you’re new to it then this is a cheery place to spend an autumnal afternoon. The Barbican Gallery is also a very large space, over two floors and every exhibition takes the best part of two hours to get round so it’s pretty good value for money. If you’ve never been before, I have some tips: 1) don’t leave you coat in the cloakroom, you’ll need it, it gets pretty cold after an hour; 2) sit down when you can, there are seats upstairs; 3) it’s early days so try to go late morning / lunchtime – I went in straight in around 1pm, but there was an enormous queue when I left at 3pm. The Barbican has another hit on its hand here and now I can’t wait for the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition which follows next Spring.

Pop Art Design runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 9th February 2014 and full price is £12.

Victim – BFI London Film Festival

It’s not often you get to see a film that contributed to a positive change in Britain’s law and helped to alter societal attitudes. Victim did just that. It was released in 1961, when homosexuality was still illegal and even saying the word in a film was unheard of. The story opens with a young wage clerk on a construction site running from the police who want to arrest him for stealing. He unsuccessfully tries to phone Melville Farr, a leading barrister, who refuses to take his calls. The clerk, Barrett, is arrested and we learn he stole the money because he was being blackmailed over an unconsummated romantic relationship with Farr, who he refuses to reveal to the police. Farr himself has had no contact with the blackmailers so decides to try and work out who’s behind it, encountering a number of people in Barrett’s circle suffering a similar ordeal.

It may seem like a tame mystery plot now, but the film was hugely provocative in the early 60s; America refused to show it and several actors had turned down the lead roles. The controversy was amplified by the film’s star leading matinee idol Dirk Bogarde, star of several wartime classics and the Doctor series (a tame precursor to Carry On) which had made him a much-loved actor in Britain on the cusp of a Hollywood career. He is perfectly cast as Farr managing to convey a stoical and smooth public image, whilst riven with repression, guilt and sadness in private. The scenes between Farr and his wife Laura, played by Sylvia Sym, are some of the best in the film, exploring the nature of marriage, companionship and varying forms of love which clearly exist between the couple. Laura knew of a pre-relationship Farr had with a school friend but married him anyway, and rather than a tired cliché of the wronged and unsuspecting wife, we get a very clever and sensitive portrayal of a woman who understands the world, responding with respect and dignity to her husband’s situation. The scenes between them are at times very tender, and despite Farr’s affair with another man, he clearly loves and needs his wife. It’s rare, even now, to see such complexity in similar on-screen relationships, which helps to make it all the more realistic.

Despite the reaction on release, this isn’t a sensationalist film; in fact it’s fairly gentle. The story is driven by the mystery to be solved, and is pretty traditional in its framing. The senior detective leading the case is more interested in the blackmailers than what people are being blackmailed for, which is also nicely played. You get to hear a range of contemporary views about homosexuality but it’s hardly ever preachy. It was great to see Sylvia Sym at the Q&A beforehand, irascible, belligerent and hilarious, but reinforcing how important this film was and how much she loved working on it. This was a fitting end to my film festival experience, 3 out of 4 very good films, and the chance to see something that really made a difference.

The BFI London Film Festival ended on 20th October. Victim is available to buy on the BFI website.

Parkland –BFI London Film Festival

First-time director Peter Landesman introduced this film by discussing the nature of significant moments and the ways in which they become blurred by later interpretation. The assassination of JFK, he argued, is now so awash with conspiracy theories and emotional reaction that it blinds your reaction to the actual events of November 1963. Instead it’s continually revisited in the hope that this time it will turn out differently – how could such a thing happen on a beautiful sunny day. After seeing Parkland, I was surprised by the fairly negative critical reaction, complaining about the lack of character development and a failure to tackle the longer-term implications and significance of JFK’s death. But I think they’ve missed the point.

This film covers the day of the assassination and the three after, during which time both Kennedy and his assailant Oswald both die. It carefully avoids the showpiece moments, you don’t see the shooting just the man filming it; even later when it’s developed and played back to the FBI, you see a reflection in his glasses and his pained reaction at reliving it. This cleverly underlines the purpose of the film – that it’s not the event itself which is the focus but how it begins to affect the ordinary people unexpectedly drawn into the aftermath and then forgotten. A similarly affecting scene takes place in Parkland hospital where two local doctors are suddenly taken from their patients to save Kennedy’s life – something they never imagined they’d have to do. Parkland was a training hospital, Landesman explained, and the last place you would take an American leader. When they finally stop the resuscitation, the camera pans the hospital and Presidential staff and you see how undignified the death was – not sanitised and clean, but one full of blood and trauma and grief. Everyone in the room has some of Kennedy’s blood on them which is both a neat indictment of his protection squad and a reference to how it would stain them all. Later you see one of the doctors watching the funeral on TV; a couple of days before he’d seen inside Kennedy’s body, and now watched this austere and distant ceremony thousands of miles away, as if his part in it had never happened.

Although you see a lot of stories with a small amount of screen time, the lack of character development seemed deliberate – there aren’t any big heroes or great men, just fairly anonymous people caught up for three days before going back to their lives; we’re not meant to get to know them because they could be anybody, they were involved just because they were there. This is how history happens, no predetermined dramatic story arcs, just a series of occurrences in the lives of ordinary people. The critics are wrong; in traumatic situations people just get through it and carry on – it is only much later that they have to the time to reflect on what it meant. I really enjoyed this film and the documentary style utilised Landesman’s journalistic roots nicely. The high tension of the immediate event dissipates over the ensuing days, as it would naturally, but it remained a gripping insight into the myriad consequences of ‘great’ events. The ensemble performances are great – Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Livingstone and a host of other famous faces. Zac Efron as one of the doctors is also very good, and after his supporting role in The Paperboy, he’s making an interesting and potentially successful transition from Disney to serious film, without falling into the rom-com trap. Whatever you think about the assassination of JFK in its 50th anniversary year, this was an interesting insight into its local effects, and one, I think, that makes a poignant case for stripping away the myths and taking another look at the historicisation of great events.

The BFI London Film Festival is on until 20th October and Parkland opens nationwide in November.

Adore – BFI London Film Festival

Well… this is a strange one. Adore is the story of childhood female friends who grow up together and continue to live next door in beautiful cliff edge beach houses in Australia. Lil, played by Naomi Watts, loses her husband and lives alone with her son Ian. Roz, played by Robin Wright, is married to Harold and they also have a son of an equivalent age, Tom, who is likewise Ian’s best friend. The film, based on a Doris Lessing story, gets going when the two women are 40, and decide to embark on corresponding affairs with each other’s sons (aged about 20). Yep, it’s pretty weird, and the film really doesn’t work.

What should have been an interesting premise is turned into a hugely preposterous melodrama. I’ve never seen such a negative audience reaction to a film and people laughed out loud at the clunky ridiculousness of it. The main problem is the lack of genuine emotional response to any of the events. Roz is first to succumb after a party – her husband of 20 years has recently been offered the job of lifetime in Sydney where he heads for two weeks expecting his family to follow – so because he’s not there Roz begins her affair with Lil’s son Ian. There’s no build up to this, no lingering looks or indication she’s unhappy in her marriage, in fact quite the opposite. It makes no sense. But it gets worse; Tom sees them and goes to tell Lil. You would imagine that her maternal instinct would be shocked, sickened, angry, disgusted by her friend’s predatory behaviour; she should march round there, confront her and end their friendship – right? Err… no. Naomi Watts as Lil tries to be perplexed for a second, but she’s probably wondering how her career will survive a series of rubbish films. Instead of a ‘normal’ reaction, she just starts a relationship with Tom. Two minutes later, everyone is fine with it and they just carry on. What?!!

This happens throughout the film, where you expect reactions from the characters you don’t get them. Ian and Tom both seem fine that their best friend has gone after their mum, and Roz waves goodbye to her 20 year marriage with barely a flicker. We’re supposed to believe that people would react like this and that no one in the small community would notice over a number of years. At under two hours, too many loose ends make it feel like three; events occur and are resolved so quickly it makes Downton Abbey look sluggish. There are pockets of good stuff; the acting is pretty decent and the visuals are lovely – although some of the metaphors are a bit heavy handed such as the floating platform they all swim out to – yes I get it, this is the fragile rocky little world they’re creating. Even if you can accept the son-swapping, it needed to be more human and more dramatic; perhaps one couple who genuinely fall for each other, and the other out for revenge exploring how this tears the various inter-relationships apart. Fortunately (for them), none of the people involved turned up to talk about the film so we left with no idea why they’d bothered to make it. On the plus side I did see Albert Finney in Tesco Piccadilly beforehand, so not an entirely wasted day.

 The BFI London Film Festival is on until 20th October.

Doll & Em – BFI London Film Festival

A couple of months ago the BFI’s London Film Festival 100 page catalogue dropped through my door, and I was actually surprised by how many films are on over the next couple of weeks. I’ve always been vaguely aware of the festival but somehow it’s always passed me by. But having an old fashioned brochure in my hand made me stop and read it…half an hour later I’d identified about 10 films I wanted to see, although I eventually rationed myself to 4.

My first ever visit to the film festival wasn’t really a film at all; Doll & Em is a six-part show due to air on Sky Living sometime in 2014 but here we got to see it back to back – essentially a box-set night with a hundred or so total strangers in a central London cinema. With so many films and venues, I wasn’t expecting much festivity at 6pm on a Thursday night but it turned out to be quite an occasion. Not only was there an unadvertised introduction and Q&A with leads, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells plus director, but there were a few other actors dotted about the audience – notably Jonathan Cake who will be familiar from Poirot, many a period drama and lately Desperate Housewives. I also ended up sitting in front of Emily Mortimer’s enthusiastic entourage so it was quite a starry evening with a definitely sense of occasion.

The show itself is set in LA, a scripted improvisation following the story of film star Em who hires her best and oldest friend Doll to be her assistant after her UK life implodes. Em is making a film but Doll becomes more popular, and in each episode their relationship is tested on set, at parties and at home. Seeing all six shows worked really well in the cinema, showing the nuances of female friendships and the mini jealousies, betrayals and tender moments that will be familiar to everyone. This type of fly-on-the-wall tragi-comedy has roots in The Office and to some extent Extras, with the odd cameo for stars like Susan Sarandon and John Cusack. They probably won’t thank me for saying this but you could see it as an inverted version of Made in Chelsea or TOWIE, but done by people who can write and act convincingly, with plausible storylines.  It drew you in, showing multiple sides to a long and very ordinary friendship in a slightly unreal situation. So my first visit to the Film Festival was pretty exciting, and with more films to come, I’m definitely looking forward to what the next one will bring.

The BFI London Film Festival is on until 20th October. Doll & Em is expected on Sky Living in February.

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