FINALE DI POLLINA, Sicily – The Hobo clown character goes back generations in the circus arts, with the most famous one being that of Emmett Kelly, whose hobo “Weary Willie” was a reflection of the tramps of the 1930s depression. We are now on the edge of an economic period that is being classified as potentially worse than that depression, but for circus performers and most other live entertainment artists, the period of Coronavirus has been even beyond the imaginings of the depression period. So it was that the show we saw last night in this extraordinary resort town on the north coast of Sicily was, as Ornella pointed out to the artist himself after the show, an extraordinary metaphor for our time.
The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!
Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe. Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole
I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.
But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.
Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.
Pollina and its built-in theater
Our only regret was that we did not get to see a show in the other theater of the festival, which is located up in the town above where the hobo show took place in a theater the likes of which I have never seen before as it is a kind of amphitheater built right into the city-scape of the town (if such a phrase is possible!). Pollina is an ancient town built on a hill (a little like Mont Saint Michel in France) that is a major tourist attraction in Sicily; but it was too dark for us to see it from the beach area where we saw the show.
It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?
I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together. Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today
There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.
The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.
Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.
But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!
PARIS – Having now arrived back in Paris after a weekend in England, I have finally found a few minutes to report on our final days at the Braziers Park Mini Indie Film Festival, and what came after. (Does that sound like one of those click-bait headlines?: “…what happened next will ASTOUND you!!!”)
The final day at the Braziers Mini Indie Film Festival was highlighted by a great fun final show resulting from Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro’s Flow Zone workshop – three days of the workshop ended in a show put together by the participants – and the long shadow from the night before of a fabulous film by a 16-year-old director.
Actually, the film, called “Charlie’s Letters,” and about a voyage by the director’s great grandfather up through Italy solo trying to escape from the enemy during World War II, was certainly one of the high points of the festival. I think few of the spectators expected to find this mature work of a film done by a teenager, despite the hype around it stating that Elliott Hasler, the director, was the youngest ever director to premier a full-length dramatic film at a major film film festival in Britain, as he had already done at both the Brighton Film Festival and the Edinburgh festival.
Somehow, Elliott, with the help of his family’s financial support – with a miraculously small budget of about 7000 pounds sterling, managed to create a persuasive feature film where both the size of the budget and the age of the director is soon forgotten by the passionate story telling. It was in fact years in the making, as Elliott began it at between 13 and 14 years old and finished it just shy of his 17th birthday. He is now 18, and during the talk after the film showing at Braziers, he struck me as being as mature as all the great young and precocious Formula One drivers I have interviewed over the years – Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen, and many more – and made me feel that there will be great things to come from him.
I don’t want to go into detail about the film, as I’ve not got the skills of a film critic, but suffice to say that the story – with Elliott in the lead role and looking like a man in his late 20s or more – just draws you in from the first images and carries you along with expert editing, story-telling, visual beauty and acting. The only hint for me – as a non professional – of its low budget nature was the less than perfect sound capture. (So I was not surprised to learn that it was done with a mic on the camera, rather than a separate sound source.) But even this was dealt with in a way that managed to add a certain atmosphere to the whole.
My feeling was that Elliott, given the right support and continued interest (he said he started making films at around age 10) could certainly go on to become another David Lean or Richard Attenborough or…Elliott Hasler!
And from Braziers on we went to Giffords Circus in Stroud
Giffords Circus tent
It has been years and years that I had intended to attend Giffords Circus, a small family-run circus that I first heard about in 2014 when I met three of the musicians of the circus’s orchestra. I wrote about that meeting on this blog, as it happened in the context of my open mic journeys around the world. They showed up at the great Catweazle Club open mic in Oxford, and I could see immediately that they were massively talented – and entertaining – performers. I introduced myself afterwards and we continued our musical evening at a pub or two after Catweazle ended.
So it was that a light flashed in my mind last month when Peter Pullon (to be mentioned below) told me that I really should check out the circus up on the commons outside Stroud. It turned out that the final date of the circus in Stroud took place on Tuesday afternoon, and that I had just the time to attend on this, my return trip to see Peter.
So Ornella and I attended the show, and I was hoping to find my friend the musical director of the show, but he was not there for this performance! What we did find, however, was a very, very classy circus show that incorporated the best feel of the intimacy of a family-run circus along with a judicious hiring of acts from around the world to make up the non-regular acts. So in the end, I may not have met my old acquaintance, but I did meet a performer who used to live on the same street as I did in Toronto, while Ornella, who was born in Sicily, met a couple of Sicilian performers.
The show was sold out, and while I have no idea how many spectators the tent seats, it felt like it must have been anywhere between 500 to 1,000. It was smaller than many of the big Christmas shows I have seen in Paris, but bigger than the smallest. My favorite acts were the main clown, who was almost acting as a ringmaster too, the juggler, and the acrobats who launched themselves high above the ground in the second part of the show. I also absolutely loved the miniature ponies and the dachshund dog act.
The performers live at this circus in trailers, as it is a real, true travelling show. Part of the charm of attending this last show outside Stroud was to watch how the troupe began dismantling the tent and packing up the show the moment the place had emptied of spectators, as it was clearly time to hit the road. It reminded me of my life in Formula One and the biggest travelling circus of them all in the afternoon after a Grand Prix race ends.
And then back to Peter Pullon’s workshop to reunite with Peter McCabe
Peter Pullon and Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
After the circus on Tuesday we headed over to the workshop of the master puppet maker, Peter Pullon, who was giving a facelift to my sidekick, Peter McCabe. I had left Peter with Peter last month, 43 years after Pullon made Peter! Pullon is a fascinating man, having had two or three successful careers in his life, including working in theater for the decade of the 1960s, before setting up his own business as a theatrical prop builder in the 70s and then becoming the film director and producer of advertisements.
And during much of this time he also sidelined as a great puppet maker. His two most famous creations were probably Emu, the bird figure of Rod Hull, who was massively popular in the UK in the 70s, and the ventriloquist figure, Orville. In recent years he decided to put an end to the TV commercial making career and return to his great love of making puppets. So he set up shop in the Cotswolds and now devotes his time fully to making – and repairing or renovating – puppet figures.
When I approached him a year or so ago and asked if he would take on a renovation of my Peter McCabe, he agreed, and I had to just wait for the right moment. I was, of course, somewhat worried at the prospect of what might happen to Peter if I sent him across the channel and subjected him to the no doubt painful process of a face – and body – lift at age 43, but when I stepped into Pullon’s studio on Tuesday and saw the masterful job he had done, I was overjoyed. So was Peter. He apparently had a lot more fun in the Cotswolds than he usually does with me in Paris.
Stay tuned for the further adventures of Peter McCabe (and me) in coming months….
In the end, our second trip in as many months, was as successful and fun as the first. We hope to do it again soon. (Peter is yelling in the background, telling me to cut the crap, he refuses to undergo another facelift for at least another 43 years.)
BRAZIERS PARK – I just finished this afternoon showing my Colin Wilson interview film at a film festival in the barn of an ancient country home called Braziers Park in England, not far from Oxford. It was a beautiful fitting location for the first show of this film to a general public after 12 years of its making. I have so much to say about this whole fantastic weekend at this extraordinary faux Gothic former home to Ian Fleming – the author of James Bond – and to Marianne Faithfull, who spent some time of her childhood here and later brought her boyfriend, Mick Jagger to visit. It is more than 300 years old, but it is thanks to its more recent history that I ended up here. Since the 1950s the house has been the home to an “intentional community,” which is hosting this Mini Indie Film Festival this weekend.
That community is a small, nearly self-sufficient commune that acts as an educational institution, or to be more precise, a School of Integrative Social Research. So there’s nothing religious or sect-related in the place. It is apparently England’s oldest such community – or one of the oldest. I did managed to read a few unflattering things written about it (mostly to do with sex) by Marianne Faithfull in a book of hers about her time at the community, of which her parents were members, but it seems to have been changed since then, because I’ve seen nothing odd going on!
In fact, I was a little worried before I came about what I might find. But it has been a fantastically comfortable event and lifestyle. The house looks and feels like something you would see in a classic film – anything from an Agatha Christie story to Frankenstein, or, indeed, James Bond – with some 20 or so rooms for guests, a study, drawing room, large kitchen, very high ceilings, and a huge garden. There is also a campsite, and many acres of farmland, and even farm animals.
I was invited by one of the Colin Wilson film’s producers to show the film here as he, Michael Butterworth, was also showing a film about his life and publishing concern. In a nutshell: Michael Butterworth is one of the founders of the Savoy Books publishing company in Manchester, and he is also the publisher of my book, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Mike was also one of the producers of the interview film, along with Jay Jeff Jones, who was also the director, and a small production company in England called Excalibur Productions.
Savoy Books also had a hand in the film production, so it was the perfect marriage to join up the showing of the Colin Wilson interview with the film about Savoy Books, called “House on the Borderland,” which is by Clara Casian, and is about the publishers’ problems with the Manchester Police Department, a battle that went on for years decades ago. (Here is the long trailer I made of the interview film, the full length of which runs 1 hour 30 minutes.)
Showing the film in the barn was a delight, as was speaking with the spectators in that setting afterwards. In fact, the festival has been a wonderfully quirky and thought-provoking adventure with a huge cross-section of films, including horror films, documentaries, short art films, and others.
There was an excellent documentary called Power Trip, by Zoe Broughton and Paul O’Connor, about the battle against fracking in England. It covers the trials of a real grassroots movement by citizens under threat of the ravages of this bizarre method of removing oil from the earth, in a battle fought by normal citizens, including many housewives, grandmothers, and people who would never otherwise have been involved in such a movement.
Ornella Bonventre in Ian Fleming Library at Braziers Park
The horror film “The Fallow Field,” that I saw last night, scared the hell out of me. At first I was sorry I attended, as it played from 10 PM to 11:30 PM, and we need to get early to bed and have a full night of sleep here. I was sure this horribly frightening film would keep me awake all night with nightmares. In fact, perhaps it was the act of catharsis, but I slept much better last night than I have in days. Still, it was perhaps a help to have the leading actor in the room to talk to after the film. This way, we could confirm to ourselves that it was only a film. As this actor, Michael Dacre, proved to be harmless as a person in real life. Or rather, he seemed not at all to be the horrendous character he portrayed in the film, a character that ranks up there with the worst of them in my experience. Meaning, a horrendously evil, nasty, but at the same time human, murderer. Dacre plays a farmer who kills people and then buries them, only to dig them up again…. But I don’t want to give away the story. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent horror film that also forces us to ask questions about our own humanity. It transcends the genre. Made in 2009, it has apparently had a hard time breaking out, including spending a few years in its own fallow field.
The festival is also called a “Wider Community Weekend,” as it is a kind of “open doors” weekend to invite the community in for many other activities as well. Among those is the three-day workshop by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, a workshop which she has called “The Flow Zone.” I have been attending her workshops, and helping out there was well, and learning a lot about the process of acting…and getting into the flow zone.
Ornella Bonventre directing her Flow Zone workshop at Braziers Park
The festival continues tomorrow, so I may well post again on the subject. Oh, I should explain a little more about how this was the childhood home of Ian Fleming at the turn of last century, so there is a direct link to the James Bond novels somewhere. And there is an Ian Fleming library within the house. I have barely begun to explore all of the nooks and crannies, and somehow I feel I will leave the place without doing so, as there are so many activities that there is barely any time available to lie about. But this only gives me another reason to hope to return next year – maybe to show my open mic film…!
Oh dear, and how could I almost forget to mention that last night, in fitting with my usual adventures and this blog, they held an open mic in the drawing room – complete with a mic and a little amp. I had my guitar and played a couple of songs, Ornella did a bit of the song from her workshop – with everyone joining in – and many others did readings of prose – including Dacre reading something from Jack London – and Michael Butterworth reading some of his brilliant short poems. I was very touched also by a regular denizen of Braziers Park who sang a song that he said he learned here in 1961 or 1962. The beat goes on!
Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – It seems hardly possible that it has been exactly seven full weeks since I last posted on this blog. That has to be a record absence for me. It equals one year’s worth of vacation when I was on staff of the International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based newspaper that worked under the French labor system and so gave us lots of holidays each year. I can say that these last seven weeks have not been a holiday, but the busiest time of the last year – which is the reason I have not been contributing to the blog. So here is a point-by-point recap of the main events of the last seven weeks:
1. Most of early June was spent digging out nearly 20 years’ worth of my piled up papers, paraphernalia and trash from my garage and cave in order to make space for Ornella and her TAC Teatro’s paraphernalia from Italy. Cleaning these places led to many wonderful discoveries, but also some very difficult decisions; among the many relics that I found were three never-before-used Zippo lighters with the aforesaid International Herald Tribune’s marketing department’s effort to publicize the newspaper’s coverage of the 2000 presidential elections. Beautiful objects that I had kept but never once used, I now find use for them, particularly for Ornella and my daughter’s smoking habits….
IHT Zippo lighter
I am loving the process of filling these classic lighters with fluid, new flint stones, etc. (I am a little disappointed at how quickly they are losing their paint job, though, as you can see from the photo of this lighter used by Ornella for just one month.) There used to be so much more “process” in the past in our daily lives…. But among the difficult decisions in this vast clean out, was whether I should keep the hundreds of copies of actual newspapers – of the aforementioned IHT – that had the print versions of my articles in them. I had always taken hard copies of the paper home to have a record of the printed work – but I had never had any use for these relics. Now, I found myself with the difficult decision of either throwing them away or else having no further usable space in my storage areas. As I knew that all of the copies existed in microfilm or other electronic form, as well as online in the online archives of The New York Times – many of which copies I also had to decide whether or not to keep – I ultimately decided to throw them all away. It was a heartbreaking moment, but also a feeling of truly moving on into the future. Like the Formula One teams that I had written so much about, I chose to look forward, rather than backwards at personal mementos.
2. Having cleared out these storage spaces, it was time to go on a brief trip to Milan in order to clear out TAC Teatro and prepare the moving van to bring to Paris all of the aforementioned paraphernalia. It was a massively busy and tiring three or four days that also involved very difficult choices. For instance, the most heartbreaking for Ornella was the decision to leave behind the linoleum flooring that she used as the floor of the theater space, and which had come directly from use on the floor of the famous La Scala Opera House, and had, therefore, been danced upon my some very famous performers. But it was just too heavy, massive when rolled up, and required a very good cleaning job, which we had no time for. We nevertheless managed to pack up and transport to Paris two tons of paraphernalia, including seating for at least one hundred spectators, a sound system, a series of spotlights, a piano, keyboard, drum, a workbench table from a famous Italian filmmaker and writer, and countless other items far too long to list here without getting anymore boring than I already risk being. The whole collection of paraphernalia ended up taking two moving vans instead of the original one that had been planned for.
3. We returned to Paris and spent the three or four days waiting for the delivery by finishing the cleanup of the storage space. (Let me note that this was happening in a hot month of June, and with all the dust from the spaces, and the pollen in the air, I wore a face mask nearly full-time to help my breathing.) When the paraphernalia arrived, we then spent two days filling up the storage spaces, but rest easy knowing we can now prepare for the future. It was also very satisfying to have replaced my 20 years’ worth of accumulated crap by this investment in the future of TAC in France.
Philosopher of Optimism
4. No sooner did we catch our breath again, barely able to believe what we had accomplished, than we departed for a quick trip to England, where it was time for some more very satisfying work: The first stop was Nottingham, where I was invited to attend the Second International Colin Wilson Conference in order to do the very first public screening of the interview film that is connected to my book, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Produced by a British film production company as well as the publisher of my book, Michael Butterworth, and his other company, Savoy Books, and directed by Jay Jones, it consisted of an hour and a half interview of Colin Wilson by me. Although the film was done in 2006, it was never quite finished. I recently decided to ask if I could work on the edit through my company, the perfectly named, “Unfinished Business SAS.” I was given the go-ahead, and prepared first a trailer for the film (below) and then I prepared the film for this private showing for the 55 people attending the three day conference, including the members of Wilson’s family – three of his children, and his wife, Joy. That last name is certainly the right word for me to use as well to describe the entire event, and especially the reception of the film: It was a pure joy!
5. From Nottingham, Ornella and I headed on to the Cotswolds for a brief visit to have a reunion more than 40 years after I met him with the man who created my ventriloquist’s figure, and to whom I brought the suspect in question for a facelift (and a body-lift). But on the way there we had a fabulous, three-hour long meeting and tour of the Renault Formula One factory at Enstone.
Brad and Ornella at Renault F1 Team
This fell the day after the team’s home race, the British Grand Prix, and at the end of the series’ horrendously tiring triple-header of races in June/July. Although it was the strangest feeling for me to be in England during the race weekend without attending the race itself, the trip was more than compensated for by both our stay overnight in Oxford – where I played in two different open mics (and can now update my Oxford guide), followed by the trip to see Peter Pullon in the Cotswolds. This aforementioned ventriloquist figure builder has become one of the world’s foremost puppet makers, having created some of Britains most famous figures: Rod Hull’s Emu, Honey Monster, the Hoffmeister Bear, Smash Martians and Keith Harris’s
Peter McCabe with Peter Pullon
Orville. I am waiting with baited breath the renovation of my figure, whose name is Peter McCabe, and for whom I have some future plans that I will talk about on this blog as they happen. (Peter most recently had a cameo role in my video of my cover song of Mad World, by Tears for Fears.
6. No sooner did we return from England than it was off to Sicily for us and a three-week vacation, during which period I have, nevertheless, been using every available moment to make plans for the future year, and my many projects for my new life in Unfinished Business…. We have been staying in Ornella’s hometown of Castellammare del Golfo, and reading on the beach by day, and walking the city streets by night, occasionally finding places to play my guitar and sing. We have done a lot of tourism, as well, which we have posted about copiously on Facebook. The highlights for me have been the visit to Segesta and its ancient Greek temple and above all, its ancient Greek theater.
The acoustics of this place are astounding – although I’m not sure the plywood floor they chose to use to cover the rock surface of the stage was wise. And the most painful and touching visit was to the site of the 1968 earthquake, which killed more than 900 people and wiped out two towns. The ruins of many of the buildings remain locked in time in the countryside, and one of the towns, Gibellina, is now covered, encased, in a white concrete monument, or work of art, to mark the tragedy. Walking amongst these ruins and the monument, is a deep, difficult, but valuable experience.
7. I almost forgot to mention that in between all of these activities and right at the beginning of the month, we found a space in Paris that we are looking at as a possible future location for TAC and Unfinished Business. But it represents quite an investment, and it required us to make trips to the bank, an accountant, work on a business plan, and generally occupy all of the free time we had between the above activities! (And we have still not finished working on that.)
So as you can see, I have been busy as anything in the last seven weeks. But now I’ve had a moment to record it all in the web log, and I’m glad to have had so many rich experiences to get down here….
Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel in Si Ce N’est Toi.
PARIS – If theater is about emotion, intellect and the physical world, then there is clearly a powerful formula to be harvested from the approach that is behind the festival called “Futur Composé” – running in several theaters and institutions around Paris from 8 June to 1 July – the opening play of which I attended on Friday at Le Carré du Temple. “Si Ce N’est Toi,” is a very personal piece by Marion Coutarel, inspired by her brother’s diagnosis in his 40s of Williams Syndrome. The festival and its association, were created 18 years ago – and this is its 10th edition, as it runs every other year – to allow an exchange between handicapped people (mostly autistic), and others who are not handicapped, and to bring them together on the stage and through other artistic events and activities – such as singing, writing, painting. The striking thing about Coutarel’s play was nicely put to words by a psychiatrist I spoke to afterwards: “In some ways, the people who are supposed to be handicapped look much more naturally alive in their role on the stage than those who are not.”
It was with a huge variety of emotions, on many different levels, that I watched this piece of 1 hour 20 minutes: On the one hand there was an education about an illness I had never heard of – Williams Syndrome – on another level was the actor on the stage before me who is afflicted with the illness, and on another was the actress, author and director whose brother inspired the show. But it truly did make me question the very nature of what it means to be “handicapped.” And in this way, the play is a challenging and worthwhile venture for the spectator. I left the theater – a 250-seat auditorium in the 3d arrondissement – feeling happily enlightened and uplifted about a part of our world that I knew so little about, and now will never see the same way again.
The play comes in the form of a sort of story-telling acted out by the three main characters, Coutarel, Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel. The latter is a dancer and choreographer, who plays the role of John Cyprian Phipps Williams, who was born 16 November 1922, a New Zealand cardiologist who discovered the syndrome in 1961, while he was still quite young. As part of the story, we learn also of the strange, eccentric life of this mysterious, multi-talented doctor who apparently disappeared for years and was presumed dead – until he made contact with the author of a book about the poet Janet Frame, asking that a relationship he had with the poet please not be mentioned in the book!
But the most intriguing performance of the story is that of Auriane Vivien, who is affected by the syndrome. And it is here where I was the most touched by my questions about what constitutes a handicap. Vivien, who has played the role several times over the last year elsewhere in France, was – as the psychiatrist noted – perfectly at home on the stage. In fact, had it not been for some of her physical characteristics matching those of the typical case of Williams Syndrome, it might have been impossible to know whether or not she was truly affected by this disease.
This was a theater of personal exploration, especially for Vivien and Coutarel, as the author wrote the piece in order to try to come to terms with her own brother’s illness. Williams Syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, and is characterized by certain physical attributes – notably the shape of the face and head – but also often by problems with visual spatial tasks, and, unfortunately, frequent heart problems. People with this genetic syndrome often have some moderate intellectual deficiencies as well, but other things are above average, for instance, they often possess a high musicality, often having absolute pitch. It is often marked also by an outgoing, friendly personality; which is something that is really touching in the circumstances as well.
The play takes a form somewhere between a recounting of personal history, self-questioning, demonstrations of what it is to have the syndrome, and even occasionally feels like a university lecture on the topic. But it was highly choreographed, and much of the physical interest comes from the contortions and movements of Taffanel, whose physical traits might actually lend themselves to questioning by anyone who did not know it, as to whether or not he himself suffered from the syndrome! Ultimately, the play’s main interest for me was, in fact, this questioning that it made me do about what exactly is that thing that we like to call “normal.”
* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.
PARIS – I could not believe it when I calculated that the last time I had attended the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain was 23 years ago. I did this calculation last Sunday while attending the 39th edition of this circus festival, at the Cirque Phénix on the Pelouse de Reuilly in Paris. The last time I had attended it took place in Paris’s fabulous indoor circus building, the Cirque d’Hiver, and the change of location defined a big part of the growth of the festival. But it was above all in seeing how the acts themselves had changed, transformed, grown, that defined the passage of time over those years. The only thing that remained the same was the clear, undeniable importance and innovative nature of this, one of the world’s greatest circus festivals.
But it is the sheer baffling talent that awes at this festival today as in the past. The circus arts often are thought of us something slightly tawdry, and often not really a true art, but a cheap thrill obtained through buffoonery or minor skills of juggling and gymnastics. This festival shows how high an achievement, how much discipline mental, spiritual and physical it takes to achieve the highest level of the circus arts. Today it seems a circus artist can no longer be content to master one thing: A juggler has to be something of a gymnast, dancer, clown, tumbler, and have enough imagination to be able to communicate with the audience through more than just wowing them with throwing objects into the air.
Cirque de demain diabolo solo
Same for the trapeze artists, the tumblers, and others: Multitalented consummate artists who absolutely send shivers of emotion through us at their multifaceted shows and skills. Anyone interested in going into the circus profession as an artist, really must check out this festival to see how high the bar – literally and figuratively – may be set for the very highest levels of the art.
Aside from this clear development since the early 1990s, another of the biggest developments I noticed this year compared 23 years ago was that at that time, the dominant acts, most of the acts, came from the former Soviet countries, from Russia, Ukraine, all over Eastern Europe, as well as from China. All of those communist states that had for decades poured money into developing the circus arts.
This year, act after act came from Western countries, or a large number of the performers no matter where they were from had trained in the West. Much to my delight and surprise, that included many of them having trained at the National Circus School in Montreal, Canada. Founded in 1981, that school would not have had the time by 1994 to have produced such a large quantity of performers, I suspect. But what was also interesting was that some of these performers seemed – if I understood correctly – to have come from other countries to study there.
Cirque de demain Bar Russe
There were plenty of West European performers as well, of high quality. In all, my favorite performances came from the two diabolo juggling acts, the solo artist, Arata Urawa, in the early part of the show and the group of four jugglers from Taiwan called Diaboloism. I loved the hand-to-hand performances of Tristan & Eve, as well as those of the other such performers, i.e., Julius & César. And I enjoyed the huge hoop, or Roue Cyr, performance by Vincent Bruyninckx of Belgium. The various trapeze artists took my breath away and raised my heart rate permanently as I feared for their lives so high above the stage. Cirque de demain hoop
The festival has grown vastly in its public success as well in the last 23 years, and since it was founded by Dominique Mauclair – who died recently – in 1977. Although the Cirque d’Hiver remains myself favorite circus location, the move to a big tent like the Cirque Phénix brings a whole different dimension to this international competition – there were some 20 countries represented – with an audience on the third day of the show for the finale (which is what I attended) reaching something like 5 to 6,000 spectators. It was, in fact, the record of audience size for the festival.
Cirque de demain flippers
Another constant between 1994 and today, was that there is nevertheless a common feel to these acts with avant garde music and the effort to raise a circus act to the level of high art. That is one of the distinguishing aspects of this festival. This is not really for young children. Lasting nearly three hours and consisting of the finest, most artistic acts around, it lacks the big gut-splitting sort of act of that lower kind that children – and adults too – really love to see. But that is not, either, the purpose of this festival. It is more competition, showcase, career launching board than at strict family show.
Cirque de demain flags
Oh, yes, and on that point, it is also worth pointing out that there are no animal acts. This is purely the side of the circus that is involved in great human achievement, not the P.T. Barnum fascination with animals and oddities. Speaking of which, as I left the festival, I wondered to myself how it is that with the health of the circus act so clearly incredibly high – higher than ever before, dare I say? – how is it that over the past year one of the greatest of all circuses with more than a century of tradition, still was unable to succeed and had to close down forever? Did Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey depend too much on the old idea of the circus? In any case, my feeling is that the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, after 39 years, still has decades more to go, and I can’t wait to see how it all evolves in the future….
I had almost reached my limit at the open mic I attended that I last reported about on this blog, in Copenhagen, but the temptation to try another one that was sitting as bait before my eyes was just too great. It was Thursday night, I had a film to attend until around 8 PM or so, and then another film to attend at 10 PM or so (see my previous post about The Inertia Variations), but I had heard some intriguing things about the Café Retro open mic. And I had therefore, a period of an hour, basically, between when I could arrive for the beginning of the open mic, and had to leave for the next film. So I decided to see if that hour could be filled with my fourth presence behind a mic at an open mic in Copenhagen in seven nights in Denmark. Eureka! And boy did I not regret the effort and gamble to go….
My experience at the previous open mic was so bad, waiting three hours to play one song, that I worried that I had already seen the best of the open mics in Copenhagen, and why push my luck. But, in fact, during that previous open mic I had met some Spaniards who had told me that the Café Retro open mic – which I had heard of elsewhere – was really a cool, different, open mic that was worth trying. So I pushed myself, going to the place in the heart of downtown Copenhagen without my guitar even, and hoping for the best. Another Henrik Berg at Café Retro in Copenhagen
I had been told that the Café Retro was a non-profit establishment in which all the people working were volunteers. The money the venue earns goes to various social projects in Africa. That in itself sounded promising – but who knew?
So I found the place with no problem, entered, and discovered a really neat atmosphere of small rooms or cubby holes, coolly decorated, and an upper mezzanine floor where the open mic takes place. It was cozy, cool, and clearly made for both listening, munching, drinking and socializing. I arrived at precisely 8:30, and I was introduced to Henrik Berg, who runs the open mic. I told him that I was really keen to play. He outlined to me the program for the night: He would play a set until 9 p.m. and that would be followed by a feature act – or was it “acts” – until 9:30, at which point the open mic would begin. Henrik Berg at Café Retro in Copenhagen
I told him that I supposed that ruled me out, since I had a film to attend at 10 p.m., and even if he put me up as the first person in the open mic, it was doubtful I could play precisely at 9:30 and still get off to the cinema…. He said of course we could do that. Then he gave it a little thought and said, “Listen, I have an idea: I will play my set until 9 p.m., then I will slot you in at 9 in between me and the feature act. Then you can get out of here after that, easily early enough to get to your film.”
I could not believe my ears! What openness, what consideration. There are so few open mic MCs that know how to be flexible. And so many times when I have been in similar straights, they say: “Come back next week.” And they say this despite me telling them I don’t live in the country, I’m just passing through and may never return. Not Henrik. His way of dealing with me was consistent with what feels like the entire zeitgeist of this volunteer organization and its great staff. Onimo at Café Retro
I then set another hurdle for him, telling him that my guitar was in my hotel. “No problem, use mine.”
So Henrik played his set, and he immediately introduced me, and I got up on stage at 9 p.m. and found myself behind a fabulous, fabulous sound system, with lots of reverb on the mic, and his guitar – a Takamine – sounding great and feeling as good to play. And there I was, up there in that perch above the ground floor looking down, and looking also over at the clients in the various cubbyholes of the mezzanine. A final Henrik Berg at Café Retro in Cph
And so began a close to half an hour set for me as I played song after song of mine with Henrik giving me the thumbs-up from the floor below, indicating I could continue…. I have not felt that good at an open mic for a very, very long time. And I managed to leave just after 9:30 and arrive in plenty of time at the film, which I was therefore feeling completely relaxed and enthusiastic to see.
So I highly, highly recommend the Café Retro in Copenhagen. I also, generally, highly recommend Copenhagen for people looking for one of the best open mic scenes in the world. I could have played just about every night, I think. And I will confirm that soon with a new Thumbnail Guide for Copenhagen’s open mic scene….
Four open mics in seven days, I could not have dreamed of anything better when I set out of the CPH:DOX film festival the week before….
COPENHAGEN – For the 15 years prior to the film “The Inertia Variations,” musician Matt Johnson, the lead guy in the British 1980s-90s band, “The The,” had not performed any music, had not finished writing any songs – although he had started a lot of them – and for many years had even ceased to touch his guitars at all. That sounds like a lot of inertia. His absence from the music scene has resulted in his Wikipedia entry referring to him as “the reclusive” Matt Johnson.† But in this new film, made by his ex-wife, Johanna St. Michaels, – which had its international premiere at the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen Thursday night – while we see that he is certainly something of a loner, not only has he been occupied with many other projects – photography, writing those unfinished songs, working on a book – but above all, creating a radio station in his home in London that broadcasts the old-fashioned way – with an antenna – to try to communicate with and inform people about politics in a way that they are not exposed to in the mainstream media. So how reclusive can that be? And for that matter, how much inertia could it all entail?
In fact, questions of inertia are woven throughout the film, with much existential questioning in the many different perceptions of himself both by others and from within himself about who he really is and what he really wants to do in life, and they make up the main, driving thrust behind this film. It remains interesting from beginning to the end through what amounts to raising such universal questions about the creative process and the question of identity that affect us all.
The film centers around a 12-hour nonstop, live radio show from his home station – Radio Cineola – during the British election, and clearly, for Johnson this aspect of his life is the most important thing at the moment. Obviously, for fans of The The, and for his former – and to a degree – his current, wife, there is the lingering question: “When will you make more music?!” Part of Johnson himself clearly wants to create more music too. The film shows that there is even an aching part of him that has been wanting to continue to create and play new songs for a while now. But he can never finish anything, and part of him, he says, is quite lazy. Others say it too. And in some very bizarre ways, we see codes he creates in his life to make it simpler that could also be considered a form of laziness: He shows off, and explains, that he always wears the same type of pants and shirt, a whole series of which he has had tailor-made for him to avoid having to make a choice on what clothes to wear (this reminded me of Steve Jobs, by the way). In fact, this “lazy” part of his personality echoed in my mind the comical Oblomov character from Russian literature.
But what the film ends up making very clear, and what really becomes its focus, is the horrendous battle that Johnson appears to be undergoing with what a fiction writer would call “writer’s block.” And there is a touch of what he himself wonders about in a conversation with his father: A fear of both success and a fear of failure. Given that The The was a successful band with music that has profoundly affected generations of fans – even if it is far from being a household name, and the songs themselves never broke into the popular global consciousness – Johnson has a reputation to live up to if he is to “replicate” the kind of success he had in the first couple of decades of the band, before his split from music.
Part of him is happy living the clearly comfortable life he has. He has all the material needs anyone could want, he has lots of recording and playing equipment in his home; he has the radio station (with the science-fiction-like antenna that he mounted on the roof of his building); he apparently owns the whole building, and he is constantly fighting against developers who want to buy it to put up more high-rises – referring to himself as a conservationist. He is also a bit of a landlord, renting out parts of the building – it seems. He still has projects involved with the rights to The The. This is a full, and to most people in our world, enviable life.
So for me, the film is, above all, the story not only of a man’s creative process, but also of the difference between his own creative needs and expectations of himself, as opposed to the expectations that others have of him. That takes us back to the idea that he is a recluse just because he is no longer making music.
But, I feel, the key to understanding him lies in the book-ends of important deaths in his family: The death of his brother, Eugene at age 24 in 1989 he said changed his view of life, and affected him profoundly. It seems to have affected the momentum of the band, The The. And 10 years later, his mother, heartbroken with Eugene’s death, died. That coincides with the final The The album, NakedSelf, in 2000.
Then, while the film was being made, another of his brothers died – in January 2016 – and this was Andrew, the artist who did some album covers for The The and other bands. Matt was actually working on a book with Andrew, and is clearly shattered. It is this death that drives Matt Johnson to actually, and finally, once again, finish a song. A song for Andrew. The film ends in a deluge of emotion as Johnson finally performs the song, at his home in front of people, in front of the cameras, on his radio, in what was his first public performance in 15 years. And it is shocking just how good the song is, and how his voice, despite years without use, remains fabulous.
It also turns out that the song, called, “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” – which features the guitar work of Johnny Marr, who played with him often in the past – will be released as a single on April 22. So could it be that Matt Johnson finally managed to write a song simply because the song had to be written? Could it be that the need to write a song for his brother overshadowed any need he had to match his own high achievements of the past that he feared not being able to live up to? That only one thing mattered, and that was to express himself for Andrew, through a song – no matter the quality?
That, in any case, is the way that I read it. Whatever the reason, whatever the story behind the motivations and workings of his mind, this beautiful and intimate film, which uses fictional film techniques, is a tender, thought-provoking tale from the beginning to the end. The Inertia Variations is also beautifully filmed, and has a wonderful soundtrack – by The The – a real treasure, so thank goodness Johanna and Matt have managed to remain friends and he allowed her to make this film that had been on her mind for many years.
Thanks goodness also that Matt – as he said in the talk after the film – just left the concept of the film up to her rather than doing what he would have liked to do, which was to really promote his passion of the moment by putting in more about the political messages he is trying to convey with his radio station….
UPDATE, 26 March 2017: Here is a podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels. I have kept the 15 minutes in the Q&A (which I recorded with my Zoom recorder sitting on my lap), but I have cut out the further 20 minutes of talk where the public asks questions.
UPDATE, 27 March 2017: Here is a second part to the podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels with the questions from the audience. I had decided not to put up this portion of the Q&A – which is just as rich as the first part – but after a request from a reader/listener, I decided to put it up as well:
COPENHAGEN – Just about the only really good thing that comes out of a three-hour wait at an open mic to get behind the microphone and be “allowed” to sing only ONE song because there’s no longer any time left in the evening at just after 11 PM is that you have a very good reason to want to put your whole heart and soul and physically being into the song you sing. And that is what happened to me last night as I sang “Mad World” at the Tjili Pop open mic, called Speake’s Corner, in Copenhagen.
I was the first or second musician to arrive for the open mic at 8:30 p.m., but the open mic takes place after a “concert” of four different bands or musicians from roughly 8:30 to what ended up being after 11:00 p.m., and buy the time I got behind the mic it was 11:20 and I was told that I could only do one song. All the participants of the open mic only did one song. Then, of course, my Seagull guitar failed to work through the sound system – the only place it has worked out of the three open mics I’ve done in Copenhagen so far is at the first, and best of them: CPH Listening Room. I wonder if there is a reason for that! First at Tjili Pop in Copenhagen
Anyway, the Tjili Pop bar is otherwise an absolutely fabulous room, cramped, cool, hippie-like, and broken up into different sectors, so if you want to talk you can go to another room, away from the music room. Not that many people did!
I did managed to fill my time waiting with three beers – I really only wanted one beer and three songs, but … – and a fish and chips meal that was not bad at all. Fourth at Tjili in cph
The place was crammed with people, and by the time I got behind the mic and belted out Mad World – I think I was the only person to sing a cover song all night, but I did that as a rebellious statement (!) – I was really not happy, and really ready to take full advantage of the pulpit and go crazy. All the alcohol helped too….
It had otherwise been a great day at the CPH:DOX film festival. In the morning I had attended a conference about the question of whether or not to serialize a documentary film – i.e., turn it into several films – with the highly experienced and interesting Thom Powers, who selects the films for several important film festivals among many other things. Another at the Tjili open mic
I also did an interview with the man who selects the films and music for the CPH:DOX festival, Adam Thorsmark. I will be posting that interview in the form of a podcast very soon in a separate post….
Anyway, despite my frustration with the crazy Tjili joint, I have now done three open mics in Copenhagen, and there are plenty more available. So ultimately, I am absolutely delighted with what this city has to offer in the way of open mics, and I never expected so much.