Archive | April, 2013

Andy’s Snuff

19 Apr

Andy had spent three years at art school. His angle – because in the arts one always has to have an angle – was that he painted things at microscopic level. Encouraged by his tutors, he referred to this as “Interiorization of External Space”. Andy liked cauliflowers a lot, he was always painting cauliflowers, because he couldn’t think of anything else to paint; initially, a friend had recommended them to him, because of their “interesting structure.” Sometimes he’d leave them lying around for a couple of weeks until they went brown. He was always mindful about giving his paintings industrial-sounding names: “Rotten Cauliflower, Batch I”, “Rotten Cauliflower, Batch XXII”, etc. One of his best compositions was called “Rotten Cauliflower, XIX”, he painted it one morning when he was badly hung over and suffering from nicotine withdrawal and therefore full of spontaneity.   

After graduating from art school with respectable grades, Andy felt he had paid his dues; he was filled with the importance of demonstrating that everything had an interior; this interior, even if people as a rule didn’t think much about it, was “the crux of the matter”. His professor wrote an endorsement to help Andy in his quest to find a gallery willing to exhibit his work. It read: “Andy is one of the finest Interiorization painters of his generation, with the most painterly understanding of microscopic vegetable fibers that I have seen in thirty years of university teaching.” 

Andy spent a few months in New York, where he went to many parties frequented by artists. He noticed that his interest in cauliflowers caused puzzlement among the Manhattan artist fraternity. One of them, a tall woman with enormous freckles covering every visible part of her skin, confided in Andy. She said: “Andy, you’re cool and your cauliflower paintings aren’t bad. But what’s your angle on them?”

He said: “It’s not cauliflowers I care about. It’s what they represent.”

She said: “What do they represent?”

“You’re missing the point”, said Andy, with a goofy smile, trying to work up the courage to ask if she’d let him paint a life study of her pigmentation molecules.   

Soon after, perhaps partly influenced by the New York art scene, Andy had the idea of trying a new way of painting. It involved no paint and no brushes.  

All it involved was a tin of Swedish snuff. The price of the tin of Swedish snuff, he decided, would be $14.5 trillion. The tin was absolutely empty, because obviously art has nothing to do with snuff. A few weeks later when he got his first opportunity, he sneaked his $14.5 trillion snuff tin into an exclusive gallery on the Upper East Side. He was escorted off the premises by security men. But once they found out that Andy was, in fact, a recent art school graduate, they dusted him off and let him back inside. The snuff tin stayed in the gallery and a few days later there was an article about it in The New York Times by a critic known as Bon Tobzgratñ, who extolled the snuff tin’s sensuous round form and uniform grey tone, “like a pregnant cloud of emptiness”. Bon Tobzgratñ felt that this might be a new departure in the World of Art. No one had ever dared put such a high price on a work of art, and this was the main focus of Bon Tobzgratñ’s praise, “for in the extemporizing, contemporizing universe, we must learn to see the infinite value of Matter.”

Bon Tobzgratñ also wrote that art was no longer anything to do with making things – painting or carving or molding or photographing. There was no need to make anything, because there was already too much Matter all around us. It was more important to take something already in existence and elevate it into an Art Work. Of course if some logger from Wisconsin tried to sell a rusty chainsaw, this would not be admissible, unless he agreed it was just an old chainsaw worth no more fifty bucks or so. But if Andy exhibited the chainsaw as Art that would be a different matter, because Andy had a gallery that believed in him, and Andy also had powerful backers such as Bon Tobzgratñ.

This dogma even had a name, to give it an air of respectability. It was known as Institutional Art Theory. Certain philistines argued against the new movement, citing a certain lack of logic in it. Surely art had to be Art because of some inherent quality in it, not because some chump decided so? Bon Tobzgratñ huffed and puffed in the media and called this “mere semantics”.

All the important people agreed with him. Gallery owners liked the idea of selling works of art for $14.5 trillion and artists liked the idea of not having to get themselves covered in paint or dust. When the rent was due, they only had to pace about thoughtfully in their apartments, find a couple of used tea-bags or stale biscuits, attach price-tags and make themselves a million or two.   

There was one problem, which even Bon Tobzgratñ acknowledged. The fabulous Swedish snuff tin had been on display for almost two months without any art investors pouncing. Apparently the market was in a bad way, if even important works like this were not being snapped up by national galleries or wealthy collectors.

Andy had a long talk with the gallery and argued fiercely for a price reduction; he would be happy enough to reduce the price from $14.5 trillion to $14.5 billion, but the gallery was furious and claimed he was “ruining the market for everyone else.” When Andy offered them his cauliflower paintings for a mere $100,000 a pop they told him to get out.

Even Bon Tobzgratñ went quiet. After a few weeks Andy caught a Greyhound back to Michigan, where he rolled out his sleeping bag in the attic above his uncle’s hardware store. He spent several days drinking black unsweetened tea and contemplating his struggles in the world of art.

Then one day at lunch time when the store was closed, the telephone rang downstairs. “Bob’s Hardware Supplies”, Andy answered with a sinking feeling, wondering whether from this point on he would be reduced to the meaningless task of selling useless things like wood, nails, hammers and screwdrivers.  

“Andy, this is the President of America speaking to you, and what I have to say to you today is probably one of the most important thing I have ever said, and almost definitely the most important thing you have ever heard.”

“Try me”, said Andy, who was fond of smart ripostes.

The President sucked in some air and continued. “Andy, are you a patriot?”

Andy thought about it. “I reckon I would be, given the right kind of opportunity.”

“So here it is, I’m gonna lay it on the line for you, Andy”, said the president. “You’re an artist, I know, and artists are not known for laying it on the line, the way I’m gonna lay it on the line to you now.”

“Go on…”

“Laying it on the line is a great national virtue, it’s almost a religion in this land of ours to lay it on the line, no one else in the world lays it on the line like we do…”

“Go on”, said Andy. “And when I say go on I mean go on.”

The President sucked in some more air. “Andy, are you a patriot?”

“You just asked me that”, said Andy.

“Because if you are there’s something you can do for me and now I’m going to lay it on the line…”

“I know what you want”, said Andy. “You want my cauliflowers.”

The President stopped short. “Let me be frank”, he said. “I want the Swedish snuff box and so I need you to show some patriotism here and give it to me.”

That night, while Andy lay in bed thinking about all the things he could do with $14.5 trillion, he recalled something St. Augustine had once said, and like the artist he was, Andy adapted these words and made them his own. In the morning he sent the President a fax, on which he’d scrawled in large red letters: “Oh Lord, make me a patriot but not yet.”

Ten minutes later the Oval Office was on the phone again, and the relentless pressure on Andy continued to build.

In the end he folded and donated the tin of Swedish snuff to the U.S. Treasury.   

At the last moment, his gallery caused a stink about its 10% cut and blocked the deal, but after intense negotiation, agreed to reduce its commission to $875 billion, which Andy insisted must be spent partly on buying out his cauliflower collection – the gallery refused at first, claiming that the market for cauliflower paintings was not what it used to be. Collectors had swung more towards snuff tins, dirty buckets and jars of dried peanut butter. In the end the gallery offered him five hundred bucks for all eighty-six canvases.

Andy nonetheless felt he had not done too bad, considering he’d never even gone to Harvard Business School. 

 

II

Andy, who had been spending a lot of time with his uncle and had thus picked up some of his skepticism, found it difficult to understand how, by simply attaching a price tag to an old tin of snuff, he had managed to generate such an enormous sum of money. Yet in spite of this, he was not a rich man; he was even worrying about the expense of going down to the corner shop and getting himself a fresh consignment of cauliflowers. Andy saw that he had been royally screwed, and with this insight came a realization that maybe he should have gone to Harvard Business School, instead of wasting his time learning the difficult, not to say impossible, art of painting.   

Nonetheless, life carried on as per normal. Andy helped out his uncle in the shop in the mornings, and then in the afternoons after sharing a chopped liver sandwich or two, got busy with his paintings of interiorized, fibrous vegetable matter.   

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that the Federal Reserve had deposited the tin of Swedish snuff in Fort Knox, and were selling government bonds on the basis of this priceless asset. They had already raised some $5.8 trillion and were now considering selling the tin of Swedish snuff to an art museum in Ridhya, even though it had only made a derisory offer of $1.8 trillion. Congress wanted to go ahead with the sale, while creating a cinematic 3D projection of the snuff tin in Fort Knox, so that symbolically at least the asset was “still there”. But the Oval Office was holding out, claiming that this was the most valuable object in the world and they had no right to flog it, particularly as they had just raised $5.8 trillion on the back of it and hoped to sell bonds for at least another $89 trillion, a crucial amount of money given that the air conditioning bill of the armed forces had risen to $3.5 trillion per week.

Andy tried to explain all this to uncle Bob, but Bob had not been to Harvard Business School either and whenever he could not understand things he liked to say they were “baloney”.

Bob thought the snuff tin affair was “baloney”.

He also thought the cauliflower paintings were “baloney” but he didn’t have any kids of his own and he liked his nephew more than anyone else in the world and thought he might see sense in the end, once the cauliflower “baloney” blew over; maybe Andy would even take over Bob’s hardware store one day?  

Andy tried to concentrate on his painting, but it’s hard to concentrate after you have given away a snuff tin worth $14.5 trillion.

He grew even more fragmented when he learned that Bon Tobzgratñ was exhibiting a collection of little-known North Korean snuff tins in the Guggenheim Museum and had simultaneously opened a gallery in the West Village where collectors could get their hands on Finnish snuff tins, which were a good deal cheaper than Andy’s Swedish snuff tin but still sufficiently expensive to net Bon Tobzgratñ a tidy sum of money – enough to buy himself an apartment in the Trump Tower and get on first-name terms with the great man with the nicotine-streak running decorously through his hair.  

Andy grew embittered; he spent his days in a dressing gown and lived on pop tarts and black tea and could not even afford soap and razor blades. He no longer cared about the Swedish snuff tin debate, he decided he was a simple man, a painter of vegetabilia.

Then, one day, the President called back. “Andy, we need more snuff tins”, he said. “And you’re the man to supply them. Can I be frank with you, Andy? Can I just blurt it right out?.. Can I elucidate?..” The President explained that as a result of Bon Tobzgratñ’s invention of Institutional Art Theory, an artificial monopoly had been created. Governments had been excluded from the emerging snuff tin sector. There were trillions and trillions of dollars just waiting to be released, like a river dammed up at the head of a valley. “One day we’ll get there, Andy, one day we’ll be able to sell all the snuff tins we can lay our hands on. And that’s where you come in. Because with your artistic integrity backing up the project, with you artistically signing off the proper certificates we can develop a more aggressive stance in our Swedish snuff tin policy.”

“I’ll do it if you pay me”, said Andy, who had learned that the only way of making money was to ask for it, and absolutely insist on having it.  

 

III

Years later, when Andy was an old man whose hands were covered in freckles (which he spent several years interiorizing in a sequence of acrylic miniatures), he realized that Power had a way of twisting people until they no longer knew what they were. Men were turned into Nem, and Women into Nemow and this was the inversion at work in the world of Snamuh. Andy changed his name to Ydna and felt more and more comfortable in his skin, even as his wrinkles deepened and he realized, with a thrill of insight, that in the final analysis his life had been utterly changed by something as inconsequential as a tin of Swedish snuff, thus confirming his “Interiorization” theory. For if a tin of snuff changes the whole world it is not because of the quality of the snuff or indeed the perfection of the tin, but some other aspects that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Times changed in America. The President passed away, and was succeeded by a disreputable sort who finalized the Ridhya deal. A black-as-oil Boeing landed in Kentucky to pick up the snuff tin. Saudis in gold-braided burnouses emerged briefly to enjoy the Derby and top up their stud farm stock with a few choice geldings. After they had left in their winged chariot, leaving Fort Knox empty as an old tin bath, a banking crisis followed; financiers everywhere complaining about the shortfall of Swedish snuff tins “impacting” on market lending mechanisms. Eventually Bon Tobzgratñ stepped in and the Stock Exchange accepted his claim to be an “artist by proxy” – in other words someone with the necessary clout to be able to issue snuff tin stocks. Thanks to Bon Tobzgratñ, the international market was eased by a flood of snuff tins from Uzbekistan, China, Mongolia, Finland and Sweden. Credit lines were open once again, life returned to normal levels of unsustainable debt. 

Ydna moved to Greenwich Village, where he decided to live and die in a room that would never be cleaned or aired.

And he also succeeded in this; his masterpiece.

Film Shits II, Cannes is Finished

9 Apr

The minute I arrived in Cannes I suspected the gods were playing with me. What I really mean is that the weather had it in for me. I came out of Cannes train station, having cleverly opted for the budget flight to Milano and chugging down on local trains to the Ligurian coast, into France and Monaco with its wedding cake villas. I had a feeling they were all owned by film producers, but this was surely incorrect. Most of them had probably been bought by Russian “businessmen”.

Anyway, the skies opened the moment I stepped out of the station. I was soaked in seconds, then thwacked by a sheet of dirty water thrown up by a long black limousine belting through a deep puddle by the pedestrian crossing. I caught a brief flash of a couple of high-rollers in the back seat, laughing uproariously and drinking champagne.  Ha-ha, we got someone soaked! It was not a good beginning. Frankly, I knew I should not have come to this open-air conference of some of the worst, most loathsome shits one can meet.

A couple of hours later I had found my lodgings, crowded with young, ambitious animators, fledgling directors, cameramen, producers, actors and writers. We were paying in the region of fifteen hundred pounds per night for the apartment, and as I was a late arrival I ended up sleeping on a dirty mattress on the balcony, where I got away with paying only a hundred pounds per night.

I had turned up with a film treatment, a long and detailed treatment, mind you, carefully adapted from a classic Italian novel from 1953. Armed with this I felt I was not just one of thousands of people seeking to charm someone. In fact I did not want to charm, but impress.

My theme was Homeric: a man was looking to find a way back to his wife (i.e. Ulysses/ Penelope), but the more he tried the further she receded. Sprinkled into the narrative was a host of illusions, monsters and she-devils. Cunningly I had set the story not in Italy and not in Greece either, opting instead for the Finnish archipelago, which I felt had something uniquely Homeric about it. The previous year I had stood on a ridge in Finland overlooking a wide forested landscape interlaced with serpentine lakes. I’d imagined a yacht, a Finnish yacht, maybe a Swan or similar, with my actors on board, threading its way through this magical place.

Now, I had come to Cannes to meet with a Finnish producer who was, everyone implied, going to be a big name any day soon. When one hears this sort of thing, one usually imagines there is some truth to it. This is a big error. The big names are almost always those who spring from nowhere unannounced. And for every big name there are literally thousands of small-fry putting on their killer whale suits before they head off to Venice, Toronto, Berlin and Cannes.

I met with the said producer in one of Cannes’ pretentious beach-front hotels. He lounged knowingly under a sun parasol and spoke fondly about ice hockey for an hour and a half. Was this the preamble to the deal, I wondered? Possibly so, because we arranged to meet for lunch the following day. Before I left, he looked up and said: “Do you know what a film is? A film is a story told in pictures.”

I agreed with that.

I walked along the pretty streets of Cannes, imagining that this could be the beginning of my entry into a world I had felt for so long was closed to me. Maybe I had been too negative about film producers? Here, after all, was a Finnish producer who was so down-to-earth that he would rather talk about ice hockey than film. He’d even phoned a mail order company in Helsinki to order an ice hockey shirt for his son, while I knowingly yawned and sipped my spritzer. And still, in the midst of all this filial concern, he had time to make a striking remark on film-making. Amazing stuff.

The next day we got down to business. He opened negotiations by telling me that he liked my treatment and had already spoken to seven screenwriters in London. I was momentarily thrown by this, unable to understand what was motivating this strange, long-haired fellow with weird clouded eyes, like algae on the surface of a pond. An effect, perhaps, of too much vodka? Harsh winters? Leaky Russian nuclear reactors?

“But I want to write this. This is my project!” I explained to him. For a moment I feared he’d go back to ice hockey, but he just frowned in a taciturn Finnish way and said, after a weighty pause: “Ah, you want to write, do you?”

“Yes. That is why I wrote the treatment.”

The food arrived. Clearly my explanation about wanting to write the script had galvanized him. He was in the groove, he got out a napkin and a pen. “I want a first draft by August 20th. Can you do that?”

“Of course.”

“I will pay you twelve thousand for that.” He wrote down the figure. “But that includes the rights.”

“Right.”

“Then we do two further drafts. Eight thousand.”

“Okay.”

“And then by the Berlinale we have a director and some of the actors in place. I think I can get a million euro out of the Finnish Film Institute.”

“Sounds good,” I said. So this was it. I was on my way to the Technicolor Pantheon.

Before we left the restaurant, we were invited to a smoked reindeer luncheon at the Finnish Pavilion by a friend of the Finnish Producer, who noticed us as he passed by in the street. I was caught off guard when he leaned forward, dropped his voice and seemed to be offering me a job as a spy. For Finland, Sweden, England or some other country? I was unsure. “Actually I’m just here to make a film,” I said. The Finnish Producer smiled, and with hindsight I wonder if he wasn’t laughing at me.

A few days later I was on my way up to Milano for my flight to Berlin’s leafy, broad streets. Cannes had paid off. I spent much of the next months in the courtyard at the back of our place with a jug of iced tea and my computer. The script slid out of me with little trouble. Like a prefabricated house. It was a pleasant summer. And by August 20 I was ready to go.

It was now that the Great Northern Silence began. I have realised that “The Silence” is not only a Bergman film but also a deep-seated trait of most filmmakers whenever there’s a bill to be paid. Bullshit is the currency, money is the religion, but no one has ever seen God. Right?

In fact, to be fair, the Finnish Producer did call me once at the end of August to explain that … well … the Finnish Film Institute had no more money. It was… finished. Which, I know, is a bad pun, but I can’t help myself.

Autumn lingered. At one point my Finnish Producer contacted me to suggest that I come along to a workshop in three days’ time. In Moldovia or similar. Even by this stage my commitment to silver screen was undimmed. I called the Moldovian Film Institute or whatever it was, only to find that it was fully booked, in fact there were film shits dropping in from all over the world.

Six months later I bumped into the Finnish Producer, shivering with friends in the snow around a fire at a party in Berlin during the film festival. I was pretty civil to him. “Ah, there you are,” I said, as if I’d popped off to the loo and had momentarily lost him in the throng. He introduced me to his friends as “a writer he was working with.” I grinned inadvertently at this. We agreed to meet while he was in Berlin, but the Silence was still there casting its great shadow. We did not see each other. I sent him an SMS a few days before the end of the festival.

His response was legendary, to me at least: “My friend, I am in Tokyo and I have not slept for eighteen hours. Please email me in future.”

I immediately fired back: “My friend, I am in Berlin and I had a good night’s rest. Go fuck yourself.”

We have not spoken since. Oddly enough now that I have told a film shit to go fuck himself I feel I’ve grown. I may not be a proper film shit, but I’m certainly a dropping.

An Accountant Calls

7 Apr
Two Empty Bowls Weigh the Same

Two Empty Bowls Weigh the Same

I’m just having my breakfast when the phone rings. My accountant. He’s a strange man. Even though he has possibly the dullest job in the world he’s always in a good mood. My theory is he thinks he’s one of the Monty Pythons.

“Are you having your breakfast?” he says.

“Actually yes, I am…”

“Aha. Porridge?”

“Porridge, I always have porridge. As you know.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m calling. I wanted to tell you, you’re not using vintage oats. ”

“What’s that?”

“A rare strain from Mongolia, subject to tax breaks. Lower VAT. I’ve calculated…” (rustling of paper) “…you could save 9 euro a week on office porridge expenses.”

With his usual chuckle, he also tells me the government is now charging tax on toenail clippings. The rationale is that if you produce a lot of toenail clippings it probably means you’re consuming large amounts of calcium and minerals and nutrients indicative of you being a middle class person with enough money to pay a bit more tax. But, and it’s a big but, if you keep tabs on your porridge consumption and if you buy in that rare oat strain from Mongolia, you’ll get to defray the porridge costs against toenail clippings tax.

“Have you done what I said? Have you bought yourself a set of electronic scales?”

“Yes.”

“I hope you kept the receipt! Before the … ” (Rustling of papers) “… 5th April you have to prove you’ve bought the electronic scales or you get hit with retroactive toenail tax. Basically they estimate a weekly production of 400 grams and backdate it to your eighteenth birthday.”

“Well I’ve bought the bloody thing now and last week I produced 3 grams.”

“That’s the good news,” he says. “3 grams isn’t much, you should eat more cheese, although in fact stay off cheese, they just increased tax on hard English cheeses and a little more on soft whites, that’s just to get at the French. The only tax-efficient cheese you can eat now is cottage cheese, I think some civil servant fucked up. They’ve still got it categorised under “artisan economic activity”, but they’ll put it right next year. I guess they got thrown by the “cottage” reference, some heads must have rolled. Cottage cheese is massive this year, people are going nuts eating it.”

“You know what, I think I do have some cottage cheese in the fridge. If it’s gone mouldy does it still count?”

“In this case yes, because it’s cottage cheese so there is no tax, you get it? But any other mouldy food you want to revoke tax on has to be independently verified by a nutritionist and brought back to the point-of-sale and approved by the branch manager, who has to be registered in a national fingerprinting database.”

“Sounds like bad news.”

“The bad news is that the authorities now require prepaid tax contributions ten years in advance.”

“What if I get run over by a bus or catch something lethal before the ten years is up.”

“Then you have to pay your funeral tax, also settlement tax on any money you have left, to compensate the government for loss of revenue from your untimely death. You need an insurance policy to cover it, are you insured for death tax? You have a family, you need to think about these things or they’ll end up on the street! For Christ’s sake! Have some responsibility!”

“At least if I’m dead I won’t have to pay toenail clippings tax.”

“There’s a loophole there. For them. They hired the chief physician of Westminster Hospital to advise the Inland Revenue. Apparently your toenails keep growing for about another three or four days after you die. Nationally, it adds up to 600 million a year.  Enough for a squadron of fighter jets. Or a nuclear-powered submarine. We have to compete with China, they’re establishing an aggressive new naval role in the South China Sea and we have to compete with them. Or they’ll get all the cobalt deposits in the north Pacific.”

“I didn’t get that last bit about cobalt.”

“Of course not, that’s because you’re not properly informed. Most of your taxes are being spent on cobalt prospecting.”

“Well I’d rather the Chinese picked up some of the taxes. Why don’t we just tax all their useless plastic junk. How about Tedious & Mindless Consumption Tax? Or Useless-Rubbish-That-Breaks-in-Three-Minutes Tax? Or we could just bite the bullet and tax Philip Green. Greedy-Lard-Bucket Tax. Or Starbucks. Overpriced-Milk-Soup Tax.”

“Be reasonable. Those are big fish, if we try to tax them they’ll take their business elsewhere and we’ll all starve. Look, I’m not trying to stress you, you just need to be aware of yourself at all times. If you buy an ice cream, keep the receipt. If you have lunch with a friend make sure you get to keep the receipt, never leave a restaurant without a receipt and make it clear to your friends that if they want to keep the receipt then you won’t meet them. Okay. Be very clear about that? If they’re real friends they’ll understand, they’ll give you some leeway on it, they’ll get the fact that you’re a desperate man.”

“Okay. Am I?”

“They’ll understand that the life of a modern freelancer is really not a life at all.”

“That’s true…”

“They’ll feel sorry for you. Because, listen to me carefully now, you have to think clearly and take effective action. Your every move must be planned from now on or you’ll go under. Oh and one last thing, if you have lots of old rubbish in the house, throw it in the garden? Yes, you heard me right. Weigh it first, you have to use approved government scales, then throw it out. Leave it in the garden, it has to be visible. They’re using satellite-delivered heat-sensors to verify your garbage estimates… ”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t get so worked up. It’s just a trivial detail but I can save you about three hundred a year if you throw your garbage into the garden. Because under current tax laws I can get you a forestry grant. Or if you’re feeling generous you could donate it to help plant trees in the Sahara.”

“I think I’ll finish my porridge now.”

“Enjoy it, my friend.”

“I’ll try, but it isn’t easy.”

“By the way, I didn’t tell you.”

“What?”

“You’re paying Super-VAT on this call. Twenty quid flat fee.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Sunday morning. And the financial district is closed.”

“You know what, you called me so I guess you’re paying it.”

“I just added it to your bill.”

After we’ve hung up I finish my cold porridge and have a slice of tax-efficient Peruvian quinoa toast. And then I put on my Chinese bamboo-woven shoes and go for a free walk in a landscape that looks more or less like a dump. A tax-efficient dump.

Popularity, the Techno Viking and Other Monsters

4 Apr

What follows here is a late-night message to writers, philosophers, painters, sculptors, industrial designers, actors, tuba players, drummers, guitarists, dancers, and other practitioners of strange and rarefied arts:

This tall, slightly frazzled Nordic type you see here cavorting down a Berlin street was filmed in 2000 by video artist Matthias Fritsch at an event eloquently known as the Fuckparade.

By mid-2010, YouTube had recorded some 20 million hits.

In other words, if we consider this video to be a work of art – and many do – then it is more successful than “A Hundred Years of Solitude” – which only sold in the region of 11 million copies. Of course, this only holds true if one believes that popularity is a yardstick of worth. Is popularity a good measure? W.B. Yeats, who, it must be said, was no niggard in the popularity stakes, wrote in the poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”:

“Bred to a harder thing
Than triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Where on mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known,
That is most difficult.”

Yes, it is difficult to be quiet. It is difficult to hold one’s tongue. To shut up, let’s say. An ex-girlfriend of mine once said, with some exasperation: “If you knew what you were talking about I wouldn’t have to say anything. Then I’d love to shut up…” Somehow no one ever knows what they are talking about. No one ever likes to shut up.

I like the Techno Viking. I like his upbeat, determined prancing. People stand on the sidelines, watching. This man is not going to stop dancing, not ever. He’s tough but he’s no fighter. He inspires me to keep doing what I am doing without the slightest concern about what people may think. I will dance through your high streets and through your cities. Unstoppable and utterly unwilling ever to shut up.

What a nightmare.

You know, it is very difficult to get twenty million people to do anything, even to breathe according to plan. Heart attacks and emphysema will knock out a good number of them. Some will be run over by trams.

A few years ago I tried to organise a demonstration against rainforest destruction. Virtuous, some might say. A dullard with a cause, others might snipe. I spent weeks persuading people and eventually I managed to get about twenty people to turn up. We stood there forlornly chanting and waving a few desultory flags. A complete failure.

But success came to me on the way home. I passed a techno procession, a car with speakers at the front. Loud music. There must have been five thousand people marching and dancing behind that car. They seemed to be campaigning about something, but there were no banners. Only sweaty people reaffirming their right to jump up and down and make certain sophisticated moves, honed to perfection over hundreds of hours of gyration and observation in chill-out rooms.

It made me wonder: what would it take to get this many people dancing for a better reason?

Film Shits I, Why Mainstream English and American Films are No Good Any More

1 Apr

Thematically speaking, this short piece – I will readily admit it is opinionated –  belongs with the earlier post (“Analogue Days in Soho”) which was an attempt to summarise the traits of publishers.  Now that I turn to the film industry, my weary jibes at publishers retreat into bleached insignificance. As the film producers walk onto the stage, their feet drum against the boards like thunder. Behold, the gods are coming in! And they’re angry. They want us to know how important they are!

Film is a rule to itself, and by that I mean an absence of rules, a chaotic state of burning desire, jealousy and thievery. The principal reason for this, as we shall see, is that film is administered by business people who passionately believe in their creative drives and even genius. Producers are keen to bring hits to the screen, but they will keenly defend the notion that a commercial film can also be a work of originality and artistic excellence. This is the reason for the current preponderance in the media of cartoon heroes in capes, masked villains, robots, vampires, zombies… then of course an endless progression of syphilitic or divorced police detectives in pursuit of terrorists or serial-killing psychotics. Is it the zeitgeist that we are all terrifically interested in these things, or are we being force-fed like geese in preparation for the extraction of our brains?

Occasionally a producer comes along and makes a grainy film about mammary glands, and is immediately hailed as a genius. But fundamentally the need to be derivative defines everything that film does. The first problem for the screenwriter is that producers will tend to lie about this. Most producers actually believe that they are making worthwhile cultural products. Some would say, of course, that there is something dichotomous about the idea of a “cultural product”. How can something genuinely cultural, reaching into our lives and speaking for us, also be a mass-produced product distributed across the world to the Chinese, Indians, Tibetans, Mexicans, Russians, Egyptians and Serbs? By definition, the whole thing is skewed. Culture is a very specific thing, it touches each person differently. The idea of global cultural products is bogus, it’s just something for the empire-builders, the salesmen. The desperate hunger for “product” leads to every possible book, cartoon and cereal packet being optioned and “worked up” into a film. The hunt is on and, make no mistake – the object is profit.

Almost everyone who works in film, whether a producer, director, editor, gaffer, actor or catering assistant, has a strong belief in the existence of something they will reverentially refer to as “the script”. Most of them will even feel they have an idea for a script. But when we turn our heads and look at the scriptwriter, this maligned and kicked-about little beast, we should ask ourselves how this poor suffering mini-shit manages to live his/ her life? How much creative freedom does the scriptwriter really have? And in the same breath we have to admit that if scripts are no good, if scripts are not expressions of individuality and experience, then what are they? And how can they be the basis of a good film?

In the last 40 years or so, Hollywood and later everyone else too began to create a sort of superhighway of ideas to which we’ve all now been magnetized. When the grand old Hollywood crew of Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese were emerging, they were inspired by the French New Wave, Italian neo-Realism and Scandinavian and/or Russian Melancholy. They wanted to apply these approaches to American film-making which had been caught up in the stiffness of a studio system that no longer created contemporary films. That was how the modern US/ European film-making era began, with “Easy Rider” and “Taxi Driver” and “Jaws”. Forty years later, the outcome, which I would argue points to the end of Hollywood as a creative force, are films like “The Hurt Locker” or Clint Eastwood’s 2011 movie “J.Edgar” about the life of FBI supremo Hoover. American cinema has not understood that the world no longer cares so very much about its icons. What’s required in American film-making is political awareness, but it’s simply not there. More or less every war film coming out of America, and every political thriller, is pathetically sentimental about brave American soldiers/ spies/ diplomats doing what they have to do and paying the price. Deeper questions such as “why did their government start a war/ send soldiers/ bomb the country?” are not asked. It leads to dumb audiences, in fact, one senses the stiffness and naivety of the 1950s reimposing themselves.

There was a brief, brief American dawn in the 1990s with independent cinema, but Miramax and New Line and Zoetrope and most of the other independents were bought up by the big daddies, the studios. Essentially it was a sell-out. The rebels joined the Empire. And you can’t be alternative if you live at the Four Seasons Hotel and have a chauffeur. You can only be weird, in the sense that a big-name rapper is weird. Champagne, gold and Armani – yet songs about the gangs and the streets.

Of course this has very little do with “Film Shits” although it is loosely related. Because in the wake of American and European film-making over the last few decades, a style of screenwriting has emerged that I would loosely call “the School of Mechanisation.” Basically, this is the systematic creation of a story with a certain shape, while the writer’s unique vision no longer holds decisive importance. A good computer could do it. Robert McKee, possibly the most famous writing tutor of recent years, used to begin his famous seminar by clarifying that he was not teaching a formulaic way of creating stories. But of course as soon as he opened his seminar with this denial, one immediately knew that he was doing precisely that. Why not call a spade a spade, Mr. McKee? You have created an absolutely formulaic system for writing screenplays. Producers, all of them shits, are only too happy to accept the formula that has a proven record of pulling in the crowds, filling cinemas and keeping the balancing sheets in the black. This is done by inflating drama, introducing gratuitous and melodramatic “intensity” in the form of struggle, violence and frequent bouts of sexual frenzy. It’s dreary, it’s irrelevant, it has nothing to do with the world I know.

McKee is not completely mistaken. Some of his tricks can be useful and any half-decent writer will occasionally make use of them, but in the end McKee is a traitor to his own craft – a second-rate magician who stands up and explains his tricks, because he is not true enough to simply perform and be a magician. His efforts ultimately create a pool of imitators who have not learned their craft by their own efforts alone. Thus, when the proper writer – by that I mean a writer who has fought his/her way to a sort of position – presents a work to a producer, this producer is very likely to have read a number of Syd Field screenwriting books and taken a couple of Robert McKee seminars and read Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” about mythic structures in storytelling. Immediately the writer is faced with a person who knows very little in a practical sense about writing, while at the same time being solidly versed in pseudo-intellectual notions of what a story is. Its meaning. Its intention. Its purpose. Interference will follow as the spark flies.

Producers are always shits. It’s unavoidable. It’s inevitable. They interfere. They think they know better. They can’t write the story themselves but they will always tell you how to improve it.

My suspicions about producers began to grow while I was living in London. I noticed that producers felt obliged to do things as if they were producers – I mean in a referential way. Hence the ordering of sushi by telephone for delivery to the editing suite or Foley-stage. I sometimes wondered if these producers actually liked sushi? Would they not have preferred bacon sandwiches and cups of tea? Answer: no. Because English producers don’t eat bacon sandwiches. They are learning to be American, that’s why, and American producers eat only sushi. Everyone knows that, right? It’s a sort of basic entry ticket to Harvey Weinstein’s helicopter. This is a pity. England always had its own flavour until it was overtaken by American culture. The English have become so blind to themselves that they seem to view James Bond as an English character. In fact Bond’s Englishness is an artificial projection for American audiences. The English sold the silver at some point but they’ve forgotten what the silver was. I can tell you in one word: authenticity.

Now they are proud of the high-budget overseas productions that come to film in their studio complexes – a development started by the Americanised Scott brothers, who also had very little to do with being English. The English were always great chameleons, that’s why they have good actors. They don’t much like their country because it doesn’t really work any more. It’s not even a country, really. It’s layers and layers of class pressed into a weird sandwich: anchovy, jam and pesto on rye.

Available at the River Cafe. Alas.

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