52 Photographs (2018): #1, One of César’s compressed cars, Beaubourg (January 2018)

52 Photographs (2018): #1, One of César’s compressed cars, Beaubourg (January 2018)

I admit that I quite enjoyed my 52rolls experience in 2016 and I missed taking part in 2017. It’s a good exercise to critically look over one’s photographs each week. However, I thought that maybe writing about a whole roll of film or an experience from a roll of film each week was a bit too much. There is not always such a large number of things going on… But, nevertheless, I am still shooting as much film as ever. So here is my idea: I will select one photograph per week, and write a short text about it. I’m already starting four weeks’ late, which is a good idea: that gives me time to decide what to post and what is interesting or not.

So here is the first photograph. A close-up one of one of César’s series of compressed cars. What was interesting about the show was how he used industrial methods to create works of art, leading the way for many artists after him.

A compressed car

I remember as a child we lived near to a scrap yard and I was fascinated by these machines which could reduce a full-sized family car to a cube a few meters across. Staring at César’s heavy blocks of metal I thought of this and of wondered how much weight the floors at Beaubourg could really hold.

See the other photographs in the series here

“Surviving doomsday”

“Surviving doomsday”

For as long as I can remember I was interested in science. For the first ten years of my life, we lived across the street from the Cookstown public library, and I devoured anything I could find in there about science or astronomy. (I remember later hearing a Carl Sagan story where, as a child, he goes into his public library, asks for a book about the stars…and comes out with a book about Hollywood). There was only one bookshop in our town, and I’m happy to report that it’s still there today, but one day I was in there and saw this interesting book called Surviving doomsday. Interesting for me because there was a drawing of a mushroom cloud on the cover, and that was science, right? In the foreground, a man with a geiger counter in hand and wearing full radiation protection strode confidently away from the cloud. I managed to persuade my parents to buy it for me. I must have been around 8 or 9.

Yes, to survive Doomsday, all you need is a geiger counter and the right clothes.

This must have been 1979 or 1980, and we were in the depths of the cold war. I was fascinated by the book. Inside, one could find details concerning how to build a nuclear fallout shelter (but was there enough space in our Cookstown garden, I wondered) together with helpful hints concerning what colour to paint the walls. Of course, at this time there were programs on TV all the time imagining how nuclear war might unfold. I remember standing in our garden talking about one of these shows with my cousin. “Did you hear when they said they hit Lisburn?” I asked him. Lisburn is a suburb of Belfast. Of course it was Lisbon. At the age of 11, my knowledge of world capitals was very sketchy.

I brought the book to school to show it to my friends, I found it so fascinating. Our horrified teacher confiscated it from me. But I think I was too young to be horrified. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate yet what was in the world to be unhappy if it was no longer there. Later on, as a teenager, when we moved further out into the countryside, I made an extensive study of post-apocalyptic literature, discovering amongst other classic works George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, which describes America after the population is decimated by deadly virus. At the end of Stewarts’ book, a hundred or so years after the catastrophe, the survivors simply lose interest in rebuilding civilisation. What does it mean to them anyway?

And so today we are almost at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. We survived the cold war. A few days ago I learned that those folks at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (remember them?) have advanced their doomsday clock to only two minutes to midnight. Not even enough time to paint the fallout shelter walls the right colour … Let’s just hope that that particular solution to Fermi’s paradox (where are all the aliens) based on the durability of technological civilisations turns out not to be true, after all…

Blade Runner 2049: the future is (thankfully) retro-futurist

Blade Runner 2049: the future is (thankfully) retro-futurist

We are now only two years from the dateline of the original Blade Runner. Ray Bradbury’s melancholic future of Martian settlement and abandonment, The Martian Chronicles, has since long passed, and along with it of course, 1984. Today we should be living in Jules Verne’s Paris in the 21st century. And now Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 decides consciously and unashamedly to continue in the same lost future imagined thirty years previously. A glowing hoarding for the defunct pan-American airlines, visible also in Ridley Scott’s original film, makes this clear. It’s certainly reassuring to know that PanAm made it unscathed through the thirty years separating the two films, despite all the terrible things that happened in there, which we will get to presently.

It’s a truism that our visions of the future reflect the age that we are living in. Blade runner 2049 has at its heart Philip K. Dick’s lifelong obsession with memory, identity and the nature of reality, understandable giving the shape-changing psychoactive-substance-abusing times he wrote it in. Layered onto this, then, there is Ridley Scott’s neo-noir down these mean streets a man must go, to which he added, who is maybe an android? At one point, one of the characters from the previous film resurfaces, and we remember that yes, the 1980s, that was big hair too.

Villeneuve has stated that he wanted to stay true to the original, and in Blade Runner 2049 he has gloriously succeeded. The film is a wondrous widescreen evocation of a ruined post-catastrophe future, beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins, who knows how to do retro-futurism, having worked on the film version of 1984. Ryan Gosling is as cooly implacable as you’d expect him to be, and Harrison Ford’s Deckard is as we remember him. His character seems to have spent most of the the three decades between the two films going through the world’s largest drinks cabinet. Happily, the intervening catastrophes have destroyed most digital media, which means there is still some gumshoe work to be done — in flying cars mostly, of course, because this is Blade Runner. That’s what drives the film along, and it’s for the most part compelling and fun to watch.

Blade Runner 2049: this is what repealing the clean air act will get you…

But within this retro-futuristic straightjacket of “being true” there isn’t much space left over to imprint our current worries. Pervasive surveillance and the effortless execution of miscreants by remote-controlled pilotless drones (whilst the operator gets a manicure) makes a showing, and as a counterbalance we are allowed a marginally hopeful scene involving bees. The Pacific Ocean is kept at bay by an enormous seawall, and weather conditions seem to change faster than you could switch channels on TV. Like in William Gibson’s The Peripheral, the world-melting disaster presented here drives humanity to desperately invent advanced technologies to survive, but the end result is to merely to exaggerate existing power structures. Big corporations operate well beyond the bounds of law enforcement, and we see one of the chief baddies sauntering around LAPD headquarters without so much as ringing the doorbell.

So, the film succeeds entirely as a sequel to the original, which has cast such a long shadow on cinematic history. By continuing down the fork in the road of its predecessor, it is an even more fully realized version of the same future. Yes, this is a retro-futurist film, unlikely to come to be, which is partly reassuring, because the future that it depicts is not a place you’d like find yourself living in. Cinema should not necessarily inspire us with a shining future of gleaming spaceships, brushed metal and inter-species kissing. But where are the utopias today?

Henri Calet and Paris

Henri Calet and Paris

In the last twelve months I’ve discovered the French author Henri Calet. My friend Mr. Seagull gave me a copy of Les Grandes Largeurs and at the wonderful Festival des troquets last year, after a reading of Calet’s work, I bought a copy of Le tout sur le tout. It seems that Calet is almost unknown in the English-speaking world: he has no English Wikipedia entry, and no translations are in print. (Doing an image search I did find, amusingly, a few of his books in lurid covers from the 1950s). This is certainly a shame because Le tout sur le tout is certainly one of my favourite books about Paris. Calet, with contemporaries Jacques Yonnet and Bob Girard wrote about paris populaire, the life of ordinary people instead of film stars and politicians.

A small photograph of Calet

Le Tout sur le tout is a strange book: it is neither autobiography or novel. Calet’s own life was incredibly rich and chaotic. Born to an anarchist father, he ceaselessly changed job and apartment. Spectacularly, in 1930 he robbed the safe at his workplace in order to help pay for a horse-racing obsession. He fled to Montevideo, and it was actually during this escapade that the name ‘Henri Calet’ first appeared, on a false passport. The name he was born with was in fact “Raymond-Théodore Barthelmess” (harder to spell, that’s for sure). After much wandering he returned to Paris in the 1940s, and it was then that his literary and journalistic career really started.

At the puces de Vanves, a favourite haunt of Calet’s

But there is none of this in Le Tout sur le tout. Calet writes about his impossibly impoverished childhood and then his return to Paris after the war. I asked a friend who knows a lot about Paris if he had read the book and he said, “well, it’s a book for Parisians”, and indeed that is the case. Calet describes in detail the houses, and buildings he lived in and remembered, many of which are vanished today. But the streets are still there. In particular, Calet writes about the 14eme arr., here where I live, and how it was in the years immediately after the war. This part of the book has a melancholic, shocked, feeling to it, and you realise how much history and past a city like Paris can have, most of which has vanished with the people who lived with it. Calet certainly feels this, writing in particular about a Jewish girl he knew who was deported by the Vichy government.

In the Grand Largeurs he writes about the swings and roundabouts behind the 14eme’s town hall. But before those swings and roundabouts were there, in the 1920s, a man used to come from the countryside with his goats and ponies and offered rides to children. Or the fact that the large and noisy avenue du Général Leclerc (which used to be avenue d’Orleans) before the war was once a long permanent market with stalls and stands. After the war, everything vanished, and to Calet it seemed strangely empty and deserted.

Lady with a beard, seen at the puces de Vanves. Yours for only 200 euros!

Calet’s father was a hard-line anarchist, and changes jobs incessantly, usually either after picking a fight with the management or customers or by provoking strikes by organising the other workers. He is fired from serving ice-cream after spitting in the cones, because after all, ice-cream is for the bourgeois, right? This leads to a continual quest to find money to live, and the stories of pre-war poverty have an almost Irish quality of comedy and tragedy about them. There are many wonderful stories. Here’s my rough translation of one passage:

Another time, Petrus made fake two-franc coins in a room next to ours. But his work was amateurish: his coins blackened almost immediately. My Father’s job was to pass on the money, splitting the proceeds with his friend. But it wasn’t easy: he could only get rid of Petrus’ coins at dusk, in the short space of time when then shopkeepers hadn’t yet turned on the gas lighting.

And the melancholy lives with the comedy. In Calet’s time each year there was a celebration of life in the quartier, la Fete de la Lion. Calet writes that all he’d like in life is to stay in the 14eme and end his days at the retirement home on the avenue du Gereral Le Clerc, sitting outside on the pavement with them to watch the Fete du Lion. But it was not to be, he was dead only a few years after he finished Le Tout sur le tout.

Amongst the last words Calet wrote were the following:

« C’est sur la peau de mon cœur que l’on trouverait des rides. Je suis déjà un peu parti, absent. Faites comme si je n’étais pas là. Ma voix ne porte plus très loin. Mourir sans savoir ce qu’est la mort, ni la vie. Il faut se quitter déjà ? Ne me secouez pas. Je suis plein de larmes. »

or in my rough translation:

“My heart has wrinkles. I’m already a little gone, absent. Pretend I’m not there. My voice doesn’t carry very far. To die without knowing what is death or life. Already time to leave? Don’t shake me. I am full of tears. “

Calet’s popularity has risen here in recent years here in France. A new biography of his life is being planned. Perhaps it’s time to publish his books again in English?