Category: Art

Slava’s Snowshow

…ONE DAY I realised that I wanted to create a show that would take us back to our childhood dreams; A show which would help spectators be released from the jail of adulthood and rediscover their forgotten childhood.

Slava Polunin – creator of Slava’s Snow Show

A few weeks back a friend popped up on Facebook and asked if anyone fancied going to see Slava’s Snow Show. I’d seen a few clips of it from last year and immediately said yes. Roll forward to yesterday evening and I realised, as we took our seats, I didn’t really know what the show was about.

And I’m still not entirely sure today.

Aside from the main character, an old droopy clown in bright yellow, there are six other performers, all dressed similarly in green gowns, large clown feet and hats. They come and go, sometimes as integral parts of the performance, sometimes just to provide a moment of hilarity.

There is no dialogue to speak of but none is needed. This is largely a physical performance and, with the exception of one telephone exchange (which may be in Russian but the vocalisation doesn’t matter) the full range of emotions are expressed in a slow, controlled way, a tilt of a head, a lean of a shoulder, a beatific smile, or a simple look to the audience.

Nor is there a story as such, just a variety of set pieces that gently nudge you along, providing delight after delight. At times it teeters on the brink of something akin to tragedy, and the slightly grotesque quality of the performers adds a wonderful dark tone when needed, but then a sudden burst of physicality transforms the piece and you realise you’ve sat, rapt, with your own huge smile across your face the entire time.

Naturally what will stick in the mind of many are the prop driven extravaganzas, with the intermission preceded by a large cobweb type blanket being stretched from the stage all the way to the back of the stalls, the audience passing it over their hands and becoming one in the tangle of the fibres (which made the dash to the bar all the more interesting).

And then the finale. The weather turns, Slava is confronted with a snowstorm and suddenly giant fans start up, blasting the audience and filling the theatre with snow. Sitting in your chair, the air ripples past you, and you watch the oncoming snow storm until you are in it, with snow catching in your clothes as it swirls around you. It’s utterly utterly magical.

It turns out that Slava’s Snowshow isn’t really about the exceptional clown performances on stage, isn’t about the clever staging and use of props, and it isn’t about the perfect comic timing on display; watching a man fall off a chair three times in a row doesn’t SOUND funny but was hilarious.

At the end of the show, with massive inflatable spheres bouncing around over the audience, all I could see where smiling, happy, carefree faces. From the opening bars of La Petite Fille De La Mar (which wonderful encapsulates the off-kilter world you are about to enter) I was transformed from a curious adult looking for a diversion on a cold Wednesday evening, to a child, playing with a balloon in my parents front room at Christmas.

And, as the man himself said, that’s what the show is all about, and what a wonderful time we had rediscovering those childhood joys.

Slow West vs DC

I watch a lot of movies, if I have a couple of hours free I’ll usually watch a movie than regular TV; although I’ll admit that Netflix has changed my habits there quite a bit, but then many of the shows that they are releasing – House of Cards, Daredevil, Jessica Jones – en masse are essentially just a longer movie chopped up into episodes.

This weekend I went to the cinema to see Batman vs Superman, a big blockbuster special effects superhero thing. I also watched Slow West (on Netflix), an independently budgetted movie which won some awards at the Canne Film Festival (I think).

The difference, outside of budgets, special effects, storyline, setting et al, was striking. Strip both movies back to their essence, and they are both simple stories with only a handful of key characters.

In Slow West we follow the journey of a young man from Scotland as he travels into the American mid-west in the late 1800s to find his true love, who fled there after a tragic event.

In Batman vs Superman we follow the journey of an old man as he travels to meet his ultimate enemy in Superman who has himself been through a tragic event. We also follow the journey of a young man as he starts out on his own journey to discover what it means to be Superman.

The scale may differ – in Slow West one man dies, in the Superman event thousands die – but the premise is the same.

Alas at this point things start to differ and that’s largely down to how each film was directed.

In Slow West, thanks to some excellent pacing, acting and direction, we become finely tuned to the hopes and dreams of the few main characters; we learn about their pasts as the story progresses, we go through trials and tribulations with them, share their pain, their desires and, when the end comes, we are as complicit in it as they are.

In Batman vs Superman we struggle to tune in to the few main characters as we jump from set piece to set piece, each marking a trial and tribulation but from which we get no output or payback, so we don’t buy in. We get close to understanding the ageing Batman, but not close enough. Similarly we can see that Superman is struggling with his own world view but, again, we aren’t really allowed more than a reference to hang our empathy on.

It does feel a little like it was directed by checklist, rather than by emotion – “Show that Superman is conflicted, check. Show that Batman is determined, check” and on and on. Ultimately, I don’t really care about any of them.

Looking at other superhero movies (from Marvel) we are allowed enough time to learn without being directed, and we empathise enough to care about the characters. Marvel cleverly allowed the main characters their own movies so to bring us on the journey, so by the time Avengers Assemble rolled around we already care enough about the characters, we have a connection. They are doing the same again before each Avengers movie.

And maybe that’s where Batman vs Superman went wrong (ok, ONE OF the areas it went wrong). It was too soon. In the ‘Justice League’ universe, we’ve had one Superman movie – itself a turgid affair that was more about spending special effect budgets than creating any sense of wonder and compassion for the man in the red cape – and then we are straight into an ensemble piece featuring their two big heavyweight characters – Batman and Superman – and then everyone’s favourite Amazonian Goddess joins the fray (not to mention the three other characters we see hints of as well). She will get her own movie as well but maybe they should’ve done that one first?

Slow West was quiet at times, it used humour smartly to reduce tension, and allowed the characters to be vunerable and human. It was a subtle movie that walked you through the story and the set pieces, when they arrived, were well paced and never seemed forced. It’s a single movie, not part of a larger universe, but the same rules apply. Let us learn about the characters in isolation before you through them altogether.

To that end, and again I think Marvel have this figured out. You aren’t just filming a single movie, each movie in the universe you are recreating has to be sympathetic both of and to the others, and the character arc is just as important over three or four movies as it is within one. Why show us Wonder Woman now when we don’t know how she fits or what her motivation is? (aside from ‘she likes to fight and ‘do the right thing’).

There is one moment in Batman vs Superman (featured in the trailers as well) that hinted at the potential this series could have. A reconciled Batman and Superman stand behind a recently arrived Wonder Woman as they prepare to launch into battle. Superman turns to Batman and asks ‘is she with you?’ to which a perplexed Batman replies ‘No, I thought she was with you’.

It’s a tiny moment and the kind of thing the Marvel universe has nailed. Amid all the melee, throw in a couple of lines to let the audience pause… alas the Justice League universe looks like it will continue to focus on special effects, large set pieces and little in the way of levity.

I read the Batman vs Superman series many years ago and it was a favourite at the time. The dark world of an aged Batman confronting an ageless Superman, the comic book included many throwaway lines. The movie has ignored these, much to its loss.

So, if you get a chance stay in, fire up Netflix and watch Slow West, a wonderfully dark, odd, and beautiful movie, then come back and tell me what you thought of that ending!

The strongest art

The other night I watched Under the Skin.

It’s a movie that has been on my radar for a while now after my interest was piqued when I heard it had been filmed in Glasgow, and when I read about some of the approaches to filming – members of the public were used without being aware they were being filmed (they were told later) – and saw that it was getting such mixed reviews, I knew I wanted to see it. Unashamedly ‘art house’ in approach, the reviews had some critics referring to it as a masterpiece and referencing Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), whilst others panned it as indulgent, rambling and largely devoid of direction.

Once I got passed the culture shock of seeing the familiar locations of my home city – including one scene shot on the corner of where my office is – and settled into the movie I found I was intrigued by the pacing. At times the movie held my attention, rapt and focused on the imagery playing out before me, and at others I felt a little lost, what was the point of this scene of, largely, nothing? There are several points in the movie where there is silence and little happening onscreen.

Perhaps this was the point, a deliberate contrast to our modern world of constant distraction, at times it was startling and almost uncomfortable to behold someone doing nothing much in almost silence.

The film is, in essence, a fairly simple and straightforward story (leaving the sci-fi elements aside), but the framing, cinematography, and pacing of the movie all seems very deliberate (in this I can see the Kubrick references, the deliberate attempts to unsettle the viewer), and that is what intrigues me. Not the creation of it, but the ideas behind it, how do you pull something like that, a mixture of visuals and sound, what to show when, and why?

I am not an artist in the fantastical sense, at least I don’t feel like I have it within me. I can imagine this story, but not the visuals which feature in the movie – at least I don’t think I can, but then I’ve never tried – and it is this type of art that attracts me, the type that seems to stem from the type of imagination I don’t possess.

For example, wandering an art gallery I can appreciate the skill in a loving rendered landscape, but it is the pieces that challenge me, that don’t conform to my own world view that stay with me.

In this respect the form matters little, I remain in awe of artists who step outside of the boundaries that I seem to have, of expressing things in a way I can’t see.

Of course, my own view of art does have boundaries, they are vague, inconsistent, and aren’t something I’ve managed to pin down but they definitely exist. I challenge them as best I can, for example I still struggle with installation art that is a representation of something normal, but I’m starting to understand that everyone will view these things differently, and experiencing the art is as much of the ‘art of art’ as the item you are observing. Case in point, Miroslaw Balka’s How It Is at the Tate Modern, a large lightless box that you can walk into, sounds – in words I have used myself – a bit ‘art wank’. But experiencing it, being inside it, turning round and seeing complete and utter darkness, then turning again to see the silhouette of others in the same space, previously unseen, was a far richer and more compelling experience than I had expected. It challenged me and my perceptions about what art is, or at least what it could be.

I still struggle with some things declared as art, and as I tip-toe through these items, from interest towards intrigue, I find myself stopping at the edge of a cliff, looking out at a sea of contemporary art that leaves me cold. It doesn’t challenge me, it seems to exist only to exist, and for me that isn’t art.

Ahah! There, in the last paragraph I also nicely capture something I also dislike within the art world. The idea that one form, one display, of art is lesser than another (I am on a cliff, am I not looking down on everything else?). If all art is subjective, how can that be so? But I am speaking of my own view, my own ever-changing understanding of what art is, and what it means to me.

Over the past few years, as I’ve continued to try and push myself to explore more forms of art, I’m naturally understanding more about what it means to me. I am not one for getting up on a stage and performing, I can draw a little but have no real talent, my musical talent relies on diligent practice (which I won’t do), and whether I can write well, or not, is still undecided, but I appreciate and applaud those that can and do these things.

The question is, are they creating art whilst they do so.

Postscript

I started writing this post immediately after the film ended, with a view to revisiting it before publishing it. I awoke the next day to the sad news that David Bowie had passed away.

In musical terms he fits my artistic preferences. How do you write a song like Space Oddity? I have no earthly idea, and the world is a lesser place for his passing.

Planet Earth is blue.