Monday, May 26, 2014

‘Dexys: Nowhere is Home’, Monorail Film Club screening at the GFT, 25th May

At the Q & A after the film, people didn’t want to ask questions so much as to tell Kevin Rowland how much his music means to them. They wanted to tell him what it’s like, living with this impassioned, insanely well crafted quicksilver, that can ground you even as it soars, pull you together as it explodes. One woman said she felt that One Day I’m Going to Soar surpassed even Don’t Stand Me Down, and asked him which record gave him more personal satisfaction. ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar,’ he said. ‘Massively.’ Against the myth, he thought that the earlier record hadn’t had a bad reception, there had been some supporters, but everything had come right this time around. From finding singer Madeleine Hyland through a friend at a market, to the way songs written over a period of years clicked together into a single narrative, even that the run of shows at the Duke of York’s Theatre fortuitously extended to allow Kieran Evans and Paul Kelly time to put this film together. If I had had a question, it would have been, ‘You know some of us put My Beauty up there with your other four masterpieces?’, because it’s well overdue the kind of resuscitation afforded Don’t Stand Me Down over its several reissues. And he would have said ‘What’s the question?’ as he did when one chap asked about Searching for the Young Soul Rebels being so, so great. ‘No part twos, ever’, he said, when he asked why they hadn’t made another LP like it.

I was lucky enough to see one of the One Day I’m Going to Soar concerts, at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh (there’s a slightly perfunctory review of it, and the following day’s soup, here), and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, of course it was. The oddest aspect was the burlesque act which opened proceedings, but this, if it was the same in London, didn’t make it to the film (and neither did ‘Come on Eileen’). Instead, it begins with: ‘You know what? I was a no-hoper. Prison was a possibility’, those striking words from the trailer; but in the film they’re not a voice over, Kevin’s head fills the screen, and you think you’re in for some big confession. Then the quiet opening bars of the album play over twilight shots of the theatre and its immediate surroundings, of people coming and going. Then another segment of interview, in which Kevin and Jim Paterson, seated in the stalls of the empty theatre, signally fail to follow up on the prison comment. Then into the second half of opening song ‘Now’: ‘Attack, attack!’, suddenly you’re there in the front row, or onstage with them, as the show kicks into life.

And what a show it is. Where there had been a screen on stage in Edinburgh with a projection of Madeleine Hyland for ‘She Got a Wiggle’, in the film she’s lounging on a divan with a cigarette holder, behind and above Kevin and the rest of the band. Not wiggling, for sure, but the song has a tightrope to tread: to convey how sexy this woman is, while displaying her, wearing a big leather frock and suspenders, somehow without objectifying her. The way the drums lock in to that slow foreboding groove give the imagined wiggle menace, though, and titillation seems a million miles away. The character Hyland plays is about as developed as a Dickens heroine, there is nothing to her beyond her looks and her clothes. I’m not criticising her performance, which is great, but she acts solely as Kevin’s muse, the out of focus flame to his well delineated moth, an ideal with no rough edges, no characteristics beyond a smouldering sexuality, hurt, and a combustible temper when the occasion calls for it. Which it does half way through ‘I’m Always Going to Love You’, the tipping point of the album and the show. Kevin coaxes Madeleine with unconditional devotion, and she joins in, singing ‘I’m always going to love you’ back to him. This registers, and he sings: ‘We’re always going to, we’re always going to love...’. But there is nowhere for the syntax to go, other than ‘each other’, which would be an inconceivably ugly end to the line, so he sings instead, ‘I think I’m going round the bend / Now we must end’. And everything falls apart.

Back at the Q & A, asked about compromise by Duglas T. Stewart, Kevin showed himself to be a little more flexible than might have been expected. He talked about the 2003 shows he did with Dexys, when he was broke and about to get married. He did them because he needed the cash. But he got too interested in them, he got more into Dexys than he was into the idea of getting married; and anyway, he said, they spent so much on rehearsing and staging them that they didn’t make any money. In the film, he talked about how he didn’t want to be too chummy with his audience: if you’re a fan he’s not your mate, he’s not on Facebook chatting and stirring up a buzz. He wants to make the records, perform the shows, and that’s his audience interaction, the fact that he’s paid us the compliment of making something that’s good. So good. Again and again, five times now (is it six? I must track down The Wanderer). It’s scary that this is so far from the norm as to sound like a revolutionary idea, but I think he has hit on an important truth. Work can so easily be diluted by marketing, and marketing is no longer the preserve of corporations, any more than releasing records is: everyone’s at it.

The film continues beyond the One Day I’m Going to Soar material into the encores, including the beautiful, slow version of ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’, and climaxes with a full-length ‘This is What She’s Like’, which automatically makes it a brilliant film. The interspersed interview doesn’t slow the show’s momentum, though Kevin is quite guarded (he was a bit less so at the Q & A). There are some deft directorial touches, like the screen test style shots of fans outside the venue towards the end, standing still, looking into the camera; or the startling shot of Hyland looking into the mirror after performing, close to tears. For the most part, though, this is a concert film, documenting a spectacular stage show, and coming closer than should really be possible to matching the live event for thrills.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Richard P. Feynman — ‘The Character of Physical Law’

‘A’ hates his mother. The reason is, of course, because she did not caress him or love him enough when he was a child. But if you investigate you find out that as a matter of fact she did love him very much, and everything was alright. Well then, it was because she was over-indulgent when he was a child! By having a vague theory it is possible to get either result. The cure for this one is the following. If it were possible to state exactly, ahead of time, how much love is not enough, and how much love is over-indulgent, then there would be a perfectly legitimate theory against which you could make tests. It is usually said when this is pointed out, ‘When you are dealing with psychological matters things can’t be defined so precisely’. Yes, but then you cannot claim to know anything about it.
The person who recommended this book did so at least partly, I suspect, because of this attitude. He has amusingly little tolerance for psychology, and less for history: they’re bullshit, because they’re made up, or not sufficiently provable, just as the cause of ‘A’’s hatred isn’t in Feynman’s scenario above (though he is attacking vagueness, not psychology as a whole). Usually I would have just as little tolerance for someone who writes things like ‘the reason is, of course, because’*, but this is a fascinating book of lectures, and the speed at which it powers along in this occasionally ungrammatical vein is really helpful if you’ve never read a science book before and all of a sudden here is quantum physics. It’s something of a high wire act, breaking down extremely complicated ideas into explanations and analogies which make sense to the non-specialist reader. There are very few equations, and there is plenty of repetition of key concepts that you might have forgotten from earlier on: if he is developing a concept, he doesn’t assume you remember what it was, which is a help if you hadn’t quite grasped the previous explanation. For example:
This is called the principle of relativity, that uniform motion in a straight line is relative, and that we can look at any phenomenon from either point of view and cannot say which one is standing still and which one is moving.
If we are unable, by any experiment, to see a difference in the physical laws whether we are moving or not, then if the conservation of charge were not local only a certain kind of man would see it work right, namely the guy who is standing still, in an absolute sense. But such a thing is impossible according to Einstein’s relativity principle, and therefore it is impossible to have non-local conservation of charge.
It’s a little unfair to quote these things out of context, precisely because they do work by accumulation. Feynman elucidates gravity, angular momentum, relativity, the laws of conservation and symmetry, winding up with the movement of electrons as both particles and waves, and a discussion of how physics might develop in the future (he’s talking in 1965, so there’s no Higgs Boson, but CERN exists, and he does talk about discoveries happening through high energy collisions). There are some dazzling asides, like his explanation of how carbon can form in a star, when the only other elements present are hydrogen and helium, and how this happy accident is likely to be the cause of life as we know it. He also explains how it is that there are two tides for every one rotation of the earth, and how it might be possible to communicate with aliens in terms of physics: he can discuss dimensions, because he relates them to hydrogen atoms, but because of anti-matter he doesn’t have a way of distinguishing left from right. It also turns out that he doesn’t hate psychology or history after all:
all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man’s psychology, man’s psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other, because we have only just begun to see that there is this relative hierarchy.

* Actually it seems that the lectures were never written, only transcribed, which makes this more forgivable.

Open Culture has the whole lecture series online.

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