Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to leave something alone.

I’ve stuck another poem here.  First though here’s a passage from the brilliant film/play ‘Six Degrees of Separation’.
How easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months,
and then, one day, he loses it. Loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting. I remembered asking my kids' second-grade teacher

"Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade - blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade...Matisses, every one.  You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade.  What is your secret?”

“I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.”

Ouisa Kittredge - Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare

This stuck in my head from when I first saw it at the cinema in 1994.  The idea that knowing when to stop is as important to the artist as knowing what to paint or how to begin.  The reason I mention it now is as a preface to this poem which I wrote in about 30 minutes, from just a title, as an exercise.  I liked how it came out but having had constructive criticism at a poetry workshop and then spent several sessions try to edit and improve it, I’m still not happy.  It’s no Matisse but if I keep messing with it I’ll lose it completely.  But rather than keep fiddling with it indefinitely I thought I’d release it into the wild.  I need to write something else!  I suppose it could form a trilogy with the other two I posted up here. 

Summer Nights
Shivering defiantly in the dark, fleeces zipped snug to our chins,
under a peak sky that's ours alone,
silent-still and clear as the beginning of the world.
Then admiring the city girls, dressed tissue-thin with feet caged,
as the sodium stains into the dark
and the day's heat bleeds from  the bricks.

The bedroom’s full of soupy air and we’re snoozing sheet-tangled
in a web of each other, half listening to the taxi traffic that
breaks like waves outside the open window.  
The silences lengthen like shadows
until the dawn claims the day and sends them home
 to their beds and tired-eyed day jobs.

The feeling that the year's on the wane already and that the best has gone.
We're on the long slide now, hardly moving but slowly picking up speed,
back-to-school, harvest songs, halloween and fireworks.
Blinds shut and the curtains drawn in the damp-dark of tea time
with only the wind’s breath in the chimney
and eyes lit up with the TV’s light.

You faded in the spring and were lost from sight in the summer.
Come home with an autumn gale behind you in a cloud of falling leaves.

David Millington
27th February 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

When acting is useless and a poem

I’ve only recently started acting.  The people who’ve seen me on stage might dispute this, saying I’m yet to start (they’re wrong – look at the eyebrows in my Facebook pictures – magnificent!).  Others might claim I’ve been masquerading as all kinds of things over the years and am therefore very experienced if only marginally accomplished.  We’ll ignore those people.  Anyway, I’ve enjoyed it so far and it’s been stimulating to start something new.  As you get older you do tend to have tried all sorts of activities.  You develop a good idea of your strengths and weaknesses and tend to play to them and avoid them.   Acting is something that I’ve genuinely never tried before and I’m right at the bottom of the learning curve.  This means that pretty much every experience contains a valuable lesson and something new and interesting.  This sense of exploration is very liberating, particularly when with so many others of my areas of interest I’m taking a new experience and filing it on a shelf next to other similar experiences.  With acting my shelf is bare.  And possibly my cupboard.
There are certainly a lot of better definitions of the essence of acting than this, but you might describe it as ‘showing feelings that you’re not feeling’.  I’d always thought that this would be a useful skill to have.  There plenty of times in your professional life when you need to pretend to be interested in a conversation that you don’t care about.  Or to be calm in the face of idiocy, knowing that if you lose your temper it’ll not help you get the outcome you want from a situation.  Sometimes it’s as a little white lie so as not to upset someone.  Sometimes it’s to deceive the other person to hide your own inadequacy.  A better person might be able to listen more carefully and sympathetically but I’m worried about a problem of my own and it’s distracting me when I should be all there for you. 
Sadly though, at the most important times, when I’d really want to be able to show myself as a different and stronger person I can’t.  To take a redundancy with a wry smile and a shrug when you’re put everything into the job and you want to hide your anguish at the unfairness of the decision.  To be scared almost to the point of being unable to move as you step up to a tough cliff face on an Alpine mountaineering route but wanting to raise a laugh, a quip and the illusion of courage.  To smile at the girl who’s breaking your heart and tell her it’s ok and to try to spare her feelings when you’re in that weightless moment before the new gravity pulls you down and spinning out of control.
So, when it really matters, acting is pretty useless.  But then when it really matters most things are.  I suppose having to be honest and face these situations as yourself is the best way.  Good luck and chin up. 

As this post is a little short and as the last poem was so well received, here’s another.  I wrote the bones of it in about 10 minutes in the summer but then spent a few sessions trying to re-write it.  I stuck it up on UKClimbing so I suppose I should put it up here too.

Just Because

My choices seem like burdens
Each one a chance to make a mistake I can’t correct
I plough furrows across my brow
a path to nowhere on the landing carpet

To do something 'just because' is what a child would do
or something you would do, at your giggling best.
Taking my hand and dragging me into something
I might think better of.

That rush of dread in my gut and then laughter
when I realise that this is what I wanted.
Not this just this giddy twirl across the floor
but this untethered way of being.

Of course 'just because' works both ways.
When I sit and think of why I love you
I can marshall a hundred marching reasons
and you, it seems, can think of none.

David Millington
21st February 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

The world’s the stage

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances,  And one man in his time takes many parts” – William Shakespeare - As You Like It – Act 2, Scene 7
One of the things that’s struck me, as a recent member of the Lace Market Theatre, is the length of the relationship that some of the members have had with the group.  Look at the photos of previous productions in the bar and you’ll see familiar faces from as far back as the early 1970’s, probably earlier if you were to look through the archives.  It’s longer than most people will stay in a single job, longer than many marriages, the span of my lifetime so far.

It’s hard to imagine many other groups and clubs that you could join in childhood and remain a part of for the rest of your life.  Some sports clubs might manage it I suppose, but your time as a major contributor would be limited to as long as you could remain fit and free of injury, a few halcyon seasons before your decline.  You’d end up on the sidelines, gazing out over the pitch with a few other old or aging men, remembering the feel of the grass and mud under your studs. Remembering that perfect, exhilarating, almost effortless feeling of striking the ball perfectly and knowing it’s heading unstoppably on a divine trajectory goal wards.  Aching to take part again and remembering how much better things were in your day.

The theatre is one of a few hobbies/callings (delete as you like) where it’s possible to become better and better over that amount of time.   The actors playing the romantic leads and ingénues when I was born have moved through to playing their parents and even grandparents now.  The experience accumulated allowing them to bring a deep understanding to the interpretation of the roles and the skills built up over the years allowing them to bring this understanding to the productions.  How much more able you are to play the father having played the son or the mother having played the daughter.  It’s also possible to still be the star of the show or to steal a scene or two at any age.  The chance has never passed you by.

There’s nothing else in life that’d give you the chance to work alongside and learn from people with that much experience and at the same time interact with them as equals.  Last year’s production of ‘As You Like It’ had an age range of about 65 years between the youngest and oldest performers.  It’s a sobering thought to think that the youngest actor in that show may perform in a Lace Market production in 2075.  Who knows, the new air-conditioning might be fully installed and working by then.  I know, I know, I’m a dreamer!

But then all these roles are, I suppose, just a microcosm of what happens to us as we move through life, Shakespeare’s ‘many parts’ that we all take.  Not so much life imitating art but art imitating life.  In the last decade I’ve slowly realised how parenthood has changed many of my friends.  They’re still the same people of course, but subtly different.  The way they see themselves, they way they see the world, the expectations they have of it and the ambitions they have for themselves have all moved on.  They’ve taken these different parts on naturally, inevitably, maybe with a few regrets but mostly with a wry acceptance.  I think even I’ve changed more than I like to admit.  I’m not 21 anymore, even though I sometimes kid myself that I am.

 “It's the most devastating moment in a young man’s life, when he quite reasonably says to himself, "I shall never play The Dane!" - Uncle Monty in ‘Withnail and I’

It’s also sobering to look at the lists of parts on audition notices and see the roles that I’ll never now play.  The chances flew past without my even being aware they were there and for all my keenness now, for all the books I might read, the lessons I could take, the hours of practice, it’s just too late.  That’s art imitating life again too.  Just its little reminder that the conveyor belt is still moving whether I notice it or not and there’s no getting off.  And of the parts that I could play?  Well, there are too many shows happening each year.  I couldn’t be in all of them.  So pick the ones that really matter and know that there are many wonderful people you won’t get to work alongside and many great experiences you’ll have to miss. 

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
 Am an attendant lord, one that will do.
 To swell a progress, start a scene or two”
 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – T.S Eliot

There are also parts that I could never have been cast in.  I don’t have the looks to play a romantic lead, the wit to play the fool, the wisdom of a statesman or the gravitas of a king.  I can hold a tune but my voice won’t reduce anyone to raptures.  I can dance a step or two when no-one’s paying much attention but you wouldn’t want to have paid to watch me.  Not even if there was a pole involved.

It’s funny.  You go to the theatre to be entertained and to find out something about the human condition.  You expect it to be the plays that do the entertaining and teaching, not the membership itself.  It’s enough to get you down.  Unless, of course, you can draw an uplifting life lesson from the experience.  Here we go...

The uplifting bit is this.  There’s neither a casting advisor nor an audience in life.  Everyone’s far too wrapped up in their own performance to pay more than a fleeting interest in yours.  Your only audience in the end is you.  So you can play the parts you want to play.  Sometimes act the fool for a few smiles and when the only thing you can do with life is to laugh at it.  Sometimes play the lover, as long as you can find one person who believes in you in that role then that’s enough.  Be wise sometimes and gracious at others.  And play the jealous, petty , angry villain because sometimes it’s the only sensible response.  But keep learning from every part and use that understanding as you play opposite all the other people you meet.  Be a generous and giving performer.  And be kind and patient.  The people you meet might be struggling with their own production.

It’s your own one man show.  Go for it.  When the blackout comes, make sure that you gave it everything and hear your own applause in that moment of darkness before you take your bow.

Here’s The Lemonheads with 'Bit Part' - a nice bouncy song.  I think we need one after that!

David Millington
18th February 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine’s Day and a poem

I seem to be spending more time blogging about subjects that I’d thought were best ignored whilst being unable to find the right words to express myself over subjects that I’m more interested in.  But if I’m going to keep my promise to myself to keep writing I need to keep at it so...
Valentine’s Day is a very easy target.  A big, fat, overly commercialised, trite and cliché ridden, crimson heart of a target.  But as it seems to be staring back from every shop window, every website header and even from the nagging emails from online retailers I’ve not visited for ages, I thought I might as well go with the flow and jot something down.
Valentine’s Day is probably the oddest of the ‘occasions’ that are pushed onto us each year.  All the others are ones that can be shared by everyone (religious preferences aside) and so Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and Birthdays give everyone a chance to take part.  While your Christmas might not have the warm and glowing perfection of a Marks and Spencer TV commercial, if you’re spending it with friends and family that you really care about then it’s still going to be pretty good, even if Take That and Danni Minogue don’t show up.  And there’s a good chance that, however our circumstances are in any given year, we’ve a large store of goodwill built up for these occasions over the years and it’ll tide us over until a better day.   Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, is much more exclusive.  Not everyone gets to take part and while a lot of people will prefer quiet, low key Christmases and Birthdays I think we’d all like to be sitting in that zero gravity bubble of happiness that you can only really get from someone you’re crazy about.  And while I hope everyone will have some happy memories of Valentine’s Day, they’re not memories that’ll comfort you in a barren year. Quite the reverse. 
It does seem to fill the shops with some proper rubbish too.  There are some naff Christmas presents around of course, but you generally wouldn’t give them to ‘that special someone’, more to a distant relative or as a desperate ‘Secret Santa’ offering to that work colleague that you realise you know nothing about.  Sainsbury’s have a whole aisle of stuff, none of which I’d want to give to anyone I really cared about.  Firstly it’d show a massive lack of imagination.  I would hope that when I’m buying something for my soulmate, the one that completes me, my missing self, my ‘My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song’, I could come up with something better than a giant stuffed hippo (£8.99 at a Sainsbury’s near you) or some chocolates with bargain basement romantic names ‘Truffle Passion’, ‘Seductive Strawbury Creme’ and so on.  The Valentine’s Day aisle seems a bit convenient too.  Convenience is an admirable quality when grocery shopping but I don’t think it should be a big factor in present giving.  But then I’m the sort of bloke who’d offer to catch a falling star, slay a dragon or travel the world to find the perfect rose.  Well, I’d offer to.  I’m not sure where I’d start. 
So Valentine’s Day, what load of commercialised rubbish.  Humbug!
Well no, not really.  How can a day when you get to show someone how much you love and value them be a bad thing?  You can buy into the day itself without having to buy into the way it’s portrayed and marketed.  You don’t have to play by the rules when coming up with something special for that someone you care for.  Thoughtfulness, imagination, spontaneity and passion will count for so much more than some dinner in a restaurant full of cookie cutter couples and with a free glass of bubbly for everyone and a red rose.
And if there’s someone you like who doesn’t know how you feel, why not let them know?  There’s no need for any grand romantic gestures, just speak from your heart.  You never know.  You might be glad you did (and remember to invite me to the wedding please? I don’t get out much).  And even if they don’t feel the same way that you do, they’ll feel a little worthy of love and better about themselves and if that’s all the happiness you can give them then it’s still worth doing.
And if there isn’t anyone?  Well, just look after yourself.  Get a decent film in, order some takeaway and treat yourself to a fun night in.  Maybe it’s not your turn this year, but there are 364 other days for the arrow to strike before it comes round again. 
I hope the day puts a smile on all your faces.
Oh – and here’s a Valentine’s Day poem for you.
The Kiln
The kiln of my heart is overflowing
Red-hot and blistering
And the words I fashion to hold the spilling feelings
Are frail and coarse
A child’s clay fingered fumblings

My tongue twists and buckles
Cracked-choked voice
and what should be gossamer fine and filigreed
Is black and deformed
As ugly and cold as cinders

I would pour my love straight into your heart
Breathe a drowning breath of life into your lungs
vast and colourful and ever changing,
an armada of butterflies
vast as the ocean
deep enough to drown a city

Perhaps my words could rouse an ember into a bonfire.
But not strike sparks.

David Millington
13th February 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Upside Down Swan - A review of ‘Black Swan’

*Contains Spoilers*
(This blog post has grown much larger than I intended.  I started including footnotes.  Ridiculous. So I took them out.  Sorry.)
So I went to see the critically lauded and multiple award nominated film ‘Black Swan’ last night.  Whilst being daubed in ‘laud’ and dripping in nominations does, I’m sure, help to get bums on seats, it can also raise audience expectations and lead to disappointment.  I’m afraid that this was the feeling I had on leaving the cinema.  So what (for me) went wrong?
Well I should say first that there’s a lot of talent at work in this film.  Natalie Portman can clearly act and really shows it here.  Darren Aronofsky is a director who’s not afraid to tackle difficult or challenging material (who else this side of Terry Gilliam would have dared to make ‘The Fountain’?).  Mila Kunis is another one of a generation of talented Hollywood actresses who are reduced to knocking out ‘kooky girlfriend in rom-com’ roles because there are no more significant parts available to them.  Vincent Cassel is always good value as a Gallic rotter, Barbara Hersey provides good support and once again Winona Ryder makes you wonder where the hell she’s been since the 90’s (it’s nice that my main teenage heartthrob is still so utterly beautiful).  The set design’s good, the choreography works well, it’s atmospherically shot and lit.  The effects are in turn subtle, unsettling and then shocking.  So why am I not raving about this film?  Well the problem is in the story and the script.  It seems to have been written by a precocious and highly strung teenager and then screen tested in front of an audience of less precocious but equally highly strung teenagers and the simplified until they can follow it.  It has no subtlety, no real psychological insight, no understanding of creativity and a confused and dubious set of moral values.
(Oh - my apologies to any teenagers reading this.  I’m not talking about you here.  You are reading my blog and so are the discerning intelligentsia of your generation.  Work hard, don’t do drugs and thanks in advance for paying my pension.  Word. xxx).
What do I mean by no subtlety?  Well Natalie Portman‘s character ‘Nina’ is supposed to be childlike.  We get this early on.  She dresses like a pre-pubescent girl and she lives with her mom who (s)mothers her.  Fine – character established, let’s get on with the story.  But then we see her bedroom.  It’s all in while and pink. LIKE A LITTLE GIRLS BEDROOM.  It’s full of cuddly toys.  LIKE A LITTLE GIRLS BEDROOM.  Her mum tucks her in to bed at night.  LIKE SHE’S A LITTLE GIRL.  Her mum opens her music box (which plays ‘Swan Lake’ of course) to play her to sleep. LIKE SHE’S A LITTLE GIRL.  Are you getting the subtext here?  Another example of this heavy handedness is when Nina asks the ballet director for the part of the Swan Queen and he says ‘No’.  ‘Ok’ she replies meekly and tries to walk out.  The ballet director challenges her ‘Aren’t you going to fight for it?’ and again the story goes *clunk*.  We’ve just seen that she’s not going to fight for it.  The script has set up the situation, the actress portrays the insecurity and passivity of the character but the script has to hammer it home with extra unneeded dialog.  *Clunk*.  This happens again and again.  It doesn’t respect the intelligence of the audience and shows a real lack of confidence in the writing.
The lack of psychological insight is really troubling too.  I don’t think that when people suffer from mental breakdowns it’s as spectacular as it’s made to look here.  It seems unlikely that a woman under such pressure would start having visions and hallucinations.  A breakdown would be a lot less dramatic and actually a lot more harrowing.  Watching a woman disintegrate through the pressure of almost achieving her dreams would be absolutely heartbreaking.  The crippling nervousness, the anxiety, the helplessness to do anything about it would be so much easier for the audience to sympathise and empathise with because they’re situations we’ve all experienced to some extent.  I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that relatively few of us have stabbed ourselves in the stomach whilst fighting an imaginary version of ourselves.  It's all very spectacular and entertaining but emotionally un-involving.  I felt that the film used lots of visual tricks and shocks to dazzle the audience and to keep us guessing rather than rely on good writing and acting.  I’m not sure that these tricks even added up to anything in the end.  To what extent was Mila Kunis' character 'Lily' actually trying to sabotage Nina and to push her over the edge and to what extent was it paranoia?  We’re never really told and I think the film would be stronger if it were either a study of one fragile woman being driven over the edge by another (like ‘Rebecca’) or a straight study of a paranoia breakdown. 
Let’s come onto the most disturbing aspect of the film which is the way it equates childlike innocence with the white ‘good’ swan and sexuality and sexual awakening with the black ‘evil twin’ swan.  I’m really surprised that a mainstream film in the 21st century would make this old fashioned and bigoted connection. That sex is evil and that arrested development, emotional immaturity, repression and virginity are good.  The film is even pretty gutless here, Nina’s sexual awakening coming in a dream sequence and a fairly male friendly one at that in a lesbian love scene with Lily (named for Lilith presumably in another bit of heavy handed scripting).  Actually I suppose that the ‘taboo’ nature of this liaison means that Nina has to feel guilty about giving into sexual longing and so rather than being liberated, or more likely thinking, ‘ok, well that was nice but my world view is actually pretty much the same’ she gets to agonise about it.  This is the bit of the film that made me feel it was most adolescent, the simultaneous fear of sex with the belief that once you’ve ‘done it’ you’re somehow granted a pass to a new world of grown up emotions and maturity.  I thought this element of the film was quite unhealthy.
My final bug-bear is with its idea of, and portrayal of, artistic genius and the creative process.  The tired old cliché (that expression itself is course a cliché – oh the irony) of madness and genius being inter-twined.  The idea that an artist has to burn themselves up in order to create a work of perfection (Oh - we also get an image of Nina looking up at a statue of Icarus in a museum at some point.  With those wings he looks a bit like a swan.  And might she too fly too close to the sun?  That *clunk* you just heard was the script again.  And actually Icarus wasn’t the genius anyway was he?  It was Daedalus and he survived the crossing from Crete to Sicily, because he flew the middle way and because he wasn’t an idiot.)  What a load of rubbish.  It belittles those people who do have the talent to create great art, ignoring the years of work to gain the talent to express themselves and then the huge amounts of work to create the art itself.  If we could just chose to torture ourselves into being great artists it’d be so much easier.  Sadly you need talent and massive amount of application.  The idea that to portray a trait or emotion you must have experienced it is such a load of juvenile tosh.  I’ve only read half a book on acting (no, really) and I know this is silly.  If it were true we’d have no actors capable to portraying difficult characters, they’d all be too psychologically scarred to get up on stage. 
This film seems to be a step backwards for Aronofsky.  Having eschewed the tricksy camera work he first showcased in Pi and then took to an extreme in ‘Requiem for a Dream’* (great title – terrible film, stuck in the simplistic 1950’s drugs morality of its dated source material and actually very like ‘Black Swan’), he told a more human story in the wildly ambitious but very worthwhile ‘The Fountain’ and then restrained everything in ‘The Wrestler’ to create his best film.  The Wrestler is a film that absolutely deserves its plaudits.  Its characters are utterly believable.  Complicated, flawed, sympathetic and human.  The story is simple and driven organically by the actions of the protagonists.  The story assumes tragic proportions in a very classical way, through fate and circumstance, all the players doomed from the start and unable to help themselves, even when they see the writing on the wall.  It’s a modern masterpiece and in it Mickey Rourke gives the performance of a lifetime. 
The irony with ‘Black Swan’ is how un-swanlike it is.  Swans are supposed to glide along smoothly and apparently effortlessly, propelled by a churning mechanism that’s hidden from sight.  This swan sits dead in the water, thrashing away and going nowhere.
David Millington
1st February 2011

* Requiem for a Dream’s most significant cinematic legacy is perhaps its soundtrack which seems to be the go to ‘exciting, climax building’ piece for cinematic trailers (best used for the super exciting LOTR Two Towers trailer).  And this was written by the now prolific and really rather good Clint Mansell.  Clint’s interesting because he first cut his teeth as the singer and lead guitarist of ‘Grebo’ mainstays ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’, who you might remember from the late 80’s and early 90’s with such fun hits ‘Def Con One’, ‘Can U Dig It’ and the 1990 World Cup Anthem ‘Touched by the Hand of Cicciolina’.  (Aren’t you glad that you don’t have all this stuff in your head? Is it any wonder I get so little done?).  It always makes me smile when I see his name after a film.  Who would have thunk it?  There’s hope for us all.