MOVIES – Marley

Lively up yourself and gwan down to see KevinMcDonald’s  irie documentary, “Marley”. It immerses you into the life and music of probably the greatest pop musician. Ever. The movie interweaves interviews of family, friends, fellow musicians and the famous man himself with lots of live footage of performances to create a portrait of the performer. Robert Nestor Marley was the progeny of the coupling of a sixteen year old Black child and a sixty plus year old White man. The skinny half-cast, Bob, recast reggae from his Trenchtown base to rise above the violence and poverty of his surroundings.

“A hungry man is an angry man.”

The overriding focus of McDonald’s film (he also gave us the memorable “The Last King of Scotland” and the forgettable “State of Play”) centers on Marley’s Rasta-inspired world philosophy of inclusiveness and peace.

“One love, one heart,

Let’s get together and feel alright”

But Marley’s peace and love was no mere pop musician’s channeling of the zeitgeist of the time. He lived his music totally, and brought to the – usually anodyne – simpleness of pop a clear-eyed articulation of the Black experience.

“He was taken from Africa.

Brought to America.

Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America.”

You think the Temptations or Lionel Ritchie would have had the guts to have sung that?

Marley rallied (and continues to rally) a generation to, “Get up, stand up/Stand up for your rights.”

And his one love vision (the movie shows the extent to which, as a political neutral, he worked to forge a rapprochement between the warring Jamaican armies of Michael Manley’s PNP and Edward Seaga’s JLP) was always grounded in reality.

“Until the philosophy which

Holds one race superior

And another inferior

Is finally and permanently

Descredited and abandoned,

Everywhere is war.”

But unlike Dylan’s down-beat protest songs and today’s venomous hip-hop, Marley’s music is never angry. Always uplifting.

And joyful. He had a lot to be joyful about, for he was a man of great, let’s say, fecundity. Women everywhere seemed to find him irresistible. By the time he’d died of cancer at thirty-six, he’d squired eleven children from seven of his multiple lovers.

“We’ll share the shelter

Of my single bed…

Is this love that I’m feeing?”

Yeah, baby. Clearly you were feeling a lot of love.

And it’s not too far a stretch to understand his need to pen a number like, “No woman no cry.”

McDonald keeps the interviews with Marley to a minimum. His music spoke the volumes his sound-bite seeking interviewers could never get. One interviewer, incredulous that this skinny Black Jamaican could have achieved so much, let slip the core of his own jealousy. “Are you a rich man?” he asks. “Do you have a lot of possessions?”

“Is possessions make you rich?” Marley responds, shutting him down.

For in the end, it wasn’t about the money, the fame, the women, the ganja. It was always just about the music and the way it defined the man.

“These sounds of freedom

Is all I ever have…”

OK. So the movie was a bit hagiographic (after all it was produced by Ziggy Marley and Chris Blackwell. The latter created Island Records; his mother was for years a ‘close friend’ of Ian Flemming when he lived at Goldeneye. Which I guess makes Bob Marley two degrees of separation away from James Bond.) But who cares. Bob Marley is Jah!

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STUFF – Book Review

I find it’s always weird how you stumble onto the books you read – recommendations from friends, book reviews, cool covers, whatever. About a year or so ago, as I was wilting in the white heat of a swimming pool in Trinidad, I chanced upon an interview on the American radio station, NPR. The interviewer was chatting with one Noah Charney about his recently published book, “Stealing the Mystic Lamb”. It sounded interesting and lead me to stumble into this grippingly told story of art, theft and the heart-stoppingly near end of the Western canon.

Jan van Eyck, back in the 1426 was one of the first adopters of the radical new style of painting – using oils instead of tempura. This new type of paint brought a glossiness and life to art as had never been seen before. Its crowning glory was what would become regarded as the most important painting in the world (not sure who makes these kind of pronouncements): a twelve panelled masterpiece created for the cathedral of Ghent – “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”; a painting that Erwin Panofsky described as “one that made man privy to God’s view of the world”

The story of this actual painting is itself fascinating. These kinds of religious paintings were usually the result of inputs from multiple scholars. They had to ensure that the location of heavenly doves, the choice of decorative flowers, the delicate curl of adoring hands and the relative size of people to saints were exactly right according to religious doctrine. Apparently, in painting it, van Eyck used such thinly, delicately hammered gold-leaf to adorn the rich folds of his Madonna’s gowns that to get the gold onto the painting, he had to rub his brushes in his hair (his fingertips were too oily and would immediately cause the gold to disintegrate) so that the static electricity generated would levitate the metal into place.

But that’s not the half of it. Point is, this painting had been stolen and recovered thirteen times. Now this is no wall painting that you can sneak under your coat. This monster weighs two tons. The book is – ostensibly – the story of the people and processes used to protect and purloin it. But it’s a story about art theft in general and Hitler’s crazed belief that one of the panels contained a code that would lead him to the Arma Christi (you know the Arma Christi: Christ’s crown of thorns and the Spear of Destiny). He believed that it would give him supernatural powers. It all sounds like “Raiders of the Lost Art”

Indeed, Hitler had a special department of scholars dedicated to finding this. Not so far fetched when you consider that he also had a department searching for Thule in Iceland (You know Thule – it’s where there is a band of telepathic faeries.) But where was the damn Altarpiece? It had actually been stolen by the Nazis and secreted in a chateau in Paris. But then it disappeared. Poof, into thin air. Rumors at the time was that a group of priests, in the dead of night, moved the large cloth wrapped panels in mule carriages to a secret location and then managed to persuade the Nazis that the English had taken the paintings to England for safe-keeping.

Art theft for the Nazis was at times almost as consuming a mission as world dominance. Hermann Goring in particular, was ravenous, stealing even from his fuhrer.

It was Hitler’s dream (he did after all see himself as an artist) that he would build the ultimate museum of art in Linz, his hometown in Austria. That place would be the repository for the Western canon (or at least those that passed the test of Nazi purity). His greatest prize would be the Ghent Altarpiece.  As a result, as the war and theft proceeded, his staff catalogued (the Nazis were great cataloguers) and collected vast hordes of stolen art, stored in a variety of sites – castles, monasteries, mines. The largest of these sites (some 12, 000 works, including Michaelangelos, Titians, da Vincis) was six stories underground in a heavily guarded Austrian salt mine – Alt Aussee.  Problem was, as the war began to wind down, as Hitler fled into hiding and as the storm-troopers began to give themselves up in clots of surrender, one fanatical guard – ex-concentration camp commandante, August Eigruber, took it upon himself to channel Hitler’s unspoken wishes: destroy the art! He booby trapped the mine and only in the nick of time (when last did you read a book about art history that has the page-turning excitement of a thriller?) was the art saved, thanks to a small army of Austrian miners turned saboteurs and a group of allies called the Monuments Men (which is the story of my next book review)

“Stealing the Mystic Lamb” is the kind of book you close and heave a sigh of relief – that we still have the art; much of which is of course now housed in the Louvre (which, as the book shows us, was itself a chateau that had been stolen from its owners during the French revolution and given over to house and display – to the ‘people’ – all the art stolen during that period. Indeed, the height at which art is hung in museums even now was set by the curator of the time to suit Napoleon’s height.)

So, all very fascinating, thanks to sitting by a pool and listening to NPR.

MOVIES: Headhunters

Nailbiting. A few years ago, who would have thought that the Nordics would become the undisputed masters of the modern thriller. First (to uneducated me) there was Stieg Laarson with his Millenium trilogy with the extraordinary ‘Lisbeth Salander. And now there’s Jo Nesbo. “Headhunters” is one of Nesbo’s many, increasingly famous, thrillers. Already, apparently Hollywood is production mode to turn this grippingly directed movie into it’s own sub-title-free version, re-cast for American audiences.

The one we have here is just fine. This is one of those edge of the seat thrillers where you just know things are going to go from bad to worse and where, really, there are no good guys, simply ones who are less bad.

The baddest of them all is Nikolaj Coster-Waldu as Clas. He’s the actor most of us know as the scheming, villanous Jamie Lannister from “Game of Thrones”. He’s an equally nasty piece of work here. And even though you know (because after all, it’s a movie) that he will get his comeuppance, you never quite see it coming, because, really, his foil is such an unattractive slimeball that it takes a while for one to become sympathetic to him.

Aksel Hennie is Roger, the slime-ball. This is the eponymous headhunter who uses his clients to scope out their whereabouts and (because I guess most headhunters work with unemployed clients who happen to have famous works of art lying around) where there’s art, there’s a neatly executed theft. This is the way the movie begins – like another slick heist movie. But pretty soon, the mood darkens, the plot, as they say, thickens and the bodies start to pile up.

Slime-ball begins to win us over after he’s been bitten by a pit bull, stabbed (literally) in the back, beaten up, and slammed into by a ten ton truck. Only John McClane (“Die Hard”) has been able to withstand as much punishment and still keep walking.

As always with movies of this type, I marvel at the intricacy of plotting. How on earth will they resolve all the loose ends and seeming red herrings (and this being Norwegian, there are a lot of those)? Well, they do. And once you get through the gore (“Headhunters” isn’t for the feint of heart), it’s all very satisfying.

ART REVIEW – David Shrigley’s “Brain Activity” at the Hayward

At the entrance to David Shrigley’s first major show in London at the Hayward, there’s a full-sized taxidermy stuffed headless ostrich. Clearly he’s buried his head in the sand and can’t find it, because I’d assume, his head is buried in the sand. Indeed, the piece is called ‘Headlessness”, which is both just a funny play on the cliché of burying your head in the sand and a nice physical expression of “mindlessness”. A nice way to ‘start’ and exhibition.

We then walk through some wrought iron gates, in which the words, “Do not linger at the gate” have been carved. The words of course transform the object from a gate (there to keep people out) to an invitation (“do not linger…”) to a piece of everyday life re-imagined into something resembling sculpture (the way Jasper John’s painting of flags resembled flags and the way Andy Warhol’s Brillo box resembled a Brillo box). But here, we don’t have a piece of art resembling everyday reality (the Brillo box), but everyday reality resembling a piece of art.

The image shown here is that of a hanging sign that say’s “hanging sign”. This – like the gate discussed above – is of course a semiotician’s dream. It’s also a nicely sly discussion about the extent to which we need an artist’s words or explanations to understand his/her intent. Do we need the words, “hanging sign” to know that what we’re looking at is a hanging sign? But of course, the fact that it’s in a gallery has transformed it as a signifier of some sort of art, since hanging signs are meant to signify things other than themselves (hairdressers or banks or whatever the sign should be advertising). Only art can be thus self-referential as a route to leading viewers beyond their own insular world views.

And so it goes throughout the exhibition. The crudely executed cluster of drawings/doodles that follow are really just blips of Shrigley’s train of thought – a series of random associations that seem to have no organizing principle… other than the fact that they’re his train of thought. It’s as though he is trying to externalize consciousness, and by so doing, displaying a self-portrait which is as accurate (more accurate?) than the painterly idea of a portrait, which, of course is some sort of image of a face.

Pretty much everything in the show (which is a mix of sculpture, drawings, stuffed animals, video animations and – bizarrely – a glass globe filled with his clipped toenails – I guess all artists put so much of themselves into their art, that the subject becomes its own object.) twists and re-invents ‘convention’ in ways that are at times laugh out loud, funny.

Movies: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Whatever happened to Aardman – the happy bunch of geniuses who gave the world all those wonderful Wallace and Grommit shorts? “The Pirates…” is their latest claymation extravaganza. It’s beautifully executed. Quite frankly, the team at Aardman have reached such a perfection in style that it’s difficult to imagine anything better.

The problem is the story… and the humor. They suck. “The Pirates…” is full of frenzied action, but it never rises above a yawn. And the sharp, laugh out loud cleverness of the Wallace and Grommit wit has, well, walked the plank. Wallace and Grommit brought a delightfully silly, uniquely skewed point of view. It offered an uncompromisingly cultural kind of humor – one that you either got (in which case, you were a fan) or didn’t (in which case you saved your money for something else). Now that’s a pretty simple proposition.

Then Hollywood came a callin’ via Dreamworks, with whom they produced their last piece of movie magic (and their first full-length feature film), “Chicken Run”. Back in those days we were all prepared to root for Mel Gibson. This was before he revealed he was the Nazi’s version of a Hollywood Manchurian candidate. “Chicken…” was funny…made the kids laugh, kept the adults entertained…and for those of us old enough to know its provenance (“The Great Escape”), the fun was magnified. But then, after ‘creative differences’ lead to a divorce between Aardman and Dreamworks, they began to drift. First with “Flushed Away”… not too bad; still quirky; still reasonably funny; certainly visually stunning. After that, the humor was flushed away.  “Pirates…” seems to me to represent a full, 100% sell-out by Aardman to the dictates of Hollywood. The result is a movie that has had any hint of quirkiness totally erased; all edge is gone; the appeal is to the four year olds in the audience, and I suspect even they wouldn’t be very pleased.

Even more disappointingly, the movie showed a huge lack of real imagination. There were scenes robbed from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and most of the Indiana Jones movies (without the nudge, nudge, wink, wink contextualization that would clue us in that it’s a pastiche they’re opting for). The director put so much effort into getting the sets right and the set-pieces flowing nicely that the qualities that made this style of animation great just went down with Davy Jones into his locker.

Spend yer money on something else, matie

Theatre: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Errol John’s 1953 play, ‘Moon on a Rainbow Shawl’, is now back on at the National Theatre in London. The production is tremendously powerful with a cast of thoroughly credible, immensely engaging actors (even if only one of them got the Trinidad accent right), spearheaded by an outstanding Martina Laird. Set in a Trinidad tenement yard just after the war, it tells the story of the interconnecting, and very publicly lived, lives of the struggling residents who reside there.

At the center of the action – the ‘goings on’ – is Sophia Adams (Ms Laird), who is the story’s moral compass, a sort of one-person, fully fleshed-out  Greek chorus. It is through her eyes – her emotional responses to her neighbors and to her own dire situation – that the pervasiveness and inescapability of despair is expressed.

The situation of the characters, framed as a slice of Trinidad in 1947, is one where there’s a kind of depressing predestination. Poverty, race and background conspire to ensure that the girls will get pregnant, the women folk will forever struggle to make ends meet, the intelligent will remain under-educated, the men will slip into petty crime and the ease of abuse – either through prostitution or patronage – will forever be  commonplace. There can never be any escape! Except…except… maybe there can be. The amoral Ephraim (Danny Sapani) ignores the young girl he’s just impregnated and with what is seen as an enormous existential pull, manages to suck himself away from his fate. He is the only one who manages to drag himself away (to England, as so many did then) from everything he knows to what he hopes will be a better life; one that’s an escape from the inevitability of working class destiny.

As a piece of theatre, the play is visually extremely accurate. Apparently, working only from photographs (at least that what’s Danny Sapani told me), designer Soutra Gimour has faithfully re-created a tenement yard, right down to the (working) stand-pipe in the weed cluttered, mud packed yard. I felt as though I had been transported back in time. This was the time when, as the calypsos playing reminded the theatre-goers, ‘brown skin girls’ had to ‘stay home to mind baby’ and when the GI’s injected sperm and cash to the cash strapped society, or as Sparrow sang, “Rosita and Clementina, round the corner ‘posing, bet your life is something they selling.”

‘Moon…’ was pretty much an instant hit for new playwright Errol John who won an Observer award inaugurated by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (the judges were Tynan, Peter Hall, Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness… not a bad group of judges). Though rooted in that post war world, the play feels as relevant now as it was then. The relentless cycle of the lives of so many poor – mainly Black but also White – people (sadly the escape Ephraim had hoped for to London still hasn’t really been realized) – of pregnancy, poverty and the police – remains unsullied.