Saturday, August 27, 2005

Miscellaneous festival stuff

Now that I've finally finished my last Festival show - although the Fringe actually goes on for another two days - it's time to start clearing some of my write-up backlog. And also, move on to some more mainstream stuff.

So... in due course, I'll get to the Dresden Dolls (or rather, Amanda Palmer and her Cabaret All-Stars), The Aristocrats and Asylum. Those two movies both come out in Britain on September 9, anyway, and Amanda Palmer simply deserves to be raved about at far greater length. In the meantime, here's some other stuff from the Film Festival.

Stewart Lee, 90's Comedian. Stewart Lee was the other half of Lee & Herring, and he's been one of the most critically acclaimed stand-ups in Britain for over a decade. He also wrote the notorious Jerry Springer: The Opera, which was a big success in the West End and universally adored, except by Christian fundamentalists, who don't count. Unfortunately, while their opinions don't count, the fact that they're threatening to kill you does, so Lee's had a bit of a tough year. Naturally enough, he's drawing heavily on that this year, with some unabashed evangelical-baiting, all of which I heartily applaud. On the other hand, the closing segment of the show - essentially a Christ-themed remix of the same "overflowing with sick" routine he's been doing for years - teeters on the edge of overdoing it, not on grounds of taste, but of length. But Lee excels at dragging his listeners to places they don't really want or expect to go to in a comedy show, slowing the pace to an agonising crawl, and somehow holding the audience with him as he goes. It's as much theatrical monologue as comedy. "I've been doing stand-up comedy for 17 years," he says, in his slow, measured monotone, "and I can tell when there's tension in the room." More to the point, he knows how to create the tension, and he knows how to use it for laughs when it's there. He's doing a run at the Soho Theatre with the same show in September, so the Londoners among you should go and see him. There's a UK tour after that - check the website.

Guy X is a film adaptation of John Griesemer's novel No One Thinks of Greenland, which I really only went to see because it's director Saul Metzstein's follow-up to Late Night Shopping. I've always had a soft spot for Late Night Shopping, partly because I went to school with the guy who wrote it, but partly because I genuinely think it's a nice little indie comedy. Set in 1979, it's the story of a US soldier who finds himself dumped in a godforsaken and supposedly strategic base in Greenland due to a clerical error which the insane local commanding officer refuses to admit has happened. The first half hour is basically a colder version of MASH or Catch 22, after which the film finally remembers to start the plot. Our hero then discovers the true purpose of the base, in a mystery story which meanders around for an hour or so before giving up, rolling over, and dying in a bluster of plot convenience. Supposedly the novel was very good, and I might read it some time to find out what the ending was, since if they actually did explain it in this film, I must not have been paying attention. It has all the hallmarks of a director and lead actor (Jason Biggs?!?) taking a hopelessly unsuitable film in a desperate attempt to avoid typecasting.

The Holyrood Files is the 90 minute international cinema edit of the four-hour BBC TV series about the building of the Scottish Parliament. It leaves you with the general feeling that while the building is very nice, everyone inside it should be drowned in a sack. Director Stuart Greig claims to have been aiming for an impartial film, but has actually followed the story primarily from the perspective of the contractors and consultants - who, in most journalists' versions, are the villains. Greig sides with the consultants in blaming the politicians, who commission inquiry after inquiry and then express amazement when told that it'll take time and money to sort through and copy six years worth of files. It's a worthwhile project for Scottish audiences in that it gives a side of the story which everyone else, both politicians and press, has deliberately ignored because it didn't fit their preferred narrative. But the claim that it's impartial is highly dodgy, and the decision to omit proper coverage of the tendering stage - which every other inquiry considered to be a big part of the problem - is obviously wrong. Asked about this in the Q&A, Greig essentially said that he left it out because it was too boring, which is a very bad answer.

Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family is one of those documentaries which is kind of a freakshow for liberals. Instead of pointing and laughing, we nod and go "Wow, I really feel I've gained an insight into the bearded woman now." Sam, Samantha and Stephen live in a three-way relationship (the two men are bi), and have been deeply in love for years. Samantha is pregnant. By one of them. The film starts off with the obvious curiosity factor of how this relationship works. Then, once you get over that bit, there's basically a stretch of everyone being really happy, and god it's dull. Fortunately from the film's point of view, but not from the participants', it all goes horribly wrong after the kid is born and stress sets in all over the place. There are some quite interesting questions raised about whether the relationship is fundamentally unstable and a dreadful idea from the word go, or whether it was basically workable and they broke up for the same reasons everyone else does. But you'd really have to be a people-watching type to be interested in this for it's whole length, and frankly, I'm not.

Charlotte Hatherley's Grey Will Fade was one of my favourite albums of 2004, which is why I went along to her Cabaret Voltaire set on the same night as the Dresden Dolls show. Normally this would be impossible, but somehow the Fringe convinces people that it's a good idea to schedule gigs at ridiculous times such as 11.45pm on a Wednesday. This makes it possible for people like me to go to two shows in one night, but also makes it rather less likely that any locals will turn up in large numbers. The crowd is respectable but hardly packed, and Cabaret Voltaire is a tiny venue. Not surprisingly, she does the whole album and pads out the set with an Ash B-side and a cover version of "Kids in America." Grey Will Fade is a weird record which seems to think that no song is complete until it's done at least two choruses - "Kim Wilde" has more hooks in one track than most bands use on an album - and jumps all over the place as a result. It's not really suited to the slightly questionable sound quality of live gigs in small venues. "Kids in America" was great, though.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is, as the title might suggest, a documentary about the mentally ill singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, best known for, er, Kurt Cobain owning one of his T-shirts. As I sat there waiting for the film to start, I flicked through my copy of Fest to see what their reviewer made of it. Two stars. Oh hell. And I can see his point, unfortunately. Director Jeff Feuerzeig is convinced that Johnston is a genius on a par with Bob Dylan, as are most of the contributors and, to be fair, a large number of music critics. But if you don't already accept that, this film is unlikely to convince you, and you'll spent the running time wondering what's supposed to be so special about the delusional guy who can't play the guitar. Brief snippets of his songs, many with sound quality so poor it's almost impossible to work out what the chords are, are unlikely to convince unfamiliar viewers. I was more impressed by the clips of his songs on Amazon than I was by the film itself, which is saying something, really. Feuerzeig seems to badly miss the point, complaining in the Q&A that Johnston has been marginalised by an unsympathetic press and industry unprepared for his talent. But Johnston was offered a multi-album deal by Elektra, and did get signed to another major label. (Sure, they dropped him after one record, but it did sell under 6,000 copies.) The reason so few people have heard of Johnston is that, as one of the contributors frankly acknowledges, most of his records are "unlistenable to the general populace." Even Feuerzeig, in choosing a song for the closing credits, buckles and uses a collaboration with Jad Fair. Fans of Johnston's music will love the film; anyone not familiar with him is likely to be bemused.

Gypo is the thirty-seventh film to made under the ultra-lo-fi Dogma 95 manifesto - yes, people are still making these things, ten years on - and the first from a British director. Pauline McLynn and Paul McGann are in it, but to be honest, it's a bit of a trudge. The "same story from three different perspectives" format is something a bit different for a Dogma film, but at the end of the day it comes off as a parade of Guardian-reader stereotypes - the tabloid reading husband is a racist hypocrite and asshole, the Romany refugees are saintly, and the villains seem to have missed the point of Dogma entirely and turned up dressed for a pantomime. (It's even a little doubtful whether you should have such obvious villains in a Dogma film, but I leave such questions to the purists.) McLynn's character is the only truly well-rounded one. The acting is fantastic; the script has its heart in the right place but needs serious work.

The Moustache, my token foreign film for this year, must have seemed like a good idea when I ordered the ticket. Marc shaves off his moustache on a whim. But it turns out that nobody remembers him having a moustache in the first place - with existentialist consequences! Yes, that's right, it's French. Marc gets very worked up about this, and further glitches in reality follow. It's the sort of thing that might work for a Charlie Kaufman or a David Lynch, but this film plays it straight and in deadly earnest. And since there's nothing the characters can really do about it, it's really just a whole film of people wondering whether they're going mad, and the situation getting slightly worse as it goes on. There's not enough here to fill a film, and the desperately literal approach just flags up glaring plot holes such as "Why doesn't he just show everyone a photograph?" (I suppose the idea is that the reality warp keeps making him forget to do so, but that certainly doesn't come across on the screen.) Fans of Chinese public transport won't want to miss a ten-minute dialogue-free segment of Marc taking various ferries around Hong Kong, which really is exquisitely tedious. Might have made a good TV drama at half the length.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

Way off at the other end of the documentary spectrum is Mad Hot Ballroom, which Paramount are trying to promote as this year's feelgood, child-based, competitive-hobby-oriented documentary. Yes, that's right, it's Spellbound with dancing.

In fact, it says so right on the poster. "Irresistible! A kind of Spellbound crossed with Strictly Ballroom!" -- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times. Right in the middle of the page. So they're kind of inviting the comparison.

And is it as good as Spellbound? No. It's not as good as Spellbound. Now, of course, there's no shame in that. Spellbound was a five star classic (and available on an excellent DVD, by the way). But, y'know, when you remind me about Spellbound with a big poster right before I go into the film, it makes think of Spellbound. And I sit there thinking, This isn't as good as Spellbound.

Ballroom dancing is, apparently, a required subject in some New York schools. They get the kids when they're 11 and teach them to dance. To be honest, this is probably the best time to do it. Our school didn't attempt dance classes until we were in our mid-teens, in the run-up to the school dance, by which point I was thoroughly disinclined to have anything to do with it. I still subconsciously file Scottish country dancing under "forced jollity." Get them when they're 11 and you've got a chance.

So the idea is to follow three classes of 11-year-olds as they learn to dance, and go forward into the inter-school competition. This being Manhattan, the schools have such catchy names as PS 112, PS 115 and PS 150. And yes, the kids are very sweet, you root for them to win (at least once two of the schools have been knocked out and we know who we're meant to be rooting for), and there's something fundamentally engaging about the whole idea of inner city ballroom dancing classes. There are great moments in the film, particularly the overly emotional teacher who's so painfully devoted to her class that she breaks down in tears while merely being interviewed about them.

But... it's not as good as Spellbound.

Why not? Because Spellbound picked a small number of the kids and really got into their heads. Mad Hot Ballroom doesn't, and leaves you feeling like you ought to be taking notes. Even the film's website lists a total of nineteen teachers and pupils in its "cast" section, which is just too damn many to get invested in. We're told how dancing has apparently changed some of these kids, but we don't get to see it.

Don't get me wrong, it's an okay film. It's sweet. But it's no Spellbound.

Our Brand Is Crisis

The thing about the Festival is that you spend so long going to shows (and then sleeping them off) that you never get round to writing them up. Tsk. Time to start work on the backlog.

Our Brand is Crisis is a documentary about Bolivian politics. People say to me, Paul, why on earth are you paying good money to see a documentary about Bolivian politics at the Film Festival? Who the hell cares about Bolivian politics? Isn't this going to be indescribably dull?

I see things differently. To me, a documentary about Bolivian politics is a can't-lose proposition. What's the worst that can happen? Even if it's totally abysmal, you still leave the cinema with the warm inner glow of knowing that you're the sort of person who goes to see documentaries about Bolivian politics. The next time you encounter a mildly irritating shop assistant, an annoying loud person, or somebody who's beating you in an argument, you can think to yourself, "Ah, but I bet they've never been to see a documentary about Bolivian politics. In fact, I bet they've never paid money to see a documentary about any form of South American socio-economic issue."

A ludicrously obscure documentary every six months or so does wonders for topping up the reserves of inner arrogance, mark my words. Sometimes, if you're lucky, the film turns out to be interesting and good as well, which is a positive boon.

Our Brand is Crisis (that's not a typo, whatever the Festival ticket printers may think) is indeed interesting and good. It follows the 2002 election campaign of presidential candidate Gonzalez Sanchez de Lozada, universally known as "Goni." Ever willing to embrace new American ides, Goni has enlisted the services of James Carville - or rather, his office, since Carville himself only turns up occasionally in order to lend support to the guys on the ground when they're getting criticised. (Let's face it, would you want to spend the whole Bolivian presidential campaign in Bolivia unless it was absolutely unavoidable? No, you'd send some underlings to do it for you.) And what does Goni get for his money? Focus groups.

Now, to be honest, in some quarters there seems to be a perception that the political consultants come out of the film badly. I don't agree. Goni's problems seem to stem far more from ignoring their advice than from following it - and from his congenital lack of modesty or tact. And the focus groups do genuinely seem to concentrate how to present Goni's existing policies, rather than on trying to come up with new ones.

The consultants claim that they work around the world and try to support the local equivalent of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair. They insist that they honestly believe Goni is the best man for the job, and they're quite probably sincere. After all, the other two leading candidates are a major figure in Bolivian cocaine production, and a guy who's somehow acquired two mansions during a career in the civil service. In that company, the guy who wants to be American seems a reasonably good bet.

Then again, it's not like the focus groups are really telling Goni anything that shouldn't have been blindingly obvious from the word go. The major concerns of Bolivians, it seems, are poverty, unemployment and corruption. Well, duh.

Where the film falls short is in explaining some of the issues. We're repeatedly told that during his previous term as President, Goni introduced a controversial and hugely unpopular policy called "capitalization." He insists it was hugely successful, and that he achieved his campaign pledge to create half a million new jobs; the public is apparently convinced that it was a failure. Not only do we never get a clear answer to what it achieved, but it's never really explained what capitalization actually was. Something to do with incorporating the nationalised industries as government-owned companies and then selling a minority stake to foreign investors, I think, but that's largely speculation on my part. It's also never really made clear quite why the Bolivians hate Chile so much, which is a shame, since it's a crucial part of Goni's eventual downfall.

The filmmakers seem to think the lesson from Goni's eventual failure is the unsuitability of American political techniques for Bolivia. I'm not persuaded. If anything, the problem seems to be more to do with the Bolivian constitution, which puts Goni in power on 22% of the vote because there were eleven candidates - and Goni's own insistence on ploughing ahead with extremely divisive policies on the basis of such a weak mandate.

But even if I don't agree with the thesis, the events and the characters are fascinating. It's well worth seeing, and fortunately for those of us in Britain, we'll get our chance when it crops up in BBC4's Storyville later in the year.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


You found the place, then. Come in - I've started without you, with a series of Edinburgh Festival reviews. More (much more) of this stuff to come.

Oh, and if you only came for Mirrormask, it's downwards a bit.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Adam Buxton: I, Pavel

Adam Buxton used to be one half of Adam & Joe. He was the half called Adam. Come to think of it, perhaps he still is one half of Adam & Joe. I'm not sure what they actually do these days.

Buxton gave a lot of interviews promoting this show, the thrust being that the reason we haven't seen him on TV since the last season of the Adam & Joe Show is that nobody will hire him. To be fair, this seems in part to be due to an ill-advised attempt to escape type-casting by going after conventional acting roles, none of which materialised. Even so, it seems a bit odd for Adam & Joe to have drifted completely off the radar after producing a string of series which, while admittedly a bit hit and miss, were at best very good. And even at their worst, just a little obvious. Is there really no space for them in a multi-channel world where Top Buzzer managed to get commissioned?

So Buxton is changing tack - or, depending on your point of view, desperately trying to remind everyone that he exists - by doing a run at Edinburgh. Not only is this his first solo show, but it's his first live show of any sort (Adam and Joe broke into TV through their home-made animations, completely bypassing the normal routes). Not that you'd know. He seems totally confident up there.

Pavel, the angry and nihilist experimental animator from Eastern Europe, is a character who turned up in one of the later A&J episodes, brought back and extended to an hour-long solo show. With admirable commitment to realism, Buxton has grown the beard for real. Britain must be one of the few countries in the world where you could get away with doing this much material about experimental animation. It's not that he expects the audience to actually know anything about it, but it's taken for granted that we've all stumbled upon it in a graveyard slot on Channel 4.

The set-up for the show is that Pavel is here to host a retrospective of his work. In other words, he's going to show us some of Adam's latest video cut-ups, some more obviously connected to the character than others. And some, frankly, shoehorned into the show on the most tenuous of pretexts. As you'd probably expect, most of the best bits are on video. The highlights are an indescribible but inspired nihilist cut-up of Pokemon which needs to be seen - the original's diabolical animation and exaggerated reaction shots make it particularly vulnerable to this sort of abuse, but Pavel's version goes beyond the obvious jokes - and footage of the investiture of Pope Benedict, redubbed as a scene from Star Wars. The costumes are uncannily convincing. And if you're wondering what the hell that's got to do with Pavel... well, yes. But it's so good that it was worth getting into the show.

On the downside, Adam & Joe always had a weakness for material which was either slightly too puerile or, well, just plain obvious, and there's quite a bit of that here too. A lot of it's still funny, but it doesn't have the inspiration of the best parts of the show.

Still, it's not a mixture of good and bad - it's a mixture of good and okay. And the good bits are worth paying to see.


This skirts dangerously close to violating the "No comics" rule, but it's not actually a comic, so I'll let it slide.

Mirrormask, Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman's film, got its UK premiere yesterday. As you'd expect, the audience was about a fifty/fifty split between the usual Film Festival audience, and the Gaiman/McKean fans. At least, I'm figuring that's what accounts for the unusually high attendance of fat balding men in shorts, and goth waifs. Post-showing Q&As at the Film Festival tend to be heavily respectful anyway, but this one was positively obsequious at times. Look, sure, it's a great film, but we've already applauded it. You don't need to take up three minute of the Q&A simply to make a speech about how much you loved it, and then not ask a question.

For some reason Mirrormask also attracts an unusually large number of people who think "up to half an hour late" is a perfectly reasonable time to arrive for a film premiere.

As you'd probably expect from Gaiman and McKean, it's an all-ages fantasy fable with tons of animation. 15-year-old Helena wants to run away from the circus and start a normal life, but ends up being drawn into an alternate world based on her own drawings. That leads into the good old-fashioned quest story, where she has to find the magical Mirrormask in order to save the world from her evil twin. There's a rather nice subtext about kids tearing down their parents' worlds in order to make their own. Basically, if you know Gaiman and McKean's work, you'll have a very clear idea of what to expect from something like this, and you'll be right.

The film's limitations look to be budgetary more than anything else. The film is overwhelmingly CGI, with only a handful of physical actors in the dreamworld, and the budget is frankly modest for such an exercise. Considering the resources, it looks spectacular - in fact, much of the time it looks great by any standard - but there are still occasional lapses into "two actors wander around a static backdrop." There's also a bit of a credibility leap in accepting the world as based on Helena's drawings when it's so obviously the work of Dave McKean.

But at the same time, it's McKean's unique style that makes the film distinctive. Oh, and Stephanie Leonides, playing Helena, is great - as she'd need to be, given that she's on screen for pretty much the entire film. Fans will adore it. It's getting a limited release in America in September, and it seems they're still deciding what to do with it in the UK. According to McKean, it was commissioned in an attempt to duplicate the success of The Dark Crystal, which is to say that they don't expect it to take much at the box office, but they're hoping it'll do well in the long run.

Apparently, Dave's next film is going to be another version of Signal to Noise.

It comes as a slight disappointment to learn that Dave McKean is a perfectly normal man, and not, as I'd quietly hoped, an ever-shifting collage of geometric shapes and textures in broadly human form. He also likes jazz. If you'd ever assumed that the soundtrack to his pictures might not be jazz, then you are wrong, and should change your interpretation at once.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Gauguin's Vision / Salesman

Even a confirmed (albeit heavily ironically distanced) populist such as myself feels obliged to attend proper culture during the Edinburgh Festival. So I've been to the National Gallery of Scotland to see this year's big Festival-timed exhibition, Gauguin's Vision, to answer the big question. This Paul Gauguin bloke - any good, is he?

In fact, strictly speaking, Gauguin's Vision isn't actually a Paul Gauguin exhibition. It's an exhibition about Gauguin's hugely influential painting, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling With the Angel), putting it in the context of the stuff which influenced it and the stuff which came after. In other words, you get (i) Gauguin's earlier paintings of Breton people, (ii) stuff Gauguin was influenced by at the time, and (iii) other people's takes on the Jacob/angel theme. And then, after that, there's another room with some Symbolist stuff, since that's the movement that Gauguin kicked off with this painting. Oh, and there's a genuine Gauguin sideboard too, for those craving a suburban furniture-based take on the subject.

I realise that some of you may not have a National Gallery of Scotland handy, or just might not feel like spending £6.50 to find out what the painting looks like, so there it is at the top of the post. Sorry for the lack of spoiler space, but it has been out since 1888, so it's not like you haven't had plenty of time to see it by now.

Now, I don't claim to be any sort of authority on the visual arts, mainly because we were never really taught about it at school. We had art classes for years, but they really just consisted of sitting us down and telling us to paint something. I was crap at painting (I'm slightly better at sketching, but we never did any of that), and pretty much found the whole thing to be a waste of time. I honestly don't even remember any particular tips on how to be better at painting, although I imagine there must have been some in the course of nine bloody years. I suppose in theory this sort of thing is meant to spark your interest in art, but personally, I'd probably have been a lot more drawn in if they'd actually taught me something about it. I mean, it's not like you do ten years of English classes that consist entirely of writing essays about what you did at the weekend, is it?

I felt much the same way about science classes. In theory, we were presumably meant to find experiments fun. I found them an utterly tedious waste of time. Let's all do an experiment. All of us. Oh, what will the answer possibly be? Could it perchance be the one in the textbook? In fact, the same answer as it's always been, every bloody time since the experiment was invented in 1706? Why yes, it could. Look, I'm all for teaching about the scientific method, but we don't have to re-enact every trivial experiment. I'll take it on trust, you know? I'm sure the guy who wrote the book has tried it, and he knows what he's talking about. I get the point, can we move on now? No, we're going to demonstrate the fucking obvious for the next twenty-five minutes. Brilliant.

Which is why I dropped all the sciences as soon as I possibly could, despite finding the actual subjects theoretically interesting. Mind you, maybe I'm just weird.

I'm wandering, aren't I?

Gauguin's Vision is the sort of show that's genuinely trying to explain to people like me why an acknowledged masterpiece is so important, something that can only really be done by putting it in context and explaining what's actually new here, and what it led to. To be honest, as an actual picture taken in isolation, it doesn't do much for me, although I admit to having a limited interest in angels and Breton puritans. But a bit of context does wonders for it, as it explains what the hell wrestling has got to do with Breton religious festivals (quite a bit, as it turns out), and shows us why this is such an important painting in post-Impressionism. Up to this point people are still basically trying to represent what they see, albeit in increasingly subjective ways; Gauguin is taking the subjectivity to such lengths that he's no longer really trying to represent the physical world at all. Not only does he seem to be painting some sort of communal daydream, but for some reason everyone's in a bright red field, rather than the more conventional green. Gauguin apparently thought red symbolised dreaming better.

The story of Jacob wrestling the angel involves Jacob wrestling a man and not realising until later on that he's an angel. You'd have thought in Gauguin's version that the bloody great wings were a bit of a giveaway. But then, it's not literal, is it?

It's the sort of exhibition that would be considerably improved by making half the public vanish so that you could wander around more conveniently, and I'm not exactly sold on the placement of Vision itself, which crops up at the beginning of room 3 before you've actually seen all the context stuff. But it does succeed at the important bit - convincing me about why I should care.

Over at the Film Festival, I've chosen the Maysle Brothers' Salesman to kick things off, a documentary from 1968 which is apparently "a landmark in American documentary filmmaking". I wouldn't want to go to my grave without seeing all the landmarks in American documentary filmmaking. I might miss the man who invented I Bet You Will claiming the moral high ground, and we couldn't have that.

Salesman follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen from Boston. Their job is to visit people who've been bullied into signing the list by the local church, and attempting to flog them a horrifically bling Bible which is the size of a breezeblock but with better illustrations. Particularly gullible customers get sold the Catholic People's Encyclopaedia as well. Instalment options are available.

The genuinely impressive thing about this film is that, without ever shying away from the fact that they're selling overpriced crap to people who could get a much cheaper and perfectly serviceable Bible from the local bookshop, it actually makes the salesmen sympathetic. They're clearly under horrible pressure to deliver from an utterly uncaring company (who are seen giving a terrifying "motivational" speech to the effect that the product is so easy to sell that anyone failing to make targets must clearly be shit). They may well genuinely believe that they're selling a decent product. They are, as Albert Maysles argued in the post-showing interview, basically nice people who've been sucked into the values of a door-to-door Bible selling system.

Paul Brennan, the focal point of the film, is a documentary maker's dream. Not only is he failing to sell many Bibles and getting more and more obviously depressed about it, but he looks like a cross between Paul Whitehouse and William H Macy. You actually find yourself rooting for the poor guy to sell some of his dreadful crap, as he finds himself lost in America's most ludicrous city, and tries to bond with two of his customers by asking whether they were beaten by their fathers. Some of his colleagues have equally surreal scenes with customers - a highlight is the man trying his best to make a sale to a first-generation immigrant and mustering all the multicultural savvy that a white guy in 1967 can bring to bear. ("My English is basic - I am understanding your point, but I am not good at English." "Yes. That is why I am speaking very, very slowly, do you see?")

The film has been dusted off because Albert Maysles is in town for an interview later in the Festival, and they wanted to show some of his back catalogue to tie in with it. But this genuinely is a fantastic film which deserves the reputation they're crediting it with.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Richard Herring: Someone Likes Yoghurt

Fortunately for me, the Edinburgh Festival is on at the moment, which gives me plenty of things to write about over the next couple of weeks before we settle down to a more usual schedule.

The Americans amongst you may not be entirely familiar with how the Edinburgh Festival works. Once upon a time, it was purely a highbrow arts festival, featuring Very Serious Art performed for the benefit of the sort of people who like to think that they can appreciate that kind of thing. Then the Fringe came along and fucked everything up. The basic rule of the Fringe is that anyone can come along and play, just as long as they can find a venue.

In practice, what this means is that all sorts of ludicrously inappropriate buildings are hastily converted into dodgy makeshift theatres, where desperate performers ply their trade before tiny audiences. There was a time when it was all dominated by fringe theatre, but in recent years the stand-up comedians have moved in and turned it into, more or less, a UK comedy convention. Ricky Gervais, who doesn't do Edinburgh, pointed out a while back that the Festival now basically involves all the comedians who already play the London circuit coming up to Edinburgh and doing an hour-long show to the same people who come and watch them in London, in the hopes of getting commissioned to do a series by a commissioning editor who also works in London. He suggested, not unreasonably, that it might be cheaper and more convenient all round just to do stay in London and do the whole thing there.

You'd have thought a lot of people would agree with him, especially considering that the average Fringe show loses thousands. But there are two key reasons why the comedians keep coming. First, if you break through - and in particular if you win the coveted Perrier award (or the derided Perrier award, in the case of those who weren't nominated) - then you've got a pretty decent chance of getting a show on Channel 4. Johnny Vegas had a spectacularly successful run at Edinburgh a while back and has managed to get plenty of TV work off the back of it, despite his act being fundamentally untelevisable. (It's vaguely credible that a mentally ill potter might have blagged his way into doing a wonky Fringe show. It's not really credible that anyone would give him the money for a TV show, which is where Seven Stone of Idiot, or whatever it was called, fell at the first hurdle.)

Second, it's a convention, and that means that when they're not on stage, they tend to be very drunk. This goes on for a month, which stand-up comedians seem to find a very agreeable prospect.

A lot of purists hate the fact that comedy has taken over the Festival and pushed theatre to the side, a point which gets made rather hamfistedly halfway through Annie Griffin's recent film Festival, which I'll probably have more to say about over the next couple of weeks. The reality is that most people would rather see the comedians, because they're more entertaining, and because the quality control tends to be higher, especially at the major venues. A lot of the fringe theatre, especially outside the major venues, is terrifyingly obscure and of interest to virtually nobody. Even the Assembly Rooms, a major venue, is running a production of Faust performed entirely in Polish, with no subtitles, and with a programme containing a broken-English explanation of the plot which you can't read because the house lights are down. The critics love it, but realistically, how many people will want to watch Goethe in a foreign language - and not even the original one?

A lot of purists also hate the fact that ticket prices have gone through the roof, meaning that the traditional Edinburgh Festival month of seeing seven shows a day and staggering around the city in a drunken, dehydrated daze is now beyond the financial reach of most punters. They have a point, but even at these prices, most shows are still bleeding money. The population of the city may double during the Festival, but the number of shows competing for attention is astronomical. There are 333 venues in Edinburgh this year - that's not a misprint, three hundred and thirty three - and many of those have multiple stages. The average Fringe audience is tiny. But then, so is the average Fringe venue.

The purists particularly hate people like me, who make a beeline for shows offering the opportunity to see comedians we've heard of playing in small venues. But nobody listens to the purists.

Richard Herring has been doing the Festival for years, but for the last few years he's been doing one of those quasi-theatrical themed shows that stand-ups come up with when they're trying to fill an hour. This time he's back to straight stand-up comedy, abandoning any pretence of a linking theme in a show which takes five completely unrelated ideas and bludgeons them into the ground with deliberately excessive and pedantic zeal. Anyone can deconstruct "If" by Rudyard Kipling, for example, but the comedy lies in continuing to assault, misconstrue and bludgeon the poor poem for a good ten minutes after it's stopped twitching, homing in on every conceivable trivial criticism. The sheer lack of perspective is funny in its own right.

There's a film, The Aristocrats, getting its UK premiere at the Film Festival this year. It's a whole load of comedians talking about the famous "Aristocrats" joke, which is very popular with comedians despite the minor point of not actually being in any way funny. The reason comedians love it is because the punchline is totally unimportant - the point is how many jawdroppingly offensive images you can come up with along the way. Herring is probably a fan, with a good chunk of his show given over to intentionally offensive material that starts from an obviously (and even boringly) controversial beginning and escalates into ever more ludicrous contortions as Herring chases down all the logical consequences while remaining seemingly oblivious to what he's saying. He's not a big fan of the Catholic Church, to put it mildly.

This sort of thing works for Fringe audiences because, to be honest, it's usually a fairly safe bet that nobody in the audience is actually going to be offended - or if they are, they're going to be a heavily outnumbered minority. It's funny because it might hypothetically be offensive to somebody not in the room, rather than because it's actually intended to offend people who are. Besides, it's so over the top that you'd have to have a serious sense of humour failure to take it literally. On the whole, the sort of people who take their religion so seriously as to be actively offended by this kind of thing (as opposed to merely not it funny) don't bother with Fringe stand-up comedy. If they go to the Fringe at all, they're probably watching a nice am-dram production of Abigail's Party, with heavy period detail for added toothlessness. For the rest of us, this sort of material is offensive in a rather abstract way - it hits taboos, but it doesn't actually cause offence.

Tonight, in fact, Herring did have a party of middle-aged Daily Mail readers on the audience, who walked out in disgust at the start of the Catholicism segment. Apparently they weren't best pleased by his announcement that he was glad the Pope was dead. One of them actually seized the microphone to make his complaints clearer. (Herring politely assured them that, no, he wasn't drunk, he just had a different sense of humour from them.) This made us all feel much better about laughing at them in their absence. It's a shame they didn't stick around for Herring's explanation of exactly why he was glad, which starts with the relatively friendly observation that he's been released from disease and has gone to heaven, only to follow the train of thought until it takes him back into insanity again.

Herring claims to reckon that his audience splits between people who love it, people who hate it, and a middle ground who buy the Guardian and go "Well, I can see what you're doing with the structure of stand up..." If you've got any doubts about which category you're in, wait to see how you react to the punchline to the closing yoghurt segment. Any more than three seconds to get the point (or if you don't find it funny) and you're a Guardian reader.

The show's at Edinburgh until the end of August, and then touring. I loved it, and if you're in the third who are guaranteed to hate it, you probably know by now.

Begin at the beginning.

Welcome to If Destroyed..., the anti-X-Axis.

The X-Axis is great and all, but, let's face it, it's a little limited. It does one thing, review comics. And it does it with a very heavy focus on the X-books. That's the point, after all. But there are limits to what can be done within the X-Axis, or even Article 10. They've got to be about comics.

Feedback from the X-Axis tells me two things. One, a lot of my readers don't even read, or care about, the actual comics being reviewed. Bluntly, they don't much care what I write about. These people should be happy, because If Destroyed... will probably also feature me writing at length about things they don't care about.

Two, a lot of my readers actively lobby for me to write about other things. If Destroyed... will feature me writing about other things. Although not necessarily the other things they had in mind.

Basically, If Destroyed... is whatever I want it to be at the time. The remit is totally open-ended. It will review films. It will write about TV. It will talk about music. It might do a bit of current affairs. From time to time, it might just go rambling off on tangents unrelated to anything in particular. At some point I'll probably get around to actually doing Dead Air, a feature I've been meaning to do for months but never had a proper venue for.

Or alternatively it might not do any of the above. We'll just have to wait and see.

There are only three rules for If Destroyed..., all of which are designed to keep my sanity intact.

1. No schedule. If Destroyed... posts appear as and when I feel like writing them. There may be the occasional live blogging event which I'll announce in advance, but we'll come to that in due course.

2. No comics. Ever. If it involves comics, it'll appear in the X-Axis or Article 10.

3. No posts about my work or personal life. Because you don't care, and I'm not that interested in telling you. If I really want to write about that sort of thing, it'll go in my Livejournal.

Other than that, anything goes, really. Shall we get going?