Friday, September 21, 2007

How tickled I'm not, etc.

Well now. If that was an all-too-familiar Thompson's hiatus, this must be the customary apology. And what a dumb time to go radio silent, with a very nice link hitheraboutswards from the Guardian blog-realm. I haven't checked my stats of late but presumably lots of people came here last week specifically looking for well-written theatre reviews and will have found a lot of ornery bleating instead. Sorry bout dat.

At least I have, unusually, a pretty good reason for deserting my post this last fortnight. Since we last talked, you and I, there have been... developments. I have become something along the lines of a cottage industry. (I used that exact phrase down the phone to my dad and it caused his eyebrows to raise quite audibly. ...Yeah, we're not exactly Chad Allen and Wilford Brimley, but it's a start.)

What happened was, I finally completely totally ran out of money. I had no income and no immediate prospects, my credit cards were as maxed as a sandboy, and during a meeting with my kind and long-suffering producer it became apparent that I was in much graver post-E'bro debt even than I'd feared. (That ballpark figure I quoted a couple of posts ago -- yeah, you can add another... er, let's not even do this.) -- I don't know why I'm describing this situation in a past tense -- just my usual compulsion towards the imperfect I suppose, but none of the above has really improved much over the last fortnight.

But. But! BUT!!! Was I going to take this lying down? ...Well, yes, for a bit, there was quite a lot of lying down and groaning: of the cert. PG kind, natch. (Scenes of mild anguish and nut allergy.) But then I got to thinking. Following on from my last post and the weird semi-redundancy of the great majority of the books that share my living space, I thought I might try and flog some of them secondhand. But it turns out that that's impossible: even books I haven't read, I find it terribly hard to believe that there'll never come a time when I'm quite interested after all or when it's exactly the right resource for something I'm doing; and even books I'd totally forgotten I owned, as soon as I held them, became as dear to me as children or Munchmallows. So that plan wasn't going anywhere. ...But then I got to thinking about CDs. About their rippability, partly. But also about their failure, on the whole, as repositories of emotional or memorial (or parental) feelings. I mean, sure, it's not like I never want to hear Nilsson Sings Newman or Cupid and Psyche ever again, but nor would I imagine stroking the jewelcase or guzzling the liner notes as I did so...

And so it was, my dears, that Gevorts Box -- the funny-named virtual jukebox to your right, which I really ought to refill sometime soon, y'all must be very bored of those tracks by now -- launched its military-industrial wing by becoming a Pro Merchant (or something) on Yes, if you've ever been round to my place for dinner -- not that anyone has since 1999, but that's not the issue -- and found yourself coveting my copy of, oh, I don't know, Chocolate Synthesizer by the Boredoms: well, now you can buy it. And I'll send it to you in a jiffy bag with a Gevorts Box logo and a compliments slip.

I started about a week ago, thinking I might sell a handful of discs here and there; but astoundingly, there are enough other people in the world (in fact the really cool ones mostly live in Scotland, btw) who like the same stuff as me, that I'm now selling twelve or fifteen CDs a day, and it takes four or six hours just to deal with it all. It's awfully like having a real job, but at least it's paying at something around minimum wage, which, compared to my last few months, is making me feel like Conrad Black on diamond-encrusted stilts. And I'm fascinated and occasionally excited by the ongoing process of uploading all the -- what I suppose has become -- stock: seeing what's become collectable, or particularly desirable, in the time since I bought it... So it's kind of an enjoyable process, in some respects at least: and as well as helping to solve Life Problem #1, Not Enough Money, it's also making a useful contribution to Problem #4, Too Much Clutter. (And, thanks to a gentleman in Co. Down, it has also dealt conclusively with Problem #29, I Own A Copy Of The Album 'Good Times' By Adam Rickitt.)

Also -- although I suspect the income will mostly be soaked up by such fripperies as rent and credit card bills -- I'm hoping eventually I can divert some proceeds towards solving Problem #16, I Need A New iPod. I accidentally killed mine by falling asleep listening to it, and then being vaguely aware all night that I was lying on top of something slightly uncomfortable. (cf. the well-known Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Princess and the peaPod.) Even before then it was refusing to hold a charge very long, but now its display is illegible, except down the right-hand margin, meaning I can only reliably select artists with very long names. And fan though I am of classic 80s house music, there's a limit to how often one wishes to hear Two Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet, or indeed Farley Jackmaster Funk feat. Darryl Pandy.

Anyway. All of the above is not by way of an advertisement; on the contrary, I am a little mortified that people who I know slightly or who have some kind of professional respect for me can now access an inventory of eighty per cent of my CD collection (down as far as 'T', anyway -- I'm working on the rest). Eighty per cent because I'm keeping the stuff with sentimental value or where I like the artwork or where I think it's too important an album not to have when my hard drive finally melts...; and because most of the really way-out stuff, the free improv malarkey and experimental whatnot, isn't on the database and so can't be listed in the usual way. Essentially I'm offloading all the people anybody's heard of and leaving the rest.

Nonetheless, I have felt awfully pleased with myself for doing something more than moping and spending my days trawling the web for even more music that I'll never listen to. Though actually this process is rewarding in two ways: I rip most of what I send, which is making me listen to things I haven't heard in years; but also, it's freeing me up. Psychically, y'know. I mean I'm sort of serious about this. The great thing about John Peel was, he never really wanted to hear stuff he already knew, it was always about the quest for the new and surprising and the overlooked. Hoarding -- which I do, terribly -- is so wretchedly conservative. It bespeaks a deep anxiety that next week you won't find a record (or a book or an experience or an idea) as beautiful or as instructive as whatever you found last week. But I know I can subdue that anxiety, because, after all, the 'liveness' and ephemerality that we all go on about in relation to theatre is nothing else than the exhilaration of that faith. That we let go, all the time, and move on. Last week, maybe something wonderful happened: but next week, anything could happen: and that's the joy of it.

The downside of which... -- awww, I was doing so well! But... The downside of which is that sometimes you'll hit a little run of theatrical disappointments, and the joy will get a little bit dented. In the last fortnight, I've had a hat-trick of such, and there's not a lot of fun in that.

First of the three was a journey to Worthing to fulfil the long-held ambition and repeated new year's resolution of seeing Ken Dodd live -- a resolution which, given that Doddy is now in his eighties, could safely be said to have been growing more urgent with each re-statement. So at least I've done it now: but crumbs, I wish I'd got round to it a lot sooner: there's no doubt that he's some way past his prime. I suppose overseas readers may not know about Ken Dodd, so I'll just say that he's considered by many to be the greatest British stage comedian of the last half-century, and by now perhaps the last true link with a music hall (or vaudeville) tradition that has otherwise been lost to sepia and anecdotage; occasionally one hears recordings of the acts that were at their height when Dodd was in the apprentice stages of his career, and their jokes and style seem as remote and as baffling as the thunking fossil gags that litter Shakespeare and that nobody knows quite what to do with. Dodd's style has by all accounts not changed much, only the references in his material.

Regular Thompson's readers will know how much I revere great entertainers -- I wrote more about this here a while back -- and never having seen Dodd felt like a much more grievous omission to me than never having seen, say, a production by Peter Brook. (Which I haven't.) So I was pretty excited to have finally made the commitment. In retrospect, perhaps the best I can say is that I'm glad I went, anyway: it would have been worse never to see him. But in the drab and undynamic Worthing Pavilion (I was picturing a classic grand seaside theatre but it's kind of like a half-refurbished masonic hall: the audience is all on ground level with scarcely any rake, and the decor is astoundingly inert), and in front of a rather reserved -- and I think perhaps somewhat unimpressed -- mostly elderly audience, Dodd gave a performance that only fitfully afforded glimpses of the peerless entertainer he was at his height in the 60s and 70s. Clearly unwell, caked in make-up, frequently losing the thread of his jokes or stumbling over his words, and unable to hear the responses of the front-row punters he was teasing, he took us closer to the terrible pathos of Osborne's Archie Rice than I think I would ever have anticipated. Two bored middle-aged geezers bashed out musical accompaniment on organ and drums; and a couple of support acts -- the first, at least, truly amateurish -- were wheeled out to give Dodd a break, causing terrifying stampedes of old people for the toilets and the bar (if there was, indeed, a bar -- I never saw one...).

I say support acts, but I'd only endured the first of the promised two by the time I left. In common, I presume, with a fair bit of the audience, I felt at the interval that I'd had what my grandmother (who saw Ken Dodd in his prime) would have called 'an elegant sufficiency'. Let the record show that this was not the unsporting flit of a girly lightweight, however. Dodd is notorious for his superhumanly long shows: in days gone by, it's said, the stage management would often throw the keys to the theatre onto the stage, and give up and go home. I knew this, but still wasn't quite prepared. The show started promptly at 7.30pm; the interval began at 10.20, nearly three hours later -- carefully timed, I'm sure, so that intermission extralopers would still miss the last train home, scheduled for precisely then. I'm sure that back in the day, when Dodd had audiences weak with laughter and begging him to stop, these marathon performances must have felt like just another expression of the joyous bountifulness, the uncontainable exuberance, of his on-stage persona. (And to be fair, I did overhear the male half of one departing couple of pensionable age remark to his wife: "Say what you like, but he's better value for money than Joe Longthorne was.") But now, the jokes Dodd cracks about how he's going to make us suffer and when we'll be allowed out provided we're a good audience, all of that becomes coloured by the fact that we are, at times, suffering a little bit: and so, clearly, is he.

I understand the show eventually finished a little after 1am, by which time I was fast asleep in my hotel bed. I had been determined beforehand to stay the course (hence the hotel booking), thinking that part of the Ken Dodd experience was exactly that sense of gargantuan extension. In fact I had been planning to come back and write an essay for Thompson's comparing the function of durational scale in Ken Dodd and Morton Feldman; I thought that would be a cute exercise. But honestly, now, I'm glad I bailed when I did. I think I would have fallen terminally out of love with Doddy had I stayed. In the end, it wasn't his age or his illness that made the experience difficult; actually, there were long passages where he was perfectly robust and energetic, still wearing his heavy fur coats and visibly determined not to wilt under the unsparing lights (I think the technician had whacked everything up to ten and fucked off, probably), and I marvelled at his stamina; and for all the pathos there's definitely something noble -- I think -- about an old trooper like Dodd whose atoms are clearly held together, doddiform, by nothing apart from the will to perform; he would most likely drop dead if he ever took a Saturday off. But ultimately, the problem was his material and its tonality. Whatever I've ever seen of Dodd before has always been infused with a sort of radiant, resplendent glee. Perhaps on the night that I saw him the slight uptightness of the Worthing audience defeated him a little: certainly they made him work hard. But I suspect his response induced a vicious circle. His recourse was to occasional sequences of jokes, or routines, that had a slightly sour edge to them, almost close to nastiness at times. I don't normally have much of a problem with the amiable sexism of what you might call seaside postcard humour: the joke is normally on the feeble or overwhlemed man, anyway, and the celebration of buxomness and randiness and such is generally pretty airy and ingenuous. But there was something a bit grim about Dodd's torrent of 'blondes are stupid' gags, and that was followed by a rant about 'why won't women do as they're told?' which barely contained even putative jokes, and that was in turn succeeded by a bit of stuff about Elton John's 'gay wedding', complete with indicative limp wrist... And all of this is coming over in the context of his endless harping on about his well-documented problems with the Inland Revenue, in which regard he seems to believe he's some kind of Robin Hood folk hero. (Perhaps to many in the audience he is, though why they should pay towards public services while a vastly wealthier man such as Dodd bends over backwards not to is... well, a question for them, I suppose.) At any rate, that was the heart of the problem. That when he did reach the near-ecstasies of his trademark joy and wit and verve, I didn't feel they were for me anyway. He had, perhaps unthinkingly, perhaps not, taken to doing what the truly great entertainers never do: creating an 'us' and a 'them'. And I -- cue limp wrist and zero tattifilariousness, missus -- was clearly one of 'them'.

I'm pretty happy not to have to spend too long writing (or thinking) about Boileroom's The Terrific Electric at the Barbican Pit: there's a really cogent review from Theron Schmidt over at the Writing from Live Art blog, which hits the nail on the head: as, pretty much, does Lyn Gardner in the Guardian.

It was a painful show to see for two reasons: one, it's clearly a talented group of people, some of whom, including the actors Tom Lyall and Vanessa-Faye Stanley, who also co-directs (and was an unforgettably winsome Harry Houdini in my own Escapology a couple of years ago: I'll never forget the scene where she tied up the rest of the cast in inescapable sacks and then had a leisurely cigarette), I know and admire. Two: you can see, all the way through, how great this show must have looked in their heads. There are plenty of striking images -- some of them a bit familiar, but that's forgivable in a young company; what's far worse, particularly in a show about electricity and in particular electric light, is that the directors (presumably) have suffered a devastating lack of nerve in the way these images are lit. The visual life of the piece should all be about chiaroscuro, about points of light in the darkness, about isolation and emergences: but an apparent panic about the legibility of the characters and the plot (an apt concern which should have been dispelled in other ways) has made them bleach out the whole presentation with vague washes of light, and that I think is probably the fundamental error. Not least because it horribly exposes the other problems: the inconsistency, the incoherence, the platitudinousness, the formlessness, the self-indulgence... Ach, I'll stop.

The Terrific Electric is the latest winner of the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, which aims to give emerging companies the support they need to make the difficult transition from fringe to the larger studio space (and it must be said that Boileroom don't do too badly in claiming that larger space, however clunkily they then use it). The OSBTT has not had a great record of late: the last truly achieved show to arise out of its processes was Mapping4D's The Pink Bits three years ago, and -- to say the least -- not everyone liked that as much as I did. Whether some nervousness on the part of the Trust expressed itself as an additional and complicating pressure on the work Boileroom (God I hate that single medial 'r') were trying to do, I just don't know, though one would imagine it might. And plenty of mutterings now surround this OSBTT Award and its operation, with the inevitable refrains: something Scratchier should be done, some risk-minimizing competitive R&D process rather than one project selected from the get-go on the strength of a written application and a couple of interviews. Well, it's easy for me to say, it's not my money, but for what it's worth, I think the current model is exactly right. It's the execution that's failing. The Award, as it stands, rewards clarity of vision. I'm glad that something does that. Companies may need more help in then realizing their visions; after all, it's about making a difficult transition, that's where we came in. Perhaps better mentoring is required. Boileroom were assigned Mark Ravenhill, who is smart enough and warmly regarded but whose concerns are a world and a half away from the language and concepts that Boileroom are evidently interested in. I don't know whether the company feel his involvement was helpful; I cannot see how it can have been. But OSBTT must be clear: the reward they offer their chosen company each year is not the prestige of the award or the size or visibility of the host venue or the attentions (such as they are) of their mentor. The reward is support: and support must be bespoke, and it must be responsive. And it must be unswerving.

Some of those involved in The Terrific Electric -- including some involved as audiences -- may have found it a painful process, but it is at least an honest and worthy failure. The only people to have come out of it all with an undeservedly crappy result are the Scottish theatre company Boilerhouse, to whom (at the time of writing this, anyway) the Guardian review erroneously credits the whole production: a slip that no one from the Barbican press office seems to have rushed to correct...

Meanwhile, in the Even Bigger Room at the Barbican -- as almost everyone reading this blog will surely know -- Complicite are showing their new piece A Disappearing Number.

I'm sure I don't need to rehearse the basics either on the company or on this show; nor even on the immense importance their work has had on my own developing understanding of what theatre is and might be. It also goes nearly without saying -- perhaps it oughtn't, and I'm sure it irritates them as it would me, but there we are -- that it exhibits all the classic Complicite virtues. It is wonderfully fluid, intricate, intelligent --

Good grief, I've just got thirty quid for a Peter Skellern CD! Sorry... er...

-- and beautifully dimensionalised through its layers of textures and intermediate layers of genuinely theatrical metaphor. It is inexpressibly to director Simon McBurney's credit that these characteristics are pretty much the least that one can reasonably expect from the company's work.

The 'but' that you can sense impending all through this preamble is so deftly interrogated in Andrew Haydon's review that I only really need point you there and add "Me too." I don't think I responded as extremely as Andrew seems to have, but I certainly experienced similar sensations of disconnection and underwhelmedness. In my case that may be because of the position of my seat on the extreme stage-right side of the upper circle. Inevitably, then, I was at work rather than at leisure while I watched: the deep, richly layered stage pictures, often held together in one field by the frame of a video projection, are composed for the eyeline of those in the stalls. From a height, you either have to strain to reassemble those pictures from the dispersed elements, or you accept that you're not going to get the almost illusory sense of immersion in the frame, and you enjoy the trade-off: which is that you get to see more of the bare bones of the piece. Unable really to read the set, I was left to enjoy -- as I often have at Sadlers Wells -- the spike marks all over the stage floor (which tell the actors where to stand or where to place furniture or whatever). It's a bit like a theatrical equivalent of a DVD extra, I guess: I've never come away with such a strong sense of how a Complicite show works, of how it is organised and physically choreographed. I suppose that's a good thing, but it would have been nice I think just for once to surrender to the magic of theatre or whatever it is that normal people seem to enjoy. I'm sure even the greatest stage magicians still enjoy the occasional pleasure of not knowing -- and not being able to figure out -- how some colleague's trick is done.

At any rate, at that distance perhaps it's inevitable that one would find A Disappearing Number emotionally uninvolving. The characters are expertly drawn ciphers and mouthpieces and vessels, and in that sense almost cruelly denied individual complexity; the plot is exactly the same, a busy involuted mechanism built with such economy and precision that no part of it is not functional. You -- or I, anyway -- want some resistance to the sleek contours of the piece, but A Disappearing Number is so beautifully made and so well-oiled as to eliminate friction altogether. Which is impossible, as we know.

One interesting feature of the piece is that right at the start, it does just what those shows I was writing about in the last of my Edinburgh diaries were all doing: it goes out of its way to remind you that it's a play, that these are only actors, that we're all in a theatre. Why it does this, I'm not sure; in that Edinburgh review I commended it as an important strategy, and given that everyone's suddenly doing it, I suppose it represents some kind of significant tendency regardless of my own theoretical excitement about its implications. But in this case it seems almost like an apology in advance for the weight of precision-controlled and mediated stuff in the piece; in other words, this is a massively not-live experience and in a way this post-liminal intro grates (in a way that it didn't in England or Alice Bell) because it is sort of lying to us, or behaving disingenuously. In the terms that it itself establishes, we are not, functionally, in a theatre. We are actually in a screening room. This is not inevitably about the extensive use of video, but it happens to be partly so here. We slip almost immediately (principally, initially, just as the opening of Mnemonic did, through the sleighted lapse of live amplified speech into recorded speech) into a heavily liminal field, decorated with pictorially sublimated information exhibiting all the mute coffee-table eloquence of a 90s Peter Greenaway film like The Pillow Book.

Ultimately my only quibble with Andrew's remarks on the show is that he introduces Complicite as an "experimental" theatre company. This, I think, is not quite apropos. Not all innovative companies are experimental and not all experimental companies are equally experimental throughout their careers. To a degree I'd have said the last original Complicite show, The Elephant Vanishes, was experimental, at least in the context of the company's working life. A Disappearing Number indicates consolidation and refinement, some of which takes them to a place far 'in advance' (for want of a better phrase) of most companies in their wake; but it is not experimental work any more than all remotely undead theatre is experimental, or sitting on a bus is experimental. It is utterly contained and it operates entirely within a known territory.

There are countless echoes of previous Complicite works -- and I dare say for those seeing their first Complicite piece, A Disappearing Number may well be as revolutionary to their own perceptual apparatus as Street of Crocodiles was to mine -- and the show closes with a couple of beautiful images that are as strong and as discriminating as anything in the company's oeuvre: though the last, recalling the fierce individuation that animated the cast of SoCs, prompts one uncomfortable comparison with that earlier piece: namely, that, while the ensemble operations of A Disappearing Number are as fleet and as meticulous as we would expect, it is nonetheless the case with this new show, as with no previous Complicite work that I've seen, that there are a handful of named principal characters and then a bunch of other generically treated actors who fill out the pictures. Immediately it becomes apparent that one of the fundmental problems here is that this is a group of people beautifully choreographed to resemble a company; it is not, quite, a company, or at least not an ensemble in the sense that early/mid Complicite would have understood it. This is an authored piece, an externally driven creation by McBurney, using the technologies that McBurney so masterfully comprehends. But, for the first time, it has, for me, that slightly disagreeable weight of auteurism for which all non-writer-driven theatre is so often lambasted (by fraidycat writers and pedestrian directors). It makes me wonder not least whether Complicite, and McBurney (who, after all, is the last remaining common thread in Complicite's ongoing project) above all, are maybe better with adaptations of novelistic fiction -- the voices of Schulz, Berger, Kharms, Murakami, for all of whom they found such fitting theatrical translations -- than with work such as A Disappearing Number and, before that, Mnemonic which is developed out of material that does not itself present a strong authorial voice.

Possibly as a consequence of that lack of a stable but lyrical text suitable for excursion, one of the real disappointments of A Disappearing Number -- as Andrew also notes -- is that the work fails to make good on its implicit promise to open out the mathematical propositions at its (signalled) heart. Far too quickly, the maths is overtaken by the idea of maths. It may be an underestimation of the willingness of the audience to attend to a less comedically proposed discussion of the actual concepts at the heart of Srinivasa Ramanujan's apparently beautiful and startling equations. I don't know, perhaps there really isn't any way of sharing that work with a lay audience. But as so often with work that's ostensibly about maths or science, those elements too quickly and blithely become metaphors or up-for-grabs language sets or indicators of character types or of a certain fast-scrolling postmodern sublime. I left A Disappearing Number having learnt next to nothing about mathematics. Nor was there even the beginnings of an attempt to explain why Ramanujan's work was of such interest to a physicist character working with string theory: we just have to take it on trust -- as with the kid at primary school who was always insisting he could fly, but couldn't be bothered just at the moment -- so that the piece can instead spend all its time paddling in vague humanist abstractions.

And ultimately it's that relentless privileging of the general over the specific that bugs me about this piece and about certain others like it. The loftiest of its suggestions is that everything is made out of patterns and everything is connected. Well, ok. But that's not the end of a piece of theatre, that's the beginning. Most people with a more than recreational interest in theatre -- which I would suggest is the majority of Complicite's audience -- go to the theatre, against all odds, precisely because they are nursing just such an instinct that everything is connected and we are all part of bigger patterns: that's why communality and liveness and intimacy and proximity and the civic installation of thinking-spaces are of continuing importance to those people, even if they wouldn't express it as such. And so to tell us that everything is connected is at this point no more useful than the substylistic content of an Alan Bennett play which holds a mirror up to the tomato-shaped ketchup dispenser on the cafe table and invites us to enjoy our own ineffable superiority for having recognized it. Yes, we are all connected, and in ways far more immediately challenging than any middlebrow distillation of a Moby lyric is ever going to reveal to us. We are all connected: but what are we going to do about it? Sitting in the Barbican watching a bunch of strangers beautifully ducking behind a big revolving telly seems like it's, at best, a start.

Whenever anyone scoffs at my love for Sesame Street and carelessly elides it with other, similarly iconic character sets, I am at scrupulous pains to point out to them the basic difference in ethos. The final message of Disney is: we are all the same. "It's a small world after all", after all. Whereas the final message of Sesame Street, and of the Jim Henson-era Muppets, is exactly the opposite: we are all different, it says. And therefore, it matters how we behave, how we imagine ourselves in relation with others, how we manage our difference and negotiate the terms of our communications with each other. Never mind Ken Dodd and Morton Feldman: you can get from SuperGrover to J.H. Prynne in fewer degrees of separation than it takes to round up everyone who was ever one of The Drifters.

The only other cultural activity I can report on from the past couple of weeks is David Mackenzie's film Hallam Foe: and I'm not sure there's much to say. It's, like, fine. Pretty uneven in tone if not in quality -- there's magic realism and social realism and romantic comedy all churning around together, and it seems to matter more in a film than perhaps it might have done in the originating novel (which I haven't read) that these different tones don't particularly support or endorse each other: nor do they create a particularly interesting tension because the whole thing is overlaid with such weighted quirkiness that the stakes never really seem very high even when plotwise they're not far off life-and-death. With a Domino branded soundtrack and a (not totally unamusing) title sequence by the desperately overexposed David Shrigley, this movie wears its target demographic on its tattered cardigan sleeve; but some of my best friends are in that demographic, even if I'm perhaps not quite any longer, and it's a not unappealing two hours. The film is attractively shot -- particularly when the homeless Hallam reaches Edinburgh (the real love interest) -- and the dialogue is understatedly perky. It's as whip-smart contemporary-Scottish in its overall personality as the wretched Amelie is French, but there's no doubt it could have been a much more cloying and self-regarding movie if it weren't for the breezy and subtly tuned performances of Claire Forlani, the ever-excellent Ewen Bremner, and above all the quite astounding Jamie Bell in the eponymous role.

I happened to see Billy Elliot on tv one evening last month in Edinburgh, a film which I heartily disliked on its initial release (though my first impressions were somewhat coloured by attending a matinee, late into the run, where the only person sitting between me and the cinema screen was an old geezer who appeared to be actually wanking ceaselessly throughout). Seeing it again I was not much more impressed with Lee Hall's characteristically hollow screenplay or with Stephen Daldry's direction, but I saw more in Stuart Wells's achingly delicate performance as Billy's mate Michael, and much more in Jamie Bell's lead. Bell holds that film together through sheer force of will (and talent -- but that's the obvious bit) and an unassailable integrity: just as he does David Gordon Green's idiosyncratic, slightly confused Undertow. And there's no doubt that he makes Hallam Foe the kind of film -- and Hallam Foe the kind of character -- that many people will fall in love with, for no other reason that he's utterly guileless as an actor. Technically he seems to me quite superb, but he's also absolutely unwilling to make inexpensive choices: which suggests to me that he works extremely hard but is also greatly enjoying himself. And every worthwhile director to whom that comes across as strongly as it does to me will on the strength of Hallam Foe be forming a disorderly queue to work with him. I really can't sing his praises melliflously enough. See the movie for him alone and it'll be a couple of hours well spent. (Though if you are sitting towards the front: please, for the comfort and safety of other patrons: leave it alone until you get home.)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Reading list(lessness)

What's that you say you fancy? A more than usually self-involved post from the Thompsonian All-Knowing Trash Heap? Why, sure. Coming right up.

It was just, I dunno, this struck me.

I was mithering to a friend today about how little I read at the moment. Because I'm feeling kind of gloomy and hemmed-in and listless (yes, yes, I know it's because I live entirely on nachos, tootsie rolls, and a flavourless mush I call root marm: I never said I was the tragic hero of this piece, but at least you can't call me unAmerican), and in this mode, reading seems to become even harder than it usually is. Over the past ten years I've found it harder and harder to read books. As a teenager I was a voracious and excitable reader. Maybe I don't get so excited these days, I don't know. I definitely think being exposed to some of the wilder shores of literature has made the very great majority of stuff seem a bit tame and unexceptional. I've almost completely given up on novels, which I used to love, because I can't get excited about plot (on the whole), I tend not to connect with characters (in general), and I'm all but incapable of linear progress through a book. I'm interested in style, and especially in the unconventional or unfamiliar. But once I've sucked all of that nutrition out of a novel, which I can do to my own satisfaction in, oh, half an hour, then I'm kind of stuck with a husk. Poetry and biography were my staples till recently; now I'm not sure even about those. It's not that I don't want to read, it's just I find myself lacking -- I don't know what, the capacity, the attention span, the faith...? I don't think it helps that the only two items of furniture in my room that are suitable for reading on/in are the chair which is at my desk (which is therefore where my computer is, and by extension, Google and iTunes and DVDs and any number of idiotic games), and my bed. I love the idea of reading in bed but have finally achieved the great age -- and such a nadir of lethargy -- where I now last about four minutes before I am drooling insensately over whatever volume I've tucked myself up with.

So although reading's gone wonky for me of late, the sense of the love of reading, and the pleasure of being close to a book, is still strong, and I still hope that every book I pick up is going to be the one that will penetrate the Cloud of Unknowing. But almost every day it feels like a different book is the one that will do the trick. Which is how it is that, having earlier complained to my friend about how little I read, I spent half an hour this evening trying to clear up the enormous pile of books that has accumulated next to my bed -- on the table, on the floor, and (almost needless to say) spreading at least three feet under the bed, in fact.

As I was excavating this pile of books, therefore, it wasn't a question of looking back over a series of great reading experiences I've had in the past few weeks. It was merely a heap of aspirations to which I found myself ultimately unequal. Kind of a monument to all the things I thought, come midnight or one a.m., would be just the dose of inspiration I might need as I turned in, to cause me to wake up brighter and more turned-on and tuned-in. (As opposed to which, of course, and with due respects to Dr Leary, I almost instantly drop off.)

So here's something that I guess is of no real interest to anyone but me -- a catalogue of the pile of books I reshelved today. Think of it as a Man Booker shortlist for The Rest Of Us. Taken together it's a sort of map of what I believe to be exciting and important ideas that are not, yet, fully, in action at the heart of my own life. I would recommend (in one way or another) any and all of these books, because I believe them to be (in one way or another) interesting, some of them maybe even very interesting. One or two are very mildly embarrassing I guess. Two have essays by me in them and probably ought to be disqualified. The number I have actually read, cover-to-cover, is, I think, nine. And by cover-to-cover, I don't necessarily mean from beginning to end. I mean -- and does this remind you, as it does me, of Eric Morecambe playing Grieg? -- I've read all the pages, but not necessarily in the right order.

Apologies for the lack of bibliographical detail, but frankly, even my unconscionably long and excruciating life is too short.

Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others; Tim Allen & Andrew Duncan, eds., Don't Start Me Talking: Interviews with contemporary poets; Bruce Andrews, Designated Heartbeat; Paul Arden, It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be; Neil Bartlett, Skin Lane; Georges Bataille, Eroticism; John Berger, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance; Suzaan Boettger, Earthworks: Art and the landscape of the Sixties; Humphrey Carpenter, Spike Milligan: The Biography; Dennis Cooper, Wrong, and, as ed., Userlands: New fiction writers from the blogging underground; Jim Dodge, Stone Junction; Terry Eagleton, After Theory; Hugo Hamilton, Surrogate City; Mel Gussow, Conversations With Pinter; Leslie Hill & Helen Paris, eds., Performance and Place; Clive James, The Crystal Bucket; Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers; Wayne Koestenbaum, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon; Sam Ladkin & Robin Purves, eds., Chicago Review 53:1 (Spring 2007); Tim Miller, Body Blows: Six Performances, and 1001 Beds: Performances, essays and travels; Michael Newman & Jon Bird, eds., Rewriting Conceptual Art; Simon Reynolds, Bring the Noise: 20 years of writing about hip rock and hip-hop; Philip Ridley, Flamingoes in Orbit, and In the Eyes of Mr Fury; Sarah Riggs, chain of minuscule decisions in the form of a feeling; David Savran, Breaking the Rules: The Wooster Group; Tom Spanbauer, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon; David Sylvester, London Recordings; Scott Thurston, ed., The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk; Carol Watts, Wrack; Judith Weston, The Film Director's Intuition; Carl Wilkinson, ed., The Observer Book of Film; Slavoj Zizek, Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle

Suddenly I realise that there's nothing on the list older than 1962 (the Bataille). Maybe that's where I'm going wrong. Maybe I need to have another crack at Paradise Lost. I still feel uncomfortable that it's possible to get a decent degree in English Literature from a prestigious university and still have never got past page 3 of Paradise Lost.

Actually, this whole exercise reminds me of something my therapist suggested I do when I was still at university (and reading loads). She said, walk into your room and try to look at everything you've got pinned up on the walls as if for the first time. What are you telling the world, and yourself, about who you are, from the posters you stick up? (In my case, I was telling the world I was a New York-based lesbian performance artist with communication difficulties. Which of course was basically accurate in every detail and to the last degree.)