Each week I try (and often fail) to jot down a list of recommendations from the things that have made it onto my playlist. I use this term in its broadest possible sense to include film/DVD, music, podcasts, and video clips, as well as any books/photos/exhibitions/websites I enjoyed. If at all possible, I try to reflect any emerging themes which occur to me. This week’s selection reminded me that an act of destruction can have positive creative intent; the question is always whether it does any harm, what kind of transformation it brings about and to what extent it compromises your values as a person.
Film: Duck Soup (1933) For my birthday, a friend dared me to do something I wouldn’t normally do. I couldn’t think of anything that might fall into that category and still (crucially) allow me to maintain my dignity and marital status, so I settled on inviting two good friends over to watch a comedy. I know – radical! The thing is I normally end up having pretty high-minded discussions with these guys, so getting together for a laugh seemed extraordinary enough to qualify. I suppose opting for Duck Soup, a recognised classic, wasn’t as much of a stretch as say a gross out teen comedy would’ve been, but then the idea was to do something different rather than mete out punishment.
I’ve read about the Marx Bros and seen a few clips, but nothing could have prepared me for Duck Soup. It was like an adrenalin shot of pure chaos – but the astounding thing about it was how precisely choreographed chaos can be. The three hat and the mirror routines are perfect examples of this.
It’s hard to imagine a more brilliant illustration of satire’s power to undermine sources of power and authority than Duck Soup. They are absolutely beyond control in almost every scene – and perhaps no-one more so than the mute and mischievous Harpo. The havoc and hilarity he creates with a pair of scissors is truly a sight to behold. Perhaps it is because I loved Harpo so much that I found Groucho’s rapid fire put downs of others, especially Mrs. Teasdale, a bitter pill to swallow. Most of the time he’s just down right mean to her. Sure she’s subverted Freedonia’s constitutional (possibly democratic) process by installing a leader of her choosing and fancy in exchange for a fiscal bail-out. But even bond holders like Mrs Teasdale deserve a little kindness now and again. Dammit. Perhaps Groucho was right after all. Objection overruled. 😉
On a side note: my pleasure on seeing this Marx Brother gem was swiftly followed by a pang of disappointment that I would never get to see A Day at the United Nations: the film they planned to do with Billy Wilder and I.A. Diamond. Ever since reading about it, I can’t stop thinking about how magnificent Harpo’s final speech to the General Assembly would’ve been. At any rate, if anything, it’s taught me that if I am to write the two political satires I have planned, I am going to have to learn to loosen up, lose control and exaggerate.
Photography: Ponte City (2009) In case you didn’t know this, Granta Magazine is not just the best source of new fiction and documentary writing, it also features wonderful photo essays by some of the most exciting names in photography. As always, I’m making my through old issues, and this week I came across one such series in Granta 109, about one of Johannesburg’s most notorious and iconic buildings: the 54 storey tower block known as Ponte City.
The story behind the project is as interesting as the images themselves. Like many other inner city tower blocks in Joburg, Ponte City acquired a reputation as an insalubrious nexus of drugs, gangs, guns, prostitutes and immigrants. Over a period of 3 years, South African photographer Michael Sobutsky and an artist Patrick Waterhouse shot “out of every window, of every internal door, and of every television-set in Ponte City”. They mapped this collection of images onto 3 light boxes, each 4 meters in height. I love the fact that Subotsky and Waterhouse succeeded so wonderfully where the developers failed: transforming the building not by excising the old and unwanted, but through a project of creative re-imagination. In this sense, they are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the cathartic destruction of Duck Soup.
You can find out more about the project, see the detailed images as well as excerpts from their work-in-progress book on Subotsky’s website: http://www.subotzkystudio.com/ponte-city-text/
Podcast: Arts and Ideas Each week Radio 3’s Arts and Ideas podcast presents a selection of the most stimulating debate and conversation from their flagship programme: Night Waves. Each show is an education and to my mind, the hosts are some of the brightest intellectuals on air. Rana Mitta, Phillip Dodd and Matthew Sweet are my personal favourites, but this week it was Anne McElvoy’s discussion with cardiac surgeon Francis Wells that thrilled me the most. During a discussion about the recent exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, the conversation took a decidedly macabre turn when Wells and McElvoy recounted the methods and practicalities behind Leonardo’s sketches. They lingered on a passage from Leonardo’s notes where he describes talking to an old man on his death-bed and then dissecting him after he’s died.
I wondered what someone like Park Chan-Wook would do with an idea like that.