Film: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

This momentarily-entertaining piece of fluff will leave you feeling dirty and ashamed. But then again, most fun things do…

-Kathryn Bromwich

If the Twilight saga were a pizza, it would be a Domino’s. Not any particular flavour: whether it is Pepperoni Passion, Mighty Meat or Vegetarian Supreme, it all tastes exactly the same. The Twilight films, similarly, display vestiges of an unnecessarily complicated plot, but true fans know what really matters.

And that is Edward Cullen. Dreamy, brooding Edward Cullen, who listens to Debussy and who the other girls at school find ‘totally gorgeous, obviously’. He is also really wealthy. Oh, and since girls like diamonds, his skin sparkles in the sunlight. Or, depending on your taste, what really matters is buff Jacob, whose aversion to wearing a shirt is matched only by his total lack of a personality.

The first film lured in the legions of fans, with its relatable high school plot about sulky teenagers seduced by dangerous men: it was stupid as hell, but hilariously so (Edward: “And so, the lion fell in love with the lamb”, Bella: “What a stupid lamb”, Edward: “What a sick, masochistic lion”). Director Catherine Hardwicke managed to give it some Thirteen-style gravitas, and it was even, incredibly, critically lauded by the Guardian.

And then the plot went totally bonkers. Highlights included a shot of Bella sulking in a chair for a full year following an apparent break-up with Edward; a tense scene in a tent in which the ‘plot’ demands that hot-blooded Jacob spoon Bella in front of her boyfriend; werewolves talking to each other in weird Batman voices; blood milkshakes; and the most disturbing Caesarean section ever to appear in a 12A.

The strangest thing is the weird insistence on marriage, babies, and opposition to non-marital sex. Nothing in the first film implies that jaded teenager Bella will turn into a married über-mum cooing at her baby within less than a year. A lot has been written about whether Bella is a good feminist role model or not, which perhaps imbues the saga with a significance it should not have. Yes, it is a film where the protagonist is a girl, but it is blatantly just a rather odd sexual fantasy of Stephenie Meyer’s, and as such should not be over-analysed. It also spectacularly fails the Bechdel Test.

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Events: Science versus philosophy

Spanning neuroscience, free will and ethics, Julian Baggini and Clio Bellenis explore the role of philosophy today — yet only one of them comes out of it with panache

-Kathryn Bromwich

It has been an ongoing battle since 1959, when C. P. Snow gave a lecture on The Two Cultures. He posited that the intellectual life of western society was split into two: the sciences and the humanities. This talk continues to be relevant today. While science is rightly perceived as one of the most valuable ways we have of obtaining information about the world around us, the humanities are, worryingly, often dismissed as a superseded luxury that deserves no further discussion, and certainly no funding from the taxpayer. Among the humanities, philosophy is often singled out with cries of irrelevance, conjuring up images of mildewed Oxbridge dons dusting off their tweeds.

In two separate East London talks, public intellectual Julian Baggini and child adolescent psychiatrist Clio Bellenis attempt to redress the relevance of philosophy in today’s world, with particular regard to the discipline’s relation to science. Both speakers tackle similar topics: truth, knowledge, neuroscience, the limitations of science when it comes to ethics, and philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. However, while both speakers cover an impressively wide range of topics, only one of them comes out of it well.

Julian Baggini, Why Philosophy Matters, 20 September 2012, Bishopsgate Institute

Having written eruditely about the thorny issue of Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?, Baggini is well placed to defend philosophy against ever-increasing accusations of obsolescence. Rosy-cheeked, charming and eloquent, he remains objective, open-minded and interesting throughout his talk; challenging yet clear. He talks about many of the issues covered in his latest book, Philosophy: All that Matters. This spans a range of essential philosophical topics such as narrative, identity, animal minds and atheism, and eventually he even has a convincing go at defining the meaning of life.

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TV: Girls, HBO

Zeitgeisty and hipsterish as it may be, Girls is funny, self-deprecating and well-written

-Kathryn Bromwich

girls hbo

Is it a witty revision of Sex and the City seen through Woody Allen’s thick-rimmed spectacles, or the over-hyped creation of an over-privileged girl? Many viewers will predictably side with James Franco’s preachy and humourless take on it.

Sure, men don’t come out of it well: revolting venture capitalists, substandard thespians unwilling to ‘compromise on their art’, nice-but-dim small-town boys, bland indie musicians, or sleazy dads having a mid-life crisis. And yes, the girls are bitchy, self-obsessed, and prone to falling out with one another. But what makes this show bearable is the fact that writer/director/creator/protagonist Lena Dunham knows this. Unlike most television shows, the girls are not presented as perfect role models of achievement, virtue and beauty: they are realistic, flawed and, yes, goddamn irritating.

Franco also speciously argues that Lena Dunham is not well-placed to write about or act as a struggling writer, seeing as she is (now) so successful. Yet, following this circuitous logic (in which he has presumably misunderstood the concepts of both ‘writing’ and ‘acting’), surely world-famous actor, Yale grad student and self-satisfied Renaissance Man Franco is in no position to judge a show aimed at directionless young people who are struggling to find their place in the world and, more prosaically, a job.

In a nutshell, the story follows four female protagonists who live in New York and occasionally have sex with men. There are, of course, similarities to Sex and the City: the atavistic figures of Writer, Uptight, Sex Goddess and Career Woman transform slightly into Writer, Uptight, Sex Goddess and Virgin. But the difference is that here, they are not going on and on about Manolo Blahniks and Roberto Cavalli in the same lobotomised and consumeristic fashion of Carrie & co. Instead of presenting an unfeasibly successful lifestyle to aspire to, these girls struggle to pay the rent, have bad sex with inappropriate men, throw tantrums, depend on their parents, and have badly paid jobs in unglamorous offices. In Britain this kind of TV is hardly a novelty, but in the US it is being hailed as nothing short of revolution.

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Art: Edvard Munch, The Modern Eye

Modern inventiveness abounds, but can Munch escape his reputation for angsty introspection?

-James Piper

It has become impossible not to mention The Scream when talking about Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. This is precisely why an exhibition that relegates his most famous work to just a brief cameo is more than welcome. The key theme running through Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, is that there is much more to Munch than angsty introspection. True as that may be, there’s no escaping the deep sadness that permeates his work and this is the feeling that resonates long after leaving the gallery.

This exhibition seeks to recast Munch as an innovative, experimental artist of the 20th century, rather than the troubled and melancholic figure that often comes to mind, painting at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Showcasing his paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture and even film, The Modern Eye presents us with an artist caught up in the fresh, new and exciting ideas of the day.

Born in 1863, Munch was raised in Christiania, Norway’s capital city, later renamed Kristiania and then Oslo. After a rather bleak childhood, which saw him witness the deaths of both his mother and sister by tuberculosis, Munch spent his twenties mixing with a bohemian circle of writers and artists, sporadically taking off to Paris and Berlin in pursuit of creative enlightenment. However, a nervous breakdown in 1908 saw him return to Norway, by which point he had come to be seen as an important figure in the art world.

Munch’s paintings are the stuff of nightmares; gaunt and ghoulish faces glare at you from all sections of the canvas, expressions are obscured and exaggerated as they melt into the scenery, from which they seem almost inseparable. There is nothing to split subject and object. The surroundings in which Munch’s figures find themselves interminably trapped become merely an extension of their mood and, by association, the artist’s own emotional state. Munch’s paintings serve to signify himself.

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Book: Thomas Bernhard, Extinction

Benhard’s last novel is a spectacular and compelling prose piece that rails against Austria, the world, and three-ring binders

-Kathryn Bromwich

Between the first and the last page of this remarkable and singular novel, newcomers to Bernhard will be surprised to find only one paragraph break, neatly dividing the book into two exact halves: one of thought and stasis, and one of, er, very little action.

Left-wing academic Franz-Josef Murau lives in a self-imposed exile in Rome, where he consorts with the local bohemian arts intelligentsia. He lives in a sumptuous Renaissance palazzo overlooking the Pantheon, and sustains himself by ostensibly teaching German literature to his eager student Gambetti, while instead inculcating him, over leisurely strolls and coffees, with a deep-seated nihilism. The book starts with Murau receiving a telegram that tells him his parents and brother have been killed in an accident back in Austria. This unleashes a cantankerous, unsentimental internal monologue that shows Murau is keen not to romanticise his parents and brother after their death. For the following hundred pages, we are treated to a diatribe describing his hatred of his entire family (dead and alive, with the exception of academic Uncle Georg), his hatred of Austria, and specifically of Austria’s Catholic National Socialist mentality, of photography, diplomas, Goethe, and three ring binders.

The monologue quickly marks Murau out as an unreliable and not entirely likeable narrator, prone to exaggeration, repetition and petty grudges. His thoughts, however, presented in Bernard’s virtuoso prose, are compelling and full of vitriolic wit. His misanthropy is matched by a love of culture, a passion which his family does not share. The author plays with the ambiguous overlap between himself and the character. Both are criticised in their home country for being a ‘Nestbeschmutzer’ (one who dirties his own nest); there are some meta bits about Murau recommending Thomas Bernhard to Gambetti, and Murau talks at length of writing a work called Extinction.

Upon hearing news of the accident, Murau has to head back to his family’s luxurious estate in the Austrian mountains, magnificently named Wolfsegg, for the funeral. The staunch, efficient work ethic of Central Europe, symbolised by Wolfsegg’s agricultural lifestyle, is constantly pitted against the chaos and vibrancy of places like Rome or Cannes. The company he keeps in Rome – including an archbishop and the finest female poet of his generation – are deified, while his two sisters, who we are repeatedly assured are no beauties, and especially his dead mother, bear the brunt of Murau’s anger.

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Book: Alasdair Gray, Lanark

Dazzling, haunting and erudite, Gray’s four-volume monolith is a tour de force inside the mind of the most hilariously pathetic character in literature since Ignatius J. Reilly

-Kathryn Bromwich

About fifty pages into Lanark, the homonymous protagonist walks into a mouth at the side of a road, sliding down feet-first into a mysterious sanatorium where the doctors and nurses set about curing his dragonhide. This sets the tone for the rest of the story – or at least half of it. The monumental work is comprised of four books, starting with Book Three. The Epilogue, which appears a few chapters before the end of the book, provides a meta-deconstruction of the book itself, including references to all the authors Gray has plagiarised, such as Franz Kafka and Flann O’Brien.

Half of the book is set in a dystopian fantasy world where there is no sunlight, and where the inhabitants have to contend with a corrupt and impenetrable bureaucracy. Lanark is a mysterious outsider, a man of few words who is quickly befriended by the charismatic local debauchee Sludden and his group of fawning hangers-on. The other half of the book, more prosaic but just as riveting,  is set in mid-Century Glasgow, following the adventures of Duncan Thaw, art student and all-round catastrophe of a human being – ostensibly based on Gray himself.

It took Gray thirty years to write (and illustrate) this book, and this is apparent throughout. Linguistically, politically, poetically, it is magnificent and poignant, while always remaining eminently readable and full of humour. However, the funniest and most scathing aspect of the book is Duncan Thaw: a hilariously pretentious and revolting amalgam of Stephen Daedalus and Ignatius J. Reilly.

Music: Dirty Three, Cargo

Back with a new album going back to their old sound, the Dirty Three play a beautiful and vitriolic show at Cargo

Kathryn Bromwich

warren ellisFrom their last album Cinder (2005), which got as close to 3-minute pop songs as the Dirty Three have ever been, with Toward the Low Sun the trio have returned to the more improvised and unstructured sound of their earlier work. Gentle and seemingly aimless strumming is interrupted by violin melodies and riffs, giving it a staccato quality that is sometimes almost jazz-like. The angrily buzzing feedback, however, gives the album a dark and disconcerting undertone. The tunes are less catchy than we’ve been used to in the last few records, and even upon repeated listens it’s a strangely amorphous kind of sound, interspersed with striking moments of beauty that are all the more rewarding for their unexpected appearance. On record, the full impact of the album is not immediately apparent, but in the flesh the Dirty Three bring it to life.

Cargo is an unusually trendy venue for the band. Their last appearance in London was at the Southbank, and they can often be found at festivals such as I’ll Be Your Mirror or All Tomorrow’s Parties. Tonight’s show is organised by ATP, and the small venue provides an intimate setting for the gig — so intimate it sold out in minutes. There is no support act, and Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White waltz on to the stage with swagger. The trio play a number of songs from Toward the Low Sun, and a few well-chosen gems from their back catalogue. The two-hour gig averages out at a satisfying 11 minutes for each song or, rather, for each elemental soundscape. Ellis and White stare intently into each other’s eyes, while Turner strums along, Thurston Moore-esque.

Ellis is wearing a smart suit jacket, which he soon removes to reveal a silk purple shirt with pink polka dots, several buttons open and chains of gold bling adorning his chest (some great photos here). Thankfully, he is refusing to grow old gracefully, much like a certain friend of his, and this is great news. His repeated quips at Bono and usually-successful attempts at humour, coupled with high kicks, screams and manic dancing, make for a hilarious and energetic spectacle. Nevertheless, the music is taken seriously: the band’s scratchy elegance is on full display, and the sound is as shambolic and raw as ever.

Click here for the Setlist