Teases, Not Summaries

Monday 12th October 2015.

This week’s MA class is on Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty. I’d read it before earlier this year, but read it again anyway. It’s a joy to do so: the carefully-controlled wit running through every sentence. The seminar takes in ‘retromania’, via Simon Reynolds’s book and the TV series Mad Men. We’re shown a clip where Don Draper gives a speech to clients about a new home slide projector. He muses on the nature of nostalgia, how the word is based on a sense of an ache, or a form of pain, while showing snaps from his own troubled family. The scene is as good as any from literature.

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Tuesday 13th October 2015.

To the Barbican Cinema 2 in Beech Street for Suffragette. The trailer for this film has played heavily in cinemas for months, so much so that at times the actual film feels like the extended 12-inch remix. Trailers should tease, not summarise. And yet all of Meryl Streep’s moments as Emmeline Pankhurst turn out to be the same as those in the trailer. It’s barely a cameo role. The posters mislead too, implying that Ms Streep is in the film as much as Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter: the image is just of the three of them, lined up against the Suffragette flag. Today at a Tube station I see a small girl jump in front of the poster, and point out Helena BC to her parents – I’m guessing because of her vampy role in the Harry Potter films. Is Suffragette for children? It has the air of an important history lesson, and bears a 12A certificate, so technically children are allowed to go and see it if accompanied by an adult (I can certainly see it used in schools). But there are one or two scenes that are certainly not for smaller children. One is the unpleasant and painful force-feeding of Carey Mulligan’s fictional heroine, in order to thwart her hunger-strike in prison. The real death of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby is also presented as a traumatic moment (if a brief and gore-free one).

I feel the film’s script is a little eclipsed by its mission to educate. Its characters are more illustrations of issues than they are living, breathing humans in their own right. But everyone involved with the project clearly believes in it wholeheartedly. The acting and staging lifts the film out of the Worthy History Lesson field and into something more lasting. It’s designed to get people talking about feminism, the value of voting, and the morality and pitfalls of ‘deeds not words’.

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Thursday 15th October 2015.

Marlon James, the new Booker Prize winner, is interviewed in the Guardian. He mentions how his first novel was rejected 78 times by publishers. One of the rejection letters included the phrase ‘not for us’. ‘Luckily for them,’ says the interviewer, ‘James can’t remember their name’. This is a common narrative in tales of literary success, the inspiring message for budding writers being that those whose job it is to spot talent frequently fail to do so, even when it is offered to them on a plate. So don’t give up. It’s an idea that has been backed up with experiments, such as the one a few years ago where one of the more obscure Booker winning novels was submitted to slush piles under a pseudonym. Inevitably, it couldn’t find a publisher. But the explanations that arose, once the true nature of the manuscript was revealed, were perfectly reasonable. Tastes change, tastes differ, and sometimes publishers really are just looking for something else. Everything is ‘not for us’ to someone. It doesn’t mean the publishers in question are fools; it just means one should look elsewhere.

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I give another tour of the Viktor Wynd Museum for an attentive group. After that, to Vout-o-Reenee’s for a talk by the author Petra Mason, fresh in from Miami, on the subject of 1950s American Pin-ups. Her books are glamourous tomes in every sense: one covers the career of the striking model Bettie Page, while another celebrates Bunny Yeager, the beauty queen turned photographer, who indeed often worked with Ms Page. There’s much leopard skin in evidence, whether on bikinis or on actual live leopards, used as props. These days, one need only look to the videos of Katy Perry to see the influence. That same cartoonish sexuality – and so very American.

Ms Mason’s latest book turns to the same era’s male ‘beefcake’ photography. 100% Rare! All Natural!  These are essentially muscular male nudes and near-nudes, which appeared in ‘health and fitness’ magazines – the camper side of Charles Atlas. Obscenity laws meant that the only ‘permissible interactions’ between two men in such photographs were for ‘wresting or fighting’ only. Then it was okay. What’s also interesting is that this was a pre-steroids era, so all the muscles on show have a quaint bygone aesthetic to them. They are the same kind of gym boys that Jane Russell tiptoes around in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as she sings that knowing number, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love’.

In Ms Mason’s talk, she mentions that sometimes the beefcake genre crossed the line, and many photographers found themselves in jail. ‘But prison only gave them more ideas… and more models.’

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Friday 16th October 2015.

To the Imperial War Museum for the exhibition Lee Miller – A Woman’s War. Like Bunny Yeager, Ms M was another American model turned photographer. This must be the third Lee Miller show I’ve been to in ten years – she clearly remains a reliable subject for an exhibition, with her fascinating life story. The commercial modelling, the Surrealist muse work, the move into photography, and then into war photography. Here the focus is on the latter, with lots of her shots of women in wartime, in uniform, in the workplace (typists in bomb-proof basements in London), or just women caught in the day-to-day coping with it all. Fashion shoots against Blitz ruins, girls in Paris cafes, casually sipping drinks against bullet-shattered windows.

The news this week says that Kate Winslet is about to play Ms Miller in a biopic, and there’s certainly some photos of the older 1940s Miller in this new show where there’s a resemblance, particularly the mouth. The one of Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub is present and correct, but I’m also impressed by the large amount of her personal possessions on display: her war correspondent uniforms, her portable typewriter, her camera equipment, letters to and from the Front. There’s also a rare colour photo in which she returns to a kind of War Effort Surrealism by posing nude in camouflage-coloured body make-up, under a net, while lying on a garden lawn in Highgate (The Elms, Fitzroy Park, to be precise). Apparently this was to help illustrate Roland Penrose’s wartime lectures in camouflage instruction – but it’s clearly meant to provoke more than educate. The pose is Penrose’s idea but like the Hitler bathtub photo, it’s taken by the US photographer David E. Scherman. Scherman was also Miller’s lover, a relationship that Penrose – her husband- consented to at the time.

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