Knock2Bag comedy night @ Bar FM review

One of the pleasant surprises about moving to London has been the discovery of the abundant comedy shows where a number of up-and-coming and more established acts share a bill at a cosy venue, all for a price which seems disproportionate with the ballooning London economy. As well as the Up the Creek comedy club in Greenwich (as good excuse as any to release your inner child by pretending to drive the DLR train) there is the Knock2Bag comedy night, which alternates between being hosted at Rich Mix, just off Shoreditch High Street, and Bar FM in Shepherd’s Bush, where I received my initiation into this surprisingly economical comedy underworld.

Two hours before I was due to go the gig, an email flashed in my inbox informing me that two of the performers (Tony Law and Brian Gittins) had pulled out. It was therefore with a sense of reservation that I sat down for the opening act, Pete Johansson, not least because his resemblance to the other ruggedly bearded Canadian comedian  who was initially scheduled for that evening seemed dredged from the deepest trench of the uncanny valley. Even with the help of a compere as supple and warm as Matthew Crosby, an opening slot is never easy, and this contributed to the slow start of Johansson’s routine, but he entered his stride with a routine about terrorist bees which began as a throwaway aside but then morphed into something with real depth. Nevertheless, as much as it is an easy and effective way of building a rapport with an audience, I feel that a comedian introducing themselves to an audience as being new to London and commenting on the fact that it’s weird and crowded and nice or rude is just too familiar, in part because it leads to vapid writing exercises like the one I am doing right now. I’d be interested to get other people’s views on this – I don’t feel that a comedian has to sympathise with me in order to make me laugh; I want to be surprised, intimidated, anything that I’m not expecting. Occasionally I find that working the audience based upon shared references makes the act feel like an extension of my life outside it, rather than a separate space entirely.

Still, the beauty of stand-up comedy is that laughs can be obtained from generating all sorts of artist-audience interaction, and the beauty of Knock2Bag is that each act had a different one at work. Next up on to the stage were Twins, a duo whose natural stage presence is in contrast to their internet presence.

Twins: Neatly shambolic. Image reproduced with their kind permission.

Twins: Neatly shambolic. Image reproduced with their kind permission.

It’s not their fault, but in researching them it struck me how the hegemony of search engines makes finding acts with a common name incredibly difficult. It’s therefore probably in the interests of Jack Barry and Annie McGrath to be at least as well-known as the diabolical Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

If Pete Johansson was a good example of trying to win over a room by using familiar reference points, then Twins were almost the complete opposite, not trying to communicate to the audience by demonstrating an understanding of their point of view but offering a performance with its own distinct characteristics and daring the audience to follow. It’s very brave to put on an act which relies on generating humour from an ostensibly shambolic performance – the audience of a trendy bar in West London will at least provide sympathy for an act who is perceived to be earnest, whereas an unsuccessful attempt at awkward humour can be seen as treating the audience with contempt if the hits don’t land. Luckily, this was not a problem for Twins. There is a touch of Mitch Hedberg about Jack Barry’s delivery; all nervy glances across the room, heavy breathing into the microphone and words that trail arhythmically out of his mouth. His partner Annie was a good foil, a more reserved outlet of dry humour. While a sketchier performance may be more of a risk, it generates increased reward as it means that in the absence of obvious set ups and punchlines, the very cadence and choice of words and movements in their own right become sources of laughs. Their material and method of presentation is strong, so they should be more confident within it; at some points during their gig they were too keen to apologise for their act and momentarily stepped out of character in order to be self-deprecating. Still, they are both young and I’m sure this will come naturally as they refine their act.

If the essence of comedy is surprise, then Twisted Loaf packed more than most into their set.

Twisted Loaf: Sit in the front row if you're brave. Image reproduced with kind permission of Knock2Bag.

Twisted Loaf: Sit in the front row if you’re brave. Image reproduced with kind permission of Knock2Bag.

Which was startling, because after 5 minutes I arrogantly thought that I knew roughly what to expect, after an extended stage entrance and a blast of Serge Gainsbourg. In equal parts comedy, burlesque, and mime, Libby Northedge (a sort of cross between Jessica Rabbit and Jennifer Saunders) and Nina Smith drew on an education in physical theatre to completely rip up the rule book that cocksure individuals like myself, used to watching one person (usually a man) talk on a stage, often at an extra step removed through the frame of a YouTube video. The invisible barrier of the stage counted for nothing in their gender-bending performance. A sudden lurch into something resembling sketch comedy came out of nowhere, which allowed Twisted Loaf to show off the skills picked up from an education in drama. As with Jack Barry before them, the minutiae of their stage movements and sounds were carefully honed to elicit the maximum laughter. Twisted Loaf’s style and their material in the sketches – which I will not mention here to attempt to preserve some of the impact of their show – is also the best riposte to the ridiculous myth that women aren’t funny. Twisted Loaf aren’t just funny, but they create laughs from rotating through a tableaux of completely vapid female stereotypes, providing belly laughs and knife-point cultural criticism at once.  They also offered fascinating comparison to Pete Johansson, as different as their acts are. Johansson’s act featured an analogy comparing bees to terrorists, and made some smart points while doing it. Twisted Loaf’s act leaves you laughing out of terror, because you have no idea what boundaries they will overstep next as the artists become more and more involved with the audience. Neither method is innately superior to the other, but the latter example shows how varied a response in stand-up comedy to a world gripped by terrorism can be.

Sam Simmons was doubly handicapped by being promoted to the headliner slot at the last minute and by following an act as mind-mashing as Twisted Loaf, but he handled it with aplomb. Looking like a hybrid of Tobias Funke and Earl Hickey,

Sam Simmons, knocking on the door of the canon of great moustaches. Image reproduced with kind permission of Knock2Bag.

Sam Simmons, knocking on the door of the canon of great moustaches. Image reproduced with kind permission of Knock2Bag.

Simmons introduced himself as the ‘Michael McIntyre of absurdism’, and made the stage feel about three feet square as he bounded across it and over it, having us eating out of his hands. A two-time nominee for the Fosters Comedy Award at Edinburgh, Simmons is a whirlwind of comic Antipodean energy, and is a testament to how originally observational comedy can be presented. Standing up and reciting a long list of funny things that happen at a supermarket might be amusing, but it has been done that way a thousand times. The way Simmons does it, backed by a thumping techno 4/4 (with immaculate synchronisation to pre-recorded bits) and interspersed with comments that are more akin to something like Paul Foot’s ‘disturbances’, you are always kept on your toes as to whether Simmons gives you something realistic or fantastical. Thinking about observational comedy as a concept, this is one of the most effective ways of doing it. In fairness, most observational humour relies upon taking up an aspect of life that is often overlooked and taking it into a flight of fancy in order to demonstrate how absurd that aspect may be. But it becomes difficult to sustain this through, say, a ten minute slot on a prime time arena comedy show, where the interaction with audience and performer is so limited – the comedy becomes part of life’s routine program. Moreover, when observations of life’s verisimilitude like sleeping positions are mixed with more surreal creations as they are in Simmons’ act, then the absurdity of life is stressed even further, because reality is shown to be just as strange as fiction.

I’m still quite confused at just how I managed to see so many top quality comics for such a low low price, but I’m not going to complain any time soon. If their December incarnation is any indication, then Knock2Bag is a stimulating diversion for a weekday evening, and deserving of your time. You’ll have to wait until 31st of January at Rich Mix for your next chance to go, but with craic-dealing songsmiths Abandoman and stalwart Simon Munnery heading the bill, it should be more than worth your while. Just don’t spend the change you get from a tenner all in one place.

Viviane Sassen: Analemma review (exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery)

Viviane Sassen: Analemma

Photographer’s Gallery, 18-18 Ramilles St, near Oxford Circus, London

Until 18th January

NOTE: Pictures were removed after the exhibition closed, as per the gallery’s request.

For this winter season, the Photographer’s Gallery in London is running two exhibitions of fashion photography in parallel, displaying selected works of Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and Viviane Sassen (1972-). Beyond their shared subject, what combines the two artists is an emphasis on movement. The spectre of the silver screen is never far away from Steichen’s gaze, as almost all of his models and portrait sitters loom with enormous Art Deco shadows, as if all have been captured through a film camera which freezes all of the great and the good in the middle of performance. The exhibition of Steichen’s works is interesting enough, but truly inspiring is the Analemma exhibition of Sassen’s work on the top floor, as the exhibition itself is in constant flux, so whereas Steichen’s sitters are framed pitch-perfectly as if on stage, Sassen’s models are movement personified. Steichen’s sitters tend to preside over their surroundings and illuminate them, whereas Sassen’s are inseparable from their background, interacting with it to create new shapes and volumes. This is brought to prominence through the looped soundtrack of Boards of Canada, one of many IDM acts who have used the disorienting freedom of sampling and synthesisers to create radical geometries (which will be the subject of an upcoming blog entry)

It is only a short step for Sassen’s works to go from embodying movement to become the embodiment of travel. On a purely pragmatic basis, this makes for very appealing magazine shoots; the excitement of discovering a new place, a new presentation of fashion is distilled into a momentum which points out of the page directly at the viewer. At times this invitation to enter an undiscovered and unknown world is reminiscent of De Chirico’s haunting Surrealist landscapes.

Giorgio De Chirico - Piazza D'Italia, 1913. Notice how the painting's use of line compels the reader into the scene, albeit with an accompanying sense of dread at what may be hidden in the shadows.

Giorgio De Chirico – Piazza D’Italia, 1913. Notice how the painting’s use of line compels the reader into the scene, albeit with an accompanying sense of dread at what may be hidden in the shadows.

De Chirico’s work is uncanny for its ability to conjure a world at once conjured from the imaginary liminal space between dream and nightmare while also invoking a specific geographical arena, namely the whitewashed walls and sunbaked streets of the Mediterranean. Sassen’s invitations to alternative worlds are no less direct, but held with a distant coolness, instead of quiet terror.

Travel is never just the anodyne setting of a scene for Sassen; the setting and the model are in symbiosis. The movement of the model is equivalent to the displacement the viewer undergoes by glimpsing one of her pictures from the comfort of, one supposes, a more refined urban locale. Sassen has often commented on the particular gravity she holds towards the African landscape in which she grew up, and this is another facet of the dynamism of her pictures; there is little sense of the experienced adult objectively viewing the landscape, but a more childlike enjoyment of the landscape on its own terms. The photographer is participant, rather than observer. It would be misleading to assume an Afrocentricism in all of Sassen’s works though, as the In Bloom pieces shown in this article are evocative of the lengthy tulip fields of the Netherlands, where Sassen has been based for most of her life.

Tulips in South Holland © Alessandro Vecchi/Wikipedia

Tulips in South Holland (C) Alessandro Vecchi/Wikipedia

Her convictions about Africa are undeniable, as its central place at most of her previous exhibitions attests. But her use of the flower motif shows that she can look wider for inspiration in the natural world than she is usually given credit for. The expansive colour palette Sassen employs also helps to highlight how absurd discrimination by skin colour truly is. With her use of colours as bold as the ones displayed in a piece like In Bloom, the human species and the natural world are cross-pollinated to celebrate the other’s chromatic breadth.

Sassen sweeps up the detritus and keeps it in her luggage in her journeys to far-flung places, and often puts it centre stage in her pictures, providing a curious contrast with her visual language which otherwise abstracts models to geometric entities. Her use of pipes and tubes, for example, has a colour lexicon of its own, but still raises uncomfortable connotations in driving home a point about globalisation. I found myself thinking this during the exhibition; several of her pictures could be improved by getting rid of the commonplace props, before realising that I’d fallen into Sassen’s trap. I was seduced by the expectation of a visually appealing aesthetic working in conjunction with kinetic models to the extent that I didn’t consider the causality at work. Movement leads to travel. Travel leads to globalisation. But globalisation leads to pollution, where the African continent is all too often the depositing ground for our waste. Sassen’s willingness to create alternative worlds is not pure escapism. This is drawn out by the artist’s self-described ‘love-hate’ relationship with fashion; the models on display are assembled for an ephemeral moment, and she knows it. Holding her models in parallel with waste and detritus depicts this symbolically, as the models are as disposable as the clothes they were and the detritus which surrounds them. That said, I don’t think that Sassen makes a closed book comment – she leaves it up to us whether the models are ‘degraded’ by their association with such materials, or whether their boldness in colour and form ensures they possess a mythic power.

One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition, and one which I am glad to be able to reproduce here, is the untitled piece from 2012, one of a handful in the exhibition taken from a single shoot on what appears to be a basketball-cum-tennis court.

The markings of the court ensure that it is the perfect interstice for the human body and geometry, as the contortions of the body are made plain through its interaction with the predictable markings of the sporting arena. The fluidity of the (female) form, so often constrained by fashion, is allowed to express itself as freely as the trees and plants which populate Sassen’s photos.

Rene Magritte – Son of Man, 1964

Sassen’s play with line and colour recalls her compatriot, the artist Piet Mondrian. As well as this, there is heritage from the Surrealists – on top of the aforementioned De Chirico, her (often frustrating) manipulations of props and perspective adopt a stylistic kinship with yet another artist from the Low Countries, Rene Magritte. Magritte’s paintings never give the viewer a safe moment; you have to always be on your guard to visual tricks, at other times you may confronted by an obstacle, the latter course being best embodied by the famous painting Son of Man. Enigma is the emotion associated with Magritte’s work above all others, but the symbolic legacy of the apple – namely the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden – should not be abandoned to the winds of mystery. The title, Son of Man, directly invokes the penitence that descendants of Adam have had to undergo following Original Sin. Sassen posits a gynocentric creation, one arising out of a mother Earth or Gaia, using natural props as part of a constant rebirth, rather than a symbol of our Fall from it. This gives extra significance to Sassen’s obsession with Africa, as it is the continent from which humanity emerged. Africa is her Eden, not corrupted by any mythic event but, if anything, through the Western gaze which does not know how to contemplate it. Facilitated by this gynocentric creation, the natural world intertwines with Sassen’s women, blooming from their genitalia

.

Kudos then, to Sassen for curating two decades of substantial material, and to the Photographer’s Gallery for exhibiting it in such a creative manner, and at such a pivotal moment. With each passing day it seems as if a tipping point is being reached whereby, through the medium of social media, blogs, and viral articles, patriarchal tables are being turned and women are asserting their sexual autonomy, ending what may hopefully be seen in the future as an embarrassing period of human history where men felt obliged to tell women exactly how their bodies should operate. As well as this, Sassen’s work is necessary viewing in the midst of an Ebola crisis where the Western world seems enamoured with a primitive view of Africa, not helped by the crustiness of Band Aid 30. This is an exhibition with a finger on the pulse and an eye scanning the horizon – see it while you still can. It’s open until the 18th of January.

All photos reproduced with kind permission of the Photographers’ Gallery

The Imitation Game review: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

‘The Imitation Game’ is a marvellous phrase which this film applies to many fields – cryptography, relationships, and what is considered normal interaction for human beings. But the title is most applicable in terms of its generic occupancy. I feel like I’m at a tipping point because before I sat down to watch The Imitation Game on Sunday evening, I’d already seen it dozens of times.

All of the requisite ingredients of the character-led drama are here: a protagonist on the margins of society who rebels against the system, a love interest, a Muse who helps him discover himself, and an antagonist who eventually accepts grudging respect. The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump…it’s a familiar story. When the protagonist is taking on a project of sorts (inevitable if they work in a scientific field), then you can expect the appropriate ‘sudden revelation’ scene where everything fits together, and it gets an obligatory airing here. The Imitation Game gives an even more specific example of such well-worn ideas in the ‘disastrous interview scene’, which observant viewers may recognise from Good Will Hunting. This leads to an inevitable conundrum. These tropes are used by Hollywood broadly in line with its political sympathies – standing up for the disenfranchised, but it becomes more and more difficult to warm to those themes when they are repeated so much and no longer hold any individuality or originality.

It feels even more galling in this instance, because there are moments where The Imitation Game points towards the film it could have been (though it may be editing/production which stifled it). The scenes where Hut 8 discuss the ethical implications of what happens when they break the code (spoiler alert) is truly powerful and thought-provoking. Indeed, the film explores ethics in general too much through the fulcrum of the awards season vehicle character-led drama. It often feels that its exploration is limited to what it reveals about the main character. The aforementioned scene feels too much like a tribute to Turning’s stern rationalism and ability to see beyond his peers, instead of a sustained exegesis of what on earth the morally correct thing is to do – the film wraps it up quite neatly in a bundle of relativistic twine.

I’m moving into the territory of talking about the film as I would have liked to have made it, rather than critiquing the vision of the director, but I truly think there are artistic gaps in this film that were ripe for developing. The protagonist is someone upon whose shoulders the world’s fate rests, making him an unusual companion to the superhero protagonists who have dominated Hollywood cinema in recent years.  Superhero comics are one of the foremost art forms at turning the marginalised in society into the stars of the show, but the ubiquity of their film adaptations in recent years has, unfortunately, injured that somewhat. In many ways it’s an overly exclusive position to take, but the sheer volume associated with those films (in viewers, sales, and number of films produced) means that as a blockbuster phenomenon, they have drifted somewhat from their ability to communicate the position of the outsider. As much as I don’t like The Imitation Game borrowing too much from genres and films which have preceded it, its subtle interaction with the superhero film gives back some of this power by focusing on a quiet man whose private life is deemed unnatural and punishable by the state.

As part of this hero’s responsibility, he has to become a master of a particular form of language, to understand communication better than anyone else. The irony is, of course, that as someone who is detached (whether by genius or something else) from ordinary human society, he finds it difficult to communicate with the people around him. This is addressed to some extent through the scene in which the code is finally cracked (and in the process giving an example of how ‘factionalisation’ can work in a film’s favour), as one of his colleagues reveals that the Germans slip up in their coding because they insert repeated personal messages. But the clue is not so much the message’s individuality but its predictability. If a German code operator repeats the name of his paramour enough times, does it remain love or does it become robotic? The other clues to the breaking – talking about the weather and saluting ‘Heil Hitler’ both show examples where human conversation has an ostensibly spontaneous impetus, but betrays something more systematic underneath. Alan’s domination of the film ensures that we always consider communication in terms of systems, and thus we are forced to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about it. It’s true that the film lays these clues out for us to consider, but so much of the dialogue in the film is about Alan discovering himself and being abused by the system, it isn’t really developed as an artistic whole. There is some attention paid to the social code of communication which Alan misses, but it’s a bit too cutesy, and usually diverted to Alan’s romantic life, or lack thereof. The film puts this at the centre of attention, when there is potential to make a real concerted artistic statement at the same time.

Something else is missed, another opportunity available with the central conceit: Turing was a man riddled by secrets. He could not reveal to anyone the extent of his wartime work, nor could he speak to anyone about his homosexuality. Keeping one secret was considered to be not just a legal obligation but an honourable practice, while the other was viewed with scorn. In the flashbacks for Sherborne school, for example, the note-passing is shown as a straightforward piece of character development. This is the recurrent problem with character-led drama, the overwhelming desire to sustain sympathy for the lead character and their relationships, to the extent that thought-provoking diversions, or adding an extra layer on top, are often missed. Or when Manchester’s finest are investigating him, any investigation into this binary of secrets is only done in order to provide the undercooked frame of Alan explaining his life, the things he has done beyond the comprehension of ordinary men, to a humble police officer from up ‘North. I wanted the film to explore the definition of secrecy a bit more, and the hypocrisy of being expected to preserve secrets on behalf of the very establishment that deemed his personal secret to be worthy of punishment.

One other area where I feel the film misses a trick is in making a comment about communication, and the interception thereof, in the immediate aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s monitoring program. The film is simply too ready to hold up the decoding of ENIGMA as a necessary and virtuous quest, central to the war effort, with little investigation beyond the moving scene where its statistical brutality is momentarily laid bare. The back and forth between English and German communications, constantly monitoring each other, is not mined for its potential psychological effects, it’s all really a bit of a joke. Of course, given that most of the messages are banal and mechanic as I mentioned earlier, it would be unfair to expect something akin to the vicariousness of surveillance in The Lives of Others. Nor is it my expectation that films have an obligation to make a political comment. But they do have a psychological impetus. The film is set at a pivotal moment, where widespread real-time covert engagement with human communication begins in earnest. The debate waiting to emerge from the shadows is whether a film like The Imitation Game should really try to be all of these things; whether it is too much to ask, whether it limits the enjoyment of the film, the ability to sympathise with Alan’s plight. I disagree. The film’s funnelling towards a character-driven drama, whenever it happened, left me cold. Some redemption in this regard is given by the character of Mingus, played with cruel, manipulative brilliance by Mark Strong, who steals every scene he is in. Under Strong’s influence, Mingus rises from simple antagonist (represented in the curmudgeonly establishment type by Charles Dance) to become a floating shadow, whose presence demonstrates to Turing that the house always wins. Turing by contrast is (and I hold this to be an inconsistency with the scripting rather than the acting) an unstable character, alternating between wisecracking oddball who won’t play ball, cripplingly shy wallflower, and misunderstood loner. It is as if the essences of many types of Hollywood anti-hero flow through him at once, but cancel each other out.

How do you make a subtle point about surveillance without being accused of making a cheap political shot by pretentious bloggers such as me? No doubt, it is a difficult balance to strike. But the solution I hypothesised was to conduct more of a post-mortem on exactly what Bletchley Park’s work laid the foundation of. It only had to consist of a sidelong quizzical glance, where the film momentarily cocks its head and asks ‘and how much do we think it’s necessary?’ The film’s makers put in all the steps until the final one, demonstrating how vital ENIGMA’s work was at its historical moment, but then backed away from the overhanging question, of whether a dividing line can ever be drawn between intelligence acting on the behalf of the public and the individual’s rights to privacy – given Alan’s own unique private life, it could have been very potent indeed.

But of course, most people are watching and talking about this film because it represents another step on the ladder to stardom ascended by Benedict Cumberbatch. I wasn’t as wowed by his performance as most commentators, but the role that he inhabits is a testament to how he is reshaping classical British acting. Roger Friedman’s review described him as a natural heir to Sir Laurence Olivier and this is right, but Cumberbatch has done some redesigning of the crown upon inheriting it. Olivier’s career was a sequence of stiff upper lip characters: Henry V, Hugh Dowding, Crassus – even Zeus – whereas Cumberbatch has taken the same English tradition and channelled it into portraying society’s freaks and oddballs, instilling them with a dignity that lifts them out of physical disability (Stephen Hawking), sociopathy (Sherlock) and the judgement of society as a whole (Alan Turing). Of course this reflects deeper lying changes in society, but it still needs someone to act it out. So long as he continues to be the best candidate to fulfil these roles, then he will be one of the most important actors working.