Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Saatchi Factor:

The School of Saatchi, BBC 2

Tracey Emin, Kate Bush, Frank Cohen and Matthew Collings star in Charles Saatchi ‘s latest media farce: a mediocre talent show hailing the death of imagination.

Twelve young hopefuls. Four expert judges. One life-transforming prize. There can, of course, be only one winner.

I’ve just sat through The School of Saatchi, the second programme in a series of three promising to find the next big thing in the modern art world. The winner will win the use of a London studio for the next three years and, more importantly, the Charles 'Midas' Saatchi stamp of approval.

Anyone hoping for a chance to catch a glimpse under the suit, as it were, of the ever-elusive Charlie S. will have been disappointed. From the start we are told (by Come Dine With Me sound-alike narrator, Hugh Bonneville, just in case we failed to notice the talent show framework) that the famously reclusive Charles Saatchi won’t be appearing on his own programme. On the plus side, we are treated to the same black and white studio photo of the man about six or seven times throughout. Thanks.

So the School of Saatchi is missing its headmaster. But luckily there are four teachers on lunch break duty to make sure nothing too exciting happens: First up is critic Matthew Collings – a smiley Sir Alan Sugar, if you will – on hand to give the Desperate Dans some momentarily interesting 30 second art history lessons. Alongside him is Kate Bush. No, sorry, you’re thinking of a different Kate Bush. No, this Kate Bush wears all black and stands in shadows. But, art collector Frank Cohen, “the Saatchi of the North” (but still, no Saatchi), provides some colour to the palette (he has the reddest face I have ever seen) but says next to nothing for almost the whole hour.

And lastly, but by no means most talented, is racey Tracey Emin, playing the maverick supply teacher whose “I think that’s a load of bollocks” is the first of her many eloquent contributions. Where’s a flashing neon sign when you need it, eh Trace? She also doubles up as the consciously provocative, dismissive, Cowel-esque Scrooge of the panel, just in case viewers start to suspect that what they are watching is not reality TV and decide to flick over to I’m A Celebrity... on ITV.

The truth is that, annoyingly, the artwork on show is itself given only a few precious moments in the spotlight. When we are treated to some of it, however, you begin to see why: it’s boring as hell. An art student who has stolen a road sign stand (minus the sign itself, presumably struggling with both as she made a quick midnight getaway, pissed off her tits, back to her Shoreditch flat) is, for Tracey, “unpretentious”. The one contestant that isn’t asked “why is it art?” by the judges is the one contestant who most urgently needs to think long and hard about an answer.

Instead, the panel reserve the annoying question for those whose talent is more obvious. If we are to take these four industry professionals as an accurate reflection of modern institutional art, then what this confirms is modern British art’s occupation with (for better or for worse) the need to justify itself. Emin’s congratulation at one student’s “good explanation” of her work sums this up neatly.

Talking of Tracey Emin's (in)famous Unmade Bed, Matthew Collings muses that “maybe there are rules, but the audience don’t quite know what they are.” Is it the case, then, that modern art is a modern con played against a unknowing audience?

“Charles really liked it. Charles thinks it would’ve been more interesting if...” is what Saatchi’s PA ventriloquises in his absense when the time comes for his verdict and the shortlisting of six finalists. Tune in next week, when the six young finalists reach the emerald city of Oz, only to find that Charles Saatchi is a big rubber Ron Mueck mask with Nigella Lawson working at the helm.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Incoming: interview with the Coen brother

(Fargo, No Country For Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou, Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski).

LIFF: The Men Who Stare At Goats

After finally been allowed in by the nervous box office assistant (“I can’t let you in until the clock says five to. I’m sorry...”) and squeezing my way into the packed, beautifully-restored Town Hall, the dimming of the lights ushered in a tangible excitement at this, the opening film of Leeds' International Film Festival 2009.
But sadly, The Men Who Stare At Goats fails to come close to meeting the (by now) very high expectations of the audience: with a fantastically original – and alarmingly factual – premise, George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, under the direction of Grant Heslov, had a potentially winning film on their hands. They do well to keep it lightly entertaining for (almost) the full ninety minutes, but the lack of narrative drive leaves them up against a tough one.

Jon Ronson’s original non-fiction paperback is a scoop of a story - a treasure trove of journalistic opportunity - which saw the writer/documentary maker stumbling across a ‘special’ US Army unit of ‘special’ psychological warriors, soldiers trained in the New Age-inspired ways of Jedi-warfare. A bizarre chance meeting soon leads Ronson to discover a much darker side of the Iraq war: ‘Barney the Dinosaur’ theme tune torture is just the tip of the ice-berg.

But Ewan McGregor’s fictionalised counterpart refuses to dive deeper below the surface of this potentially fascinating story. Almost no time is given over to looking at how this peace-loving ‘60s ethos spawned some of the most contrived. Yes, George Clooney’s character is one of many that become disillusioned, but what about disillusionment of the Iraqis and their 'liberated' country? The acting is funny, and often hilarious, while the characters themselves are just about likeable, meaning this film remains an enjoyable slap-stick comedy but, disappointingly, nothing more.

Films dealing with the latest Gulf War have done infamously bad in cinemas; it’s just such a shame that The Men Who Stare At Goats wasn’t prepared to tackle the subject head on.

A generous 3/5.

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