Monday, 29 October 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Thanks to my superb literary knowledge – I knew that Orlando was written by Virginia Woolf* - I won some goodies from the Cornerhouse last week. Which was all very well, but it necessitated a rare enough trip up the A6 to Manchester to actually collect my winnings.  It also meant the chance to see Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut film from Benh Zeitlin that's been getting great reviews (though not from Francine Stock on Radio 4's Film Programme).

Hushpuppy is a kid and lives with her father, Wink, in the bathtub, an ad hoc collection of improvised homes on stilts in a bayou on the wrong side of the New Orleans levees.

It's a classic outsider community and Wink lives a life that is self-reliant and independent from mainstream society and yet closely bound with the bathtub community. It’s a world of hard work, hard drinking and carnival-esque revelry, but when the inevitable storm comes many flee the bathtub for safety. Wink rages at the “pussies” for leaving and along with the hardcore hunkers down to see the storm out. Its aftermath and Wink’s rapidly declining health create Hushpuppy’s own perfect storm in which she must sink or swim.

The touches of magical realism establish that we are seeing the world through the imaginative eyes of Hushpuppy, and what we see may shock our liberal sensitivities, as Wink has a harsh approach to child-rearing. But if you’re going to grow up strong and independent in an environment like the bathtub, you’ve got to be tough.

It’s an incredible performance by Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, full of a fierce brightness that can face down a hard world without losing openness and wonder. Dwight Henry gives Wink a brutal integrity, a man who knows how hard it is to survive but hasn’t lost the capacity for love.

Zeitlin has created an atmospheric world of southern gothic; the people are determinedly independent to the extent of fearing state intervention (justifiably so). It is a little unnerving to see an upbringing that would give any right-thinking social worker palpitations producing such a strong-willed and remarkable girl, without it seeming anything other than the proper outcome.

There is an impressive attention to detail in the creation of Wink and Hushpuppy's world, and the rich visual impact is complemented by an excellent soundtrack to create some arresting moments - the sound of the storm breaking over the bayou accompanied by a shot of an Antarctic ice shelf collapsing (trust me, it makes sense!).

It’s not perfect, there are times when the magical realism covers a clunkiness in plotting, and, maybe it’s due to budgetary constraints, but the mythical aurochs, so impressive in earlier scenes lose their visual power just at the worst moment.

But this shouldn’t detract from a film that will live long in the memory - as Hushpuppy says, “in a million years scientists will know there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the bathtub”.

* I haven’t read it.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Caroline Herschel

Just a quick blog and a bit of a departure from the usual Fringe Festival ramblings.

It's Ada Lovelace Day when we celebrate pioneering women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). So it shouldn't go past without mention of Caroline Herschel, sister of the more celebrated astronomer, William Herschel.

Typhus and smallpox as a child left Caroline scarred and with permanently stunted growth. As a result she wasn't expected to get married so became her brother's housekeeper, astronomical assistant and finally a renowned astronomer in her own right.

Caroline worked alongside William on long nights out of doors making observations of the stars through his home made telescopes. As well as assisting her brother she carried out the complex calculations to confirm his findings.

She used her own 'sweeper' telescopes designed to look for moving objects in the night sky and is credited with the discovery of several comets, and her meticulous observations and calculations led her to update and correct Flamsteed's famous Star Catalogue, with her edition being published by the Royal Society at their expense.

Taken seriously in her lifetime she was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 - not subsequently awarded to another woman until 1996. There is even a crater on the moon named after her.

For much more on Caroline Herschel, her brother and the scientists and scientific advances of the period read Richard Holmes' great book Age of Wonder.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Fringe, Censorship and Trust

So I'm a little late on this story and Alice de Cent his already blogged about it on the Buxton Fringe blog, but here goes my tuppence worth. The news is that Edinburgh Fringe has been getting grief for sanitising performers' entries in the Fringe Programme.

This just sounds wrong straight off -what was I saying just last week about Fringes being a bastion of anything goes, open access, no censorship art and culture? Now I'm not going all fundamentalist on this, our dear friend common sense must be heeded. Fringe programmes get everywhere and the gratuitously offensive should be avoided, but Edinburgh have changed prick to pr!ck and Dick to D*ck (what if it's actually your name?), I could go to town on the idiocy of the changes but John Fleming already has.

It all seems a bit prudish - surely not a word you'd want associated with a Fringe - and rather heavy-handed. There are practical complications too, a change in name may make it harder to find a show in internet search listings, as well as it not matching other publicity materials.

Alice has been relatively soft on Edinburgh Fringe because it is in the small print that they may alter titles and text if they feel its offensive, but I think they've got it wrong on two counts.

Firstly, as the oft-quoted former Buxton Fringe chair John Wilson would say - It's a Fringe! Things do go wrong and Fringes should err on the side of the outre.

More important is that when running a Fringe its vital to remember that your main customers are the performers - they pay you to enter your Fringe. Of course you have a responsibility to the audience, but its an indirect relationship. It's a subtle difference to a programmed festival which will pay performers and collect the box office takings. A Fringe charges the performer to enter and the performer collects the box office.

So the Fringe organisation's primary customer is the performer, and like any relationship of that kind, if you want your customer to keep coming back you must retain their trust.

And after the box office debacle of a few years ago, it seems crazy to piss off (oops, p!ss off) your entrants by arbitrarily changing their listings like this.

Maybe Edinburgh Fringe have been thinking too much of possible public reaction and - heaven forfend - what corporate partners may think at the expense of the performers. How hard would it be to vet the entries as they come in and discuss with the entrants if there was any issue? Or even better, leave well enough alone. It must be better than riding roughshod over the performers' programme entries like this and risk losing their trust.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

What's a Fringe?

Last week I attended a Fringe Forum run by World Festival Network for BAFA. Representing Buxton Fringe I was the oldest attendee from the oldest Fringe there. Hmmm... But been thrown in with fresh new Fringes got me thinking about what Fringe is and what it does.

So, what does Fringe mean?

Fringe is on the edge, not mainstream, it's quirky, alternative, cool, challenging, yet open, welcoming, accessible... Guess its no wonder there are so many different Fringes...

The concept of Fringe can apply to different things - the festival, the act, the attitude.

What kind of act is 'Fringe'? Skateboards, burlesque, atonal electronica? All good, alternative, but altogether? Sounds great but art needs to be seen and heard and limiting Fringe to the edgiest will seriously restrict its audience. Defining Fringe in this way is the most limiting. While these acts will be seen as 'fringy', a Fringe festival should be open to all kinds of events - after all the latest cutting edge art may come as a surprise to everyone...

So what kind of a festival is a Fringe? Coming from Buxton Fringe I have a bias towards the open access, no selection, no censorship kind of Fringe. It seems to me the most honest form - here is your platform, see what you can make of it. But I can see a place for the kind of Fringe that is closely related to its parent and wants to deliver related events from up-and-coming artists. And I can understand the temptation to programme some of the Fringe, but as soon as you do that you are running a two tier event and some of the magic will be lost.

Is Fringe an attitude? Is it have a go, free-spirited and open-minded? I think this gets closer to the heart of Fringe though the comedian trying to build his career on the fringe circuit has a very different outlook to the kids having a first try at performing outside the school environment. And Fringe should have room for all of them.

Fringe is too amorphous to pin down - it covers all kinds of everything - but mostly it is an opportunity. It's an opportunity for the participant to try something new, to attempt new material, to see what is right for them. For that to happen performers must be allowed to fail - or at least not to get everything right - and allowed to learn what works and what kind of artist they are.

It is also an opportunity for an audience to try something new, where they tend to be open-minded and receptive, and where criticism is constructive and well-meant. In return, they get to see exciting talent first and over time see it blossom and mature. Fringe also affords opportunities to meet performers and talk with them in a way that happens nowhere else.

Fringe is an atmosphere where artists, performers and public can mix, learn and enjoy. Somewhere that ideas are welcomed, shared and new ones born.