Friday, 24 September 2010

Up On the Roof

Open House Weekend is for me what the end of the Season is for Tatler-readers; the last gasp of summer, the year's final outdoor event, before we all head back to our burrows and turn into hobbits. Looked at another way, it's a London-wide party, a housewarming when we all get to nose around the hidden rooms before the people who work there take them back. On the weekend, and for a few days afterwards, I always catch myself looking at the city with new eyes, temporarily transformed into an architectural trainspotter.

My highlight this year was the Kensington Roof Gardens, built in 1936 by Ralph Hancock above what used to be the Derry and Toms department store. It was a bit of an icon of my childhood - whenever my grandmother came to London, part of her routine was a cream tea atop D and T. The roof garden survives as a private members' club, run by Virgin, which means that the weekend was one of the few opportunities I'd have to visit without adding to the wealth of Richard Branson.

The garden is seven storeys up, and hosts a cafe and champagne bar of almost parodic luxury -the toilets have a tropical fish tank between the Ladies and Gents, the first time I've seen that outside a film. The garden itself has three sections - one designed to resemble an English woodland, including a lake with four flamingoes (the younger pair are called Splosh and Pecks), one mock-Elizabethan and formal, and one Spanish, based on the Alhambra in Granada. This, with its palm trees, quasi-Moorish architecture and pink walls, is the first thing that you see on coming out of the lift, and I have to admit that my immediate reaction was to burst out laughing. The audacity of building a pseudo-Mediterranean garden above a department store in soggy, crowded London is so extreme - idiotic in some ways, admirable in others - that the only reasonable response is to giggle.

A fellow visitor said 'It's like Portmerion.', and that's not a bad analogy - if you can build an Italian village in North Wales, why not a Spanish garden above West London? Both places are a bit like three-dimensional scrapbooks, full of oddments of statuary, bit and pieces that their architects had picked up abroad and needed a home for. They're eclectic, made up of ideas from elsewhere, and necessarily incomplete, always allowing for another item.

This magpie impulse isn't quite the same as the colonialist urge of a Lord Elgin or William Randolph Hearst, looting the art treasures of the world, or the Las Vegas desire to reproduce everything bigger and better. It's a more modest wish, to take a little bit from everywhere, and it's very British (I nearly said 'English', but Hancock was from Wales.). In its refusal of an overarching aesthetic, it's connected to what Keats called 'negative capability' - the capacity to remain undecided, without striving after certainty. Possibly one reason for the national love of gardening is its unperfectability - you're never finished.

Speaking a language that cherry-picks the best bits of Latin and German, with a national culture that's based on waves of invasion (up to 1066) and immigration (after that), British people are natural collagists, picking up symbols, icons and ideas where we can find them, but rarely buying anything in its entirety. When the Pope talked about 'picking and choosing' morality, he thought he was describing the country's atheists - in fact, it's just how we are, the religious as well. The Kensington Roof Garden is like the national mindset; eclectic, eccentric, and up in the air.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

That's Not Bad, Mama

Okay, here's where I put my critical credibility on the line. I've recently, thanks to a charity shop bulk buy, been watching Elvis Presley's post-army films. And some of them aren't bad.

The standard critical line is fairly simple; after a promising start (Love Me Tender, Loving You), Elvis' screen career peaked with Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. Then he went into the army and, on emergence, turned into a pod person. With a couple of odd exceptions (Flaming Star, Wild in the Country), the films from G.I. Blues on are cheaply-made travelogues, as he somnabulated through a series of forgettable plots, interchangeable leading ladies, and awful songs, all masterminded by Col. Tom Parker, whose 'Technical Advisor' credit sits on the screen like a mildewed ear.

There's a lot of truth in this narrative, and it'd be a braver man than me who attempted to defend the likes of Fun in Acapulco, featuring Ursula Andress as a female bullfighter, and the song 'The Bullfighter was a Lady', a number which has proved to have surprisingly little currency outside its immediate context.

Presley was never the world's most expressive actor and the first few post-army films play to his strengths, casting him as a laconic, Brando-ish outsider, often with some surprisingly sharp one-liners. Even a monstrosity like Girls, Girls, Girls! has a couple of nice moments - Elvis, in a club where a woman is being troubled by her drunk, boorish boyfriend, turns to her and says 'Who's the intellectual?'.

Viva Las Vegas, a film I remember being on television all the time when I was growing up, still holds up well - it has a terrific theme song, and Ann-Margret as an unusually ballsy heroine. According to Peter Guralnick's biography, the two of them were having an affair during filming, and they certainly have a remarkable screen chemistry. In an impressive piece of directorial generosity, the final freeze-frame shows the two of them singing together, with her in a slightly better screen position.

I can't make great claims for Blue Hawaii, which kicked off the unfortunate wave of musical travelogues, focusing on bikinis and wildlife - as the man himself said, 'I got sick of singing to turtles.'. Even so, it's got Angela Lansbury as Elvis' Southern Belle mother, one great song - the incandescent 'Can't Help Falling In Love' - and more of those one-liners (Young Girl - 'This Hawaiian moonlight is very intoxicating, isn't it?' Elvis - 'Yes, ma'am. That's why I never touch the stuff.') . It also gets props as one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to end with an inter-racial marriage - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is still seven years in the future.

The one that really surprised me was Roustabout. Elvis plays a cafe singer who gets assaulted by a group of college boys offended by his song 'Poison Ivy League'. Don't be fooled by the leathers and quiff - this Elvis is clearly a beatnik rather than a greaser - Dylan rather than Brando - and his one-liners have an oddly existential ring - 'You're all alone.' 'Isn't everybody?'.

The first line in that exchange is delivered by Barbara Stanwyck, playing the owner of the carnival that Elvis joins as a all-round helper. Probably the best actor ever to appear in an Presley film (with the possible exception of Walter Matthau in King Creole), she's wonderfully sparky in her scenes with him and still - it has to be said - stunningly glamourous at 57. Indeed, one of the film's problems is that you wonder why Elvis is bothering with the insipid Joan Freeman rather than her far more interesting and attractive mother. (Admittedly, she's married, but that didn't stop Fred MacMurray.)

Like Freaks and Carny (which features the Band's Robbie Robertson - what is it about rock stars and carny films?), Roustabout has an incidental anthropological interest, showcasing a few real carnival and freakshow turns, including a Wall of Death on which Presley (or his stunt double) takes a ride. The music is one of the film's less interesting features, though the milieu does allow Elvis to cover the Coasters 'Little Egypt', reuniting him briefly with his best songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

So, maybe it's time to reassess a couple of those films. At the very least, I've had a surprisingly good time watching them, and queried my own knee-jerk dismissal. To quote a singer who's made nearly as many bad films as Elvis (though nothing like as many good ones); 'Beauty's where you find it.'.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Frank Kermode, and what makes you tick.

Like a lot of great critics, the late Frank Kermode was at his best when writing about the apparently trivial. In The Sense of an Ending, he discusses the fact that, while most clocks repeat the same noise - 'tick-tick-tick-tick' - we can't help hearing it as 'tick-tock, tick-tock'.

Kermode's explanation is that it's to do with the human love of narrative, and our desire for that eponymous sense of an ending . Tick is a beginning, tock an end. "The fact that we call the second of the two related sounds 'tock' is evidence that we use fictions to enable the end to confer organization and form on the temporal structure." (The Sense of an Ending, p. 45)

(Indeed, if you wanted to get really clever, you could argue that 'tick' contains the idea of life - as in 'what makes you tick' or calling the heart a 'ticker' - and 'tock', with its echoes of both 'stock' - as in 'stock still' - and the German 'tod', that of death. That's my observation, not Kermode's, so don't blame him if you think I'm overdoing it.)

Like I said, it's a trivial thing, but it's a nice illustration of the way in which narrative does seem to be hard-wired into the species, a product of our awareness of mortality. I'm a relativist in most things, willing to accept that much of what we call 'human nature' is actually is a construct, specific to culture and circumstances, so it's always striking to come across something that appears to be genuinely essential.

This applies especially to artistic conventions, which arise for any number of reasons, some apparently universal, some very particular. I've heard a feminist comedian argue that jokes with punchlines are inherently male, aiming at a single explosion of laughter rather than a gradual build-up - I don't think I need to explain the analogy. The generally macho world of comedy (and stand-up in particular) has enabled a gender-specific pattern to pass itself off as a universal.

By contrast, some conventions do seem to be built in to our biology. The iambic verse line owes at least some of its power to the fact that it echoes the 'de-dum' of our heartbeat, rectangular paintings are satisfying because they correspond to the binocular field of vision. The three-act narrative structure, whether in Commedia dell'Arte, Noh Theatre or Hollywood cinema, appears to have a similar universality, although I'd argue that's more to do with mathematics than biology - stories need a situation, a change and a resolution, which makes three acts a convenient minimum.

'Tick-tock', of course, is a two-part narrative, going straight from birth to death, with just silence between. Kermode describes it as "a model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it a form... Tick' is a humble genesis, 'tock' a feeble apocalypse." (Ibid, p.45) Your ear may be telling you 'tick-tick-tick', but the brain, with its love of story, has ways of making you tock.