Friday, 11 September 2020

Les Mignonnes/Cuties - a review

The original poster and Netflix's version

There's a storm currently well past brewing in a corner of Twitter about a French film called "Les Mignonnes" ("Cuties" in English), directed by French-Senegalese Maïmouna Doucouré. 

The shitstorm started when Netflix announced last month that it was going to show the film and accompanied that announcement with its own poster, showing the young girls at the centre of the film in tight-fitting, revealing outfits and suggestive poses. 

Without having even seen the film, and solely going by that image, people started to denounce cultural condescension, exploitation and gratuitous sexualisation. The film is a paedophile's wet dream, capable of perverting the young (though the film has certificate 15), we are told. 

Almost 400,000 people have signed a petition demanding Netlflix remove the film from its listings, and that the whole website be "cancelled". The story has crossed over to the press. People are cancelling their memberships and Netflix has removed its poster and amended the description of the film on its site. 

However, having now watched the film, I can't see how any of the criticisms levelled at it can stand. 

The plot, based on testimonies of such girls gathered by the director, focuses on a group of 11 year old girls of mixed ethnicities who dream to take part in a local dance competition. 

The main protagonist, Amy, is of Senegalese origin and finds herself torn between two cultures. One familiar and imbued with traditions and religion, that she feels alienated from, another saturated with the discourse and images of sexuality, that she doesn't understand despite being attracted by it. 

She is new to the area, facing puberty and pretty much left to her own devises by her mother, who finds herself having to deal with the unwanted but inescapable fact that her husband (still in Senegal) is finally on his way to her to celebrate his marriage to a second wife. 

There are indeed some skimpy clothes and some highly sexualise dance moves in the films, particularly in the climactic scene of the dance competition, that Netflix took its poster from. But the film does not in any way glamourise such things and is clearly a social commentary on what society is doing to those girls. In fact that scene in the poster is purposefully, deeply cringe-worthy, and under the booing of the audience, a catalyst for Amy's epiphany. 

Left to themselves, they are trying to make sense of the world they live in, while finding a sense of belonging. Bombarded by sexualised images in video clips, with no viable alternative (the culture at home is too oppressive to be it), they have to choice but to conform to and ape what they see as the norm and its language (visual or aural). 

In the end this fails because they don't really understand what that language really means and because they are simply too young. The core message of the film is that they are made to grow too fast by an adult world that has no real place for them. 

The film does attack cultural islam but it's not like it is showing Western culture as being better in anyway. In fact Doucouré is equally critical of both cultures finding a common ground in their objectification and commodification of women, even if it is in different ways. The traditional culture is not capable, is not ready, to provide answers to Amy, but neither is our western culture. Both are letting her down. 

"Les Mignonnes" is a good piece of cinematography that gives a voice to a minority within the minority. The girls in it are just that: girls. Often they are ugly little brats too, but they are in a quest for meaning and Amy, at least, eventually finds some. 

The film has won a number of prizes and if people had not jumped to conclusions following Netflix's frankly ham-fisted marketing, it would be easy for them to see why.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Bank holiday arty-farterie

This was intended as a short Facebook status update...

It's been a busy time at the cultural mill this bank-holiday weekend. Eddie dragged me to no less than 6 exhibitions (and there was ancillary cake, of course). 

First it was was Tate Modern for the Pierre Bonnard exhibition on Saturday. 
I knew OF Bonnard, of course, but very little about him and his work, which doesn't attract me visually, if I'm honest. I can't say I have become a convert after seeing the show but I found his use of framing (for his paintings and the use of frames within the frame) as well as what felt like an attempt to create abstractions from everyday situations interesting (and resonant). 
In the Bathroom (1940)
I had bumped into a matinal friend when arriving at the gallery and he had recommended having a look at the Dorothea Tanning exhibition, so we popped in. While I recognise the quality of the draftsmanship generally shown by surrealists, I can't say that their stuff is my bag. The exhibition was interesting in that it covered all of Tanning's carreer and therefore the evolution of her style. I realised that I knew one of her paintings but nothing else. I enjoyed most her later work. Because they are so referrential (of classical painting and Bacon, particularly), lots of the piece felt already familiar somehow. For an artist interested in dreams that's a satisfactory effect to achieve in her audience. 
Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik
We then whizzed across London to John Keats' house in Hampstead where for the weekend only the manuscript of his Ode to a Nightingale was on display (on loan from the Fitzwilliam). There were three actors there who performed a few rather clumsily expositional scenes, imagined from the life of Keats in the house. 
The first page of the manuscript
Then I discovered chocolate babka cake at a local bakery... 
Chocolate babka (or yeats) cake
... and my life was never the same again!

On Sunday, we went to Tate Britain. Eddie wanted to see the Van Gogh in Britain exhibition and I wanted to see the Don McCullin one, which was closing this weekend. 

There were fewer works by Van Gogh than one might expect to find in a show titled "Van Gogh in Britain". In fact it turns out that Van Gogh only really started painting after he'd left Britain. The exhibition therefore focusses, sometimes rather unconvincingly, on the influence those years spent in the UK had on Van Gogh's work, and then on the influence Van Gogh's work had on British artists. I enjoyed the opportunity to see early works that are not normally shown (most probably because they are not in his later, well-known style). 
Van Gogh was "inspired" by his print collection. Here one of Gustave Doré's views of London.
The Don McCullin exhibition was one of the three big photography exhibition on London right now (the others being Diane Arbus at the Hayward and Martin Parr at the NPG, of which more later). It's difficult not to draw comparisons. Like Arbus's work, the McCullin images on show were all black and white, but here the similarities end. Where Arbus seems to clumsily point a camera she doesn't quite know how to use a rather random things, McCullin knows what he is doing, both technically and compositionally. The results (even when he is not shooting war zones) are incredibly powerful and strong. 

One of the room showed some of the newspaper and magazine spreads which are McCullin's images' natural habitat. One of those spreads matched earlier work with his last visit to conflict area. One set of images in high-contrast black and white and the more recent set in colour. Although the images were deliberately quite similar, I was struck by how much more impactful the B&W images seemed to be. 

A section of the show was dedicated to McCullin's work in 1970's UK: homeless men in derilict Aldgate, and poverty-striken squalor in Bradford and Liverpool. Somewhat puzzlingly, McCullin took up the subject as a way to take his mind off the horror he saw as a war reporter, but he also felt an affinity with the poverty he encountered, having experienced it himself as a child. In any case I could help thinking that those Brexiteers who claim that the UK was doing just fine before it joined the EU should be showed those images for a much-needed reality check. It's not far-fetched to compare those images with those of a war-zone (and the comparison was very easy indeed, a few steps to the next room being all it took).

Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
Sheep Going to the Slaughter House
On Monday, we paid a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, the name "Martin Parr" has been rising up more and more into my awareness but I have to admit that I was a little dismissive of his work, all those colouful seaside images felt superficial and pointless.

So encountering the full breadth of his work in one big exhibition was a useful way to properly assess him. The sense of fluffy froth remains but I understand much better now what he is trying to do: explore Britishness in all its quirkiness. There is sharp observation and often humour in Parr's work.

Because of his subject of choice, Brexit is something that was bound to crop up in the show. There is in fact a whole section supposedly dedicated to the subject. But it seems Brexit is mostly elusive and not camera-friendly. The selection of images feels arbitrary. In fact, apart for a couple of exceptions, Brexit can't really be applied to those photos that do not differ from the main body of Parr's work in any way. You could argue that, because Brexit is ultimately about British (or rather English) identity, the whole of Parr's work is about Brexit.

More interestingly for me, however I discovered that Parr has an open project on people dancing. This leads him to attend all sorts of occasions where people are dancing, which, of course, includes clubs. Something I know well from my own work. It was interesting to compare what was presented of his output on the subject with mine. And I honestly think I can stand my ground there. 

The Perry Family 
Manchester Pride, Manchester
Something I felt was missing from both photographic exhibition (though there were a few nods in that direction in the Parr show), was a description and discussion of the artists' MO. Do they use digital and why not if they don't, how do they approach people, do they shoot first, ask permission after, do they chat or move on straight away, how does Parr choose this hairdressing salon rather than that one, etc...

Most people visiting the show would probably not be interested but I'm sure a fair amount of photographers would also attend and would be interested in that sort of thing. 

Monday, 24 December 2018

Truce - a short story

I spent Christmas Day 2017 at a friend's place. After indulging in all sorts of delicious foods he had prepared, we lay in a mild torpor on his sofa, half watching television. One of the programmes unfolding before our bleary eyes happened to be the festive Dr Who episode, which included a scene in the trenches of the First World War during that infamous football match in 1914. This was, of course, in reference to the celebrations of the centenary of the war.

In any case, this somehow imprinted itself into my subconscious and within the next few days, a story presented itself to my mind. Over the following months, I endeavoured to commit it to electronic paper.

This is my first completed attempt at writing fiction. I am grateful to my first readers, Eddie, Sue, Richard, Russell and Andrew, who were kind enough to say positive things about the story, and also provided input and feedback.

It is, I think, now time to release it unto the unsuspecting world, 104 years to the day after the event that gives it its background. I hope you enjoy it, if you take the time to read it.

Feedback and comments are welcome.

Read the short story (Google Doc)
(It's just under 5000 words, so takes about one hour to read)

Monday, 12 February 2018

LGBT History Month - Standing on the shoulders of giants

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.", wrote Isaac Newton in 1675. It wasn’t an original thought even at the time but as we reach the middle of this year’s LGBT History Month, and as some wonder what the need is for such an event, this quote seems particularly apt. 

Although, as in so many cases, evidence is scant, Newton seems likely to have been at least romantically attracted to men. A possible proclivity, which, like that of so many other prominent figures, is either not discussed or actively maintained in the recesses of the darkest closet by an interested or downright hostile society. 

Further than this, however, the quote epitomises the situation of any LGBT person living in the UK in 2018. It is a cliché but we do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants; people who have had the courage to speak out and push for laws and mentalities to change; for us to be in a position to live our lives more or less as we please (although, as research on bullying, homelessness and hate crimes show, too many of us are still not even able to do that). 

Forgetting this is a betrayal of those courageous forebears (the Karl Heinrich Ulrichs or Marsha P. Johnsons of this world) and puts us on the road to forgetting that rights can be taken away much more easily than they are won. We only need to look at Bermuda, which just repealed its equal marriage legislation after only a year, and the pathetic lack of effective response from the Home Office, to know how true this is. 

However much we may protest otherwise from our privileged positions, vigilance is still key, and taking even a fleeting interest in our past can help us keep it alive. 

To many, history appears boring and irrelevant, but LGBT history is more than a list of meaningless dates. It is about the blood, sweat and tears of people like us. It tells us who we are, how we got there, and why we are we are. It certainly doesn’t have to be a miserable yawnfest in black and white, although there are sadly plenty of gloomy episodes in our collective, and often very recent, past. 

Look at the 18th century London Mollies, with their gender-bending, their mock marriages and birthings, or the thriving gay scene of the Weimar Republic, with its bars, social groups and magazines. Perhaps you’d prefer a look at the 70’s communes in Brixton with their radical theatre troupes? Our past shimmers with all the glittering colours of the rainbow, if you just care to look. 

Far from preventing any member of the community from being themselves, it is a way for us to learn about those role models we are never told about by the straight mainstream. 

Our straight brothers and sisters, by virtues of being members of the mainstream, are steeped in their own history. It is all around them and this allows them to build their sense of self as valued members of a group pretty much by osmosis. 

By our very nature, this is a luxury that we are not granted. Knowing our history provides the grounding to “see further” and be your best self, to be more creative and more at home within your own skin without having to achieve that result on your own. 

In the end, there is space for both learning about our past and enjoying a party. In fact, if we know about the challenges, the joys, the hardships and the achievements, aren’t we likely to want to enjoy ourselves with more defiant gusto and to appreciate the freedom to do so with added vigour? 

To paraphrase LGBT History Month's tag line: Celebrate your present, by all means, but do not forget to claim your past. It will help you create your future.

Monday, 9 October 2017

A chronic case of androphilia

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a free lance journalist working for BBC Three. He explained he was working on an article about the resurgence of the use of the term "androphile" among right-wing men as a way to distance themselves from the supposed lefty connotations of the word "gay".  Something that was news to me.

The journalist wanted to conduct a phone interview with me because somehow he'd found out that when I first created this blog (in 2004), I used the word "androphile" to describe myself. 

I should have known better, having been interviewed, before but I agreed to talk to him. When you read the result of an interview you find that the gist of what you said is indeed there but because of the need for pithyness and, possibly, a chinese-whispers effect, your words are also stripped of at least some of their nuance and somehow not fully representative of what you meant. Hence this post, I suppose. 

You can read the results of the interview here. This has since then been picked up, retold, and further skewed, with disapproving undertones, by QueertyAttitude, and possibly others. I've had few direct reactions so far and they have been benign, if somehow odd. Some indirect reactions on social media have been... a little less benign, shall we say, so this might change. 

As far as I recall the right-hand side column of this page is the only place I have ever used the term and it hasn't featured there for some time. I have no idea how the journalist managed to track me down, as google doesn't appear to index me in association with the term.  

This was a half-serious, admitedly slightly pompous way of trying to be both neutral and punctiliously precise in that description of myself to a new visitor of this blog. I somehow cobbled the word from my fragmentary knowledge of Greek and probable memories of encountering it somewhere before (I certainly don't claim to have had an original idea). 

I felt "homosexual" often had a clinical connotation, while one possible definition of the word "gay" covers a range of interests that I didn't share: i.e. the stereotyplical, more frivolous side of gay culture of which I wasn't part of. Again it wasn't a rejection of this side of the culture, just a prosaic attempt at acknowledging that this wasn't part of my experience. I am simply, as I often joke, a bad gay. 

As mentioned above, I have never really used the term other than in that profile and for simplicity's sake, I routinely and happily describe myself as "gay", since it's a short-hand that everybody will recognise and understand. And following the discovery that the word is now favoured by all sorts of (to my eyes) unsavoury characters, "gay" will certainly remain my descriptor of choice for the foreseeable future. 

UPDATE: I think the journalist found me via my dormant MySpace (remember that?) accountw, the end of my short biog went: "I am androphile, AKA a big 'mo." I have now removed that bit. 

Sunday, 3 September 2017

God's Own Country - a review


God's Own Country (GOC) has been garnering plaudits from critics and audiences alike. The gays on my TL who's seen it are raving about it. Yet on the face of it the film hardly seem material for success. It is a totally conventional romcom story (indeed it has been compared to another (Brokeback Mountain)): an interloper comes to rescue the main character from the doldrums. They don't like each other at the beginning but love triumphs in the end. 

The worth here is in the storytelling. The justness of the tone, full of delicate details but always successfully avoiding sentimentality, the sensitive portrayals of the characters, the raw, unflinching scenes, make GOC an out of the ordinary exploration of love and male identity. 

That the film is a gay love story is, I would argue, ultimately quite secondary, a narrative device almost, although to most viewers this will probably feel quite central. The facts that it is set in the dourness of the Yorkshire countryside, not in an urban environment, that it features (mostly) working class people and that one of those people is a Romanian immigrant seem much more significant in the end. 

It is worth noting that despite some rather vigorous sexual encounters of a homosexual nature and the passing display of male genitalia, the censors, in their wisdom, thought that all that was required was a 15 certificate. This is a sign of progress no doubt. Another sign of this, possibly, is that, had this story been told five to ten years ago, we would probably not have been granted the happy ending we now get and our heroes would not have been allowed to go roam the greenwood (as Forster called it in Maurice).

Beyond the sweet love story, however GOC can, I think, be viewed as a portrayal of, and a metaphor for modern Britain. And it is fair to say that the DVD of GOC won't be on Farage's Christmas list. 

We are presented with an insular little group of people, stuck in a hopeless rut and deeply unhappy for it. They are facing emotional and financial ruin and they are, in the end, only saved by the arrival of a skilled worker from Romania and the upheaval it causes (that nationality can't have been chosen by chance after the scare stories published in the right-wing press not so long ago). 

In the context of the unfolding debacle that is the UK's decision to leave the EU and to cut itself from the rest of Europe, the plot of the film takes a highly symbolic meaning which turns into a deeply socially and politically engaged film, and this is what transcends its possible status as a modest romcom to being a true work of art.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Obikes London - a review

You'll have noticed them on a pavement or at a street corner in the past few days. There's a new set of players in town trying to lure you into taking them for a ride. They are wild and free; they don't need docking stations; the obikes are in town and they want your attentions.

Since I needed to pay Canada Water a visit, which is unhelpfully located outside the catchment zone of the TfL/Santander Cycle Hire scheme, I decided to take the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity by using one of those obikes to take myself there from Elephant and Castle. 

A similar hire scheme, called Mokibes, recently opened in Manchester and there's apparently been what we shall modestly call a few teething problems. Even the London scheme, where people are invited to leave the bikes near an official bike parking location, seems to have created some confusion, as seen in the image below I shot earlier this week.

I should probably mention here that I am a great fan and have been a dedicated and almost daily user of the so-called Boris Bikes/Kenny Farthings since the inception of the scheme (seven years ago almost to the day). Since that time, those bikes have been my main means of transport and I love using them.

So, having downloaded the undispensable obike app earlier in the week to have a little snoop around, I was pretty much ready to go and see what the new kid on the block had to offer. The obvious advantage for me is the option (as per my planned trip) to go where the red bikes wouldn't take me.

Finding a bike (photo below) and unlocking it was pretty straight forward and all worked very well. The bikes are currently free to use (normal cost is 50p for 30min - much cheaper to casual users than the established scheme), with only a (reduced) deposit of £29 to pay in-app (full deposit will be £49). 

This is however sadly pretty much where the fun stopped for me.

The bikes are much lighter than Cycle Hire ones and as such feel a little flimsy to someone used to the more sturdy option. I had to readjust the handle bars which had somehow been turned out of line with front wheel; something I never have to do normally.

As I do everytime I take a TfL bike, I had to adjust the seat height (I'm tall, you see). Unfortunately those bikes are not built for tall people. The seat stem is impossibly short and I ended up with my legs bent at 90 degree, when the recommended position is to be able to extend them fully for maximum power.

Still, I set off on what I had discovered earlier should be roughly a 15min ride to the east.

Unlike the older scheme, those bikes only have one speed (although that shouldn't be a problem for me as I only ever use the 3rd gear on the TfL bikes). Couple with the clumsy cycling position and some headwind, I often felt that I could have gone faster walking. I'm normally more or less able to keep up with slow traffic with the other scheme, which, I am convinced, affords me extra safety. Not being able to remotely keep up, is, I think, dangerous.

What I took to be an apparently ineffective gear twist (located on the right handle bar) is apparently in fact a bell, which already didn't work on my bike.

Very soon my legs started to ache in unusual places and to lose most stamina. I even had to resort several time to cycling standing, BMX style, for a little relief. I did manage to pick up a little speed when doing that, but it is not a position that can be kept for long.

In the end, I didn't even quite reach my planned destination before I decided to ditch the bike (in front of Canada Water's leisure centre) and finish my trip on foot. This had taken me 22 min according to the app and I was sweating like I haven't sweated for a very long time on one of my usual steeds.

There are a number of people who think the Santander bikes too ponderous and slow. Compared to the obikes, they are like the best-tuned racing machines and my love for them has only grown after today.

I am lucky enough to rarely have to go outside the cycle hire zone, so I would only have limited need for the obikes in the first place, but I will certainly do my utmost not to have to use them again. If I do end up using them, perhaps late at night in north-east London where I sometimes find myself, it will only be as far as the nearest docking station, where I'll quickly swap for one of the red bikes.

The app works fine, the availability is great but the scheme is totally being let down by the central piece of it, the bikes themselves. A real missed oppotunity.

See also:
Dockless Bikeshare in London – oBike is Here (for a more positive take)