Thursday, 21 February 2008

The sloping brow of a stagecoach tilter...

photo copyright Joanna Kane.
Somnambulists is a fantastic little exhibition of work by Joanna Kane a photographer and artist based in Edinburgh currently showing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
It features photographic digital prints of life and death masks from the collection of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.

The photographs have been subtly manipulated to create an illusion of life from these casts. Through this seemingly straightforward process Kane has extracted an extraordinary amount of humanity from a subject that mightn't appear that gripping. Phrenology is seen as an unfashionable and embarrassing excess from the gold rush of scientific enquiry throughout the enlightenment. The notion that someone's character can be alluded to through their skull structure is laughable but Kane has created the impression that there's something more to these masks than the simple imprint created by the subjects head.

There's a variety of people featured, a fair few doctors and phrenologists, a couple of mining engineers from Leith, some unknowns and a remarkable smattering of early 19th century writers. The photograph of James Hogg's cast was a wonderful surprise as I have been fascinated with him since moving to Edinburgh and first reading The Private Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Hogg's face is as I'd imagined it, a long drawn spade of a man reminiscent of Noel Browne in his later years. This got me thinking about the kinds of visual games you play with yourself when you go abroad and meet someone who puts you in mind of an old friend.

This also struck me when looking at some of the poets featured. Wordsworth's face is an absolute joy and was completely unlike I'd imagined him, somehow he's just too manly in real life. Keats and Coleridge are also there along with William Blake. Blake's portrait is superb, a stern blank canvas upon which you can project pretty much anything. There's a touch of Brando (as Kurtz) and more than a hint of Terry Gilliam too in his stern sleeping mask. The book accompanying the exhibition refers to a friend of Blake's expressing his disappointment that the cast captures none of Blake's good-naturedness. The book features extensive notes about all the photos and features a hilarious spat between Hogg and the Phrenological fraternity.

The whole exhibition is a fantastic evocation of a period before photography where many exciting ideas were flying around. Kane's photography is based around Phrenology and alludes in the title to Mesmerism which was a fashionable movement at the time.
It also has a great sense of Edinburgh as a place at that time with it's engineers and it's doctors and it's poets and philosophers.

I've always had difficulty imagining real people in the past. I've always had this irrational notion that somehow people looked different. This killed that notion stone dead, the photos could be of people you see in the street- all the more so in Edinburgh where I'm sure I've seen some of the "unknown" casts on the number 25 bus in the morning! They have a life to them that had me imagining them yawning and winking at each other after we had left and the lights blinked off.

If you're in the portrait gallery go into the gift shop and look at the portrait of Edwin Morgan by Alexander Moffatt over the door. It's a stoater.

Saturday, 16 February 2008


Tragedy struck the internet this week when the peerless Curry Chips went to the wall.

Follow the link for a rundown of the greatest hits.

If there's anything funnier than DIDL I want to know about it.

Enjoy your retirement Nat.

Friday, 15 February 2008


It's difficult to ascertain which side of this axis I come down on.

I try to keep each foot in both camps.
This frequently gets me into trouble.

Here's some youtubage that I hope demonstrates that...

monks- boys are boys and girls are choice

American Movie- prompted by the mention of the Yes Men on Ronan's blog .

Superb and inexplicably slept on.

Madvillain- All Caps.
Comics. Beats. Mad flow. Beaaaautiful.

Muppets + Extremely foul language = quality.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Texans. A warning from history.

Or...How a film is improved immeasurably when you're sure of what you're trying to do...

Charlie Wilson's War is almost one of the Great American Satires. Unfortunately the "almost" is what marks it out, a missed opportunity. Mike Nichols' dramatisation of George Crille's book "My Enemy's Enemy" works as a prequel to the all too real events taking place in Afghanistan since the mid-90's. Telling the story of Charlie Wilson, State Senator for Texas, who through his position on the Defense Appropriation Committee, lavished US funding to the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion after 1980. It details how charming, freewheeling good old boy Wilson begs borrows and steals his way into the heart of the US Security family bringing his banker, Julia Roberts' Joanne Herring along for the ride. Herring is portrayed as the dark presence at the heart of the film and one that neither Sorkin nor Nichols seem to know what to do with it- they paint her as a cold, calculating evangelical. I was immediately struck by the potential for Herring and Wilson's partnership as a metaphor for the birth of Bush II who seems effectively to be an amalgam of Herring's red-knuckled Evangelical Christanity (subtext: evil) and Wilson's amiable, buffoonish but shrewd political horse-trading (subtext: good). This element in the film seems to have sailed past Sorkin and particularly Nichols' in terms of presenting this as the central relationship at the heart of the film, Roberts must also take the blame for her performance which completely fails to inhabit the role of Herring .

It prefers instead to focus on the buddy-buddy relationship between Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) and Wilson who both perform the roles handed to them with gusto (Particularly Hoffmann, a vicious pre-911 throwback who just wants to "kill Russians") but you get the feeling that this is more of a vehicle for Sorkin's strong suit of snappy retrosexual dialogue and some great interplay between the two leads. Which is not, in itself, an entirely bad thing. The film is quite entertaining but the longer things go on the more my shoulders sagged in resignation as it hurtled onwards towards the events we all know so well. The problem lies largely in Sorkins' quaint but irritating faith in the good inherent in the American Project. The movie seems to be saying "wouldn't it have been great if only we'd invested and helped the Afghans get back on their feet none of the events which followed would ever have happened!" It sounds laughable but it's exactly what happens. The film has a tacked on remorsefest with a mournful Wilson lamenting the missed oportunities with Gust in the closing frames. Like any of this really matters.

Again, Nichols almost hits the button with an extraordinary sequence of news footage of Afghan Mujahadeen shooting down Russian fighters with surface to air missiles that would have bookended the movie perfectly. Had they chosen to end with this sequence, bookended with the congratulations scenes, where Wilson is given the unprecedented honour of being welcomed as an "Honoured Colleague" in the CIA's Near East Division, we would have been left with a sour irony which fits the noxious fallout to the entire Regan-era covert ops fad which opened the doors for the neo-cons. Sorkin and co seem to be at pains to distance themselves from any explicit comment on this matter which is depressing, principally because it's fertile ground. The covert funding of private wars by the US in the Cold War period was the primary catalysing agent in many contemporary conflicts- the arms proliferated in that period are still being used but more damaging are the relationships established- either between the CIA and its myriad sponsored covert militas and the Yeltsin period outsourcing of former KGB operatives to the highest bidder. This decoupling of military force from the body politic has had serious implications in the post-cold war world. Rather than explore how this came about Sorkin is content to have us snicker at the impropriety of forthright Herring saying "Zia did not kill Bhutto" at a Pakistani fundraiser. Sounds familiar when played alongside George W Bush's repeated denials of US torture even as the the architecture of rendition was established practice in US intelligence and counter-terrorism.

The entire problem here is that Sorkin and Nichols don't know what they want to say. The inherent flaw in the film is that both director nor writer lack the courage to explicitly say "we did this"- preferring to say "we screwed it up". Firstly that's not good enough, secondly it's just not that simple. I'm probably being a little too earnest about this given that this is a star studded political adventure story but the movie markets itself as a satire. But the entire film is undermined by the suspicion that no-one knew what they were trying to say about this. It would almost have been better if they'd made a "Red State" movie with an unapologetic gloss given to the whole affair and let people make up their own minds but Sorkin can't help but try to do some tidying up at the end with his patented misty eyed hand-wringing. There is far more interesting material in Crille's book which details how a small group of people, many of whom were unelected, funded and pursued a military strategy which has repercussions for US foreign policy today. If Nichols and Sorkin had the courage to satirise the birth of Neoconservative practice (rather than the ideology which was being forged simultaneously by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al), rather than Good Old Charlie's proclivity for first-class, bourbon and dames, they could have made this film a whole lot more important than a knockabout comedy drama about a self-funded elite within American Government waging war without Congress' approval.

Yeah, party on Clom.

Nothing draws in the crowds like Congress' approval.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Easy does it...


Here is where things will be thought and typed about.

I don't really know what about just yet but the broad area would be culture, whatever that means. It's largely an exercise in making myself write things.


Below is the first post. Some of my thoughts about Charlie Wilson's War.
It probably features run-on, rambling sentences replete with suspect grammar.

Please comment/suggest/gripe etc.