Monday, April 24, 2006

Why should the Russians get all the gloom?

I had quite a Ruskie weekend. On Saturday we trawled through as much of Russian Ark as we could bear before the sheer weirdness of it got the better of us (a muttering, dead narrator who is speaking Russian for the first time, and may or may not be senile, is your oh-so-accessible starting point, laydeezungennlemen), and then last night it was 'Russian Masterpieces' at the Royal Albert Hall, consisting of a bit of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev before the main event: Shostakovich's incredible Fifth Symphony.

We decided – slightly whimsically, it's true – that Russians seem to devote more of their cultural output, their everyday thoughts, and their national identities to trying to work out what that identity is, than any other people on earth. They are profoundly self-reflexive. Russian Ark consisted of a series of dreamlike dialogues with random visitors to the Hermitage Museum about what Russia is, and was, and ought to be. The Ark of the title carried vignettes from Russian history in its bows, rather than elephants and hippos (though the odd hippo here and there might have livened up proceedings I'd venture). The music, meanwhile, just felt so Russian. Romantic, and ambitious, and bombastic at times, but still imbued with truly heavy-eyed sadness – a deep sense of melancholy you can only get from waking up at 11am to find it's pretty much dark outside and everything around you is made of concrete.

I say all this now because I awoke this morning to find Balham in the late Spring looking and feeling like downtown Moscow in the middle of January. It's April 24 for chrissakes! Give us some sunshine! Or at least some light! Or at least some warmth! Given how horrid it is outside (and yes, I am now taking the massive intellectual leap to the idea that weather is the sole determinant of national character, wanna make something of it?), I was wondering, culturally speaking, where are OUR tragedies? Shouldn't our cultural output be more melancholic than it is? I want your nominations for the best British tragedies, examples of the most perfectly articulated gloom. Here are a few off the top of my head:

There is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths
Look Back in Anger – John Osborne
Last Resort – some Polish director, confusingly, whose name escapes me
Sittin' Here – Dizzee Rascal

Then some Jacobean tragedies I guess – The Dutchess of Malfi was pretty bleak, that’s the only one I’ve seen.


Anonymous meera said...

"Oh mother, I can feel the soil pouring over my head..."

cheer up chaps. the fact that we have, frankly, sod all to moan about is a remarkable achievement of collective human endeavour, and something which should be celebrated. DAILY.

i'd trade pogroms and the modern slave trade for sub-heroic post-romantic cultural artefacts any day.

10:37 PM  
Blogger dan hancox said...

y'see the central flaw in my blog post was that i agree with meera completely, and on the whole find miserablism in art really dull.

but, yknow, it was like freakin manchester in the middle of winter today for fuck's sake. in late april!! not much else would make me think of the smiths these days, as much as i like them in theory. that's i know it's over you're quoting btw i think.

11:38 PM  
Blogger John said...

Yeah of course it's I Know It's Over. I think the problem with the Smiths are that they're too damn funny most of the time to be that depressive. Even Heaven Knows I'm Miserable is hilarious and has that wonderful twanging guitar part.

Nil By Mouth, but it's more harrowing than tragic I guess.

Related, but aside, why is Hamlet a tragedy? They all should die except Ophelia and her father.

7:22 AM  
Blogger alex bkbk said...

dude why all the gloom and doom??
for starters if we were in Moscow in the winter you wouldn't even be able to get naked to get into the shower. Visit anywhere outside the Garden Ring in Moscow anytime outside of August and you'll feel the sheer coctail of misery - atmospherically, architectually, culturaly and socially. Truss.

And I'm not saying I don't hate the weather on days list Monday either. Just I think from a quasi-outsider's perspective the British are a moany enough people as it is, moaning is like therapy to us. Nothing like having a good moan, right? Frankly however, even though things aren't perfect at least we're not the guy who wrote the movie Ben Stiller was directing in Extras.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous ventedspleen said...

sticking with manchester... joy division? further north, we've got arab strap of course (and you can't find a band who embrace miserablism quite like them).

pretty much every film by mike leigh? eastenders isn't exactly a laugh a minute either. I'd say our culture is doing miserable fairly well.

see, I have no problem with "miserablism in art". some of it can be dull, but it doesn't have to be. more often than not, it can lead to some very inspiring, uplifting art.

people seem to mistake 'sad' for 'depressing' far too often. but then, I guess I produce a fair amount of miserable, angsty art so maybe I'm biased.

10:10 AM  
Blogger dan hancox said...

yeah don't get it twisted y'all, i was miffed with the weather for like a day. i remain SUNNY. :)

tom your stuff's angsty and if anything angry rather than miserable though (imho), which is a COMPLETELY different kettle of haddock.

god mike leigh. that's the kind of british miserabilism i can really not be bothered with. as much as i know and accept he's an important intellectual force and makes good films which reflect the heretofore unreflected gloom of lower middle-class suburbia yadda yadda yadda. i can do without it. life is sweet is just... UNPLEASANT. i don't care how hilariously ironic the title is.

also: miserable=mike leigh=dull CF:
melancholy=gericault's raft of the medusa=fucking incredible.

miserable bad, melancholy good.

both the smiths and arab strap i like cos they're so witty. without that they'd be stultifyingly depressing.

10:37 AM  
Blogger John said...

I remember SUNNY, she used to be Shawn Michaels the Heartbreak Kid's valet in the early 1990's, she was really hot, although later she got on crack and did porn and whored and stuff.

Is that not what you meant?

12:21 PM  
Blogger John said...

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12:21 PM  
Blogger John said...

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12:21 PM  
Blogger John said...

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12:21 PM  
Blogger John said...

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12:21 PM  
Blogger John said...

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12:21 PM  
Blogger John said...

They were all me. Sorry. Got a bit overexcited with the "login and publish" button.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Jake O'Leary said...


1) Twentyfourseven - the Bob Hoskins film - it was filmed in 97 in B&W and it EVEN has a Roxy Music soundtrack(imdb it)
4) Hospices
5) The tears of your parents
6) An injured cuddly animal

*Smacks head into keyboard, crying and mashing fists into desk rythmically*

2:07 PM  
Blogger John said...

Animals dead on the roads not a great example of miserabilsim in art though.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Jake O'Leary said...

"I want your nominations for the best British tragedies, examples of the most perfectly articulated gloom. Here are a few off the top of my head"

Hey, Little Jonny Contradiction.
The Man said nowt about Art.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:37 PM  
Blogger John said...

Ok well in that case, Dunblane. Tragic and British.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous heleina said...

pulp, the office, philip larkin. more broadly, touching down at heathrow is the quintessential miserable british moment. it's always drizzling lightly and the skies are iron grey and the terminal's deserted and everyone looks like they want to cry.

2:16 AM  
Blogger Jake O'Leary said...

Heleina is right - touching down at Heathrow is depressing. The holiday is over.

So why do I find the first sight of the White Cliffs of Dover so cheering when I am on the Ferry?

9:54 AM  
Blogger Stephen Collins said...

Hello Dan, thanks for rummaging my little web-crannie. I agree with Heleina on The Office (and would add the first series of I'm Alan Partridge); both Talking Heads (Bennett; partic 'Lady of Letters') collections; The Caretaker; Larkin (particularly Aubade, Love songs in age, church going, and the ones about death - oh that's all of them, then). Birchanger services on the M11. Great Yarmouth. And really, honestly: 'Little Goes A Long Way: The Autobiography of Syd Little'. He has the most depressing life I know, though I was pleased to hear him back on the radio yesterday. Oh: Hancock's Half hour, watched with someone next to you who always, without fail, says "of course, he was very depressed you know..."

8:19 AM  
Blogger Stephen Collins said...

Actually can I retract Great Yarmouth. I went there on Saturday and it is the funniest place I have ever been. Really. Can I substitute: a puddle, in a car park, in Ipswich.

8:21 AM  
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