Beyond the popular canon: things that should be better known

Grand Canyon Better Known.jpg

“We soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so.”

If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same. For instance, in looking for something to watch on a Saturday night, your search for “greatest films” will be answered with an infinity of lists compiled with varying degrees of judgement but surprising levels of consistency. Automated recommendations generally just give you more of what you have already asked for. Critical ones seem to clone themselves, as if unwilling to depart from an agreed line. Citizen Kane is repeatedly right up there, according to the American Film Institute (number 1 film of all time), Sight and Sound (number 2), Hollywood Reporter (3) and Rotten Tomatoes (4). But what if you’ve already seen it, and didn’t even think it was that good? What then?

By adulthood, most of us are aware of the historical figures, places and books represented by what can loosely be categorised as the canon: the list that you were taught at school, that books and newspapers tell you are the best and most important. Sometimes, we agree with them, sometimes not, but we soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so. It is supplemented by a popular canon, as expressed by your social media, of more ephemeral, instant pleasures, that may have an unstoppable democratic force, but that does not mean that you always share them.

Any canon is important, as it provides a society with a shared catalogue of experiences and reference points; otherwise, how does one know what to speak about to a stranger? But your curiosity about the world need not stop there. How much more interesting, every so often, to put the canon to one side, and say to someone, “Tell me about a great book that I’ve never heard of.”

My podcast Better Known sets out to ask people what they love that the rest of the world does not seem to value. In short: what should be better known?

People are keen to answer the question, firstly because we all love talking about what we are passionate about, but also because we do not always get the opportunity. Most people have quirks in their tastes that are slightly unorthodox but we rarely get a chance to talk about our obscure preferences, precisely because other people are not familiar with them. Generally, in conversation, most people are looking to have their beliefs confirmed than challenged, and so they may not be in the mood to hear anything new. Instead, much of our social life only covers those topics which we know are popular and thus safe, and so it is easy to live one’s life with others only through the pleasures which the news picks out for us.

Through dozens of interviews, I have heard about the fascinating objects, events and ideas which guests hold dear and feels compelled to impress upon other people. The novelist Joanne Harris spoke about the Child Ballads, hundreds of traditional stories collected in the nineteenth century. Biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett discussed a book which her mother had written about a nineteenth century dinner party of writers and artists. Writer Ben Schott explained why movie posters look the way they do. It has been inspiring to hear and then take up these suggestions of things which I would otherwise have never known about.

For some guests, the obscurity of their choice provides a pleasure. They like the fact that they have uncovered something that others have not. For others, they enjoy the obscurity, particularly of a place, for a more practical reason: if lots of people knew about the place, then its serenity, part of its appeal, would be ruined. But, most of all, they make their choices because we are all individuals, and sometimes what we like most of all may not have officially made the grade, but is nonetheless worthy of their – and maybe your – time.

Each episode aims to bring a person with private obscure passions to an audience eager to learn more about what is best in the world. Each guest selects six things, and so you begin to get a real sense of who they are through the range of their choices without necessarily knowing particular facts about them, their job or their life. By way of contrast, and to ensure we do not drown in positivity, they also get to pick one thing which they think should be less well known and it is frequently a highlight for me to hear someone go from such radiant optimism to unbridled cynicism so rapidly. Picnics, liver and jeans are among those proposed as being overrated. But the focus always then returns to what they like.

It is easy, as an adult, to stop learning anything new, and to exist endlessly off inspiration from the past. If you want to remain curious about the world, and continue to be inspired, you have to make an active effort. Better Known aims to be an entertaining introduction into a world of inspiration that you previously knew little about. You will not agree with all recommendations, but you will hopefully learn something new. After all, how many more endorsements for Citizen Kane does one need?

About the author of this article

IW.jpgIvan Wise presents the Better Known podcast (www.betterknown.co.uk). He is a former editor of The Shavian, the journal of the George Bernard Shaw Society, about which he has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Educational Supplement and The Guardian website, and was the expert witness on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives. He works in the charity sector, for Think Ahead, a mental health organisation that recruits and trains graduates to become social workers.

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Movie review: Sink

Sink

There is always a sense of excitement in watching a film debut. We live in an increasingly homogenised culture, in which it seems the only movies released at cinemas are sequels, prequels, reboots or copies of movies that are copies of other successful movies. The commercialism of the movie production industry has minimised the potential of this artistic medium as a tool of change; a tool of artistic expression – where new ideas, new films, new actors, and new directors, are often hidden away or swallowed up by the giant media corporations who only want audiences to think about the next superhero movie.

So, to see a genuinely original movie, produced in spite of the crippling power of the big movie studios, is truly thrilling. And it is therefore a pleasure to have been able to watch – and subsequently review – the world premiere of Sink, which tells the story of Micky Mason, a working class man living in East London who must contend with a multitude of different crises of our modern world.

Ultimately, this is a movie about money and power. As Micky’s long-time friend-turned-successful drug supplier notes drily: “You either have the cash, or you don’t – nobody cares where it comes from.”

We are presented with a world in which the institutions of the state – once intended to support and provide help to those in need – have been co-opted, privatised, and rigged to support those who own the businesses and corporations who benefit from a precarious, non-unionised workforce who can be picked up and dropped without recognition of their basic humanity.

The writer and social activist Thomas Merton characterises as “double-talk, tautology, ambiguous cliche, self-righteous and doctrinaire pomposity and pseudoscientific jargon”. This, the characters of Sink find, is not just an aesthetic problem: it renders dialogue impossible; and rendering dialogue impossible is the desired goal for those who want to exercise absolute power. Micky and his peers are therefore unable to engage with the state in any meaningful way – during his Jobcentre interviews, he shares a knowing joke with the employees about the language he must use to effectively work within the parameters of the system; he is “willing” and eager to go to as many interviews as possible, yet while this may satisfy the forms and bureaucracy, it does nothing to significantly bring him any closer to stable, gainful employment. Likewise, his neighbor Jean is literally unable to find the words to engage with the problems of what may be described as post-Capitalism (precarious work; the crisis and decline of manufacturing and industry, replaced by a financier economy) – repeatedly explaining “I can’t talk about it – it makes me too mad”.

The focus of the film shifts as it progresses – as it paints a view of London that feels often taken from the inside looking out; from the council estates on which much of the film takes place just a stone’s throw from the City’s financial district. We are presented with the crises facing both the old and the young – Micky’s father, Sam, battles with dementia and is removed from his care home following some money-driven ‘restructuring’; meanwhile his son, Jason, fights his own demons alone on an estate in which – so he says himself – drugs are the only thing available for him.

Of course, the fact that there are a multitude of different things going on is precisely the point – no person’s life can be lived in isolation, or from the perspective that one development or action will not have its own impact on the other narrative strands that make up a person’s life. This is not just a story of one man – but of so many men, and so many women, living within a society that has been structured in such a way as to ignore the real actuality of existence – what it means to be alive – and thus creates inevitable existential crises.

What makes this film all the more visceral is the fierce plainness with which it is told. It has passion and directness coupled with a darkly comic streak that exposes the Orwellian nature of this bureaucratic world. There are also moments of genuine tension that leave you with a tight chest and on the edge of your seat – a sure sign of real film-making talent for a movie debut and an exceedingly small budget that should make people sit up and take notice.

Indeed, blessed with exceptional performances from the cast, particularly Martin Herdman as Micky, and Ian Hogg as Sam, with an excellent score from Mallik Gris, along with a fine script and direction from Mark Gillis, Sink gets under the skin of the audience in a way precious few films do these days (Associate Producer Mark Rylance says you will find yourselves “immersed” in it). Crucially, it gives a vibrant voice to protagonists who have otherwise lost their language and their power; and so serving a very necessary level of kitchen sink realism to a world and society that seems increasingly ignorant of reality.

 

 

Pixar offers free course on the art of storytelling

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“Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.”

So goes one of Pixar’s 22 excellent writing tips and guidance on how to tell a good story (full list available online). It is a resource much loved by writers, and it’s easy to see why. They are lessons learned by some of the masters of storytelling: Pixar, after all, has been consistently creating world-class movies with gripping narratives since 1995, when it released the masterful Toy Story.

Writers can now look to gain even more insight and advice from the creative studio, which is now offering a free course through Khan Academy that can help you find the kind of stories you want to tell – and help you tell them better.

The “Art of Storytelling” is the latest instalment in a series of free courses from the studio called “Pixar in a Box.” It discusses ways to build worlds and characters, how to make sure your stories reflect your unique perspective, along with other relevant advice.

Pixar’s older courses are also still available on the educational website if you want to learn more about animation, colours in films and environment and character modelling. Of course, if you’d rather learn about something else, you merely need to browse other areas of Khan Academy. The famous online education platform has an enormous catalogue of lessons and is available as an Android and an iOS app.

 

The inauguration speech you should watch instead of Donald Trump

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Millions of people around the world are set to tune into Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. But rather than give this ego-maniac the time of day, you can watch a far better, and surely far more eloquent speech by a much better man.

Democracy calls for citizens to take a stand and fight for their candidates around dinner tables, in public forums, and on social media. But in recent years, bitterness and vulgarity have eclipsed civil, intelligent discourse far too frequently. Obscenities, obvious untruths, and violence have marred the democratic process. Divisions within modern societies have rarely felt so stark as they do today, as the collapse of the (neo)liberal consensus continues around the Western world.

Charlie Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator provides an eloquent attack on everything Donald Trump represents. A satirical and devastating attack on the proto-fascism that has – worryingly – come to the forefront of civil society, Chaplin’s film and speech demonstrate how a selfless leader should view the world.

 

 

The transcript of the full speech is quoted here below:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. …..

Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Complement Chaplin’s speech by reading some words of wisdom from some of America’s greatest authors. And supplement that with some critical reading for the incoming Donald Trump apocalypse (‘Trumpocalypse’, if you will). More than anything; don’t give into fear. Keep carrying the fire, comrades!

 

The American Century as Seen Through a Brick (extract)

American Century

The American Century As Seen Through A Brick: A sequence of poetry based on ‘Academy Award Winner for Best Picture’ winners. The remaining poems can be found here.

 

Cimarron_(1931_film)_posterCimarron 1930/31

Isaiah fans white folk from the ceiling,

One nation indivisible –

An empire pillared by pioneers

Counting notches on their pistol grips…

 

Time will mellow hearts

Say: America

Hide me in your love.

 

 

 

Casablanca 1943Casablanca.jpg

The speech of the refugee is the living breath.

Let them speak of their roads:

… Through Europe we have travelled

Fleeing tyranny and vultures,

 

The devil has us by our throats,

The ghettos burn and displace our children,

You must remember us…

 

 

 

Ben_hur_1959_poster.jpg

Ben-Hur 1959

This country was built by slaves

– It still is –

There are no guilty faces

Just    conquered people

 

Oar weary on the galleys

Air wary on the gallows

Fire       environs       us       all

 

 

 

In the Heat of the Night 1967Heart of the night

– No Vietcong ever called me a Nigger –

For Virgil, hell is in police officers,

The detail in the dead and suffer;

Tweezers, toothpicks, thermometers.

 

Just what they know about the King’s insomnia,

The wet cemeteries in the state of Louisiana,

The struggle when fear is attached to color?

 

 

 

70_pattonPatton 1970

If it takes a bloodbath

Our blood, his guts

Blood in Chicago

Dams of blood ready to flood

 

Foreign blood stung in battle

The prayer’s spittle, blood pour.

Enlightened absolutism – War

 

 

 

 

Out of Africa 1985Out_of_africa_poster

Alleles of eloquence

Cradled at this rock

Bear the scorn/pity of aids

And are nothing more

 

To marionettes

Than the withering victory of:

Blood/safari/diamonds.

 

 

 

SchlindlersSchindler’s List 1993

Show/er of darkness

Give me strength

For I am lost in the weakness of others

Their cracked house cruelty.

 

… Light dimmed in interrogation,

Held hopeful, eternal,

The fractal lobe.

 

 

 

 

No Country For Old Men 2007No_Country_for_Old_Men_poster.jpg

There is no greater me than you;

The birds will die, the trees too.

The flesh of fish will foul

And the song will lose its soul.

 

I will be hot, you will be cold;

The sea’s of what’s coming,

The intensity of the plunge.

 

 

 

Birdman poster.jpgBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 2014

I don’t exist

, This representation is an act

– An intervention. A medium

Of absence, contradiction, negation

 

. When I am killed again with impunity

, My autopsy transfigured as found poetry

, again I will’ve been defenseless/muffling… I can’t breathe

 

About the poet

Asim Khan is from Birmingham, England. His work has appeared and is forthcoming in various print and online journals. He blogs on www.photoetric.co.uk. He Tweets at @photoetric

 

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Is the commercial media machine killing creative culture?

John Steinbeck

As prophetic dreams go, few are as discomfiting – due to their close proximity to reality – as one nocturnal epiphany John Steinbeck conjured up in the mid 1950s.

A rare writer of uncommon integrity, with a deep resistance to commercialism and a supreme faith in the human spirit, Steinbeck felt the need to pen a short letter to his literary agent and lifelong friend, Elizabeth Otis, after one specific dream caught him off guard. Indeed, the missive speaks volumes about what is perhaps the most significant threat to creative culture today.

In late July, 1956 – some 50 years before Buzzfeed – Steinbeck writes:

“Do you ever dream of getting letters? I used to a lot but haven’t lately until last night when I had one very clear and sharp. I can even see the stationery. It was from Otis Wiess and it said, “We would like very much to print your book The Short Reign of Peppin IV and think we can do it in two large installments. There are, however, certain changes we would like you to make in order that our readers will be more interested. The pace must be considerably speeded up and many of the historical and literary allusions must be removed since they will only confuse our readers. We should also want you to add three new characters and several episodes which are too long to put in a letter. I should like to meet with you to tell you of the changes we will require. Will you please let me know when this will be convenient?”

It was all perfectly clear. When the clock went off this morning I was busy typing an answer and had got as far as “Dear Otis: I have your letter and am deeply pleased with your interest in my book. I would like to suggest to you that rather than put in new characters and episodes, that you get new readers—” And I woke up thinking this was funny as hell and just laughing at my own cleverness. Isn’t that an odd and perhaps prophetic dream?”

Prophetic indeed. After all, we are in constant dynamic interaction with this thing we call culture – which is shaped by our values and, in turn shapes what we come to value. The question of balance between catering and creating is one that is asked by countless aspiring creatives: whether it is the responsibility of those involved in cultural enterprise to cater to what the people already crave, or else to create new, more elevated tastes by insisting on the substantive over the vacant?

It is pretty clear where much of the corporate media (i.e. culture and art for profit at all costs) stand on the issue. How else to explain the constant stream of novels that are copies of other successful novels, and the sequels and prequels of movies, and the exhibitioning of photography and art that is simply clones of previously successful pieces of art or photographs?

There is undoubtedly a necessary dialogue between catering and creating; yet it is difficult not to side with E.B. White, who famously asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” and that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Yet irrespective of White’s idealism, we find ourselves immersed in a culture that purveys endless memes of cats because – we are told – that is what we want. We don’t want new films. New stories. New art. New ideas. We want cats getting stuck on treadmills. We want cats looking grumpy. Sometimes we want dogs chasing deer but that is about as far as originality is allowed to stray.

This is part of an overarching narrative that is suffused with a rather insidious implication that cat GIFs – and the occasional inspirational (though usually misattributed) quote superimposed on some stock image of a sunset – are all that we as a people are capable or worthy of wanting or understanding. Increasingly, our agents of culture are abdicating their responsibility to create more elevated tastes and capitulating to catering.

What is to be done? As aspiring creatives, the challenge is and may always remain: do something different. Create something new. It may be difficult. There may be less money in it. But it is possible. It has to be. In the words of Captain Picard, you just have to “make it so”.