Culture column

The soaring beats of Flying Lotus

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All of a sudden the stage lights went out, police sirens wailed and their lights flickered across the stage. Slowly emerging from the dry ice stood six silhouetted Black Panther type figures carrying rifles. Then, like a thunderbolt, the band launched into "Countdown to Armageddon".

The band was Public Enemy and the venue was the Electric Ballroom in Camden in 1988. It was one of those musical experiences that will live with me for the rest of my life.

Readers of this column will have their own musical highpoints and lows. For some it will be when Elvis Presley swivelled his hips to "Heartbreak Hotel", for others it will be when the Sex Pistols spat out the words to "God Save the Queen" on Top of the Pops and for younger readers it may have been Jay Z at Glastonbury.

The ambivalent legacy of Free Cinema

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"I've just seen a marvellous programme of documentaries," I enthused to a young sculptor friend who has no particular interest in cinema. "Oh! Documentaries," he replied, "You mean those films that are like driving along in a car with the radio on!" - John Berger, Sight and Sound, 1957.

Berger's palpable excitement leaps off the page as he describes his reaction to a series of highly influential Free Cinema short films which re-energised British documentary making in the 1950s by recording "the virtues and dignity of ordinary people at work". The documentaries were "free" in the sense that they were not subject to overt commercial pressure or propaganda of any kind, although this is arguable as one of the programmes received backing from a multinational corporation, Ford of Britain.

Brer Rabbit

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I was browsing the shelves of my local secondhand bookshop recently and there, tucked away in a dusty corner, was an old copy of The Classic Tales of Brer Rabbit.

Rereading a few of the short stories took me back to my childhood when I devoured tales of Brer Rabbit and his gang Brer Bear and Brer Moose.

For those who don't know, "brer" (sometimes spelt br'er or bre'r) is simply a shortened form of "brother".

Brer is a trickster and a hustler. He is a figure who always succeeds in outwitting his arch-enemy, Brer Fox, through his wit and cunning, but never through brawn. Brer Rabbit is an anti-hero - mocking the powerful and bending the rules.

Capitalism: A Love Story

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Over 20 years ago a friend said to me, "You really ought to catch this film Roger & Me. It's by a guy called Michael Moore and it's a very funny documentary about the closing of the GM motor works in Flint, Michigan."

This sounded most unlikely to me. Documentaries were rarely funny at the time, and the subject matter didn't seem to lend itself to humour. I went expecting something worthy but probably dull.

How surprised I was. Moore's film was indeed funny, angry, unusual and utterly devastating all at one time.

A Tokyo Story

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Filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu is hardly a household name in Britain, but he truly is one of the world's greatest directors.

For those who don't know Ozu's work, now is your chance. Over the next few months many of his films, such as Late Spring (1949), Early Spring (1956) and Floating Weeds (1959), will be showing around the country. Just as importantly, his masterpiece, the heartrending Tokyo Story (1953), is being re-released on DVD.

Casting off stereotypes

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Channel 4's new series, Cast Offs, proved to be a breath of fresh air in the world of media and disability.

In the fake reality show mockumentary, six disabled characters (all played by disabled actors) are stranded on an island.

Its writers hope it will do for disability what Queer as Folk did for gays, and certainly you couldn't imagine it being made ten years ago, let alone when I was growing up.

Back in my early teens everyone thought that my hero must be Douglas Bader. Bader had lost both legs in the Second World War and yet continued to go on flying missions, got taken prisoner of war, escaped, was recaptured and emerged from it all as a national hero.

Sounds of city streets

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The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) rips through the heart of two of New York's finest boroughs.

If you ever get a chance to drive along it, your journey will take you through a cityscape of dilapidated factories, graffitied walls and in the distance the gleaming skyscrapers of Manhattan.

I want to take a musical journey through the eyes of the composer Aaron Copland and the multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens. Just like the BQE, it's a journey of the old and the new.

Poland's subversive cinema

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A popular joke in Soviet era Poland went something like this: "One day a pre-school teacher told her class, 'In Poland all kids are happy. They have lots of beautiful toys and live in great apartments...' Suddenly one child starts to cry and screams, 'I want to live in Poland!'"

Humour was one of the few ways of criticising the Stalinist regime. Another, much more powerful way was cinema.

This issue of Socialist Review looks at the political movements that brought down the Berlin Wall and state capitalist regimes across Eastern Europe. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s cinema played an important role in Polish society. Its impact was visual, direct and full of underlying messages designed to elude the state censors, subtly exposing life in a one-party state.

James Murdoch's Darwin

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Last month James Murdoch, son of Rupert and CEO of News Corporation, gave a keynote lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Say what you like about him, anyone who quotes George Orwell and Leo Tolstoy, and sources Charles Darwin, Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, the genetic development of the modern banana, and the Levellers (the political movement, not the band) is clearly a man of much gravitas. Or so you'd think.

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