Monthly Archives: November 2010

Architects of Troubled Sleep: A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, by Owen Hatherley (2010)

by Chris Randle

Until now, Canada was spared from the worst consequences of global economic chaos; the elimination of our federal deficit in the 1990s is being touted as a model for other budget-gutters. But similar medicine awaits us too. And that raises an overlooked question: What will happen to urban architecture when “austerity” becomes involuntary?

Few polemics come recommended by both the Daily Worker and the Daily Telegraph, but Owen Hatherley’s Guide is about Britain’s built environment, and perhaps that least abstract of media allows for wider common ground. When Tony Blair won a landslide there in 1997 after two decades of Tory misrule, he asked the delirious nation: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” His vacillation would prove telling. Blair deluded himself into believing that an advanced economy could thrive on property, finance, tourism and the “creative industries” alone, all entwined in a blurry loop of speculative greed.

Before the economic crash ended that particular fantasy, Blair and Gordon Brown promised to regenerate the cities devastated by Thatcherism. Dilapidated housing blocks or post-war concrete landmarks were razed and replaced by privately financed edifices, flashy but often built on the cheap, typically containing many more luxury apartments and many fewer spaces for the poor. Back in power and fixated on slashing spending, the Tories have no money left to alter this landscape; they want to finally cleanse the proles from inner cities instead. The “pseudomodernist Blairboxes” that Hatherley documents are the visible legacy of New Labour’s Third Way, and his architectural critique doubles as a savage, despairing political verdict.

Hatherley was born in Southampton, and the book begins there too. The city became Britain’s major passenger port in the early twentieth century, but unlike its predecessor Liverpool, there was little civic identity to draw on when the human visitors drained off to Heathrow. Surveying this blankness, the author writes: “I used to be annoyed by the way that whenever my home town was mentioned in a work of art – from Lennon’s ‘Ballad of John and Yoko’ to Wyndham Lewis’ travelogue Snooty Baronet – they never said anything about the town itself. It was only as a place to pass through.” For one famous ship that passage was terminal, so the city council is building a new Titanic Museum. Most of its doomed crewmen were local slum-dwellers whose families never got a penny of compensation.

Park Hill council estate, Sheffield, England

The relatively prosperous south isn’t Hatherley’s focus, or his true object of affection. Only one of the eleven travelogues happens in London. It’s dwarfed by his “unrequited love letters” to the former industrial cities of northern England, places where Old Labour socialists made ambitious and impassioned plans for a New Jerusalem. That trail of detritus leads to such remarkable buildings as Sheffield’s Park Hill, a huge council estate (British for public housing project) whose communal “streets in the sky” were meant to check modernism’s alienating dark side. The Human-League-quoting property developer Urban Splash is turning it into mixed-use flats. One of their employees proudly tells Hatherley what a longtime resident said: “People think we live in a slum. They don’t realize that I live in a penthouse looking out over the city.” But he can’t recall where the council has moved her now.

More dispiriting still is the chapter on Newcastle. It’s the largest city in Northumbria, or northeast England. My dad is from the next town over; his childhood home was built by the great Aneurin Bevan’s Housing Ministry. Bevan’s local counterpart T. Dan Smith, an ex-communist miner’s son, took control of the Newcastle Labour Party and then Newcastle City Council in 1958, on a platform of “massive rehousing programs.” He tragicomically declared that his town would become a “Brasilia of the North.” Smith didn’t fail half-heartedly. Hatherley notes that he almost got Le Corbusier to design the master’s only British building, and gave Newcastle the first planning department of any English council. Much of Tyneside’s physical shape today is his doing. The problem was that Smith couldn’t realize these grand dreams with the budgets and architects at hand, let alone his visionary scheme to reorganize political power in Britain and end the absurd dominance of men in ermine.

The other problem is that Smith served a six-year prison sentence for corruption. After leaving politics for private business in the late 1960s he founded a company run by the crooked architect John Paulson, later fictionalized as a capitalist monster in David Peace’s Red Riding series. Paulson’s eventual downfall ensnared Smith as well, and Hatherley makes a virtuosic attempt to reconcile the early idealism with the unconvincingly justified business links. He concludes that “T. Dan Smith appears here as the ultimate political curate’s egg: fascinating and charismatic, creator of an impressive but often despised landscape…a corrupt mandarin who intended to create a decentralized socialist Britain.” It almost sounds logical that way, though equally depressing. You could call the human contradiction of utopian socialist/dodgy accounts-fiddler a classic Northumbrian type. I’ve met a few of them.

I’m much less conflicted about A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain itself. Hatherley can get verbose – he has a weakness for double adverbs – and the production values are, well, about what you’d expect from a fiercely independent lefty publisher. But his self-deprecating wit and incongruous pop-music subplot make up for any number of small, crap photo illustrations. I just wish the residents of these places were more visible here. In a recent interview, Hatherley mentions the TV show Demolition, which features Prince Charles-damaged citizens voting on the evil modernist eyesores they want to annihilate forever. He notes that one of their punching bags, the elderly brutalist architect Owen Luder, actually turned up for argument’s sake and managed to sway several panelists. Why not make such a dialogue (or dialectic) part of his own project?

If there’s any hope to be found in Hatherley’s bleak denouement, it might be the possibility of rage giving way to greater political engagement – not just with the inane noise of horserace coverage, and not only with those who love your own monuments. That seems especially urgent in Canada right now, where our own city-loathing Tory government is preparing another austerity budget. Toronto’s new mayor is a conservative defined by his robotic repetition of talking points and his desire to run municipal government like a Kinko’s outlet. He needs to be resisted. But after finishing Hatherley’s book, I felt ashamed by how little I know about the people who influence this city’s architecture – or the lower-class suburbanites who decided to shift its politics rightward. You can always vote out a Rob Ford, after all. How do we get rid of Richard Florida?

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Filed under books, chris randle, other

Little Boxes #24

(from Nipper, by Doug Wright, 1963/1964)

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Tea With Chris: The Dance of the Junk

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: My pot overfloweth with Tea this week, a sign that I was frequently distracted and losing track of time. (For one thing, I have a double-toothache.) My post last week was several days late and this week’s a day-plus late. So I had to read this article by Annalee Newitz that explains, in neurological terms, how you know what time it is. Unfortunately her two-fold answer for the pathologically tardy seems pretty obvious: Stop being so distracted. And wear a watch. (Do you find a phone won’t do? I’m coming to that conclusion.) But she has an interesting time getting there.

From another blogger on that distracting website, io9, there’s further temporally themed (and, warning, highly “spoiler”-ish) word of the upcoming new film from Andrew Niccol, my (and apparently their) favourite director of middle-brow dystopias, such as The Truman Show and Gattaca. It’s great enough that Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried are starring together. But this also comes with a typical Niccolian one-stop-zeitgeist metaphor – in this case, a future world where time literally is money: Being rich means being almost immortal, being poor means you’re going to die tomorrow, unless you find a way to scrounge some more time. “The cops are called Timekeepers because they keep people from stealing time.” Of course this is an allegory about wealth gaps, a neat bit of anti-life-extension polemic and a parable about “living for today” and such. Plus, opportunity for sexytimes. Or could be, if it doesn’t turn out to be a total timesuck.

The best thing I read this week, though, has to be this post by Tavia Nyong’o, a (quoth Wikipedia) “Kenyan-American cultural critic, historian and performance studies scholar” whom I know through the EMP Pop Conference. (By the way, congratulations to Chris and me, among other friends, for having our proposals for the 2011 Pop Conf in L.A. accepted this week.) Tavia takes two unpromising, too-talked-about subjects of the week, Kanye West and “don’t touch my junk” fever (in which, as one editorial cartoon I saw pointed out, people who dismissed waterboarding as “not much more than a frat prank” are responding to security patdowns by crying rape). And then he synthesizes them via Jacques Lacan’s “discourse of the hysteric” into a complex consideration of the dance of authority, resistance and paranoia in contemporary American culture. Forget the intellectual chops that takes, and appreciate the effort to make them useful to everybody else – while never missing where the funny is.

By comparison this last bag of tea is an indulgence, a cup too far, but two young women in Toronto who are Halbwahrerfreunde of mine just launched a new web magazine of sumptuous pictures of their own friends creating beautiful things, or just being beautiful, and that’s a beautiful way to waste some precious time.

Chris: Sheila Fitzpatrick, a highlight of my university’s Soviet Cultural History course, wrote this London Review of Books essay describing her experiences as a young researcher in 1960s Moscow. (Europe’s endemic spy-paranoia back then makes one wonder how much of Harry Mathews’ ludicrous non-memoir My Life in CIA was actually made up.) She befriends an irreverent Jewish Bolshevik named Igor who somehow managed to outlive Stalin: “The best option in time of purges, according to Igor, was simply to vanish without telling anyone where you were going, like the friend who went south, got himself arrested for stealing chickens and sat out the Great Purges safely in jail. But Igor himself had sat them out in Moscow, keeping his head down. It was a great relief when the Second World War came and he could volunteer for active service, hoping (as I gathered) to be killed.” Fitzpatrick’s article includes a vintage photo of them. She looks girlish, chic, excited about everything; he seems to be bemused by the fact that he’s still alive.

Confidential to Kat: “My morning began with the fascinating story of Kurt, a forgotten Nazi weather station installed on the coast of Labrador during World War II that was only rediscovered in 1981.”

Margaux: I just read this article “The Countertraffickers” by William Finnegan that looks at the people who fight for those tricked or captured and sold as slaves – a more gentle entry into this topic than normal. The article mentions the movie Lilya-4-Ever. Lilya-4-Ever, based on a true story, is just as good as the article but it has less information and is more painful.

On this Wikipedia page, you can see a world map of the countries around the world who comply with the “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children” guidelines established by the UN in 2000 and those who don’t.

Not sure what to do now. Micro-credit loans for Christmas presents?

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Friday Pictures – Karen Kilimnik

 

Karen Kilimnik / Me Getting Ready to Go Out to a Rock Concert with Bernadette in Moscow in 1977 (1997)

 

Karen Kilimnik / Natalya Tatiana Petrovskia

 

Karen Kilimnik / Planning the Attack of Malta, the Mastermind

 

Karen Kilimnik /  Friends in the Woods

 

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Defenestration the Movie, by Everything Is Terrible (2010)

by Carl Wilson

Action-movie trailers slam together a film’s most explosive eruptions of sound and vision to promise that the actual blockbuster will deliver an escalating sequence of adrenaline jolts and leave the viewer exhilarated and spent at the end of the orgy. A film, of course, seldom fulfills that exactly. If it’s a good one, it deliberately defers into suspense and expectation, like a good lover, to heighten the release when it comes – and also forge attachment to the characters, raise plot stakes and other Robert McKee “Story” steez, so the kaboom affects feelings, not just feeling.

But what would it be like if movies really were like their trailers? One hint lies in this extended montage of window-smashing movie moments by a member of the U.S. collective Everything Is Terrible, one of many groups that continue the found-footage tradition begun in the pre-digital decades by the likes of Bruce Conner and other 16-mm pioneers. EiT generally mines gems of VHS trash from garage sales and junk shops to spotlight awkward and incongruous moments in cable-access, educational films, direct-to-video films and the like. But here they’re drawing on big successful Hollywood films (thus Defenestration: The Movie‘s absence from the group’s YouTube channel).

The auteur teases that he’s got a 30-minute version he hasn’t posted, which I would happily pay for, but the seven-minute-plus version is a start. It’s the most relaxing film I have seen in a long time, more and more with every viewing. I don’t know if a sequence of hundreds of shootings or bomb blasts would have the same effect, but it doesn’t take long for the illusion that someone is being thrown or jumping out (or into) an actual window to dissolve, supplanted by a sense of watching a little magic trick being done by scores of different magicians.

The “glass” is usually, as many movie fans know, just boiled and (temporarily) hardened glucose known as sugar glass or candy glass. More recently it’s probably computer generated, which is less fun. In either case after repeated exposure it no longer looks sharp and dangerous but sweetly flimsy, its jagged points more like tinsel icicles on a Christmas tree. Each broken pane becomes a nostalgic reminder of the shards a few clips ago. You begin to hear the limited range of crashing sounds in Hollywood’s collective audio library, so that there’s a minimalist-score rhythm of repetition and variation. The actors’ bodies, detached from story or celebrity, are just floppy-doll projectiles, secondary in importance to the glass they shatter.

The one time somebody, as you sensibly would in real life, uses a heavy object to break the window rather than hurling themselves through, it seems like a clumsy breach of the rules of broken-glass aerial ballet: What’s the matter, you never learned fourth position?

But beyond its tinkling, tumbling aesthetic quality, there’s an additional draw about Defenestration: The Movie for me: I once threw myself through an actual pane of glass.

I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, and my family was visiting friends who must have lived somewhere near Niagara Falls, Ont. (because I know that what happened made me miss a much-anticipated trip to Marineland). I no longer know who this family was, but one sunny summer afternoon I was playing some sort of chasing game with their kids (I remember a daughter about my age). A not-especially-swift runner, I was lagging behind when one of them ran in the back kitchen door. I saw that the window in the door was raised, and thought I could shave seconds off my time and cinch the tag by diving through it. I did not take much time to consider the wisdom of this.

The door was just very clean, it explained with a crash. There was blood in gushers.

I was gathered up in anxious arms and barreled off to the hospital, and had the rest of the weekend to contemplate the stitches in my arm and a few different places in my head, wrapped in gauze, drinking Koolaid and reading comic books, while the other kids went on their summer field trips.

I still have the scars, though since I turned 30 the one I was proud of, the mark of identity on my forearm, has sadly faded to a phantom of the angry and insistent thing it was in my teen years, when I rather hoped strangers would misinterpret it as an unspoken signal of some kind of a dark and violent past. (Which had a certain psychological truth, though not a literal one; it wasn’t only posturing.)

Aside from minor car crashes and unpleasant but not-so-dramatic physical assaults, that glass-door-dive is probably the closest experience I’ve had of movie-style violence. And I wonder if this is what makes Defenestration especially soothing. If there is something to the Freudian idea that we are drawn to repeat our traumas, literally or symbolically, then this movie is custom-made therapy for me.

Though I no longer remember the pain or distress that must have been involved, and have only a cinematic recollection of it myself, there’s probably a trace in my subconscious. Or at least some level on which I feel, through the medium of my visible scar, that the sound and sight of glass breaking is an element of what’s made me myself. That stitching sutured an element of the story-of-Carl to my body. (In Jane Siberry’s song “Hockey”: “He’ll have that scar on his chin forever/ Someday his girlfriend will say, ‘Hey, where …?’/ And he might look out the window – or not.”)

And perhaps Defenestration also works as a kind of exposure therapy, the way that if you have fear of heights (as I more certainly do) they say the best thing is to go higher than you feel comfortable over and over, and then a little more. Although it’s also the increasing unreality, the dissipation of what little threat a through-the-window movie scene carries into ritual and trope, that’s so easing and ultimately meditative about it.

I’m sure for more profound traumas there’d be no equivalent effect. Although a montage of the Bush years looped over and over might be nice. To get to see the Terrible turn to farce and then to poetry, and then to complete abstraction, to light and form and Foley music – that’s a grace that might only be found out past the policed boundaries of Story.

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The September Issue (2009) – Starring Anna Wintour, Directed by R.J. Cutler

by Margaux Williamson

(This always looked pretty compelling on the video store shelf but was always out when I would think to pick it up. The day it was in, it looked a little less compelling. I remembered, once I had it in my hand, that I had not had such luck with movies about fashion. But it still looked compelling enough.)


The September Issue is a documentary about the all-powerful and greatly feared editor of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour. Anna Wintour is credited with creating a “fashion bible” through Vogue, jump-starting the careers of young designers, centralizing the power of the fashion industry in a circle around her, striking fear into the hearts of subordinates, reigniting the fur industry, and ending grunge.

The movie covers the creation, which Anna Wintour oversees, of the 2007 September issue of Vogue – the bible part. Here, Anna Wintour is a woman who loathes small talk, is self-aware of the relation fashion has to the rest of the world, works incredibly hard, tries to not get mad when others don’t work as hard, uses words more than facial expressions to communicate, is incapable of following her grown child’s every move without adoring and irrepressible love in her eyes, reacts to things she dislikes with silence and reacts to things she likes with genuine praise. She is not primarily negative and she is not a trash-talker.

When I was watching this, I couldn’t remember if this is what our culture thinks a bitch is or if this is a very generous portrait of a woman and an industry.

Sure, you feel for the people who quiver in her uncomforting presence, but you also hope for a bit more integrity of character. If fashion really is an intersection between art and commerce, we think mostly of the commerce part in these moments. We also see that Anna Wintour does believe (or hopes) that fashion is meaningful and that art is involved. Her relief is obvious when people around her seem more preoccupied with the art than with winning her favour for obvious and easy reward. Her relief is most notable here in relation to Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director. The working relationship between these two women forms the poetic spine of the movie.

Anna Wintour’s immensity of character was the subject of another movie – fictionalized in The Devil Wears Prada, a movie based on a book of the same name that was written by one of her former assistants.

For The September Issue, the man allowed in to document the real Anna Wintour is named R.J. Cutler. R.J. Cutler’s production company is called “Actual Reality Pictures” (quite a tall claim in these early 21st century times, but anyway). Based on the production company’s name, and the other projects listed on their website, it appears as though R.J. Cutler is a man who thinks that reality TV is not real and that he is the man who will make it real. Though this just means his is a old-school documentary filmmaker whose weakness will be in forgetting his own subjectivity and impact on his subject (or his subject’s impact on him).

All in all, not a bad fit for a real person who was referred to fictionally as “The Devil” right there in the title of a Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep. How much worse could it be in an old-school documentary? Not worse, though also not great. And clearly Anna Wintour is a subject worthy of something monumental.

If I was Anna Wintour, I too might have invited R.J. Cutler of “Actual Reality Pictures” to take my picture after I was fictionalized as “The Devil”. Had “The Devil” not happened, maybe someone from the production company “Not So Much Actual Reality But Still Kind Of Reality and Killer for Deeper Truth About Humans” would have gained access and made a complicated mountain out of this mountain of a subject. Though there is still time.

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Filed under margaux williamson, movies

Little Boxes #23

(from The Invisibles Vol. 3 #1, script by Grant Morrison and art by Frank Quitely, 2000)

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Filed under chris randle, comics