Monday, August 27, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 27 August

This week, Cable & Deadpool #44, Wolverine #56, X-Men: First Class #3 and Bonds #1. Astonishing and X-Men are in the capsules. (I'm amused, by the way, to see a couple of other reviewers lamenting that they didn't feel able to take Cyclops' death in the AX cliffhanger seriously. It never even occurred to me that I was meant to.) Comment away.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Summerslam 2007

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Summerslam is meant to be one of the WWE's more important shows. It's been around since the late 1980s, and you can always tell the long-running shows by their rather dated names. (Most of the PPVs didn't come along until the nineties, which is why they all have names like Unforgiven. But that's for next month.)

In theory, this is the big show for this part of the year, and it ought to be a bigger deal than normal. In practice, they've run into a bit of trouble with the booking. The original plan was, of all things, Umaga versus the entire cast of Jackass. They got as far as promoting this on air a couple of times before the deal fell through; Johnny Knoxville got cold feet after the Chris Benoit affair. Most people agree that the match will not be missed.

Meanwhile, after a brief ratings scare on Raw, we've had the triumphant return to television of Vince McMahon and the revival of the "Vince is Dead" storyline. Of course, Vince is no longer dead, but they're ploughing ahead with what would have been the next part of the angle: one of the wrestlers is Vince's illegitimate son, who could it be? (In the original story, this would have come out in Vince's will.) This is now the lead story on all three shows, but it doesn't actually connect to a match on the show.

But in fairness, we are seeing some signs of long-term planning. There are a few slow-burning storylines which are being held back from this show on the logic that they aren't needed. That's probably smart. We don't MVP and Matt Hardy fighting for the US title on this show; they might as well be used to help Unforgiven's card. The Undertaker is also ready to return from his injury, but they're holding him back for a month to avoid overloading the card. Fine by me. This is how you're meant to do it.

So... what is on the show?

1. WWE Championship: John Cena v. Randy Orton. This is the Raw world title. It's a pretty good match-up, and they've had a bit of luck in terms of building up Orton. Over the last few months, there have been several opponents available who happened to be taking extended breaks, or just leaving the company altogether. This was ideal, because it meant Orton could be shown beating them decisively and putting them out of action. As a result, they've been able to make Orton look dangerous again, and they've made him an entirely credible challenger. They haven't done much beyond that, in story terms, but it's enough to be getting on with.

Cena has held the belt since last September, and he's overdue for a break. Meanwhile, Triple H is back as a solo babyface, and he kind of needs a heel champion to work with. The usual sources are all betting heavily that Orton will win the title on Sunday, so it looks good for Cena to get his long-deserved holiday. If Orton does win, it's likely to be a transitional reign, because he's proved terribly unreliable on the road in the past.

Reports from the untelevised house shows say that Cena and Orton have been putting on good matches, so this looks like a solid main event.

2. World Heavyweight Title: The Great Khali v. Batista. The lumbering giant Khali was given the Smackdown title last month in a desperation move after the previous champion, Edge, was injured. But Khali is not a long-term solution because, well, he's not very good. His selling point is his size - he's a legitimate giant and he does look very impressive. Until he moves.

Unfortunately, Khali isn't very good at moving, let along wrestling. They'll do their best to disguise his limitations, but there's only so far you can go. The latest idea is to change his finisher. He used to use the tree slam, which was kind of dangerous if he botched it. Now he's using the Iron Claw, one of those ridiculous nerve holds that were popular back in the seventies. Why the Claw? Because it's a move so simple that even Khali can't screw it up. You just put your hand on the guy's head and pretend to squeeze. The opponent sells the hold, and does all the work for you. Even Khali can do it.

The WWE have so much confidence in this match that they haven't even been running it on house shows. They've been announcing it, but what actually happens is that Finlay and Kane run in after a few minutes, and it turns into a tag match. Think about that - the WWE is putting this match on PPV, because they kind of have to, but they have so little confidence in it that they won't even inflict it on a paying crowd in the obscure venues that get house shows.

The smart money is on Batista winning here, simply because Khali just isn't good enough for the role. Unfortunately, there are no other obvious contenders lined up - Edge is injured, Mark Henry is programmed against the Undertaker, MVP is programmed with Matt Hardy, and Finlay just isn't at the right level - so the WWE will be crossing their fingers and hoping that the match is good enough to have a rematch next month. It probably won't be, although John Cena did manage to drag two watchable matches out of Khali a few months back, so nothing is impossible.

3. ECW World Heavyweight Title: John Morrison v. CM Punk. Because you demanded it: another chance to see this match, which has already been on PPV twice. But this time, it's different, because the stipulation is... oh, hold on. It's not different. It's just the same match again.

The betting seems to be that Punk will probably win, which would at least move things on somewhat. But the booking of the weekly show has been so haphazard that it's hard to work out quite what's going through the writers' minds. Who could possibly have thought it was a good idea to write a show, two weeks ago, where Morrison lost by DQ to the Boogeyman (a novelty act), and Punk was completely squashed by Big Daddy V (his entire offence consisted of two knees in the corner)? It's almost an object lesson in how to make a supposed world title look like a technicality, even within wrestling-world logic. I suppose the idea is that Punk wins the title and V is then automatically in place as a title contender, but there are better ways of doing it.

It'll be good but not great, and it'll be buried some way down the running order, because it's only the C-show. ECW only has one match on this card... but then, it's only got about 15 active wrestlers, which is another reason why we're getting this same match yet again.

4. Intercontinental Title: Umaga v. Carlito v. Mr Kennedy. With the Jackass story kaput, the next plan was for Umaga to defend his Intercontinental Title against Jeff Hardy for the second month in a row. But Hardy is unavailable - he claims that he's been sent home for injury rehabilitation, although the usual sources have expressed a considerable degree of scepticism about that. So plan C is to turn Umaga babyface.

This is a tricky act to pull off, because Umaga is a monster heel. His schtick is that he ploughs through people and destroys them. He's been very well protected; after many months on TV, only two guys have beaten him, and they were both main eventers. This doesn't transition very well to a babyface role, because traditionally the good guy needs to spend a lot of time taking a beating so that he can make his heroic comeback and triumph. It can be done - the Undertaker's made a career of it - but it's not easy.

Still, so far so good, as Umaga has successfully embarked on the first phase of a babyface turn. Without changing his character, he's just started fighting the bad guys, and the crowd is cheering him. This hastily-booked three-way match puts him up against two heel opponents, and under WWE rules, whoever gets the first pin wins the title. In other words, it's a wonderful device to relieve Umaga of the Intercontinental Title - which is a midcard belt - without anyone defeating him. They have big plans for Kennedy, and Carlito is expendable cannon-fodder, so I'm betting that Kennedy pins Carlito to win the title.

Match quality is tricky. Umaga is very good; the other two are hit and miss at best. The plot justification for the three-way is a number one contender's match between Kennedy and Carlito on Raw which ended with one of the worst possible finishes, a draw by simultaneous pinfall. (It's almost impossible to do without looking contrived, even by wrestling standards.) The match was pretty wretched, so I don't have high hopes for any period when they're working together here.

5. Triple H v King Booker. Triple H returns to the roster after a long absence rehabbing an injury. He was in D-Generation X when we last saw him, but from the promo videos, it looks like he's gone back to his normal persona. In the WWE's mind, by the way, this is meant to be the big draw for the show. I'm not sure they've really got it to that level.

In an interesting approach, Triple H hasn't appeared on TV to promote this match at all. They're holding him back for the show. Instead, the feud has been based entirely on segments featuring Booker and commentator Jerry Lawler. Booker's gimmick, ever since winning the "King of the Ring" tournament last year, has been that he's unaccountably convinced that he's a real king. Or maybe he's just winding people up. It's hard to tell. Anyway, he's laying exclusive claim to the word "king." Jerry Lawler used to be called the King, so he had to go, and Triple H used to call himself the King of Kings, so he's next.

As wrestling goes, this makes a certain amount of sense - you've got two guys with overlapping gimmicks, and they're going to fight over it. Triple H should get a good reaction for his return, and they're both solid veterans who could potentially have a very good match together. Triple H certainly isn't losing in his return match, but I'd have thought they wanted to pursue this feud further. I'm betting on a non-finish - Triple H by DQ or something along those lines.

6. Rey Mysterio v. Chavo Guerrero. Another former world champion returning from an extended absence. The last we saw of Rey, he was losing to Chavo Guerrero. So Chavo gets a temporary promotion from the undercard in order to appear in Rey's comeback match.

Again, Rey hasn't appeared on TV to promote this match, and instead Chavo has been doing segments where he runs down Rey and beats up other cruiserweights. But nobody really takes the cruiserweight division seriously - the current champion is a midget, for heaven's sake - and Chavo doesn't exactly become a credible opponent by pinning low-grade wrestlers like Funaki.

Although they're claiming that this is Rey's first match back from injury, he actually worked a couple of matches on the recent Mexican tour. Nonetheless, it'll be interesting to see what sort of shape he's in. Rey is obviously winning this match, and Chavo will be back down with the other cruiserweights in no time.

7. Kane v Finlay. Added to the card at the last moment, this is a curiously rushed match that seems to be there to fill time. They're feuding because Finlay accidentally spilled coffee on Kane. And that's not even an original story; Kane already did the same angle with Chris Jericho years ago. It'll be okay - Finlay is very good and I'm sure he can have a decent match with Kane. But I'm not expecting anything great.

There's one oddity to this pairing. Kane is clearly one of the good guys. Finlay is a slightly ambiguous tweener, but basically leans heel, and would normally be the heel in this match. But his midget sidekick Hornswoggle (I know, I know), the Cruiserweight Champion, has his own storylines where he's clearly the babyface. So Finlay and Hornswoggle are now a mixed-alignment duo, though neither of them seems to have noticed it. It's possible that this match could end up being the backdrop for an angle involving Hornswoggle and his current opponent, Jamie Noble, although if that was the plan, they'd probably just do it on Smackdown.

8. WWE Women's Title, #1 Contender: Women's Battle Royal. Exactly what it says on the tin: a battle royal where the winner gets a shot at the Women's Title. All the women from all three shows are in the match except, obviously, Candice Michelle, because she's the champion already.

The key thing here is that the Women's Title is a Raw belt, so the women on the other shows don't normally get to fight for it. So, in storyline terms, if they've got the slightest sense, everyone from Smackdown ought to join forces and make sure they get the title shot for their show. (The ECW girls are all dancers, so they're clearly not winning.) On the other hand, that doesn't mean they have to succeed.

Since Candice is a babyface, logically the winner is almost certain to be a heel. The obvious candidates are Victoria on Smackdown, for the inter-show angle, or Beth Phoenix on Raw, simply because she hasn't had a turn in the spotlight yet. As a battle royal featuring some participants of dubious ability, the match will probably be terrible.

Worth buying? Hmm. Orton/Cena is a safe bet. The two comeback matches should be decent. On the other hand, the IC Title match is questionable, the ECW match wasn't that great the last two times, the women's match will be diabolical, and Kane/Finlay is probably filler. Three good matches is probably enough to make it worthwhile for fans, but it's not the strongest card in the world.

Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore

One last festival review.

Deborah Melnyk and Rick Caine's documentary started life as a relatively admiring biography of Michael Moore and, somewhere along the line, mutated into an attack on Moore's working methods. Of course, in general terms, the criticisms of Moore's films are well-rehearsed, but they come largely from the American right. And frankly, nobody really takes the American right seriously on these things, because (a) they complain about the liberal bias in everything, and (b) they think Fox News is just fine. Consequently, although a miniature industry has sprung up in Moore rebuttal films, they tend to preach to the converted.

But there are ample, well-attested problems with Michael Moore's films, and there's a place for a film that approaches them without the same ideological baggage. Unfortunately, this probably isn't it.

The film is certainly persuasive about the fundamental dishonesty of large chunks of Moore's films. Roger & Me, it claims, contains two scenes which are completely fictitious. Moreover, even though the film is built around Moore's supposed quest to get an interview with the chairman of General Motors, it omits to mention that he did get a face-to-face interview, twice. A fairly fundamental omission when your film is built around criticising the guy for refusing to talk about the problems.

You could go on - and frankly, they'd have been well advised to spend more time making the comparable points about Moore's more recent and more influential films.

Instead, we get an awful lot about the directors' own attempt to get an interview with Moore and his (admittedly striking) lack of co-operation. There's a clear attempt here to portray themselves in a parallel with Moore in Roger & Me, and there's the glimmer of a valid point. If Moore is going to criticise other people for refusing to give him interviews, he inevitably comes across as a hypocrite for declining them himself. But that's a completely separate point from the more fundamental charges of deceit that they're levelling at him.

Here's the problem. There's a wider issue here, which the film never quite gets to grips with. The reason people are prepared to put up with Moore is two-fold (and these are essentially the arguments which were put forward at length after the screening by some very tetchy supporters). First, his falsifications tend to be in the detail, rather than on points that truly affect the substance of his argument. Second, this is simply the way in which political debate now works in the United States. Moore is no more dishonest than Fox News, and accuracy is an ineffective mode of political debate. Of course, a similar end-justifies-the-means mentality is implicit in many of Moore's right-wing counterparts.

But the fact that it's even possible to have an argument about the very ground rules of political debate in terms such as these is, or at least ought to be, alarming. When politics is being conducted on the basis that any amount of dishonesty is permissible so long as it gets the voters to support the correct programme, true public debate has effectively ceased and democracy is in crisis. This really won't do. But as any subscriber to FactCheck will be aware, systematic deceit has become a feature of American politics.

(Britain is not exempt, but the problem is hardly on the same scale. The British press seems much more willing to treat minor factual inaccuracies by politicans as stories. The current crisis of confidence which the television industry is working through indicates that many journalists and documentarians have clearly been in the habit of fudging things to make a better story, the public emphatically rejects any notion that this is a legitimate form of behaviour. Nobody is seriously questioning where the ground rules lie over here, merely whether they are being properly enforced.)

Yet this is a far wider issue, and Moore is only one instance of it. At best he's merely a case study of a wider malaise. This film sets out to do a straight biopic, ends up wanting to make another film entirely, but still has to deliver the Michael Moore profile that everyone signed on for in the first place. Neither a consideration of the wider issues of journalistic ethics, nor a proper biography of Michael Moore, the film ends up falling between two stools. It doesn't help that the European distributors apparently removed 20 minutes of footage about Moore's early career on the grounds that Europeans probably wouldn't be interested - even though this reduces the running time to 75 minutes.

There's a much better film to be made about this subject, but I suspect this one has been hamstrung by its origins as a straight biography.


From the fringes of the documentary programme, Castells is a film about the old Catalan tradition of human towers. Basically, you get a group of people together and climb on top of one another as high as you can.

There's more to it than that, of course - aside from being a cultural tradition (which, obviously, is a big deal in itself for an area like Catalonia), it's a sporting contest, with points depending on the height of your tower, and the difficulty of the structure. Oh, and once you've built your really high tower, you get a small child to climb to the top. Nets? What nets? That's what the crowd's for.

Honestly. See for yourself.

Gereon Wetzel's film isn't really about the phenomenon of castells as such. It's about Colla Joves, the team in the above clip. In fact, the same event appears prominently in the film. And yes, if you were wondering, that huge banner in the background does say "Catalonia is not Spain." In English.

The film gets off to a slow start, as it meanders around the team instead of doing more orthodox scene-setting. We don't get any explanations of where this tradition came from; for the participants, it's clearly a competitive sport first and foremost. Nobody is actually interviewed about the sport until an hour or so into the film. It takes a while to figure out that Wetzel is more interested in the dynamics of the team rather than in the castells themselves, which you'd expect to be more obviously interesting.

But once the film hits its stride, it works nicely. The team are amateurs, and there's a remarkably wide range of people in the squad, from veterans down to, literally, children. Some of the climbers politely wonder whether they might be a little too relaxed about the admission requirements - should there really be a guy down there at the base clutching a six pack of beer under one arm? Parents sulk that their children don't get picked for the squad. And most worrying of all, the little girl who's their best climber has got stage fright, after figuring out that this "climbing up to three stories high and then plummetting to the ground" business might be, you know, kind of dangerous. Her concerns are met with an exasperated lack of sympathy - the little brat needs to stop being such a wimp and get climbing.

The film could use a little bit of explicit narration at points, and the "following a team through to a competition final" format has possibly been over-used in documentaries over the last few years. But as a neat example of the universality of inter-team squabbling, combined with the remarkable spectacle of the sport, it's a worthwhile film.

I'm A Cyborg But That's OK

Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK - or, if you prefer, Saibogujiman Kwenchana - is a truly weird South Korean film that almost defies categorisation. I suppose you could call it a love story, but it's so far out on a limb that that really doesn't do it justice.

Lim Soo-jung plays Young-goon, a schizophrenic who is convinced she's a cyborg. She winds up in an institution after a botched attempt to wire herself to the mains is understandably misconstrued as a suicide bid. Still bitter about the institutionalisation of her grandmother - who believed she was a mouse - Young-goon feels that she should be taking revenge on the medical staff by killing the lot of them with her incredible cyborg powers. However, despite the rather sociopathic moral standards of the voices in her head, she can't quite bring herself to hurt anyone.

In hospital, she meets Il-sun, a kleptomaniac who claims that he can steal not only objects but personality traits as well. Bizarrely, he seems to be right about this, although whether he's using genuine psychic powers or just stringing people along by force of personality is open to question. Whatever the answer, however, there's no doubt that he's almost as mad as she is.

Young-goon wants him to remove her inhibitions so that she can turn into a cyborg and murder everyone. Il-sun wants to help her because she's not eating. (She only wants electricity.) They strike up a bond.

It's a very strange story, presented from the perspective of two characters who are plainly largely delusional. However, as the film continues, they seem to find themselves increasingly sharing common delusions, lovingly rendered in their full gleeful absurdity. The film manages to keep its institutional air without succumbing to the usual suffocating grays - the place is decked out in the sort of childlike pastels that you never see in the real world, and has an ornate garden that's every bit as artificial and contrived. Instead of looking like a particularly grim part of the real world, it comes across as a location entirely off to the side somewhere.

Interestingly, the story quite forcefully wants nothing to do with the notion of curing either character. Young-goon's refusal to eat is presented as a problem that needs to be addressed, because it's legitimately self-destructive. Her conviction that she's a cyborg is treated with a shrug of the shoulders, a "just the way things are" attitude. The film wants her to find peace within the framework of her existing personality, rather than remodelling her to make her sane.

The ending doesn't quite work for me - it feels as though, having reached its key emotional turning point, the film realises that it needs a finale and just tacks on something vaguely end-shaped. But that aside, it's a wonderful piece of work.

Impressing the Czar

(Still working through my Festival backlog here. Just a few more to go.)

Impressing the Czar was programmed as part of the official Edinburgh International Festival, which most people tend to just ignore. In theory, the official festival is meant to be the centrepiece, but in practice most audiences are much more interested in the Fringe. The EIF proper tends to be treated like Radio 3. It's nice to know it's there, but everyone assumes it's aimed at some uber-highbrow audience. This is actually rather unfair, but they've been struggling to shake off the image for years.

And to be honest, you don't get much more highbrow than Impressing the Czar, a ballet which was considered cutting edge when the Frankfurt Ballet first performed it in 1988. It's been lying unperformed for years, but choreographer William Forsythe allowed his longtime protege to revive it when she took over the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

Now, I don't know much about ballet, but I know what I... actually, come to think of it, I don't. So let's just stick with "I don't know much about ballet", which is much more honest. Judging from the programme notes, that probably puts me at a disadvantage, because a lot of this depends on knowing about ballet, or at least recognising that Forsythe is screwing around with the conventions.

It's a downright weird show. Act 1 starts off looking, superficially, like a typical story ballet. There are people in period dress, there are characters who seem to be leads. There's also a soundtrack that can only be described as a chop-up remix of Beethoven, a couple of people dismantling the set, a skewed chessboard, and a schoolgirl called Agnes providing a running commentary on the utterly impenetrable events. "I'm in the top right hand corner of the composition, surrounded by colourfully costumed characters..." Some of the dancers seem to think that they're in completely different shows from the other ones. Basically, it's a pile-up of elements that look as though they ought to amount to a story, but don't. It's absolutely demented and somehow hangs together as sheer absurdist spectacle.

Act 2, which is sometimes performed as a show in its own right, is the direct opposite. It's got no set, no pretence of a plot, no overt emotion, and a score that would have been modern electronica back in 1988, complete with that "orchestra hit" preset that everyone was using back then. What you're supposed to recognise - and what I need the programme to tell me - is that the dancers are performing a completely abstract routine made up entirely of moves from classical ballet that are normally used to tell stories.
If you don't get that reference, then it's still pretty entertaining as a purely physical exercise, but to be honest it could stand to lose five minutes.

Act 3 opens with Agnes attempting to auction off the dancers. That soon leads into a remarkable finale, as the entire company take the stage dressed as Catholic schoolgirls and embark on a wardance which is both elaborately choreographed but relatively straightforward at the level of the individual steps. It's a sort of nonsensical back-to-basics ending.

Apparently, Impressing the Czar is regarded as one of Forsythe's more accessible works, which makes one wonder what on earth the others must be like. And yet, incomprehensible though it may be, it's unexpectedly good fun. It doesn't make any sense at all, but then it's not meant to. On some level Forsythe seems to be engaging in a car-crash history of ballet, throwing everything up in the air and seeing where it lands. But even if you don't get any of that, the sheer bravado nonsense of it can't help but be entertaining.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


LYNCH is a documentary about David Lynch, filmed during the making of his last movie INLAND EMPIRE. (And yes, both titles are spelt in all caps. In fact, some sources have it that LYNCH is officially called L Y N C H. From the onscreen title card, it's hard to tell.)

The film has had a lot of good reviews online from those who've seen it, most of whom would appear to be huge fans of David Lynch. It's more of a portrait than a conventional documentary. It consists, basically, of footage of Lynch at work, intercut with the occasional anecdote from his youth. The whole thing is edited in wildly non-linear fashion. The sound editing is fractured, non sequitur shots appear throughout, and some of Lynch's stories are accompanied by blurry black-and-white reconstructions. Lynch also testifies to the power of transcendental meditation, which has apparently made him very happy. Basically, it's a creditable attempt to take elements of Lynch's own style and apply them to documentary footage.

There's no real narrative. Lynch muses occasionally that he's making up INLAND EMPIRE as he goes along, which is apparently a first for him - shooting on digital video makes it possible to pursue his stream of subconsciousness to the last moment, whereas in the past he's always had a firm script before shooting. (The exception being Mulholland Drive, but that was an accident - a film salvaged after the fact from a failed TV pilot.) But this isn't presented as any kind of thread; it's just the way things are.

After the screening, the film's producer explained that the style was dictated, as much as anything, by the fact that Lynch was simply too damn busy to sit down and give them any formal interviews because he was spending all his time making INLAND EMPIRE. There will, apparently, be a more conventional follow-up in which Lynch will be interviewed properly, answering questions from his fans.

For some reason, the director's identity is being kept mysterious. He or she is credited simply as "blackANDwhite", and the official line is that it's somebody very close to Lynch. Widespread rumour has it that the director is Lynch himself, which the producers emphatically deny. (If the producers are telling the truth, the obvious choice would be Lynch's daughter Jennifer, the director of the widely-panned Boxing Helena, who is just about to return to cinema with a film called Surveillance.)

As a piece of editing, it's very impressive. It does have a certain musical rhythm and atmosphere to it. But this can't quite disguise the fact that nothing terribly interesting is happening. LYNCH is a film that will enthral hardcore David Lynch fans. Those with an active involvement in film-making will no doubt be fascinated to see the details of what he does on set.

But if you're not interested in that level of detail, the reality is that most of the film consists of Lynch doing pretty much what you'd expect - admittedly, in a very hands-on way. He helps to dress the set. He arranges furniture. He tells actors what to do. He wanders around disused factories and admires their aesthetic potential as sets. He... you know, he directs a film. If you're expecting him to come across as a crazed visionary, well, he doesn't. He comes across as perfectly normal, perhaps a little eccentric around the edges. His screenplays may be extremely weird, but he's totally practical when it comes to filming them.

All this means that unless you're a sufficiently devoted fan to find everything David Lynch does inherently fascinating, a lot of this is, quite honestly, a bit dull. It doesn't spoil the mystery of Lynch's films, because there's no real attempt to explain them. But ultimately, it doesn't reveal a great deal about Lynch, except perhaps that he's more mundane than you might have thought.

Razzle Dazzle

Returning to more normal Film Festival offerings...

Razzle Dazzle is an Australian mockumentary about a kids' dance competition. In an odd piece of casting, it stars the English comedian Ben Miller as Mr Jonathan, a well-meaning underdog dance teacher who persists in trying to introduce politics to the world of kiddie choreography. As you'd expect with these things, the plot follows Jonathan and his girls as they make it to the final against more conventional opposition and, ultimately, win.

It's okay. But it's not great, and the bar for mockumentaries has been set at an awfully high level. There are plenty of good moments, and the kids are consistently excellent. We were told before the screening that they hadn't been given a script but were simply told to react appropriately to the dance teachers. If true, that's pretty impressive, because it means that some of them are improvising better dialogue than the adult actors.

On the other hand, it's formulaic, and it doesn't quite hang together as a whole. The ridiculousness of Jonathan's choreography is undermined when we're shown clips of the other competing troupes, many of whom seem to be every bit as silly. The best thing in the film is a subplot about Tanille, the little girl whose mother has big plans for her - but (a) she's a stock "pushy stage mother" character, and (b) it's hard to imagine why somebody so obsessed with their daughter's career would enrol her with Jonathan in the first place. She's there because the writers want her there, even though logic screams that she should be with the more conventional rival school.

It's okay, and I kept rooting for it to be better, but it just doesn't quite make it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The 2007 Surprise Movie

I'm jumping way out of sequence here, but hell, we may as well skip to the annual Film Festival Surprise Movie. The routine here is that they simply announce a movie, which will be the premiere of something-or-other, and you go along at random to see it. Filling this slot is tricky. Obviously you don't want to waste anything that would be a really major draw in its own right, but equally you can't bring in a big audience and then show them three hours of Venezuelan melodrama.

The usual solution is to find something relatively commercial but not necessarily an obvious Film Festival choice. And so the 2007 selection is...

The Kingdom. Which doesn't come out in America for over a month, and won't come out in the UK till October. It's actually been finished for months, but the release was delayed from April after what were apparently positive test screenings, in the hope of giving it a bigger push.

Spoilers lurk below, obviously. Although frankly, it's so Hollywood that you'll be able to see all the plot points lurching mechanically towards you from a very early stage.

It's a thriller loosely based on the Riyadh compound bombing of 2003. Evil terrorists attack an American compound in Saudi Arabia (a workers' facility, not a government one). Lots of people die. After a bit of political manoeuvring, FBI agent Jamie Foxx persuades the Saudis to let his team in to see the crime scene. Much bumping of heads with the Saudis follows, but - can you see where this is heading? - ultimately Jamie Foxx builds a relationship of mutual respect with his Saudi opposite number and together They Fight Crime.

If you're wondering, no, they didn't shoot the film in Saudi Arabia. They used a mixture of Abu Dhabi and Arizona, which is close enough for their purposes.

I can understand why this went down well with American preview audiences. It's well paced as an action film. Foxx is a good leading man. It's got its heart in the right place - it's quite keen to stress that these terrorist guys are indeed criminals in the eyes of the Saudi authorities. It has some cool explosions and some extended shooting. It's full of heartwarming hands-across-the-continents stuff, which kind of works for the most part. A lot of films like this think they're saying something profound about the human condition; I suspect The Kingdom knows full well that it's just an odd-couple action movie at heart, and figures that that's probably enough of a statement in itself for the current climate. And to be fair, corny though it may be, the closing scene does try to draw some parallels that American audiences may be a little more resistant to.

For all these reasons, and very much against my better judgment, I kind of liked it. On balance.

Here's the thing. They know what story they want to tell - Americans and Saudis overcome cultural differences to fight terrorists. Fine. But then they start trying to hammer it into a stock Hollywood framework, and they hit trouble. The Saudis aren't evil, but they are almost invariably portrayed as blithering idiots who need the plucky Americans to come in and sort out their investigation. There's a glimmer of a plot justification for this - the local cops might have been infiltrated, the army has been put in charge and don't know what they're doing - but it's not exactly prominent.

The Saudis don't know how to examine a crime scene. They don't know how to identify wreckage. And they need Jennifer Garner to conduct their autopsies for them - even though she can't touch Muslim corpses, and therefore has to talk a local cop through it on her behalf. You could get away with this plot in Rwanda, but this is Saudi Arabia, one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations in the world. I'm sure they can afford a pathologist and a couple of forensic scientists - and the assumption that they need the Americans to do this stuff for them is, well, let's be charitable and say "deeply patronising."

The first act is also likely to be more of a problem for non-American audiences, since it works on the absolute assumption that, well, clearly the FBI should be investigating a murder in Saudi Arabia, and what's this nonsense about them not doing so? Unless you're a flag-waving US patriot, it's probably going to take you a little time to decide that you actually like the protagonists.

Still, it's a decent enough action movie. And there's a much better film in here trying to get out. It just wouldn't take any money at the US box office.

Monday, August 20, 2007


The Film Festival's enthusiasm for Protagonist doesn't seem to translate into much confidence in its ticket-selling ability. The programme bills it as "The most emotionally expansive, formally ambitious documentary of the year" - which may well be true. For some reason, the programme doesn't mention that the director, Jessica Yu, won an Oscar in 1996 for her documentary short Breathing Lessons. Perhaps the assumption is that we Film Festival-goers either regard the Oscars as beneath us. Or maybe they think we're so well-informed that we already know who won Best Documentary Short eleven years ago? So the film is showing in Filmhouse 3, which is one of the smallest cinemas in Edinburgh. It's really more of a screening room.

Protagonist tells the life stories of four completely unrelated men, which - and please, please don't tune out here - are presented in the structure of Euripidean tragedy. Euripedes was regarded as ahead of his time back in the fifth century BC because he wrote about people as they were, rather than people as they ought to be. The common theme with these four men is that they are all, in their own way, former extremists who have reacted to an initial problem by pursuing a seemingly logical solution with absolute commitment, only to realise that they've gone too far and to perform a complete U-turn.

Their stories are entirely independent of one another, and range from the relatively minor (martial arts enthusiast Mark Salzman) through to the alarmingly dangerous (terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein). Yu tells their stories through a mixture of interview, archive footage and reconstruction - with puppets. Animated captions appear from time to time to flag up when we're moving on to the next phase of Euripides' structure.

Each of the four stories is interesting in itself. But by intercutting them around the same structure, Yu brings out the parallels and turns them into a discussion of universal themes of human nature. This is not a film about Euripedes; it's a film that uses Euripedes to illustrate the fact that not only does this structure hold good for the four guys on film, but it also held good two and a half millennia ago.

This is a compelling piece of work, and one to see if you get the chance. If you live in Edinburgh, that would be at 8.30pm tonight, when the second showing is on - although since it's in Filmhouse 3 again, you might be lucky to get tickets. If you're in America, it's opening in New York on September 26, and rolling out from there.

X-Axis comments thread - 19 August

This week: why is New X-Men so ungodly boring?; Good As Lily, the latest Minx book; and Killing Girl #1.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


I'm not entirely sure why I originally booked tickets for Aria. By the time I went to see it last night, I'd completely forgotten what it was. In the interests of eliminating all preconceptions, I decided not to bother checking, and just showed up anyway.

It's billed in the Film Festival programme as an "Eccentric, beautiful road movie from Japan." I suspect that the oddball plot synopsis may have attracted my attention.

"Lonely piano tuner Ota," it begins, "befriends Kuzo, an elderly man who performs an unsettling stage act with a lifelike girl puppet. When Kuzo becomes gravely ill, Ota agrees to undertake a quest on his friend's behalf: to track down the lost but strangely significant piano that once belonged to the puppeteer's late wife. But who is the beautiful young woman who insists on coming along for the ride? Is she really Kuzo's daughter? Or could she be his performing partner come to life...?"

Reading this, as I recall, I was anticipating something endearingly quirky. And that's kind of what it is. But I should have been tipped off by another line in the programme listing: " particularly urgent need to explain its own mysteries..." If I'd remembered that line, then my alarm bells would have started ringing when the director stood up before the screening and informed us that the film was quite slow.

And yes, it's that most intimidating of arthouse sub-genres: the elliptical Japanese fable that Will Not Be Rushed. I've stumbled into a couple of these before, and frankly, I find them a bit wearing. I seem to remember a thoroughly incomprehensible film from a few years back which consisted mainly of a policeman looking at a misshapen tree.

This is... somewhat more comprehensible. It does have a plot. Ota's wife has died and he's very sad. She asked for her ashes to be scattered on a beach, but since she only identified the beach by a photograph facing the sea, and all beaches look much pretty much alike from that angle, he's had some difficulty carrying it out. He ends up on a road trip trying to find the aforesaid piano as a tribute to the late Kuzo, accompanied by Kuzo's apprentice and a woman who claims to be Kuzo's daughter. The suggestion in the official plot synopsis that she might in fact be the doll come to life completely flew over my head when I watched the film, although I'm not altogether sure that it would have transformed my understanding of the story. ("Aria", by the way, is the name of the doll.)

They go looking for the piano (eventually), and they find it, in a resolution that is more poetic than logical. Somehow or other this seems to symbolically resolve all the other plot threads as well. In more conventional road-trip fashion, Ota starts off withdrawn and hostile, and ends up being slightly reconciled to his travelling companions. So there's kind of an emotional turning point there.

Now, I'll give it this. It's beautifully shot. It's got a curious sort of dream logic to it, which allows it to pull off a finale that by all rational standards shouldn't work at all. There's something rather timeless about it, with anything invented in recent decades studiously eliminated from shot. And there are indeed gently amusing moments.

But I suspect a lot of the subtle details are lost in cultural translation. Extended sequences of characters wandering around remote temples leave me strongly suspecting that if I was Japanese, I'd probably have a much clearer idea of the connotations that the director was aiming for.

And dear god, it's slow. It's so slow. They don't even get around to looking for the piano until about halfway through the running time - and it's only 100 minutes long. I mean, I'm trying my hardest here to avoid using words like "mindbendingly dull", but it really is glacial, and it stretched my patience almost to breaking point. With the best will in the world, the vast majority of cinemagoers will find this film oppressively tedious. Even for the tiny minority who have the patience for this kind of thing, I'm not sure that it's sufficiently rewarding to justify the endurance test.

In the admittedly unlikely event that you ever see it playing near you, give it a miss unless you're a very, very hardcore cinephile.

Follow Me

From the Assembly Rooms' lunchtime slot, Follow Me is a two-hander about the execution of Ruth Ellis in 1955. It's basically two monologues set on the night before the big day - Ellis writes letters to friends and family and talks to her unseen cellmates, while Albert Pierrepoint, the Chief Executioner, briefs his unseen assistants and contemplates the anti-death penalty crowd outside. There isn't really a story; it's just a "compare and contrast" with the two characters, who finally meet in the closing moments as Ellis is collected for her execution.

For those Americans who may not be aware, Ruth Ellis was the last woman in Britain to be hanged. We continued executing men for another nine years, but Ellis has always been a much better known figure. In part, that's because her execution was particularly contentious. She was 28, there were certain class overtones at play, and the overwhelming majority of female murderers were reprieved by that point anyway. But Ruth had the misfortune to be convicted just after an election year, when the new government had been elected on a hardline policy. So off to the gallows it was.

Personally, I find Pierrepoint a more interesting figure than Ellis. Assuming you take the view that she was guilty - and this play does - she's a crime-of-passion murderer whose story has some lurid overtones. Pierrepoint, on the other hand, was an executioner as a sideline. The British didn't execute enough people to justify keeping an excutioner on staff as a full-time job, so he made his living running a pub. Nonetheless, he still managed to get through several hundred executions in his career (though admittedly, almost half of those were Nazi war criminals in the late forties).

Despite this, Pierrepoint was far from bloodthirsty; by all accounts he seems to have accepted the death penalty as a fact of life and to have been sincerely concerned to conduct his executions as painlessly and humanely as possible. However, he resigned in 1956 (over a disagreement about fees) and went on to become an opponent of capital punishment - not so much as a matter of principle, as because he came to feel that it was ineffective as a deterrent, and to be disturbed by the fact that reprieves were granted more by political expediency than on the merits of the case. He seems to have been fine with the actual killing bit, as long as it was acheiving something and it was being conducted in a rational way.

The contrast between the two characters works because Ellis is a murderer, but one who's relatively easy to identify with. Pierrepoint is somebody who can calmly and rationally kill hundreds of people, and while it's easier to understand his position intellectually, it's virtually impossible to identify with his ability to do the job.

If you put these two figures on stage together then the show practically writes itself, and director Guy Masterson plays it straight. It's a small-scale, minimal production that depends on the performances to carry it, and the performances are excellent. Although Pierrepoint eventually reconciled his concerns by becoming an opponent of capital punishment, this show sees him at a point where he's starting to have his doubts about the whole thing, or at least the way it's being operated. The show doesn't resolve that dilemma or even attempt to; it simply presents the two characters as fascinating in their own right.

At 75 minutes in the lunchtime slot, when there's not much competition, this is well worth going out of your way to see.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Nothing to do with the Fringe, but this story irritates me enough to deserve a few words.

From the Independent:-
Mastermind has long been regarded as one of the most testing quiz shows on British television, with its darkened studio, dazzling spotlight and intimidating black leather chair.
But this week, the BBC2 programme was facing accusations of dumbing down, after it allowed one of its contestants to choose the Friends actress Jennifer Aniston as a specialist subject.

There's a similar why-oh-why story in the Telegraph.

There are two points to note about this, and the various other articles.

First, "facing accusations" from whom? The Independent doesn't identify any accuser at all. The Telegraph has a brief quote from Nick Seaton, chairman of the "Campaign for Real Education", whatever that may be, but the context suggests that he was phoned up for a quote. Is this, by any chance, an attention-grabbing press release from the BBC purporting to respond to a complaint that nobody has actually made? My non-story alarm bells are ringing wildly.

Second, regardless of where the story came from, it's obvious that the papers are happy to buy into the underlying assumption that questions about classical Greek literature are "hard" and questions about Jennifer Aniston are "easy."

Not so. The specialist subject round in Mastermind has never been anything more than a memory test on basic facts. It doesn't really call for a thorough understanding of the subject, or the ability to construct an argument, or anything really constructive. (That's not to say that previous contestants haven't had these qualities, merely that the show doesn't require them to be displayed.) It's essentially a rote memory test which examines your depth of knowledge on a narrow field of your own choice. That memory task doesn't become any easier simply because the subject happens to be trivial. Nor does it become any more impressive simply because the subject sounds a bit academic.

The questions on Mastermind really aren't that hard, if you know the subject. They're supposed to be questions that you could answer immediately. They're not exam questions.

What's most interesting about these stories, and the Daily Mail-style wailing that they provoke, is the extent to which people can be fooled into believing that they're witnessing serious academic thought, merely because somebody is demonstrating a relatively superficial knowledge of an academic subject. In a way, it parallels the comic-book trend that I like to call the Millar-Meltzer Fallacy. ("Rape is an important issue. My story mentions rape. Therefore my story deals with an important issue.") Of course some subjects are more difficult and worthwhile than others - but not at the level of a memory-test quiz show. Difficulty in Mastermind is determined by the breadth of the subject and the level of the questions, not by any other inherent property of the subject itself. Jennifer Aniston's had a longer career than some classical poets or artists, and nobody would question their choice as subject matter.

Knowledge is not insight. Facts are not arguments. And the belief that cleverness lies in rote learning of the classics is a debased notion of intelligence. A dumbed down version, if you prefer.

Lee and Herring

One of the great mysteries of the British comedy circuit is the inexplicable failure of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring to become rich and famous. As a Britpop-era nineties double act, they had a massive cult following for a while. Lee's deadpan pedantry and Herring's childlike mock-idiocy, although designed as completely independent acts, meshed perfectly. They even had a show on BBC2 for a while, which for some reason never gets repeated. Here they are in their (televisual) heyday.

Television plus cult following plus talent plus critical acclaim ought to lead, you would think, to a successful long-term television career. In act, by the late nineties, they had split up and returned to solo work as stand-up comedians. And, despite continuing good reviews, they both vanished from television more or less completely.

In fairness, neither of them was ever going to be an entirely mainstream act. They were always a little too intellectual for the family entertainment slots, and their appeal was always primarily to people who enjoyed very abstract humour. A lot of their stuff is about dismantling and mocking lazy thinking, and a lot of the rest is about playing with structure. This isn't really what people are looking for on Saturday primetime. For a fair chunk of the population, it's not really what they're looking for, period. But that still leaves a fairly largely number of people who actually enjoy thinking.

Richard Herring is a very good stand-up comedian who has possibly been testing the limits of his audience a little bit over the last few years. His recent show Someone Likes Yoghurt was based largely on the joke of taking an essentially banal anecdote about yoghurt and stretching it out way beyond the bounds of rationality. Clearly this is not for everyone. This year's show is a lot more conventional than that; the notional theme is his fortieth birthday, which is a bit of a cliche. But as his persona was always based around his refusal to grow up, there's some actual material in there.

Questionable linking themes are a Fringe tradition because the show title has to be submitted in the spring (i.e., before most stand-up comedians have actually written any of the material), and there's a degree of that here. This isn't an all-time classic show, or necessarily the most interesting thing Herring's done, but it's still an hour of very good stand-up comedy.

Stewart Lee, meanwhile, is on one of the larger Underbelly stages - a tent in the form of an inverted cow which somebody no doubt thought was hilariously entertaining when E4 agreed to sponsor it. Much to his own surprise, Lee was declared the 41st best stand-up comedian of all time in a Channel 4 poll a few months back, decided by some bizarre and incomprehensible mechanism involving public votes, industry panellists, and the producers messing about with the results to reflect their own views. Recognising the sheer pointlessness of these lists, Lee has dutifully started billing himself as the 41st best stand-up comedian of all time, with a programme listing that helpfully points out that only four other acts at this year's Festival are officially better than him. And then names them, so that you can see them first.

Lee's meticulous, deliberate style isn't for everyone. He does a lot of comedy-about-comedy which might be too inside for audiences who aren't interested in the mechanics of stand-up. At two points in this show he spends up to ten minutes working a single joke, carefully dismantling every possible angle. It really shouldn't be possible to dissect the Del-Boy-falling-though-a-bar sketch at such inordinate length, and still be entertaining, but Lee can do it. He's an absolute master of pacing and exploring subtle variations on a simple idea. YouTube doesn't seem to have any excerpts from his recent shows that really illustrate what he can do with this sort of material, but here's an excerpt from last year's show, talking about the then-contemporary Joe Pasquale plagiarism story.

Not many stand-up comedians can get a laugh from the words "troubled by the possibility of duality of meaning." The man's a genius. See them both, but see Lee first. He's vital.


Modern dance from South Korea. This actually ended its run on Friday, but so it goes.

When groups from the other side of the world show up at the Fringe, I always wonder whether they quite understand what they're getting into. The Daegu City Modern Dance Company are playing the Southside Zoo, a community centre which is actually quite a good venue by Fringe standards - at least it's got a proper auditorium with a large stage, proper sound and decent lighting. But it's still not a real theatre, and given the shaky grasp of English displayed in the programme, I can't help but wondering how effective the group's pre-booking research actually was. Their home venue apparently seats 1,200.

In theory, this is a storytelling piece. It's something to do with the idea that people in society are puppets, but that free thinkers can inspire other people to be more than that. Or something. It's hard to tell. There's an professional-looking programme which sets out the whole plot. The problem is that, while it's clearly been lavished with the attentions of a professional designer, at no stage has it been anywhere near a translator who is fluent in English. The synopsis, which is headed "Plot making in brief or scripts", is not entirely informative. Scene 6, for example, is summarised as "Without any relations with others, the person bounds for one's own destination."

To be perfectly honest, even to the extent that I was able to decipher the synopsis, I have no idea how it related to most of what I saw on the stage. The translated reviews from the South Korean press, included at the back of the programme, suggest that local critics may have been similarly confused - though given the quality of the translation, it's hard to be sure. ("Conventional performances have likely failed to make audience - even after curtain call - understand which intention a choreographer has to roll out his dramaturgic plots.") A selection of quotes from Korean audiences makes one wonder quite what they could possibly have said in the original language. "I was frightened at great dramatization of this dance performance," says one.

So... as a storytelling piece, it's not exactly successful. But as a visual and musical spectacle, it's pretty good. They're clearly a seriously talented group of dancers, and it's a very fast-paced show. I have absolutely no clue what was meant to be going on for most of the time, but it still held my attention on the strength of the abstract elements alone. They're clearly trying to make modern dance more accessible by keeping it largely upbeat, including some sort of narrative (however questionably), and going for fairly mainstream music. Most of that comes from an on-stage jazz band, although for some reason they've also thrown in the entirety of "Voodoo People" by the Prodigy, with a man playing another electric guitar over the top. It doesn't sound especially out of place.

I can't honestly say the show is a success, because it desperately wants to communicate some sort of story, and on that level it doesn't work. But it works on every other level, and it's easy to see why, despite the tone of slight bafflement, the Korean reviews were so generally enthusiastic. I didn't understand it at all, but I still enjoyed it.

Amanda Palmer

I seem to have a Festival-related backlog building up. Let's see if we can clear it.

Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls is playing a series of shows this year, which is unusual for musical acts - they tend to drop in for a date or two. But she's had a good time at the Fringe in the past, roping in local cabaret acts as part of her show, and I suspect she's done the maths and figured out that if she does eight dates over two weeks, she gets a holiday at the Fringe into the bargain.

Brian Viglione, her drummer, apparently isn't so keen on extensive international touring. And besides, she's got an upcoming solo album to promote. So we're getting a solo show.

Apparently she's playing different sets every night, but when I was there, she was mainly playing original material from the upcoming album. There's a whole load of largely-unwatchable phone-cam videos of this stuff on YouTube, but to be honest, you're probably better off checking her Myspace page to get them with decent sound quality.

It's not a drastic shift from the Dresden Dolls, but then nobody would really expect that. The main difference is that these are songs which weren't designed for the Dolls' minimalist piano/drums combination. Her previous solo sets in Edinburgh suffered slightly from the fact that some of their most popular songs don't really work without the drum part. That's no longer an issue.

The Spiegeltent is an ideal venue for her, playing to her cabaret influences - well, as long as you can live with the fact that it's not exactly optimally soundproofed. And she's a great natural performer. It takes a lot of charisma to hold the attention of a room when you're playing a piano and can't really move around the stage, but she pulls it off - partly through her own performance and partly by roping in other people to wander around the room during songs in the way that should be familiar to anyone who's seen the Dresden Dolls perform. In a fantastically ludicrous piece of showmanship, she also joins them on stage for... five minutes of lipsynching to "Umbrella." And it's glorious.

Always worth seeing if you get the chance, and the new album sounds like it should be great.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 12 August

At last, a comments thread started on the right day. See, I'm learning.

This week, Ultimate X-Men - more a reflection on the state of the series as a whole than a review of the individual issue, but there you go. Clubbing, which apparently came out a couple of months ago, but I didn't know that until after I'd bought it. And Un-Men, one of the better Vertigo relaunches.

(Oh, by the way, I'm sometimes asked why I'm not reviewing the "Endangered Species" back-up strips. It's because five pages a week isn't really worth writing about. I'll write it up when the story is finished.)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Kirsten O'Brien

Way off at the other end of the Edinburgh Festival spectrum, long-serving kids TV presenter Kirsten O'Brien is doing a hour in the Pleasance in the early afternoon, reminiscing about her career in children's TV. She can't possibly be making any money off this - the Pleasance Cellar can't seat more than about 75 people at a push - so either she really likes the idea of spending a month at the Fringe at her own expense, or she's trying to reposition herself as an adult performer. The programme certainly goes out of its way to stress that you shouldn't bring the kids, essentially because she's going to talk honestly about her career, and they probably wouldn't like that.

A curious feature of the Fringe is that it requires stand-up comedians to do hour long sets, which are much longer than a normal club set, but shorter than a normal solo touring show might be. This tends to result in a lot of slightly questionable themes used as a shaky peg to hang an hour's stand-up together, and in recent years it's led to a Fringe speciality: the one-man-and-his-Powerpoint-presentation show. (Dave Gorman's Are You Dave Gorman set started off as one of these.)

That's basically what we have here - it's a mixture of anecdotes about the TV industry, honest acknowledgement that doing signing sessions in backwater holiday camps isn't the best way of spending a weekend, and a certain degree of padding. With the best will in the world, since she obviously has enough material from her career to fill the slot, she could easily stand to trim some of the anecdotes from her childhood.

But she's a likeable, chatty performer and she's good with people. She's not the world's best stand-up comedian, but she does have some genuinely interesting stories to share. And she's put more effort into staging her show than most people in that slot. It's enough to show that she has something to offer the world beyond children's TV, which I suspect was the point.

Alex Hartley

Dear me, I'm slipping behind. Time to set about catching up.

The Fruitmarket Gallery is Edinburgh's main modern art gallery (unless you count the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, but that's really more of a museum of twentieth-century work than an exhibition space for new material). Their Festival offering is, apparently, "the first solo exhibition in a public gallery in Britain" by Alex Hartley - a heavily qualified "first" if ever I saw one.

Hartley's schtick is unusual perspectives on architecture. What this means, in reality, is that he likes climbing on buildings and then producing mock climbing-route maps in which he treats them, deadpan, like any other natural feature. He also produces rather convincing doctored photographs of untouched landscapes into which he's inserted unlikely buildings - not by altering the photograph, but by physically adding little three-dimensional attachments onto the surface itself. He makes some rather clever objects where pictures are viewed through some kind of glass panel, creating a surprisingly convincing illusion of a blurred three-dimensional space. And he likes photographing Californian modernist architecture, which I'm sure is fascinating if you're into that sort of thing.

His most striking contribution is to encase the gallery itself with an additional facade, essentially a giant billboard, on which he's reproduced the real facade with helpful notes and advice on how to climb the thing. (The facade serves the handy double purpose of making it impossible to actually attempt any of the climbing routes. Bearing in mind that the Fruitmarket is in the city centre, you can practically guarantee that if the routes were still climbable, some drunken idiot would break his neck attempting them.) It's a genuine "What the hell?" moment when you approach the building.

You know what the problem is with the modern art world? They insist on trying to make themselves sound clever. A lot of Hartley's work is perfectly enjoyable on a surface level. There's a sense of wry and absurd humour running through most of it. On at least one level, it sets out to be entertaining, and it succeeds. In a video interview, running in the corner of the gallery, Hartley outright confirms that the playful absurdity is a large part of the appeal for him. Yes, he's quite into messing about with preconceptions about architecture and all that... but it's not meant to be simply a dry theoretical exercise.

But you'd never guess that from the official leaflet, which almost completely omits any mention of the fact that Hartley's work is meant to be amusing, or even that it's supposed to generate any emotional reaction whatsoever. The "almost" is because they mention in passing his book LA Climbs, and describe it as "not entirely serious." Otherwise, the programme promises a grim experience indeed. Would you go and see an exhibition described like this?
"This exhibition, Alex Hartley's first solo exhibition in a public gallery in Britain, brings together a significant selection of existing and new work. From glass-encased images to idealised modernist interiors produced in the 1990s, to newly commissioned photographic work connected with his interest in climbing on buildings, the works all reflect a dynamic practice characterised by critical thinking about physical and mental approaches to the built environment and the natural world."

Who writes this stuff? What is it supposed to mean? And the accompanying essay is even worse. The opening line:-
"Like mountain climbing, the act of climbing buildings, known as 'buildering', confronts the monumentality of structures."

The unnamed author goes on to quote a passage from Hartley's LA Climbs that makes him look every bit as pretentious (even though, in the video interview, he seems perfectly reasonable):-
"Buildering focuses purely on the phenomenal characteristics of the architecture, on its compositions of planes, surfaces, textures and their relationship and accessibility to the physical form of the urban climber. It offers up a new interpretation of a fractured, constructed arena through this interaction."

The first sentence isn't so bad, but the second is unforgiveable. The essay continues with a mixture of legitimate background information and indigestible, intolerable explanation. It ends with this deathless insight:-
"Hartley's work addresses complicated and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward the built and natural environments. Encounters with buildings are grounded by conventions and expectations, but Hartley shows us new ways of physically experiencing and thinking about the built environment - through surface and line, scale and materials, locations and contexts. Climbing is a strategy for access through thoughtful trespass. By subverting conventional approaches to the built environment, Hartley presents the possibility of physical and political freedom."

This is just gibberish. "Climbing is a strategy for access through thoughtful trespass"? Climbing can't be a "strategy for access", because in order for Hartley to do his climbing, he has to have access already. His "strategy for access" is to jump over the fence. This sort of thing is nonsense to anyone who hasn't spent years immersed in artschool jargon, and it's probably nonsense to most of them as well. All that the author is saying - in a staggeringly pretentious fashion that empties the work of all its entertainment value and all its most engaging qualities - is that, like, we normally see buildings primarily in terms of their social function, and by disregarding their social context and interacting with them as though they were landscape features, Hartley breaks through those preconceptions and shows buildings in a different light. THAT'S IT.

There aren't really any deep intellectual insights here; it's just playing about with a tension between building-as-object and building-as-social-setting. Nothing wrong with that. What makes Hartley's work interesting and worthwhile is the way in which he deals with this fairly basic theme, and the way in which he makes it playful, amusing and engaging. If you want a serious, detailed discussion of the relationship between man and landscape, go and buy an academic textbook on psychiatry or modern social geography. What artists bring to the table is the ability to engage with these issues on a more intuitive, instinctive and emotional level, which is usually more effective at drawing attention to interesting questions than it is at answering them.

If you ask me, anyone who finds themselves describing a show like this using phrases such as "a strategy for access through thoughtful trespass" has not merely missed the point of the show, but has quite possibly lost sight of the point of art, and has certainly lost sight of the point of language. This is the way the art world talks to convince itself that it's engaged in a vitally important intellectual endeavour, but it's also a major reason why most people will never set foot in a modern art gallery in a million years. The work itself is not particularly inaccessible, but it's described in a way that makes it appear unfathomably difficult and obscure. If the art world would stop trying so hard to sound important, they might actually attract enough visitors to be important.

Anyway, Hartley's exhibition is free, and a good two thirds of it is legitimately enjoyable. So drop in if you're going past, and only slog through the leaflet if you really want to learn more about the factual background. The video upstairs is on a fairly short loop and it's a much better bet.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lucid Dreams for Higher Living

You aren't doing the Fringe properly unless you go to see at least some random experimental fringe theatre. So, Lucid Dreams for Higher Living is an hour-long play running in a late afternoon slot in one of the more obscure corners of the Underbelly.

The demand for performance space during the Fringe means that pretty much every halfway usable room is commandeered by somebody or other. This year's Fringe programme lists 380 separate venues. The Underbelly is actually one of the small band of super-venues that have dominated the Fringe in recent years, alongside the Pleasance, the Assembly Rooms and the Gilded Balloon (which still clings to that name despite the minor technicality that the original building burnt down in the fire a few years back). But while the other three colonise rooms that are at least used for something the rest of the year - for example, the Pleasance is actually the Edinburgh University societies' centre - the Underbelly occupies a network of cavernous abandoned rooms under the city centre.

I have no idea who they belong to or why nobody else uses them. But the place is clearly a wreck that gets fitted out with electricity for one month of the year and somehow scrapes past its health and safety inspection. They've now expanded to another venue a couple of blocks to the west, but they seem to have kept to the same policy of occupying unlikely spaces buried beneath the city. When the signs to theatre 2 politely warn you to watch out for dripping water, this is not an indication that there's a plumbing problem which they're planning to fix. It's just a statement of the way things are.

In these unlikely rooms, you will find obscure fringe theatre productions, and stand-up comedians hoping to get a TV show.

Lucid Dreams for Higher Living is, I suppose, technically a one-man show. It consists of a man watching a self-help DVD and attempting to follow its somewhat implausible-sounding advice to the afflicted. The whole show is essentially a dialogue between him and the pre-recorded, professionally banal Helen Bradbury. Naturally, as a mass-market product, her advice is decidedly one-size-fits-all. And some of it is just plain ludicrous. All of which leads the show to brandish the Dramatic Irony card with full force as she ends up talking him into completely the wrong result.

It's a good idea, and the performances are strong, but I'm not sure it quite works in this format. They've opted to play it in real time, and I think that's where they slipped up. An hour of watching a DVD doesn't seem like enough to get Anthony from point A to point B; it would have worked better as a series of scenes from a longer course of "therapy." As it is, I don't quite buy it. It feels a little too contrived.

But it holds together as a black comedy, and there's a good idea in there. Worth a look if you're at a loose end.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Andy Warhol

Time to get into this year's Edinburgh Festival. And we'll start with the Andy Warhol retrospective which is presently running in the national galleries.

I've never been entirely convinced about Andy Warhol. The problem, I think, is that there are a handful of Andy Warhol images that you see time and time again - Marilyn Monroe, Double Elvis, brief snippets of his more ludicrous films, paintings of soup tins. These images are so overfamiliar that they've become completely divorced from the context in which Warhol made them, and ended up as a set of stock symbols for vaguely designery, vaguely cryptic mid-twentieth century modern art.

And this is a shame, because you really do need to see Warhol's work in the right context. He's all about modernity, and that ever-popular modern art theme, the relationship between image and reality. His work is very much of its time; even the replica soap boxes (which are a fairly minor part of his output) have to be understood on the basis that they're an intentionally-slightly-off replica of a contemporary item. With the passage of time, they've acquired entirely unwanted overtones of retro kitsch. This was not the idea. Seen alongside less familiar and iconic works, however, they can be seen more in the way Warhol had in mind.

Most of this show is about Warhol's paintings and his silkscreens. There's no doubt that he loved his diptychs - pretty much all of his portraits follow the same format, consisting of two canvases with the same image distorted in different ways. But what he actually does to the images changes dramatically from portrait to portrait. You always end up with something that draws attention to the fact that there's an underlying image serving as the basis for both panels, but there's no denying that they look drastically different from each other, especially when you exhibit a whole load of them alongside one another. It's a series of variations on a theme, but they're genuine variations for all that.

There's also a selection of Warhol's relatively early silkscreens based on repeated and blurred images of death-related stories from the newspapers, as well as whole rooms full of his skull prints - again, multiple variations on the same picture, but reproduced in a different way. Exhibited as a group, and presented as an installation, you start to see the point. They're not meant to be taken independently; they're meant to fill the room. Then there are some of his less familiar works. There's a room full of silver helium balloons that visitors are unable to resist playing with, and a room of his commissioned "paintings for children" - Warhol's usual tricks, applied to images taken from toy boxes, reproduced on small canvases, and hung at pre-school eye level.

The Royal Scottish Academy, a pseudo-classical gallery of the old school, is not the obvious setting for an Andy Warhol exhibition. Fortunately, Warhol also designed wallpapers for use in his exhibitions, and the gallery has dutifully decked itself out in them from floor to ceiling. They're strange things, featuring such images as an outsize repeated black-and-white sketch of the Washington Monument. But they work a lot better than you might expect - they overpower the building, but not the work itself.

Downstairs in the smaller galleries, there's also a collection of Warhol's early sketches, some of his photography, a looped showing of some of the Screen Test films (which, frankly, are of variable interest) and assorted period detritus salvaged from his "time capsules", which helps to put the show in further context, if nothing else.

Warhol is an artist who was trying very hard to be Now and, consequently, has inevitably become decidedly Then. But immerse yourself in a whole building of his work and it all starts to make sense again. This is a great exhibition - go and see it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 5 August

- Yes, I know I posted the reviews two days ago, but I'm determined to get into the habit of starting a comments thread over here. I suspect this is going to be a rather quieter week, but we'll see. This week, it's Uncanny X-Men, Metal Men and, ahem, Shanna the She-Devil.

- I hadn't got around to reading Ms Marvel #18 when I posted those reviews, but there's some rather endearing about the book's latest angle. After asking SHIELD to send her some Inititive recruits to round out her team, the title character ends up with... Machine Man and Sleepwalker. And Machine Man still thinks he's appearing in Nextwave. In fact, Brian Reed does quite a good Warren Ellis pastiche.

"Now then! I wish to drink heavily and investigate the worthiness of this craft's floors for laying about unconscious. [One panel later] I am not impressed with your ship. My previous ship had five tesseract zones. You don't have any tesseract zones. My old ship also had a mini fridge. Do you have a mini fridge?"

It's a kind of directionless book, Ms Marvel, but there's still something quite fun about it, in a retro superhero way.

- Last night's Raw: dear god, Vince really has lost his mind. You do not go on national TV and deliver whining speeches about the injustice of your company being investigated by Congress. Who the hell thought that was a good idea? And if the aim really was to shake things up, they'd have been better off running with the Sandman as GM, just for the sheer WTF factor. We've seen Regal in this role before, and he was very good at it, but can we move forward now? (Unless, I suppose, they're building to Sandman v Regal with the job on the line. In which case, fair enough.)

I'll be interested to see the rating for this one; I suspect a bunch of midcarders fighting for an administrative job in a battle royal for the first twenty minutes was not the way to turn the ratings decline around.

- The Edinburgh Festival is now underway, so you can look forward to my annual three weeks of regular updates about shows you probably haven't seen and will never see. Coming up: Andy Warhol.