Sunday, 23 October 2011

Lawrence of Belgravia

Paul Kelly's Lawrence of Belgravia eschews archive footage and instead guides the philosophical narrative along with the thoughts of Lawrence himself. Ripe with sagacious and whimsical aphorisms from one of the musical geniuses of the past twenty-five years, the film is both sensitive to Lawrence's mindset ('I'm legally bonkers'), while also serving as a glaringly bright spotlight for an ageing artist.

The film's title, Lawrence of Belgravia, is apt. Lawrence was born in the glory-free Midlands when Lawrence of Arabia was dominating the paying cinema-goers. 'My brother was lucky. He was called Sam, he's a builder', he comments. A clue here: the film title mirrors the antipathy he feels towards the perpetrators of his upbringing, while being blithely self-aggrandising.

Kelly, as is evident with previous works such as Finisterre (with Kieran Evans), likes his gritty, high-rise London shots. A long-time resident of London's Clerkenwell, he lives a block along from Lawrence. Their part of town is high-rise, dense and in the middle of a conflation of media offices and brutalist social housing.

This project has been over five years in the making. Progress was slow and impeded in part by the inflexible pace of Felt's former maverick. (Kelly told me he would text him, look out of the window, see Lawrence on a distant flat balcony pick up the phone to see who it was, and subsequently watch him hang up).

During Saturday night's Q&A session, Kelly was asked 'if he had known how long the film would take to make, would he have carried on?' Clearly moved by Lawrence's reaction to the film (Lawrence hadn't seen the film in its entirety before the premiere) said: 'if you'd asked me yesterday, I would have said no. But today, I'd say yes'.

Whatever your preference in terms of his career trajectory, from the semi-goth beauty of early Felt, to the manic, inscrutable electronic joy of Go-Kart Mozart, musically there's a distinct unifying thread in the film. In the parting shot, we're reminded that despite his reluctance to revisit earlier styles, a core, soulful darkness remains. Buried in the daftness of his eclectic songs, there's pathos.

Lawrence of Belgravia feels like a refreshing pat on the back of the finer, if extreme, points of English eccentricity. Lawrence is cocooned by his loneliness, by his projects, by his unflappable belief that although he has nothing in material terms, he knows exactly who he is. If he was wealthier he could almost be seen as the Edith Sitwell of low art.

There's plenty of laughs in this film. Kelly is an impressive and gentle artist, but he also has an astute sense of humour. There's little room here to be be sad for a skint and under-appreciated artist because Kelly has too much respect for him as a thinker and instinctual communicator.

Lawrence of Belgravia is showing now at the London Film Festival.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Suze Rotolo

On my other blog, Heroine Addict, I remember Suze Rotolo.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Heroine Addict

Like smack and crack, Heroine Addict is back.

A sort of modern day Plutarch's lives, the blog's a chance to wax lyrical on the women who inspired us.

Men are welcome to read and comment too of course.

To celebrate its return, Planet Mondo has kindly popped my piece on Hazel O'Connor here.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Syd Barrett – Art and Letters

Idea Generation Gallery
London E2

Luckily I stole into this exhibition the day before it closed. Tipped off by a friend, he felt I should know it was on, and that it wouldn't be on beyond the weekend. I'm glad he told me.

The exhibition was a unique opportunity to see Barrett's artwork and read his personal letters. With the full cooperation of his estate, it's unlikely we'll be treated to something on this scale, and this intimately personal again in our lifetimes. It was a privilege to attend.

The standard of his artwork was variable, but when his canvases were good, they were highly accomplished works, and in a different league to exhibited works by the likes of Bowie and Dylan. Barrett studied under a scholarship from the prestigious Camberwell School of Art and Crafts, and unlike other rock star artists - due to his reclusive life, his return to and dedication to the craft is unparalleled in the music world. In a nutshell, the main reason for his superior work is that he had a firm grounding, followed by uninterrupted time to develop and become really good.

And you can see progression. The bolder, playful colours of his earlier works become darker, but sharper. There is clever use of perspective. One grey painting of a piece of barbed wire is finely honed in the centre, as if photographed by an expensive lens, with the surrounding area blurring into emotional abstraction.

A grid-inspired lino print is cleverly orchestrated - deceptively simple in pattern, with a blackish hue, yet every square is fully planned before setting lino to paper.

But sadly too, you can also see decline. As his health and will began to ebb in the closing year of his life, his work returns to an earlier boldness, but the handful of still lives are unfocussed. They're unremarkable, the brush strokes rushed and artless, and you can sense the love is fading.

In a room of their own are the early love letters he sent to girlfriends Libby Gausden and Jenny Spires. Barrett is a man with a soft heart. His handwriting is skittish, his prose and surreal poetry are punctuated with accompanying doodles. This is the hand of a doting sweetheart. The letters are of interest, not just because they're letters from him, but because on another level, they're a reminder of how pliable the heart is before maturity teaches us emotions aren't everything.

Seeing his heart fully open and bursting not only with love, but with a protective air over his girlfriends, induces a genuine sense of melancholy for his vulnerability and intensity. For a brief time, we're free to reflect on how idealistic love seems to be a privilege of the young.

In all sincerity, this was a beautiful exhibition and an unexpected window into those secret years, and formerly, an innocent mind.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

In 1979, Lester Bangs put these lyrics and this poem side by side.

It's nice to occasionally stop and look closely at a well-crafted lyric.

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where the mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch and the backroads stop
Could you find me
Would you kiss my eyes
And lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again
Van Morrison

My heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees.
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap
and a wooden sword.
Federico Garcia Lorca

Thursday, 24 March 2011

What I think of that new Elbow album.

If strenuous records are anathema to your ears, you might not go in for Elbow singles.

But, with this in mind, you may decide this is why Build a Rocket Boys! works. Elbow are a band at the top of their game but this album is not about cynical, grandiose thinking and meaty chart fodder. Unlike 2008's comparatively noisy, The Seldom Seen Kid, you'll find softer layers here. There's spades of ambition but it's deftly achieved and luckily they're not afraid to make an album that whispers.

If so far, you haven't been drawn into the hype around Elbow, be prepared to overlook some of their singles and use this as an excuse for a turnaround. In any case, this album isn't about the chart releases.

Lippy Kids is searing, swirling and harmonious. From an album released at a comfortable stage in their career, this song is as humble as it is prepossessing. Reassuring, is their determination to put the effort in, now as much as ever and Garvey knows his music. A staid radio presenter - his slot on BBC 6 Music can, notwithstanding, be an education.

I miss your stupid face, he crows, in The Night Will Always Win. In keeping with Dylan's Idiot Wind from Blood On The Tracks, the memory of times past is still raw and there's a nice down-to-earth candour.

Jesus is a Rochdale Girl rocks us along in its carriage, but simpers out to a shadowy conclusion and fitting in with the smooth ride of the album, the ending is effective.

The steel band in In With Love, is an interesting, textural inclusion, but for a few seconds during the high notes, there's a danger of Garvey sounding like Chris Martin. And you don't wanna be doing that.

In a sentence, then: There's so much more to Elbow than their creeping, bold singles and the subtle, almost holy delicateness of most tracks, makes this quite brilliant.

Friday, 11 March 2011


I'm guest blogging here today.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Monday, 7 February 2011

An Interview with Wim Wenders

1. Until Alice in the Cities female characters in your films were few and far between. Why did you prefer to have a little girl rather than a woman interrupting Philip Winter’s plans?

WW: The idea for the film was based on a song by Chuck Berry. If you check out the lyrics for “Memphis, Tennessee”, you’ll realize that what sounds like a man’s urgent long distance call to a woman is really an effort to call his daughter. Anyway, I made a film before centered around a female character, after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter”. Hester Prynne was the heroine of the story, and played by Senta Berger. I regarded the film as a failure, especially as I felt I had no insight (and therefore no right) to tell a woman’s story competently. Also, the film was a period piece, which I dreaded. Altogether, I only liked one little scene, and that was between Hester Prynne’s little daughter, Pearl, played by Yella Rottländer, then 6 years old, and a sailor, played by Rüdiger Vogler. I decided, already during the difficult shoot of “Scarlet Letter”, to make my next movies with these two people, Rüdiger and littler Yella, no matter what. And then the Chuck Berry song gave me an idea, together with the memory of my first visit to America, where I had been looking for locations to shoot “Scarlet Letter” in its proper location, in Salem, Massachusetts. (I ended up having to shoot it in Spain, in a village where they shot mainly Spaghetti Westerns….)

In later films you deal with the relationships between men and women. Is Alice in the Cities a stepping stone for this subject matter?

WW: I wouldn’t call it that. Alice was a kid. I continues working with kids. There’s a little boy playing an important part at the end of “Kings of the Road”. Another little girl is the hero of “In the family of crocodiles” which I did for TV. Little boys play important parts in “American Friend” and certainly also in “Paris, Texas”, where little Hunter helps Travis find his wife. This wife, though, Jane, played by Nastassja Kinski, SHE was my “stepping stone”, as you put it. That was the first female part I was happy with.

2. In your poem 'the American dream' you say:

A boy in the neighbourhood
was given a cowboy suit by relatives in America.
Real leather!
And the following year
an Indian suit.
Real feathers!
Dressing up for carnival
you only had that choice anyway:
cowboy or Indian.
My mother suggested
there were other possibilities,
clown or Chinese, for instance.
A laughable proposition.

Other than binary opposites (a cowboy or an Indian) there is no other option. A clown or a Chinese person has nothing to do with national identity. Your thinking here seems to be reduced to binary terms. It is interesting that the mother sees more options than the child does. Do you see this kind of polar/binary view as a masculine thing?

WW: I see it more as the result of an education and a childhood in postwar Germany. The world was governed by a dualism. There were only Americans (or “us”, the Western world) and Communists. Every little boy knew that. And in movies, too, the only real conflict was between Cowboys and Indians, i.e. between good and evil. Religion also confirmed that dualism. My mother was just trying to come up with something where she could produce a more fancy outfit. She just LOVED making dresses, and for a while she also made stuff for me which I utterly hated. I wanted to have “Lederhosen” and stuff like any boy, not self-made fancy suits by my mom.

3. It's well documented that there was an ambivalent attitude to American movie and cultural influence in Germany in the protest movements of the late 60s. What are your own memories of this time? Also what are your memories of the 1970s/1980s cold war?

WW: I was in prison twice for having taken part in Vietnam protest marches that turned violent. (Mainly because of the Police’s violent intervention.) I was a left-wing film student then, and bashed the war in Vietnam, much to my father’s chagrin who was rather conservative. It was a great satisfaction to me, and people of my generation, that the truth about the war in Vietnam finally came out and became common knowledge. The American people had been lied to by four legislations and had been dragged into an unnecessary an impossible misadventure.
The cold war was a given thing. I was one of the few who had traveled to the Soviet Union, to Poland, to East Germany. I lived in West Berlin, then, a city encircled in an “antifascist wall”, as they called it. I knew that communism was basically the reign of an ultra-bourgeois and mediocre class that stuck to an ideology long outdated. I knew that they had to suppress the working class they really pretended to represent.

4. You say of Hanna Schygulla, 'she was always very lively in Fassbinder's films, and visibly less so in mine. I was rather upset by that'. The style of your early road films, long panning shots, episodic narrative etc makes it more difficult to fully develop characters. For some reason this impacts more on female characters in your films.
Would you say that there is something about road movies that excludes women?

WW: Not necessarily. The character of Lana in my recent LAND OF PLENTY proves that women can just as well be characters in toad movies. But consider the Western as the predecessor to the genre of the road movie, and then you see how dominated by men this is. Actually, CINEMA itself was dominated by male characters, and still is today. You should really see my latest film DON’T COME KNOCKING, that has a Western movie star as his hero, who slowly disintegrates and is taken apart, while the women in the story take over. That film has a weak male character and THREE very strong women in it, and throws a very ironic look at the male domination of the Western genre.

5. The relationship between Ripley and Jonathan in The American Friend deepens as Jonathan becomes increasingly estranged from his family.
Do you see this as a reflection of the seductive yet corrupting relationship between America (capitalist/go-getting, travel, excitement, Ripley having a violent and dramatic death) and Germany (European culture, family – orientated, Jonathan dying slowly and steadily)?

WW: Already “The American Friend” was an ironic title. In “Kings of the Road” one of the characters says: “The Yankess have colonized our subconscious...” “The American Friend” can be seen as an illustration of that theory. But that is strictly a subtext of the film, not its main drift.

6. How do you account for the portrayal of men in your films?
How do you account for male friendships in your career?

WW: Male friendship was certainly an important subject in my earlier work. But already “paris, Texas” left that territory behind. And my last two films are taking place on a very different terrain, as far as men are concerned. In LAND OF PLENTY, the hero is a deranged, slightly paranoid and very lonely Vietnam soldier, and his counterpart, MY heroine, is a liberal young American woman, his niece. SHE really carries my point of view.
Same as in DON’T COME KNOCKING. The two men, father and son, are really rather helpless and unable to live out a conflict. It’s the women in the story who set things straight.
So altogether, my focus has shifted over the years, and I do not want to be reduced any more to narrative positions from twenty years ago.

I hope this is helpful, Suzy
All my best,