Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: My Soundtrack

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
'Cause people often talk about being scared of change/But for me I'm more afraid of things staying the same/'Cause the game is never won/By standing in any one place for too long


Standout tracks: Jesus Of The Moon, Moonland, We Call Upon The Author
Soundtrack for: almost everything I thought or felt in 2008

2. Portishead - Third
I'm worn, tired of my mind/I'm worn out, thinking of why/I'm always so unsure/I'm always so unsure

Standout tracks: Plastic, Small, Threads
Soundtrack for: getting drunk and still not being able to say what you really want to say yet easily being able to say what you really don't, then watching Peep Show

3. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman - The Fabled City
I'm surprised you didn't come forward when the cops dragged me away/There's a museum in the Netherlands I hope to see again someday/There's a painting of a woman gathering wood/It's almost dark/In a world bereft of meaning there's a flicker in the hearth

Standout tracks: Midnight In The City Of Destruction, Saint Isabelle, Whatever It Takes
Soundtrack for: doing whatever it takes

4. The Verve - Forth
Will those feet in modern times/Walk on soles that are made in China?/Feel the bright prosaic malls/In the corridors that go on and on and on

Standout tracks: I See Houses, Love Is Noise, Valium Skies
Soundtrack for: sitting and silently contemplating everything as the summer sun dips behind the rooftops

5. Filter - Anthems For The Damned
I'd like to wake up/In a dream/Where they don't scream/Without misery

Standout tracks: I Keep Flowers Around, Only You, Soldiers Of Misfortune
Soundtrack for: the damned (of the earth)

6. SoulflyConquer
In the heavy side of life we live/It's not how we chose/But it is how it fucking is/Unleash! Unleash! Unleash! Unleash!

Standout tracks: Fall Of The Sycophants, For Those About To Rot, Unleash
Soundtrack for: blood, fire, war, hate...and love

7. TiamatAmanethes
And now that we're clean/Our souls can be free/Our love is the only drug we need/And now that we're one/We don't need any God/Divinity flows in our blood

Standout tracks: Circles, Meliae, Via Dolorosa
Soundtrack for: struggling to survive in a world of things that actually exist, but which you don't have enough control over.

8. Nine Inch NailsThe Slip
And this is not my face/And this is not my life/And there is not a single thing here/I can recognize/This is all a dream/And none of you are real

Standout tracks: Echoplex, Head Down, Lights in the Sky
Soundtrack for: surfing the waves of alienation...and then remixing them!

9. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Sunday at Devil Dirt

When the world steals all hope from you/Wonder where you dreams have gone to/You're the one I still belong to/Listen why I love you

Standout tracks: Back Burner, Salvation, Trouble
Soundtrack for: a quiet, gloomy, anaesthetised night in

10. Cavalera ConspiracyInflikted
Born from war and tension/Fed up and fucked up/Feeding on frustration/Fed up and fucked up/Unleash devastation/Fed up and fucked up

Standout tracks: Bloodbrawl, Nevertrust, The Doom Of All Fires
Soundtrack for: fighting!

The full version

Saturday, December 13, 2008

William Blake: The River of Life

Tate Liverpool (12th December 2008 - 29th March 2009)

It was an extraordinary privilege to get up close and personal with some of William Blake's most celebrated artwork at Tate Liverpool. Unfortunately though, the selection presents a limited view of a man who was a visionary in every possible sense.

Born in 1757, at a time of enormous changes in English society, Blake's output was full of contradictions, but he embraced this, believing that "Without contraries there is no progress". The son of Christian Dissenters - who resented the state's interference in religion and vice versa - his approach to faith was very much an anti-establishment one, and he drew upon traditions dating back to the English Civil War to create often apocalyptic images, reflecting the turmoil that surrounded him throughout his life.

The religious artwork chosen for The River of Life appears - without further explanation - to be quite conventional. There is Blake's interpretation of Dante's Inferno, which comes from the medieval Catholic idea of Hell. There are also many depictions of events from the Old Testament. One in particular, Satan Exulting over Eve, might seem like a standard Garden of Eden painting. However, Blake's mythology went way beyond 'God is good and the devil is evil'. For him, the church was a restrictive body which damned and divided humanity, and priests were “Dishonest, Designing Knaves who in the hope of a good living adopt the State Religion”. On the other hand, Hell and demons were associated with vital, passionate energies like anger and lust. Blake saw the biblical Satan as having set humanity free to be like the rest of creation, so a serpent 'exulting' over a female form was groundbreaking symbolism at the end of the eighteenth century.

Another fascinating subject for Blake was what role religion would play in a world that was starting to be explained by rational, calculating, profit-seeking science. This is given a small airing in the exhibition. He wasn't against technological development - he made great use of it on many occasions - but disliked the direction that many of its backers were pushing it in. Like his fellow Romantics, he believed in the power of imagination and emotions, claiming that even the greatest scientists (like his Isaac Newton, above) were missing out on a world that could not be measured.

Actually, there is no room in The River of Life for Blake the philosopher, whose thinking perhaps reached its most dizzying heights in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), and especially The Proverbs of Hell, which turned conservative Christianity on its head to create a manifesto for life that still looks gloriously wild and yet far-thinking over two hundred years later. Neither is there space for Blake the poet, whose beautifully illustrated texts still fill many schoolbooks (sadly, my teacher told me The Tyger was about a tiger, and not the spirit of the French Revolution). In fact Blake the radical, anti-slavery campaigner and free love advocate is totally banished from the Liverpool Tate this winter, which is a shame, because Tate London exhibited him in 2000/01.

A display even repeats the fiction that Blake was some kind of jingoistic English nationalist, and imagines him cheering on Prime Minister William Pitt's 1793 attack on France (see The Spiritual Form of Pitt Riding Behemoth). The source of this insulting claim is usually Blake's poem 'And did those feet in Ancient time', a full-blooded incitement to revolution that was turned into the dirge-like patriotic anthem 'Jerusalem' by Christians and reactionaries who can't have spent much time wondering what "arrows of desire" might be. Here, Blake pledges "not to cease from mental fight" or let his "sword sleep in [his] hand", until the "Satanic mills" have been destroyed and a heaven on earth worthy of Jesus the rebel has been created "in England's green and pleasant land".

William Blake was the artistic representative of a layer that was constantly on the margins of society, and yet he artistically engaged with it to the best of his enormous ability. His New Jerusalem is far from being created on earth, but his inspirational ideas echo on.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wirral Against Service Cuts

A crowd of two hundred or more Wirral residents gathered at Wallasey Town Hall last night, to show their anger at the council's planned cuts to vital services.

The Labour/Lib Dem coalition have been pushing a 'Strategic Asset Review', which Council leader Steve Foulkes claims will 'support regeneration'. However - as many Liverpool people know - the word 'regeneration' is code for putting the needs of business before those of working class people.

The coalition plans the closure of twelve libraries - Birkenhead Central Library and many local branches - plus two leisure centres (including Guinea Gap Baths, right next to the Town Hall), Pacific Road Theatre and the Wirral Museum at Birkenhead Town Hall. As a replacement, the Cabinet want to build eleven new buildings, at the cost of £20 million. They claim this will mean "better but fewer" facukities. However, Foulkes (who got a 500% pay rise this February) has admitted he is looking for ways to save money. Libraries, cultural venues and recreation centres are clearly not considered a worthwhile investment.

The protest was arranged when Conservative Councillor John Hale, Chair of the Culture, Tourism and Leisure Overview and Scrutiny Committee called a special meeting to examine the Cabinet's proposals. Though the Committee has no powers to overturn the proposals, the Conservatives are seeking to use the dispute as a wedge issue in the run-up to the local elections next May.

At present, the Tories are the largest single party, having made significant gains from Labour this year. However, the coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats has kept them out of power. They would need a swing of a further nine seats to win overall control, but local leader Jeff Green and his councillors are keen to make political capital by opposing the hated cuts.

It is measure of these crisis-ridden times that the Labour/Lib Dem proposals are so right wing that the Conservatives - many of whom reached political maturity during the reign of Margaret Thatcher - are to be able to position themselves to their left. However, should they win power, the Tories would face similar - or maybe even deeper - economic problems, and would have to find money from somewhere, either by service cuts or higher taxes.

Yesterday's protest included many workers from the various facilities, as well as young children on perhaps their first demonstration. If the campaign is to be successful, it must ignore the siren songs of both the Tories and the Labour Party - which many trade union bureaucrats are linked to - and focus on concerted workplace-based action, which would have huge backing from Wirral people.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Mad World of Work

"In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself - a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper."
William Morris, Useful Work versus Useless Toil (1884)

Work eh? Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Every product or service we use is created by work, by people deliberately changing one thing into another, transforming the world around them. But that isn’t the definition of work we normally hear about. Usually an activity isn’t called work unless someone else stands to make money off it, which means that looking after your children isn’t normally called work, but looking after another person’s children normally is, and government policy is currently aimed at getting single parents ‘into work’, as if they don’t have enough! It also means that if you create a piece of art for the enjoyment of yourself and others then that isn’t work, but when stockbrokers place bets on the success or failure of businesses it definitely is!

Now, as a recession unfolds, politicians are telling us there’s ‘not enough work’, and people around the world are being sacked in their hundreds of thousands, even though things clearly need more transforming than ever. We’re also seeing taxpayers’ money being given to those at the top of the pile, in the name of keeping the economy afloat. Something doesn’t add up.

Clearly, we need to examine what work means in 2008, and that’s what Nerve 13 does.

Nerve 14 will look at issues around the environment and food. Please get in touch if you would like to contribute something, or have any ideas. Contact us by emailing mail@catalystmedia.org.uk, or phone (0151) 709 9948 during office hours.

We’ve worked hard on this edition of Nerve, so we hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Baader Meinhof Complex (18)

Directed by Uli Edel
Written by Stefan Aust (book) and Bernd Eichinger (screenplay)

On general release from 28th November 2008


The Red Army Faction (renamed the 'Baader-Meinhof gang' by press keen to downplay any political significance) were a West German guerilla group who launched a failed insurrection campaign during the 1970s. Their aim was to jolt the urban working class into revolutionary action by attacking what they called 'paper tigers' - symbols of capitalist rule.

Uli Edel and Bernd Eichinger (Downfall)'s account of the RAF's history is nothing if not detailed. Every major event in their formation, rise and fall is documented, from journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck)'s anger at police attacks on 1967 demonstration, through various bombings and assassinations, to the suicides of the 'first generation' in Stammheim prison ten years later. A strong cast - particularly Moritz Bleibtreu as Andreas Baader and Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin - play their parts in excellent reconstructions. However, through the hail of bullets and flying glass, a viewer would be forgiven for asking one unanswered question: why?

Almost all of the young people who would become the Red Army Faction were from relatively well-off backgrounds, and attended university. The events of the late sixties - which saw protest movements worldwide against the war in Vietnam, as well as many different university, street and workplace-located struggles, radicalised them at a time when West German radicals found themselves very isolated. The development of traditional socialist ideas - based on the primary role of the working class in revolutionary struggle - was being blocked by disillusionment with 'actually existing socialism' throughout Eastern Europe. The future RAF fighters saw the West German state - which had former Nazis in prominent positions - becoming more repressive, and helping the new dominant power, the United States, extend its empire around the world. Influenced by the ideas of former Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse, they saw the western working class as being integrated into the capitalist system. The only way they could stir workers - or so it seemed - was by bringing the war home, and adapting the tactics of peasant and desert fighters to an urban setting.

Of course, these individualistic acts of terror did not create a spontaneous outburst of solidarity and class-based struggle. Though the RAF gained a fanatical following amongst some people of their social background, many others were understandably disgusted by workers such as librarians being killed in the name of socialism. In an important sense, the RAF terror campaign was not so much an expression of solidarity, but an expression of hopelessness in solidarity.

These issues are too big for the team behind The Baader Meinhof Complex, so we are left with nothing more than terror porn, albeit extremely well made terror porn.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Fury as Wirral Council Slashes Public Facilities

Protesters showed their anger at a Wirral Council meeting last night, as the cabinet approved massive cuts to local library and recreation services.

Wirral's 'Strategic Asset Review' has been pushed by Council leader Steve Foulkes and Chief Executive Steve Maddox, to 'support regeneration' - code for focussing on the needs of business in the Borough. The Review promises an initial investment of £20 million, to provide eleven new buildings, alongside the closure of twelve libraries (including Birkenhead Central Library, pictured), two leisure centres, Pacific Road Theatre and the Wirral Museum at Birkenhead Town Hall.

A crowd of hundreds reportedly gathered to protest the cuts, and as the cabinet meeting got underway, Foulkes was interrupted by shouts. Placards were displayed, reading 'Wirral Council’s contribution to National Year of Reading – close the libraries', and 'The leisure peninsula? Oh yeah.'

Foulkes claims that changes will result in "better but fewer" buildings, and that “doing nothing is not an option”, because the "old, energy inefficient buildings" are "no longer fit for purpose". However, this idea does not stand up to scrutiny. It would certainly cost less than the £20 million initial outlay to refurbish buildings where they are needed, and indeed when the Review was launched, the stated rationale was to make £9 million worth of "savings". The aim is to cut services that are not considered profitable, and the true cost of this will be borne by the working class people who depend on them.

Local Conservative leader Jeff Green is positioning his party as opponents of the cuts, which are being imposed by the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. However, it would be foolish to trust the Conservatives, as they would face similar pressures should they come to power. The cuts - and cuts like them around Britain and the world - could only be stopped by united and determined organisation by council workers and others, who would have the overwhelming support of the people who use these essential services.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Waltz With Bashir (18)

Written and directed by Ari Folman
Screening at FACT from 21st November 2008

Ari Folman's cinematic journey deep into the recesses of his memory is a visually beautiful investigation of his life, his motivations, and human psychology. In the process, he perhaps points a way forward for film and art in general, away from its current staleness and towards a genuine coming to terms with the nature of existence.

As a young conscript to the Israeli Defense Forces, Folman took part in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The war killed an estimated 18,000 people, but particularly troubling for Folman was his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where Lebanese Christian Phalangist militias were - with the approval and support of the Israeli state - allowed into Palestinian refugee camps, where they slaughtered thousands of civilians. This would be distressing enough for anyone to have on their mind, except for the fact that Folman literally couldn't remember anything about the event until the last few years. “That’s not stored in my system,” he said. Actually it was, but retrieving it was another matter.

Folman's attempt to grasp the reality of his time in Lebanon is the foundation of this film. He conducted a series of interviews with his fellow conscripts, drawing on the fragments of their memories to piece together his own story. This subtitled Hebrew dialogue was then animated, with the hallucinatory cartoons giving an air of unreality to the all-too-real events described.

The overall effect of this is intensely humanitarian. Folman is haunted by the small but significant part he played in Palestinian deaths, and for many years he has buried his memories deep, the better to get on with his life. More recent events - perhaps the Iraq war or the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon - have caused him to seek explanations, to put things into context. By coming to terms with Israel's complicity with the Phalangists, he can begin to forgive himself for not intervening to save the lives of the refugees.

Perhaps even more importantly than that, this kind of reckoning holds lessons for anyone who cares to take notice. "This makes you wonder", Folman speculated in an interview, "maybe I am doing all this for my sons. When they grow up and watch the film, it might help them make the right decisions, meaning not to take part in any war, whatsoever."

Memories, by definition, can never be exact replicas of the original events. They are coloured and shaped by the experiences that follow. However, this is a strength, not a weakness, allowing for personal and collective growth. As the global crisis intensifies, more buried memories will no doubt be unearthed by people examining the beliefs and ideas which once guided their lives. What else is stored in our systems?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hunger (15)

Written and directed by Steve McQueen
Screening at FACT from 14th November 2008

Steve McQueen's take on the final days of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands is a lyrical and beautifully shot - though unintentionally pessimistic - first feature for the director.

Sands was an Irish Republican Army volunteer, joining at the age of just eighteen in 1972, following years of attacks from loyalists. Upon his second conviction for possession of firearms, he was sentenced to a fourteen year stretch in the notorious Maze prison.

It is here that the film begins, though it is a while before Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) makes an appearance. Instead, we see new IRA prisoner Davey (Brian Milligan) arriving, and refusing to wear the uniform. For this, he is labelled 'uncooperative'. As an otherwise naked Davey goes 'on the blanket', he is shown to his cell, which Gerry (Liam McMahon) has smeared with shit from floor to ceiling. This is all a protest at the officers' treatment of the prisoners, and especially the government's removal of 'political status' from IRA inmates.

Aside from the cinematography - which is the work of a skilled artistic eye - McQueen deserves much praise for his unflinching depiction of the institutionalised brutality at the heart of a previous 'war on terror', in a Lisburn Abu Ghraib overseen by the draconian but very plausible Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham). We witness the systematic degradation of prisoners, and gain some level of appreciation that they truly were living in a hell on earth. This is important, at a time when the United Kingdom government is deepening its attacks on 'democratic rights' which have long been taken for granted by many people.

Ironically, problems with the film become clear when the Sands character is introduced. From this point onwards, it is very much his story in isolation, about his martyrdom, to the exclusion of everything else. In a twenty-plus minute scene, featuring perhaps the longest single shot in cinema history, McQueen has Sands tell a priest (Liam Cunningham) about his plans to die, as part of a campaign for political status. After much backwards and forwards banter between the two men, the priest gets down to brass tacks and asks Sands why he wants to take this drastic step. The answer he gets is something about fields of waving barley.

By setting the film almost entirely within the Maze, McQueen has neglected almost everything that made Bobby Sands the person he was - someone willing to die for a political cause he passionately believed in. Though biopics are inevitably centred on one person, it is impossible to understand the person in isolation, without looking at the social forces that shaped that life, and the circumstances in which it is lived. From McQueen's individualistic perspective, it looks as though the hunger strikers have brought all their suffering upon themselves.

Similarly, as we watch Sands die in agony, little context is provided. Although McQueen no doubt wanted his film to be inspiring, it is this omission which makes it depressing. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking the Thatcher government and the prison regime were all-powerful, as their fervent opponent literally self-destructs. In real life, as the strikes wore on and men started dying, massive public support put great pressure on the already unpopular British state - which eventually conceded two of the 'Five Demands' - and Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on his prison death bed.

This was the beginning of the IRA's 'armalite and ballot box strategy', which saw Sinn Féin become a force in electoral politics. Arguably, what makes the death of self-described socialist Bobby Sands all the more tragic is the sight of his former comrades administering capitalism in the six counties of northern Ireland, alongside bigoted upholders of the Crown.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Airborne Toxic Event/Misery Guts/Scuba Steve and the Life Aquatics

Carling Academy, Hotham Street (12th November 2008)

Three bands of newcomers took to the stage at the Liverpool Carling Academy. All showed flashes of talent that could lead to success, but none of them could quite bring it all together on Wednesday night to ignite the crowd.

First up were Scuba Steve and the Life Aquatics, the kind of people who would sort of name themselves after a decentish 2004 Bill Murray film. That doesn't give much of a clue as to their music though, which sounds like things that were created long, long before these irritatingly young people were born. Influences diverse as The Velvet Underground and Ray Charles vie for attention here, though unfortunately it's quite easy to discern which parts are Velvet Underground-esque and which are Ray Charles bits. However, these lads only started making music together this year, and they certainly know their way around their instruments.

Secondly, we had the kind of people who would name themselves Misery Guts. Although this suggested suicidal black metal to me (though it would), they actually delivered some well-crafted folky acoustic numbers. Again, this was one of their first gigs, but it hardly showed, as the wistful intricacies of songs like Are You Ready? and Trying To Be The Sun demonstrated their high levels of technical skill. Despite not having a drummer, they seemed to fit perfectly together, and even when vocalist David Hirst admitted that they'd played one song too fast, they hadn't seemed lost at any stage. Their music didn't get many people going, and perhaps they would be more suited to acoustic nights, but they already have a number one fan. I know this because just as I was thinking 'that guy's their number one fan', he yelled "I'm your number one fan" at them. They may well pick up more devotees soon.

Following these two local bands, Los Angeles-based The Airborne Toxic Event (above) wrapped things up with an hour-long set. They are the kind of people who would name themselves after a chemical spill that makes people consider their mortality in postmodern author Don DeLillo's White Noise. This is entirely appropriate. Their music is often disjointed, and there are crunching gear changes which don't really fit. Sometimes they sound like an emo Franz Ferdinand, if you can imagine such a thing. But everything comes together when Anna Bulbrook steps forward with her violin, and Mikkel Jollet's impassioned vocals soar over the mixture. Jollet's lyrics were inspired by one calamitous week in 2006, and he clearly means every single word.

The Airborne Toxic Event are getting lots of publicity from the NME as they play a gig per night in November on their knackering UK tour, promoting their self-titled debut album. Where any of the bands will go from here remains to be seen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest We Forget...

With all the talk of 'sacrifice' (currently Obama's favourite word) and 'honour', it's easy to forget that most of the soldiers wanted to be anywhere else, doing anything else, and they didn't 'give' their lives so much as have them taken away by the war machine and the drive of capitalist 'great powers' to dominate Europe.

Here's Wilfred Owen's take on it:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Monday, November 10, 2008

An Antidote To The Ghastly Turner Prize

The Stuckists
View Two gallery, Mathew Street (6th-29th November 2008, Thu & Fri 12-4pm, Sat 12-5pm)

As artists throughout the centuries have discovered, expressing what you think and feel about the world can be a dangerous business. Istanbul-based Stuckist Michael Dickinson found this out to his cost, when he was arrested, detained for ten days, and charged with insulting the Turkish Prime Minister's dignity. His Best In Show collage (left) portrays Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a dog, and George Bush awarding him a rosette for his Iraq war support.

Postmodern conceptual artists don't have to worry about that sort of thing. They inhabit a world where nothing means anything; there are no opinions, only sensationalism and shock value. People such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are often controversial, but in only in the sense of 'pushing the boundaries' - a substitute for holding a mirror up to the world, or even looking themselves in the mirror. The establishment courts them and handsomely rewards them for their efforts.

The Stuckists define themselves in opposition to the multi-million pound industry art has become, and they fight for 'remodernism' - the "quest for authenticity", as the original Stuckists Billy Childish and Charles Thomson described it in their 1999 manifesto.

Having said all that, I found this selection the least impressive of the three Stuckist shows I have seen in Liverpool. By the standards of many exhibitions in the city, it is a delight, and it certainly one of the most interesting shows at this year's Biennial. But that isn't saying very much.

Perhaps I can put this feeling down to the enormity of the unfolding economic collapse. In the current context, it seems that what's on show at View Two - frank depictions of sex acts and more denunciations of celebrity culture - doesn't quite cut it. Even Michael Dickinson's politically praiseworthy work appears slightly dated, considering faction fights within the Turkish state, and new emperor Obama's plans for an intensification of the Afghanistan bloodbath.

By definition, culture lags behind the society it represents. But history seems to be speeding up, so even dedicated artists like the Stuckists will be forced to take a long, hard look at themselves and how they relate to the global situation if they want to be authentic, and 'edgy' in a good way. At least they're not afraid of being just that.

Friday, November 07, 2008

W. (15)

Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stanley Weiser
Screening at FACT from 7th November 2008

As George Walker Bush slumps out of office almost universally hated, with much of the American electorate believing they have just rejected everything he ever stood for in electing the much loved but little understood Barack Obama, we get the first Dubya biopic. So how has Hollywood liberal Oliver Stone portrayed the most despised man on the planet? Well, apparently he’s a basically well-meaning goofball kinda guy who’s had a really difficult job and sometimes feels that’s it’s all a bit too much. Cue tinkling piano and heart-rending pillow talk with Laura. Cry me a river.

Hardly anything important rings true. The major players – Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice are all here – behave exactly the same in private White House conversation as they do on the world stage, as if there’s no such thing as a ‘public face’ for politicians. It seems that Josh Brolin (as the President), Elizabeth Banks (as his First Lady), and especially Thandie Newton (as Condoleezza Rice) spent many hours getting impressions of their respective characters’ nuances and mannerisms down pat, without ever thinking about motivation. Toby Jones (as the man known as “Bush’s Brain”, the noxious Karl Rove), and Richard Dreyfuss (who seems to have been playing Dick Cheney all his life), fare better, but they are working with a dead script. Political junkies might notice that someone – presumably Stanley Weiser – has copied memorable quotes from the various politicians' speeches and crowbarred them into conversation. Is this all a joke, or are we trying to establish why major figures do the things they do?

But I forget; Oliver Stone has his reason why George done a bad thing. He was haunted by the long shadow of his ex-President father, and wanted to gain his respect, or outdo him, or both. But this isn’t anywhere near enough. And even by his own standards, Stone has failed. Speaking to the Guardian, the director summed up his film by asking "How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?" Unfortunately, W. leaves this question far from answered, because he has almost entirely ignored social forces. Rewind eight years and we don’t see Bush – or rather the people behind him – stealing an election, though they actually did and it was really important and stuff. Those people clearly had their own agendas, and thought that they had found the perfect ”folksy”, “compassionate conservative” empty vessel to manipulate in their power games. Still, Bush can’t be understood as an innocent out of his depth. In his clumsy, bumbling way, he has played his part in the killing of hundreds of thousands, the impoverishment of millions more, and the virtual shredding of the United States Constitution, amongst countless other outrages against humanity and the environment. He is – and is set to remain – an obscenely wealthy man.

Sensing the US empire needs serious corporate rebranding, many of the same powers who backed Bush have placed their trust in calmly eloquent newcomer and now President-elect Obama. Meanwhile, a sadistic, murderous gangster exits stage right, leaving a trail of blood behind. But then again, poor thing, isn’t he just a bit of a drunk who has issues with his “papa”? History will surely judge him more critically.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Of Time and the City (12A)

Written and directed by Terence Davies
Screening at FACT from 31st October – 6th November 2008

Terence Davies’ love song to Liverpool - or his “chanson d’amour” as he has it in his often flowery style - is a remarkable documentary in so many ways. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t fall into the all-too-common trap of playing up supposedly ‘unique’ characteristics of the subject area, at the expense of making a genuinely human experience that people all around the world will be able to relate to on some level. Of course, the iconic buildings, monuments and statues appear, but only as part of the backdrop for real life flesh and blood characters acting out their own dramas. The result is a very personal yet socially perceptive work, which is full of warmth.

By invoking Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias near the beginning, Davies makes it clear that Of Time and the City is very much a study of change, of death and rebirth. Implicitly, through his sparse yet poetic narrative, we are asked how things have altered in our own lives, for better and worse. He clearly regrets many of the alterations Liverpool has undergone since he was born into a large Catholic family in 1945, even going so far as to say he now feels like “an alien in his own land”. But he certainly doesn’t romanticise the past or its traditions, decrying the poverty that the city has still not escaped, and pouring scorn on how the monarchy were held up almost as demi-gods in the post-war period. Neither does Davies despair of the future: images of lively young people at play in the city centre provide a half echo of the pleasures he enjoyed and felt guilty about in his youth.

Consciously or unconsciously, Davies is nostalgic for the relatively uncommercialised working class way of life that marked the Liverpool he once knew. The neoliberal Capital of Culture illusion is that individualism and pursuit of the credit-bought commodity have submerged this sense of community and solidarity under layers of car parks, consumer cathedrals, and trademarked Scouse-ness. And yet it lives on, in flashes here and there, a sleeping beauty stirring. As someone born eight years after Davies' 1973 departure for a career in film, I left the cinema even more in love with my people than before.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Merseyside Police Allow Free Expression!

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon for activists organising as part of Liverpool Freedom of Expression. This was in stark contrast to last week's mass stall in Church Street, which saw police repression and spontaneous direct action from members of the public.

Following the events of 11th October, activists from various radical and protest groups held an emergency meeting in midweek. It was agreed that in response to a police request, a delegation should meet with senior officers. At this further meeting, the officers appeared to make some concessions to the law as it currently stands, meaning activists would be able to exercise their legal right to free expression without the kind of harassment seen last weekend.

Merseyside Police are clearly keen to avoid a repeat of the 11th, when their authority and status as enforcers of the law was effectively challenged by Liverpool people whose only intention had been to walk down a street and perhaps do some shopping. Today the police gave activists no trouble, and even gave them their stuff back!

However, the attack of the 11th was not an isolated incident of police repression. The whole point of last Saturday's mass stall was originally to highlight previous cases, and stand in solidarity with those who have been arrested. Because of this, we cannot rest on our laurels, and assume the threat to freedom of expression has gone away. On the contrary, the unfolding recession will surely see our freedom challenged again and again.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Merseyside Police Versus Freedom Of Speech

An entirely legal demonstration in solidarity with international Freedom Not Fear day was disrupted and halted in Liverpool this afternoon, and two arrests were made, provoking an astounding show of anger from the public.

Help! We're being repressed!
Over the past year, activists in Liverpool have been the victims of increasing police harassment and attempts to curtail our free speech. After the arrest of Socialist Party member Tony Aitman for ‘wilful obstruction’ on August 30th, Nerve magazine organised a campaign to unite all local radical and protest groups against this police repression.

As today was Freedom Not Fear day, it was designated Liverpool Freedom Of Expression’s first day of action, and ten groups simultaneously set up their stalls in Church Street. However, the police soon swooped, and began confiscating materials. Disgusted passers-by quickly became involved, and shouts of “let them out”, “you're a disgrace” and “free speech” could be heard. Around a dozen forceful police eventually made two arrests.
Come and see the violence inherent in the system!
Liverpool Freedom Of Expression will be back soon, believing the only freedom we have is the freedom we struggle to win and defend.

More pictures and video can be seen here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Previous Indymedia reports
Liverpool Vigil To Support Freedom Of Protest
Demonstration Defends Freedom Of Protest
Freedom to Express: Sat 11 Oct

Freedom Not Fear Day
Liverpool stands up to police repression against campaigners
Free Speech Crushed In Liverpool! Arrests Made!
Stalling Tactics Win A Victory for Freedom of Expression
More pics of Merseyside Police Versus Free Expression

Flickr Photoset

Liverpool Echo debate

YouTube videos - (1) and (2)

Daily Post: We will not be silenced, say protesters after clash with police

Indymedia Ireland: Police Repression in Liverpool Results in Random Arrests

Monday, October 06, 2008

1995: 'Land and Freedom' released

On 6th October 1995, the Ken Loach film Land and Freedom was released, telling the story of the Spanish revolution and fascist counter-revolution (i.e. the 'Spanish Civil War') through the eyes of a young Liverpool volunteer fighter. The opening and closing scenes were filmed in the city, while the remainder was located in Aragón.

In the story, David Carr (played by Knotty Ash-born Ian Hart) is an unemployment Communist Party member, in Depression-era Liverpool. When he gets the call, Carr enthusiastically joins up to fight with the International Brigades. Though he falls in love with Blanca (Rosana Pastor), his optimism is soon undermined when he witnesses Stalinist repression of anarchists and members of the Trotskyist POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist Unification). Finally, Blanca is killed and the revolution is defeated. Carr returns home with a red neckerchief full of Spanish earth.

Though the battle aspects of the story look like a fictionalised version of George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, some of the most important scenes examine the ongoing dilemmas confronting those fighting on the Republican side, against Francisco Franco's fascists. For example, an assembly in a liberated village debates whether to collectivise the land seized from a recently shot priest. An American with the POUM argues that such action risks losing the Republic the support of countries such as the United States and Britain, whereas others forcefully put the opposite case. In the end, the villagers decide to collectivise, and so Loach convincingly shows social revolution in action, and theory being put into practice.

Back in Liverpool, as the film ends, Carr's granddaughter recites lines from the William Morris poem The Day Is Coming over her grandfather's grave:
'Come, join in the only battle wherein no man can fail/Where whoso fadeth and dieth, yet his deed shall still prevail/Ah! come, cast off all fooling, for this, at least, we know/That the Dawn and the Day is coming, and forth the Banners go'
She and others then join in a raised fist salute. The struggle for land and freedom continues into the twenty-first century.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Call Mr Robeson

Tayo Aluko and Friends
St George's Hall (4th October 2008)


When Tayo Aluko premiered Call Mr Robeson at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2007, a reviewer complained that he lacked the presence and bass voice to do Paul Robeson justice. This was a bit like accusing a high mountain of not doing justice to Everest, but it also missed the point entirely. Despite his extraordinary life, Robeson is largely forgotten, and Aluko does humanity a great service by resurrecting the memory.

Born in 1898 to a mother who would die six years later, and a father who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, Robeson was a multilingual sportsman, actor, concert singer and political activist. Blessed with an incredibly rich, deep voice, he gained worldwide fame in the 1920s and 30s, before the post-war Red Scare in the United States saw him denounced as a traitor to the nation, and his passport was revoked. But he refused to be silenced, continuing to sing and speak for anyone who would listen. Ridiculously, he was accused of 'meddling' in US policy towards Africa, to which he memorably replied "Now, that’s just too bad, ‘cause I’m going to have to continue to meddle."

Accompanied by pianist Michael Conliffe, Aluko's Robeson roams about the minimal set, addressing the audience directly like some amazing raconteur with more than a few stories to tell. Occasionally he re-enacts key moments from his life, such as his 1961 suicide attempt (which was possibly caused by a CIA agent spiking his drink), climbs onto his soapbox to deliver speeches, and sings such songs as Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Trees, and Joe Hill (in honour of the Industrial Workers of the World organiser and songwriter who was framed and legally murdered by the state of Utah). Particularly evocative and stirring was the defiant rendition of Ol' Man River, above sounds representing a police helicopter at anti-communist riots in 1949. More than a few eyes grew misty.

In my opinion, it is precisely Robeson's unstinting and often self-sacrificing devotion to the working class of all nations which has so far excluded him from the widespread appreciation his story clearly merits. Tayo Aluko puts in a powerful, passionate performance, bringing Robeson to people who never had the chance to see him perform, and no doubt some who have never even heard of him before. To witness this in St George's Hall - that monument to the British Empire - was a strange but nevertheless inspiring experience. Tayo Aluko richly deserved the standing ovation he received at the end, but I'm sure he wouldn't begrudge Mr Robeson his share of the acclaim.

Click here to view an extract of a performance at Liverpool Community College.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Fantasy Studio Project

The Blade Factory, Greenland Street (20th September - 30th November 2008)

The notes accompanying this group show by seven Korean artists promises it 'addresses the alienating effect on audiences of transposing ideas generated in one culture onto another.' That seems like artist-speak for, 'You might not understand this, because some of the Korean references will probably get lost in translation'. However, while cultural references are still geographically restricted to a certain extent - though the globalising economy is daily breaking down the barriers - they are all, in the final analysis, expressions of needs and desires common to all humanity. So long as art engages with those needs and desires, people all over the world can appreciate and enjoy it. This is the case with the often surreal Fantasy Studio Project, and the effect is heightened by the high level of technical skill on show.

Hyun-Mi Yoo's work is mind-bogglingly ingenious, and stunning to look at. By painting onto physical space, inserting objects in unfamiliar places, and then photographing the result, she creates two dimensional 'still life installations', such as Great Earth (about a dozen globes heaped in a corner), Peach (a provocatively placed pair of peaches) and Stone Clouds (above).

Yongbaek Lee's art is also beautifully done if slightly unnerving. His Broken Through appears to be a giant mirror in an elaborate golden frame, but as I stood in front of it trying to flatten my hair, it 'smashed'. Was it something I did? Apparently not, because it recovered itself before smashing again when a woman walked past a minute later. The massive Angel Soldiers initially seemed to be a display of flowers, but when my eyes adjusted themselves, I made out some male figures ever so slowly creeping their way across, camouflaged in flowers. Just as well for them I didn't have a gun, and we weren't in a war situation. Except, of course, we are...

Yeondoo Jung's portraits are slightly more traditional fare, but no less impressive for that. After all, he has created believable renderings of characters he's encountered on his travels, with such imprecise instruments as needle and thread!

Though I surely missed some cultural references, I still found this exhibition very absorbing, which stands in stark contrast to that of my compatriots in the Bloomberg New Contemporaries downstairs. Some things are more important than the set of imaginary lines we were born within.

Vue sur Québec

Novas Contemporary Urban Centre, Greenland Street
20th September - 2nd November 2008 (Tue-Sun 11am - 6pm)

The Novas Contemporary Urban Centre is currently playing host to a selection of intriguing work by Canadian artists, which have each featured in past Québec City Biennials. This convergence of two biennials in a small corner of Liverpool is appropriately organised around the theme of 'meeting', though this is often interpreted so loosely as to be lost on this reviewer.

A case in point is Le siècle des Lumières (The centuries of lights) by Doyon and Rivest. In one sense, the 'idea' of a constellation meets the 'idea' of people's faces being lit up by laptops, iPods and mobiles, creating what at first sight appears to be a constellation but is actually people's faces being lit up by laptops, iPods and mobiles. In another, every piece of artwork ever created (indeed every action) synthesises things, so the motif is stretched to apparent meaninglessness. Still, clever effect.

Catholic icon of Jesus meets dartboard in Sacré-Coeur (Sacred Heart) by Jean-Marc Mathieu-Lajoie. Hitting his forehead is worth sixty points, whilst the representation of divine love for humanity is bullseye. This exhibit is bound to provoke some outrage, but then Saint Sebastian is always portrayed with arrows, and people seem to like that, so this may be an allusion to him and martyrdom somehow.

Similarly, Diane Landry mixes stuff she's found ('assisted readymades' to you) with religious symbolism, with her Mandalas in series Blue Decline. These automated installations suggest the cosmos, like charts in Indian religions. However, these ones are made out of washing baskets, empty water bottles, a spoon, and electronics. The effect of watching them is indeed evocative, and brought up thoughts of nature out of balance (like I don't always have them anyway). Kind of the same, but slightly different, to traditional mandalas.

Finally, Polish-born 'Modern Day Nomad Who Moves Where She Pleases' Ana Rewakowicz has created a 'sleepingbagdress' - that is, a dress that turns into a sleeping bag, and a sort of inflatable tent where the gallerygoer can watch videos of public interventions projected on one of the sides, so long as they take their shoes off first.

Effectively, there is no overarching theme, other than the fact that all these people have been on one point on the globe and now their art is in another, which is well worth a look if you're in the area.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2008

A Google of Bloomberg New Contemporaries shows that the Guardian called the 2003 version ‘a depressing welter of gimmickry, infantilism and juvenile ego-flexing’. Indeed, I called the 2006 exhibition a ‘gallery of sighs, where perfect form combines with emptiness and lack of original thought to produce an exhibition of horrific mediocrity’. What is there to add in 2008? Well, not much really, so how about some attempted analysis and a look at some (slightly) highlights alongside (very) lowlights?

The New Contemporaries exhibitions are aimed at showcasing the work of young artists who are at (or just out of) art school, and it has come to Liverpool for every Biennial so far. The overwhelming bulk of the art on display is flawlessly executed, yet emotionally and intellectually unaffecting; nondescript stuff in every form of visual media, seemingly unconnected to human existence itself. On one side, a large canvas filled with blackness, except for a few tiny scrapes of white. On another, a couple of wigs in a box tremble slightly. The overall impact is profoundly depressing. Whose idea of culture is this? What are we looking at here?

Well, to be frank, we are looking at products of art school training. We are looking at explorations of form and technique, with little care for content. We are looking at the work of people who – if they have anything interesting to offer – think they’d best keep it to themselves, or at least out of their art. These artists may still be young, in their mid-to-late twenties, but did they dream of creating stuff like this when they were children? Probably not. Hopefully not. If so, they moved in very rarefied circles.

Of course, there are some exhibits that merit attention. In particular, ‘It happened in the corner’ by littlewhitehead held my interest for a few minutes, starting when I caught a glimpse of what I imagined was a huddle of people around something in – you guessed it – the corner. My first thought was ‘oh, they’ve found something interesting to look at’. My second was ‘hang on, surely there can’t be that many visitors in that area, there’s hardly anyone else here’. My third was ‘oh, it’s a piece of artwork’. So, watched by the CCTV no doubt, I spent some time trying to peer over the heads of the plaster and wax crowd. Even though I’m six foot two, I still had to stand on tippy toes to glimpse…an empty white podium. 'It' is nothing. Oh well, that’s postmodernism for you.

Jason Underhill’s ‘Jessie Lives’ is also intriguing in a vaguely unsettling way. A video shows Jessie talking at the camera about her problematic social life and hopes for ‘new friends’ in a fragile and slightly naïve way. She wants to meet someone who won’t mind standing in the rain with her to catch a glimpse of Robert Smith from The Cure. She’s met the person holding the camera, and they are alone together. What is going to happen, and why am I worried even though I know it’s only acting?

Sitting in the bleak and disintegrating area on ‘the wrong side’ of the road from Liverpool’s former docks, this exhibition is like an alienating invasion. In a sense, it is the perfect metaphor for Capital of Culture and corporate ideas of post-industrial regeneration, sitting there totally divorced from the day-to-day experience of local people’s lives, and the unfolding economic crisis. Do people in the nearby Cains factory make art?

As I said in 2006, it can't go on like this, and surely it won't. I mean it.

There are two more exhibitions in the A Foundation building, including works by seven Korean artists and Manuel Vason.

1995: Liverpool docks dispute begins

On 25th September 1995, the marathon Liverpool docks dispute began when 329 stevedores refused to cross a picket line mounted by eighty former co-workers, who had been sacked by the Torside contractors. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company - who sought to crush any resistance to the casualisation of working conditions - then made the 329 redundant. A two and a half year campaign for reinstatement was initiated, which was isolated and then strangled by the Transport and General Workers Union. The end finally came in February, when the sacked dockers accepted a settlement of £28,000 from MDHC - just £85 per head.

The efforts of the sacked dockers and their relatives attracted both international solidarity and celebrity support (most notably from then Liverpool FC forward Robbie Fowler), and has since been seen as one of the first examples of working class people using the internet in struggle against bosses. It was also notable for the alliances made between sacked dockers and social movements outside of organised labour, such as Reclaim The Streets. In 1999, Liverpool writer Jimmy McGovern dramatised the dispute for television, with Irvine Welsh.

In 2008, an exhibition at the FACT centre showed photos taken during the dispute by Walton-born photographer David Sinclair.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Realms and Realities

John O'Neill and Richard Young
Gostins Gallery, Hanover Street (19th September - 29th November 2008)

The art of John O'Neill always strikes me as being more realistic than real life. He typically takes an everyday situation and spins it a little, so people's feelings and desires leap out at the viewer more than they would on actually seeing them. That's not to say he's a caricaturist - far from it - but he perceives that the folk at the bar might be smiling, but they are actually snarling inside, and so paints them that way.

His Biennial selection on the first floor of the Gostins building fills the cafe with lurid colour, in stark contrast to the tables, chairs, and the walls they hang on. In an important sense, O'Neill world isn't the Gostins world of trendy boutiques and meditation centres. No, it is the heaving city centre streets just around the corner, it is frantic and nightmarish nightlife, it is wherever rotten drunk people become CCTV stars, like Friday Night Fool (above left). In short, it is the Liverpool that hasn't been and won't be packaged for the Capital of Culture dollar.

O'Neill can do calm and tranquil, such as in two of his Sefton Park Palm House pictures. However, it is noticeable that there are no people in these images. This is in stark contrast to visions like the Great White Lie, a horrific collision of holiday and concentration camps, where daytrippers swarm under the ever watchful eye of some Dr Mengele/Oswiecim tourist board figure. Commercialisation and extermination are two sides of the same coin, it seems to suggest. Since the holocaust is so often written off as being an atrocity beyond human understanding, this would be a bold claim to make.

Down the corridor, some unsold paintings by Richard Young (1921-2003) are displayed. These skilled, impressionistic renderings of people, their postures and expressions are well worth viewing, but it is O'Neill who sees further.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

2006: Firefighters strike against proposed cuts to services

On 31st August 2006, Merseyside Fire Brigades Union began strike action over cuts of £3.5 million proposed by Merseyside Fire Authority. Despite a sustained anti-FBU campaign by the Daily Post and Liverpool Echo, the untion succeeded in moving the cuts away from frontline services.

The dispute first got mainstream media attention in June, when Merseyside FBU representatives began meeting Fire Authority officials to protest against proposals to cut £3.5 million from the budget.

When Authority officials refused to budge, the FBU balloted its members about taking strike action. The result was announced in late August, with 71% of the 890 members who returned their ballot papers voting for strike action.

The first four day strike began on 31st August, with 170 former firefighters crossing the picket line and providing a minimal service, in return for time and a half. From the start, local newspapers served as a mouthpiece for Fire Authority bosses, and in particular Chief Fire Officer Tony McGuirk. The Territorial Army - who provided cover during the 2002-03 national firefighters strike - were stationed in occupied Afghanistan, and this was used as a stick with which to beat the FBU.

More than two weeks later, the Fire Authority had refused to back down, so firefighters were still on strike. The FBU held a massive march and rally in Liverpool city centre, at which around five thousand firefighters from around the country, assorted trade unionists and Merseyside-based well-wishers expressed their solidarity with the strikers.

On 29th September, after nearly four weeks of strike action against the to the Merseyside fire service, Fire Brigades Union negotiators agreed to implement £3.5 million of 'savings', the details of which can be read here. At no stage had the FBU raised the possibility of finding the money elsewhere in the government's budget (for example in military operations), meaning debate was always limited to where the axe would fall within the fire service.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Climate Camp and Class

Picture the scene. The setting sun is glinting off the visors of the police lined up in front of me. It's the second or third day of the week-long Camp for Climate Action - already I've lost count - and for the second or third time since I last slept it looks as if the cops are about to invade. I've just bolted from the opposite end of the site, where I've helped dig a defensive trench at another gate. To my left, atop a red van, a woman who sounds scouser than scouse exhaustedly screeches words of encouragement into a megaphone and somehow dances to Radiohead. To my right, a posher than posh couple casually talk up Cornish nationalism and agree that political correctness means white people suffer more oppression than anyone else on the planet. All the campers care about the environment, but that seems to be the only thing we have in common. That and - by now - a dislike of police.

Click here
for the rest of my Climate Camp analysis.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Wackness (15)

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine
Screening at FACT from 29th August 2008

Summer 1994 in New York City. Mayor Giuliani's one-two punch of massive social program cuts and 'zero tolerance' policing has left many reeling, rap and the dying days of grunge fill the airwaves, and eighteen year old Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is struggling with being eighteen year old Luke Shapiro, a depressed (or just "sad"?) loner with a crush on his therapist's stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby). But he's not the only one with problems; all the adults in his life seem to be in trouble too. He has to sell drugs to keep a roof over his family's head, and his shrink (an extraordinarily different Ben Kingsley) is shrinking by the day. That shit is wack.

There seem to be two main types of teen movies in cinemas these days. The first, aimed at multiplexes, is the gross-out comedy in the vein of American Pie, where the predominantly male central characters struggle to get their ends away before the closing credits. The second - think Donnie Darko or The Butterfly Effect - shows the young people stumbling through a world that feels entirely alien to them, often with dream sequence effects, to make the viewer think the problem is in the head of the suffering teen, not in the alien world. The Wackness is somewhere in between, and it succeeds because of its realness, since writer/director Jonathan Levine hasn't so much made something up as used many different real life events and weaved a convincing story out of them.

In many ways this is a coming of age film, but it's actually Levine's, not Luke's. Now in his early thirties, he looks back with some nostalgia but also great perceptiveness and tries to make sense of his place in the world. The results are both observant and touchingly funny.

So far, Levine is sure of what he doesn't like (a world that's being turned into "one big fucking Happy Meal"), but doesn't seem to have much clue what he does like, beyond sex and music. He offers few easy answers, but has plenty of questions, and if he keeps asking them then his compassion and empathy will surely take him far. And his shit will be dope.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Liverpool Dockers' Strike 1995-98

David Sinclair
FACT bar, Wood Street (1st-28th August 2008)

Walton-born photographer David Sinclair's exhibition in the FACT bar offers a candid and fascinating look at the long-running Liverpool dockers' dispute of the mid 1990s.

The confrontation began in September 1995, when 329 stevedores refused to cross a picket line mounted by eighty former co-workers, who had been sacked by the Torside contractors. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company - who sought to crush any resistance to the casualisation of working conditions - then made the 329 redundant. So began a two and a half year campaign for reinstatement, which was isolated and then strangled by the Transport and General Workers Union. The end finally came in February, when the sacked dockers accepted a settlement of £28,000 from MDHC - just £85 per head.

Several themes crop us time and time again in Sinclair's stark black and white images. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of waiting around going on, with grimly determined pickers huddling around braziers and peering through fences. But there's also a lighter side, and pictures shot through with the kind of camaraderie that only collective struggle can bring.

Perhaps the most extraordinary snapshot shows a confrontation between picketer Jimmy Davies Jnr and Birkenhead MP Frank Field, who at the time was a Minister for Welfare Reform in Tony Blair's new Labour government. Some had held out hope that Labour would support the sacked dockers, but instead Blair used the dispute to send an unambiguous signal to his big business backers: he was very much on their side. The photo was taken at one of the very last pickets, at the Twelve Quays development in Birkenhead, and it clearly shows Field's face etched with the desire to escape from one of his constituents; a class enemy of his government.

The twenty-six photos chosen for the FACT exhibition comprise only a tiny proportion of the ten thousand Sinclair captured during the docks dispute. Hundreds more captioned images can be viewed on his Flickr account.

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