Lowry’s Anthropocene Unconscious: or, Loving Lowry, part 2

Part one.

It has always been there, always been part of my love of Lowry, but only now has it become clear. Our context summons it, gives it voice.

The world that is being made over into a mire, a midden, clogged with the filth unleashed by capital’s emancipation of sunlight captured long ago, its unleashing of carbon compressed and incarcerated far beneath the surface.

river-scene-industrial-landscape-1935

(c) Ms Carol Ann Lowry/DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(In passing, I love the tiny splash of red, the bus coming down the hill; I also love the outrage of several Salford councillors when the city spent 54 guineas on the first of the seascapes below because there was nothing in the picture, not even a boat.)

But Lowry, for all his matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs, also painted the world without us. A world desired, a world restored, in which we are a memory at most – a mark on the land, a residual trace of that which has passed, as in this impish female nude called ‘The Landmark’.

landmark

Such towers outlast us, move off into abstraction as we recede from being.

And beneath them, sometimes, there is the sea.

Lowry often spoke of the sea in relation to loneliness, but his seascapes move beyond that particular personal psychological sensibility. They are images of the world in which human categories, our separations of it all into distinct things, no longer hold.

Reification revoked.

(c) Ms Carol Ann Lowry/DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 

Lowry, Laurence Stephen, 1887-1976; Seascape

Our spectrality, our deathliness, always there in the portraits and figures, attenuates, fades, disperses.

The tide rises.

We are gone.

Loving Lowry, part one

So yesterday we ended up in Salford’s Media City, which should really be pronounced as a single word, mediacity – somewhere between mediocrity and mendacity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rather striking Lowry theatre/gallery sits on the edge of one of those windswept plazas contemporary regeneration schemes, vaguely recalling a trip to Italy, insist upon, regardless of climate. Opposite is the insulting Lowry Outlet Mall. And all around are luxury apartment blocks, astonishingly mundane and uniformly balconied, again regardless of actual fucking climate.

I asked whether it was mean to imagine the inhabitants spending most of the year staring out through their rain-streaked windows at the stacks of grey clouds, wondering whether they should bring their mountain bikes in, and to relish the prospect of the handful of sunny days in which Salford and Manchester decant increasingly drunk and loud and red people into the area?  And hoodies sparking clogs, or whatever it is the kids do on the corner of the street nowadays.

Apparently it is not mean; in fact, asking seemed to make other people happy.

smag-087-n388-edited-for-web_1But we were there to see the Lowry paintings, only recently abducted from the Salford Museum and Art Gallery (opened in 1850, it was the first free public library in the UK). The exhibition is not as substantial as the one we went to at Tate Britain, but is probably more representative of Lowry’s range, and there weren’t twenty or thirty people between you and each picture.

There is much to love about Lowry.

ls-lowry-the-cripples-1940

The comic grotesquerie of his figures, most based on actual people, comes from a place of utter sympathy, and the settings make it clear that their deformities and infirmities are a product of the environment in which they live – an industrial landscape organised for profit, not for health and well-being and fullness.

The way his cats look like rats, and his dogs look like cats or rats or miniature sawhorses, as if he has never actually seen one and is working from a combination of poor verbal descriptions and kids’ paintings on fridges.

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The way even his sauciest of images talks of constriction and constraint.

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The way he would begin by painting a completely white background. He started doing this in response to a critique of the darkness of his paintings – his early impressionist work is not so much about the play of light on surfaces as its absence – but the result is to ensure a different and mundane kind of darkness: our mortality; the bone beneath; how tenuous we are.

His Anthropocene unconscious. But more of that tomorrow, or when I next get a few minutes.

 

I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular

burning-mantisBy train and stage and horse and mule I went, and, when I had to, on foot. I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular. I cursed Prescott and Phoenix and Maricopa; Sacaton on the Gila River Reservation and Snowflake on Silver Creek. At Brownell in the Quijotas I learned that William Howard Taft had signed the enabling act that would make a state of that hellish country, and thereafter I cursed him too.

Theodore Sturgeon, ‘Cactus Dance’ (1954)

Mænd & høns/Men & Chicken (Anders Thomas Jensen Denmark/Germany 2015)

men-chickenOnce upon a time, in contemporary Denmark, there were two middle-aged, infertile half-brothers, each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.

Gabriel is younger, more responsible, more conventional. Multiple surgical reconstructions have failed to eradicate his cleft lip, and when nervous or upset he suffers from uncontrollable gagging.

Elias, a disastrous lothario, hides his cleft lip behind a scruffy moustache. He cannot resist picking arguments, however foolish or futile, and must masturbate at regular intervals to relieve the priapism from which he suffers. He scours dating websites in search of female psychotherapists so that instead of paying consultation fees he can ask them over dinner to explain his recurring nightmare. (The meaning of the gothic dream’s imagery – full of sibling rivalry, separation anxiety, sex and violence – is obvious, yet utterly beyond him.)

When their father dies, they discover that he had adopted them. Gabriel, keen to break free of Elias, decides to go in search of their biological father, the long-disgraced doctor and geneticist Evelio Thanatos. Elias, desperate not to lose the closest thing he has to a friend, insists on accompanying his reluctant not-exactly-brother.

And, on the distant island of Ork, in Thanatos’s now derelict and otherwise abandoned sanatorium, they discover three more (infertile) half-brothers, each of whom has his own deformities and peculiarities, and each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.

Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen – who is currently scripting, of all things, the Dark Tower adaptation – is probably best known for his deadpan, heart-breakingly sad and yet really quite beautiful cannibalism comedy De grønne slagtere/The Green Butchers (2003). He returns with many of the same cast (including Mads Mikkelsen and Nordic noir regulars Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, Ole Thestrup and Bodil Jørgensen) to once more scale the heights of absurdist gothic Jutland grotesque – a genre I just made up while writing this sentence. It consists, as far as I know, of Jensen’s two films and maybe Henrik Ruben Genz’s Frygtelig lykkelig/Terribly Happy (2008).

In Men & Chicken, Jensen introduces another gallery of adorable yet pathetic misfits, all of them broken and disconnected and abandoned by the world, full of pettiness and desperation, and driven by violent impulses and mundane yet still unattainable desires. And this time he replaces butchery with bestiality. And abasiophilia. And chronophilia or anililagnia or gerontophilia, depending on how you interpret events. And arguably morphophilia or, if you even more mean-spirited, teratophilia. And turophilia. And even a science-fictional twist or two.

Suffice it to say, Evelios Thanatos is a Baltic Moreau.

And are his children not men? Are they not capable of building a utopia in the ruins of their father’s legacy?

‘I may not be normal’, Elias ultimately confesses, to which Gabriel replies, ‘None of us really are’.

The film ends moments later with a golden-lit vision of community, of extended family as a metaphor for the triumph of affiliation and conviviality over a normalcy of marginalisation and exclusion. It is genuinely moving.

And so absurdly golden that Jensen clearly doesn’t mean a word of it, while simultaneously wanting it to be true.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (DJ Caruso 2017)

xxx_return_of_xander_cage_film_poster-jpegand so anyway it turns out the best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) is not reminding people that when xXx (Rob Cohen 2002) first came out serious people seriously spoke about it seriously killing off the hopelessly moribund Bond franchise, seriously,[1] and being able to prove it by pointing to the film’s complex self-referentiality (well, the succession of innuendo so lame even Roger Moore would have questioned the wisdom of saying such things aloud), no, the best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage was seeing it in a cinema full of boys who were not alive when xXx came out and who were in fact so young that, when Ice Cube turns up for his cameo, they not only have no idea about xXx: State of the Union (Lee Tamahori 2005),[2] and thus of who Darius Stone is, but were also not actually all that clear on the identity of Cube himself, no, wait, the very best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage is having an audience of teenage boys turn around in unison and stare at you when Cube/Stone appears and you are the only person in the auditorium to let out a small involuntary cheer…

Notes
[1] But then Vin Diesel walked away from the franchise, and from the Fast and Furious franchise, to make the massively underrated but still a bit crappy Chronicles of Riddick (David Twohy 2004) and especially, and lest we forget, The Pacifier (Adam Shankman 2005).
[2] Aka, for non-US, audiences xXx: The Next Level.

RIP John Hurt

article-2508559-19758e8e00000578-312_306x423[Something written pseudonymously about John Hurt for a 50th anniversary feature on Doctor Who. I have no idea by who.]

He is the one who comes between. The one we did not know was there. The one who does not count (or, at least, was not counted). Even his costume, part-McGann/part-Eccleston and bridging between them both, is interstitial, not really his own. He is the not-Doctor who says ‘no more’. As Matt Smith’s Doctor explains: ‘I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor. … The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, … it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’ – and what he did to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and billions of Time Lords, he did ‘not [do] in the name of the Doctor’.

It now seems inevitable that sooner or later John Hurt would play the Doctor, and that when he did it would be this particular Doctor – the War Doctor – or someone like him. The one who can bear it no longer. The one who must face a Kobayashi Maru moment that is no mere test or simulation, and which cannot, Kirk-like, be glibly cheated.[1] It is not just that Hurt, the oldest actor to play the role, has been around even longer than the series,[2] and thus can bring a sense of perspective to the more infantile, gurning, gesticulatory, timey-wimey shenanigans of the relaunched series, to its peacock displays of masculinity, its violence and all the snogging. Although, edging his sorrow with an impish despair at the younger men playing his older self, he does.

Nor is just that Hurt’s sf credentials are impeccable, although they are. In Contact (Zemeckis US 1997), he portrays the billionaire funding the first contact mission as an Arthur C. Clarke lookalike, and more recently he raised Hellboy (Ron Perlman) from a pup for Guillermo del Toro. Haggard and squalid in Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-four (UK 1984), his is the definitive screen Winston Smith; but one can easily imagine him taking a role in Equals, the Kristen Stewart-starring ‘epic love story’ adaptation of Orwell’s novel with which we are currently threatened, just so he can suffer again and suffer some more. It would not be the first time Hurt returned for a further dose of agony and anguish, reprising tragedy as farce. After all, his is the chest from which the alien chestburster first burst, and then again in Spaceballs (Brooks US 1987).

And it this capacity for suffering, and for provoking our sympathy, that is the key to Hurt’s persona and to his casting as the Doctor, and as this particular Doctor; that, and his aura of jaded sexual dissidence – he is, do not forget, Caligula in I, Claudius (UK 1976) – that often also leads to suffering.

He is Max, the heroin addict stuck in a Turkish hellhole prison in Midnight Express (Parker UK/US 1978) but in Love and Death on Long Island (Kwietniowski UK/Canada 1997), he is Giles De’Ath – a reclusive, modernity-hating author who stumbles into a cinema hoping for an E.M. Forster adaptation and instead gets Hotpants College II and is smitten with its star, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). He is John Merrick in The Elephant Man (Lynch US 1980), disfigured, despised and turned into a sideshow freak. Yet he is also The Countess in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant US 1993), sagely noting, ‘All of us are freaks in one way or another. Try being born a male Russian Countess into a white, middle class, Baptist family in Mississippi, and you’ll see what I mean’. In 10 Rillington Place (Fleischer UK 1971), he is the ill-educated Timothy Evans, framed and executed for murders committed by serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough). In Scandal (Caton-Jones UK 1989), he is Stephen Ward, the procurer at the heart of the Profumo affair, who is abandoned by his Establishment friends, scapegoated and driven to suicide (or possibly murdered by MI5). But he is also the fabulous flaming Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (UK 1975), produced by Doctor Who’s very own Verity Lambert, and in An Englishman in New York (UK 2009).[3] He is the fearfully haunted Parkin in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (UK 2010) and the ailing vampire Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch UK/Germany/France/Cyprus/US 2013), but he is also the world-weary assassin in The Hit (Frears UK 1984) and, in a neat reversal, Britain’s fascist dictator, the Big Brother to Evey’s (Natalie Portman) Winston Smith, in V for Vendetta (McTeigue US/UK/Germany 2005).

And in Frankenstein Unbound (Corman US 1990), he is Dr Joe Buchanan, the inventor of an ultimate weapon that tears holes in time and space. It casts him back to the very birth of sf, to the Villa Diodati in 1817, but in an alternative history in which Mary Shelley is writing up a factual account, not a novel, of the Frankenstein affair. And then he travels forward into a future in which his superweapon has destroyed humankind.

He has done all this before. No wonder the War Doctor’s weary mantra is ‘no more, no more’. You can hear his exhaustion ground deep in that gravelly voice.

‘I’ve been fighting this war for a long time, I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor’, he tells the sentient ultimate weapon as he prepares to use it, knowing that his punishment will be to survive genociding his own people. But Hurt has suffered – has hurt – for so long, who else had the right to be the War Doctor?

Notes
[1] Although, being a Steven Moffat episode, actually it can. The scenario can be gamed, and what was written in stone can be rewritten, while handy amnesia also leaves continuity pretty much intact.
[2] Already a stage actor, his first television appearance was in an episode of Probation Officer (UK 1959–62) broadcast two years before ‘An Unearthly Child’.
[3] Sadly, he is also Kerwin, the gay cop teamed with Ryan O’Neal in the alleged comedy Partners (Burrows US 1982).

Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs 2015)

magic-mike-xxl-poster-01and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Magic Mike XXL (2015) is not that it has a credit for ‘tool manager’, though it does, nor that, thanks to a too-tight posing pouch, we finally get a glimpse of Channing Tatum’s wagging little doggie tail, but that in this post-truth era of alternative facts someone bothered to keep a full and accurate record of the great shirt drought of ought ’15…