Monthly Archives: October 2014

Horst: Photographer of Style – V&A

The V&A has had plenty of blockbuster exhibitions in the last few years, tapping into the popularity of celebrity figures such as Kylie and David Bowie, as well as a love of Hollywood costumes and haute couture.  These exhibitions have all been big and shiny with tons of interesting items, but – and this is a huge but – they have been badly curated with next to no information on the pieces or the thematic structure. Of course it’s all in the expensive guide available in the shop, not that this helps you in the exhibition. And sadly this has become a common tactic in big London galleries, forcing you to pay more if you want to understand what you see.

It was with some trepidation therefore that I went to their new show of Vogue photographs by Horst P. Horst, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is a carefully planned exhibition which manages to be both roughly thematic and chronological, giving you a sense of how Horst developed as a photographer, as well as showing how he reflected changing attitudes and styles in his work. It begins in the 1930s with formally posed models pictured in backdrops reminiscent of classical styles alluding to ancient Greece or Rome.

Horst was incredibly skilled at creating mood in his work, cleverly composing scenes like a painter, using light and shade to infer a sense of drama beyond that shot – as though the statuesque subject is in the midst of a wider story. It’s an interesting contrast between the somewhat unnatural pose and the narrative being created around it. At the end of this first room are examples of designer dresses from famous fashion-houses, not immediately relevant to Horst’s pictures, but gives an interesting sense of the groups he worked with and the glamour / femininity of the time. And any excuse for the V&A to showcase its extensive fashion collection is always welcome.

In the second set of rooms we see Horst experimenting with technique by layering images over one another to create surreal visions. He also looks beyond the surface glamour to photograph models undergoing various beauty treatments simultaneously, so they are covered in creams while attached to numerous electrical devices to primp and perfect.  You also see him retouching shots including the famous woman in corset (Mainbocher Corset) to change both the lighting and the fit. Alongside this, Horst retained his reputation for glamour by photographing some of the leading celebrities of the 40s and 50s including screen sirens Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

After the war, Horst began to explore different subjects and the exhibition includes his travel photography from the Middle East showing ancient monuments, artefacts and views, as well as his love of the natural world. This section shows a number of collages created from a single image printed over and over, and placed together at different angels to create larger symmetrical patterns. Throughout the exhibition you’re given a clear idea of how many of the images were altered for publication, showing that retouching is by no means a 21st-century phenomenon.

Most of this exhibition is in black and white, so when you walk into one of the final rooms the boldness of the colours is even more striking. This is filled with rarely-seen large-scale prints which burst with energy and pose an interesting contrast to the more statuesque formality of Horst’s black and white work. Some of these you’ll have seen on the posters – the girl balancing a beach ball on her feet, another fixing her lipstick – but there are many more which beautifully capture Horst’s technique of playing with shadow all the while emphasising the glamour of his subject; be it the fashion or the model.

Overall this is a nicely curated exhibition and in keeping with other such retrospectives, including the Portrait Gallery’s David Bailey show earlier in the year, where we learn as much about the photographer as we do about changing taste in the twentieth-century. Part of the reason for its success is the approach to Horst’s work here covering its many elements and his willingness to experiment. As for the V&A’s disappointing record of late, well I’m not ready to entirely forgive them just yet, but let’s say this is a great first step on the road to recovery.

Horst: Photographer of Style is at the V&A until 4 January. Tickets start at £9 with concessions at £6 and £7.

Serena – London Film Festival

Do not watch this film, I really need to say that right up front because the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it is, and the more cheated I feel by its inclusion in the Festival programme. Admittedly I did quite well this year, saw 6 and was only disappointed by 2 (so there will be 3 more good reviews in coming weeks), but with more than 250 films on offer you start to wonder how decisions are made on the selected films and whether the organisers have actually seen everything they recommend. No one could have thought Serena good enough, so its presence in a high arts festival can only be a cynical ploy to obtain associate credibility.

Serena is the story of timber plantation owners in North Carolina during the depression-era starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper playing Serena and George Pemberton. Among the multiple plots, George has fathered a child with a local woman prior to his marriage but doesn’t care until Serena loses their unborn baby and is rendered barren and barmy as a result. Serena also couldn’t care less until she discovers he’s been sending money to the mother and harbouring a photograph in a locked drawer. Running alongside this, George is involved in some kind of unexplained fraud and if anyone sees his account books he’ll go to prison, so first of all he shoots his long-term business partner, who incidentally hates Serena, on a hunting trip while everyone’s looking for a Panther, as you do.

But it’s not over, in a third plot the local mayor played by Toby Jones is trying to get Pemberton’s land for something and uses an insider named Campbell (Sean Harris) to steal the account books, although 5 minutes before Campbell was perfectly loyal and helping Pemberton cover-up the murder. Story number four is about another plantation worker, Galloway (Rhys Ifans) who comes under Serena’s thrall impressed by her ability to tame an eagle and cut into trees in the right spot – who wouldn’t fall in love with someone who could do that?! Anyway, she then uses him as some kind of one-armed hitman and sends him to murder Pemberton’s child, ex-lover and anyone else who stands in the way. And sorry to spoil this for you but as I’ve suggested you don’t watch it won’t matter, in the end they thankfully all die as did my own will to live.

These intermingled plots on their own are so ridiculous none of them could carry the film but with so much thrown in, it’s impossible to understand anything. The characters have almost no depth and sad to say with such a cast, even the acting is pretty flat. It must have had a significant budget but the town looks like a set and not where people actually might have lived, and the actors have nothing to do but look perturbed and moody, as I would if I’d found myself in the middle of this load of nonsense. The festival catalogue describes Serena herself as Pemberton’s ‘ruthless, brilliant wife’ and Lawrence’s performance as ‘a treat, playing Serena with an evil eye Bette Davis might have envied.’ So I was expecting Dynasty meets Giant timber farming epic with a manipulative and cold-hearted woman calling the shots, what I got was a series of weak plots centred around a character who just looked hurt for most of the film. This is no Bette Davis movie and that comparison is an insult. Do I have anything good to say about it….err… Jennifer Lawrence had nice hair throughout.

There are probably about 500 ways to improve this film, but I have two main suggestions; first Serena is bad, she arrives on the plantation immediately gets everyone’s backs up and starts throwing her weight around. George can’t see it because he’s besotted with her and allows her to take charge. Maybe she cheats, manipulates, fires people and even a murder if you must, but ultimately the plantation becomes a huge success putting pay to any local attempts to force them out. Option 2, Serena is bad, she does all of the above but George kills his partner or gets arrested for fraud, and Serena has to step in to run it without him. The twist is she never loved him and secretly works to get him arrested / hanged so she can run things alone. But sadly neither of these things happened and 102 minutes of film are wasted – and even worse that hundred minutes felt like three and countless people walked out!

Serena is a very bad film indeed and I urge you not to watch it. It’s going to get a general release because it has two respected big name stars and probably a lot of money to claw back, but don’t help them. Apparently this sat on a shelf for two years and there is no question at all that it should have stayed there rather than take the place of another movie at the London Film Festival. Three messages come out of this; 1) Organisers of London Film Festival please stop making all the films in the programme sound amazing, it just annoys us when they’re utter pap; 2) Toby Jones, Sean Harris, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Lawrence and even Bradley Cooper, you are all so much better than this so dust yourselves off and don’t look back; 3) to anyone planning to see this film, trust me just don’t, save your money and your time – put on your DVD of American Hustle instead, now that’s a great film!

Serena is scheduled to go on UK release on 24 October but really don’t bother. Look out for 3 further London Film Festival reviews on Cultural Capital in the coming weeks.

The Silent Storm – London Film Festival

There are a rare few actors who I trust not only to deliver high-quality performances every time but whose careful judgement consistently selects projects that I will like. So with almost no thought at all, I can go to the cinema and be assured that whatever is screened I will enjoy. But there are lots more great actors who do a good job in a so-so or poor film.  There are a lot of reasons for that, sometimes good concepts just don’t translate to film, or projects are selected based on family commitments, availability or need to pay the mortgage. So whilst I think very highly of them as performers, I can’t always trust their taste.

Damien Lewis falls into this latter category, an actor whose ability can often be above the quality of the material he’s given and The Silent Storm is his latest offering written and directed by Corinne McFarlane. It’s the story of an extreme preacher, Balor, supporting a mining community on a remote Scottish Island before World War II, and his relationship with wife Aislin, locked into domestic slavery by her husband’s views. As the mine closes and the inhabitants migrate to the mainland, Fionn arrives at the preacher’s house to carry-out a form of community service, and needless to say a chaste affair with the entrapped Aislin ensues.

At best this is a really mixed bag, and at worst a total mess. Starting with the positives, the acting performances of the three leads are excellent even if the characterisation is ropey at times; Lewis is very impressive as the tightly wound Balor, utterly convincing as a zealot imposing his views on his community. He acts in a kind of frenzy which is compelling to watch, especially when pulling down his kirk by hand to rebuild it on the mainland – a sort of reverse idea to William Golding’s The Spire, but equally foolhardy. I loved how bleak the film felt in his presence and how much warmer it was when absent. Andrea Riseborough is also notable as the initially meek and cowering Aislin and new-comer Ross Anderson as Fionn is very engaging.

The scenes between Lewis and Riseborough are often tense and compelling so it’s a huge shame that somehow the plot just doesn’t deliver. It’s a rather hackneyed love triangle, with Lewis’s character conveniently disappearing mid-film to allow the others to spend time alone. In a manner that would make Beyonce’s head spin in less than five days Aislin goes from obedient wife to independent woman. Not forgetting that this is all set in the 1930s where of course women were free to run away from their husbands, get divorced and experience a near hippy lifestyle with their young lovers – good grasp of period detail there!

The cinematography is beautiful but it’s so often used to detract from a load of nonsense elsewhere – a prime example being Adore from last year’s festival which was utter garbage. There are some good ideas about God in Church and God in Nature, which although rather obviously drawn out, are quite interesting themes and potential insights into the husband and wife. There is so much in that relationship that could be explored and this is the huge missed opportunity of the film. Aislin is obedient but in Riseborough’s excellent performance, she is afraid of him yet still drawn to him.

I’m also going to say something quite shocking now so you may want to get a strong cup of tea and come back later – what if we brush the cliché aside, and Aislin and Fionn become friends, just friends. I know a man and a woman just being friends is an outrageous suggestion but that would have been more likely in this context. The director’s stated purpose is to make a point about the subjugation of women but having Aislin embark on an affair means she is entirely defined by her relationships with men, rather than having an ending either where she seeks complete independence or develops a more balanced relationship with her husband.

The plot and the characterisation aren’t well executed here as a result of a number of poor decisions. An interesting, bleak tone is later betrayed by a ridiculous happy fairy-tale-like ending that just doesn’t suit it, and the inclusion of a scene where Aislin and Fionn drug themselves and wander about the meadows is utterly ridiculous and misjudged. It probably all looked a lot better on paper, and I suspect that explains the support of Bond supremo producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson. I don’t agree with another viewer leaving the cinema who described it as ‘shockingly awful’, it’s not – the acting is superb and there are great elements, just not enough to make this worthwhile. It feels as though this film started with an agenda and wrapped the story around it, and that guides it away from better exploring the human relationships and extremities of character that should have been its focus. So next time one of your favourite actors has something coming up, best ask yourself, how much do you trust them?

The Silent Storm may well get a wider cinema release if only to pay the cinematographer. To explore the Film Festival programme, visit the website  and tickets are still available until Sunday when the Festival ends, but look out for further film reviews from the programme on Cultural Capital in the coming weeks.

Night Bus – London Film Festival

Ahh the night bus – a form of transport notoriously familiar to any Londoner out after-hours. We’ve all enjoyed / endured it at some point, and some do so regularly to get home, to get to work or to the next party. Perhaps no other time or place in our city provides that extraordinary combination of drunk people and workers, lunatics and culture lovers, snogging couples and the bewildered. Those night bus CCTV cameras have seen it all – the rows, the laughter, the vomit, the tears – in other words, the perfect setting for this beautifully constructed new film written and directed by Simon Baker taking the viewer for a drive through the streets of East London and the lives of the various people who board.

Using guided improvisation, this film draws you into the problems of almost all the people on the bus, flipping between the upper and lower decks, and occasionally overlaying stories to give the sense of the conversations happening simultaneously. There’s the teenage boys playing their music, the girls discussing their father’s ill-health, the weary male co-workers complaining about their office, a man slating his wife’s friends after a night at the cinema, the divorcee desperate to see his children and a collection of the weird, wonderful and lonely as they embark on their journey. One of the key achievements of this film is feeling quickly drawn into all their lives and even though you may only see these people for a few minutes, they all feel completely rounded and entirely natural.

It is a comedy that delivers some great laugh out loud moments and more than a few wry smiles, but as with the best humour, it is tinged with poignancy that never feels overblown or unlikely, just people silently suffering in a public space. Cleverly Baker doesn’t feel the need to have dramatic things happen to guide the story – Keanu Reeves doesn’t unearth any bus-bombs needing to stay above 50 mph, which is a big relief given the traffic in London most days doesn’t allow you to move above 50 miles a week – it just cleverly allows all the lives taking place in the double-decker to be the focus. It’s small and contained and very nicely accomplished.

Eventually the driver himself gets a bit of a starring role, fending off angry and lost people in a great montage sequence ending brilliantly with one drunk lad wanting to chat about the world while the increasingly exasperated driver tries to leave the bus stop. It’s not only the story that’s impressive, the music, a brassy jazz score, is reminiscent of the incidental music in Alfie and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which gives this film a great London connection. You may never have imagined a bus was pretty but the external cinematography  by Dominic Bartels has some lovely shots of the rain soaked bus and road ahead with coloured lights of the passing streets reflected in the windows and puddles. The colours here too reminded me a little of the bold block shades used by Danny Boyle in Trance, another movie in which we see a very different presentation of London.

Night Bus received its world premiere at the London Film Festival and the director talked modestly about the process of constructing this really engaging and enjoyable film. The decision to include a couple of instances where we loop back in time and rehear part of a conversation before focusing on someone else is a good one, and apparently a previous edit took out more of these for looking a bit too clever. There’s also one example of internal monologue towards the end which some may think out of kilter with the tone of the rest, but I think it helped to begin the process of conclusion. You don’t see the bus journey end; it just goes on perpetually, which if you’ve ever been on a night bus feels pretty realistic! It has a limited cinema release but if there’s a chance to catch it either now or on DVD then you really should. Films at the festival can be hit and miss but Night Bus has certainly set the standard for the rest of the week. And no doubt a lot of people were still discussing its merits on the bus home.

Sadly the two other performances of Night Bus are sold out but look out for potential showings in London cinemas and on DVD. Tickets are still available for other films in the Festival and to explore the programme, visit the website.

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age – Barbican

Do we ever really look at the buildings around us? Maybe in the big cities, and particularly in London where you’re tripping over heritage sites every few meters but what about all those other buildings which architects have designed as office spaces, suburban homes or even farmsteads? Time, planning and considerable amounts of money have gone into them, they may not be obviously pretty but for the vast majority of buildings architecture has a functional purpose which this new exhibition at the Barbican explores. Photographs of buildings may not sound that riveting but this is an insightful and nicely curated exploration of developments since the 1930s using examples from around the world.

One thing that very clearly emerges from this exhibition is the idea of architectural intent and how often this differs from the ultimate purpose of the building they designed. There are two very good examples of this, first in the pictures of Guy Tillim showing the decaying remnants of buildings in Africa which is now used as accommodation. These places, built in a spirit of optimism have fallen into near ruin, and though once clearly beautiful are now crumbling, covered in weeds and the washing of their new inhabitants. Similarly the photos of Iwan Baan in Venezuela show a building that was never completed and eventually became the home of a huge number of poor families squatting in the empty structure. This place built as a monument to modernity and progress had become a regular part of the slum conditions of the area. The purpose and enthusiasm for which things are created can often be radically altered once their original use fades or is overridden.

Another interesting aspect of this exhibition is the contrast between rural and urban building concepts. Perhaps the most obvious historic example of the very epitome of architectural progress is the 1930s construction of New York and the work of Berenice Abbott is a fascinating exposition of this process. We see that contrast of old and new, as skyscrapers or modernist homes go up next to old brownstones, and there’s some fascinating shots of rubble sites or old streets with shiny new buildings in the background behind them. A great contrast to this in the next section is the contemporaneous Walker Evans pictures of life in rural Louisiana – farmhouses and shacks as well as the people living in them. They show a life of hard work, poverty and tough conditions that seem grindingly permanent and so far removed from the hope and progress in the photos of New York.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of this show are in the upper gallery – Ed Ruscha’s aerial images of American car parks and a wall of German water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher. That sounds pretty dull I know but I haven’t gone entirely mad; the semi-empty car parks actually make for some interesting patterns, both in how they’re arranged around important sites like sports stadia and in the interlocking arrangement of lines and boxes. Similarly the water towers which are displayed together in a unit show the enormous regional diversity in architectural styles and preferences, from art deco influenced minimalist shapes to fairy-tale like castle turrets. Probably more than any part of the exhibition these two photographers exemplify that notion of hidden architecture, the stuff we pass every day without a moment’s thought.

Of course this exhibition is about more than the buildings it’s also about the photography and there are some beautifully captured images including Simon Norfolk’s studies of regeneration in Afghanistan where elaborate cartoon-like structures are appearing. One of a garden looks almost like a painting where the approach with which the individual leaves have been shot looking not dissimilar to the way Constable might have painted them. There’s Julius Shulman’s magazine-shoot of California hill-side homes that are exactly as Hockney depicted them, but the most stunning are saved for the end; Nadav Kandar’s large scale shots of riverside China are beautiful and show local people engaged in traditional pursuits that could come from any era, like fishing, bathing or picking, whilst hazily captured enormous bridges and buildings are being built in the background. The somewhat timeless quality of the people makes an interesting juxtaposition with the modernity appearing around them, and takes you right back to those Berenice Abbott pictures of New York in the first room.

There are a couple of things that don’t work that well; it’s clear how architectural taste and styles develop but we don’t see so much on how the photography of it has changed, and given this is specifically meant to be an exhibition of architectural photography it would be interesting to understand more about the things these artists look for in a subject. This is especially true in the formal partnerships of particular photographers and architects – what is it that the one continuously finds inspiring about the other. There is also a greater focus on American than anywhere else and it seems a shame given the Barbican location not to use this as inspiration to showcase more UK work. There are 18 artists on show and London has had its fair share of controversial buildings that have been repurposed, the Millennium Dome for one, so it may have been interesting to give just one room a local flavour. Nonetheless Constructing Worlds is a fascinating journey across the 20th and 21st centuries, from car-parks to skyscrapers, showing just how broad architectural work is and how the plans and hopes for new buildings often become something quite different in practice.

Constructing Worlds: Photography & Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican until 11 January 2015. Tickets cost £12 with good concessions available.

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