‘You Got to Have Vision to See’: Tennessee Williams and The Fugitive Kind

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‘This country used to be wild, the men and women were wild and there was a wild sort of sweetness in their hearts, for each other. But now it’s sick with neon, it’s broken out sick with neon, like most other places.’
Carol Cutrere, ‘Orpheus Descending’

I recently saw a fine production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Orpheus Descending’ (The Menier Chocolate Factory, London). This 1957 play meant a good deal to Williams. It was a re-write of his 1940 piece, ‘Battle of Angels,’ which was his first work to be given a professional production. He also adapted it into the 1959 movie ‘The Fugitive Kind’, starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. (Brando’s performance earned him the first million-dollar contract for a single film.)

‘Orpheus Descending’ is a hot Southern stew of ‘memories and the loneliness of them’; of isolated strangers yearning for intimacy in a world of prejudice and bigotry. 

’Nobody ever gets to know no body! We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!’

Lady Torrance runs a small-town dry goods store and she busies herself attending to her narrow-minded, gossiping customers. Her tyrannical husband lies upstairs, unloved and dying. The local free-spirit, Carol Cutrere, who ‘has an odd, fugitive beauty,’ arrives to ruffle some feathers.

‘I’m an exhibitionist! I want to be noticed, seen, heard, felt! I want them to know I’m alive!’

Carol takes a shine to Val Xavier, a drifter who has recently arrived in town with little more than a snakeskin jacket and a guitar to his name.

‘I’d love to hold something the way you hold your guitar, that’s how I’d love to hold something, with such - tender protection!’

But Val has other things on his mind. Vowing to put the troubadour life behind him, he pitches for a job as Lady’s store clerk. Lady is initially sceptical.

Val: ‘I got nowhere to go.’
Lady: ‘Well, everyone’s got a problem and that’s yours.’

Gradually, however, Val charms Lady into giving him a chance. He’s a talkative, sensitive, self-assured young man, with a philosophical nature.

‘You know they’s a kind of bird that don’t have legs so it can’t light on nothing, but has to stay all its life on its wings in the sky?... They sleep on the wind and never light on this earth but one time when they die… I’d like to be one of those birds; they’s lots of people would like to be one of those birds and never be – corrupted!’

‘Orpheus Descending’ is a celebration of birds that can’t settle, that stay on the wing, cherishing their freedom; a celebration of misfits and malcontents, oddballs and outsiders; of artists and activists, musicians and immigrants; of ‘the ‘fugitive kind’.

In one scene, eccentric local artist, Vee Talbott, a woman of a nervous disposition, endeavors to explain to Val her impressionistic style of painting.

‘I paint a thing how I feel it instead of always the way it actually is. Appearances are misleading, nothing is what it looks like to the eyes. You got to have – vision – to see!’

This thought resonated with me. 

Professionally I was raised to follow the discipline of Vision, Strategy and Tactics: we should always set out with a clear, compelling Vision; Vision drives Strategy; Strategy drives Tactics; and everything else is just a distraction.

However, there’s something about the contemporary discourse that works against this approach. Whether one considers the field of politics or commerce, one cannot help noticing the absence of guiding Visions. Of course, a Vision Statement may exist on a website somewhere, in a Manifesto or Company Report perhaps, or in an arcane deck of charts. But rarely nowadays do you see clear evidence of Vision driving everyday behaviour and beliefs. 

We spend most of our time reacting to events and responding to circumstance. We duck and dive, nip and tuck. We get caught up in the petty and prosaic, the incidental and insignificant. The competitive storm, the relentless media scrutiny, the headlong tilt towards change; the urgency of now, the pressing need for immediate opinion and instant action – they all combine to drag the debate ineluctably down into Tactics. 

We may feel as though we’re actively engaged and urgently busy, as we expertly navigate our daily trials and tribulations. But as Vee Talbott knew, if we have no Vision, we just can’t see.

In the course of ‘Orpheus Descending’ the forces of small-town conservatism close in on Val. Inevitable really. And at the end of the play a mournful Carol is left in possession of his snakeskin jacket.

‘Wild things leave skins behind them, they leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them, and these are the tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind.’


'But what I'd like to know
Is could a place like this exist so beautiful,
Or do we have to find our wings and fly away
To the vision in our mind?’

Stevie Wonder, ‘Visions’ (M Graves / L J Fiagbe)

 

No. 244

Are You Sitting Uncomfortably? The Healthy Scepticism of Felix Vallotton

Felix Vallotton - la loge de theatre (detail)

Felix Vallotton - la loge de theatre (detail)

I recently attended an exhibition of the work of Swiss artist Felix Vallotton. (The Royal Academy, London, until 29 September, and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 29 October to 26 January.)

Vallotton was born into a puritanical protestant family in Lausanne in 1865. Aged 16 he settled in Paris, at first to study and then to practice art. In the 1890s he associated with the circle of artists known as the Nabis (Prophets), whose number included Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. They sought to convey emotion rather than just to record reality. They admired Japanese woodblock prints, and their work was characterised by flattened figures, strong outlines and bold colours; by empty spaces and decorative patterns.

Vallotton became a master of the art of woodcut and he was commissioned to produce illustrations for journals and newspapers, including the influential La Revue Blanche. 

Belle Epoque Paris was prosperous and dynamic, brimming with fashion, fun and creativity. It was the centre of the art world and a hub for scientific innovation. But it was also a hotbed of political unrest and social upheaval. Vallotton seems to have been both captivated by the capital’s boundless energy and conscious of the tensions that lay just beneath the surface. In his work he regarded French society with an amused but critical eye, satirising the customs and values of the bourgeoisie.

There’s a pervasive disquiet about Vallotton’s art. He seems uneasy about the relationships that are played out in the dim lamplight, in the shadows, behind closed doors; uneasy about the turbulence of city life, about the passions of the new consumer society, about the durability of the family unit. What hypocrisy remains unvoiced behind a conventional conservative façade? What secrets and lies lurk around the corner, along the corridor, or beneath the brim of an elegant hat? 

Félix Vallotton,  The Ball (Le Ballon),  1899

Félix Vallotton,The Ball (Le Ballon), 1899

They’re caressing fabrics at Le Bon Marche. They’re partying in the Latin Quarter. They’re rioting on the streets. The crowd runs for cover from the pouring rain. A smart-suited gentleman waits expectantly by the window. A desolate man weeps into his handkerchief as a woman looks impassively on. A couple embrace by the doorway to a claustrophobic interior. A darkness creeps across the pond in the garden. There’s a child chasing an orange ball, unaware of the looming shadows. There’s something missing in the linen closet. There’s a knife erect in the fruit loaf.

Félix Vallotton,  Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty ,  1885

Félix Vallotton,Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty , 1885

Everything seems slightly on edge, an intriguing, incomplete narrative, a pressure cooker about to explode. Vallotton ratchets up the tension with his terse, enigmatic titles: ‘The Lie,’ ‘The Money,’ ‘The Provincial,’ ‘The Extreme Measure.’ His work foreshadows Hopper and Hitchcock in its dark humour and unsettling air of menace. 

Ours is an industry of emotions and enthusiasms; of fashions and fads. So it serves us well to retain a healthy objectivity, a suspicion of success, a caution around modish ideas. Scepticism insures us against egotism. Paranoia inoculates us against complacency. 

As Nigel Bogle was wont to warn, even in the good years, ‘We’re three phone calls away from disaster.’

So don’t get sucked in. Better to keep a cool head than to drink the Kool-Aid. Let’s maintain our distance, keep a wary eye. And like Vallotton, let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

 

'She had a place in his life.
He never made her think twice.
As he rises to her apology,
Anybody else would surely know
He's watching her go.
But what a fool believes, he sees.’

The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’ (M McDonald, K Loggins)

 

No. 243

 

Cleo’s Conundrum: ‘I Always Think Everyone's Looking at Me, But I Only Look at Myself’ 

'The tool of every self-portrait is the mirror. You see yourself in it. Turn it the other way, and you see the world.'
Director Agnes Varda

In the 1962 film ‘Cleo de 5 a 7’ Corinne Marchand plays the eponymous heroine, a successful Parisian pop singer who fears that she has cancer. The movie follows her movements on the first day of summer, from 5-00 to 6-30, as she waits to hear the results of her tests.

'Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I'm beautiful, I'm even more alive than the others.’

When we first encounter Cleo she comes across as somewhat superstitious, self-absorbed and trivial. She visits a tarot reader, bursts into tears in a café, and consoles herself with a visit to the hat shop. She revels in attention and recognition, and is constantly seeking her own reflection in mirrors.

‘Everything suits me. Trying things on gives me a thrill.’

However, we soon realise that Cleo’s identity is in part a product of the company she keeps. Her indulgent maid-companion avoids taxis with unlucky numbers and warns against wearing new clothes on Tuesdays. Her businessman lover only has time to pop in and shower her with hollow compliments. Her musician friends faun on her and compose frivolous songs for her with titles like ‘The Tease’ and ‘The Liar’. But they don’t think she quite has the voice for serious material.

They all treat Cleo like a child, privately regarding her as a hypochondriac drama queen. She is unable to have a proper conversation about her health concerns with any of them.

'Everybody spoils me. Nobody loves me.’

Finally Cleo can take no more. She discards her wig, changes into a simple black dress, and dons the inappropriate hat she purchased earlier. She walks out onto the Paris streets alone.

Cleo visits an old friend, Dorothee, an artist’s model who is hard up but happy. Taking a trip around town together, she is at last able to talk seriously about her fears. Cleo drops Dorothee home in a taxi. As her friend disappears up the steps, Cleo asks the cabby to slow down so that she can savour the moment. She seems to be undergoing some kind of awakening. She is more curious about the world around her, more alert to the people she passes on the street. She stops looking in mirrors.

Director Agnes Varda, who died in March of this year, explained the theme of ‘Cleo de 5 a 7’:

‘When the film starts, she’s just there to be looked at. When she takes off her wig and puts on her black dress and goes out, she’s the one who starts to look. Looking at others is the first step of feminism—not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave. Cleo, in the shock of being afraid of death, starts to see things differently.’
(Interviewed in Cleo, 6.1)

I was particularly taken with Cleo’s articulation of her dilemma. At a critical moment in the film, standing in front of a mirror, she declares:

‘I always think everyone's looking at me, but I only look at myself.’

This seems a thoroughly modern concern. This is us: our vanity, our solipsism, this narcissistic age. We are more interested in being known than knowing; in being understood than understanding. We think everyone’s looking at us, but we only look at ourselves.

Like Cleo, we should realise that the first step to a happy life, and indeed a successful career, is to remove our ego-tinted spectacles, to see the world as others see it. We need to cultivate abstraction.

Easier said than done perhaps.

At the Parc Montsouris Cleo meets Antoine, a soldier on leave from the Algerian war. He senses that she is troubled.

'You seem to be waiting for something, rather than someone.'

Antoine is thoughtful, talkative, funny and wise. Gradually he charms Cleo and they enjoy an open, honest conversation about love, the war and her worries. He escorts her to the hospital, taking her by the hand.

Antoine: 'I'm sorry I'm leaving. I'd like to be with you.'
Cleo: 'You are. I think my fear is gone. I think I'm happy.’

 
‘With all the doors flung open,
The wind rushing through.
I’m like an empty house
Without you.

Like a deserted isle,
Covered by the sea.
My sands slip away
Without you.

Beauty wasted,
Naked in the cold of winter.
Just a yearning body
Without you.’

‘Sans Toi’, Corinne Marchand (M Legrand, A Varda)

In memory of Agnes Varda and Michel Legrand, both of whom passed away in 2019.

No. 242

 

 

Forget What You Know: Natalia Goncharova and the Spirit of ‘Everythingism’


Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962), Peasants Picking Apples 1911 (ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)

Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962), Peasants Picking Apples 1911 (ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)

I recently attended an exhibition of the work of Russian artist Natalia Goncharova. (Tate Modern, London until 8 September)

Peasants pick apples and dance in circles. They cut hay at harvest time and gather firewood in the snow. A head-scarfed bread seller caresses a crusty loaf. Two sporty rowers lean into their strokes. A couple of beefy wrestlers are locked in each other’s arms. Trains, planes and bicycles whizz past at incredible speed. Machines manically weave, as factory chimneys loom ominously over us. Angels grapple aeroplanes to the ground. 

Goncharova’s work at once captures the timeless routines of rural Russia and the breathless velocity of the twentieth century. It fizzes with vital energy, radiates with vibrant colour.

‘I believe that colour possesses a strange magic: sad colours, joyous or calm colours, a delicate or stronger colour harmony – these are not simply words that characterise an emotion similar to the sensations of taste. Colours have an effect on one’s psychological make-up.’

Natalia Goncharova’s ‘exhilarating’ Cyclist, 1913. Photograph: © ADAGP/DACS

Natalia Goncharova’s ‘exhilarating’ Cyclist, 1913. Photograph: © ADAGP/DACS

Goncharova was born into a family of Russian aristocrats in 1881. She grew up on country estates 200 miles from Moscow, and moved to the city when she was 11. At 20 she enrolled to study art at the Moscow Institute and by 22 she was exhibiting in the major salons. 

Although Goncharova was classically trained, she was inspired by modern French painters and by traditional Russian arts and crafts. In 1909 she left the Institute and with fellow radical students formed Moscow's first independent exhibiting group. Critical to her development as an artist was her rejection of everything she had studied at college.

‘I have passed through all that the West has to offer… and all that my country has assimilated from the West… I now shake the dust from my feet and distance myself from the West.’

Goncharova spurned conventional approaches to scale, perspective and naturalism. Her art spanned a range of contemporary styles: Primitivism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism. She painted still lifes, landscapes and nudes; traditional peasant scenes and snapshots of urban upheaval; pure abstractions and interpretations of religious icons.

Nor did Goncherova limit herself to painting. She turned her hand to prints, book illustrations and performance art; to theatre, fashion and interior design. She published zaum, a type of experimental sound poetry. And she invented the shirt-dress.

Goncharova was happy to court controversy. Critics were outraged by a 1910 exhibition of her work that included female nudes and pagan mythology, and she was charged for public display of ‘corrupting’ images.  

She was also a natural publicist. In 1913 a Moscow gallery staged a major retrospective of her work, which included over 800 of her pieces and was the first solo exhibition of any member of the Russian avant-garde. A few weeks before the opening, she and her fellow artists paraded through the streets with hieroglyphic patterns painted on their faces. Journalists had been alerted in advance, and the streets were lined with curious crowds. Some 12,000 people visited the show.

Goncharova left Russia in 1915 to design radical costumes and sets for the Ballets Russes. Unable to return home after the 1917 revolution, she settled in Paris where she continued to create in all manner of media right up until her death aged 81 in 1962.

I left the exhibition in awe of Goncharova’s audacity and exuberance, and of the rich diversity of her output. It’s difficult to define her style because she seemed to embrace so many of them. Indeed fellow artists described her work as ‘everythingism.’ 

'We acknowledge all styles as suitable for the expression of our art, styles existing both yesterday and today.'
Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov

Goncharova suggests that we should not be constrained by our education; that we should not feel obliged to follow established codes and best practice. Hers is a story of liberation, of following one’s passions wherever they lead.

What if we threw off the shackles of convention and taste? What if we rejected modish opinions and the limitations of style? What if we forgot what we know? 

Perhaps like Goncharova we would be free to pursue a broader range of methods, modes and media. Perhaps we too could find our own version of  ‘everythingism.’

 

'Somebody told me:
"Boy, everything she wants is everything she sees."
I guess I must have loved you,
Because I said you were the perfect girl for me.’

Wham! ‘Everything She Wants’ (G Michael)

 

No. 241

Space Is the Place: Nostalgia for the Future

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'Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.' 

I know exactly where I was just before 4-00AM on the morning of July 21, 1969. I was in the sitting room of 125 Heath Park Road watching TV. My parents had got Martin and me out of bed to see Neil Armstrong become the first person to set foot on the moon. I was 5 years old.

To be honest I’m not sure I recall the experience. Perhaps I just remember being told that I was there. But certainly rockets, space exploration and moon landings played an important part in my childhood. Back then we dreamed of astronauts, aliens and asteroids. We watched Star Trek, the Clangers and Thunderbirds on TV. We created space suits out of boxes and Bacofoil. And one summer Sister Mary Stephen helped me make a lunar landscape out of papier mache.

Armstrong: 'The surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots.’

Over the last few weeks there have been numerous documentaries and dramas commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing. I was particularly struck by the film ‘Apollo 11’, which edited together original footage from NASA and the National Archives. 

The crowd at Cape Canaveral wait expectantly in sun visors and straw trilbies. The women sport cat-eye shades. Families in striped summer shirts camp out on the parking lot at JC Penney’s. Wide-angled lenses are trained and at the ready. At Mission Control Center in Houston banks of clean-cut men in headsets attend to their monitors. They wear white short-sleeved shirts, thin ties and have pens in pocket protectors. Their desks are cluttered with coffee cups and ashtrays. After a steak-and-egg breakfast, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins complete their final checks and wave goodbye. Then the unbearable tension of the countdown...

‘12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence start.’ 

Time slows to a crawl…

‘6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero, all engines running.’ 

The thunderous roar, the fearsome commotion, as the Saturn V rocket escapes its umbilical tower, and takes off… 

‘Liftoff! We have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11.'

It’s a familiar drama now, but it still sends a chill down my spine.

Collins: 'Well, I promise to let you know if I stop breathing.’

As the adventure continues, I can’t help being struck by the dry, understated humour of these brave, intelligent men. I fell in love with the United States in 1969, with this casual heroism, this easygoing informality.

Aldrin: 'Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch... Making sure not to lock it on my way out.’

For me as a child the space program was entirely optimistic, inspiring, euphoric. It was a compelling tale of vision, ambition, ingenuity and courage. The stainless steel plaque attached to the ladders of the lunar module stated: ‘We came in peace for all mankind.' And President Nixon, speaking on the phone to Armstrong and Aldrin while they were on the moon surface, intoned in his rich, gravelly voice:

'For one priceless moment in the whole history of man all the people on this Earth are truly one.'

There seemed something noble and uplifting about the whole endeavour.

Of course, looking at the flickering footage now, one can’t help noticing the shadow that the Eagle module cast over the moon’s surface. And there was a shadow over the space program too. 

There were protests about the US Government’s priorities at a time when the country was facing incredible poverty and inequality. At its peak in 1966, NASA accounted for roughly 4.4% of the federal budget. The resonance of Nixon’s words now seems tarnished by Vietnam and Watergate, and there’s a suspicion that we were simply witnessing another chapter of the Cold War. We also feel uncomfortable about the low representation of female and black faces at Mission Control; and the debris left on the lunar surface.

Armstrong: 'Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.'
Aldrin: 'Magnificent desolation.’ 

Nowadays the future has lost some of its lustre. Although we’ve witnessed the most dramatic transformation since the Industrial Revolution, we have become concerned that the same technology that spreads knowledge and understanding can also intensify hate and bigotry; that a new corporate oligarchy threatens our privacy and security; that the freedoms of empowerment also carry the responsibilities of self-control. Inevitably we’re suffering change fatigue. 

Aldrin: 'We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.'

Despite the reservations, the Apollo 11 story prompts nostalgia for the future. It suggests that hope and optimism are the first steps to progress. It reminds us of the power of wide-eyed anticipation. We should not deny ourselves the chance to dream.

'I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.'
President Kennedy, May 25, 1961

The US space program remains the definitive example of the motivational power of a clear and ambitious goal. It indicates that we can achieve great things if we channel talent and resource towards a unitary mission, if we commit to the principles of focus and weight.

Imagine reconvening those dudes in their thin ties and short-sleeved shirts. What if we could create the contemporary equivalent of Mission Control? What if we summoned a more diverse cross-section of the finest minds in the world, allocated proper investment, and set them a singular task? What if we asked them to save this planet rather than to visit some other celestial body?

Aldrin: 'There it is, it’s coming up!'
Collins: ‘What?'
Aldrin: 'The earth. See it?'
Collins: 'Yes. Beautiful.’


'Space is the place where I will go when I'm all alone 
Space is the place, 
Space is the place.’

Sun Ra, ’Space is the Place' 

No. 240

Not Copying, But Translating: Vincent Van Gogh and the Love of Many Things

Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising, 1890 © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising, 1890 © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

‘The best way to know God is to love many things.’
Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, 1880

I recently attended an exhibition exploring Vincent Van Gogh’s relationship with Britain (‘Van Gogh and Britain,’ at Tate Britain until 11 August). 

In the spring of 1873, aged 20, Van Gogh travelled to London to work in the Covent Garden branch of the art dealers Goupil et Fils, and he stayed in England until the winter of 1876. He was not yet an artist at that time and he didn’t paint any pictures here. So the exhibition is really an exploration of the impact his British experiences had on him, and the impact he had on subsequent British artists.

‘Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better.’

Van Gogh loved strolling around London. He took a daily walk from his lodgings in Brixton, across Westminster Bridge, to his office in Covent Garden. He visited museums, art dealers and the National Gallery. He rowed on the Thames and tried out the new underground railways. He also fell in love with his landlady’s daughter. He was dismissed from his job, briefly taught at a school in Ramsgate, and then served as a Methodist preacher in Richmond. 

‘My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.’

What makes a real impression is how much Van Gogh was soaking up stimulus during his time in England. English was one of his four languages and he loved reading Victorian novels. He admired the wood engravings of modern urban scenes that he found in journals like The Graphic. He was swept up by the growing enthusiasm for social reform. In later life he explored themes he had first encountered in the works of Dickens or in paintings at the National Gallery: lonely figures walk along a road through an autumn landscape; prison inmates troop around a high-walled yard; a man sits in despair, resting his face in his hands; an empty chair suggests a deceased former occupant. 

'Admire as much as you can. Most people do not admire enough.’

Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night Over the Rhône. Photograph: Hervé Lewandowski/RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)

Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night Over the Rhône. Photograph: Hervé Lewandowski/RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)

I had always imagined Van Gogh as the epitome of the artistic loner, ploughing his own furrow, blinkered to outside perspectives, rebelling against everything that has gone before. But in fact he was an avid consumer of culture, alert to fresh ideas, always out to learn and understand.

'I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.’

Van Gogh had catholic tastes. Indeed he developed the view that a plurality of interests and affections creates strength of character, contentedness and a reservoir of inspiration.

'It is good to love many things, for therein lies true strength. And whoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!'

Professionally many of us are cautious about external influences, concerned that we will be tempted to reproduce and replicate, copy and counterfeit. But Van Gogh was so confident in his own unique perspective that he didn’t worry about drawing on other artists’ work.

‘It is not copying… It is rather translating into another language, one of colours.’

So perhaps we should all take a tip from Van Gogh. Pop out for a walk, visit a gallery, collect images, read. Go to the movies, listen to a lecture, take in a podcast on the way. Open yourself up to stimulus, inspiration, learning. Discuss your response, debate your reaction, write down what you think. Embrace a love of many things.

And whatever your current status, be determined to pursue your own path.

'What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person - somebody who has no position in society and will never have. In short, the lowest of the low. All right, then - even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.'

 

'Now I understand
What you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now.’

Don McLean, 'Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)'


 

No. 239

Interesting v Important: How to Deceive Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone (left) as Sherlock Holmes, with Ida Lupino and Nigel Bruce c/o  The Arts Desk

Basil Rathbone (left) as Sherlock Holmes, with Ida Lupino and Nigel Bruce c/o The Arts Desk

‘My whole success depends upon a peculiarity of Holmes’ brain – its perpetual restlessness, its constant struggle to escape boredom.’
Professor Moriarty, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’

Of course, the definitive screen interpretation of Sherlock Holmes was provided by Basil Rathbone, who starred as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective in a series of fourteen films between 1939 and 1946.

Tall, thin, angular and aristocratic, with an aquiline nose, Rathbone was once described as 'two profiles pasted together.' For the role of Holmes he donned a tweed deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, smoked a calabash pipe and pursued a cold deductive logic.

Holmes was assisted by his trusty companion, Watson - brilliantly played by Nigel Bruce as a bumbling, pompous but well-meaning fool. Together they navigated perplexing puzzles, pedestrian policing, suspects with dubious motives and nefarious villains. It was a world of red herrings, MacGuffins, false endings and parallel intertwined plots.

1939’s ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ begins with Holmes’ arch-enemy Professor Moriarty escaping a court conviction. Moriarty, sharing a taxi back from the trial with a frustrated Holmes, vows to commit a sensational crime, and to discredit Holmes in the process.

'I'm going to break you, Holmes. I'm going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you'll never suspect it until it's too late. That will be the end of you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.' 

Subsequently we learn that Moriarty plans to distract Holmes from a really serious felony by setting him a more intricate and intriguing puzzle.

‘He’s like a spoiled child who picks watches to pieces, but loses interest in one toy as soon as he’s given another. So I’m presenting the ingenious but fickle Mr Holmes with two toys… I’ll give him a toy to delight his heart, so full of bizarre complications that he’ll forget all about the first toy.’

And so we embark on a plot that involves a damsel in distress, a chinchilla charm and a cryptic drawing of a man with an albatross round his neck. There’s also a club-footed criminal leaving marks in the ground and a murderous flute-playing gaucho on the prowl.

While Holmes concerns himself with solving this absorbing riddle, he disregards a routine request to protect the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.

This storyline resonated with me. Many’s the time in business that we find ourselves chasing the small but seductive, in preference to the boring but important. We readily tire of the familiar and frustrating aspects of incumbent accounts, the tedious day-to-day annoyances. We find ourselves instinctively drawn to the shiny and new, the challenging and thought provoking; to the prospect of developing fresh solutions and pioneering relationships. We channel time and resource into the thrilling pitch and the cool account, while leaving the big corporate Clients unloved and under-resourced. We prioritise the interesting ahead of the important.

220px-The_Adventures_of_Sherlock_Holmes_-_1939-_Poster.png

Of course, creative opportunities can translate into profile-building campaigns and successful brands. ‘Great oaks from mighty acorns grow.’ But there is a balance to be struck. Smart Agency leaders know how to direct the enthusiasms of their teams across a variety of tasks, satisfying their natural appetite for stimulation and provocation, while at the same time addressing the commercial imperative. Indeed the truest test of a great Agency is its ability to find creative and compelling solutions to big, intractable corporate problems.

‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ concludes with a victorious Holmes saying ‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’ It was the first use of a phrase that did not appear in Conan Doyle’s original canon of Holmes stories.

‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ was the second Rathbone-Bruce movie produced by 20th Century Fox, and more were planned. However, with the onset of the Second World War, the studio became concerned that dramas set in the Victorian era would be less relevant. Surely thrillers featuring foreign agents and spies would make for better box office. And so they determined to shelve any future Holmes pictures.

Universal Studios took a different view. They stepped in, negotiated the rights with the Conan Doyle Estate, signed contracts with Rathbone and Bruce, and updated the stories to contemporary settings. This enabled Sherlock Holmes to take on the Nazis and the studio to make twelve more films.

‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’


'My mind's distracted and diffused.
My thoughts are many miles away.
They lie with you when you're asleep,
And kiss you when you start your day.’

Simon & Garfunkel,'Kathy’s Song' (P Simon)

 

No. 238

 

 

Lee Krasner: Listening To Your Inner Rhythm

Lee Krasner,  The Eye is the First Circle is

Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circleis

‘I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.’
Lee Krasner

I recently attended an exhibition of the American abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner (‘Living Colour’ at the Barbican, London, until 1 September).

Krasner was born in Brooklyn in 1908 to Jewish parents from the Ukraine. There were no artists in her family, but at 14 she determined that she wanted to become a painter, applying to the only school in New York that offered an art major for girls. She went on to learn classical drawing techniques at the National Academy of Design and cubism at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.

Early in her career Krasner created murals for public buildings and during the war she designed collages for the windows of New York department stores. She became part of the vibrant New York art scene, hanging out with fellow abstract painters like de Kooning, Rothko, Newman and Still.

On meeting one of her heroes, Piet Mondrian, Krasner discovered he was a fellow jazz fan and took him dancing at a Greenwich Village nightclub. Mondrian was impressed by her work, saying it had ‘a very strong inner rhythm.’ This thought must have resonated with Krasner, as she subsequently spoke of her art in similar terms.

‘I never violate an inner rhythm. I loathe to force anything… I know it is essential for me. I listen to it and I stay with it. I have always been this way. I have regards for the inner voice.’

Krasner’s inner rhythm took her on an extraordinary creative journey.

Lee Krasner, ‘Desert Moon’

Lee Krasner, ‘Desert Moon’

In 1945 she married another talented artist on the New York scene, Jackson Pollack, and together they moved to a farmhouse in Springs, Long Island. She responded to the vibrant blossoms of her new surroundings by producing bright colourful abstractions, canvases and mosaics that teemed with life. She painted these ‘Little Images' in her small studio space in an upstairs bedroom. The constraint gave her work a compelling intensity.

When in the early ‘50s Krasner ran out of inspiration, she found herself ripping up the black-and-white drawings that were pinned to her studio walls. Returning a few weeks later, she decided that the torn debris looked interesting, and so embarked on a series of ‘collage paintings’ that incorporated the shredded drawings along with torn canvases and newspapers.

'I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.'

After Pollack died in a car accident in 1956, Krasner took over his larger studio in the barn at Springs. Scale produced a new freedom. Suffering from insomnia, she worked through the night, and as she was reluctant to use colour in unnatural light, she turned to raw and burnt umber. She created her ‘Night Journeys’ series, huge canvases, with fluid, swirling, mournful organic patterns, pulsing with emotion. 

In the early ‘60s Krasner welcomed colour back to her work, employing bright crimson, exuberant yellows, vivid blues and greens. Her ‘Primary Series’ was full of boundless energy, suggestive of exotic flowers and oriental calligraphy.

Krasner did indeed have a strong inner rhythm. She had a remarkable ability to respond to that rhythm with total commitment, following it wherever it took her. She endeavoured to merge the organic with the abstract, the material with the spiritual. She gave us pure emotion, unedited and unfiltered, dynamic and ever changing.

Lee Krasner shot by Irving Penn, Springs, New York, 1972. ©THE IRVING PENN FOUNDATION

Lee Krasner shot by Irving Penn, Springs, New York, 1972. ©THE IRVING PENN FOUNDATION

Krasner teaches us a number of lessons.

1. Follow Your Instincts

‘I insist on letting it go the way it’s going to go rather than forcing it.’

Looking at Krasner’s paintings and listening to her talk on film, we realise that so often in life we over-ride our natural, instinctive feelings. She made a conscious effort to follow her impulses, to go with the flow.

2. Get Stuck In 

‘You just take a deep breath and hope for the best and get into it. And sometimes it comes through miraculously.’

Krasner comes across as a practical person. We often hesitate because we have not entirely thought through an idea. She believed that if you get stuck in, your instincts will take over. 

3. Embrace Change

‘I have never been able to understand the artist whose image never changes.’

Many artists seem to be in search of a consistent approach or signature style. Krasner actively embraced change, as a fundamental part of her identity. If she felt she was stuck in a rut, she would change the medium she was working in, change the context, change the materials.

‘I think every once in a while I feel the need to break my medium... If I have been doing a very large painting, I like to drop into something in small scale. It is a challenge to go into this size. It is just to hold my own interest, and then each media has its own conditions.’

4. Revisit Your Past

‘I am never free of the past. I believe in continuity.’

Having cannibalised her past in order to revitalise her present once in the mid-‘50s, Krasner did it again in the mid-‘70s. Coming across an old portfolio of her drawings from the Hofmann School, this time she set about cutting not tearing, arranging the angular shapes into dynamic patterns on the canvas, creating images that explode with shards of electricity.

Most artists would claim never to look back. Others preserve their past with reverence. Krasner demonstrated that your creative history can be a source of fresh inspiration.

‘This seems to be a work process of mine. I’m constantly going back to something I did earlier, remaking it, doing something else with it, and coming forth with another more clarified image possibly.’

5. Be Resilient

‘This student is always a bother… insists upon having own way, despite school rules.’
National Academy of Design Report Card

From an early age Krasner was strong willed and independent spirited. She had to be to navigate the sexism of the art world in her era. On one occasion her tutor Hans Hofmann, renowned for his harsh criticism, finally offered her a compliment:

'This is so good that you would not know it was done by a woman’. 

Krasner subsequently spent a lifetime fielding questions about her husband. In one interview she was asked: ‘What was Pollack working on during that period?’

‘I don’t know. I had my own problems.’

I left the Barbican admiring the artist as much as her art. Lee Krasner was certainly tough and serious minded. But she communicated a tremendous intimacy, opening a window to her soul. She didn’t receive the credit she was due in her day. It’s good to see the art establishment making amends.

‘Don’t tamper with that, don’t will it, don’t force it. Let it come through in its own terms.’

'Breathe to the rhythm,
Dance to the rhythm,
Work to the rhythm,
Live to the rhythm,
Love to the rhythm,
Slave to the rhythm.’

Grace Jones, ’Slave to the Rhythm’ (B Woolley/ S Darlow/ S Lipson /T Horn)

 

No. 237

‘Do It First, Do It Yourself, and Keep on Doing It’: A Leadership Lesson from Scarface

Scarface

Scarface

‘Anything he starts, we’ll finish.’
Tony ‘Scarface’ Camonte

The 1932 gangster classic ‘Scarface’ stars Paul Muni as Tony ‘Scarface’ Camonte.

Though poorly educated, Camonte is charismatic, industrious and dedicated. He works his way up through the ranks of the Chicago mob during the Prohibition era, extorting money from saloons and terrorizing bar owners. He has a passion for violence, success and power, ruthlessly pursuing his objectives with little regard for the law or human life. His progress is achieved by savage assaults, brutal murders, drive-by shootings and the liberal use of pineapple bombs.

Mid-way through the drama Camonte celebrates the arrival on his turf of the Tommy Gun, sometimes nicknamed ’the Chicago typewriter.’

'There's only one thing that gets orders and gives orders. And this is it… It's a typewriter. I'm gonna write my name all over this town with it, in big letters!’

Director Howard Hawks and scriptwriter Ben Hecht were clearly both fascinated and repelled by the amorality of the mob. Camonte is no two-dimensional villain. He has charm and style. He commands loyalty from his colleagues and is protective of his family. With growing success, he develops a taste for fine living and takes a shine to his employer’s girlfriend, Poppy. She, however, is initially sceptical of both his advances and his expensive tailoring.

Poppy: 'Kind of gaudy, isn't it?'
Tony Camonte: 'Ain't it though? Glad you like it.’

For all his obvious shortcomings, I was quite struck by Camonte’s personal business mantra:

'Listen, Little Boy, in this business there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.'

Camonte is a driven man. His gangster bosses, with time and achievement, get complacent and comfortable, and set limits to their ambition. But, regardless of his wealth and accomplishments, Camonte stays actively involved in the brutality and bloodshed. He maintains an insatiable appetite for more. 

We’re all nowadays familiar with the commercial imperative of speed and agility; with the contemporary benefits of first mover advantage. But how committed are we to the concept of sustaining direct personal involvement as we progress through the ranks? How much do we subscribe to Camonte’s dictum to ‘do it yourself and keep on doing it’?

In my own experience people often see promotion as a licence to take their foot off the gas, to step back and empower. They have earned the right to withdraw from the front line; to marshal resources from 50,000 feet; to develop long-term plans and strategic visions; to mentor and train. They regard leadership as a hands-off task.

Of course, we need our most senior and experienced minds to be thinking about the future. And a primary responsibility of leadership is to equip teams with capabilities and confidence so that that they can do the job themselves. But at the same time, if you want to retain a cutting edge, to stay abreast of change, to remain relevant, you have to sustain active involvement with Clients, consumers, brands and business. However tempting it is to coach from the sidelines, you have to stay match-fit.

I once approached my boss Simon Sherwood with a proposal to take a broader, more strategic role in the Agency. I’d had my fill of troublesome Clients and tiresome pitches. I wanted to apply myself to more cerebral activity.

Simon, sitting at a desk that was empty but for a small stack of yachting magazines, leaned back in his Eames aluminium chair and regarded me with cool-eyed detachment:

‘Always remember, Jim, if you’re not facing income, you’re entirely expendable.’

I gave up on my proposal and returned to my desk.

 

'Can't fight corruption with con tricks.
They use the law to commit crime.
And I dread to think what the future will bring
When we're living in gangster time.
Don't call me Scarface.’

The Specials, ‘Gangsters' (Crispin Macmichael Sandys Hunt)

 

No. 236

 

 

‘The Idea and Taste Machine’: Inside the Mind of Stanley Kubrick

‘The Shining’

‘The Shining’

'If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.’
Stanley Kubrick

I recently attended an exhibition about the work of film director, Stanley Kubrick (The Design Museum, London, until 15 September 2019).

Born in 1928 to a Jewish family, Kubrick was raised in the Bronx, New York. His father was a doctor. He loved reading, playing chess, listening to jazz and watching the New York Yankees. He was intelligent, introverted, quiet and shy. He skipped school to see movies and achieved only moderate grades.

At the age of 13 Kubrick's father bought him a camera. He took to roaming the streets in search of interesting subjects and briefly attended evening classes. In 1946 he got a job as a photographer for Look magazine, and by the early 1950s he was making short films on modest budgets.

In 1956 Kubrick made his first major Hollywood movie, the classic film noir, ‘The Killing.’ He went on to direct a definitive anti-war movie, 'Paths of Glory.’ He shot the sword-and-sandals blockbuster, ‘Spartacus’. He addressed issues of sex and violence in 'Lolita' and 'A Clockwork Orange.’ And with 'Dr. Strangelove’ he found comedy in the threat of nuclear apocalypse. 

Kubrick was enormously versatile, leaping comfortably from one genre to the next. He created a seminal science fiction movie, '2001: A Space Odyssey'; a classic horror film, 'The Shining'; a definitive Vietnam War picture, 'Full Metal Jacket.' And he set new standards for aesthetic naturalism in the historical drama, 'Barry Lyndon.' 

'He is incapable of repeating a subject, as it would mean repeating himself.’
Film critic Alexander Walker (1971)

2001: A    Space    Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

At the exhibition we get a glimpse inside the mind of Kubrick. Through his lenses, cameras and dollies, his Steenbeck 6-plate 35mm editing table, we can appreciate his fascination with technology. Through his card index, numbered shooting schedules and exhaustive location shots, we understand he was a perfectionist with an eye for detail. Through his memoranda, letters and production notes, we comprehend his insistence on complete creative control. We see his scribbles, sketches and scripts, his props, faxes and call sheets. Everything is highlighted, annotated, underlined and colour coded. 

There’s a piece of writing paper that he was testing. At the top he has typed: ‘This is how it types.’ Below that in red script he has written: 'This is how it takes ink.'

Let’s consider the lessons that Kubrick suggests for people working in the creative industry.

1. Be inspired

Kubrick was well versed in the grammar of film and he read extensively for inspiration. He preferred to adapt a book rather than write an original screenplay.

There seems to be a theme running through his work: a concern with dehumanization, the struggle of the individual against the system – the state, the empire, the military machine; technology, convention and the evil within us all. 

'When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.'
Anthony Burgess, ‘A Clockwork Orange’

There are also strong consistencies of style: symmetrical compositions and one-point perspectives, extreme close-ups of distraught faces, voice-over narratives and pivotal bathroom scenes.

This is a film-maker with a strong vision of what he wants to create. And yet Kubrick was reluctant to decode his work and preferred that it should speak for itself. 

'There's something in the human personality which resents things that are clear, and conversely, something which is attracted to puzzles, enigmas, and allegories.’

2. Be prepared

When Kubrick was 12, his father taught him chess. He played the game on set with his actors, and it featured in many of his films. 

'You sit at the [chess] board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it's really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.’ 

Script, soundtrack and set design; cast, costume and cameras. Everything Kubrick did was planned meticulously, plotted fastidiously. He calculated many moves in advance. 

After he had decamped to England in 1969 Kubrick was unwilling to travel. So for ‘Full Metal Jacket’, he transformed Beckton Gas Works in London into the Vietnamese city of Huế, using 200 living palm trees flown in from Spain and 100,000 plastic tropical plants from Hong Kong. 

3. Be equipped

Kubrick was always alert to the possibilities afforded by new technology.

For ‘2001’ he employed a Slitscan machine to create a psychedelic flow of colours. He commissioned a groundbreaking gravitation drum, a 12m-high wheel that created the impression of weightlessness. It took six months to build and cost more than £580,000.

For ‘Barry Lyndon’ Kubrick was determined to capture the atmosphere of eighteenth century paintings, and so for many of the indoor scenes he eschewed artificial light. He shot with triple wicked candles and employed a Zeiss f0.17 highspeed lens that had only recently been developed for NASA.

In ‘The Shining’ Kubrick used the newly invented Garrett Brown Steadicam to glide through the halls of the Overlook Hotel as if on ‘a magic carpet.’

4. Be in control

'One man writes a novel. One man writes a symphony. It is essential that one man make a film.’

Kubrick was frustrated by his experiences on the 1960 movie ‘Spartacus’ when he didn’t have full creative control. He had rows with the studio, his lead actor and the chief cinematographer. He vowed never to compromise again. 

More than any other modern film-maker Kubrick wrote, directed and edited his own material.

'Nothing is cut without me. I'm in there every second, and for all practical purposes I cut my own film. I mark every frame, select each segment, and have everything done exactly the way I want it.’

5. Collaborate

Despite his obsessive commitment to control, Kubrick worked with people he admired that could bring something unique to his films.

On the screenplay for ‘2001’ he collaborated with science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke. Architect Arne Jacobsen designed the cutlery. Hardy Amies created the costumes.

He also worked extensively with costume designer Milena Canonero. He commissioned set designer Ken Adam to create Dr Strangelove’s War Room. And graphic artist Philip Castle designed the posters for 'A Clockwork Orange’ and 'Full Metal Jacket.’

And yet Kubrick’s tendency to micro-manage could extend to his collaborations. It is estimated that the legendary Saul Bass had to show Kubrick 300 different versions of the poster for ‘The Shining’ before the director was satisfied. 

6. Manage the mood

Kubrick didn’t regard music as a secondary or supportive element of film-making. For him it was a critical part of communication. 

‘Music is one of the most effective ways of preparing an audience and reinforcing points that you wish to impose. The correct use of music, and this includes the non-use of music, is one of the great weapons that the filmmaker has at his disposal.’

And so Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ played over a ninety-second montage of nuclear explosions at the end of Dr. Strangelove. Strauss waltzes accompanied the docking sequence in ‘2001.’ And Wendy Carlos’ version of the thirteenth century Latin hymn ‘Dies Irae’ introduced us to ‘The Shining.’

On set Kubrick listened constantly to music until he discovered something he felt was right. For the duel scene in 'Barry Lyndon’ he sampled every available recording of seventeenth and eighteenth century compositions before he arrived at Handel’s Sarabande.

7. Edit ruthlessly

Kubrick reportedly exposed 1.3 million feet of film while shooting ‘The Shining’, the release print of which runs for 142 minutes. Thus his shooting ratio was over 100:1 when a ratio of 5 or 10:1 is considered the norm.

This didn’t trouble Kubrick. Indeed he regarded editing as absolutely critical to his creative process.

'When I'm editing, I'm only concerned with the questions of 'Is it good or bad?' 'Is it necessary?' 'Can I get rid of it ?' 'Does it work ?' I am never concerned with how much difficulty there was to shoot something, how much it cost, and so forth. I'm never troubled losing material. I cut everything to the bone. When you're shooting, you want to make sure you don't miss anything and you cover it as fully as time and budget allow. When you're editing, you want to get rid of everything that isn't essential.’

8. Leave space for magic

Kubrick was notorious for demanding multiple takes, often shooting up to fifty for any one scene. Shelley Duvall was asked to perform the baseball bat sequence in ‘The Shining’ 127 times. 

On the one hand this may be because he had a very precise idea of what he wanted. But it may also be because he was waiting for the indefinable magic of film.

‘You cannot go very far without the magic. Great performances come from the magical talent of the actor plus the ideas of the director.’

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Of course, Kubrick was a flawed genius. Sometimes his films seem somewhat emotionally cold. It’s hard to watch ‘Lolita’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ now. And I’m not sure there was ever a good time to see ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ 

Kubrick could also fall victim of his own fastidiousness. He spent years planning a film about Napoleon, accumulating 25,000 index cards, 18,000 photographs and countless books. But the studio was spooked by the failure at the box office of another Napoleon movie, and the project never came to fruition.

Nonetheless I left the Kubrick exhibition with a strong sense of what it takes to be a truly great director: the vision and passion; the research, plans and preparation; the robust sense of self and the enduring commitment to maintain authorial control.

Indeed Kubrick gave us a compelling definition of the role of a director in any creative enterprise:

‘A director is a kind of idea and taste machine; a movie is a series of creative and technical decisions; and it’s the director’s job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible.'

No. 235