Friday, October 29, 2010

Misapprehension under the Arches

Terror 2010 – Death and Resurrection is in the last few days of its run at the Southwark Playhouse. It’s a diverse bill of short bouts of darkness by Mark Ravenhill, Neil LaBute, April De Angelis and William Ewart’s adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s infamous Reanimator.

As one gay guy gets caught up in another’s twisted plans once they meet in the countryside, Ravenhill’s Exclusion Zone initially runs on implication – what’s lurking in the darkness and what horrific thing is going to happen to the innocent guy? There are points being made here about the dangers of gay subcultures, solipsistic (computer-based) habits and imagination being overfed by the horror genre (and weed), but they’re not explicit enough and are then soon lost as the things in the dark emerge to become zombie mutants from a nearby hospital, or is it Chernobyl? The protagonist mentioned a former Ukrainian boyfriend, and that seemed to kickstart the twist into a eastern European living hell, but the metamorphosis seemed clumsy and deliberately so, as on comes a gaudy singer to ham it up, throw in a bit of farce and kill the wonder. With a Nightingaleesque nurse-cum-MC presiding over the ‘morgue’ (incorporating the mutants in one of her skits) and then a zombie belly dancer getting off the nurse’s bed to do her thing, this mutant musical was just one entertaining diversion from the plays.

LaBute’s Unimaginable, just one pedo-abductor in virtual darkness with a suitcase full of skulls, is good because of its relentless exploitation of parental fears about losing their loved ones. Hijacking the anxious phrasing of the parent as much as it does the twisted justification of the kidnapper is its strength. It doesn’t let up or change tone until the slam-close of their suitcase signals the end.

After the break, De Angelis’ Country has two women in a widow’s garden, the other a psychiatrist down from London to help the grieving process. It becomes clear as the widow morphs into her dead husband in garb and attitude, intent on somehow honouring his legacy of health sector liberalisation which her friend opposed, that comforting will not be required from the psychiatrist so much as self-preservation. The occasional shriek from a bird did mean something, then the weapon comes up and, gasp, another life is senselessly lost.

The ‘nameless horrors’ of Herbert West’s quest were difficult to visualise in such a stripped down set but the Reanimator was probably the most successful and well developed of the quartet. Ewart’s script seems to twist things slightly, failing to realise the full and final horror of the ‘tomb legions’ (where West is consumed by the dead from the nearby cemetery – or not) to make a vague point about a rather more grounded terror; that while West is intent on killing in the name of researching revivification all around him in Flanders are losing their life in the most pointless and fundamentally wrong way – fighting a war for politicians. As the Londonist said, the triumph here was in the interplay between the five actors, changing role as fluently as they changed scene, and they brought real drama as the scenes moved from Miskatonic University.

Problem is when you’re branding this stuff as ‘terror’ that’s what punters expect to get, priming themselves for a fright night. I’m a wuss with this stuff but never had to cow behind my partner. But then the Playhouse also said there was elements of Grand Guignol and cabaret and they did better on those scores. Still felt like a missed opportunity then to offer some grindingly dark fayre, and my summary pretty much agrees with this guy – good performances let down by underdeveloped scripts. Worth a look but true Halloween aficionados will be after something with a bit more raw meat to get their teeth into.
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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Infantilist lurch

Spent a day at Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood. Wasn’t expecting to get snappy with my mobile, or for the place to be quite so engrossing and enjoyable, but it has the right balance of toys through the ages to gawp at through glass cases, and stuff for the little darlings/terrors to play with. Free entry, then they reap a reward through the shop and the café, though if anything they could use a bit more merchandising of the place itself, rather than just the standard-issue rubbers and pencils with the logo of V&A, which owns it. [Beware the glass-case glare].

The entrance is a bit White Cubey and confrontational, with its ‘Doll Face’ mini-exhibition.

My younger militaristic self toyed with Palitoy’s brief Action Force figurines in the mid-80s – it was all post-Falklands Para/SAS talk round our Surrey/N Hants way – and it’s fascinating to see that they used the storming of the Iranian Embassy to get the Arab separatists out dead or alive out as promotional material to fire up impressionable kids’ minds. Who dares wins, eh?

Forget the massive hard-ons of the Premiership, this is a Subbuteo-like figure in the colours of lower-league Shrewsbury Town in the days when they were allowed to play at (tee-hee) Gay Meadow. They are not of a piece with these two disco Barbies – check the wicked future axe on the one on the right.

Up until the 80s at least western kids still liked to recreate these dream cities with these Skyline building blocks, while the Trix train station (from 1954) below has a lovely formal modernism about it, and the second station, part of the de rigueur model village intended for middle aged gits with a tendency to model life’s problems away, isn’t bad either.

And that’s the mid-century American mobility dream right there. Think I had the station shop element of this, but like Britain itself in the 80s it was rundown and didn’t work properly (it has been passed down still dysfunctional).

Indeed, Britain needed flag waving jacks to patrol basic funfairs right up until the latter part of the 20th century.
The museum’s claiming that some child actually wore a Colman’s Mustard branded get-up for some party. Somebody from the family of mustard magnates themselves, perhaps?

Distorting mirrors and a jukebox (30p a go) allowed things to get a bit energetic and blurry, but taking in the view from the upper level across the whole building allowed a sense of calm to prevail. Let’s whack a few *** on to recommend this as a fun day out.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Upholstering reality

I admit it – I want my life conducted with the added enhancement deployed for Alan of the Apprentice. Stirring violins (when my mind’s eye pans across skyscrapers of commerce), swooshes when I enter a room, ‘dramatic’ downbeat variants of Clubbed to Death when I stop to think as the kettle brews. Can someone do a YouTube of their life improved immeasurably with such sonic uplifts? For the producers of the programme, it’s a clever and necessary layer because the ‘reality’ is a hirer and firer with a variable business record and businessmen and apprentices who can only speak in clichés and only have their obscene levels of self-confidence to go by (love to know where they get this sense of self-entitlement). Just as those sharp suits, flash cars and ‘scrapers and next-level phones seem to serve as proxy – I am in this world, yes Lord Alan I can do business.

So I need to beef up the dominant and all too-humdrum reality of offices, computers, childcare, more computers, train station after station. Where once it was considered that going out was the key as it took you away from the quotidian, such escape is no longer the thing because it doesn’t offer any insight, it’s just greedy impressionistic and intoxicated inflow with no reciprocation for the majority. By all means go out and hedonise but don’t think you’re subverting culture by ‘getting smashed’, 'trashed', 'mashed', 'lashed', certainly while the next Big Bang in traditional popular youth culture seems aeons away.

Not that then, but this. We want to stay plugged in, and continuously improve our virtual environment. It might seem sad that the closed loop of email no longer seems to suffice but it’s not just about vanity, about bigging up one’s own bon mots and axiomatic inquiry. In the infinite world it can seem so much blah-blah-blah but it isn’t. Old terms of surface and depth no longer apply when it’s about flows, networks, webs of contact disseminating information. Twitter users have tweeted that all this twatting is destroying the internal monologue, but it’s more like a hijack of the internal monologue, subjecting every thought now to whether it’s going ‘to play’ with your customised but diverse microtwit crowd. And it’s clear we do need to step away from the virtual reality pod occasionally (notice how businesspeople quizzed will say they never turn their Blackberry off!).

However, within that framework it’s clear Twitter has some uses of validating and optimising computer time that may otherwise be spent mindlessly surfing; links come to you by recommendation, by your own engineered crowdsourcing. Many users flirt between messages of sheer whimsy (today, mine would be saying I locked myself out) and the dispatch of news, comment or analysis, building up their worldwebview but without the static qualities of something like Delicious, which really was a case of ‘hey, look at my sexy links’ (and another ill advised Yahoo acquisition). No symbiosis. In the new world, some play it like that, accumulating as many followers as they can without doing any following, and simply sending out ‘look at my work’ tweets when one of their pieces for their paper/magazine goes up. These are also the people that will only engage with other ‘approved’ writers, and then only on suitably worthy subjects, in a last desperate attempt to keep the isolated Ivory Towers pure. The dinosaurs, for whom Marr voiced their failed grasp of modernity last week, need not concern us here.

Superficially I’m fine with this development of the virtual milieu. In music for example I’ve always thought ‘like a DJ’ despite never having the depth of knowledge or the single-mindedness to be one. I’ve always validated each song I record/buy/download/archive in terms of its possible audience, usually imaginary; every record has to be justified in terms of possible reception. Not songs for myself, but songs for the invisible them, alterior worth. What others might think about a track seems almost as important as what I like about it – the validation process serves as a bulwark against indulgence, refines taste and if you like something you want to present a convincing argument to others about it. I’ve got into the habit of doing proper mixes now, with themes, broad appeal and a hopeful wow factor (ok, perhaps not to aching hipsters who know all the vanguard tunes and the latest sonic tricks). Nothing particularly new in this as it relates to music (sharing mixtapes was the key way earlier as unlike merely swapping records it required mediation and re-presentation), but the web allows an intensification, optimisation and – don’t puke, indie freaks – a professionalisation of the process. The stuff must play, it must ‘fly’ and it must be able to bolster reality. [the new mix will be ready next month and I may put it online].

Leaving aside validation to focus on virtual stimulation, these kind of thoughts have led me come round to the worth of computer games. Where I used to view them as sad substitutes for imagination, now I see them as drivers of imagination. When one’s active visual world depletes to office-children-laptop you need to invigorate the senses to fire the brain up, and neuroscientists will probably agree with me. Just as it is with Alan and His Extra Sugar so it is with game players sharing and inhabiting different worlds.

Terms like geek and nerd as they relate to current computer usage are now redundant. Let’s hear it for building up the virtual world, mediating over content and bolstering reality, with caveats of course: the wry, misunderstood take on life by the stoned loner confident in the impervious supremacy of his worldview still won’t connect. But as long as evaluation and perception still play as much a part as validation this kind of bastard projection is increasingly necessary as long as you feed back into the loop, as long as you reciprocate. Invent the milieu, interrupt the flow, hyperstimulate.
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Friday, October 01, 2010


Puerile but still enjoyable: a selection of the Cull's adverts as the material went online way back when (2004ish). An agreeable rejoinder if you thought a bit too much respect was being paid to the world of advertising with the consistently rapturous reception given to Mad Men (aspirational messages mostly work from a sound economic base, the HP subculture aside, it's not alchemy).

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