Sunday, April 17, 2005

What Was That Bit About Memory Again?

Friday night attended 'Vanishing Points', part of the current, obscurely-motivated Fiesta De John Berger in London. It occurred at the German Gymnasium, a strange random rump of a building stranded amidst the King's Cross construction rubble. It was a Free-Form Performance Event co-written by Berger and the Canadian poet Anne Michaels, performed by them and several actors, including the delight that is usually Juliet Stevenson. And it was annoying, and I was sad.

See, it was about trains, and train stations. See what they did there? But there's more. Apparently, the thing about trains and train stations is that they are hotbeds of Memory, Migration, Alienation, Parting, Reunion, Transition, Transformation and probably a couple more tissue-thin tropes you might never suspect if you hadn't, say, been alive and conscious and tripped over a piece of literature at any point in the last two centuries. Berger's voice intoned shopworn observations over a structureless videomontage imperfectly projected on the wall or visible in toto on very small television screens scattered around the space, while the audience milled vaguely and huddled in coats against the glacial chill. Sometimes we desultorily crouched on the floor, but they kept rousing us to shuffle across and peer out various windows (evidently at traffic), or crush through a door down a narrow passageway to see a none-more-kitsch vignette of Old-Timey Luggage piled forlornly in a corner, and on to a too-small room floored with dirt (see? No, I didn't either, though it felt pleasingly bouncy underfoot) where a giant baggy-eyed video projection of Michaels droned dirgeishly for 15 minutes while we busied ourselves constituting a fire hazard. (Sidebar: nothing better calculated to discomfit the expat Norte-Amerkin than hearing a continent-mate exercising our rube accent. Somehow I usually manage to finesse the sound of my own from the inside.) Then back to the big cold room to watch, now in the flesh, Berger (who does look extraordinary for his 79 years), Michaels and several others read from corner-stapled scripts, in that special pitch of wooden portentousness stage actors bring to Evocative Monologues.

And skewer me sideways if we were not, in the course of many other exhausted ruminations, treated to a reading of, I shit you not, Walter Benjamin on the Angel of History. Now, maybe it's just me, but my feeling is once Laurie fucking Anderson has appropriated a notion, a decade earlier no less, that notion has pretty much given all it can to the literary culture. It should be retired with thanks and left to desiccate in peace.

Look, I'm sorry. You can't have trains anymore. You can't have train stations, you can't have Memory and Nostalgia and Immigration, you sure as fuck can't have the Angel of History; these things are done, unless you have something really quite startling to say about them. Which, to my genuine regret, Berger appears not to. The best thing about the whole show came at the end when ropes dropped from the ceiling and a woman cunningly trussed herself in one so as to roll slowly down it to the floor. It was opaque, mesmerising and sexy, and had nothing obviously to do with trains.

Now, I haven't read Berger's criticism (shame), but I am assured that he is a truly worthy thing and a major contributor not just to literature but to the culture at large. Why does the lit-fic establishment think these phthisic efforts are good enough? The Guardian review licked this tired retread up and down.

This is why I am rapidly losing all tolerance for lit-fic. Its imaginative universe contains about five themes, and has no qualms at all about chewing them over and over, chomping down into the same damn toothmarks author on author, decade on decade. At least genre has the grace to feel compelled to invent new monsters to stash its themes in.

Went home afterwards and watched several episodes of Buffy Season Six. They kicked Berger's ass.

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