Friday, March 06, 2015

[Film] '71 (2014)

Directed by Yann Demange, this is a film about a British squaddie (played by Gary Hook) sent to Belfast in 1971. You get the sense that like most of his unit, he had never previously heard of Belfast; their officer has to explain to them that they will still be in the United Kingdom. While out in West Belfast he becomes separated from his unit and has to try and get back home while being hunted by an IRA hit squad. I first became aware of it when I saw a poster for it while attending a folk horror conference in Belfast and it struck me that the concept has some similarities with all that folk horror business. The protagonist is an outsider in a location where things are strange, the locals unfriendly and alliances shifting. The urban setting is perhaps a new twist.

Because the film is told very much from the point of view of the soldier, there is relatively little sense of the politics and background of the Northern Ireland conflict. The viewer has to infer as much as they want to from conversations and things observed. While the best bits of the film might be the relatively few scenes in which the soldier is being chased around West Belfast, the film is nevertheless more than being a straight high octane actioner. By the end of it you do have a sense of the murky world of the struggle at that time, with undercover soldiers supplying bombs to (incompetent) loyalist paramilitaries and running double agents in the IRA factions.

The film begins with scenes in which the soldier is undergoing basic training in Britain. I was struck by how different these were to the training scenes in Full Metal Jacket, say. While the trainers were shouting at the trainees, a gratuitously abusive element seemed to be lacking and there was a sense that the training was about imparting skills that would keep soldiers alive rather than just breaking them mentally. Apart from the shifty undercover soldiers, the army is portrayed relatively positively, at least towards itself. The soldier's unit is headed by a dimwitted Rupert from central casting, but his heart does at least seem to be in the right place, and with the rank and file soldiers and NCOs there is a sense of them looking out for each other. The undercover soldiers and the more senior officers are different: they seem to have been morally corrupted by their role.

On Twitter I read Graham Linehan saying of the film that it suffers from having the main character becoming essentially inactive in the second half of the film. After actively seeking to stay alive in the first half he becomes almost entirely reactive, with his life and welfare relying on the decisions of others. In some ways that criticism is valid though it perhaps misses that by the second half the soldier has been through one incident of an extremely traumatic nature (physically and mentally) and is not really in a position to do very much. The change also works in plot terms as it allows for a widening of point of view, to the various British Army actors, to IRA cadres in West Belfast, and to the ordinary people of the city into whose lives he descends.

I have also heard one or two people grumbling about a film set during the Northern Ireland conflict taking the point of view of a British soldier (rather than, say, heroic members of the struggle for Irish freedom). They may have a point, in that it will be a while before anyone makes a film portraying the Lads as the heroes. But this film is too wise to the ambiguities of the Northern Ireland conflict to be a British equivalent of John Wayne's The Green Berets. And a film about a soldier lost alone in hostile territory is always going to be more interesting than one about people making bombs out of fertiliser in their attic.

The music is by David Holmes, who is himself from Northern Ireland, and is very impressive in context.

image source (Recent Movie Posters)

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Where do you listen to music?

How do you listen to music? Where do you listen to music? Answers to these questions are key to our relationship with music. These days I listen to a lot of music on my iPod, but what I listen to is very constrained by the situations in which I listen. When I am walking to work, I want up-tempo music that is going to encourage me walk briskly and not dawdle. When I am listening to music before going to sleep I want relaxing sounds that will not challenge my brain. I have created playlists to cater to these two situations. When I add music to iTunes, if it gets into a playlist for one of these situations then it will get listened to. Otherwise not so much, at least not on the iPod.

In Panda Mansions we have the stereo set up in one room, but I tend to spend a lot of my time in the library-study, working away on my Important Project. We talk sometimes of rigging up speakers in the library-study, but it has not happened yet, so if I am sitting there I sometimes listen to music on an iPod (though not so much, as I find headphones a bit distracting if I am working), sometimes I play the radio on my computer (RTE Lyric or one of the BBC music stations), and sometimes I play nothing. My beloved does not feel the need for ambient music in the same way that I do, so often the only accompanying sound is the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard or the sound of the street outside. Other times I can hear the sound of Georgian music wafting from the other room, either as my beloved gives the Basiani record another listen or plays songs on her computer that she is trying to learn.

It bothers me sometimes that I have all this recorded music that I ostensibly like but do not seem to listen to that much. I am always talking about taking steps to deal with this.

And you? Where, when and how do you listen to music?

Panda Twin Birthday (Giant Panda Zoo)

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

[record] U2 "Songs of Innocence" (2014)

This is that U2 album that Apple gave away for free, annoying billions of people around the world who had not worked out how to delete things from iTunes. The extreme reaction to this whole business in some quarters did rather surprise me, as it seemed akin to throwing a massive strop because you find a CD you don't like cover mounted on a magazine.

The record itself… well I have listened to it a couple of times. It is alright, in that when it is on I do not think "Jesus Christ turn this shite off" but I would not go as far as to say it is actually good or anything like that. I certainly cannot see myself listening to it again much. I have long been a sneaking regarder of U2, for all that they are not particularly popular in the circles I move in. With this record I find it hard not to conclude that whatever spark U2 once had is now gone. Still, they had a good innings and few are the bands who have produced so much great work.

Sneaking Red Panda

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

[film] "Maps to the Stars" (2014)

I saw this David Cronenberg directed film recently. It is scripted by Bruce Wagner and contains many allusions or parallels to the Wild Palms comic he wrote in the early 1990s, including:

Maps to the Stars
creepy child actors
disturbing family dynamics
Carrie Fisher
'Nana Nana hey hey (Kiss him good bye)'
general dark side of Hollywood vibe

and so on.

The story is multi-stranded, though the strands of course come together: people who seem only to have tenuous links to each other turn out to have much closer connections than might initially be apparent. Cronenberg has reached that stage of his career where he can get good actors to appear in anything he does, so you get some stunning performances here. I particularly liked Evan Bird as the spoilt teenage actor. Julianne Moore as a disturbed actress and Mia Wasikowska as a new arrival in Tinseltown also impressed me.

Cronenberg might have gone off the boil a few years back but lately he has really got his mojo back again. Maps to the Stars does not fall into the kind of strange genre film territory that alienates respectable audiences, but it had enough creepiness and body horror to feel like a proper Cronenberg film.

Bruce Wagner's Wild Palms

Monday, March 02, 2015


In the pages of Frank's APA we are running through the letters of the alphabet.
Possibly the same summer (1988, 1989?) that I went to see Hawkwind with Mr W— in the Brixton Academy I also caught Inspiral Carpets playing in some venue in Camden (Dingwalls?). They were an up and coming band at the time. My memory is that all that Manchester stuff was on the way up round then, and as they were from Manchester they were riding that wave. By the time I saw them they had moved on from their cassette only first album and had changed lead singer to the one who would sing on all their hit records, but the basic template sound was in place. They had beaty tunes with the organ sounds of Clint Boon prominently featured.

Before the concert a looped voice played over the PA saying something like "Tonight… in Manchester… two hundred people came to see… Inspiral Carpets… the biggest bunch of wankers… ever". It was hypnotic and vaguely amusing. I think Mr W— and I kept saying it to each other for years afterwards. This was in the pre-Internet age; we had to make our own entertainment.

Inspiral Carpets were on the way up at that point and they did go on to some success, having hit singles and seeing one of their tunes used as the theme music to a Saturday morning kids TV programme. But I think the real prize eluded them and they remained a second string band. When I saw them again some years later in Dublin, they were still a a great live band and able to draw a reasonable crowd, but the sense was that they were a band on the slide. I remember liking the album they were pimping at time, and also the lead single 'I Want You' on which Mark E. Smith guested, but I do not think it overly excited the record buying public.

History has not been kind to the Inspiral Carpets. They seem to show up in books about the music of the era to be dismissed as the kind of rubbish band who acquires a certain following simply by association with other, better outfits. That seems a bit unfair. I would not make any claims for Inspiral Carpets being one of the great bands of the late 20th century, but they are a good solid mid-level outfit.

Or so I thought before I started writing this piece. Putting it together for the web I checked out some Inspiral Carpets tracks on YouTube and have been struck by what earworms they are. It might be that two unfortunate things counted against the Carpets. One was being associated with all the Madchester ravey stuff when they were basically a 60s revival outfit (which was the basic template of all indie bands pre-Madchester, except that they were a lot better than the others). As a non-ravey band they are always going to be remembered as not really a proper Madchester band and so will always be a bit marginal in histories of that scene. The other problem is that their biggest hit was something of a lovely song ballad; that is never good in retrospect. If they are to be remembered it should be for the likes of 'Two Cows', 'I Want You' or 'She Comes In The Fall'. Or this.

Dung 4 (Plain or Pan)

1988 band photo (Guardian)

Sunday, March 01, 2015

[theatre] "Ganesh versus the Third Reich" in the O'Reilly Theatre

I theoretically love going to the theatre but never seem to do so in practice. This is one of just two things I saw in the Dublin Theatre Festival last year. What I picked up from the programme was that this play was about Ganesh (you know, elephant headed Hindu deity) coming to the Third Reich in order to reclaim the ancient symbol of the swastika from the Nazis, which was enough to make it sound like it would be worth seeing. I also registered that it was being performed by Australians.

When the play started, though, I had a slight moment of "where's the fucking Nazis?", as there were neither Nazis nor Hindu deities on stage but two fellows not dressed in 1940s garb. When they started talking I was further confused, as their speech was a bit hard to understand. My first thought was that they were speaking with incomprehensible Australian accents or else that some incompetent had taken over the theatre's sound. But something else soon became apparent: the two actors onstage were both people with intellectual disabilities.

It turned out that the play had three actors with intellectual disabilities and two without. And it was a bi-level thing, partly about Ganesh trying to take the swastika from the Nazis and partly about a theatre company featuring people with intellectual disabilities trying to put together a play about Ganesh trying to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis; the narrative about the actors was probably the dominant one here.

Split narratives often suffer from the problem that one of the narratives is a lot more interesting than the other. In this, though, they both seemed to work well enough together. In the Third Reich narrative Ganesh teams up with an intellectually disabled Jewish lad he rescues from Auschwitz, which of course reminds us that the Nazis were not exactly friends of people with intellectual disabilities.

Each strand of the narrative had at least one great scene. The Third Reich story had a great train carriage episode in which an over-familiar black marketeer starts trying to sell tights to the escaped Jew (who is in disguise, obv), asking an endless series of questions about his girlfriend, her sisters, his sisters, his mother and so on, all potential purchasers of nylons, with the questions forcing the invention of ever more outlandish details about all these non-existent people. It was a scene of the kind of building menace you get in Quentin Tarantino films (think in particular of that opening scene in the farmhouse in Inglorious Basterds).

The outer narrative, meanwhile, has a wonderful extended scene in which the increasingly unhinged actor-director is trying to get one of the ID actors to die properly when shot. It too builds and builds, from a physical comedy of frustration to a deeply uncomfortable episode of rage, to actual theatrical violence.

The ID actors were interesting, in that they were all really good albeit within a limited range. I don't think any of them would be able to convincingly play a character who was not intellectually disabled, but they very much came across as playing roles rather than just being themselves onstage.

There is a scene where the actor-director addresses the audience (or imagines addressing the audience when the play is being staged), accusing them/us of having come along for an evening of "freak porn". I think we were meant to shuffle uncomfortably in our seats at that, but it washed over me. I had no advance awareness that the play featured intellectually disabled actors and this must have been the case for many other people present, as the theatre festival programme did not mention it. Even if you had come along to this expecting something of that type you would probably leave a bit disappointed. The acting is too good and the play too tight to have any kind of freakshow aspect.

So all in all this made for an enjoyable if strange night of theatre.

image source (Sydney Morning Herald)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

[music] Basiani "Folk Ensemble of the Georgian Patriarchy"

Basiani are from the country of Georgia. The title of this record is more an explanation of who they are. The Georgian Patriarchy referred to is the leadership cadre of the Georgian Orthodox Church and not the organised apparatus of male dominance (though of course there may be some overlap). Basiani are their folk ensemble and they sing the Georgian polyphonic music that everyone loves.

This record has been on heavy rotation here in Panda Mansions, mainly because for a while we were following something of an All Georgian All The Time listening policy, particularly in the fraught period when all the other CDs were still in boxes. This is my beloved's record rather than mine so I feel like I am not letting the side down if I say that for all that it has been played a lot I probably have not listened to it that closely. I think it may take the listener on a tour of the Georgian regions, mixing choral polyphony with people singing solo to instrumental accompaniment. The tracks with yodelling may be the best. While the Georgian polyphony is the main attraction with records like this, there are also some beautiful tunes on which solo singing is foregrounded.

Friday, January 09, 2015

[book] James Young "Nico: Songs They Never Play On The Radio"

This is a memoir of the author's time he playing keyboards in Nico's last touring band, a period in which he also did arrangements for Camera Obscura, her last album. I read it first years ago but recently bought another copy to give as a present to a friend, giving it a quick re-read before doing so. It is a fascinating tale of life at the bottom of the musical ladder, a world away from the tales of fame and fortune you usually get in musicians' memoirs. Nico and the dodgy types hovering around her (including the author, her manager, and most of the people playing in her band) make for fascinating characters. The book is also surprising in its willingness to dish the dirt on living people, with John Cale in particular coming across as a particularly unsavoury individual. Nico herself remains an enigmatic and unknowable figure, her heroin-addiction contributing to a near-total self-absorption.

The book made me listen again to her wonderful records, particularly The End, Desertshore and The Marble Index (Chelsea Girl has its moments but its sunny production marks it out as False Nico). The best tunes marry her infinitely sad voice to a dirge-like harmonium accompaniment, creating sounds of terrible sadness which somehow never sound like indulgent mopiness. Reading the book made me think about her aesthetic and her creativity. So much of her work seems to have been thrown together to put out some product so that she can get some money together to score some smack, yet from that such great music has been made.

I would like to hear again the record that James Young plays on. I had a copy years ago and did not like it so much. I remember finding it a bit 80s, with synthesisers and the like burying the harmonium on too many of the tracks. But reading the book again makes me want to give it another go.

Anyway, I encourage anyone who likes music or fun stuff to have a look for this book. It was going for cheap in Fopp last time I looked. Even if you have no interest in Nico's music I think you would enjoy this vision of the less glamorous side of the music business.

Image sources:

book cover (Goodreads)

Nico at her last concert (from Nico IcoN, 1988 concerts)

Nico performing 'Valley of the Kings' in 1986:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

[film] "Witchfinder General" [1968]

Last September I went to a conference in Belfast on folk horror. The programme notes mentioned this film as being a key item in the folk horror canon, so I watched it on DVD beforehand. The film features Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General. Hopkins is a real historical figure who hunted witches in the chaotic period of the English Civil War. The film presents a lurid version of these events. It is ambiguous (at least initially) as to whether Hopkins is a sincere enemy of witchcraft or self-seeking cynic happily exploiting the superstitions of the gullible to advance himself. I gather Price was a controversial choice for the role but his odd looks and permanently ironic expression work well here. Hopkins is the villain, with Ian Ogilvy playing the protagonist, a Parliamentarian cavalryman who becomes locked in a vendetta with him.

The film was apparently controversial when it first appeared, because the violence it contains is a bit ramped up from the usual Hammer fare. I could imagine the sexual violence being problematic even now (a woman lets herself be debauched by Hopkins in a futile attempt to save her father from him and is later raped by the witch hunter's thuggish assistant). Some of the violence does seem to thrown in for voyeuristic thrills, like the completely ahistorical scene in which one of Hopkins' victims is burned to death (as far as I can make out, witches were always executed by hanging; burning at the stake was the punishment for heretics in Catholic countries and even that brutal method of execution was not used in the ridiculously elaborate manner Hopkins uses).

Yet the violence is not just for seedy thrills, as it can serve to advance the story and show the development (or atavistic regression) of character. The film ends with the cavalryman killing Hopkins (spoilers), but it is not after a brave fight. Instead the cavalryman bursts upon Hopkins and kills him with an axe in a frenzied attack. The film ends with the cavalryman's wife screaming, not because of the torture she was suffering only a few minutes before but at the sight of her husband transformed into a vengeful maniac.

Immediately after watching the film I thought it a piece of enjoyable schlock, with Price's over-the-top performance important here. But I have found that it stays in the mind and has a lingering power. For all its schlockiness and willingness to play fast and loose with history, it is a fascinating view into a world where social norms have broken down and people are happy to kill random strangers in order to advance their goals.

I do not know what the real Matthew Hopkins would have made of the film. Although there were rumours that he was murdered by someone related to his victims (as in the film) or even executed as a witch himself after failing one of his tests, it seems that he died of tuberculosis at the young age of 27. In just two years he seems to have had executed some 300 people, mostly women; some researchers estimate these as being some 60% of all the people ever executed for witchcraft in England.

image source (a piece in the Guardian by Alex von Tunzelmann, assessing the film for historical accuracy)

The film's trailer:

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

[record] Steeleye Span "The Best of Steeleye Span"

I have had this album for ages but only ripped it to iTunes recently; Rob Young's Electric Eden has rekindled my interest in all things related to English folk music. The compilation seems to have been released in 1984 and the songs are from between 1970 and 1980. They feature many of the Span's well-known folk rock tunes, like 'All Around My Hat' and 'Gaudete' (tunes that the author of Electric Eden dismisses as inconsequential tat). 'Gaudete' is an a capella tune sung in Latin, with vocal harmonies and stuff. I think it may involve god bothering. You may recall that Alan Partridge plays it in his car once to show off his sound system. After that it is all a bit more electric, with the voices of Maddy Prior and other band members being set against a rock accompaniment. Many of the tunes have Jacobite themes, which probably reflects the nature of the tradition.

One curiosity is the inclusion of a tune called 'Long Lankin', a variant of the same tune played by Alasdair Roberts on his Too Long in this Condition record. The strange thing is that I have had this Span record for what, 20 years, but have never noticed the gruesome lyrics of child murder and torture on this track, while they leaped out at me from the Roberts rendition (which uses a completely different tune and somewhat different words).

This record still leaves me with a slight sense of disappointment. There are some great tunes on it (all the ones mentioned so far, also 'Alison Gross', 'Thomas the Rhymer' and 'Cam Ye O'Er Frae France') but there does seem to be a fair bit of inconsequential filler on it. And it is clearly not the actual best of Steeleye Span, as another record of theirs I have features some truly great tracks not included here (e.g. 'The Boys of Bedlam' & 'Blackleg Miner'). I suspect record company issues.

image source (page on the record, from Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music