Thursday, June 20, 2024

Let's hear it for the trees

There's a hypnotic, meditative quality to Perfect Days which foregrounds the Koji Yakusho character's quiet immersion in simple everyday life as a Tokyo toilet cleaner. He is surrounded by busy people, but also by natural beauty. A touchstone here is the sunlight leaking through trees, summed up by some beguiling cinematic images of that komorebi effect. Quiet acceptance seems like a template for contentment and it has been suggested that Wim Wenders is taking a stand here. But what do we read into some of the other motifs? The cassette tapes he plays in the car each morning - those lo-fi analogue recordings of a previous generation that haunt the movie? Or the delicate suggestion that his past and his family relationships may not be so straightforward? And all those imaginative toilet designs that we encounter? Critics have tended to focus on the beauty of the film and have celebrated the portrayal of a character seemingly at peace with the world, turning away from, or escaping from the mess. But, perhaps inevitably, there's more beneath the placid surface of the film. It takes us away from toilets, from toilet cleaning and from Tokyo, such a potent symbol of the modern world. It could be argued that Perfect Days makes an uneasy settlement with the modern world, in the same way that the Koji Yakusho character may have made an uneasy settlement with his life. Some parallels can be found in another slow and quiet film - Here from the Belgian director Bas Devos. The central characters, a Romanian construction worker and a Chinese bryologist develop a romantic connection in natural beauty walking through the woodland around Brussels. The trees and the mosses come to the foreground, They are beautifully filmed as modern life speeds by in the background - trains ceaselessly moving rootless people from place to place. Here is another sideways glance at modernity. The character Stefan is more troubled than Wim Wender's toilet cleaner, but his life is just as simple and his motivations are nothing but generous - he cooks up soup and walks miles to deliver it in plastic tubs to his friends. Here may be overlooked because Devos is not so well known and because it may be siloed as art house, but it is still a real achievement. On the other hand Wim Wender's huge reputation has already insured that Perfect Days gets plenty of attention. But both films deserve to be taken seriously, both show what a feature-length film can do, and both have important messages for us. And let's hear it for trees - they don't feature in the credits, but they are major actors in both these wonderful, thought-provoking films.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The reading habit

My reading habit is almost as bad as my writing habit. In fact it may be worse. It costs more for a start and it has the added disadvantage of cluttering the place up with its remnants - books. I usually read a couple of them a week. Sometimes non-fiction but most of the time these days fiction. A long term ambition has been to make some sort of reference to what I read here, on this blog. But that's too much pressure. And the trouble is that I don't quite know what I think about a piece of writing until sometime afterwards and by then I've started on something else and then I forget what I thought before. My clearest thoughts about my reading usually begin to crystallise out as I'm reading, but somehow it seems wrong to write them down before I've finished the whole thing. Wrong and probably unfair. So my first impressions of Checkout 19 was that it was a rather clumsy attempt to claim cultural capital with all those references to her reading. That was until it started to impress me with its deep interiority and its own grappling with the writing/reading process. But all that fell away when I started to admire the jaw-dropping way that it would lurch into full-blown fantasy. Still when I reached the end it had become something else again, another kind of story. Bennet's book is unsettling. It's hard to compare it with anything else and perhaps that's why I can't quite bring myself to say I enjoyed it. OK, it shares some common features with something like Amy Liptrot's The Outrun, but then that's a more conventional form, a memoir with an explicit trajectory, a memoir that dwells directly on its central character and context. On some occasions when I read I just get absorbed in technique and with Checkout 19 I found myself turning back the pages on a couple of occasions to find out how skilfully Claire-Louise Bennett got us from A to B. Quite remarkable in itself. I turn the corner of the page as if I'll go back again which is something I rarely do, because by then I'm on to the next thing which in this case is Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Don't lean on me man

Scribbled notes on a scrap of lined paper sold for £89,000 the other day. They were the draft lyrics for Rock n Roll Suicide and Suffragette City – complete with the added revisions ‘Hey man!’, ‘Don’t lean on me man’ and ‘Outasight’. The everyday nature of the materials and the rather unremarkable addition of those words might seem trivial or even banal if it were not for the huge impact of Bowie’s songs on popular culture. That scrap of paper, those hastily scribbled jottings are like visible traces of a creative process in vivo. Those songs echoed around bedrooms and shared houses, bedsits and squats, family homes and student flats. They were sung along to, played, replayed and performed time and again, spooling outwards, as it were, from those hastily scribbled lines. Of course, it wasn’t just the lyrics, it was the voice and the music too, the distinctive sound of that particular recording, distributed on vinyl, in its instantly recognisable cardboard sleeve. And it goes without saying, the RCA supply chain ensured that copies were there, ready and available in the racks and trays of LPs that like-minded people habitually flicked through when they went to their favourite record store, back in the day. Matter of little significance has, over time, become a much sought after collector’s item - the value of that scrap of paper far outstrips the value of the raw materials it’s made from, and the ways in which the words themselves wound their way around the feelings and impulses as well as the hopes, beliefs and dreams of a generation of listeners is difficult to capture because of its inevitable multiplicity. It may well have been the soundtrack of many people’s early lives - but then what lives? How did the lyrics come to mean in different contexts, how were they understood - how were they heard, misheard, disliked, detested? Material history can be a bit like that, for although we might agree on the importance of a particular artefact, its meaning is fundamentally unstable inviting interpretation, re-interpretation and misinterpretation. Music in popular culture seems to inhabit the outer reaches of such instability because of the way in which it is often woven into significant personal events, stitched in to one’s particular state of mind, the recreational drugs, relationships, lifestyles and ambitions of the time. Perhaps music in general does this, seamlessly attaching itself to the memories and affects, the distinctiveness of a life. After all this is key to the success of Desert Island Discs, now 81 years old. The 8 track format is such a convenient hook to tell the story of one’s life - or at least a version of it. With an aspiration to be a writer, poet or wordsmith and a nascent literary sensibility I was drawn to the words that punctuated the soundtrack of my early life. That soundtrack was made of vinyl. Singles and EPs that span around at 45 rpm, LPs at 33.3 rpm. Mostly I first heard stuff on pirate stations, on a transistor radio, on Top of the Pops or round at friends’ houses. But the LP soon became something to own. The record sleeve had the all-important supplementary information. The aesthetic of the art work, the names of the musicians, the way they looked, the way they dressed and how they had their hair - the instruments they played, who sang, who wrote the songs and of course, the lyrics themselves. No longer inaudible or misheard, there they were, nearly always on the back of the sleeve or on a pull-out, and you could read them, sing along or just pour over their meaning, if you could fathom it out. Some were more self-consciously poetic than others, some were just rubbish, but nonetheless huge clouds of creativity billowed out of that early flowering of rock music. It seemed at the time that the lyrics carried valuable messages. If they were not poetic they might gesture towards expressions of lifestyle, of taste, of belief and in doing so fashioned the habits of mind of a generation. Whimsical and romantic, uncompromising and rebellious, conceptual, quirky, hedonistic, we were served up with a range of possibilities, a wardrobe of identities that might distinguish us from the mainstream. Only a few at the time saw how the subtle threads of capitalism were part of this, establishing a marketplace in which even the costumes of anti-capitalism could be bought. And now, just the words remain – like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan (it’s all there somewhere, even if the melody is hard to sing!). Skeletons, threadbare outfits. At an earlier auction the lyrics for Bowie’s Starman sold for £203,500. Unlike Suffragette City, these look like neat copy – presentable handwriting on graph paper with misspellings corrected, probably provided for publication of the official lyric sheet. They don’t have quite the same feel as the Rock n Roll Suicide and Suffragette City lyrics – they’re more polished, more self-conscious, but their market worth is still interesting, and given that an early demo of the song went for £41,000, a fifth of the price, it seems like the material trace of writing is an important marker for the collector, being closer perhaps to an autograph than a ghostlike voice, written by the hand of an icon, don’t lean on me man.