Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

“We knew about the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte and their hordes of squeaky-clean imitators, but we felt like that was a different world that had nothing to do with us. Most of those people couldn’t play worth a damn and were indifferent singers, and as far as material was concerned they were scraping the top of the barrel, singing songs that we had all learned and dropped already. It was Sing Along with Mitch and the Fireside Book of Folk Songs, performed by sophomores in paisley shirts, and it was a one hundred percent rip-off: they were ripping off the material, they were ripping off the authors, composers, collectors, and sources, and they were ripping off the public.”

“We had so much opportunity to try out our stuff in public, get clobbered, figure out what was wrong, and go back and try it again. It was brutally hard work, because these crowds of tourists usually started out at the bars and by the time they got around to us they were completely loaded. So we would be playing for audiences of fifty or a hundred drunken suburbanites who really could not have cared less about the music—they were there to see the freaks and raise some hell. In that kind of situation, you either learn how to handle yourself onstage or you go into some other line of work, and the people who stuck it out became thoroughly seasoned pros.”

Both quotes from Dave Van Ronk.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a melancholy minor masterpiece about a passing era, specifically the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the late 1950s-early 1960s. Loosely based on events in the life of folk legend Dave Van Ronk, it follows the eponymous hero (played by Oscar Isaac) through one turbulent week—a week in which beatings and setbacks force him to confront the reality of his life and the apparent futility of his convictions about the music he plays.

Davis sleeps on other people’s couches and lives from hand to mouth; he thinks that the ambition of his former lover Jean (played by Carey Mulligan) to make enough money from performing to move out to the suburbs is square. For Llewyn, at the beginning, there is a higher motive for his gigging. It’s the purity, the authenticity, Van Ronk refers to in the opening quote. America in the 1950s was, by all accounts I rely on, an oppressively conservative society. The few folksingers who made money did so by removing any element in their music that hinted at the rural or proletarian origins of the material. Listening to the commercial recording artists who claimed folk connections back then, you hear music so syrupy or parodic you wonder how it was ever considered to be anything more than pop.

Uninformed critics have suggested that the dullness and naivete of the music before Bob Dylan landed in the Village in 1961 is the fundamental problem of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” In a sense, so these people would have it, the movie is an elegy for something that didn’t deserve to be saved.

I’m appalled and mystified by that view. Anyone who reads my stuff will know Bob Dylan has been the most important artist of my life. But to suggest that his music is intrinsically valuable and the music of those who came before him has none makes two mistakes. One is ignoring the fact that Dylan’s music grew out of the stuff he heard around him; without the scene as it was prior to his arrival, there would have been no Bob. The second mistake is confusing the authentic folk with the commercial rubbish. Yes, the Kingston Trio look and sound ridiculous now, but I’d rather listen to the New Lost City Ramblers than almost all of the things I hear on my radio these days when I tune in to the wrong station by accident in the mornings. Their version of “Tom Dooley” is one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard.

Dylan didn’t make folk music great by mixing it with surreal poetry. He made great music by mixing surreal poetry with folk. Van Ronk, Joan Baez and Karen Dalton were better singers and musicians. He just had that extra something, including a whole heap of luck: what would have happened, after all, if Robert Shelton of the Times hadn’t turned up to see the show he was support act for on that famous New York night? Or if he’d been a year older, a year more tired, a year less hungry, when it happened and Shelton had seen just another jobbing folkie instead of an embryonic star? Would the call have come from Columbia and John Hammond then? Maybe not.

More intelligent detractors have said that if “Inside Llewyn Davis” misses something, it’s only that it doesn’t show explicitly the ideological grounding of the Greenwich Village scene. Traditional folk music was played and listened to by people on the Left before Dylan’s infamous “betrayal” of protest songs on “Another Side Of…” and “Bringing It All Back Home.” Intense political debate—often, according to Van Ronk, violent in nature—fuelled the ideas and ideals of the artists. Maybe a bit of that in the movie would have deepened the characterisations of Llewyn and those whose paths he crosses; and shown to those who didn’t get it that the world of the movie is a serious one, not just a laughably quaint moment of long-ago history which our hero trudges through being offensive to everyone and hitting on all comers for favours.

This is a work of fiction, though, not a documentary, and a Coen Brothers movie at that. Character is the focus and it’s through Llewyn that the truths of the piece are revealed. The sharp contrast between his working class trade union background and the comfort of his middle class admirers should tell us something about politics; and with the exception of one speech in the CafĂ© Reggio, when Llewyn outlines his ideas to Jean, integrity is barely discussed—instead, it’s marvellously symbolised in a ginger cat which Llewyn loses and then pursues around New York. If only the screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave” had seen this before creating the careless exposition of the Brad Pitt scene in that movie.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has sent me not to my Dylan albums today, but back to the work of all the artists who were eclipsed by the brilliant light of his fame. I’ve had a wonderful time revisiting Van Ronk, the aforementioned Karen Dalton, Mark Spoelstra, Mimi and Richard Farina. Dylan’s success was artistic as well as material, but it made fame and money the goal rather than the love of the great tradition; and there’s a sadness to that, for me. It buried something that we needed to keep alive in this world, or risk abandoning everyone to the slowly spreading, culturally homogenising capitalist nightmare.

Yes, that’s right. The one we’re in now. Would Van Ronk, even if he’d been producing great work still, as Dylan is, have advertised cars at the Superbowl? I don’t think so somehow. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” in that respect, remembers an age when we were not yet smart enough to stop resisting.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

What You Gonna Do When The Mail Runs Dry?

It’s World Book Day, and in answer to the question World Book Day naturally provokes, I’m reading the diaries of English actor Kenneth Williams. I’m also reading the journals of Betsy Sheridan and Soren Kierkegaard and the letters of William S. Burroughs. I move between them, usually using their proximity to the place I’m sitting as my criterion for selection.

I love reading the private documents and ephemera of public figures. I know that some insist creative work should be read and understood without reference to its creator; but something that excites my intellect or my imagination always provokes an extra curiosity in me. When I read “A Season in Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud the fabulousness of it made me want to know more about the person responsible for bringing it into the world. Not that Rimbaud was an easy man to locate.

Which has me wondering, today, how the arrival of the technological age will affect our future study of the arts. My poet friends and I used to send each other letters; I have an archive of handwritten or typed and hand-signed communication from many people who are gone now. Anybody who wanted to build a picture of Dave Church, Joe Speer and Norbert Blei, among others—a picture that is distinct from the surviving published work—can access my archive, and those accumulated by my friends, and the men behind the poetry and the prose live and breathe again.

These days, however, poets and writers send emails and use social media like everybody else. Do they print them for posterity? I used to, but the cost became prohibitive. So my exchanges with other artists are either preserved for however long Facebook survives, or they disappear immediately into the void. I keep a handwritten journal as well as a public blog . . . do others? Or am I just carrying on the furtive behaviour of the socially inadequate teenager I once was?

Educators (as opposed to tutors) will know more about where the study of literature is heading; and I’m sure postmodernists would have something to say about technology and the Self that would be completely brilliant and apropos, although I’m equally sure I wouldn’t understand it. I have never had much of a head for theory. I like to read the lives of my authors and historical personalities the way I read their works, and by putting man or woman and work together, attempt a deeper understanding of both. If anybody wants to do that in 50 years they will have a much harder time than I’ve had, thanks to email and Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg. Will the public interview become our portal to the private from now on? and how much is that going to hide?

Sunday, March 02, 2014

GUEST POST: Fear and Loathing at the Royal Mail (by Bartholomew Bundy)

2013 ended for me not in the blaze of literary awards shows and gala dinners, but in the hard slog of casual Christmas work for the Royal Mail. This is how it is for poets and artists in the underground, unless they get lucky, and no one complains about it. You start out believing it will give your work an edge, but then you realise that’s romantic drivel. Manual labour is as soul-destroying and spirit-flattening as any other kind of labour; usually after a day digging gardens or sorting in a warehouse all you want to do is get drunk, not write poetry. But while it’s no better than any other kind of work, for the poet, it’s no worse either, and even John Cooper Clarke spends half his life on tour. Unless you’re rich or dead you have to do something.

The Royal Mail job seemed like it would be okay. I needed the money, and we would only be doing 8 hours a day 5 days a week. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found at the freezing cold, leaky warehouse the Royal Mail had rented temporarily for the Christmas season. Some of it still echoes unpleasantly in my mind three months later.

At the warehouse most of the things being sorted and dispatched were parcels from Amazon and Kuehne-Nagel, and the workforce doing the sorting across early, late and night shifts were either all the Royal Mail’s own casual workers or people recruited from agencies. There were also two “workplace coaches” on hand to instruct workers in safe practice and give whatever other advice and support (work-related, in theory) that we needed. One flirted shamelessly with the younger females and took the piss out of a female line manager at every available opportunity; both slagged off their colleagues at the main sorting office across town and said that the union gave everyone there the excuse to work poorly and be obstructive.

Hatred for the union among the permanent Royal Mail staff at the warehouse was pathological. My line manager, who rightly or wrongly was described to me as a “man-eater,” kept stopping me in my work. When it wasn’t to show me texts from her son or a picture taken by a casual who had left the country, but whose number she had stored in her phone, it was to describe the petty, self-indulgent, immature behaviour of unionised workers who had “been there too long and thought the world owed them a living.” “Where else,” she said, “can you get paid what they do for an unskilled job?”

This line manager was ridiculed by everybody who worked in her section for her constant shouting. She would stop for fifteen minutes in an aisle to look at her phone or talk about everything except work to a casual, and then shout at someone else, usually a younger person, for taking a minute out to catch up with someone in a different section. I heard the same names over and over and over again. Most of the time, when something more than a name was being shouted, I couldn’t understand what she said because of the way her voice echoed around the high walls and roof of the warehouse. But when her nightly frenzy climaxed I could hear, “Sort don’t talk!” and “Work faster!” At one point she simply bellowed “WORK!” elongating the word in a way that’s impossible to describe.

Maybe this is common practice now, but I found it stupid, disrespectful and counter-productive. It’s bad enough that people should only be paid minimum wage to exhaust themselves daily; shouldn’t the compensation they receive for that be a recognition of their right to be treated in a dignified fashion? Or have we reached the point, in our hurtling journey back to the Victorian Era, where employees are expected to be grateful that they have any work at all?

One of the managers spoke to me towards the end of my contract about the things that had been achieved in the two months. Number one out of all the PSCs (parcel sorting centres) in the country since it opened (or nearly). He said “We wouldn’t have had that success if we followed the working model used in other places. This is the model we intend to move to. But that’s for the future.”

The model? Workers with no rights. More than one casual in my time there was fired on the spot because they were found, during one of the daily, and allegedly random, security checks, to have a mobile phone on the operational floor. Only the managers were allowed to carry phones, just as they were the only ones allowed to bring in water. You’d think it reasonably obvious that a manager might be able to steal, or arrange a theft via a mobile, as easily as a casual; but one of the managers explained the distinction to me while I was being checked: “Instances of theft among casuals are very high.” (Even if this is true, might a living wage rather than a subsistence wage go some way to solving the problem?)

Other people disappeared too, one after having two days off to look after her poorly child. If you’re a casual worker, of course, your manager can do that; he or she can flick you out of the building like balled-up KitKat paper from a desk. The most infamous of the departures was a guy who, when asked to come for a security check, told the manager to fuck off. After he was escorted from the building my line manager, who at the time I still thought—mistakenly—that I could talk to like an equal, came over to tell me about it. We agreed that he probably had something on him he didn’t want anybody to find. “But people do get upset about their human rights,” I said. “Maybe it was that.”

“It’s not an infringement of his human rights to be asked to turn out his pockets,” she bristled. “It’s in his contract.”

The Royal Mail hires now through an agency called Angard. At the end of the Christmas period every year the managers put forward names of suitable employees to Angard, who then, supposedly at their own discretion, take on those they like to fill in sickness and annual leave shifts at the mail centres. After long stints of working as an agency employee within the Royal Mail, you are then considered for permanent status. As our contract came to an end getting on the list was the talk of the workforce; nearly all of us, obviously, needed the money even if the work was boring us senseless. “It’s going to be a very small list,” one of the managers said to me, on the same day he talked about the model of work used at the PSC. He then went on to eulogise about the performance of one casual who’d stayed until four in the morning to help clear a backlog.

Which is fine; but not everybody can do that. And not just because they are old-fashioned, unhelpful jobsworths. The guy who did that was 25 years younger than me and 35 years younger than some of the others. People have families also. Is a labourer only worthy of his hire if, for minimum wage, he exists only to work?

I should have known then that my chances of getting on their exalted list and being put forward to work for Angard were fucked. I had done no overtime at all, primarily because I was scared that getting overly tired would affect my epilepsy. But my line manager had told me I would be on the list and I thought she was telling me the truth.

Then I really ruined it. On the last day the manager walked from person to person with feedback sheets. We were told to fill them in –“Be as honest as you like”—and sign them. While he waited to make sure that every person had completed one. Who ever heard of a feedback sheet that you sign your name to? Naively, I now realise, I wrote, “My only gripe is that we were not allowed to have water with us while we worked.” I could have written a hundred other things, but I was trying to be reasonable. The manager looked at it expressionlessly—he would make a good chess player—and slipped it into his pile of completed sheets.

A guy who had done nothing but bitch when we were in the canteen passed by. The manager stopped him and told him to fill out a form. He asked what he should write in the comments at the bottom. “Anything you want,” came the answer. “Be as honest as you like.” The guy shrugged insouciantly. “I have no complaints,” he said. “Everything is wonderful!” “Write that then,” said the manager, looking much more pleased with him than he was with me.

After the manager had moved on to tell the next victim to be as honest as they liked, I challenged the guy: “How could you say everything was wonderful? All you’ve done is slag everything off since you started here!” “Do you think those twats are gonna offer me any work after Christmas if I criticise them and put my name to it?” he asked. “Grow up.”

His words stung because I knew he was right, and the prediction turned out to be true. Several of the casuals I worked alongside at the PSC were invited by Angard to go to the mail centre in January; and despite my line manager’s promise that I was on the list, and her boss’ public declaration in the main entrance one day that I was doing a fine job on my station, I haven’t heard a word from Angard or the Royal Mail in three months. The price you pay in this country, it seems, for thinking you have a right to speak freely when you’re on the bottom of the economic ladder (a rung poets share with warehouse workers, cleaners and—bizarrely—care assistants) is social exclusion and penury.

And now the vacancies Angard advertise list, under requirements, “receptivity to change.” That’s that new model of work creeping slowly over the hill, the one that employees themselves will be forced to assist the managers in creating, by sheer economic necessity. It will be something like a strong cat putting itself to sleep, but what can you do? Food must be put on the table. It’s hard to take the longer view when your landlord is banging on the door for rent.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Virginia Cherrill

Virginia Cherrill with Charlie Chaplin in "City Lights"

There are two scenes in all the movies I've ever watched that I would run into a burning house to save if the last copy were inside. One is the final moment of Eric Rohmer's "Le Rayon Vert," where Marie Riviere sits on the cliffside with a new love as the sun goes down over the sea. The other is the scene in "City Lights" where Virginia Cherrill's flower girl, her sight restored, sees Charlie Chaplin's tramp for the first time. Both moments are so beautiful and so moving I cry every time they're on.

A week or so ago Michelle and I were in Kettering, touring the charity shops as we do in search of rare books, movies and things for the flat; and we heard a violin playing mournfully. Someone nearby was busking in the rain. "God, that music so reminds me of 'City Lights'," I said, and began talking, probably for the hundredth time, about the scene with the flower girl.

"Le Rayon Vert" has an underlying theme about personal signs and symbols; how one needs to read them to live life freely. Two minutes after we'd heard the violin player we went into another charity shop and Michelle found "Chaplin's Girl: The Life and Loves of Virginia Cherrill" by Miranda Seymour (2009). How strange is that? I wasn't sure whether it would be my sort of book, but because of my love for that movie I bought it.

I'm happy to report that it's wonderful. It's not academic by any means, nor is it particularly incisive, and sometimes it's poorly written, or edited ( two paragraphs begin "confirmation of this..." on consecutive pages); but Virginia Cherrill's life in the ten years that the book broadly covers is so amazing the reader can't wait to find out what happens next.

Every film enthusiast has seen "City Lights" and knows about "the flower girl." Who knew that she married and divorced Cary Grant, had a non-committal affair with David Niven? (Consequently she loved watching "The Bishop's Wife" in later years.) Who knew that the same woman, bored by movies, went to England? was courted by a maharajah? rejected him because of the misogyny of Indian traditions and their brutality towards animals? Who knew she married a lord, and became "Mother" during WWII to a squadron of Polish fighter pilots?

Like every good biographer Seymour is a little bit in love with her subject. When you read the book you can't help liking Virginia Cherrill quite a bit yourself. It takes style to find fame and fortune in the palm of your hand and throw them both away. But Cherrill had a life of such adventure afterwards, and found riches again so quickly, it would be surprising if she missed Hollywood at all.