kenny hodgart

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Tailor trashed

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

Feng Xiaogang has been ranting. Boy has he been ranting. Co-opting the shrill tendency of egotists everywhere to brand those at variance with themselves “nazis”, the mainland filmmaker’s response last month to a negative reception of his latest opus has been quite undignified, perhaps all the more so given the eagerness with which audiences flocked to see it anyway, enabling it to break Chinese box office records.

Alas, Personal Tailor scored poorly with paid reviewers and the social media crowd alike, a double whammy Feng rationalised on Weibo as follows: “The movie-goers can criticise me as much as they like … but not the film reviewers. [They] do not pay for tickets but make money from reviewing.” He also labelled his critics “shallow”, “an embarrassment” and “fools”.

Not having seen Personal Tailor, I cannot say. Perhaps they are. And perhaps it is the brilliant, important satire Feng avers and will be lauded by posterity for poking fun at corrupt authorities and the superficiality of modern Chinese society (the plot, it seems, touches on official graft, the vulgarities of the nouveau riche and the obstacles that prevent filmmakers from transcending lowbrow culture). Claims to that effect from a man who has built a career on the popular tastes of such a society, and whose cinematic cup runneth over with product placements, seem a little counterintuitive, of course – but as I say, what do I know?

One supposes it is a good thing that a mainlander should speak his mind freely, but to rail against those “cultural nazis” who would dispute Feng’s genius by suggesting they be deprived of their right to do so sounds a tad despotic in itself. “You’re all stupid, shut up,” is about the size of it. Whatever Feng’s talents as a filmmaker, patrons of the vituperative arts have been ill-served.

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Classic mistakes

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

Some jobs call for more concentration than others: surgery, snooker, murder, that sort of thing. Performing, say, a Mahler symphony, must be pretty demanding, too, what with all the time signature changes and demented scherzo-ing; and some things rather tend to break the spell – a phone ringing in the concert hall, for example. 

Noisy audiences at a recent summer arts festival in Scotland prompted discussion about classical music concert-goers’ decorum there. Someone writing in The Guardian – betraying that newspaper’s vestigial 1970s radicalism, or hatred of all things “stuffy” – argued that making such music less accessible by expecting people to conform to norms of behaviour once a conductor raises his baton might put some of them off attending and should be avoided.

Well, of course, trying not to cough is tricky and in extreme circumstances may lead to death; and I have no issue with the ingenue who claps between movements – there is a difference between etiquette and manners, and those who possess the latter ought to know to join in so as not to make the clapper feel awkward. Efforts to make concert halls more welcoming or relaxed places must be resisted, however. It will only open the door to the kind of excesses that should be confined to American Pentecostal worship.

Now, reports tell us of a Canadian orchestra’s performance in Fuling, Chongqing, being marred by chatter, phones ringing (and being answered), and audience members filming proceedings. Hong Kong’s concert-goers tend to be more considerate but, even so, that most precious of commodities in these parts – silence – is never a given. Classical musicians deserve more: it should be remembered, after all, that many of them take rests during longer pieces to catch up on sleep.

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Roeg’s gallery

This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

Most scientists agree that aliens probably look something like David Bowie, with his cultivated strangeness and differentially-pigmented eyes (the result, apparently, of being punched in a schoolyard brawl).

Actually, “most” might be an exaggeration: there has been no extensive polling. But what is even less concrete is Bowie’s idea of himself. Whether as Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, the English singer’s most interesting years saw him shifting otherworldly shapes like nobody’s business. And the quantities of drugs he is known to have consumed in the 1970s make it feasible that he thought himself arrived from outer space.

Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth casts pop’s original chameleon as a humanoid alien who drops from the sky in a rocket. His objective, sketchily outlined, has something to do with developing the technology to reverse the drought now killing his own planet, and to that end he brings with him high-tech patents that make him a billionaire overnight.

Unfortunately he does not count on human greed or decadence, and, sadly, things do not go well. Mary-Lou, a first-rate mentalist who falls in love with him, introduces him to booze and he becomes addicted to it, and to watching television.

But enough of the spoilers, other than to state that 1970s paranoia – about impending planetary ruin, the brain-sapping properties of TV, political corruption and big business being dreadful – is writ large. Ideas that now seem tired abound. And yet, the movie’s visual boldness, ambition and insistent focus on character over plot put it on a superior plane to most current genre film-making.

Roeg was on a rich vein of form (a run that includes Don’t Look Now – named best British film ever in an industry poll last year – Bad Timing and Walkabout) and by this time Bowie had conquered America. But when the brass at Paramount saw the final cut of The Man Who Fell to Earth, they refused to fund its release and the film struggled to break even.

It’s likely the studio felt it was too, well, alienating. Roeg cuts incessantly between scenes without explanation, only to then linger on things which interest him visually, not least the desert landscapes of New Mexico, where Newton (Bowie) opts to reside. The result is that the film-maker himself seems to approach America – whether New Mexico or New York – from an alien’s point of view. He confronts its strangeness, asks questions of its culture, puzzles at capitalism’s outward manifestations.

Naturally, Bowie is an alien with a British passport. Feeble, androgynous, melancholy, he is the ultimate outsider. And the ultimate tragedy is that like Icarus falling, almost unnoticed, into the sea – as referenced in the film by way of W.H. Auden’s poem about Brueghel’s painting of the scene – humans very soon lose interest in that which they don’t understand.

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A fine lot of good

This article was published in Hong Kong Tatler

If there were any doubt that the art world in the 21st Century is a thoroughly globalised, geographically cross-fertilised business, a thumb through the catalogue for this year’s Fine Art Asia quickly dispels it. Local Hong Kong artist Tsang Chui-mei’s paintings very clearly combine the Chinese literati tradition with elements of Western abstract expressionism; Frenchwoman Fabienne Verdier, who spent a decade in China learning traditional ink painting, likewise channels a distinctly East-West spirit on her canvases; and local gallery FEAST Projects’ Chinese Artists in France features works by contemporary master Zao Wouki, who is said to have counted Joan Miro, Picasso and Matisse among his friends once upon a time.

One could go on – but perhaps it was ever thus. Here, for example, we have Galerie Dayan of Paris offering up a large Louis XV vernis Martin – imitation Chinese lacquerware – among its items of French decorative art from the 17th to the 19th Century.

Art fairs in general have about them something of the 19th Century – for Europe a period of global expansion, when, as the hoarding of artefacts and works of art from around the world became almost a competitive sport, major public galleries sprang up, taking art collecting out of its hitherto exclusively private sphere. And Fine Art Asia 2012, which boasts exhibits from across four millenia and confidently straddles Eastern and Western art, is no exception. Indeed, the flaneurs of Haussmann’s Paris might well feel at home at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai next month – were it not for the fact that modern and contemporary art and design sits jowl-to-jowl with that of older vintage.

“I think it’s a perfect match to combine these different strands together in one venue,” says the fair’s founder and director Andy Hei over lunch some weeks ahead of the eighth major international fair he has staged in the city since his first Art and Antiques Fair in 2006.

Hei (who, like his father before him, deals in classical Ming and Qing-era Chinese furniture) and his co-director Calvin Hui (a gallery owner and collector of Asian contemporary art) are bringing together more than 120 galleries from as far apart as London, New York and Singapore for next month’s event – making it the biggest to date and confirming Fine Art Asia as the region’s most prestigious art gathering.

Says Hei: “I come from an antique or heritage art background; Calvin is from the contemporary art world. We’re a small team and we don’t have a lot of resources, so we are basing everything on the position of Hong Kong and our reputation among dealers and buyers.”

The pair are palpably excited, almost skittishly enthusiastic. Hui talks about fluctuations in the market for contemporary Chinese art with the twinkling eye of one who knows what will count as having artistic, and indeed pecuniary, value, years hence; Hei waxes lyrical about Hong Kong’s advantages for art dealers of being a free port and not charging a sales tax on art (it’s little coincidence that the fair coincides with major autumn art auctions in the city). And as a double act they encapsulate what makes the fair work: theirs may be vastly different artistic backgrounds, but they share a belief in the intrinsic value of good art and a passion for bringing as diverse a representation of it together – under the same roof and in their native city.

“Hong Kong has always been the perfect gateway city,” Hei boasts. “It has always known how to deal between East and West. In the art world, it used to be a case of Western buyers buying Chinese art and taking it back to the West; but now you can see the process has changed direction, whereby both Eastern and Western art is moving east.”
With the art market very much driven by wealthy mainlanders right now, Hui believes the Chinese are first of all “buying back” their own heritage: “There is is a phenomenon in China referred to as the Return of Cultural Relics and this is part of that, whether it’s antique art or 20th Century modern Chinese art.”

But it’s not just about patriotism, he insists – mainlanders are also increasingly outward-looking. “Hong Kong has always been in touch with western culture and western art. In China, people are travelling more and going abroad to be educated and there’s a sense that they are experiencing what Hong Kong experienced further back.”

Much like 19th Century European collectors, he says, the nouveaux riches of China are decorating and furnishing their homes with art and artefacts from different centuries and from around the world. “They may not understand the art historical significance of everything but they will think nothing of combining Italian-design furniture from the 1950s with 5,000 year-old Chinese vases, 19th Century English silverware and Ming Chinese paintings.”

Such eclectic appetites are unlikely to be frustrated by the veritable goulash of treasures on show in Wan Chai. The breadth of exhibits at this year’s fair is truly astonishing: Chinese bronzes from the 13th Century B.C; Chinese and Western classical furniture; Asian and international antique ceramics, paintings, jewellery, watches, sculptures, textiles and decorative art; Dutch and Italian landscape paintings from the 17th to 19th Centuries; masterpieces from Pissaro, Sisley, Monet, Renoir, Guillaumin, Picasso and Miro; sculptures by Rodin, Bugatti and Guyot; works by Chinese “new ink” artists Liu Dan Wei Ligang and Qin Fen; vintage jewellery made for the famous 1920s American socialite Millicent Rogers by “jeweller to the stars” Paul Flato; and much else besides.

For his part, Hui is particularly thrilled to be welcoming the first ever 20th Century Italian Design Furniture Exhibition in Asia – which will run for the duration of September, ahead of the fair, at the K11 Art Mall in TST. Presented by Italy’s Novalis Contemporary Art, it features items by masters of modern design including Etorre Sottsass, Gaetano Pesce, Merret Oppenheim and Studio 65. “For so many of us, Italy really defines design,” Hui says. “It is beautiful and regal while still being accessible in everyday life.”

Hei, meanwhile, identifies an expanded fine art jewellery category – spanning antique pocket watches, 19th Century gem-set brooches and Art Deco Cartier necklaces – as a definite highlight.

“An art fair like this is not just a trading platform,” he adds. “It’s an appreciation of design and art history.”

It should also be said that the fair does its utmost to support local artists by allowing students from the Department of Fine Arts at The Chinese University and Hong Kong Art School to showcase, and sell, their work in the hall. “We want to encourage students to stay in the art business,” Hei says. “Hong Kong needs that. It’s a chance for them to get in touch with the real art market.” In addition, Fine Art Asia supports the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children and the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, with the latter receiving the proceeds of a charity auction of works donated by local artists.

“My father taught me that if you gain something from the market, you have to give something back,” says Hei. “We’re not just taking Hong Kong as the venue for an art fair, we’re supporting it every way we can.”

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All fired up

This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

Even if you’ve never seen Chariots of Fire, you will have heard its theme: the one that goes “da na na na nah nah” and is usually accompanied on television by footage of people doing things in slow motion. (Come to think of it, the way it has been used as a de facto anthem for British athletics may help to explain why the country’s sprinters no longer win the same quantity of medals as they did, say, at the 1924 Olympic Games, which provide the setting for much of this film.)

Along with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Chariots of Fire is one of two very fine British films about running and in truth is no more about fire than Slap Her, She’s French. Fire does feature in a number of indirect ways, however.

For one there is a lot of smoking, clearly an aid to sporting achievement in the olden days. Secondly, it features two young men fired up, each in his own way, by zeal or ambition, one of whom, the Scotsman Eric Liddell, has more than a touch of Calvinist fire and brimstone in his makeup. In his unorthodox running style, he also often appears to have a rocket warming his bottom.

Where Liddell is running for God (he even refuses to compete on the Sabbath), Harold Abrahams – the son of a financier who happens to have been a Lithuanian immigrant – is motivated by a desire for acceptance among the echelons of an Establishment, exemplified by the dons at his Cambridge college, that is distinctly sniffy about his Jewishness.

Both are exceptional figures, plucked from real sporting history and held to embody certain virtues – honour, dedication, personal integrity – that infuse the film with a twilit poignance. That theme (composed by Vangelis) and the framing of the flashback narrative with scenes from a 1978 memorial service for Abrahams, add to an overall sense of nostalgia for gifts vanished, lives gone, the flame of camaraderie and love now sputtering or extinguished.

Besides excellent performances from Charleson and Ben Cross (as Abrahams), the supporting credits are chock full with British acting talent, including Sir John Gielgud as one of the dons and a young Nigel Havers in the role of Lord Lindsay, another Cambridge athlete.

There is also much delight to be had from what scholars call the “diegetic” music, i.e that which has a part to play in the narrative itself: plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan (Abrahams’ falls in love with a soprano from The Mikado) and, at the end, a rousing rendition of Jerusalem, the hymn adapted from the William Blake poem which inspires the film’s title with the line “Bring me my chariot of fire”.

The phrase in turn comes from the Old Testament and is taken as a byword for divine energy. Whether or not that idea moves you, Hugh Hudson’s film probably will.

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The good fight

This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

Do they still teach Hemingway in schools these days? Or have the post-modernists, feminist-syndicalists and other ne’er-do-wells succeeded in booting him off the liberal humanist syllabus on the grounds that he was prone to violence, wrestled with Biblical ideas and took delight in women?

I only inquire as I can’t remember what I learned about The Old Man and the Sea, if indeed anything at all; you know, about motifs and metaphors and whatnot. That was always the thing at school, if you recall. So, what have we here? Well, there’s an old man – Santiago – who symbolises “man”, particularly the oldish sort. And there’s the sea, which is, if you will, nature itself, and female at that: “She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel…”

But there are no actual women besides the old man, just a boy and an ocean full of fish. And in Hemingway, men come alive in nature, without and away from women; they hunt and fish and grapple with life and death, fear and courage, sin and impotence. The old man’s powers are waning but his struggle to land a giant marlin off the coast of Cuba is heroic. With his patience and humility, his bleeding hands and the mast he carries ashore on his back, he is a mortal Christ.

Jesus Christ never had to put up with sharks, though. Santiago does and they are his ruin. After hooking his eight-foot long prize and almost killing himself hauling it in over four days, he finds it’s too big to bring on board his skiff. The sharks come in pairs and packs and devour its flesh.

More than Santiago’s other adversaries – the marlin, his own frailties – Hemingway’s sharks are a truly mortal enemy. Not for him the fun, put-upon creatures Greenpeace would have us believe in: these sharks are hateful beings who kill and scavenge and cut the legs and heads off turtles when they’re sleeping.

It is said Hemingway – who in The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon had celebrated bull-fighting – never met an animal he didn’t want to kill, but Santiago is a compassionate fellow who sees his prey as a “brother” and grapples (briefly) with the morality of his quest. And where the corrida is depicted as ritualistic and somehow sacred – and thus possessing an authenticity Hemingway saw as lacking among his intellectual acquaintances in Paris – his treatment of sharks seems more rooted in notions of good and evil. As Santiago remarks with some relish to his (dead) fish, after smashing the skull of a shovel-nose with his oar: “We have killed many sharks, you and I, and ruined many others.”

Read all of this as metaphor if you must, but as a study of the human spirit and of what men endure, The Old Man and the Sea is a work of art on or off of whichever syllabus you care to mention.

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Beyond betrayal

This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

It may be confidently asserted that the cypher-like emoticon things which nowadays adorn all correspondence amongst people under 30 do not derive their name from George Smiley. The taciturn intelligence officer central to a number of John Le Carré’s most memorable novels, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is rarely given to emotion, let alone enthusiasm. And with good reason. As Le Carre chronicles, from personal experience, the work of a Cold War spy is painstaking and unglamorous, a quid pro quo only for obscurity, paranoia, possible derangement and almost certain betrayal.

Brought out of forced retirement to hunt a mole (code-named Gerald) whom, it transpires, has effectively turned the Circus – the innermost circle of British secret intelligence – into an arm of Moscow Centre, Smiley is a man betrayed at almost every turn in Tinker, Tailor. Jaded yet loyal, we are led to infer that he feels Gerald’s deception, of the service and of Britain, deeply. That Gerald turns out to be the charismatic Bill Haydon, one of Smiley’s wife’s many lovers, adds further to his martyrdom. And, to top it off, his earlier banishment from the Circus was the price he paid for loyalty to “Control”, the boss ousted after a botched operation which was, it emerges, a trap set up by Haydon and Moscow.

Condensing Le Carré’s intricate storyline is no easy task – as Thomas Alfredson, who directed the recent film version, has attested. But as Smiley burrows deeper into past events – the novel begins in media res and jumps about – he assembles a mosaic of duplicity. Scholars have likened him to Homer’s Odysseus, the scorned outsider putting the kingdom bang to rights, but the Circus’s day of reckoning brings him little satisfaction. And when the final act of revenge, betrayal’s narrative bastard, comes, it is implied the bullet is fired by Jim Prideaux, Haydon’s old partner.

Haydon’s character is derived from Kim Philby, one of the so-called Cambridge Five traitors and the man Le Carré believes blew his own cover as a secret agent. The author knows of what he writes, then: a Britain on whose Empire the sun is setting, exposed to subversion from within the ranks of its own establishment. And the Circus serves almost as an amphitheatre for this attrition of old certainties. Espionage is no game of cricket, certainly.

Still, though, Le Carré manages to convince us of what is at stake: loyalty matters, betrayal of one’s own is contemptible. Smiley clings to a kind of unspoken faith that whatever foulness Englishmen may be capable of in defending British interests, they are still more moral than the other chaps, and that anyway it’s all worth it to uphold the rights of the individual against the tyranny of Soviet communism. In spying on the Circus, he may be “sinning against his own notions of nobility,” but Le Carré leaves us in no doubt that some betrayals are more pardonable than others.

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Henry Chinaski’s hangovers

This article appeared on The South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

In committing to print any tribute to Henry Chinaski – the dissipated, rather-more-than-semi-autobiographical anti-hero of Post Office and several other novels by Charles Bukowski – one is faced with two options. The first is to leave the page blank and let the editor explain that the writer was indisposed due to a hangover. The second is to follow Chinaski’s example when he does turn up for work and slog it out, toiling and cursing, cheap liquor oozing from every pore.

So let’s not pay tribute to Chinaski. He has his hagiographers but Bukowski isn’t among them. His characterisation is marinaded in self-loathing; there’s too much hurt and cynicism in him for Chinaski to be in any way laudable. Deadbeats are romanticised in American life from Big Sur to The Big Lebowski, but with Bukowski it’s all too raw. A child of German immigrants to Los Angeles between the wars he was a misfit from a young age. He had chronic acne. His father was abusive. In his early teens he discovered drinking: “This [alcohol] is going to help me for a very long time,” he later recalled. Failing to make it as a writer as a young man, he grew disillusioned and became “a ten-year drunk”, which “lost years” later provided the inspiration for most of his books.

The irony, then, is that unlike Chinaski Bukowski made rather a success of things in the end, but you would have to say it was probably because of rather than despite his love of booze. Alcohol is his muse. It fuels his puckishly dyspeptic view of the world.

Much of Post Office is about the drudgery of work. It covers the period of Bukowski’s own life when he worked as a mail carrier and later a mail clerk, with an interregnum when he gambled on horses. In the novel the US Postal Service is populated entirely by jobsworths, petty bureaucrats and sadistic supervisors; the part of the American dream about bettering oneself through honest sweat gets a literary pulverising. And yet, tempting as it may be to see Bukowski as some kind of champion of the lumpen proletariat, that’s not quite it. Work truly is the curse of the drinking classes in his world. Chinaski drinks when he has a job and when he doesn’t. There is a new hangover roughly every four pages.

Along the way we meet the tragic Betty, a widowed alcoholic 11 years Chinaski’s senior who is based on the love of Bukowski’s life, Jane Cooney Baker, and Joyce, who stands in for Barbara Frye, his first wife, and who is portrayed as a nymphomaniac. Frye divorced him on grounds of “mental cruelty”, which is an apt description of what Chinaski subjects himself to on a daily basis. The problem is that despite being a bum and having next to no redeeming features, he is a uniquely captivating bum. It can rarely be said of man nor woman, but Bukowski’s drinking did the world a service.

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No peace in their time

This article was published on The South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

Can peace ever be other than relative? Its scourge, war, enjoins us to believe so: that there exists an opposing absolute to those things which take place on battlefields. All Quiet on the Western Front, written in 1929 by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the First World War, leaves us in some doubt, however – for to his cast of young recruits, peace is as likely to be attained via the grave as it is by armistice.

To them, we discover, peace is unimaginable, unknowable. As the author states in his short introduction, the book tells of “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Spurred to enlist at 18 by a blustering, jingoistic schoolmaster, Paul Bäumer (our narrator) and his friends are “suddenly old at 20”. Their life experience amounts to having heeded the patriotism of their elders; now, brutalised by life at the front, their numbers winnowed down by Allied bombardments, Bäumer observes “we are a wasteland”, and when his own death arrives he is “almost glad the end had come.”

To read Remarque’s novel almost a century after the events it describes, one is struck not only by a devouring sense of pathos – these soldiers are but boys – but also by how, well, unknowable, the entire conflict seems at this remove. How is it even possible that we can reconcile its apparent meaninglessness or grasp its insanity? The so-called “Great War” was one in which men were sent to their deaths in their millions by commanders-in-chief whose own personal safety was never in doubt, in which those who spoke for peace were silenced and which so knocked the stuffing out of the nations embroiled in it that survivors often chose never to speak of it at all.

That being the case, All Quiet on the Western Front is likely to have been anything but an easy read for many of those who made it an instant international best-seller. Its core message is that war and soldiering are not merely wrong but unnecessary, that the sacrifices demanded of combatants are always in vain. The nihilism is clawing, potent, powerful – but then that is how good writing works. Remarque’s book has been held up to generations of us almost as an article of unimpeachable documentary veracity, which is rather a lot to ask of a novel. Does it explain the war to us any better than history books can? No. Does it make it any more knowable? Almost certainly not.

In the Anglophone world Rudyard Kipling’s homily “lest we forget” is given breath every November. It is the dead we remember, of course, but also the horror and the mystery of wars, in the hope that remembering will forestall more of them. And this, above all, is why All Quiet on the Western Front continues to be read: Paul Baumer may not believe much in peace but Remarque makes us desire it nonetheless.