Watching: Blacula

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to watch the film Blacula, as part of Eureka Video’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ series. I have been informed about the ‘Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu Ray series for a while and I find the choices of films particularly interesting, exploring films which have merit from a cinematic point of view significantly varies from what we might consider as the popular opinions of the public on cinema.

 

Blacula was a film that I heard about a few years ago, and I thought just by the name and discovering it was part of the blaxploitation genre, was comedic and not serious. How wrong I was, although there are comedic elements, much of the humour comes from being distant from the 1970s and observing how things have changed. Which leads me to my main consideration of the film.

 

Blacula is a story of an ‘African Prince’, Mamualde. Mamualde has impressed many of the 18th Century intellects of the time and has gained a deserved modicum of respectability. Mamualde, visiting one ‘Count Dracula’ (many of the tropes and lores of vampires are assumed familiar by the audience) who acknowledges the cultural capital and sophistication (i..e. Eurocentric things of value) but ultimately rebuffs and rejects Mamualde’s calls for an end to the slave trade.

 

Dracula entirely unconvinced or unwilling to seriously consider this, traps Mamualde in a tomb after transforming the prince into one of his own kind. Mamualde is given the additional indignity of being buried in a sarcophagus with his wife. Skip 200 years and the Prince now Christened ‘Blacula’ is discovered by a pair of gay antique dealers (one white, one black). It is established and much is made upon that these dealers are both homosexual and presumably partners.

 

Perhaps watching this film in 2014, in an age where we ‘call out’ microaggressions, injustices and the way that our culture of yesteryear was less sensitive to our own time, is the blatant and ubiquitous homophobia of the Blacula world. I am convinced that the homophobia is purposeful as a metaphor to the way that racism against the Black American was ubiquitous in the decades leading to the 1970s.

 

In one scene, a police officer seeking out the antiquities dealers asserted that ‘they all look alike’, making a generalisation about homosexuals that would be familiar to any person of colour who grew up in a white majority and unfavourable society. The way in which many black characters were in varied professions is quite progressive as a part of the story, such as the female cab driver (who refers to Blacula as ‘boy!’) and the coroner/funeral director who described the police pathologist (Thalmus Rusala/Dr. Gordon Thomas) looking into Blacula’s killings as ‘…the rudest nigger I’ve ever seen in my life!’. These are notable black-on-black racial slurs while conversely the white police chief while suspicious of the pathologist’s pet theory does ultimately trust Dr. Thomas professionally as competent at his job.

 

There’s something that I dare say aspirational about Blacula, in the way that the world depicted gives a sense of distinction to many of the black characters who are all doing a job who happen to get drawn into the Vampiric killings. The real thing to make an audience of today think is the homophobia rampant and even presented as comedic. If we can see one form of oppression, we can surely be sympathetic to another. That, I think, is one of the salient messages of Blacula.

 

Blacula: The Complete Collection is released in the UK from the 27th October 2014 as part of Eureka Classics: Masters of Cinema.

 

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Watching La Boheme

This weekend I had the lucky opportunity to see La Boheme, of HeadFirst Productions. I saw the production at LOST Theatre in South London and was quite impressed. The composer was one Kelvin Lim and the Opera was Directed by Sophie GIlpin and designed by Jason Southgate.

 

The Opera was led by 4 musicians. At first I was concerned at how thin the textures might be musically given the acoustics. On the other hand it sort of reminded me of how this presented a very authentic and historically resonant challenge as a performer. At times the singers matched the fortes and fortissimos and the less said about a high latency digital piano against an acoustic one the better! The instrumentation was daring and scoring worked sufficiently well.

 

I was impressed at the power of the characters. Although I do not find the story of La Boheme as convincing as a tragedy and love story, the farcical nature of parts of it were excellently carried by the ensemble. I could tangibly grasp the 19th century cultural Italian humour of it and in some ways, even if I may critique or challenge it, I must say it does very much chime in with the blokey bravado and the men of our age and, perhaps many of us know a Musetta  in our own lives.

 

I was taken by the technical prowess of Mimi’s vibrato, which definitely moved the audience. Basses were very powerful too. I couldn’t help but consider this production more of an etude or technical study, of how to overcome space and time. In this regard of space, they succeeded in making a very small musical ensemble fill the acoustics of the physical space, I think that the doubling (in terms of scoring) role of the Clarinet worked spectacularly. The use of an Eb (sopranino) clarinet was masterful.

 

In trying to bridge a gap of time, however, between 19th Century Italy and today? I think the verdict of the audience was that of a success. In most of the press releases about this production, the ending is already given away: Mimi’s death is not of TB but of a drug related incident. As the story reaches its end, it begins to seem very dark and less like the 19th Century but more the malaise of our present day. I was not sure of the use of modern substance abuse as a supplanting theme to the 19th Century artist-hero archetypes that La Boheme explores, in doing so it tells a different but perhaps more important story. Furthermore, I was kind of thrown off a bit at the use of actual cigarettes on the stage! I initially thought they were vaping ones but there were actual roll ups! Not a good time to be given an inhaler for the first time this week I must say.

 

Actor Robin Williams Dies at 63

Very sad to hear about this passing.

TIME

The comedian and actor Robin Williams has died at 63, according to police in Marin County, Calif.

A statement from the assistant chief deputy coroner of Marin County announced on Monday that the Coroner Divisions of the Sheriff’s Office “suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia, but a comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made.”

His publicist confirmed the news.

“Robin Williams passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late,” read an official statement. “This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”

His wife, Susan Schneider, released a statement saying she was “utterly heartbroken.”

“This morning I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings,” she said in the statement…

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The Idea of North (1967) and The Latecomers (1969)

Lately I’ve been listening to the work of Glenn Gould (when am I ever not these days?). I was impressed to discover that Spotify has his Radio work. In this post I will reflect upon Gould’s CBC production of ‘The Idea of North’ (1967) and ‘The Latecomers’ (1969).

The Idea of North

I’ve talked about this documentary in the past so I will be more brief. The pianist Glenn Gould was offered to commission some radio work and came up with what has now been referred to as the Solitude Trilogy. Putting things together in a moniker is very fashionable these days, but I must say that there is a distinct sense of continuity to call it a trilogy that is concerned with a single theme (of solitude).

The Idea of North examines and debunks the romantic notions of living in a wilderness, the rosy eyed idea of being away from it all is to be replaced by living in a barren land of scarcity and survival. Being in such strong elements does make one think whether we are in the mid-late 20th Century in this documentary, or if we are still in the age of Captain Scott. Living in a city as I do things move very fast and for many that is also a downside as well as a positive. Being away from it also shows the downsides and upsides.

Racial themes are explored, economic factors and personal stories of isolation and changed perspectives. One of the interesting techniques of the documentary is the fugue like way that different vox pops are interlaced with each other all at once. We hear multiple voices telling their individual stories and it is played at once.

It made me think of the fugue in terms of as a listener. As a listener to contrapunctal music do you focus on one subject and hear how the others resonate with said subject? Or do you focus one one and sound out the others? Or, as a good music listener ideally should: listen to them all, in the same way that a good Organist sight reads their 6-stave music with panache.

The Latecomers

The Latecomers is a piece about inhabitants of Newfoundland. Again the fugal technique is used but not annoyingly over used. Perhaps Gould took his own advice to never be clever for the sake of being clever. I was astounded to hear how political themes were discussed in this documentary. One inhabitant of Newfoundland pointed out how there is not much sight of the police because not many crimes happen when people know one another and when there are so few people. Likewise the politicians and civil servants only appeared to introduce a new lighthouse or during election time and never any other time. There was a distinct individualist
bent to the life of isolation.

I wonder if the Hobbesian state of nature of a life without a state would more be like Newfoundland than a world of chaos. There was a decidedly political bent to the notion of how big government hardly interferes and has no place in such a community, perhaps because their involvement in such isolated communities are so minimal, that people live as if the state did not exist.

Of particular interest was the view of one woman who spoke of the gendered dimension of living in such an isolated place. Flirting and casual sex almost did not exist in a community where few people were around because they knew each other so well and the sense of familiarity between few people did not allow for much fun interaction, but that was suggested by the woman to change as more men appeared and people became more strangers to each other in a community. It is here that Gould has a Goffman-like edge to his documentary in capturing the micro of social interactions.

One particularly interesting point made in the documentary was on how living on the fringes shows you a perspective of society that is much wider than being in the mainstream. One of the speakers referred to Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ living on the edge of society having the most eloquent overview of 19th Century life. This panders to another sociological insight, from Becker, that sociology should be the study of the underdogs, losers and outsiders of society, for they tell us the most about what our society is about.

On reflection there might be interpreted as a moralistic tale to these Solitude documentaries. The life of solitude has a distinct moralistic dimension, that is to say, of a kind of life that affects our character and perspective on life and other agents or even our environment at large. It seems fairly evident that the world Gould portrays is of his native Canada, and reflecting on other perspectives of the solitude that he valued so much in his life. These documentaries serve not just as an interesting historical insight into the 20th Century at its fringes, but also as a way of interpreting the pianistic work of Glenn Gould.

Gould himself is a character who wished to be on the fringes and outside of the gladiatorial concert stage and the world of music tours. Gould’s playing style is a result of his own solitary practicing and lifestyle and the insular sound-world created by his playing. I am also fascinated at how a pianist could also make their life as a broadcaster as well and by being both it confuses the clear roles people seem to impose upon being in front or or behind the microphone.

Goodbye Camden Crawl

So it has turned out that the Camden Crawl has gone into liquidation. I’m a little sad, although I didn’t go this year, which is perhaps a bit telling.

 

The Camden Crawl has for maybe the past 4-5 years (basically since I started living in London again) been a tradition to visit every year. Do it once and it’s a one-shot activity. Did it twice and it’s a thing that has to be done again. Did it more times and it’s a ritual. I love Camden, for the utterly personal and self indulgent reason that it’s one of the few places this side of the Channel to hear some really neat European metal bands that I like, particularly the black metal side of things. Of course there are lots of other kinds of music and subcultures there.

 

I once referred to Camden semi-jokingly as the place where subcultures go and they don’t die. One of the things I loved about the Camden Crawl (CC as it came to be called in recent years) was that it was in the most sincerest sense, eclectic. I hate using the word eclectic because to me it suggests somebody who thinks they like a wide variety of music for the sake of appearing diverse, and has little familiarity or depth with the things they apparently like – all artifice.

 

When I went to the Camden Crawl I loved how I had no idea who the bands were, what anything meant. If a band was described as shoegaze-dreampop meets DIY Fugazi fem-punk), it was in its purest sense just about the music. I loved how I had no expectations at first and went to see music just on the basis of its name, and talking to other gig-goers about where the hype is.

 

I loved how there were a few established acts who peeked about from time to time. One year I saw Ms. Dynamite [ed. teee-heee!] and another Tinchy Stryder and everybody was having an awesome time. There are the absolutely eccentric moments like the Elvis impersonator who would dance to anything. I loved seeing acts that I never heard about before and then finding out they later got a big amount of recognition. King Charles played Glastonbury this year, I remember seeing them around 2010 (?).

 

The Camden Crawl was fundamentally a hipster pursuit, yeah, I said it! I loved how different and strange much of the music was, some of which would in a couple of years eventually feed into the mainstream, or in one case, a Carlsberg advert! (Alice Gold – fabulous performance in KoKo 2012).

 

In a way I’ll definitely miss the CC. In another way there’s an extent to which I wouldn’t have gone in future festivals anyway.

 

For me the Camden Crawl was about meeting up with my friend Phil. Phil is one of my oldest friends and one of those folks that even if you don’t see for years it is like not a day has passed when you see them again. Lately life has gotten in the way of a lot of our free time. Or to put it simply, doing the Crawl was our early-20s thing and I am definitely out of that period of my life. Now we have expanding families, non-overlapping working hours, long distance relationships and all other things that prevent us. This year we couldn’t go, I’ve been working weekends and Phil’s visiting his new little nephew in North America.

 

In a sense the personal memories between myself and Phil are not communicable being a long series of ‘in jokes’ and ‘you had to be there’s. But the one thing I will miss the most about the Camden Crawl is being able to claim some cultural cred and say: I was there. I was there when Ghostpoet was an obscure artist above the Barfly; I was there when Eliza Doolittle did a set and I was more focussed on having a Magners and feeling awkward about someone chatting me up; I was right in the front when Saint Etienne did a set and I happened to be on a roof of the Roundhouse playing obsessing over a gum brand’s promotional freebies (I can’t remember their name) while a certain Dry the River were playing in the background and handing out cards and demo CDs (I really should have bloody kept them).

 

Goodbye Camden Crawl. Thanks for the memories

 

Watching: Boss

I am drawn to cultural things that try to express some point about the society that we live in. I am especially drawn to things which really capture a sense of zeitgeist about them. I am for example, quite the fan of the recent Game of Thrones series. Perhaps a lesser known and unfortunately cancelled show that especially has recently caught my eye.

 

Boss was a television series starring Kelsey Grammer as a fictitious Chicago Mayor in a post 2008 GFC world of recession, rising national and federal debt and the difficulties of living for the citizenship. The particularly cynical look at how politicians are obviously janus faced is particularly resonant in an age where a vast voting public have little confidence in their political governance.

 

Kelsey Grammer’s Tom Kane is a character I cannot get my head around. As are many of the other characters involved. There are political alliances, compromises and complex personal relationships in the realpolitik of local government. I am particularly a fan of the lone Sentinel journalist who stands for integrity and cutting out all of the bullshit of both the media and the way that politicians use spin, or ‘chump bait’ to the frustration of Sam Miller.

 

As a personal side point I didn’t know very much about Kelsey Grammer (except for him being Beast, and Frasier Crane). I discovered that Grammer is a notable conservative and his producer involvement in Boss included a bit of creative direction. I am thoroughly impressed at how the show does not particularly have any obvious messages but focusses on the micro-interactions and nitty gritty of a democracy, or supposed-democracy.

 

I wonder to myself whether this will be one of the TV series that expresses the 2010s and what the zeitgeist of our age will be.

Amorphous, Nebulous and enthymatic, or British Values

Lately there has been a bit of public discussion about the issue of what are British values? This comes from a discussion about a suggested coup of one faith group to allegedly influencing a school in negative ways that are not just out of local educational policies, but are also unBritish. In a similar vein, this week saw the death of Rik Mayall, a comedic actor that I grew up watching through the show Bottom. I remember watching Bottom during two periods of my life. One where I was a lot younger and mostly saw the desperation of the characters in their shoddy mod-like clothes; and later on with a more critical eye which appreciated more of the dysfunctional side of Eddie and Richie. I mention this because Rik Mayall was to me, a quintessentially British character, and yet could hardly be considered an estalishment sort of figure.

 

I was watching this week’s BBC Question Time where people talked about British values and pointing to values but not defining explicitly (or in the Carnapian sense) what exhaustatively consists within the notion of “British Values”.

 

This week began the world cup. I recall this thursday going to the gym and seeing how the roads were exceptionally empty. Most people were presumably at their homes watching the opening Brazil/Croatia match. To me, the casual interest in football seems quintessentially British. I say a casual interest because when it comes to Premiership or European championships, people are passionate but not to the degree as it is with the national England team.

 

One phrase that I normally use to the ridicule of my friends is: [That’s] not cricket! British values could be linked to old traditional notions such as the commitment to observing and codifying rules. By this I give the examples of the codification of Rugby football or the Marquess of Queensbury rules. Often when I am playing Badminton we are committed to the principle of fair play. That means being honest about whether a shuttle is in or out of the perimeter of the court , even if it means you lose your point and could have gained a point if you lied.

 

It could also be said that our values are constantly under change, as the idea of what counts as British has changed over history. The intake of French Huguenots in the 16th century or the wave of migration from the West Indians in the 20th century have had impacts on the culture and it could be said that it is this integration and mix that makes of a distinct culture.

 

At the moment I am reading book V of Gibbon’s gargantuan The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It starts off with a very familiar Augustan era (contemporaneous to the time in which Virgil wrote), and I am currently on a section describing the reign of Charlemagne and the emergence of what will become modern Europe. The Roman Empire had contact with African factions of Christianity; China and India in trade; and the emergence of Islam affected it all to the point that what we consider as the Roman Empire is beyond recognition to the age of Augustus Caesar.

 

I suspect that national and cultural identities work in this way. By acknowledging the influences we find out who we are, and also by pointing out how much an identity is in flux shows the potential of how things can change. To close I recall a remark that I once heard from a German I had a conversation with when I said of my view (which I now have changed my mind on) that I am not a fan of British composers compared to the Germans. The German said to me: my favourite British composer is Georg Friedrich Handel.