Wednesday, October 26, 2011

David Bellos – ‘Jacques Tati’

From the book I’m reading now:
I’ve numbers of old clothes in my dirty clothes basket – scenes, I mean, tumbled pell mell into my receptacle of a mind, and not extracted till form and colour are almost lost.
So it is with this biography, which I finished last week, and didn’t get around to writing about properly. Which is annoying, because it’s very good, even if the criticism levelled at it in this Amazon review does stand up. It would have been more graceful of Bellos to have left his academic standing to one side, than to constantly express surprise at the achievements of a man with
a literary and political culture no richer than that of an average accountant’s clerk (p. 270)
Certain questions are begged here: what does Bellos have against accountant’s clerks? and, how narrow must his conception of culture be, if he thinks Tati didn’t have any? Only an institutionalised academic could think this way, but then, his linking of Playtime to Situationism is intriguing, and convincing. The way he tells it, the writers behind this movement were far too serious in their insistence that the over-convenient surface of modern life must be disrupted in order to make it human again; Tati made this point too, but he also made it fun.

Here, in any case, is what I wrote last week, when the blues were still blue:
‘Laughing together is easier than laughing alone,’ Tati explained in his dictated memoirs. ‘The oldest spring of comedy is simply the pleasure that a group of people feel on being together.’ (p. 31)
Two of Tati’s films struck me in exactly this way, years apart: Les Vacances de M. Hulot, and Trafic, watched on TV, alone, were both big disappointments. Their lack of dialogue, or story, were alienating; the jokes so slow and deliberate as to seem sub-normal. But watched in company – Trafic amongst a full and well-disposed cinema audience – both were utterly transformed on a second viewing. Longer ago still, I remember Mum’s enthusiasm for Mon Oncle, shown on TV, and a joke which consisted simply of an immaculately dressed secretary in a tight skirt and high heels trotting along, coming to a kerb, and skipping lightly up on to it, without breaking her rhythm. Can you even call that a joke? And yet it stuck. Or maybe Mum laughing at it stuck. Several times Bellos makes the point that Tati’s comedy has something democratic about it: whereas Charlie Chaplin, he argues, attracts attention and wants you to laugh at how clever his character is, M. Hulot is so self-effacing he seems to diffuse attention, and you laugh at situations in the round, joining them, almost, as a character yourself. Which may be why it is so important to experience Jacques Tati’s films as part of a crowd: so they can be met somewhat on their own expansive terms.


Footnote 1: this clip of Tati’s friend Borrah Minevitch is quite something.
Footnote 2: coincidence?

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Honoré de Balzac – ‘Eugénie Grandet’

In the country, people gradually cease to care about their appearance. (p. 72)
Saumur is the village where Eugénie Grandet lives, and has grown up, the daughter of a miserly vineyard owner and former cooper, who has accumulated a fortune by marrying well, investing, buying up land and crushing competition. His house is cold and dilapidated, because he won’t heat it except in the depths of winter, and he won’t pay for repairs to be done. As a special treat, on Eugénie’s birthday, he gets out his tools and mends a broken stair himself. Food is provided by the tenants on his estate, so he doesn’t have to pay for that, but he jealously rations sugar, which has to be bought in, and won’t allow wax candles in the house; instead they use candles made from tallow, a by-product of farming. But still, his wealth is known about, and so Eugénie attracts suitors. A grim game of attrition is played out between two families, the Cruchots and the des Grassins, each with an eligible son or nephew, who lay siege to the Grandets’ home, visiting regularly (together) for games of lotto, and bringing the occasional bouquet. Who will win her hand? It’s the countryside, there can’t possibly be a third option, surely? Enter Eugénie’s cousin, the elegant Charles, from Paris. He casts an astonished eye over the grotty interior of Grandet’s parlour, and
the lotto players immediately raised their noses to examine him, with as much curiosity as they would have shown if he had been a giraffe. (p. 73)
I’m not sure where I picked up the idea that Balzac was the French Dickens, but this is the only moment in Eugénie Grandet which invites a direct comparison. It is true that Balzac is drawing caricatures, but his humour is much more muted. He criticises society, as Dickens does, but without the zeal to change it. Dickens’ caricatures are funny because they are ridiculous, and who in their right mind would behave like that? Balzac’s – on the evidence of this novel – are serious because they are ridiculous, and they represent how people actually do behave.

Though it is a long time since I read it, it occurred to me that George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a better point of comparison, if you are looking for an English take on a similar situation. There, a miser lives alone with his gold, unloved, avaricious, until one day he finds he has been robbed. Simultaneously, a baby is left abandoned on his doorstep, and over the next twenty years Silas is rehabilitated by his love for this child, whom he brings up, becoming part of the community as he does so. An altogether softer, more redemptive tale. It never seems likely that Grandet will reform. He fails in every single moral duty that comes his way, and his monomania for gold is such that the right choices never even occur to him. Here are is thoughts as he wonders how best to tell Charles that his father – Grandet’s brother – has died a bankrupt:
‘You have lost your father!’ It was nothing to tell him that. Fathers usually die before their children. But: ‘You have no money at all!’ All the woes in the world were summed up in those words. (p. 115)
This is pity, of a kind, but worthless, because he has no more intention of bestowing money on the boy than he does affection. He sends him packing to the West Indies, at the lowest possible cost, and no more is heard of him for seven years (he turns out to be a ruthless businessman too, making a packet in the slave trade). Meanwhile, Eugénie’s twenties ebb away as she pines for him, her intense love prompted by the short time he spent at Saumur, when she stood up for him against her father’s brutality. She gives him her own store of gold coins, at which Grandet, when he finds out, confines her to her room on a diet of bread and water for months on end. It is only when it is pointed out to him that Eugénie, and not he, will inherit his wife’s wealth when she dies, that he relents. He is a tyrant, with not much else to him.

And Eugénie? Is she more than his opposite, the affection to his avarice? Her strong, silent love is a little hard to believe in. Even in the days before email, seven years without a single letter can’t have been a good sign. She seems to fall, too, as much for Charles’ refined clothes as for the man himself, which doesn’t seem consistent with her humble, un-grasping nature. But all the same – yes, she is more than her father’s opposite, she is also his daughter, and a member of a society with a tyrannical conception of rank and refinement. The saddest moment comes when she stops fighting:
Her unhappiness was concealed beneath a mask of politeness. (p. 240)

Monday, October 03, 2011

Eastern Promise: To Rococo Rot, The Pastels and Silje Nes at Platform, Glasgow, 1st October

With admirable hyperbole, Monorail’s last call for Eastern Promise invoked krautrock, laying down the challenge: ‘you wouldn't pass up a chance to see Can or Harmonia in 1974, would you?’ To Rococo Rot and Tarwater flew in from Berlin for the occasion, you see. It is something of a surprise that they – Alun Woodward and Easterhouse’s Platform venue – have managed to get the sponsorship to do this kind of thing. Isn’t the lack of funding what did for Triptych and Le Weekend? Serious times call for slashed arts funding, and all that. But maybe that’s too simplistic. Whatever the reasons, it is great to have an event like this back on the calendar. I must admit I’d thought we were in for a community hall experience, of the kind Tracer Trails put on, but no, Platform’s auditorium is pretty similar to the Tron or the Tolbooth – big, with theatre seats and a great sounding PA. Also Le Weekend-like was the splitting of performances between the main stage and the bar*, and the box office area was dotted with record stalls, which was a nice touch. Much vinyl and gimmickry (e.g. an Aidan Moffat bottle opener and, for no obvious reason, Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirts – which were rather tame, just saying the band’s name in big colourful letters. Actual Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirts, if you remember, used to say things like ‘Jesus Fuck’ on them).

Silje Nes kicked off proceedings. A thin blonde Norwegian in a black and white smock-like dress, she knelt in a circle of effects pedals, looping noises from a guitar and a small keyboard. After the opening instrumental she stood up to sing, making me think of a livelier Taken by Trees. She was excellent at conjuring up entire arrangements from the looping kit, hitting the guitar for rhythms and seemingly able to drop in chord changes at will (usually a limitation of looping musical phrases – as opposed to rhythmical ones – is that this can’t happen). There was a section in the penultimate song of really interesting noise, involving more kneeling and pedal work. ‘Interesting’ as in pulsating, MBV / Fennesz white-but-not-blank noise. Then the last song was pretty and quiet again. Warm reverb with icy delay.

‘We’re in the middle of recording an album,’ said Stephen Pastel, before correcting the collective consternation (‘2023? You’re kidding!’ is certainly what I was thinking) by saying that actually they are closer to the end. 2012 is the year to watch, apparently. The set would consist of songs from it, once they had limbered up with ‘Charlie’s Theme’: the long instrumental ‘Slowly Taking Place’, Katrina’s ‘Secret Music’ and ‘Ballad of Two Elms’, Stephen’s ‘The Wrong Light’ and the re-invented ‘Thru Your Heart’ (which, in my head at least, seeped into Teenage Fanclub’s song ‘Sweet Days Waiting’ last year). A recorded version would be a good thing, I think. Like Vic Godard going back to ‘Chain Smoking’ or ‘Stop that Girl’, some songs are worth a second look. There was nothing new in the set, but it sounded really wonderful, warm, together. Katrina’s drumming made me think of blaxploitation again (they have a brilliant song about ‘aeroplanes in the summertime’, which once did the same), by which I probably mean Superfly, slowed down to Isaac Hayes pace. ‘The Wrong Light’ sounded heftier and more alive than before, I almost forgot its debt to Galaxie 500’s ‘Temperature’s Rising’. It’s tricky – I wouldn’t say that their slow song turnover has been good for The Pastels, but the songs they do have are becoming gradually enriched. Maybe this is how music evolved before records, before Hollywood. We await, of course, eagerly, automatically yours.

I’ve never been To Rococo Rot’s before, automatically or otherwise. Except for once, when Katrina sang ‘Secret Music’ with them. I had half hoped that they might revisit this moment, being together on the same bill, but it didn’t happen. Aside from their Pastels collaborations, they always sounded too dry to me – not objectionably so, but enough to distance. So it was a nice surprise when they took to the stage and, unassumingly, with due care and diligence, tore the roof off the sucker. Stefan Schneider centre stage, swaying in tight circles, from the hips, to the feel of the bass guitar. Robert Lippok to the right, twisting his laptop stand to all angles as though to get feedback from an amp right, poring over the touchpad and his table of gadgets, including one that sparkled gold with hundreds of illuminated dots, visualised glitches. Ronald Lippok to the left at his kit, swinging his sticks down in great loose arcs. A group of fans gathered just in front of him, eschewing the theatre seats to dance the hour away. A voice behind me spectacularly failed to capture the mood: ‘Security should throw them out’, but at the end, taking bows to rapturous applause, Ronald mimed giving his heart to the dancers. I picked up a beautiful vinyl copy of Speculation from Monorail the following day (I love how Pet Shop Boys that title is), and will revel, I am sure, in finding out how wrong I was about this band.

* The bar wasn’t a very forgiving place to play – Animal Magic Tricks especially were not the kind of thing which works well above chatter, but Conquering Animal Sound were more fun, more slinky. It was just a pity I’d picked last week of all weeks to re-visit Björk’s Vespertine.

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