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Lost In Space

There is so much to recommend ‘Gravity’. I saw it at an Imax in 3D, so the effects were at their most awe-inspiring. This is probably the nearest us mortals are ever going to get to being in space. And it’s terrifying up there.

I loved that most of the film is just about one character, a close study on one face, one point of view.

And that point of view is a woman’s. Millions of men will go and see this film because it’s exciting and about space and has amazing effects, and will experience an entire film from the perspective of a woman. Women sit in cinemas and view the world over and over again through the eyes of men, because men won’t go and see a ‘woman’s film’. When it has a female lead, it’s a ‘woman’s film’. When it has a male lead, it’s just a film. ‘Gravity’, as ‘Alien’ before it, is just a film.

‘Gravity’ is almost unbearably tense. For all that humans are capable of going into and living and working in space, we are still utterly vulnerable up there, weak and tiny organisms in the void. The science may be a bit wonky, but the terror when something goes wrong feels pretty authentic.

I don’t want to sound too critical of a film that is so patently and unashamedly an action movie. The plotting is formulaic, but it never promised to be otherwise. And were it an action film set on earth (motor vehicles rather than spacecraft, Speed not Gravity) I wouldn’t expect it to convey a deeper life message, to make a profound investigation of mortality. I was moved by the sight of Sandra Bullock’s character floating, embryo-like, in zero gravity, terrified and grieving. I was fascinated by the intriguing, beautiful and genuinely poignant spectacle of her tears falling away from her eyes, rather than being pulled down her cheeks by gravity.

But I couldn’t help wishing for an experience that wasn’t so resolutely upbeat. Over a background of rising strings, Sandra Bullock tilts her plucky American chin at fate and gets herself home to earth. Despite the tension, the ending is never seriously in doubt. Humanity (American humanity) will triumph.

At the moment when she fears that all is lost, she talks to herself, or to the oblivious Chinese control centre on Earth, and says that she knows she’s going to die, that we all know we’re going to die, but in this situation she gets to know when. And she’s still scared.

That to me was fascinating, and the opportunity missed. How must it be to approach death alone? We all die alone, and some of us approach death without others around us. But to die in space, cut off from the control centre on earth, that isolation is infinite. What must that be like, to approach death like that? And what would it be like to actually die in heaven? The idea that heaven is ‘up there’ is deep in our collective unconscious, atheist or believer. A rational, scientist finds herself dying in the very place that has been the repository of human souls ever since humans started telling each other stories. Would an atheist’s stance be shaken? Would a believer’s faith be shaken? And as the sun rises over the curve of the earth, the most beautiful sight only ever experienced by a tiny handful of humans, and knowing you would never experience another sunrise, or sunset, or human voice, or human touch, what must that feel like?

That’s another film, a different film. Or, more likely, a short story…

Letting the light in

I went to see an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair at Tate Modern. Born in Beirut in 1916, she trained for a brief time in Paris under the tutelage of Ferdinand Leger. Her life and career has been however spent in Lebanon, working in a cultural and political enviornment that was difficult for artists, even more so for women artists. She isn’t well known outside the Middle East, and whilst it’s a shame that this is being redressed when her career is over (she is now very infirm), at least her work is finally being exhibited internationally.
She started her career with painting (the self-portrait that advertised the exhibition is beautiful but the least representative work in the collection). There was some early figurative work, and her women in the Les Peintres Celebres series are a response to Leger’s Le Grand Dejeuner. Her women are funny, educated and whilst not unaware of their effect on the viewer, unconcerned by it. Our judgements are our problem. As they look directly at the viewer, they are comfortable in their own skin.
The foundation of her work is to harmonise non-representational Middle Eastern art and European abstraction. Her later gouaches are entirely abstract, using the curve and the straight line of Islamic design in a repetition that feels very musical, like beats in a bar. Her canvases are the nearest I’ve come to experiencing music as a visual medium. There is of course a beautiful harmony in Islamic art, but her paintings feel also modern, syncopated.
It is in sculpture that she truly finds self expression. She was fascinated by architecture, and said that in another life, she’d have trained as an architect. Some of her sculptures are like models for modular housing, all have a relationship with space and light that feels architectural as much as artistic. More than any exhibition I’ve been to, I wanted to touch her sculptures. The space inside them allows a sense of great freedom and kinesis, even in a small work. But it also allows the viewers’ imagination to operate, to move into the work and respond very immediately and very personally to it.
She made a series of sculptures inspired by the structure of Sufi poetry, modules which interconnect but which also stand alone, to be as stanzas which compose the work. They are beautiful, sensuous structures which clearly hold within them both the economy and the expansiveness of poetry and of Sufi thought. The lyricism is manifest, and yet open to individual interpretation. Some of the dual sculptures are erotically charged and deeply tender, there is also a familial quality to several pieces.
Choucair’s latter years have been a continuation of her preoccupations – the curve and the line, light and space. Nylon wires stretched inside frames create sculptures of great delicacy and purity, which also have movement and strength. The tension in the structures hold infinite potentialities as the viewer moves round the twisting, sensuous lines and curves.
Choucair is not a ‘great’ artist, she is too small perhaps, both in terms of output and influence. Yet this exhibition moved me and inspired me more than any other I can think of. Hers is a body of work that is not about grand gestures or directional pieces. She makes art that is compact, and yet full of space and energy and light and possibility. Her non-representational abstraction is utterly humane, full of sensuality and familiarity. There will be no more work by her, so I am profoundly grateful that I have seen this collection.

Shorts 3

I saw a collection of shorts at the London Film Festival. Together they were titled ‘London Calling’ although I’m not sure why. None of them was specifically about London. Maybe they were all London based filmmakers.

I haven’t seen that many short films, and I only went along to this because M had a last minute spare ticket. I feel like a whole new artform has opened up for me. It sounds utterly facile, but these are the short stories to the full-length feature’s novel. The writer/director of a short can do completely different things to a longer work, or be formally similar. These films were a mixture of styles, scales, ambitions. Some were funny, some were tragic. I loved The Field

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3126040/

which was surreal, silly and yet painfully acute.

My favourite however was Up on the Roof

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Up-on-the-Roof/357865307652845

It’s a moving, funny, quietly triumphant film. It’s 16 minutes long. It was a perfectly crafted episode in the characters lives. It didn’t need to be any longer. I’m sure the writer, director and cast will go on to do full length work, shorts must act as calling cards in the industry. But they can do different things to movies, be more experimental. M got the taste for shorts too, so we’ll definitely be seeking out more.

Shorts 2

I heard Nadine Shah on the radio recently, and had to stop what I was doing and wait until they announced who the singer was.   Her voice was so strong and quite deep, and she sounded visceral. Not lacking in precision or control, but as if she’d really lived the lyrics.  I can’t stand this current trend for whimsical, girly, twirly nu-folk shit.  Folk music, real folk music, is sung with real passion.  What I object to is women who are styled like little fairies, and who sing as if they are prepubescent. 

J and I went to see Nadine Shah in concert.  She’s half Pakistani, half Norwegian, brought up in Tyneside.  She was wearing tight trousers, a tight top and a jacket.  She was incredibly sexy.  She was funny, warm and rude.  She’s descibed as being like Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, and that’s definitely true, but she’s also earthier.  

She could eat Zoey Deschanel for breakfast.

Shorts

I saw Chimerica recently at the Harold Pinter theatre.  I came out feeling extremely positive – it’s an exciting piece of theatre.  The set really is extraordinary, and usually if one is commenting on the set, the production must have been pretty insignificant.  But in this instance, the set and the production are of a very high standard.  It’s a piece that exercised my brain, made me concentrate on keeping up with the ideas.  It wasn’t until later that I started to feel it had all been a bit…hollow.  I think it was because the Western characters felt a bit like cyphers.  They didn’t convince as real people, with complex emotional hinterlands.  The love story was just cheesy (although when the characters were less emotionally involved I found their relationship credible – awkward and hesitant and funny).  Some lines felt lifted from a bad movie (‘I love you, and I think I’ve been in love with you for a very long time’), and the revealed pregnancy at the end was cliched and unconvincing.

Zhang Lin seemed a much more believable character.  I found his emotional statis compelling, the tragedy deepened when we learn, or remember, how the events of the Tiananmen Square uprising have been utterly excised from Chinese history and public discourse.  He cannot grieve, because what happened to him did not happen to him.  He is completely lost.  This storyline has enough poignancy, it does not need to be made into melodrama by turning Zhang Lin into ‘Tank Man’.  Perhaps it was supposed to be representative, but it felt heavy-handed.

I’m not sure I learnt much that was new to me, not because I’m any kind of expert in Chinese politics, but because we were not presented with viewpoints that would suprise us.  That doesn’t make them untrue, or even cliched, but I would like to have had some of my preconceptions challenged, rather than reinforced.  I hadn’t, however, thought much about Tiananmen Square since not long after it happened.  It was therefore important to be reminded.  Particularly because the Chinese public are not allowed to be.

It’s a very impressive piece of writing and staging.  I enjoyed it a lot.  The playwright is still very young, and what lies ahead must be work of even more sophistication, deftness and emotional maturity.

What a perfect night for a bike ride.  Summer’s final hurrah.

Crowds milling gently outside pubs.

Restaurants with awnings open, tables outside on pavements.

Windows throwing light on to the streets.

Two men sitting outside, drinking coffee together, smoking.

Inside, a tableau of men, one sits back in his chair, sated, arms outstretched over adjacent chairs.

The black and white tiled splendour of the Deco hotel, unexpectedly exotic and out of time.

New lovers kissing self-consciously, not yet at ease with each other.

The sound of laughter.

Three Chinese girls, beautiful, holding their cigarettes like pencils.

A city suddenly relaxing, exhaling, imagining itself a continental place.

Streets without traffic.

The coolness of autumn under the warmth, shining my cheeks.