Friday, March 28, 2008

The birth of the cool...?

I've been thinking about cool, where did it come from? The concept is such a ubiquitous one in the world today, it's difficult to imagine society without it. I know it's a somewhat overused and vague term, my definition is the desire to dress and behave in a way that inspires admiration and emulation in others, a certain grace, ease and poise that find their opposite in those ill dressed, awkward, clumsy and extremely self conscious. Of course cool does require an element of being self conscious but in an unselfconscious way. The aim is to give oneself an unconcerned air so that whatever one does appears effortless and natural. Cool itself really couldn't exist without its antithetical polar opposite uncool, which I define as already mentioned. If everyday people fall over, drop things, wear badly fitting, clashing clothes then those few that are cool do not, or at least so it appears.

It is obvious that this idea complex has made heavy inroads into modern society and underpins many cultural enclaves. For instance what would the music business be without the musicians who seem to embody cool and thus provide icons and role models for the rest of us whilst ensuring there will always be a supply of new blood as people constantly try to enter that world and try their luck? So much so that many people don't even bother with the musical side of things, preferring to live the rock and roll lifestyle rather than concentrating on the original heart of it all, creating good, heartfelt music that speaks to people on a basal level. Or how about the film industry with the glamour of global fame, once again subject to the issue of style over substance? Witness the number of films made with enormous budgets that simply reuse old ideas without any attempt to contribute anything artistically new. In fact there appears to be a tacit agreement between cinema goers and the big studios, one keeps on churning out unoriginal films and the other continues to watch them. But people continue to travel to Hollywood looking to get involved in the whole lifestyle, hoping they will be spotted or discovered. Getting away from myself a bit here, the point is that when we look at many pockets of culture we find this concept of cool as a central element.

This aspirational aspect, a striving to become more like the chosen role model of cool, is key and has been greatly aided in its ascendance by the proliferation and cross contamination of mass media during the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1800s actors, such as Dame Ellen Terry, became held in high esteem by a large section of the public due to media that could inform a greater number of people about their activities. This emergent characteristic continued into the 20th century and as cinema became a global phenomenon silent movie idols such as Clara Bow, Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin appeared in concert with magazines such as 'Photoplay' and 'Motion Picture' to cater for the public's desire to know more about them. Without wanting to go into too much detail it is an easy matter to trace the increasing pervasiveness of celebrity culture through the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Of course this deviates somewhat from the idea of untouchable and ineffable cool as comparing those early star magazines to today's celebrity gossip sheets we can see a much more intrusive attitude to cool watching. This is partly due to attempts to up the ante from the point of view of maintaining readerships and/or viewing figures but is also a natural by product of such intense curiosity or perhaps we should realistically say obsession with cool watching. After all if the normal members of society aspire to cool then they would naturally want as many pointers to how to behave as possible, thus leading to a demand for insights into all aspects of these celebrities lives. This of course becomes a system web whose each move influences the other, that of the media, the public and the admired stars.

However to come back to more mundane issues at an everyday level, most people have likely felt embarrassed at tripping over in public view, coming out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to their shoe or countless other faux pas. It is partly the wish to be above such things, which of course is impossible and is really just a function of believing in an airbrushed version of reality that doesn't exist, that leads to idolising the purveyors of cool. By now this process has come full circle as the media intrudes so much into the lives of the cool that we see them showing their embarrassing sides on a regular basis. But this has now become aspirational in itself so giving these formerly embarrassing activities an air of legitimacy. My initial thought was not though to analyse the cult of celebrity but more about from where the spark for the cool/uncool polarity comes.

It seems to me that a fairly good explanation comes by looking at the behaviours of the other members of the animal kingdom. As with so many human activities an examination of animal behavioural strategies provides a starting point from which to extrapolate the tangents consequently pursued in human social activities. In this case the necessity of some kind of signaling behaviour facilitating the maintenance of hierarchical group structure. Put simply the male or female in charge needs a way of indicating this to his or her subordinates. Such displays are usually eminently distinguishable often at a distance. So visual or aural displays are the most common. These include brightly coloured, prominently displayed feather or scale patterns in birds and reptiles, coloured or striped flesh patches that can be displayed when needed to assert dominance in mammals, or the more permanent signs of potency such as the silver haired backs of dominant male gorillas. All these and more have been seen numerous times in wildlife documentaries and even visits to the zoo. In human society these assertions of dominance have been subject to a certain amount of disassociation from their original purpose, this abstraction is an inevitable consequence of the amount of variation in human social relations. However we can still make comparisons of the elements involved.

In terms of appearance the forms adopted seem to be opposites, either overstated and flamboyant or aggressively understated. However they both reflect a significant deviation from the normal by either standing out or blending in. In a similar way dominant animals will adopt an apparently unconcerned demeanour, after all they are supposed to be above the petty power play of animals at the lower echelons of the hierarchy, until the need to defend their position arises in which case they must quickly and effectively show their muscle and prove they are in control. This generally unconcerned, relaxed and assured nature is most important as it shows the animal to be at ease, though of course that environment in humans is less one of physical competition, at least in the areas which I am concerned with, and more one of showing dominance by firm body language.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

I wish this milkwoman WOULD deliver my milk, in the morning!

I'm going to attempt to write about a film called "The Milkwoman" directed by Ogata Akira that I saw earlier this evening. I had so many thoughts about it I don't think I'll get them all in. It tells the story of the suppressed love between two middle aged people who briefly dated at school. But these are just the bones on which hangs a slow moving meditation on life, illness, frailty, the passing of time and human interaction. Living their lives separately despite living in close proximity there are a number of occasions where their paths regularly cross, such as the morning milk delivery or the milkwoman's journey to work at her second job at the supermarket "S-Mart" on her bike, passing as she does the man, Takanashi, waiting at the bus stop.
Two other major characters are that of the aunt and uncle of the milkwoman Minako. The aunt is caring for her husband, a former English professor, who is slipping into dementia. She also partly tells the story as she is writing about what she sees in Minako's life. A particularly affecting sequence represents the uncle in a confused state rushing around the house as the day passes. There is a local legend of a hungry boy called the curry boy who roams the streets with a spoon sniffing out tasty curries to eat. This character has wormed its way into the uncle's mind and he sees the child and seems almost to take on the role of the child as his dementia worsens and he regresses and words slip away from him.
This story strand runs parallel to Takanashi's whose wife is terminally ill and who takes care of her at home and works for the council. His wife says at the beginning of the film that she feels he is just trying to get through each day as easily as possible and she eventually realises the existence of a connection between Takanashi and Minako and tries to persuade them to get together when she is gone. Takanashi begins to get involved in a social services case relating to two young boys neglected by their mother. This seems to be an outlet of sorts for all the emotions he has been bottling up for so long.
The subject of time passing and what makes up those years is a strong element with the aunt saying at one point of her husband that she doesn't want to write about her life with him but to know what goes on inside his head. There is a definite feeling of place too, the city of Saito looks a beautiful place nestled in mountains and surrounded by forest. It is built over several hills and the stepped paths between the houses are a regular haunt of Minako as she traverses them on her milk delivery route. It is wonderful to see her get up before it is light and cycle her way down to the milkman's store. Of course I would say that as those dawn and dusk times are my favourites for still and moving images.
The supermarket "S-Mart" is a great location too, it's fantastic to see the details of their uniforms, natty blue coats, and the aisles packed with food. There is a little minor drama there too with two other checkout women, one a gossip who always seems to be eating the produce and looks like a Japanese Joan Rivers, and a younger girl who we hear has a young child. She has been having a fling with the manager which provides some comedy but also links in to the subject matter of the rest of the film. She talks to Minako about living alone and its obvious she can't cope with that and is looking for some kind of companionship. Minako's advice? Tire yourself out during the day and you'll be fine.
All together the film feels very solid, the people and their environs hold a weight which will hopefully sit in my memory (sadly I think it will be difficult to get hold of a DVD but I'd love to watch it again). So I think with the inaugural film in a season supposed to give a picture of contemporary Japanese people they have done a good job. Not only seeing the city itself but people's houses too with their things lying around in a haphazard way, papers, books, kitchen utensils. Generally the camera is pretty static but on a few occasions it takes to the ground and moves in a handheld manner, a couple of sequences with Minako exerting herself to a soundtrack of her laboured breathing spring to mind. Also the camera becomes wonderfully free floating and de-centred at a point of realisation and certain resolution, preceding a torrential rainstorm.

Monday, February 11, 2008


I've just come back from Sweden. Ten days, but it feels like longer. Though as always with the familiar one quickly settles back into such places. But returning I didn't feel any upwelling of sentiment or emotion for being back in Bristol. That's not to say that I don't like the place. Or that I haven't had many good times here. I hope to in the future too. But a car driving past me on my way back to the house contained someone shouting loudly, let's use proclaiming, "I'm back, I'm back!". Now I don't know if this was really someone returning after a long journey away, but the event seemed to represent to me the difference in a lot of people's attitude to home, their strong attachment to it and reluctance to leave, and my lack of those feelings. I can find good things about the places I've lived, but none with enough that makes me feel as if I want to stay, to "put down roots". I don't know what that says about me or my environs. Maybe I'm just not ready yet to settle down, maybe I like new experiences too much, maybe I get bored easily. What it does tell me is I need to get out more. Out of the city, out of the country. See new things. Motion towards that is also motion away. Enough for now.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Hedging your bets with bulletproof vests

I've just watched a film called Flandres by Bruno Dumont and aside from making me want to talk French with somebody it made me think of neo-realism and cinéma vérité. It feels very real in terms of lighting, sound and overall atmosphere. There is no music, and I mean no music even on the radio, and we can feel the weather by the light onscreen, the dull overcast grey day or the warmth of soft orange sunlight on a brick porch wall. It begins slowly showing the seemingly almost deserted farm where Demester works. The environment is illustrated with wide shots of him walking across the fields, a feeling of fertile yet empty space. This is embellished by close up details of activities, sharpening a stick to place a snare, washing a bowl in the sink; all this in intricately depicted surroundings, the piles of washing up and junk on the kitchen surfaces, the tools lying outside the farm on the cobbles. It seems like this isn't even set dressing, these are simply real locations as they are. A brief scene in a country pub with a vieillard tentatively playing a note or two on an accordion whilst fags are smoked and doused before going out into the frigid car park feels achingly true. It's also a key moment as it sets up the love triangle between Demester, Barbe and Blondel, a guy she meets in the pub then fucks in his car scant minutes later. In contrast the swift couplings between Demester and Barbe in the corners of fields of grey sticky mud and straw seem tender and loving, albeit without either being able to really express these feelings to each other or even themselves.
The film moves on as the two guys plus a third "friend" Mordacq join the army along with it seems most of the young male population of the area. After the portrayal of the place in which they live it seems almost understandable that they should be eager to escape to another environment. Though eager is perhaps too strong a word, apathy is what pervades the actions and interactions of the people here. Having grown up in the countryside, not as bleak as this however, I can well understand the behaviours of the characters. Barbe's sexual antics for instance are something different than the normal activities of others around, even if not conducted with much vigour. However once one begins a certain practice it is quite easy to fall into the habit of it and so it feels with Barbe, the potential escape has become a trap. Meanwhile the guys are in an unspecified desert conflict zone, Tunisia if you wait til the end credits, that's bleak and beautiful in a similar way to the landscape of Flanders back home, and are put through the wringer in a series of external and self inflicted horrific occurrences that begin almost arbitrarily but possess a definite causality that eventually leads us back to Flanders at the end of the film. As we follow the guys abroad and Barbe back home the cuts between the locations start off long and become quicker approaching the end.
To me the film seemed really to be about Flanders despite the desert combat scenes, this place was not so well realised and seemed to be a stage on which to make comment about arbitrary violence experienced by soldiers. Of course with French soldiers against Arabs there are echoes of Algiers and French colonialism as well as the more recent "war on rational thought" sorry "terror". But the film is shot in Bailleul which is where Dumont was born close the the French/Belgian border and it seems to me he is invoking memories of his childhood in bringing the place to life such is the feel of it as a viewer. However having mentioned neo-realism its worth remembering that its realism not reality. It feels very real but even de Sica made concessions to creating a film rather than a documentary. With this film though I think the pleasure lies not a well structured emotive screenplay but in the accurate evocation of a place that conceals its own beauty beneath a bleak and harsh exterior. The flicker of dying embers against a dusk sky, the flurry of birds in the hedgerow, the icy cold of winter giving way to the treacle sunlight of spring.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Forking Paths

Lately I find myself unexpectedly reading a brace of books about homosexuality and sexual experimentation. Both also have strands of unreality and dream imagery running through them. They are "Dorian AN IMITATION" by Will Self and "Lost Girls" a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. Dorian is a re-imagination of the Oscar Wilde story about a man who keeps his youth whilst a picture of him ages in his stead. It is set across the 80s and 90s as the gay sub culture blossoms and goes overground, across this backdrop the titular Dorian debauches his way whilst various friends and acquaintances discuss his increasingly nefarious activities. Meanwhile "Lost Girls" is a story of three famous fictional girls, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Wendy from Peter Pan and Alice from Alice in Wonderland, imagined as real women all affected by some traumatic sexual experience in their childhood meeting by chance in a grand European hotel and discovering their similarities and strange connection. It is beautifully illustrated in what looks like coloured pencil by Melinda Gebbie, the images are soft and delicate with a wonderful flowing texture allowing them to seem at times realistic but always allowing for them to flow seamlessly into representations of unreality through dreams, or drug induced states.

In fact dream and drugs play a large part in both these works, it's probably why I like them both so much given my fascination with blurring the boundaries between reality and unreality. Both stories have a certain ambiguity to them, (have events that are described happened, half happened?) in fact it's really about what the flow of events represent as metaphor. In the case of Dorian they create a selective and distorted catalogue of place and time, one gets a snapshot of certain 'scenes' associated with geographical and temporal locations. An example is the burgeoning UK gay scene in the early 80s with its initially innocent yet idolatrous perception of beauty hearkening back to those Classical conceptions of male beauty embodied by Baz Hallward's video installation featuring a nude Dorian, Cathode Narcissus. This period provides the starting point for a journey that describes the transition from an unsullied youth, admittedly self-obsessed as alluded to by the title of Hallward's installation (which also prefigures Dorian's cruelty to the infatuated Hallward and his many future sexual partners), into a character increasingly set free from the confines of conventional morality. Another example is the more physically vigorous, dangerous and experimental NY club scene, characterised in the novel by roughhousing and sadistic and masochistic practices in a memorable descent into the bowels of a lubricated, writhing warehouse club recalling Dante or Bosch and culminating in an ambiguous murder.

In Lost Girls the central location is the Himmelgarten hotel in Austria, as its name suggests it provides a sanctuary from the censure and restrictions of the wider world outside and a place in which Alice acts as a kind of tutor and mentor, first to Dorothy then with her help to Wendy, in sexual awakening which lies not only in the physical world but also that of the imagination. The story moves ahead punctuated by numerous fantastic sequences representing the release of those dreams and desires of the characters that have been suppressed by propriety or repressed by time and the conscious mind. Often these sequences are paralleled visually with events in the real world to illustrate the daydreams of the protagonists. A prime example are the exchanges between Wendy Potter and her dull engineer husband. Their 'conversations' take the form of Mr Potter expounding his views on the denizens of the hotel or bridge construction whilst Wendy tidies up or sits engaged in needlepoint. Visually though we see the imagined sex life of the couple that appears to have in reality gone unconsummated. At one point a rolled up sheaf of papers memorably becomes an erect member fully exploited to elicit pleasure from Wendy and for her husband too. Dorothy is introduced to opium by Alice and this precipitates a hallucinatory lesbian encounter between the two. There is also a trip to the theatre that results in a sexual encounter between the three women that may be part dream paralleling the scandalous performance on stage, a dance culminating in a virgin sacrifice on stage and a riot in the stalls.

Both books deal with a liberation from the rules of society, in the first the increasing hedonism of a sub cultural milieu provides a smokescreen for Dorian's even more extreme behaviour whilst the second feels more like a safe haven for the women to set themselves free from the societal straitjacket in which they had been placed. Dorian could to some degree be considered to be a metaphor for the spread of HIV and AIDs but I think this is too unsubtle to be a very important part of the character, especially since the association is mentioned several times by his friends. Having said this the disease does feature prominently in the novel, the topic couldn't really be avoided given the period and subject matter, and adds to the sense of slow and morbid decay. In a way the two books could be seen as opposites of one another, the sloughing off of conventions being a path to darkness and obsession in the first case and to a feeling of life, light and invigoration in the other. It must just be a coincidence that a cast of mainly men populate the dark side and women the light though surely? Also that I have just watched "Grizzly Man" this evening, a troubled man leaving behind society and getting eaten in the process?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Art of Life

I have just watched "The Science of Sleep" by Michel Gondry. I really enjoyed it, it was funny and magical and ultimately quite sad. I think I empathised with the whole situation partly as a bit of a daydreamer/fantasist and also because it's really about the problems everyone has with relationships. Whether it's commitment or jealousy, high standards or over attachment there are always repeating behaviour patterns, the word pathology is mentioned in the film, that cause hang ups. Some people are very aware of these, others have little knowledge of their unconscious actions. Obvious or not those it's incredibly difficult to change these behavioural habits and time and again we keep falling into cycles. The same happens with family groups in just as intense a way. Yet there is hope, because some people do seem to manage a fairly healthy level of social interaction. But then again even such facades can be deceptive, the closest seeming of couples can appear from the outside to suddenly separate and divorce. Since one can only really know oneself things can get a little lonely, especially if it's hard to let others in to your trust and confidence.