The Whileaways – Family Well

The Whileaways had just made an appearance on the Late Late Show the weekend before, so it must have seemed very quaint when I showed up with my DSLR and a tripod.

But smaller setups are best for live music. For one thing it’s a lot less intrusive, they’d barely know you’re there while they perform, so you don’t have to worry about disrupting the performance, you can just let them do their thing.

They had a performance this evening at the Temple Bar TradFest which is a great event bringing the best of new and traditional folk music together over the course of a few days. I got in for soundcheck and they performed three times, the third take hitting the mark.

The stage lighting was perfect for shooting – colourful and moody – so it made my job easy. This is their single “Family Well” from their album Saltwater Kisses: http://www.thewhileawaysmusic.com/buy-cd

Capturing the Moment: In Search of Adequate Images

The Werner Herzog quote about adequate images always stuck with me. His call for people to treat imagery with a greater respect seemed important to me, and he obviously put a lot of weight in it himself, clear from how apocalyptic his language was.

But figuring out what exactly adequate imagery looks like was not so well defined. Clearly there was something lacking in a huge amount of our visual media, but it was easier to describe what doesn’t qualify as adequate imagery than it was to describe what does.

I read a Pitchfork article about people who use camera phones at gigs and it got this video essay going. I didn’t want to demonise the people who shoot the gigs they attend, but I could never understand it. The quality of the images they get is terrible as is the sound, and I could never imagine wanting to actually look at them, so why on earth do these people attend gigs just to miss any profound moments they might have experienced by trying to capture it and watch it later?

It made more sense to me to try and explore this desire than to finger-wag, and so tying in Herzog’s concept of adequate images I attempted to link the desire to film a gig with the desire film-makers have to create images. The difference being one group is professional and the other is not.

In particular I wanted to bring the video essay around to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, easily one of the best films I saw this year and one that I believe is packed with adequate images.

One image I specifically enjoyed was how the veil is used by the director Ana Lily Amirpour, an Iranian-American. In Iran the veil is a symbol of oppression (or modesty, depending on who you ask) but Amirpour transforms it here into a vampire’s cape. As the main character stalks the streets at night, preying on sexist men, she is a realisation of a misogynist’s worst fears; a man-eating woman who wears the uniform of her oppression with a biting irony.

I don’t think people who film gigs with their cameraphones should be chastised, but I do think they are robbing themselves of the opportunity to really engage with art. We all feel that because we can all make little films now that we should. Whereas the truth is the same now as ever it was; that it takes years of practice to get good at it.

Anybody can make a great art work, but they can’t do it over night, nor by chance. And the first step to creating great art is to engage with great art. That’s what I was aiming to express in this video essay.

The city & the country and the indecisiveness of a generation

When you’re trying to explain to a friend your stance on the issue of the necessity of plot in feature films while hollering over the sound of car horns and street sweepers, clutching an overpriced coffee in one hand and batting away junkies with the other, city life stops feeling worthwhile. Sure you feel more connected to society, to people. But when those same people are walking achingly slowly three abreast on a narrow footpath, while cars pass by on the road in dangerous proximity and with the ferocity of the chariots in Ben-Hur, it’s hard to ignore the furious expletives that dominate your mind; it’s time to get out of here.

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That’s fine, until you end up back in the countryside and remember why you left it to begin with. If it rains you are stranded, and all those years spent hugging concrete have left you carless – provisional licenses operate on a “use it or lose it” basis apparently – and without any imagination on how to entertain yourself. Your only recourse is the bottomless pit of broadcast television, but by then the depression is so palpable that you would rather put your head through the screen like a postmodern Alice sacrificing yourself through the black looking glass than spend another minute watching Dr. Phil condescend to some traumatised mother who’s problems you can’t help feeling will not be solved by that free trip to Costa Rica.

The indecisiveness here is a classic conflict between Romanticism and Cynicism. In the countryside you can be one with nature. You can stretch out on tree branches and sing ballads to the squirrels and blackbirds, or stroll the grassy banks of some quiet stream while picking apples and reflecting on the majesty of the natural world. But in the city there are stories, drama, places where people come together to argue about big ideas; politics! the arts! In the city you don’t need to worry about the state of your soul – or your mental health as it’s been rebranded – there are more pressing issues to concern yourself with. Drama is more immediate, and when that feeling of emptiness creeps over you, you’re never more than a few metres away from a drink, pill or powder that’ll help you pave over that black hole for another couple of hours.

“From whence this crippling dissatisfaction,” I ask, “that discourages us from even trying to better our situations? Don’t we all believe on some level – unlike, say, those of the American class – that our situation is unchanging? That money problems and cold winters will plague us our entire lives? That our human relationships are ephemeral, based on nothing concrete, and could easily vanish over the course of a week?”

“Cheer up,” I hear as I snap back to the magazine stand, “it might never happen.” A face, lit up by a toothless grin, points at me, grey and unkempt. Poor fool. Hiding his insecurities behind cynical clichés and acquired wit. He’ll never know the bliss of enlightenment afforded by the pursuit of honest and original self-expression of one’s emotion. At this point I return the €4 magazine I was ogling to the shelf, remembering that I would like a hot meal today.

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“But why is it that misery and dissatisfaction feels like the norm,” I demand, “while moments of transcendent bliss are the exception, like there is some rare, nigh-on unattainable nirvana towards which we vainly aspire, entirely unsure we’ll ever get there again, or indeed that we were ever there to begin with?” But the stream babbles on oblivious to my discourse, carrying some mysterious foam through the farmlands and into the bellies of the cows that will one day end up on our dinner plates. I discard my makeshift walking stick and watch as it drifts towards the river, and ultimately the ocean, where it will probably stick in the throat of some whale and cause great discomfort to the creature for the remainder of its life.

The thing about it is that that feeling of dissatisfaction feels like it’s all contained in one dense little nub somewhere inside you. The attention it demands seems wildly out of proportion to the size of it in relation to your entire being. It’s like that person at a silent film screening who laughs her whole way through it because of the dramatic and expressive style of acting (the cynical encroaching on the romantic). Surely it shouldn’t be hard to just turn around to tell her to shut the hell up!

But we never do. We just keep on tolerating it, focusing on it pathologically, hoping it’ll stop on it’s own, or some unforseeable twist of fate will occur and shut it up for you so you don’t have to. Maybe the ceiling will collapse directly over her and crush her into a horrible mess of brains and buttery popcorn. That’d do it.

Things are always happening. You always need more money to pay bills or cover your rent. And you always have to organise something or be somewhere if you have any sort of active participation in society or goals for your own life.

So when I get caught in a torrential downpour fifteen minutes from my house without my umbrella, my thoughts shift from the standard irritation and incoherent fuckshitbastardwhymeballs, to a kind of accepting calm. A flash of nostalgia through my mind: The dead don’t get to feel the rain on their faces. And the sun comes out with poetic timing.

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Make no mistake, the Buddhists had it right all along. You can’t change your situation, only your reaction to it. In the world of hectic modern living, where we flit from one experience to the next as fast as our fingers can carry our boredom and convert it into energy, it’s difficult to remember that the dissatisfaction is not inherent, but conditioned into us. Consume media, feel angry, buy products and experiences, be unhappy with your figure or skin or friends, ostracise your family, waste your life.

The beautiful thing about writing is you can evoke the moment of acceptance at being caught in the rainstorm and stick an exclamation point at the end of it. Stick your flag in it, claim it as your conclusion in the name of whatever philosophy you wish you really lived by and pretend that feeling gets to sustain indefinitely. It’s hugely empowering to take an indescribable anxiety and transform it by putting words to it.

Surely that’s why we write!

We’re Not Gonna Take It: Irish National & Cultural Identity

“What manner of country is this?” you find yourself asking when you live here long enough and spend enough time reading the newspaper, listening to the radio or walking the streets. Political and economic corruption mirrors on the top of society the criminality and drug-pushing that happens on the bottom and everybody in the middle gets a good thrashing for their troubles. Are these the values Ireland as a nation was founded on?

Actually, what values were we founded on? The first few articles in our constitution are about our rights to citizenship and to be a nation, which was itself a novel enough idea when enacted in 1937 although the international tide had already begun to flow heavily against empire at that point, so we were hardly trailblazers. Clearly these articles proclaiming our right to form our own Government and allowing for the eventuality of a united Ireland are an attempt at cutting the ties from the Imperial British rule that we no longer needed, and felt that it was our right now to be governed by men who inhabited the island itself. And yet in a pure example of the true revolutionary spirit we leapt from one ship to the other. The preamble in our constitution actually begins with the lines

“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions of men and States must be referred”

And continues

“We, the people of ÉireHumbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial”

So already, from the very opening lines of our establishing document do we behold ourselves to the institutions of Christianity, and it’s no great leap to narrow the specific church down to that of Catholicism, the religion of the gallant overthrowers.

As Christopher Hitchens often observed about the Soviet Revolution when asked about why Stalin’s atheism didn’t deserve to be blamed for his atrocities as those committed by the religious owe to their god-given right to rule, the infrastructure for Stalin’s totalitarianism was already in place long before the Communist revolution in that country. The Tsar in Russia was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and was thus seen as a semi-divine figure, slightly above the status of the pope in Catholicism, so when Stalin came to power he needed only to navigate the already present hierarchy, a thing that can’t be washed away in a single night in October or even in a few generations. That revolution managed to basically effect a complete reshuffling of individuals into the positions the revolution hoped to overthrow. Similarly in Ireland did we jump from the nipple of the British to that of the Vatican, just as today, as a result of our brash and uninspired founding do we find ourselves suckling upon that of Germany.

It’s a kind of disbelief in our own abilities that has led to the continuation of this mindset in Ireland. Here we marvel at the Americans’ propensity to encourage one another in their endeavours, then wonder why the only truly successful people in this country end up leaving and never coming back. We don’t trust anybody whose ideas are not cemented in the doctrines of an already existing institution, and so the frightening liberal ideas that float in from the continent and combat against the status quo upheld by our two centre-right political parties who alternate control of Government are swatted away for their being frighteningly “new” and “idealistic”.

For this reason the amendments to our Constitution have never been so much idealistic and forward-looking as they have been reactions to unavoidable events, like finally doing the job you’re supposed to do because your boss says he’ll fire you if you don’t do it immediately. Perhaps this is a post-colonial hangup experienced by all countries who manage to squeeze their way from under the thumb of Imperial powers, but consider the first amendment to our Constitution, relating to an article dealing with what constitutes a “time of war”, brought in at the outset of the Second World War:

“Extended to conflicts in which the State is not a participant the provision for a state of emergency to secure the public safety and preservation of the State in time of war or armed rebellion”

Against that of another ex-colony:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So after the establishment of the United States in the original articles of their Constitution, the first amendment to that document says that no institution will be respected above any other – where ours gives the Church our solemn oath in its very preamble – and the second amendment basically goes on to say that anyone who tries to force their crap on American citizens will get their heads blown off.

Now we look at the amendments made to our constitution in recent years and we can’t even recognise it any more. What does the inclusion of the Lisbon Treaty entail? What is legal or illegal in Ireland? Where is our sovereignty, our right to rule ourselves by our own will and based on our own traditions? Or is it in fact part of Irish tradition to be ruled from afar?

Who Are You?

So since our glorious economic plane came crashing into the homes and businesses of our good honest citizenship, and as the monied few who could afford things like ejector seats and parachutes slowly glided off over the horizon, where does that leave Ireland? The rabid debate that has played itself out over radio and television and newspapers and the internet ad nauseum has seemed miraculously to miss one key question essential to a coherent argument; where are we going?

It is the same question the British have been asking themselves since the partition of India in 1947, but at least their role as Imperialists and even the heinous human rights violations they committed in their history of colony-hopping is something everybody in that country is aware of. They are seen as a failed empire and whether you detest or love the idea of British multiculturalism, you at least have a well-researched and largely credible basis in history from which to believe whatever you choose to believe.

In Ireland we try to propagate our society on lies and myths. We say things like “it wasn’t the citizens fault the economy collapsed, it was the corrupt bankers and politicians”, when the reality is that a citizen’s duty in a democratic republic is to ensure that the people in charge are doing their job, not to look the other way because the powers that be know to keep you satiated with things like bonuses and mortgages and other such pleasant things to make you feel appreciated.

But this is the latest in a long line of self-delusions, only one of which is our so called “independence” which we’re so proud of but that I don’t personally recall dying for. How can we expect to move forward as a nation without realising what our people were. The myth that we were a constantly rebellious people from the time of the first plantations is pure fiction. The atrocities committed by the British in Ireland in flattening the rebellion in 1798, in the famine in the 1840s, of the Black and Tans leading up to 1916 are all validly acknowledged, but as above stated as historical facts they do more to give the British an identity than they do ourselves. The truth is that despite what today we would consider to be our best interests (preservation of culture and language) the Irish people of the past centuries were largely satisfied with the little corners of the world the planters gave them, perhaps assuming that there wasn’t much point kicking up a fuss about the landowners, sure it’d only make them take away even more of what we own. Does that sound familiar in 2013?

We also are bogged down with a tendency to romanticise figures from our history, while forgetting how unpopular these men who challenged the status quo were in their day. The fate of Charles Stewart Parnell, now with a street named after him in the very centre of the nation’s capital, in his day was pelted with rotten vegetables for disobeying the doctrines of the Catholic church by engaging in an extramarital affair. It was the Irish people themselves who killed the 19th Century’s greatest advocate for Irish Home Rule, and why are we to believe that in today’s society a similar figure would not find himself isolated in this manner for holding views contrary to those of the “people”.

The modern Irish do not have an identity. That is why we so readily take the depressed and fatalistic alcoholism that large sections of society medicate themselves on and turn it into that happy-go-lucky vision of simple “good craic” and “having the bants” that American society loves. It’s the same reason we turn ourselves into a national theme park every 17th of March for the Americans, who invented every aspect of St. Patrick’s Day that is now associated with it. Were there parades in Dublin before there were parades in Chicago or New York? Does the idea of turning a holiday into a money-grabbing venture not strike one as intrinsically American, only the selling of alcohol in large quantities is dangerous, unlike toys on christmas, or chocolate at Easter or cards and flowers on valentines day or sweets on Halloween, so let’s hold this holiday of ours in a foreign country.

We pride ourselves as a cultural society, but whose are the faces that front this so-called cultural identity of ours? Only Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw, Swift, Stoker, emigrés all, who were so disillusioned and constrained by Irish society that they had to leave for the sake of their creativity and undoubtedly for the sake of their sanity. None wrote more vividly of just how abusive the ideas of the Catholic church were to children than James Joyce, nor how horrifying it is to believe that some twist of fate might send you into an eternity of pain beyond any capable of being felt on earth. Child abuse of the highest order, and this even before paedophile priests became a well-known staple of the establishment.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

What is it we have to look forward to? Further years of self-delusion and myth-making about what a great country we are, or as the atrocities of the British became the atrocities of the Church, will we allow the atrocities of the Church transform themselves into the atrocities of the Austerity State brought on by the bureaucracy of the European puppet-government? Our tendency to roll over for Europe is just another in a long list of Ireland’s masochistic relationships with institutions that are only looking for self-preservation but that the odd pat on the head has convinced us is our big brother looking out for us.

It seems obvious to say that what we need now is a vision to lead us forward, some form of society that doesn’t just pander to international corporations who utilise systems of wage slavery but actual attempts to make Ireland a place we would want to live in, and a place other people would want to live in. And yet the discourse is somehow devoid of this. Every piece of journalism on the matter seems to hint towards getting Ireland back to where it was before the crash, but is this really what we want from our country, a society bloated with too much money and with no soul?

The kind of ideas we need to bring forth a truly independent Ireland are not going to come from the people, because they’ve been educated for the job market – which is still writhing in the violent spasms of death – and don’t care to see beyond the life goals such an education endorses. The mind-set of a nation does not change overnight. What would we have to say to the people of Ireland who existed a hundred years ago, or more, to the people who drove horse-carts or tilled the land? We think with our education and our technology that we are inherently better than those who came before us by virtue of our being born after them, but a peasant with an iPad is still a peasant.

It will take leaders and visionaries to change this country, but as we know such people are historically not welcome here, eventhough they find themselves reared here commonly enough. If we decide to become a country that allows women to get the medical care they need to lift them above their natural susceptibility to having their lives taken from them by an accidental child birth (something no man need ever know), to allow the poorest and most vulnerable in society to have at least a roof over their heads in a city teeming with empty buildings, to educate the young to think for themselves rather than to become cogs in corporate machines, to be a place where multiculturalism and the ideas of others are considered more relevant than those of religious bigots, then we have to make that decision, and not expect somebody else to make it for us.

Out of Time: Museum Hours & The Art of Life

Jem Cohen’s recent release Museum Hours, takes an interesting look at life, art and history in Vienna from the vantage point of the city’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The film has a cinematic kinship with Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark in the manner in which both films use the museum as a place to discover and live the past. However, where Sokurov’s has one overarching experimental idea in the form of a single take, Cohen experiments with form relentlessly, jumping from voice-overs to conversations to documentary-like museum tours and beyond to expand the range of what the museum as an institution actually represents, outside its original conception or the mandates of the curators.

The Vienna of Museum Hours is unromantic, concrete, blank like a canvas. Cohen is not attempting to dazzle us with surface beauty, he is trying to make us wonder by making our eyes and our minds wander. His method is outlined explicitly when a museum tour-guide argues with a museum-goer about the paintings of Bruegel. She believes that in none of Bruegel’s vast paintings (she describes as documentary-like but anyone who has explored the pictures in a Where’s Wally? book will see the similarities with Bruegel) is the actual subject matter the point. For example, the painting ‘The Conversion of Paul’, she believes, is as much about the boy under the tree with the helmet covering his eyes as it is about the conversion of Paul. With this in mind Cohen shoots his film. He dedicates a shot to this boy in the middle of the painting. Later he dedicates a shot to some discarded clothing on the streets of Vienna, or to three bored teenagers in the museum itself. They are all of equal importance in the larger picture.

Have A Look Around

The Louvre opened on 10 August 1793, displaying works of art that had heretofore never been displayed to the public. Until this time art was visible only to the rich who displayed it on their walls as possessions, the way the middle-classes now display artefacts collected from their travels, bought from street-side vendors. As places in which conservation and education could take place, the intentions focused on both the past and the future, the museums became places for both the academics and the public.

But today there is a feeling of exclusivity around art museums. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that people nowadays expect the acts of looking, interpreting and understanding to be almost simultaneous as it is when they watch the most popular movies. Films like The Hangover operate on simple laughs and instantaneous rewards. When you see a naked Chinese guy jumping out of a car boot you don’t have to stop and think about it like you do when Groucho Marx recounts his trip to Africa in Animal Crackers: “We took some pictures of the native girls but they weren’t developed, but we’re going back again in a couple of weeks”. That’s the kind of joke that makes the connections in your brain rework, changing the meaning of words and possibly questioning whether you’re offended or not. The meaning doesn’t knock you over the head, it has to be thought about, which is why some people who attend museums, particularly the famous ones, seem to consider relentlessly photographing everything they see to be an apt form of engagement, rather than thinking what is the meaning and what are my reactions to it.

There’s no exclusively “right” way to engage with art, but the mentality of feeling compelled to visit a museum and photograph everything you see – for what? to show it to your friends? “I saw this,” – is a sad and vacuous imitation of an experience, exactly identical with people who record gigs on their phones rather than using their eyes and minds to allow it to affect them in some way. My own favourite museum is the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as it houses one of the biggest collections of Impressionist paintings on the planet. The Impressionist idea of painting light rather than solid objects is, to me, a fascinating one. In this style Monet clearly had the most soul but there’s something endlessly endearing about Degas’ ballerinas or Renoir’s girls. These paintings, in complete opposition to Cohen’s film, express the surface beauty of the world, telling no stories and giving no real insights into the characters, which in a way is a liberating kind of art where the world is inherently both beautiful and meaningless.

Step Outside

This way of not engaging with art in museums is symptomatic of a way of taking the world completely at face value, a thing Jem Cohen tries to get beyond with the decidedly unbeautiful photography of Vienna in his film. There’s a moment in Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities in which Rüdiger Vogler photographs the front of a house and when he sees the polaroid he laments that the camera never captures what he sees with his bare eyes, that is, whatever it was that gave him the inspiration to point his camera in the first place. For Cohen the potential for inspiration is everywhere. When he points his camera it is not to say “look at this, it’s so deep and profound and moving,” it’s more to say “here is our world” and if you find something in it that sticks with you then that’s your business.

Of course anyone who has ever wandered the streets of a city, familiar or unfamiliar, knows that inspiration is only ever a breath away. Where you look when you walk the streets changes your experience. If you (as you sometimes must in a city like Dublin) watch only the footpath, then how will you ever see the scenes of life that play out through the shop windows or in the side-streets or on the tables and chairs in front of the cafés? What do you miss when you block out the world with your headphones or by staring at a phone screen? Replicate your experience of life by buying a ticket to Museum Hours and doing just that. You’ll understand the film just as well as you understand how to live.

The most essential idea Cohen puts forth in this film is that there is nothing in our day-to-day experience that is truly negligible. Of course we feel moments of exalted joy above what we deem to be “ordinary” but where we set the bar of the everyday is completely up to us. There is a piece of graffiti in Temple Bar that is scrawled unevenly in marker on the wall of a building that reads “In the streets of Dublin, where I met my love…” that I honestly feel if it were to disappear tomorrow I would miss far more than if the Mona Lisa was carried off in the night. As feeling thinking humans it is within our capabilities to decide for ourselves what we find to be the remarkable things in our lives. It is a personal compulsion we all have, that too often is suppressed in favour of conformity and hollow conceivable experiences.

Nothing quite captures this idea with such brilliant simplicity as the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’. It is about the word “fuck” that someone has scrawled in crayon on a subway wall, nothing to inspire much reflection – Holden Caulfield had a particularly depressive reaction to a derivation of that piece of graffiti on a wall in his sister’s school – but for Paul Simon taking that extra moment to consider the story behind the word, not even the personality of the writer but the actions that led to the writing appearing on the wall, transforms the initial reaction – the one Holden builds on and gets depressed by – and makes something out of it, not something good necessarily but something not malignant either. Like this, Jem Cohen’s latest film is a wonderful attestation to the act of stepping outside and having a look around.

My full review of Museum Hours can be found here: http://www.meg.ie/museum-hours