TV Good. So, so good. Satirically launched ten years on from the exact day of the second official television attempt at a Doctor Who spin-off, Class has a confidence Torchwood rarely managed, an expressive proficiency which in its first episode at least puts it in the same bracket as the very best of genre shows. Which doesn’t mean it’s especially original, we’re not in Orphan Black or Sense8 territory, but as an example of trying to do a sort of thing in a particular moment, in a particular idiom for a chosen audience demographic, Class excels. It’s funny, smart, has genuinely interesting characters played by likeable actors and actresses and most especially, I’ll be watching the next episode because I want to and not because you’ll be expecting me to post a review. Miracle Day. It's also available to watch on the iPlayer for the next eleven months, in case you didn't know.
Creator and writer Patrick Ness is pretty shameless about resurrecting Buffy: The Vampire Slayer in the Whoniverse, even opening the episode with similar beats to that series’s opening episode Welcome To The Hellmouth with expectation busting scary moment in the darkened corridors of the school during the teaser followed by the cast being largely introduced walking into the school the following morning. That was Buffy’s first day, but interestingly there’s no particular viewpoint character upfront, Ness taking advantage of the viewer’s inbuilt knowledge of what a school is and more important the archetypes which tend to fill such classrooms. He knows that we know that he knows that we know that he knows we’ve already watched enough of these kinds of programmes to get the gist so why repeat any of it?
It's The Sarah Jane Adventures for the Torchwood age bracket but without the pantomime. But whereas those shows recreated the look and feel of the parent series, albeit for different audiences, Class rejects the current Doctor Who’s idiom for the most part with rapid cutting, shorter scenes, intensified continuity and storylines running in parallel (though admittedly in order to introduce and service all these characters). There are also funny intercutting sight gags and a general sense of experimentation which has been purposefully lacking in quite this way of late in the Moffat era, which has been to an extent aping the classic era which much longer scenes and linear narratives. You can tell I liked this. I have my serious head on. Which is odd because the programme on the whole doesn’t.
Nevertheless it is unexpected that Ness would choose a “breaking of the status quo” introduction to the series, with all the characters in place waiting for the badness to happen, oscillating between omitting narrative information from the audience to create mystery and expositional diarrhoea. That’s something he’s learnt from Joss Whedon’s series, in which Buffy was the lead character and much of the show was from her point of view but Xander and Willow, like April, Ram and Tanya here, were still also a way for the viewer to relate the spooky-doo and others mania. But because they’re citizens of the Whoniverse and watched the same television we have, they’re not surprised by its existence, just by the nature of it. They were probably part of the 456’s human microphone.
Anyone else, just for a moment, wonder if Ms. Quill would be revealed to be another long lost Time Lord? She certainly has the temperament, Katherine Kelly sharp-tongued eccentricity making you wonder exactly how she’s able to keep her teaching job, although having said that, remembering some of my teachers … Either way, she’s utterly compelling with just the right level of moral ambiguity without becoming dislikeable. The less attention-grabbing approach would have been to make her a kindly mentor ala Sarah Jane (and even have brought in a previous companion for much the same role), but by making her mysterious, even dangerous, not a class protector through choice, instead of Giles we have the chip-neutered Spike from season four.
Her students might be archetypes but they’re also dimensional from the off. Ram is the athlete but he’s quickly given depth through tragedy (will Ness slip in a reference to refrigerators next episode?). April’s the prom princess but she’s also the loner, the warmest of the characters now without a heart. Tanya’s the brain but also exceedingly cool. Which leaves Charlie as the criminal except he’s more of a fugitive. Ok, a direct The Breakfast Club analogy doesn’t quite hold up, especially since British high school dramas haven’t traditionally portrayed the same kind of clique system, but in his writing Ness is working hard to write against expectation, to make these characters feel real, to plausibly connect with each other as human beings. “Does this mean we’re mates now?”
Ness also seems to have been left to chart his own mythological course. If the school had been renamed and the Doctor hadn’t appeared, there’s not much in here directly connecting it to the Whoniverse. But the best thing about the Whoniverse is that a writer can insert masses of imaginative new stuff and it absorbs it with less fuss than a Spontex. Almost the entirely population of a planet wiped out by mini-Balrogs who only live in shadows? If you like. An alien prince hiding on Earth with his mortal enemy as his indentured body-woman? Fine. Arguably one of the problems with Torchwood was its desperation to embrace the main series. I’d be quite happy if we never see the Doctor again and we have seven more episode of shiny new things to enjoy.
Inevitably I’m going ask, when is this set? Did anyone notice a date on anything? Obviously we’re back in shared universe territory so anything Earth bound and planet threatening will inevitably make us wonder how it’s affecting this new band of characters, just as I was always scared for the kids in the attic during Miracle Day. Clara’s been accepted as gone, dead or missing, but the Moffat era has a slightly hazier approach to contemporary stories. How many Zygons are there in the school? I’m betting on Mr. Armitage. But all of this is getting way ahead of everything. There are still seven episodes to go and anything could happen. For all we know, a Monoid could fall through time and wander into the school canteen during episode three.
If there was one slightly discordant note, it was the sudden emergence of the Tenth Doctor’s theme on the appearance of the TARDIS during the flashback. Clearly the intention was that Charlie and Quill were rescued by Twelve but it’s a measure of Murray Gold’s initial achievements that those notes have become so synonymous with that version of the Time Lord causing us to wonder briefly – did Tenth save them? Is that why he doesn’t emerge from the blue box because David Tennant wasn’t available? Other than that composer Blair Mowat acquitted himself well on his first drama series gig after a mix of films, shorts and documentaries including The Fan Show on YouTube. The sound mix is all over the place, some of the dialogue unintelligible. But that could be just the downmix on my headphones.
What of the Doctor in his only appearance on television this year barring the Christmas special? Well, he’s the Doctor. Capaldi having completed his transition from the menace who growled his way through season 8 back to the benevolent alien we know and love. He’s just magic now isn’t he? Following Russell’s lead when he wrote the Time Lord into his school based spin-off, Patrick is careful to make sure he doesn’t hog the spotlight, the kids the key to the solution. The Doctor’s holding back, testing them to some extent, but without the cruelty of Kill The Moon, stepping in when required. Will the next series be partly about him regaining his memories of Clara or have we properly moved on now? I appreciated the grace note, but how did he remember be the old caretaker without her?
Like Fleabag and Thirteen, Class is a demonstration that BBC Three, even with its new delivery method is capable of spearheading some excellent drama. Before you ask, no I haven’t seen episode two yet, that’s for tomorrow night. As I write these words its only half nine which is a welcome change from how Doctor Who was broadcast last year, with me still tapping away on this laptop past midnight as a result. It’s strange not having to sit through five minutes of Strictly first but it is entirely convenient to be able to see a new episode of something when I want to. Which isn’t to say I haven’t missed the collective post-broadcast atmosphere on social media afterwards. Though I have got any mention of it muted on Tweetdeck to avoid spoilers, so for all I know you’ve all be talking up a storm.
The second episode of Class, just like all shows will really emphasise the format. The “next week” trailer somewhat suggests it’ll be much as we expect, an alien of the week for the kids to fight or some time travel related business or both. We’ll (or more likely I’ll, since you’ve all seen it already) see whether everything will stand alone or the storytelling is going to be more cumulative and interrelated, the effects of one adventure bleeding into another. Perhaps, like Buffy, it’ll do both. Will we see the emotional toll on the characters as they have to deal with stuff week on week or embrace the great spirit of adventure? Will eight episodes be enough? The fact that I’m speculating about this shows that the job is done. I’m hooked.
Art The first and so far only comments card I've ever filled in Tate Liverpool was about Yves Klein. One of his blue paintings, IKB 79 1959, was once part of the permanent exhibition. One day, this must be over a decade and a half ago, I was in an especially cantankerous mood and noticed that, because the painting was behind glass and positioned in a particular place with a florescent light above it, the blueness seemed to be off colour, slightly dull, the shimmer of the pigment only really visible along the edges. After chatting to the invigilator, I headed to the foyer and filled the white space on the card and popped it in the box, not expecting a reply.
Tate replied via email and explained to me what's now patently clear. That the painting has to be behind glass for protection purposes and so it's almost impossible not for light to be reflected off the surface no matter were the painting was hung. Would you believe I argued back about this? But the exchange was perfectly cordial and in retrospect especially patient considering my ignorance. There's always a trade-off in museums between displaying and preserving an object and sometimes, because of the very nature of a painting or sculpture or an example of the decorative arts, there isn't a perfect solution.
IKB 79 1959 returns to Tate Liverpool for this retrospective and remains one of art history's greatest achievements, breathtaking in its execution and visual beauty. Displayed in a corner near the entrance, as far away from direct light as possible, it has an almost supernaturally watchful presence within the gallery, with all the foreboding of Clarke's monolith. It shimmers as your eyes find it impossible to quite focus on its aquamarine surface, unable to fix on any particular details. To stand before it, is to find your emotions being absorbed and reflected back, as it broods, smiles, addresses, surprises and it's impossible not to look, to want to look, addicted by its luminosity.
International Klein Blue or IKB, was created with the help of the chemist and paint dealer, Edouard Adam, attempting to retain the radiant blue that the dry pigment has even after it had been applied to the canvas. The result is the bluest of blues, with all the lucidity of the skies in the Giotto frescoes which were the painter's initial inspiration. Giotto mixed lapis lazuli with egg tempera and oil which hasn't aged well in some cases but Klein's "trick" was to suspend the pigment in a synthetic resin, Rhodopas, described by Klein as "The Medium." As a result the surface has much the same quality as it must have done when he originally applied the paint.
If the exhibition had simply been an empty room with this at the centre, then nothing more would need to be said, an example of an artist at the apogee of his creative powers, what would be the perfect album for a musician, the unrepeatable novel for a writer, the first feature film whose magic can't be recreated. But like any creative, Yves Klein during his slender life (he died of a heart attack at thirty-four in 1962 just after most of these paintings were produced), kept trying, kept working and if the rest of the items in the exhibition are any evidence, wasn't fucking around. As well as a painter, he was a judo master, one of the few in Europe at that time, and there's even a startling photo of him leaping off a building (albeit heavily staged).
But IKB 70 1959 doesn't exist in isolation. Klein painted over two hundred similar paintings, trying out different painting techniques from brush to roller to sponge and there are smaller examples of these blue voids elsewhere in the show. In his 1957 show, Monochrome Proposals, Klein displayed eleven identically sized blue monochromes with different prices to "focus our attention of the sensitivity of artistic expression and the role of the audience". But they are different, with varying textures leading to other ways in which the light shines from the canvas but few as successful as the larger work.
Similarly, there's a rainbow of even smaller monochromes collected together with only purple missing from the usual list and other than the IKB, none of them are actually monochrome, either because of blotchy paintwork, or dirt which has collected on the surface across the decades or fading. Around the same time, Klein experimented with utilising his pigment within sponges either attached to the surface of a canvas or as stand alone sculptures, but this has a dulling effect, making it just seem like the kind of blue water based paint we'd use in school, artificial. But it's important for us to see these choices in order to appreciate the miracle of IKB 70 1959.
Half of the main display space is filled with Klein's Anthropetries, in which the artist attempted to find a crossover between performance art and creating something with aesthetic qualities. A film is included demonstrating how these works were achieved, as the artist daubs naked women with blue paint and they then press their bodies against the canvas, the idea of a whole being becoming living paint brushes. People with long memories, or want to click here, can see a recreation of just this on Channel 4's Club X in 1989 during a live television broadcast, which even filtered through TV Hell's presentation is still fascinating.
Klein said that he considered his paintings to be "ashes" of the original work implying that the actual art work was the process of creation rather than the results. But creative people always say that their output is always a goshima shadow of the version they had in their heads, and it's possible, that the very great artists in all media are those who're able to replicate the version they have in their head to the rest of us as close as is meaningfully possible. Klein was able to do just this. IKB 70 1959 is one of a small number of paintings which has the capacity to create sense of wonder despite its apparently simplistic formal qualities and shouldn't be missed.
Yves Klein (with Edward Krasinski) is at Tate Liverpool, 21 October - 5 March 2017. £10.00 / £8/00.
Music Writing for The Guardian:
"I learned from Bob Dylan that, if you are good with words, you can invent whatever life you want. That is the power of writing. Great authors create worlds, with cityscapes and neighbourhoods and characters that they choose. I’ll be damned if you can’t become the person you render. Bob Dylan’s masterpiece is himself, all his work and all the people it has affected."
Books Here's a brief but fascinating explanation for the origin of the "kill Hitler" genre of time travel stories. Doctor Who isn't mentioned but it does mention Rimbau's El Acronopete which sounds structurally oddly familiar. A cast iron box travels through time (albeit implied as happening in a dream) and ...
"The machine provided the setting for a story in three acts, in which the following group of characters travel in time: don Sindulfo García, a scientist from Zaragoza and the inventor of the device; his friend and assistant Benjamín; Clarita, don Sindulfo's niece and ward; a maidservant; Captain Luis, Clarita's beloved; several Spanish hussars; and a number of old French women of 'loose morals' that the mayor of Paris wants to rejuvenate so that they "regenerate" themselves."They're then involved in the sort of hijinks which wouldn't be too out of place in a Who story if you squint, albeit in the wilder spin-off material. An English translation is available here.
Film Just over ten years ago, while I starting research on my MA dissertation, I attended a Philosophy of Film conference at Liverpool University. Inevitably this was mentioned on the blog and here's what I wrote:
"This last couple of days have been spent at a Philosophy of Film conference at Liverpool University. I'm feeling hot and drained so I can't really put into too many words how enjoyable it's been. I might not be intelligent enough to have grasped all of the intricacies of everything which was said over the two days and I think I might have over compensated by talking to people a lot and loudly (as usual).My intention was clearly to return to the topic but as has so often been the case over the years, my over expanded interest in everything and attention span of a small rodent has meant that there have been plenty of occasions when this didn't happen. There never was a follow-up post about what actually happened during the one flashmob I attended back in 2004.
I did have a moment of zen during one of the breaks at the refreshment table on the first day when I began to second guess myself and my own greed.
Should that be a small muffin, or a large muffin?
I chose a small muffin.
I think it was a (tiny) personal victory."
Philosophy of Film is a rather new discipline within the wider film studies sphere and in simplest, most obvious terms is to apply various elements of philosophy and and philosophical discussion to the study of cinema. The primary mainstream exponent is Slavoj Žižek, whose Pervert's Guide documentaries are a prime example of the approach although it's also arguably that Mark Cousins's The Story of Film also has elements in the way it juxtaposes extracts from across the world and different film industries to make a case for this or that point about the social order of things.
The conference, titled The Philosophy of Film: Towards an Understanding of Film as Art gathered together academics from across the world with a diverse and rich selection of papers some of which sound especially left field reflecting back a decade. Grand Theory and/or Grand Film? Towards an Intrinsic Philosophy of Film utilised Michel Gondry's little known or seen Human Nature as a jumping off point, investigating just how philosophical the two mice hitchhiking to New York are. This was the first illustration of just how wide a focus, the Philosophy of Film actually has.
My memories of the weekend are blurry at this remove, mainly because as I flat out admitted in the earlier post, most of the papers flew skyward over my head even after at that point spending eight months studying film at a fundamental level. Partly this was because a certain working knowledge of philosophy was also expected, this was being held in the philosophy department and so the bias was naturally in that direction. One of the organisers has been kind enough to send me synopsis recently and there are sections in here, glancing through, which I have difficulty grasping even now.
It's the talks which focused on specific films which are most vivid, at least in terms of having a memory of seeing the slides. There's Last Year at Marienbad: Film as Philosophy which considered whether the film itself was conducting a philosophical discussion about itself. The Philosophical Ambience in Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story which was I think the way I discovered Ozu, one of the directors I've shamefully neglected in this favourite film list. The Lord of the Rings as Descartes’s Malign Demon: Jackson’s Trilogy as Philosophy was considered the light relief at the end.
Clearest in my memory are the gaps between, the breaks for tea and lunch and talking to the attending academics at a time when I still felt like a peer even though I really wasn't. There's a confidence in youth, which at the age of thirty-one I still retained. As I discovered, academics don't tend to talk about the subject at hand, conversations always tend to be about the last conference they attended or business in their own university department, there's a clear demarcation between office hours and business and leisure because of course there is. There has to be.
On the morning of the second day, to settle us in gently for the day ahead, the organisers screened some Buster Keaton films including my favourite film of 1924, Sherlock Jr. which would have been my first viewing. Nothing prepared me for the innovative camera work or just how funny it was, a room full of academics tittering along during a piece of cinema they must surely have seen a few times. However serious the film can be both in its execution and how it's considered, it's often important to be reminded that it's primarily a form of entertainment.