Friday, October 30, 2009

Mike Mills and the Beautiful Losers

To be an artist at twenty, is to be an artist. To be an artist at forty is to be a sell-out, right? Unless you’re living in a cave -- or a bungalow out the back of your wealthy parents’ place -- the imperatives of making a living will tend to turn the most maverick of artists into a mini mogul. Eventually.

Which is what makes the loose collective of artists known as the ‘beautiful losers’ so fascinating. These scruffy, non-conformist, never-grown-up, skater-boy and punk artists from the east and west coast of the USA haven’t just bent that rule, they’ve tied it into a balloon animal, like a clown at a birthday party. Rather than sell out, they’ve been sought out.

They’re graffiti artists turned muralists, a skateboarder-turned-photographer, doodlers turned pro doodlers and “regular freaks” turned “cool freaks.”

From a commercial point of view, Mike Mills is the most interesting of the group. The 43 year-old speaks of the mainstream as if it were his first love: a high-school cheerleader that jilted him as a boy. His life since has been a quest to prove to her she made a huge mistake. And, yes, the mainstream is now courting him.

“...I don’t really find any corner of the world safe. To me the art world is at least as complicated and duplicitous -- and actually more about money than the ad world. Or can be...”

The small time graphic artist and sometime musician still makes album covers, poster art and music videos for friends, from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to Blonde Redhead, Sonic Youth to former band mates Cibo Matto, but his bread and butter nowadays comes from shooting big budget commercials for international campaigns. His clients include Volkswagen, Apple, Mastercard, GAP and DuPont.

Interestingly enough, Mills doesn’t just shoot commercials to pay for his own film-making projects -- his fourth feature-length film is cast and ready to commence shooting in the northern autumn -- he also does it as a creative outlet. And for sheer pleasure.

He explained by phone from Los Angeles that he had “tried to quit” in 2005 but “started up again” last year. While admitting that advertising is “a complicated problem of consumer society” and that advertising, by definition, is ‘specious’, it is, he says, “the best and only way” he can make money as a director, and one of the few ways he gets to use his skills.

Rather than ask Mills to adapt his style for their campaigns, his clients want what he does. And does uniquely. Even his purely commercial work (see is indistinguishable from, well, art!

“Early on, I got to do [some] very creative ads for Nike. They were very successful -- deemed successful in the ad world. So, weirdly, when I do ads, I get treated like a king. I get treated like an artist. [Everyone is] deferential to my opinion and respects me and all that. When I was doing my feature film, no-one deferred to me at all!”

Asked if there’s any meaningful distinction to be made between commercial and fine art, he responds: “I don’t really find any corner of the world safe, or a safe haven. To me the art world is at least as complicated and duplicitous -- and actually more about money than the ad world. Or can be. So whatever world you’re operating in is fraught with complications and ways to be untrue to yourself. It’s a constant negotiation.”

“Again, it’s not like all fine art is commercial art, but it’s just as [easy for it] to be commercial... Our world is actually quite good at pretending -- at hiding -- that money and competition and consumerism is what drives it, or is a big part of it. For years, it’s mastered the art of disguising its financial basis, you know what I mean?”

Asked if it will be easier for the next generation of street artists, coming from x-box and gamer culture, to be swallowed up by the commercial world than his generation, Mills is thoughtful.

After a disclaimer that he has “no idea about big general cultural things” and “what’s making what happen” he continues: “in any scene, any generation, there’s gonna be people that just don’t fit in. That have whatever it is... the self-absorption, or the self-strength, or maybe just they’re so wildly insecure and desperate that they don’t follow the rules, whatever the rules are [at] that time.”

His own quest is to keep “hope and fluidity and flexibility alive.” To do that, he says, “you have to keep your eyes open, no matter where you’re working.”

Aaron Rose’s documentary Beautiful Losers has a couple of screenings at the new Speakeasy Cinema tonight and next Friday, November 6. (And wot a bloody fascinating idea that is... get a film and a feed -- burger and beverage -- for twenty-odd bucks. It sounds quite the hangout too.) There are some Sydney screenings coming up. The first is at Paddington Town Hall on November 21 at 6pm. Watch this space (and this one) for details.

Mike Mills’ web site is

Beautiful Losers is also be available on DVD through Madman Entertainment.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

For the record, a couple more Melbourne Festival reviews

Le Salon by Peeping Tom. Playhouse, the Arts Centre.

It’s a shame to bring this Belgian company all the way to Melbourne and then present just the centre section of its celebrated Garden/Lounge/Basement trilogy.

The first piece (Le Jardin) is about hitting forty. This one, Le Salon, is about incontinence and death. The final section (Le Sous Sol) is posthumous. It’s set underground, where all the players are now buried. The trilogy is also about different body sizes and weights and capabilities. Sounds like a barrel of laughs, no?

Le Salon is a meaty eighty minutes, dazzlingly physical and sometimes riotously funny. But without the equally eccentric outer acts it floats unanchored and dimensionless. This brilliant centrepiece is reduced to an apparently over-resourced and overproduced curio.

Like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Le Salon has an ageing and failing patriarch (played by actor Simon Versnel) whose wealth and influence has gone the way of his bladder control. The family’s attention is firmly on smaller nappies. Which belong to the new grandchild.

Good as the staging is -- the set, the singing and the sleight of hand -- stripped of context, all that audiences have to hold onto is the physical work. Luckily these are amazing. Unforgettable even.

A body is ridden like a skateboard. The same body rocks as if made of curved steel then twists, kicks and rolls, again and again, in a brilliant impersonation of a hip-hopping, freshly-landed fish.

This vivid, joyful and exhilarating performance leaves us baffled, but strangely content.

This review was published in Monday's Herald Sun.

Pornography. Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. Playhouse, the Arts Centre.

The seven separate sections of Simon Stephens’ play hang in space like a constellation. It’s up to us to join the dots.

The action takes place in and around London in the first week of July 2005, a week which had the Live 8 concert (Madonna, Pink Floyd, Coldplay), the G8 conference on third world debt, the announcement that London would host the 2012 Olympics and, the following morning, the 7/7 suicide bomber attack.

In the spooky central scene -- entitled The Soldier -- a man rises before dawn, kisses his wife and children goodbye and boards a bus. For a minute or two we imagine he’s fighting the good fight: the clean-cut white guy with wife and kids. But he’s the home-grown terrorist. One of the four self-proclaimed soldiers on their way to the City.

Though it’s framed by specific historical events, Pornography is a composite portrait of a people; of a culture; maybe, even, of Western culture. It’s not a flattering likeness! It’s riddled with corruption of the flesh and of the soul; it’s shot through with acts of violence, sabotage and incest. The pornography of the title, incidentally, is downloaded by an 82 year-old woman who has become addicted to it.

It’s an elegant and haunting script (written in English, performed in German) given a chaotic and highly physical production. It’s a provocative and thought-provoking piece of theatre which seizes our attention and doesn’t release its grip for 130 minutes.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Siren by Ray Lee

Sirens? Don’t give me sirens. I’ve been spoilt. Rotten. On a Sunday in June 2005, I woke to the sound of a massive chromatic symphony. From my hotel room in North Sydney -- Milsons Point really, where the harbour bridge touches down -- the sound seemed to be coming from the harbour. Ship horns, I thought. The sound had mass, it had movement. It was too beautiful, surely, to be accidental. I imagined that some crazy composer had engineered this.

But, no.

Guess what? It was a protest. 630 truckies were jamming up the CBD and the Harbour and Anzac bridges. It was a go-slow. With horns honking. It was fucking magnificent. Instead of cacophony, which you might expect, there was extraordinary harmony. Amazing tessitura. Rising and falling tones. Rising and falling volume.

The whole thing reminded me of the story of Richard Wagner smuggling a string orchestra into his home to serenade his sleeping wife, Cosima, on the morning of her birthday, not long after the birth of their son Siegfried. (The Triebschen Idyll it was called. Later the Siegfried Idyll.)

Ray Lee’s Siren is a little like the Truckies Symphony on a puny scale. It’s endearingly retro -- like a musical happening from Germany in the 1960s -- and calculatedly unambitious. It’s a Noah’s Ark of tweeters, little Dalek-like speakers at each end of short poles which spin on stands of varying heights in tight little orbits.

Audience members are encouraged to wander the space.. and sternly asked not to speak to anyone for the duration of the event. About 45 minutes.

Pursuing the Noah’s Ark metaphor... there’s a small clutch of unloved (and unlovely) mid-range speakers making coarse honking noises. No-one wants to loiter around them, like ugly critters at the zoo.

I wanted to limbo dance under one of the taller towers, but the space is roped off. (Lying down is discouraged too. Shame. A travelator would be kick arse.)

At its best, Siren is reminiscent of the closing moments of Supertramp’s song Fools Overture, where the orchestra tunes up. I was also reminded of the watery synth keyboards (maybe a mellotron?) used in the (very) early New Order single Procession. (Hell, I was also reminded of Henry Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary... so best not to read too much into any of this!)

Spoiler alert. Skip this paragraph if you’re booked in but haven’t yet seen the show. When the lights go off, maybe ten minutes before the end of the installation, the orbiting LEDs are like fireflies or retarded electrons! The flicker of the closer lights leaves a trail of dots in space.

Like the show, the moment is memorable. But a long way short of magical.

Siren, a sound installation created by Ray Lee. With Harry Dawes. Produced by Simon Chatterton. Stavroula Kounadea, technician. At the Meat Market, 5 Blackwood Street North Melbourne, until October 25. A part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Pornography by Simon Stephens (Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg)

Wow, I have a new role model: an eccentric, crotchety, unnamed 82 year-old porn-addicted misanthrope. Did I mention she’s a she? This, from Simon Stephens’ play Pornography:

In town everybody’s talking about the possibility that the Olympic Games might be coming to London. I’m struck by the irony of this. Because the people of London, palpably to me, are universally obese and under exercised. Fat fuckers. Gibbering about athletes. The lot of them. London in summer is a horror story. The underground is a cauldron. The shopping centres are brutalised. There is no such thing as air conditioning.


And then on Wednesday lunchtime the news comes in that London’s bid to host the Olympics in 2012 has been successful. And now people smile. Transistor radios broadcast the events over and over. We go live to Trafalgar Square. We go live to Tokyo where Lord Coe is speaking. We go live to the derelict battered crack dens of Stratford where residents there can barely contain their glee at the prospect of Kelly Holmes racing madly around the peripheries of their houses. Cars do little dances. Drivers toot their horns at one another with idiot inane grins on their faces. Shocked by their own daring. Epileptic with thoughts of how old they’ll be in 2012.

The Crotchety One (played by Juliane Koren, I think) is just one ‘tile’ in Stephens’ ‘tapestry’. The mixed metaphor is the playwright’s own. [Why not tile in the mosaic or thread in the tapestry? Or dish in the tapas bar fer fux sake?]

Set in London in the first week of July 2005, and taking us from the Live 8 concert to the 7/7 London bombings, Pornography consists of six scenes and a coda (in English) which reduces the lives of the 52 victims of the bombings to Twitterable proportions... the shortest of these is just 7 words.

The first scene is narrated by a professional woman troubled by her son’s physical vulnerability and by the possibility that her husband is having an affair.

Written in English and performed in German, Pornography is a fairly wordy play. And the opening monologue in particular is an avalanche of inessential detail, most of which is faithfully reproduced on surtitle displays either side of the Playhouse stage.

Happily, the reading demands are lighter in later scenes, and the 130 minute play turns out to be a fairly easy if not always comfortable sit. (And it is, incidentally, recommended!)

Translation, it seems to me, is a sustaining theme of this year’s festival. Translating page to stage, verse to drama, a Heiner Müller script to an opera and then on to a ballet, memoir to monodrama, and so on. The translation is more literal here.

Stephens’ play is spare and beautiful. It’s so at home on the page, it’s hard to read it as a play. Likewise, it’s so fixed in time and place, one wonders what’s in it for Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg producing it.

On a more literal level, I was a little distracted by the translation. Words missing and altered. Some quite innocuous. (Like ‘yoghurt’!) One character -- a half-Italian Aryan -- bitches about Madonna bringing a black man on stage with her at the Live 8 concert. I heard him say nigger, though it hit the surtitles as coon. It’s “coon” incidentally in the original play.

The surtitle system -- by design or otherwise -- lost the proverbial plot at the start of a section. We lost a few minutes of dialogue and the scene number and title. The scenes are numbered in the play, seven-to-one, but aren’t given titles... so the black-out was costly.

In DSH’s production, the woman in the opening scene (#7) contemplates (or actually commits) an act of industrial sabotage -- faxing a highly sensitive report to a rival company -- which is not mentioned in the script.

Likewise, an otherwise innocuous scene -- in which a teacher and his former student confess to having been obsessed with one another many years earlier -- is turned into something rather sleazier. In the script, the man says to the young woman: “Dance with me.” Here, he says: dance for me. She climbs onto a table and begins to undress. He masturbates. (Mercifully with his back to us! LOL)

But let me skip to the executive summary, otherwise this will never be posted... It’s an interesting production, more intriguing than engrossing. Chaotic but not lacking a trajectory.

My Herald Sun review is here.

Pornography by Simon Stephens. Directed by Sebastian Nübling. Set design by Muriel Gerstner, assisted by Jean-Marc Desbonnets. Costumes by Marion Münch. Music by Lars Wittershagen. Lighting by Roland Edrich. Dramaturgy by Nicola Bramkamp and Regina Guhl. Cast: Marion Breckwoldt, Katja Danowski, Juliane Koren, Hanns Jörg Krumpholz, Jana Schulz, Daniel Wahl, Samuel Weiss & Martin Wißner.

A Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg production for the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Playhouse, the Arts Centre, until October 18.



Look Mummy, I’m Acting! No, wait a minute...

Multi-media rules the 2009 Festival: the plays have musicians and video projections, the opera has twice as many dancers as singers, even the visual art gets a technological and musical make-over. These are the “gesamtkunstwerks” that German composer Richard Wagner dreamed of, where several art forms ganged up for a common cause. To make total artworks.

And then there’s Look Mummy, I’m Dancing! A dimensionless speck. No length, no depth, no apparent aspiration. As I moan in today’s Herald Sun, “it’s as plain a piece of theatre as you could possibly get.” I was being kind. It’s not -- in any sense -- dramatic. It doesn’t deserve to be called theatre.

It’s woefully undernourished: misshapen and badly pitched. It’s an unillustrated lecture (adapted from a published memoir) pretending to be a monodrama.

Deliver us... Vanessa Van Durme.

Look Mummy, I’m Dancing by Vanessa Van Durme. Directed [allegedly] by Frank Van Laecke. Lighting design [!! Oh, look! A dimmer control!] by Jaak Van de Velde. Melbourne International Arts Festival. At the Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre, until October 17.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

A car-full of motherfuckers: Apocalypse Bear Trilogy by Lally Katz

This is a mind fuck. A Möbius strip tied in time. A hypercube. A giant 3D perceptual illusion. It's a three-pronged play with two prongs at the other end. It dares you to stare, to see if the illusion holds. And, like a drawing by M.C. Escher, or a wireframe image of a cube, you can turn this play inside-out with an act of the mind.

(I believe this is a Walter Wick image.)

The first part of the trilogy, performed without break, is The Fag From Zagreb. (It was first presented as part of Melburnalia at fortyfivedownstairs in 2007.)

A schoolboy just home (Luke Mullins in short pants) finds a bear in his kitchen instead of his mother. The bear -- who politely introduces himself as The Apocalypse Bear -- makes Jeremy a peanut butter and cheese sandwich (pickles on the side) while the boy talks about his day (“I raped a faggot up the arse”) and messages a suicidal man in Zagreb from his laptop.

According to the bear (Brian Lipson in a slack-jawed bear suit), Jeremy’s mother is out shopping and his sister has been raped and murdered by “a car load of motherfuckers.” That said, she might be upstairs quietly doing her homework.

At this point, I’m thinking: Little Red Riding Hood, Gerald the Gorilla from Not The Nine O’Clock News (“When I caught Gerald, he was completely wild.” “Wild? I was absolutely livid!”) as well as the obvious bunnies: Donny Darko and Bat For Lashes (‘What’s A Girl To Do’).

The David Lynch twist happens in the centre section. (The rest of this paragraph might be considered a spoiler... take it or skip it. Your choice!) In it, a schoolgirl (Katherine Tonkin) in America reminisces about the husband she couldn’t satisfy, way back in her future. She chats away to the increasingly creepy and sinister bear, reminiscent of Robert Blake’s Mystery Man character in Lost Highway.

But enough of the plot and its fascinating resolution. The third section is the clincher for a number of reasons. Not least because it reveals a previously unexplored side of the playwright. It’s a touching domestic scene, far less surreal than those that have preceded it.

If David Lynch is the predominant influence in the writing, then Brian Eno rules the rest. The settings in the first two plays recall Eno’s “video paintings” of the 1980s, most famously Thursday Afternoon. Martyn Coutts slow-moving, phase shifting projections are of a domestic kitchen (Fag From Zag) and a school cafeteria in the second play.

The excellent original music also brings Eno to mind, though Jethro Woodward’s music is more focussed and urgent than most (certainly not all) of Eno’s compositions.

One way or another, Apocalypse Bear is a great step for both Katz and the Melbourne Theatre Company. It’s also an unexpectedly apt overture for Brett Sheehy’s first Melbourne Festival in which video paintings are everywhere (from Peter Greenaway’s video described Last Supper to the animated frieze in Sasha Waltz’s Medea) and music/sound design is an essential and overwhelming presence in just about every single art form.

Apocalypse Bear Trilogy by Lally Katz. Directed by Luke Mullins and Brian Lipson. Chris Kohn, artistic adviser. Sound design and original music by Jethro Woodward. Lighting by Richard Vabre. Set and costume design by Mel Page. Video by Martyn Coutts.

A Stuck Pigs Squealing production presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Melbourne International Arts Festival. At the MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio, until October 24.

Look out for my review of the trilogy in the Herald Sun, this week. See also On Stage (And Walls) review.

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