Love Note – Paris report

We’ll always have Paris.

I have just returned from seven days in Paris and, predictably and gratefully, had a wonderful time. Prior to the trip, I concocted a three page day-by-day itinerary filled with activities, but also consciously carved out some time for some more spontaneous and impulsive things too (anxious traveller, moi? Absolutement).

Sacre Coeur

August is a famously quiet time in the city because many of the locals go away on holiday. However, we found the first week in August to be a pretty excellent time to visit: our Eurostar tickets (booked in November) were £52 each for a return (less expensive than it is to get from Nottingham to London on the train…); certain museums in the city are free to enter on the first Sunday of the month and, because it was quieter, the queues were short (we managed the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay for free, but also available were The Louvre, the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou and many others); and going later in the summer meant that even with temperature highs of 29°C, we avoided the sweltering and sticky heats of June and July.

The benefit of spending a whole week in Paris is that we left barely any of the city unexplored. From our AirBnB base near the Place de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement, a delightful intersection of four arrondissements and in close proximity to my all-time favourites Montmartre and Pigalle, the whole city was at our fingertips. I would like to share some of my favourite places and moments from the trip. These may be food for thought if you are or intend to go to Paris at any point in the future, or if you just want to while away an afternoon thinking about those cobbled streets, beautiful buildings and all the amazing food. Like I will be.

Vegan food

Virginia Woolf’s old adage ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’ is one that I take very personally, seriously and ecstatically live my life by. Therefore, first thing’s first: the food we ate. We did a lot of our own cooking to cut down costs, but we did have some fantastic vegan meals out:

Abattoir végétal

Abattoir Vegetal.jpg

This is a lovely restaurant in the 18th arrondissement with a neon sign outside, fresh-feeling interiors and lots of hanging plants. They specialise in seasonal dishes, organically sourced food and organic wines by the glass and bottle. We went a couple of times to this restaurant and sampled the Green Augustine Buddha bowl of legumes, raw and cooked vegetables, smoky tofu and fresh leaves in a smoky balsamic glaze; the Funky Burger made with beetroot, vegan cheddar, pickles and sweet potato fries on the side; and the Hot without Dog made with falafel, grated carrot, red cabbage, ketchup, mustard and sweet potato fries. For dessert we had chocolate cake, and drank our way through both meals with a bottle of organic red. I couldn’t deal with it then, I can’t deal with it now. So much yumminess.

SO NAT – Notre Dame de Lorette

SO NAT

If I went into this trip sceptical about the tastiness of Buddha bowls and their capacity to actually fill you up, I stand completely surprised and corrected. The large Buddha bowls at this cute little café in the 9th arrondissement, down from Pigalle and just before Opéra, were delicious, hearty and required no emergency snack afterwards. My Buddha bowl contained breaded aubergine, pomegranate seeds, lentil dahl, all sorts of colourful veggies and leaves, vegan sour cream and red quinoa. It was ridiculous. MW’s had ginger, rice, BBQ tofu and, again, veggies on veggies on veggies. It was all fresh, came in big portions, was so healthy and tasted rich and delicious.

Maoz

One of the many amazing things we encountered on our trip to New Zealand last year was the healthy fast food franchise Pita Pit: a Subway of sorts that features meat but also specialises in falafel. Add to that some humus, pitta bread and multiple veggie accompaniments (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, carrot, sweetcorn, jalapenos, olives etc.) and you have the beginnings of an addiction. We visited roughly 15 over the course of six weeks and have no regrets. We have found nothing to compare in Nottingham, so when we found Maoz, a falafel and pitta shop, in the Latin Quarter, we were stupidly excited. The novel difference here? The assortment of Middle Eastern fillings (pickles, fatoush, salads, onions etc.) was presented as self-service. We had a joyful time stuffing our own pita pockets full to bursting with fresh, perfectly seasoned toppings. Maoz is unmistakeably a delicious, quick vegan lunch option, right next to Notre Dame Cathedral and Shakespeare and Company.

Bike Rental

Holland Bikes

In a city like Paris, tours of all shapes and sizes are prolific. We would have loved to have done a tour: I had high ambitions for some form of a champagne booze cruise. Alas, this did not happen but we were very much content to explore on our own. Holland Bikes are a well-reviewed tour and rental service in the city and around France, so we decided to use the Pick and Go service to rent two Dutch bikes from the Arc de Triomphe depot. Renting a bike is so much fun and you can cover so much ground in a short space of time. Plus, Paris has excellent infrastructure for cyclists and e-scooter riders, so despite the heavy traffic in parts (we categorically avoided the wacky races of Place de la Concorde and Étoile de Charles de Gaulle) it felt very safe getting around. We cycled from the Arc de Triomphe down to and around the Bois de Boulogne, then back up and around to Trocadéro, the Champs de Mars, Invalides and along the Seine. We had so much fun.

Parc Monceau

Park Monceau.jpg

There are so many beautiful and shaded places to relax in Paris, which I am sure were absolutely essential during the 40°C+ heats the residents experienced this summer. The Place de Vosges in Le Marais came highly recommended, and we enjoyed the classic Tuileries gardens and Luxembourg gardens on the Left Bank. Whilst walking home on our last afternoon, we headed for the Parc Monceau which is in the 8th arrondissement, just off the Boulevard de Courcelles. Although the park has stylised elements like a little Venetian bridge, a Classical colonnade to emulate ruins and the most charming old carousel, there was something about more primeval about this park, compared to the more clipped and manicured lawns of the big jardins. We sat on a little green bench people-watching for a good long time in this prettyish wilderness.

Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

YSL Museum.jpg

Oh boy. Pour moi, a trip to Paris was never going to be complete without a slice and dice of fashion history. I plan to write a longer post about the YSL Museum, but it’ll summarise it briefly here for now. Yves Saint Laurent never used to be one of my favourite designers; perhaps controversially, I have been more of a fan of the edgier Saint Laurent incarnation of the brand under Hedi Slimane and Anthony Vaccarello. I was, however, aware that he is an inescapable part of fashion history, after being made head of Dior at the age of 26 and for the successful couture house he built in his own right. What became clear to me from the exhibits in the museum was that, like Christian Dior (you can read my analysis here), Saint Laurent’s prime aim in design was to make a woman feel her most confident and beautiful. I find this to be such a validating and comforting thing. Even though fashion is so much to do with comparison, beauty standards, perfectionism, ageism, white and able-washing, what I have noticed is that oftentimes at the centre of a brand is a sensitive, empathic and deeply creative person who just wants to make women feel good. I really appreciate that in Yves Saint Laurent and his contributions to fashion. Furthermore, he was famously one of the first designers to champion the use of non-white models, pioneered the trouser suit and established his Rive Gauche collection to make fashions accessible and affordable to ordinary people.[1]

Mondrian dresses.jpg

The building on the Avenue Marceau is home to his formidable archive, including the epoch-defining Mondrian dresses, the extensive jewellery collection and this absolutely perfect ensemble:

YSL dress

 

I was able to walk through a reconstruction of his study, watch films about his work and his partner Pierre Bergé and soak up the beautifully presented collection pieces. I must also add that the museum is wonderfully air conditioned, was relatively quiet and, all-in-all, a genius way of preserving Saint Laurent’s creative legacy.

Montmartre cemetery

Montmartre Cemetery.jpg

This was a go-to last time we came to Paris and, being so close to our apartment, was definitively on our itinerary again. Cemetery-visiting may seem like quite a morbid activity, but I believe that visiting cemeteries helps to really contextualise a place and the people in it. To really know and understand a city and its different people, to get an insight into what they value, treasure and, ultimately, to understand their approach to living life, a clue can be found in exploring how they treat their dead and the way they design and use their communal and private spaces of remembrance and reflection. Even if we have not visited Paris, many people are aware that it is a city associated most commonly with love, art and revolution. This, I would argue, is reflected in their cemeteries, which are uniquely Gothic and gorgeous. There is a joie de vivre and gravitas evident in the Parisian cemetery, and Montmartre in particular, which makes it a space in which life, family and creativity are celebrated and revered. Of course, I couldn’t help thinking that it is only the wealthy and respectable who could have afforded such exuberant graves. Additionally, in no other cemetery have I felt that the burial of the dead is used to so confirm and validate the people left behind. It is in this capacity that I think gloom seeps into the cemetery: both in the potentiality that the wealthy dead were desperate to be remembered and that the living left behind were so desperate to build something in place of their lost loved ones.

Many famous people are buried in this city, and their resting places are free to visit and open for visitors to pay respects. Whilst Père Lachaise is one of the biggest and most famous- we saw the graves of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and the Mauthausen Holocaust memorial- Montmartre cemetery is smaller and nestled into the Western corner of the village. Stretching underneath the Rue Caulincourt bridge, it is easily visible from the road and its fantastical rows of grand crypts and family sepulchres look like something from The Phantom of the Opera. We visited specifically to lay a rose at the grave of Vaslav Nijinksy, the lead dancer of the Ballets Russes, choreographer of The Rite of Spring and, I recently found out, a passionate vegetarian. I have mentioned here before that The Rite of Spring has been a very important piece of music and dance to me, and I wanted to show my gratitude to this extraordinary sensitive and surreally gifted man who helped collaborate on and create such an awe-inspiring piece of cultural history.

Nijinsky

 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/yves-saint-laurent-models-couture [accessed 14:41, 13th August 2019].

Love Note – Watching Game of Thrones

WARNING: this Love Note contains spoilers for previous seasons of Game of Thrones

I am not the biggest Game of Thrones fan in the world: I am at least ten times more interested in Harry Potter and my love for The Lord of the Rings exceeds that boundlessly. Having said that, watching the show has been an absolute rollercoaster ride of enjoyable emotional chaos.

I am convinced that Game of Thrones is ultimately an allegory for climate change: a rallying call for human beings to transcend their materialistic squabbles and proud, vain, destructive tendencies to face the real, inescapable and devastating problem facing them and the world entire. It is the problem that has been gathering traction from the very first minutes of the first episode in the first season, with the first appearance of the White Walkers. Along with the climate change allegory, I have immensely enjoyed Game of Thrones’ numerous Greco-Roman mythical references: from the fact that Cersei Lannister is effectively named after one of the most famous manipulative witches in mythology (‘Circe’ in The Odyssey); to the story of Iphigenia, who was burnt at the stake as a sacrifice by her father Agamemnon to provide the necessary meteorological conditions to get his fleet moving (Shireen Baratheon, sound familiar? Bless her heart); to the stabbing of Jon Snow by a band of conspirators, very much in the manner of Julius Caesar. When I watched that scene unfold, shock and betrayal aside (Olly?!) I was convinced that he wasn’t going to stay dead for long: if Caesar came back as a ghost, there had to be some iteration of this in Snow’s character arc. Additionally, if Shireen’s death was going to follow a mythical/ancient framework, then I hoped this would too. Thankfully, I was proved right.

Game of Thrones has also provided the means for opening much-needed discussions about the representation of gender and race on screen, which at times in the series, has been shocking and problematic to say the least. I am still not OK with the way in which rape was used as background noise in many scenes where white men were conspiring amongst themselves, nor the way in which Daenerys Targaryen effectively became a white saviour figure for a lot of black and Middle Eastern people. Maintaining some critical thinking around these scenes and storylines is absolutely essential.

We have also been introduced to some truly incredible and memorable characters. Sansa has been a favourite of mine from very early on, and I adore Lyanna Mormont, Tormund, Olenna Tyrell and Tyrion Lannister. I didn’t think I’d hate anyone as much as Joffrey Baratheon, but then along came Ramsay Bolton who is perhaps one of my least favourite characters in anything I have ever read/watched/listened to.

The people and story of Game of Thrones aside, what I think I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years has been the weekly ritual of tuning into the show. In a world where we are effectively encouraged to binge-watch content (which I am absolutely guilty of, thanks Stranger Things) having a weekly show to tune into feels nostalgic, but oddly liberating. I have spent hours musing about the story and the characters, longing to get to the next chapter, much like reading a book. As such, I want to pay homage as much to the experience of watching Game Thrones, who I’ve watched it with and all the important food I’ve eaten whilst watching, as to the show itself.

Having said that, I was late to Game of Thrones and caught up with the first three seasons by binge-watching them in my bed. I was accompanied by chipsticks, sugar ring donuts and plates of rosti for hangover viewings. I was in the third year of my undergraduate degree, free from having handed in my Long Essay and finishing my exams, and Game of Thrones became an excellent and utterly addictive way to unwind.

I then spent season 4 watching Game of Thrones in Withington Flat #1, accompanied by good company, jelly babies and cans of Dr Pepper. This season was memorable for its slew of dramatic and gruesome deaths. It’s pretty much a cull from start to finish. This was the season that taught me that you shouldn’t start liking anyone in Game of Thrones too much because no one is safe. I acknowledge that this stage was set right at the beginning with Ned Stark’s execution, I should have known. But this season really crystallised that. Cue: lots of shrieking.

By far my favourite experiences watching Game of Thrones came with season 5. Whilst the previous four seasons had been brutal, things really took a turn with season 5. With two excellent friends on the world’s best sofa in Withington Flat #2, we saw the show turn from purely tit-for-tat murdering sessions, to deeper existential violence and chaos. It is still my favourite season of them all. Together, our little Game of Thrones club (that later turned into True Detective Season 2 club) witnessed Sansa being brutally tortured by Ramsay Bolton, collectively lost its shit at episode 8, sat gobsmacked at the sacrifice of a lovely little girl at the hands of her shit father, freaked out at the Sons of Harpy and watched in dismay as Cersei was forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing. Finally, we saw Jon Snow murdered à la Julius Caesar at the very end. So much incredulous, emotional yelling happened over the course of this season and it was amazing to share in the drama with my buddies. Accompanied by litres of peppermint tea, carrots, pitta bread and houmous, and an awful AWFUL lot of cake.

The intensity didn’t let up in season 6, as the viewing action moved to Manchester city centre and one of my favourite places to visit in the city. We ate gnocchi, homemade mushroom risotto, pizza and chilli (not all at once, but I wouldn’t have put it past us) and introduced ourselves to jalapeno grills. Jaw-dropping moments included HODOR, the claustrophobic and visceral ‘Battle of the Bastards’, one of the best battle scenes I have ever seen ever (Helm’s Deep being the ultimate, obviously), and the destruction and cull of the Sept of Baelor at the hands of, you guessed it, Cersei Lannister. God she is such an excellent character. Terrifying and horrible, but so very excellent. I drove to this flat every week in my beloved red Fiat Punto WMF and would spend the 15 minutes driving home down Princess Parkway back to West Didsbury mulling and stewing over all the action. Ditto for when we watched Pan’s Labyrinth together and The Shining after Game of Thrones finished. Really good times.

Season 7 was a more muted viewing affair for me, and I don’t actually think it was the best season I’d seen. I haven’t been a fan of Daenerys for a long time and the sight of her shacking up with Jon Snow was not at all sexy, and that’s in addition to the incest issue. I loved Grey Worm and Missandei getting together and lamented saying goodbye to Olenna, who executed her passing with typical sass and agency. I watched this series in my flat in West Didsbury, sometimes dragging my boyfriend into it (poor guy had no idea what was going on) but always savouring the ramping up of drama and tension. Sansa and Arya ganging up on Lord Baelish was delightful to watch: a word of warning folks, do not try and get between sisters. To accompany my viewing sessions, I ate vegan Mexican lasagne, Tex Mex potato salad and discovered the joys of avocado carbonara. Check it out.

Now, to coincide with the new season, I am in the middle of moving house and I am excited to create a new ritual for the last five episodes in my new place. As one adventure concludes, another one is beginning, and I am completely OK with how melodramatic that sounds. What I have found kind of curious is that I have managed to contain my impatience for the past two years waiting for the new season to start, but am now incapable of lasting the mere days between each new episode with grace. I am fully addicted. At this point, if Tormund and Brienne don’t make it through the war to have giant children together, I will be furious.

Love Note: Skiing and Snowboarding

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

I am fortunate enough to have spent many years learning how to ski and it is one of my favourite things on the planet. Esther Greenwood’s description of the sport in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (see above) is absolutely accurate and I couldn’t have put it better myself. I am aware that skiing is a leisure preserve of the middle class and is obscenely expensive; indeed I haven’t been on a skiing holiday in years because I can’t afford it. However, through skiing, I have had some life-changing experiences, met some amazing people and had a whole lot of fun:

Experiences like being five years old and falling off a drag lift and crying in despair (I thought I was lost forever). My instructor, Yannik, scooped me up, tucked me safely in front of him and got me safely up the mountain. There, he kneeled down next to me and pulled off his glove revealing that his right hand was missing. Seeing this shocked me into silence and he said warmly, ‘If I can ski with one hand, you can do anything’;

Bouncing through bumpy forest trails as part of a crocodile of squealing children, gasping with laughter, barely in control and skiing through the most magical wintry surroundings;

Having existential conversations with fellow ten year olds on chair lifts: kids I met and knew for a week, put the world to rights with and then never saw again. This included one British kid I met in Colorado who, after an extensive conversation about winning the lottery, turned out to be related to my P.E. teacher who had taken early retirement after winning the Lotto jackpot a mere two weeks before;

Battling my way down notorious slopes like ‘Sache’ in Val-D’Isère, ‘Shock’ in Breckenridge, ‘Creux Noir’ in Courchevel and ‘Ghengis Khan’ in Vail;

Experiencing the elements in a visceral way, whether it’s gliding around in brilliant sunshine and sparkling snow, or using your gloves as a makeshift mask when snow is hitting your face in sharp pellets;

Learning how to properly carve by an Australian called John who lived his best life teaching kids how to ski during the winter and working as a carpenter in the summer;

Witnessing and experiencing a multitude of mishaps and injuries, for example: falling off a chairlift due to a cacophony of communication errors; falling off a T-Bar with a friend due to a lot of bad luck (why am I always falling off things?!); watching my dad plough into a snow wall he couldn’t see because it was the same colour as the cloud we were skiing through (I almost wet myself laughing); chomping on my tongue during a fall and spitting blood for ten minutes; watching someone in my ski group snap a ligament in her leg and being tobogganed down the mountain; and, the worst, watching 18 year old Neal Valiton tumble to his death during the 2007 IFSA World Freeride Championship in Tignes.

Skiing is fun and some mistakes are unfortunate and unavoidable, but anyone who doesn’t take yours and their safety extremely seriously isn’t worth skiing with. The mountain is beautiful but it is not always your friend. In light of this, it can become an incredibly mindful sport: you plonk yourself on the side of a mountain and somehow you have to get down as safely as possible. For me, crazy as it sounds, what ensues is a very clear and concerted inner conversation with myself. I have to navigate my way through ice and moguls, through white outs with zero visibility and the chaos that are nursery slopes at the end of the day, deciding how big or short my turns have to be, how much speed I can afford to pick up and how the rest of my group are getting along. In the process I give myself pep talks, sometimes even sing to myself when I get a good rhythm, and the whole effect is ridiculously calming.

This was proved again last weekend when I had my first snowboarding lesson at the Tamworth Snow Dome. To begin with, it felt almost sacrilegious because I had abandoned skis and poles for extremely comfortable boots and a single plank with sharp edges. But, after a shaky start, which included screaming in the instructor’s face as he helped me to edge down the hill, I dropped down into that calm, mature inner place that doesn’t always make itself known on a day-to-day basis. It was clear and confident, and sounded like: ‘OK Harper, we’re here now, on a snowboard, slightly out of control, what are we going to do about it?’ I slowed down, becoming mindful of my body and it’s movements (including the limits of what I was currently able to do) and, in so doing, embraced this new and disorientating experience. I have realised that my work is to try and tap into this place a lot more often.

 

 

(Featured image is my photo of El Pas de la Casa resort in Andorra, 2015)

‘Tender is the Gelignite’ – publication and notes

I am delighted and terrified to share that my novel, Tender is the Gelignite, is now available to buy from Amazon. It is available worldwide, so no matter where you are (hey former Dutch colleagues!) it will be shipped to you.

You can get your copy here >

Final Coer JPEG

 

‘A spark goes off in my tum and my limbs ring and zing with nervous energy, like they do when you’ve just had a fucking fantastic idea’.

A young woman in a shiny city // post-industrial wasteland called Manchester decides to set her workplace on fire.

 Pursued by the militarised and mechanised LAW FORCE, she encounters a cast of weird, wonderful and wasted people and realises that survival may not be as desirable as she first thought.

Tender is the Gelignite plunges us into a brutal potential UK that is both darkly humorous and eerily recognisable.

This is my first novel and I decided to publish it myself using Amazon’s CreateSpace service, with the unparalleled help of Mark Williams. Over the past couple of years, I have been juggling writing, editing and proofing with a full time job, which has been both exciting and exhausting.  Self-publishing gave us many different freedoms with the book, in particular regarding the font, formatting, cover art and cover design. Going through the publishing process independently has also been challenging to say the least; so many issues were thrown up that might have (and did) go extremely wrong. Very late on the night before publishing, I had a phone call with a nice man at CreateSpace in the USA to resolve a huge accidental mess I made in the final processing.  I was on the phone to CreateSpace again first thing the next morning to follow-up on the said mess. In spite of this, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to make my own decisions, deal with my own fuck-ups and, most importantly, I haven’t had to sell out on what I am interested in writing about or the way in which I chose to write, for fear of not being considered ‘commercially viable’.

I have come to learn that the primary motivation driving publishing today is a guarantee that money will be made; for the publisher, for the manufacturer, for the distributor, for agents, for everyone involved, with a little bit left over for the writer. I think it is symptomatic of our current cultural moment where risks, challenging ideas and small but ambitious projects are increasingly curtailed to protect profits. I wrote two years ago about Disney consuming itself in a bid to recuperate billions of dollars lost on box office flops (see here) and I think this safe money-making agenda within the arts has become even more paranoid in the meantime. Experimental work is unreported and glossed over with an endless series of cash cow re-makes, sequels, prequels, covers and spin-offs by power players in the worlds of film, music, literature and fashion.  At a time when world politics is in such a dire state, it baffles me that as a society, we cosy into complacency: what we know, what reinforces our ideologies and what makes us feel safe. It is this attitude coupled with the desire to preserve wealth that has helped to fan the hatred, violence and destruction that is destroying people and planet. Effectively, the cultural machine sees things wrong with the world and chooses not to use art to reflect, express and critique the horror that we continue to unleash on each other and on the environment.

I have attempted to write about the world we live in, in a way that some may find uncomfortable or challenging. It’ll be up to you to decide how successful I have been and whether Tender is the Gelignite is any good or not.[1] I am aware that this book may not be to the high standard of so many great writers I have spent years of my life reading; but in this crucial time, when I see cultural industries doing little to challenge so many devastating orthodoxies, I’ve tried to do something with my bit of a book. It has been both a joy and a slog to bring it to this point and I now happily send it off out of my sight and out of my mind. I’ve got a new novel-thing-project-situation that I’m going to start working on and I’m thanking my melons that I am now free to explore and inscribe something else.

Me with book

Get your copy of Tender is the Gelignite here >

[1] Please find here a link to Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’ because it sums up everything I feel about the process of writing and reading. You will, however, have to forgive Roland’s excessive reference to authors and readers as ‘he’; a lot of old and current creative minds are tragically part and parcel of patriarchy.

http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/Gustafson/FILM%20162.W10/readings/barthes.death.pdf

Lana Del Rey: music, fans and commercial mayhem

Anyone who knows me knows that Lana Del Rey is one of my all-time favourite women. Her music found its way into my life in 2012 at a very interesting time and over the years, I have enjoyed her intricate and very moving play with enigma and persona, and her excellent storytelling. Her second LP Ultraviolence has particular significance for me: her collaboration with Dan Auerbach, of one of my favourite bands of all time The Black Keys, was what my dark, gritty dreams were made off. Moody and intertextual, casually referencing A Clockwork Orange, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, The Crystals, Virginia Woolf, Nina Simone and Lou Reed, the album, for all that it was pared back compared to its Lolita-infused predecessor Born to Die, was still sumptuous and cinematic. It told the post-Lolita story, revealing the stony and unsettling aftermath of a narrative that was previously fizzing and overflowing with youth, hubris, desire and mournful chaos. Ultraviolence shows us that Born to Die as a concept was only ever going to be fleeting, that it’s flipside was dark, serious and dangerous. It was initially jarring for many fans and critics, with the Guardian famously indirectly berating her during the initial promotion for her extra-marital involvements and for dwelling on death.[1]

I felt, however, that Ultraviolence was the perfect continuation, the only continuation of the story; and she famously culminated the whole trilogy with Honeymoon, a similarly intertextual record that oozed with malaise, deliberation and a bittersweet sense of an ending. Indeed, in the videos for Freak and Music To Watch Boys To, Del Rey was flocked by a gaggle of young Born To Die-esque beauties and there was an uncanny sense that whilst Del Rey sipped her Kool-Aid, she was passing the waifish, young, naughty, nymphet baton to the next generation. This trilogy of Born to Die (including its Paradise EP), Ultraviolence and Honeymoon are modern classics and we have been so lucky to have a woman tell such a captivating story of self-awareness, femininity, sexuality, danger and maturity so publically and with so much success. She is a master storyteller and her mountains of lyrics and intricately produced tracks are a testament to this.

On Ultraviolence, Del Rey wrote a satirical song called ‘Money Power Glory’ that documented a young down-and-out, bitter about being poor and yearning for dope, diamonds and an affluent, aspirational land far away. The song works well as a critique of the neoliberal culture we live in that revolves around these three eponymous entities, yet sardonically laughs at the fact that in spite of knowing that these things don’t make us happy, we still ardently and avidly crave them.  Over the past few days, however, Del Rey threw her fans into a capitalist chaos that I don’t think reflects the satire of her previous viewpoint and that has slightly jolted the way we should approach her new era.

On Wednesday 18th June, posts went up on Del Rey’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts announcing that she was doing a surprise show at London’s O2 Academy in Brixton for the following Monday 24th July. Considering Del Rey has only performed once in the UK in the past 4 years, at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull in May 2017, there was a huge appetite for this gig and it immediately attracted a lot of attention. I was unable to go because I am out of the country next week, but wanted to help my younger sister, an equally avid Lana Del Rey fan but at the time delayed at an airport in France, to get to Brixton. In the end, it proved impossible for me to buy her tickets for her because O2 Brixton do not accept tickets without the ID of the initial lead buyer. As I would be out of the country, neither of us could go. I must admit I was temporarily embittered but, you know, I’m going to Greece next week. It’s cool. I was still, however, witness to everything that unfolded and it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Fans who wanted access to the pre-sale had until 5 o’clock on Wednesday 18th July to register. This involved pre-ordering a copy of the new album Lust for Life, due for release on Friday 21st June, for around £9.99 in exchange for a pre-sale code.  At 9:00 the next morning, Wednesday 19th July, pre-sale tickets went live and sold out in a matter of seconds. General sale tickets went live at 12:00 and, again, sold out in a matter of seconds. Social media was completely abuzz with hundreds of fans disappointed and frustrated that within moments of the clock hitting 12:00, ticket vendors were refreshing and declaring that there were no tickets left. Barely minutes afterwards, tickets were appearing on Viagogo selling for £600 a go. This puts fans in another bind because, as previously mentioned, O2 Brixton do not accept tickets without the ID of the initial lead buyer. Touts are, inevitably, selling on tickets at extraordinary prices to fans who won’t be able to enter the building with them anyway. This is something that Ed Sheeran has actively addressed in relation to his up-coming string of gigs by cancelling around 10,000 tickets.[2] It has not been announced whether Del Rey and her management are addressing this.

From the beginning, Del Rey and her management were capitalising, literally, on the enthusiasm of fans desperate to see such a rare show. By asking people, mostly young and whom she appeals to with a clear direct ‘you’ in new songs like ‘Love’, to put up money at little notice in exchange for privileged access to tickets seems mean and underhand.[3] These are people who have spent and probably will continue to spend money on Lana Del Rey and her merchandise in the future and it wasn’t exactly a generous gesture. It became increasingly unfair as the number of people registering for pre-sale swelled massively making it increasingly unlikely that many of these fans were even going to get tickets. After pre-sale and general sale, it appeared on social media that fans were being charged £52 a ticket which, again, on 24 hour notice for a gig next week in one of the most expensive cities in the world, seems ridiculously unfair. It suggests that the fans who could pay the most, by pre-ordering Lust for Life and then stumping up £52 for a ticket, were the ones who got to attend. This is isn’t exactly au fait with the pseudo-hippie aesthetic of freedom, love and lusty carefree youth that Del Rey’s new era is embracing. Instead, she created a virtual stampede, reminiscent of the kind of materialistic commercial madness seen on Black Friday, that was desperate and undignified for those involved.

I understand that many people frequently feel disappointed about missing out on gig tickets and that Twitter will fill up with moaning, weeping and various other melodramatic emotional responses as a result. But when young fans are played with and cast aside for commercial gain, where the artist and management are profiting so heavily from (a) creating multiple financial barriers to gigs and (b) subsequently pitting fans against one another, I find it hard to completely justify and get on board with it, no matter how much I admire the artist. It’s not the sort of marketing tactic I would expect from someone who claims so often that she deeply cares about her fans. Sure, this is all part of Del Rey’s mysterious and unpredictable persona that I’ve so enjoyed up until now, and I’m sure the online furore that has been triggered is happily feeding the myth, but it ultimately shows disdain and an emerging disrespect for fans. Del Rey knows she will be flocked wherever she goes, and her management have taken decisions to rinse as much money out of fans as possible using the mystique and desirability of the artist as fuel. If they were really serious about making as much money as possible, as shown in the strategy to release tickets, then Del Rey should just do a pre-planned tour, giving more people the opportunity to see Del Rey and with ample notice to get tickets. Instead, fans were served with a last minute rare appearance, charged over the odds and ultimately leaving many completely in the cold.

This comes within a week that a song called ‘Groupie Love’ has been released, focusing on the obsessive nature of music fans who see themselves as special and at one with their icon but are just part of a crowd of other likeminded groupies. Del Rey presents herself as being a groupie in the song but after the closure of her Born To Die, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon trilogy, this seems outdated. She has claimed that Lust for Life is for and about her fans: she has previously hinted that she’s ‘cooking something up for the kids’ and in an interview with Billboard said, ‘I felt like it was more wanting to, like, talk to the younger side of the audience I have’.[4] We can, therefore, argue that ‘Groupie Love’ is a nod to and an acknowledgment of the behaviours and naiveté of her fans which she can happily temporarily adopt and play along with. It seems slightly cynical, however, that one moment Del Rey is lauding and romanticising her fans for their groupie mentality but then plays on that very love and obsessiveness to ramp up pre-order sales and to sow financial divisions amongst them. I was then also reminded of an Instagram video Del Rey uploaded on the 22nd September 2016 where one bearded friend jokes that ‘Lolita14 is following [me]’ and another bearded friend  claims, ‘I need one of those’, before joking that he should ask fans who direct message him asking to meet Del Rey to send nudes as payment. In the video, Del Rey laughingly calls them ‘gross’. I think talking about fans in this way is distasteful verging on predatory, but also flippant and exploitative of a fan base who have been whipped into obsessiveness generated by the Lana Del Rey myth-machine in the first place; the level of attention she gets shouldn’t be surprising and something to scoff at. Del Rey has said that she no longer sings the lyrics ‘he hit me and it felt like a kiss’, because she no longer sees it as appropriate or acceptable, but then will happily upload a video encouraging fans to send nudes, even if only in jest.[5] It is undeniably hypocritical.

On the other hand, I can appreciate that some of Del Rey’s fans can be bratty nightmares. By saying this, I refer to the leaking of songs and material that have continuously plagued her career, including the leak of Lust for Life just two days before its official release. Del Rey famously called the fans sharing the link ‘U little fuckers’ and it is understandable that she was angry at such a violation of her privacy and of her agency to share her art when and where she wanted to. I can appreciate that when fans border on the obsessive to such an extent, it must be infuriating. Ironically, however, it served as the perfect counter-balance to the commercial, money-driven hysteria of the O2 gig tickets sales simultaneously unfolding, and many fans took the opportunity to download the album from a spectral link on Twitter. It is important to say that many also did not, choosing to respect the release date and openly condemning the leak out of loyalty to Del Rey.

I am so excited to listen to Lust for Life on its release today and I want to see where the story is going next. I embrace Del Rey’s collaboration with uber cool cats A$AP Rocky, Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon, and currently love her meditative outputs ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’ and ‘Summer Bummer’. But there is something that isn’t sitting quite right with the way the campaign for Lust For Life has been run. There has been an arrogance to the treatment of fans that has focused on profit and controversy instead of kindness, understanding and respect. It’s creating a toxic relationship whereby fans are whipped up into a frenzy by last minute rare appearances, clambering over one another figuratively and financially to get tickets; whilst at the same time, Del Rey’s music is leaked without her permission and much to her visible indignation. I’m not getting off the Lana Del Rey train just yet and I don’t suppose I ever will. But for an artist who quotes and reveres Nina Simone’s mantra of reflecting the times, I hope that Del Rey forsakes the capitalistic, commercial trappings of the pop industry and instead, holds a mirror to these very things. She can continue to be elusive and enigmatic whilst still being generous to the people who keep her in the position she is in.

[1] ‘I wish I was dead already’, Tim Jonze, The Guardian, 12th June 2014 [accessed 07:02, 20th July 2017] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/12/lana-del-rey-ultraviolence-album

[2] ‘Ed Sheeran cancels 10, 000 tour tickets being sold on re-sale sites’, Huffington Post, 17th July 2017 [accessed 21:16, 19th July 2017] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/ed-sheeran-tour-tickets-touts-resale-sites_uk_596ca344e4b03389bb18b6b9

[3] ‘Look you kids with your vintage music […] Look you kids, you know you’re the coolest […] it don’t matter because it’s enough to be young and in love’, ‘Love’, Lana De Rey 2017.

[4] ‘Everything we know about Lust For Life (so far)’, Billboard, 29th March 2017 [accessed 22:40, 19th July 2017) http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7743538/lana-del-rey-lust-for-life-album-everything-we-know

[5] ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: a conversation with Lana Del Rey’, Pitchfork, 20th July 2017 [accessed 07:10, 21st July 2017] http://pitchfork.com/features/interview/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness-a-conversation-with-lana-del-rey/

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Allegory

This article was first written in September 2015

The multi-faceted and heterogeneous nature of Alexander McQueen’s collections, as discussed in my essay on McQueen and the ‘abyss’, leaves it next to impossible to not say more about the Savage Beauty retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. McQueen’s clothes in both their physical and metaphysical composition, I argued, see them occupy an abyssal limit. As a result, what we are able to say about McQueen’s collections cannot simply end there. There are so many more things that can be argued and posited about his clothes, intertwined with what they present, represent and how they exist in a world created for them and by them. For the purpose of this essay, I want to suggest that McQueen’s work is greatly involved with death, history and, ultimately, allegory.

One aspect of McQueen’s work that I find particularly intriguing is the visceral historicity of his clothes. He used images of Hieronymus Bosch’s 14th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights to form the background of dresses in his last collection; he used silhouettes and tailoring from the Victorian period; and, perhaps most famously, used fiery red tartan in Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden, his 1995 and 2006 shows inspired by the eradication and cultural smudging of Gaelic and Celtic life in Scotland. These latter two collections were very personal elegies to a culture that has almost entirely diminished as a result of English colonialism, and incorporated fragments of tweed, tulle and antique lace with the tartan to help convey this semblance of trampled upon Scottish identity. Seeing these clothes on show at the V&A, clothes which project and embody history almost as a physical presence, helps to throw a fascinating light on the idea of the retrospective itself. We remember Alexander McQueen by looking at his clothes, which in turn are fragments and objects that remember and bear witness to the past.  As previously mentioned, Scottish history was a key concern in his collections, but so was McQueen’s multiple collection tributes to Isabella Blow. Blow was a renowned fashion editor who was Phillip Treacey’s muse and is credited with having ‘discovered’ Alexander McQueen, who took her own life just three years before McQueen’s own suicide.  Many of his most famous collections, including Dante and The Widows of Culloden were personally dedicated to her and remembered her very personal influence on his life and art. As a result, we can see that the retrospective creates a chain of history and layers of remembrance which the clothes are an active part of, if not absolutely integral to.

Widows-of-Culloden

This undoes the idea that clothes are merely passive symbols that reflect culture like a mirror, or simply transcend the drudgery of everyday life in a fluffy artistic cloud. Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel argue that fashion has ‘a silent language communicated through the use of visual or nonverbal symbols’.[1] Whilst their case is very convincing, that clothes and fashion form an arbitrary system of signs and signifiers, I would argue that clothes have a much more complex social relationship with people than by simply manifesting as symbols. Clothes certainly do help to ‘fashion’ the world we live in through their colours, silhouettes and materials, and because the only way in which we discuss clothing is through language. They are, however, also borne from language, history and experience which the concept of ‘symbolism’ simplifies and renders impotent.

Walter Benjamin sees the sentimental application of and the Romantic idea behind symbolism as tyrannical and ‘illegitimate […] destructive extravagance’ partly because it ‘fails to do justice to content in formal analysis and to form in the aesthetics of content’.[2] He argues that whilst insisting upon the unity of form and content, symbolism does not allow for a dialectical analytic approach and, therefore, neither form nor content are rigorously interrogated. Imposing the idea of ‘clothes-as-symbols’ onto fashion collections, and for my own purposes, upon Alexander McQueen’s collections, embodies the tyranny that Benjamin rejects. This is because by privileging the idea that the clothes we read and interpret are purely symbolic, we overlook the power structures in place that facilitated the clothes’ production and the way in which we receive them. Instead, I would approach McQueen’s collections as allegory because, as Benjamin argues:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.[3]

He suggests that symbolism idealises destruction, which can be seen in the way in which history is silenced and becomes a void when the idea of symbolism is arbitrarily imposed on language and literature, essentially saying that one thing is actually another and not conveying its own story or history. There is no potential for digression or for the multiplicity of ideas when such a dead weight is imposed on literature and, for my purpose, clothing. Allegory, on the other hand, gives us an insight into history’s fragmented state wrought with failure and sadness, and the individual’s existence within it and in relation to it, ultimately bringing us into contact with our own sense of mortality.

Through McQueen’s collections Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden with the ruined, hybrid compositions of tartan, lace and tulle, we are confronted with the death and destruction that were met by the historical peoples of Scotland. [4] More specifically, McQueen focuses on the experience of women, with his explicit reference to sexual violence and with the term ‘widows’ used to convey the heavy burden associated with womanhood, battle-loss and mourning. Importantly, this confrontation with violence and destruction presented in the clothing perhaps speaks for the continued death and destruction we experience in our own times. We are given a much more comprehensive and disturbing study in historical failure through fragmented form which expresses a fractured, mournful past instead of privileging an empty aesthetic idea. To emphasise this, McQueen, in Widows of Culloden, had his models wearing antlers, feathers and other animalistic paraphernalia in their hair and on their heads in addition to lace, tulle and tartan. These simultaneously detract from the historical argument being presented but also open up history to other perspectives, corporealities and existences. Allegory, although heavily involved with death and destruction ironically helps to expand our understanding of historical experience that cannot just be limited to human suffering, but giving light to the suffering of animals and the natural world.

History cannot be pinned down. It is fluid, interchangeable and slippery, which is what makes remembrance such a difficult and perhaps even a futile task. Thinking of art as allegory, however, opens up our awareness of history and means we never fall into the trap that we live in a world that is fixed, stable and where we can impose absolute meaning on anything, from literature and art to fashion. Allegory helps to dispel fallacy whilst creating fallacy, and McQueen’s clothing is all the more interesting, important and extraordinary as a result of the allegorical fragments and components that structured what we saw when they were first unveiled to us and to what we see now.

 

[1] Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel, The Second Skin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), p.150.

[2] Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 2009), p.160.

[3] Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.166.

[4] 1,500-2000 member of Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army were killed at the Battle of Culloden (near Inverness) in 1745. They were attempting to overthrow the Hanoverian army who had secured the English throne and who lost only 54 men in comparison. After the battle, the government weakened the power of the Scottish clans and attempted to stamp out Gaelic culture to remove the threat of a future uprising. They succeeded: this was the last pitched battle on English soil and there was no subsequent rebellion.

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Abyss

This essay was first written in September 2015

British fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen took his own life in 2010 and five years later, his most famous collections were brought together in a triumphant and critically-lauded retrospective entitled Savage Beauty.  The exhibition, situated in the Victoria and Albert Museum having been initially shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was an overwhelming, grotesque and utterly fascinating spectacle. Seeing all of McQueen’s most famous pieces in one space was almost physically arresting and undeniable emotional: from the spray painted dress, the tartan, the ‘bumsters’ and all the tailoring, to the VTs of his catwalk shows playing all at once, his metal, woodwork and sea shell accessories, the Armadillo shoes, the millinery by Phillip Treacey, the feathers, the spectre of Kate Moss rising to the violin of John Williams’ Schindler’s List, the melancholy background music, and the fragments of his political and aesthetic musings stamped on the walls. Seeing everything all at once in one place confirmed that this exhibition and this designer worked beyond fashion, bleeding into the realms of theatre and performance art.

There was one aspect of the exhibition, however, that I would argue did not do the memory of McQueen justice. At the start of each new exhibit was a piece of introductory text imposed on the wall that described McQueen’s various inspirations in producing a specific collection or an idea that ran through his entire oeuvre. The descriptions relied heavily on two things: firstly, McQueen’s supposed use of binary oppositions in his aesthetic ideas which translated into his clothing, for example, light and dark, life and death, beauty and the grotesque etc. Secondly, they relied upon a seemingly endless string of ‘isms’ to help us garner some meaning from his work, for example romanticism, historicism, animalism and eroticism. This became particularly problematic when some of McQueen’s garments inspired by African tribeswomen were described as examples of primitivism in his work. Primitivism was an artistic movement that became fairly prominent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, under the influence of artists like Henri Rousseau with his jungle scenes, Gaugin’s Tahitian masks and Pablo Picasso’s African Period which formed a precursor to ‘Cubism’. One of the biggest sticking points with this artistic idea is that it involves the appropriation of the symbols and artefacts belonging to different cultures and using their ‘otherness’ to form art for a Western consumption. As Edward Said writes in Orientalism, ‘the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience’.  He argues that the concept of ‘the other’ is established to help create an exclusionary set of norms and conventions which the West can use to distinguish itself from the exotic East. In the most basic terms, therefore, primitivism, an artistic idea that walks hand in hand with appropriation and othering, is racist.

To pigeonhole McQueen under this label of ‘primitivism’ and thereby within this tradition is not fair and not very accurate. He rallied against the fashion industry’s racism, saying that ‘fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes’. Of course, just because he said this, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t racist in his designs, and his own reference to ‘tribalism’ in his work is relatively suspect. Authorial intent is all well and good but what is actually produced can undoubtedly undercut or undo whatever the author, or in this case, designer wanted to make. Regardless of this, I would argue that his designs deconstructed barriers, and ‘isms’, even his own, only seem to provide vague linguistic parameters that box in McQueen and his designs.

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida describes the difference between humans and animals as an abyssal limit:

One attempts to think what a limit becomes once it is abyssal, once the frontier no longer forms a single indivisible line but more than one internally divided line, once, as a result, it can no longer be traced, objectified, or counted as single and indivisible.[1]

He argues that the difference between humans and animals is not homogeneous and continuous, an almost tangible line distinguishing the two and placing them in nigh-on separate spheres of existence. Instead, Derrida suggests that the limit between humans and animals is comprised of a multitude of different differences, which serve to simultaneously thicken and fragment both the connection and division between the two.  Humans and animals are, therefore, inextricably linked; but this is only achieved through differences. I argue that the same logic can be applied to McQueen when we remember his work, except instead of an exploration of the relationship between humans and animals on show, his work occupies an abyssal limit between various other ideas, forms and entities. As a result, what McQueen produced renders the possibility of binary oppositions of light and dark, death and life, joy and sadness, so perpetuated by his curators, to be null and void. Although his work was also described as ‘blurring lines’ between oppositions, I would argue that McQueen’s work did not blur the lines between empty oppositions but actively made us acutely aware of all the different things that all at once constructed and were constructed by his clothing. McQueen had more to do with the thickening of limits, creating connection and division through difference; thus rendering his clothes multifarious and gargantuan in the Rabelaisian sense, rather than muddied or blurred.

Both McQueen’s collections and his shows thickened the limit between fashion and a host of other forms and media; for example, performance art in VOSS, theatre and performativity in Horn of Plenty and mechanical production with the infamous spray painting robots creating fashion/art/consumer fodder live. He was entirely of the fashion world having worked as an apprentice tailor on Savile Row and earning himself a Master’s degree from London’s hot-bed of design talent Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, whose other notable alumni includes John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton and Riccardo Tisci. However to think of McQueen as synonymous with fashion is to remember him too simplistically, because whilst irrevocably attached to fashion with its consumer focus and its elite group of orchestrators, McQueen’s work was not separate from experimental art and spectacle. His work was neither fashion, nor was it in anyway separate from fashion. His models were stripped of their identities and became actors, pawns, victims and saboteurs. Furthermore, the people who attended his shows were not simply editors, fans or enthusiasts; they were audiences, witnesses, congregations and perpetrators of the violence that frequently unfolded on his runway. Perhaps his work was so disturbing, awe-inspiring and, ultimately, original because it forced us to re-examine our own distance from what we saw taking place: we were forced, compelled, tricked or willingly a part and component of the mechanics at work in his shows. Our relationship with his work and presentation was another abyssal limit: fragmented and heterogeneous with no clearly defined or tangible boundaries.

The hair coat, Eshu, Alexander McQueen

Eshu, Alexander McQueen

This was illustrated, I would argue, in one thick black coat from McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2000-2001 collection Eshu, almost the lynch-pin of the entire retrospective. The coat is made from black synthetic hair, twisted and gnarled, forming layer upon layer of ruffles and knots. Derrida’s conception of the multifarious and fragmented limit is encapsulated in this garment, a coat that folds, enveloping itself and the model within it whilst also expanding outwards, bloated with its own heterogeneity. Whilst not one of McQueen’s most famous pieces, the coat represents an abyssal limit occupied by all of his collections, its undulations suggesting his work belongs to different spheres like art and theatre beyond fashion, but could only be articulated from within the linguistic and capitalistic confines of the fashion world.

Although language by its very nature is artificial, the language of the fashion world takes this artificiality to a whole other level of vapidity. McQueen’s work was a slippery beast that embodied everything it negated, fashion and capital, but also undercut the conditions and the context within which it was created through the thickening of various formal limits. The retrospective could only perpetuate this pigeonholing, and consigned the memory of McQueen to the umbrella phrase Savage Beauty. I don’t think language can ever do justice to the memory of anything, including McQueen: nothing we can say or write can fully articulate or pin down all the different things that McQueen created. This may go some way in explaining why and how we, perhaps inevitably, entrap the memory of people we admire and care about within the binding and empty confines of cliché.

 

[1] Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, 28:2 (Winter, 2002), pp.369-418 (p.399).

Disney devours his children: deconstruction or unoriginality?

This essay was first published on Cloudbanks and Shimbleshanks in November 2014

For the relatively short time that cinema has been in existence as a medium of expression, one of the most prominent genres that has endured is the fairytale. This was largely, and most famously, spearheaded by Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 but came to encompass work by Powell and Pressburger, Guillermo del Toro and Terry Gilliam amongst others. The common trend in the past 5 years or so has been an emphasis on the re-interpretation of traditional fairytales, which have included amongst others The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Disney however, the ultimate motion picture fairytale factory, has recently taken this trend to an entirely new level by re-making live-action versions of its own animated films. From the newly released Cinderella to the live-action re-makes of Beauty and The Beast, Mulan, Dumbo, Tink (based on Peter Pan) and The Jungle Book, Disney is ploughing its way through its own archive material to produce new films. As the company effectively consumes itself, there are important questions to be asked about what this means: do these films embody a progressive deconstruction of Disney’s oeuvre or a cynical money-grabbing exercise in one of the most explicit forms of mechanised unoriginality to ever exist?

One of the most important ideas associated with deconstruction, a word adopted by Jacques Derrida in his various tracts on linguistics and metaphysics, is that texts exist beyond their authors: they undermine the possibility for authorial intent and exist in the world as a product of the cultural values in existence. Whilst it is inaccurate to say that Disney has deconstructed its own films because, according to Derrida, it is in the nature of language to deconstruct and not be deconstructed by any sort of force, there has been an attempt to undercut the idea of the author. This manifests in the way in which films are not treated as sacred, untouchable objects made by Walt Disney but produce other meanings to be explored and visually represented.

The best example of this is can be seen in Maleficent, a new story born from the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty that focuses on the quintessential villain Maleficent over Briar Rose and her relationship to Prince Phillip. The fourth wave of feminism has helped to encourage the production of fairytales where much more complex stories about women and women’s experiences are presented, and nowhere is this done better than in Maleficent. Where we once saw Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty sitting pretty waiting for their princes to rescue them, the new films have seen an emphasis on female empowerment; from Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron as Snow White and Ravenna and Brave’s Merida taking up arms to save themselves, to a greater emphasis on emotional and financial self-sufficiency in Frozen and The Princess and the Frog. Maleficent, I would argue, does this in the most radical way, taking the tired narrative of 1959, producing new meanings about the characters in both films whilst simultaneously creating much more engaging and interesting female characters for men and women to understand.

In an unusual non-heteronormative move for Disney, who loves a good monarchy, Maleficent takes place in the Moors, the magical domain of fairies that explicitly rejects the idea of a king and queen and comes under constant attack by the kingdom next door. The film explores what is effectively date rape when the ambitious servant-boy Stefan tells Maleficent, the fairy with the biggest wings who protects the Moors from bombardment, that he loves her, before drugging her and cutting of her magnificent wings as bounty so that he can become king; thus forming the basis for her revenge. It explores the unexplainable but beautiful relationship that exists between Maleficent and Aurora, whom when she curses, Maleficent feels inextricably bound to;  where Maleficent’s capacity for both hate and love, and good and evil become inter-changeable, and where it is actually OK for her to tend to all of these; it explores the madness of a paranoid and guilty King Stefan(‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ if I ever saw it- Henry IV Part 2 III.i.31) and almost completely casts aside the role of Prince Phillip, whose character verges on farcical, attacking the idea that love at first sight exists.

Maleficent, therefore, presents a progressive re-reading of an old text. Like with Maxine Peake’s recent turn in Hamlet, where the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech was postponed until much later on in the play, the original 1959 film of Sleeping Beauty has not been rendered untouchable and sacred; a thing belonging to Walt Disney that should be unprivileged and left un-open to questioning. Rather, new readings have produced new meanings, which result in new representations that are much more in tune with the active, complex roles that women have in society. One other good example of this kind of attitude that Disney has adopted towards its own animated fairytales is Enchanted in 2007. Despite the presence of talking animals, people unpredictably breaking into song and a romantic ending, the film critiques the sensational way in which Disney has presented its fairytales; in particular the idea of characters wanting to marry as soon as they first meet. It has been possible for Disney to shine a lot on its own material and I think the results have been extremely promising.

With the new announcement only last week that Disney are preparing to make another live-action re-make (this time of Winnie The Pooh) however, the argument that Disney’s producers and accountants want to create new meanings from the texts they already have becomes slightly shaky. Of course this will happen anyway simply because they will be producing new texts; however, these serve to underline Disney’s authority over the production fairy stories, appealing directly to the nostalgia of audiences. Derrida describes in Spectres of Marx that deconstruction and the ideas involved with deconstruction can be seen as a certain radicalization of Marxism. As one of the most capitalistic Western corporations in existence, it would be ridiculous to think that Disney in any way is associated with the left. This can be seen in the way in which the company has become increasingly obsessed with making money at any cost. It began with the costly box office flops The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter and The Lone Ranger which lost the studio millions of dollars each. As a result, Disney has turned to low-risk, safe, tried and tested franchises and films; films they know already have big followings and will keep the money rolling in. First we heard the news of Star Wars being resurrected and then slowly more and more live-action re-makes of their animated films.

In his 1933 essay on perennial jazz, Theodor Adorno critiques the mechanization of the culture industry and the emphatic lack of originality in cultural production. I would argue that this is being unashamedly realised in Disney’s film schedule with its reduction in the number of original films due for production and release. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Fairy Godmother in the re-make of Cinderella and known for more off-beat film choices, expressed her scepticism at the beginning of filming as to whether ‘a straight version would work’; questioning the extent to which a film that effectively just brings animation to life could be interesting. To Kenneth Branagh the twist of the film is that it is ‘classic’ and not a re-imagining or re-reading like Maleficent; however, regardless of how well the script is written, how good the acting is or how they have best made use of special effects the fact remains that this is not an original film idea. Resorting more and more to resurrecting and perpetuating old sagas, including Pirates of the Caribbean alongside Star Wars, in addition to its archive of animated classics, Disney panders more and more to old, previously successful formulas at the expense of imagination: creating new characters, stories and predicaments for audiences to admire and engage with.

All of this is problematic because Disney is setting a dangerous precedent: that films are fluffy, nostalgia fests to transport us away from the troubles of everyday life, instead of tools for critiquing culture. I saw the latest Cinderella and against my better judgment absolutely enjoyed being reminded of the film I saw in childhood: from the song ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ to the comic fights between Lucifer the cat and Gus and Jaq the mice, to the awful singing from Anastasia and Drizella and that dress transformation. There were some parts of the film I really liked, for example the extremely sensitive portrayal of the prince’s relationship with his father; however, wouldn’t it be better to explore those relationships in other situations or contexts instead of using an old formula that you know will work? Disney, for better or worse, was a pioneer in animation and the live-action re-makes that are going to litter our cinematic landscape over the next few years don’t seem to be very brave ventures to me.

I would argue that a breaking point will be reached in the future where the cultural regurgitation of re-makes and sequels will no longer be creatively sustainable. There has to be an endpoint: where can Disney go after re-making everything it has already made, when it has rinsed its herd of cash-cows? If the studio wasn’t making so much money of this industrial unoriginality, I’d find some kind of enjoyment in the fact that Disney is consuming itself: it is the embodiment of paranoid capitalist culture doing what it can to preserve itself, by gobbling up everything it has ever produced.

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‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, Francisco Goya, 1823