Stomping over the bridge home and in a mood, I bump into my neighbour. He is off to post a birthday present and is pleased at finding just the right present for the right person. The wind is blowing and the weather can’t decide between sleet, rain and snow. I tell the neighbour that I am feeling grumpy. That a draft of a piece of work is going back and forth between me and a co-author and I am getting tired of looking at it. The neighbour recalls his friend, a designer from San Francisco, and how she was talking about how it used to cost twenty bucks to get a plan couriered across town. Since email, plans continually get sent back and forth and the process takes twice as long. Email, he reckons, has just made us lazy and less careful about what we send. I walk away thinking about this and how co-authoring would work if I was using the post. At the front door of my block I see another neighbour who asks me if I know what is going on with the recycling bins that have been full for over a week. He says he might do a run to the tip and if so he will take our rubbish too. We walk up the stairs. His partner and baby are standing by their door. The baby looks back at me with a face as equally grumpy as my own. His bib reads ‘I’m a baby, what’s your excuse?’ A fair point.
The Glasgow Film Festival has dominated the week. I’m missing it already, even though I have 5 films still to go (including the Devil’s Plantation which I am very excited about). Yesterday was Museum Hours. I picked this on the basis that it was about two strangers striking up a friendship in a museum and involved a lot of walking about in Vienna. The plot is simple, a woman from Montreal goes to Vienna because her cousin is in hospital there. One day, wandering round the Kunsthistorisches Museum, she asks a museum gallery attendant for some directions and they start spending time together. But much more than that the film is about ways of seeing (no surprise then that John Berger gets a thank you in the credits). It was quite an extraordinary film.
The film starts with flashes between landscape paintings and real life scenes with similar configurations (bird, snow, the same angles). But the real life scenes are modern and urban and the paintings are from the museum. This sets up the point of the film from the beginning. The discussion of paintings and the remarkable in the everyday, particularly in Breughel’s paintings, is inter-cut with city scenes throughout the film. At one point a flea market scene on a winters day is combined with the voice-over audio gallery guide about the Egyptian book of the dead.
It takes a while to adjust to the slow pacing. At first, I find myself wandering off, remembering two trips to Vienna also made in the winter. A busy street scene reminds me of walking down a shopping street, furious after having an argument with a boyfriend and yet somehow being on a mission to buy him cufflinks for an important talk he was giving that day. And then later dancing round to Strauss waltzes in what I think was the city hall, whatever building it was we learned later had played an important role in the Anschluss and then it felt altogether less romantic. And then a few years ago, another winter trip with Adey and some friends for an Aquarian birthday fest. Cake and comparing guidebooks in coffeehouses, the extreme contrast between the cold formal streets and the underground gay disco which was straight out of the 1970s, Whitney Houston playing in a late night bar as we sang happy birthday to Tom, the Freud Museum and the home video playing there of Freud’s birthday that focuses mainly on the family dog. I’ve seen that video twice now, once in Hampstead once in Vienna.
As the film goes on you realise that the pacing is entirely on purpose. If the film is about looking and lingering then it needs to move slowly, like a flaneur with his lobster on a lead, rather than marching about. There is quite a long section which involves an art historian talking about specific Breughel paintings and some smart-arse visitor takes issue with her interpretation of the paintings, of how extraordinary things happen in everyday settings, Jesus carrying his cross or Paul on the road to Damascus are depicted in the middle of busy scenes and are not the focus of the paintings. She recalls the poem by Auden. She doesn’t read it out, but here it is:
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
It also reminds me of one my favourite books ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor.
Somewhere in the process of watching the film your eye becomes more trained to detail. I am looking at the face of the art historian like it is a painting. And then coming out onto the Rose Street afterwards I am looking at Glasgow with new eyes.
The backs of heads are mainly blonde, grey and female. Later some of the heads will be covered in hats, cowboy-style but these have been removed, for politeness-sake, for now. The heads sit on plaid, gingham and denim, which in turn sit on lines of red chairs. The surrounding walls are covered with a Wild West mural, wide-open landscapes and distant horse-backed cowboys.
The Glasgow Grand Ole Opry is where Nashville meets Govan. It does not just turn into the Opry for a night here and there but is a dedicated space, running dance classes, a gun club (?!), live music. As someone told me on a previous visit, as well as the music, it’s a good place to come because the drinks are cheap and there’s no trouble – there’s a shootout every Saturday but it’s all theatre. Tonight, Calamity Jane is showing as part of the Glasgow Film Festival but I am glad to see that the night has attracted the Opry regulars.
This isn’t a sing-along event but during the songs you can hear a low whispered hum and I mouth words, memorised at the age of seven, ‘gum drops made up in Chicagee, gumdrops just a trifle soggy’ (satisfying rhyme – Chicagee and soggy). This low hum of voices comes to a peak during the ‘Black Hills of Dakota’, maybe because it is a sing-along moment within the film. The voices rise, ‘And when I get that lonesome feeling, and I’m miles away from home. I feel the voice of the mystic mountains calling me back home…’ (less satisfying rhyme – home and home). Later, I wonder why this love for country music in Glasgow? The emphasis on the love of the land? The songs about hard times? The historic link between Celtic music and country music? The sequins and rhinestones? After the film there is line dancing – whatever I am doing when I am sixty I hope I am doing it with as much panache as the woman leading the line dancing, she glides in gingham and pink glitter, whirling one hand above her head – and a band. On the way home, we talk about the film’s unsatisfactory ending, and imagine new ones, my friend suggests one involving Katie Brown realising she is in love with Calamity and returning to Deadwood dressed as Danny Zuko. But staying in the previous moment, what a treat to quietly hum along with Doris Day and the assembled company, in the dark.
X AND ON THE 8TH DAY
GOD CREATED SCOTLAND
The lights come up. Jane Birkin is sitting on the edge of a piano school. She is singing ‘Requiem pour un con’. Her hair is piled on top of her head in messy curls and she is dressed in black trousers and a white shirt, half unbuttoned, like the cover of ‘Horses’ but more tailored. She is accompanied by violin, piano, trumpet, drums – so much better than drowning her out with electric guitars – and the occasional rattle of a passing train (we are underground, the room is like a tunnel, only a few doors to the west of Central Station). There is something quite brilliant, subversive even, about her singing not just the songs that were written for her as a young woman and muse but those that were sung by Serge Gainsbourg himself. Especially on ‘Comic Strip’ where she takes the Serge line, leaving all those ‘shebangs’ and ‘pops’ to someone else.
She takes a deep bow after every song, with a ‘Merci’.
At the end she thanks us for our faces.
Jane Birkin with Agnès Varda (from Jane B. Par Agnes V. I wrote about this here VardaFR )