Saturday, December 29, 2012

Movie still from Static Mass Emporium
  Following on from my post focusing on Sight & Sound magazine’s 2012 list of ‘The Greatest 100 Films of All Time’, with my own nominations in the form of a list of ten films, it’s been interesting revisiting two that I chose, both sci-fi classics based on sci-fi classic novels: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Just like reading Orwell’s 1984, both these films are fascinating to watch now for their predilections of what would come in the future at the time they were shot, when that time depicted has either now happened (as it 2001) or will happen soon (Blade Runner, set just seven years away, in 2019). Both, in fact, while mostly being hugely off the mark, contain some prescient moments. In 2001, while the predilection of habitable space stations orbiting Earth turned out to be broadly true, those space stations certainly haven’t turned into the kind of ‘orbiting hotels’ (pictured below) - replete with a receptionist - as depicted in the film, in which members of the general public are seen visiting.

Movie still from The Final Take
Popular Mechanics stills (above and right) from Retronaut
The ISS, as with the other current space stations, remains a cramped, stressful place for those fleet crew staying there. The closest mankind will get to anywhere near that depicted in the film at the time of writing, eleven years on from predicted, has been with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, set to launch next year. That, however, will only take certain members of the public (all paying to the tune of a mammoth £128,000 each) for a short duration, rather than the potentially long time period depicted; furthermore, the environs are still unlikely to look anything like Kubrick’s extraordinary retro-futuristic vision. Indeed, the only semblance of reality is with the scene where Dr. Heywood Floyd communicates with his daughter via a ‘conference’ or ‘videophone’ call, which today is commonplace.

More unrealistic still is the film’s depiction of the US’s outpost on the moon, called Clavius Base. At the moment, and despite NASA’s rhetoric about one day having one, the notion of any permanent base on the moon, never mind terraforming, seems ever more remote. Where the film is especially implausible, though, is the notion that by 2001 we would be able to send manned spaceships to Jupiter, suspending human life in cryogenics part of the way. Again, while NASA has mentioned vague plans one day of sending a manned mission to Mars, it seems pretty clear that it won’t be for a good while yet, what with the American Government unable to send a manned probe even back to the Moon, never mind any other planet in our solar system. And even with any planned trip to Mars, huge logistical quandaries in getting human life to the Red Planet – from mental through to physical issues (arising from long-term weightlessness), as well as radiation – would need to be overcome.
Indeed, looking back on the film now, it’s reminiscent of some of those amusing Popular Mechanics magazine articles (pictured above and right) from the 1950s, imagining the future as way more advanced than it’s actually turned out to be, from flying cars – which have been pretty much a staple of any film set in the future - to Buckminster Fuller’s floating communities, and onwards. That’s not to deny that sheer wonderment of the film, though, which brilliantly realises Arthur C. Clarke’s vision in the novel of the evolutionary progress of man as having been initiated by the alien’s ubiquitous, perfectly designed Monoliths (all famously with that precise ratio of 1:4:9).

Movie still from Movie Photographs
Kubrick captures this notion perfectly with the famous match-cut from an ape – the precursor of man - millions of years ago, newly emboldened with a conscious intellect thanks to the arrival of the Monolith, throwing a bone/weapon in the air; the camera juxtaposes the fall of the bone in the air beautifully with a modern-day (2001 in the film) orbital satellite moving in space, implying the slow progression from one to the other.

Blade Runner, released in 1982 but based on the book written by Philip K. Dick (as “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) in the same year that 2001 was released in the cinema (1968), envisions some form of terraforming taking place on other planets (which we never see), but dispenses with any notions of extra-terrestrials (though keeps interesting metaphysical notions with its idea that androids could be ‘just as human’ as humans). Instead, BR remains extraordinary in its visionary film noir realization of Dick’s dystopian vision of Los Angeles in 2019, where the city has become a fire-breathing vision of Hades (below).

Movie still from The Blog of Big Ideas
We also see it reflected in the huge watchful eye at the start of the film (picture top of blog post)  - shades of 1984, perhaps, also reflected in the constant surveillance lights that penetrate into buildings. While the aforementioned flying cars also remain a staple, repeated through most futuristic films – a trope that’s never been replicated in reality - BR does capture more accurately how big world cities have become globalised, with the film’s depiction at street level of cultural and religious mixing, as well as neon signs in Japanese and Chinese. Furthermore, it brilliantly predicts the use of moving advertisements (now commonplace on the London Underground). There’s also the omnipresent rain, which the film suggests is the result of industrial pollution in a similar manner to global warming; although set in LA, it feels strangely prescient to here in the UK, with the rainiest year on record. The permanent rain and film noir feel to the film also seems apposite in reflecting how many cities now feature a mixture of the hi-tech and shiny alongside decay and rotting (just check out the area around the Shard if you don’t believe me). Of course, for all the paranoia about corporate power embedded in not just these films but other sci-fi classics – from the Alien quadriology through to The Terminator franchise – what these films all failed singularly to predict was what has been one of the most technologically important developments in the last twenty years: the Internet, which would be just around the corner.

Friday, December 28, 2012

In case you're wondering where the links have gone - annoyingly the new template upgrade has automatically deleted them! Rest assured that they will return, though...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The rain seeps into everywhere at the moment, from the buildings I’ve entered, to buses, shops and cafes. Poor bedraggled tourists in the centre of London shield themselves from the onslaught from the sky. If the current floods are set to be a regular blot on the landscape here in the UK, it’s a sign that global warming is here to stay; and the implications for London are one of ever more wet weather and misery.
It’s followed me around everywhere as I’ve moved for a few months to entirely new environs: West London (hence my delay in a new post). The landlord sold my last abode in East London to an unnamed new owner, so I had to move. Getting used to my new (mostly unfamiliar) settings, the last few weeks have been spent living under huge, sheet grey monolithic rain clouds, moving at fast speed with the wind, only the faintest tantalises of blue sky peeking out every now and then. Indeed, there have been some days where no blue sky has appeared at all, just a windswept, colourless, sheet-grey vista above. Fog occasionally permeates the landscape too, reducing visibility.
Combined with the dystopian environs of the Hammersmith overpass nearby, and surrounded by a futuristic skyline of corporation skyscrapers and industrial warehouses, I’m beginning to feel like something from a Godspeed You! Black Emperor song, full of urban decay and dread (there’s even a hilarious ‘Inspired by Godspeed You! Black Emperor’ Flickr group of evocative post-industrial looking photos).
Speaking of Godspeed, it’s great to have them back after a nearly ten year hiatus. The last time they were a going concern, it was before the financial crash and the tumescent implications for the global economy. In a month where revelations of endemic tax avoidance are everywhere while Government cuts bite (at least in the UK), Godspeed somehow feel as relevant as ever. They still sound like the end of the world too, of course. A while ago, I wrote praise of an album by theirs, released at the dawn of the last decade. Twelve years later, it’s been great to see them live, first at ATP at Butlins (an incongruous setting if ever there was one) and recently at the Forum, along with an entirely new album, exactly ten years after their last one. At the former set of concerts, they even played the majestic track in the YouTube vid above from their 2002 album (was it really that long ago?) Yanqui UXO – all twenty glorious, extraordinary minutes of it. I could link to the whole song elsewhere on YouTube, but some guy (presumably the annoying small portrait of someone on the right of screen) has come up with a pretty good video which , dissapointingly, only features the second half of the song. But still, what a second half. Watch in the full screen version. Of course, thinking about that video, what Godspeed really need to soundtrack is Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (or better still, 2001: A Space Oddysey), despite Philip Glass having already scored a famous original score for it. Now that really WOULD be something.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Really enjoyed the ‘Architecture Tour’ of the Barbican complex, which is currently running (I’ll also be checking out the ‘Hidden Barbican’ tour this week). It’s incredible to think, walking through its endless walkways and lakeside walks - or rather running, as I'm there three times a week jogging to an app - that the whole area was one big flattened bomb site just after WWII. The Barbican Estate as a whole is vast: it feels like an elevated mini-city in its own right, hermetically cut off from the rest of London, with tunnels and passageways leading off in all directions. More interesting still, listening to the tour guide, is the revelation that the phrase ‘brutalist architecture’ – which also applies to the Southbank Centre, of course – doesn’t actually literally refer to something that’s ‘brutal’ but instead comes from the French béton brut: raw concrete. The term was first coined by Le Corbusier in a neutral manner to describe many of the post-war buildings he was involved with, and whose ideas were hugely influential on the design of Barbican (although he was never directly involved in the project); there was even an exhibition on his work right in the Barbican gallery at one point, which I mentioned here in a previous post that also brought up the writings of JG Ballard. The gallery should really have an exhibition just on the Barbican complex itself, showing all the architectural plans and photos of what the gutted area looked like directly after the war and just before building work began. 

Just as with the likes of Habitat 67 in Montreal, the Barbican was designed to bring the middle-classes back into the centre of London at a time when they were moving in droves to the suburbs (a process that is now generally reversing). With its endless “walkways in the sky”, it feels like a futuristic version of paradise, albeit one made of weather-stained concrete. It's possible to glimpse in the Barbican Estate the original prototype of the council estate, an ideal that people actually aspired to at one time before many of the shallow imitators of the Barbican became notorious areas for crime and bleakness. The prototype setting of JG Ballard's High-Rise, in which the residents of a posh luxury forty-story tower block slowly go insane, indulging in carnage and death, is most likely the Barbican (though the Barbican's residents haven't engaged in an orgy of destruction such as in the book - though I could be wrong...).
Anyway, the real jewels are the various lakes (below) and the Conservatory, the latter of which is only open on Sundays. 

Walking around its vaguely tropical-looking plants, nested inside an enormous conservatory surrounded by huge skyscrapers, you feel in the Conservatory (pictures below) like you’re in something of a sci-fi novel (or even the film Silent Running, which I’ve just happened to watch - though admittely the Conservatory isn't floating in space).

Brutalist architecture has become something of a much-used term, of course. Despite the Barbican being voted “London’s ugliest building” in 2003 in a poll, it’s actually been Grade II listed. And despite its controversy, writers such as Own Hatherley have championed the site in Militant Modernism, a book that yours truly is currently reading.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

More posts will be coming soon, but in the meantime, here's another night hosted by myself down south of the river in association with Pennyblackmusic...

Willard Grant Conspiracy (Solo)
Tickets and description of bands here.
The Half Moon, 10 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, London, SE24 9HU
Saturday 3rd November 2012
A preview of the night will be coming up shortly on Pennyblackmusic.

Monday, September 10, 2012

An amazing moment happened last night during the finale of the Hackney Film Festival, ran by friends of mine, which has taken place all this weekend. The evening saw a number of short documentaries being showed, after which a feature-length documentary called Swandown was screened, directed by Andrew Kötting and starring himself and Iain Sinclair (author of London Orbital and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire). The film, essentially a ‘psycho-geography’ 
travelogue, involves Kötting and Sinclair (who also took part in a Q&A in person, pictured left) pedalling a swan-shaped pedalo (pictured below) all the way from Hastings to Hackney in east London along various English Thames estuary rivers which connect the sea with London. As with London Orbital, the characters they encounter en route are as much a part of the story as the ride itself. What’s significant is that the film ends as Kötting arrives, still pedalling on the river, at the Olympic site, where sinister recorded voices tell them that he has to leave (Sinclair himself has remained hugely ambivalent over the Olympics). The screening took place in an open-air square in Hackney Wick, surrounded by luxury flats and owned by an adjacent venue called Carlton London – just across the water, incredibly enough, from the Olympic Stadium, which just happened to be hosting the closing ceremony of the Paralympics at the same time, and thus the ending to the whole summer of London 2012 Olympic/Paralympic events. We could hear Coldplay echoing across the water as they played their usual lighters-aloft anthems. Near the end of the film, before Kötting’s arrival at Olympic Park, Sinclair takes leave of the pedalo, presumably because he was near his home (he lives in Hackney). At the moment Sinclair left the screen, the stadium erupted in a riot of fireworks, along with the rest of the Olympic Park. And what a display: it must have lasted for a good five minutes. Hence the pictures above that I managed to capture, and which should give you some idea of what an amazing moment it turned out to be. Another detailed account of the night can also be viewed here, by one of the HFF founders. 

Photo above taken from Swandown's website

 And in the meantime: goodbye to London 2012 and an incredible summer.

Monday, August 27, 2012

I’ve been in some weird-looking toilets in my time, but this one is truly something special: upstairs in The Old Crown on New Oxford Street in the men’s toilets, the trough-like urinal features engravings of assorted dictators and political figures (along with, inexplicably, some bunny rabbits and sunflowers). So when you pee, you’re doing it on Vladimir Putin et al. You have to hand it to any pub that stumps up something like this; it comes as a surprise after a few pints, that’s for sure…any help with who the dictators are indicated with a question mark below would be much appreciated. 

Top row: Saddam Hussein, ?, Kim Jong-il, ?, Adolf Hitler, a bunny rabbit, Idi Amin.
Middle row: ?, Leon Trotsky, Imelda Marcos, Josef Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi, Pol Pot.
Bottom row: a bunny rabbit, Vladimir Putin, another bunny rabbit, Yasser Arafat.

The pub is also worth visiting for checking out the huge murals on the wall of the adjacent street. One seems to depict the Queen with an incendiary device in her hand (or can of spray paint), an illegible (to me anyway) slogan above her, while directly underneath it The Beatles are depicted covered in terrorist-style face scarfs. Topical, you could say. 

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Really enjoying the current issue of the BFI's Sight & Sound magazine, with its 2012 poll of 'The Greatest Films of All Time'. I normally hate 'Top 100 lists' but this one is pretty interesting. There's actually two polls, the first of which involved "more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" submitting their ten favourites, from which the top 100 films were compiled according to number of votes; the other a top ten list polled by 350 directors. You can view the lists for both here, but what’s most of interest is seeing Citizen Kane not topping the list this time – a film that I only managed to get round to seeing recently, and which seems to be beyond reproach. While it’s a great enough film in of itself, somehow it doesn’t strike me as any more special than any of the other films on S&S's list.
As many of the contributors of the first list mentioned themselves, compiling a list of ten has meant just as much about what’s been left out as kept in. Being limited by only ten choices has meant an almost agonising process of leaving out almost equally important films for this writer. There's four key London-set films which really should be on there somewhere, given the name and nature of this blog (Blow-Up by Antonioni, The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa by Neil Jordan, and Performance by Cammell/Roeg); instead I ended up settling for Blade Runner, a film I've always loved since adolescence (as with the Coppola, Malle, Scorsese and Kubrick choices - so there's slightly selfish reasons for my list), and which is still as great a dystopian vision of a future city as it gets. There's also directors such as Kurosawa, Buñuel, Bergman, Vigo, Greenaway, French new wave cinema, Metropolis, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Herzog's Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo…not to mention more well-known classics such as Alien, This Is Spinal Tap, Taxi Driver, The Shining, The Blues Brothers and Apocalypse Now. All magnificent in their own way. Then there's more recent cinema, from which highlights include Darren Aronofsky's Pi and Requiem For A Dream, Todd Solondz, British productions such as Children of Men and Never Let Me Go, and films from as far afield as Iran to Australia. The more you think about it, the more you realise that limiting to just ten is a near impossible task.
My list (below) is in no particular order, with the exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is the one film that I’d take to a desert island. Why? Because it’s simply perfect, visually and thematically. No other film asks as bigger questions of humanity. Any suggestions for reader's own top tens?

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
2. Raging Bull (Scorsese)
3. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky)
4. Stalker (Tarkovsky)
5. The Holy Mountain (Jodorowsky)
6. Three Colours Triology (Kieślowski) *
7. The Godfather Part II (Coppola)
9. Blade Runner (Scott)
10. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog)

* Actually three films, so technically cheating – but what the heck…

Thursday, August 02, 2012

So the London 2012 Olympics are now with us. I enjoyed the opening ceremony, from the astonishing angel-like winged bikers floating around the stadium during the Arctic Monkeys’ cover of The Beatles "Come Together", to hearing Fuck Buttons on the soundtrack, to the sheer Spinal Tap nature of the opening sequence, in which a morris dancing-filled green and pleasant land makes way for industrialisation under the watchful eye of Kenneth Brannagh, playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You almost expected Stonehenge to appear.

Unlike the stately, all-powerful, slightly totalitarian nature of Beijing four years ago, the London 2012 ceremony felt like a much more alive and vibrant event, celebrating individuality as much as the collective (even if the text messaging bit did feel slightly naff, as if trying to “get down with the youth”). The whole thing was a truly hallucinatory, lysergic affair, what with the flying Mary Poppins, giant Lord Voldemort, cauldron-like rings lifted into the air, fluorescently clothed dancers, aforementioned winged bikers, and a huge house in the centre of the stadium turned into a giant graphic equaliser. God knows what it must have looked like on LSD. Director Danny Boyle’s uncompromising vision included a brief snatch of a lesbian kiss from Brookside (no doubt a two fingers up at Saudi Arabia, where such footage is banned) and the NHS (a two fingers up at, well, Cameron and Clegg, with their plans to dismantle it), as well as a brilliantly varied celebration of British music – from rock to disco to grime to indie.
More generally, I always enjoy the procession of athletes too, with a parade of grinning athletes from frequently obscure countries such as the Federated States of Micronesia or Turkmenistan or Nauru. Perhaps I’m the only one who enjoys this section of every opening ceremony, as going from A to Z with nearly every country in the world is a length progress…
As I write, it’s day six, London transport is holding its own despite huge worries, and Team GB have just leapfrogged up to fifth place in the medals table, with my rooting for teams in sports that I’ve never even watched before, never mind cared about – so who knows what can happen next? All I can say is that I still, despite the euphoria, reserve the right to find the Olympic mascots deeply sinister looking (looks like I'm not the only one), as I mentioned a while ago. You can image them from a John Wyndham sci-fi novel. There’s just something about those evil CCTV-like eyes… 

Photo by; photos of Olympics ceremony at top of post courtesy of

Friday, July 13, 2012

Here's some events coming up at Arbeit, an art gallery and performance space (it also rents out artist studios) that I've been involved with, located just off Old Street. Sorry for the short notice with the Spontaneous Combustion event!
The gallery can be located at:
4 Helmet Row
(Opposite LSO St. Luke's Church)
Some more details directions, including a map, here.
More info on Spontaneous Combustion: here
More info on De-Construct / Re-Construct / We-Construct: here

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Great areas of London slightly under the radar: Part 1

Every time you think you know London, you discover new areas which hitherto you had little inkling about. I'll be commanding a regular section on these places (don't expect Brick Lane or Portobello Road). So it is with Lower Marsh (there's no Road or Street in the title), a market strip in Waterloo right near the Southbank Centre where I've been volunteering. Far from the hype of East London's decidedly well-known nooks and crannies, Lower Marsh seems to live in its own detached, hermetically-sealed reality. Where else would you get this slightly sinister-looking secondhand bookshop that looks like it's stepped straight out of 1972? 

There's also a nice vegan cafe and shop called Coopers Natural, which seems to be brimming with endless flyers on yoga classes and tantric sex (well OK, I made the last bit up). They also do a mean vegan soup. But the street's real jewel in the crown is the double-whammy - if I can call it that - of What The Butler Wore and What The Butler Saw, presumably owned by the same people.

The latter, on the right, is a spooky 60s-style boutique clothes shop, similar to Pop Boutique in Covent Garden. The left shop, though, is really quite something: hardly conspicuous to the street outside (it doesn't even have a name on the shop front), a step into this cafe reveals an extraordinary garden of delights (well, there is a tiny garden at the back, but I mean metaphorically, obviously).

You feel transplanted back to Paris in the 20s or Soho in the 60s (or Berlin in the last ten years), with an extraordinary attention to detail in the adornments, junk (junk in a good way, mind) and nostalgic accouterments hanging from the wall. Well worth checking out.

Finally, there's also the 'graffiti tunnel', a long railway arch tunnel which connects the street to the back of the Southbank Centre, and where - as far as I can tell - graffiti is legal, and thus a magnet for young street artists. You can glimpse tantilisingly into The Young Vic theatre while you're there too, as it has a (usually open) back door half-way down the tunnel leading into the venue. The open door reveals winding passages with walls full of painted winding black lines, snaking into the belly of The Young Vic.

Monday, June 18, 2012

(Mosaic image above from Lyn Atelier's site; image of Undercroft below by T.Frewin; all other photos by me)

For the last few months, I’ve been involved in a project at the Southbank Centre called Festival Village, initiated by architectural and design practice Lyn Atelier in association with the SC and Studio Tilt. For those who’ve walked on that stretch of the Southbank promenade in-between the BFI and the RFH, you’ll recall a darkly-lit industrial-looking zone nicknamed The Undercroft, where teenagers ply their skateboard and BMX tricks on concrete slopes while onlookers watch against a backdrop of urban graffiti (pictured). Behind those walls, and under the Queen Elizabeth Hall (which is on the level above) a hollow space previously used for storage has been transformed into a bar, café and exhibition space in conjunction with the SC’s Festival of the World taking place at the moment. This has included housing bands - the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra from Venezuela among them -  from all over the world playing in the main venues of the SC, as part of the FOTW. Over five months, I’ve been one of the volunteers helping out from the start, from initially discussing the plans for graphics and wayfaring to helping get involved with the physical work of demolishing walls; installing a bar; making, painting and varnishing furniture; creating walls; and who knows what else, all of which has been a fun and involving experience. One of the most rewarding experiences was seeing the end result at the opening party, after five months of development. The pictures below document the changes that have taken place in the site as it’s been developed over five months leading up to June 2012. Here's what the site looked during construction...

...and here's what the finished product looks's even featured in an issue of The Late Show recently. All that sanding, lifting wood, and other physical exertion was worth it in the end!