Archive | July, 2014

Down the Tube with Eddie Izzard, would-be Mayor of London

31 Jul

IEddie Izzard Time Out covert’s not often you bump into movie stars on the Tube, dressed to kill in lipstick, earrings, black trouser-suit and high heels. Especially not the male ones.

But there, click-clacking just ahead of me in a tunnel underneath Oxford Circus, his broad shoulders the only clue to his real gender, is the inimitable Eddie Izzard. “Eddie,” I stop him. “Fabulous to bump into you again.” I’d met Britain’s greatest stand-up comic a few times when I was editing Time Out in the ‘90s. “I wouldn’t expect to find you down here.”

Eddie raises a quizzical eyebrow above his shades and smiles: “Well, you’ve got to be using public transport if you’re going to be running for Mayor.”

I shepherded Eddie through his first self-penned magazine piece on his transvestism, and later put him on the cover dressed in a bowler hat and single false eyelash like Alex from Clockwork Orange. But when he told me at a party that he was off to crack America, I was dismissive: they might not “get” his surreal, free-wheeling humour. Ha! He not only became a huge stand-up hit, but a Hollywood and US TV star. This year alone he’s been in several episodes of Hannibal, taken the lead in a Gilles McKinnon movie about the pioneer of Radar, acted alongside Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates in next year’s Boychoir, and joined in with his beloved Pythons on Terry Jones’s new film Absolutely Anything.

And let’s not forget that, in 2009, he completed 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief. So when he assures me now, of his political ambitions, “I’m a fighter, and we need fighters,” it’s clear that you have to look beyond the red nail polish.

“People often want a simple yes or no answer in politics,” he talks as we walk, “when the answers aren’t simple. The extremists are popular because they give simple answers, like ‘Everything will be fine if we just get out of Europe.’ But things weren’t fine before that, so why should that suddenly solve everything?”

And if Boris bows out as expected in 2016 [Update: Boris has just announced he will run for MP in 2015, standing down as Mayor in 2016], might Izzard run for Mayor then? “I couldn’t. I’ve always said it would be in 2020. I’ve spent time building this career, and anyway, politics is a fiendishly complex business and I need to learn.”

After a slight wobble on the escalator – those killer heels can be murder – we stand talking for a while above ground at Oxford Circus. “I might fuck up, at first. But the way I see it, everyone fucks up. Boris does all the time and it doesn’t hurt him; even Obama does. It’s the way you deal with your fuck-ups, your approach to fucked-up-edness, that counts.”

It’s endearingly Izzard, to coin a word like “fucked-up-edness”. It’s not a concept many politicians would admit to, let alone a term they might use. He takes off his shades, and it appears they are neither a style statement nor a disguise: he has a touch of red-eye. “I expect I’ll get raked over by the press, though, about the dress thing,” he says thoughtfully.

Really? It’s not exactly a secret. And besides, it’s a great look. In the early days Eddie resembled a trucker in drag; now he’s more Hillary Clinton than Anne Widdecombe.

“No, but apart from me, and then [the artist] Grayson Perry, there aren’t exactly many transvestite role models. That said, I did some campaigning recently in bright red lipstick, and no one turned a hair, no one mentioned it. It had to be bright red, for Labour! That was the only joke I was allowed to put in the speech,” he adds, a little ruefully.

Boris has his trademark floppy hair. Would lipstick and heels really be such a stretch for voters?

I shake Eddie’s immaculately manicured, surprisingly delicate hand, and wish him well. “Enjoy the sunshine,” he says cheerily, and strides confidently into the churning crowds of London’s busiest intersection, thin black heels clacking.

Eddie Izzard for Mayor? I was wrong about his chances once. I won’t be betting against him again.

How I held the hand that stripped Gaga naked: Zen with Marina Abramović, part two

24 Jul

Marina abramovicAfter my Zen rice-and-lentils exercise at Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours (see part one), I reenter the main room of the Serpentine Gallery quietened, cleansed, happy now to join the Art Zombies in standing stock-still by a white wall. The headphones don’t just dampen noise; they preclude any conversation. You begin to understand the Trappist monks and their vow of silence. Without speech, there is only contemplation.

But there’s more to come: one final side-room. Here, people are walking with painful and deliberate slowness, a half-step at a time, then a pause, then another half-step; either solo, or holding hands. We start joining in, but self-consciously: the non-conformist in me rebels, and I start to channel the ludicrous slow gait with which Michael Palin steps out in giant shoes at the end of the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch.

Suddenly a figure comes between us, grasping our hands. I look up: I’m holding hands with Marina Abramović herself. But her grasp is firm, rather than friendly. She looks at me in admonishment, even lets go of my hand for a second to wag her finger, no-no-no. And for two lengths of the room, incredibly slowly, until it starts to seem the most natural thing in the world to be holding hands with a globally renowned artist, she demonstrates the correct way of walking.

At last she leaves, signing that we must complete four more lengths once she’s gone. Dutifully, we complete our assigned task. And it is rewarding: freed of the pressure to arrive, the journey becomes the important thing. I become aware of my breathing; the number of steps taken to complete a length (about 60, like the seconds in a minute, the minutes in an hour); the patterns on the floor.

It reminds me of a barging weekend I took from Oxford, as a student. The boat went slowly, no more than walking pace. At first I found this irksome: it would take us an hour to reach the next village. But your internal rhythm soon slows to accommodate the external rhythm: instead of looking for important landmarks, you appreciate this bush, that tree, this leaf; the ripples on the water; the flight of a dragonfly.

I emerged from the Serpentine gallery bathed in sweat and blinking into the sun, feeling transformed. Londoners are always rushing to somewhere, never appreciating where we actually are.

And yet I still recoil at Marina Abramović’s tut-tutting disapproval at the way in which I tried to express my slow walk, in what I felt was a creative and individual manner but which was evidently deemed dangerously subversive. Worse, my companion told me afterwards that my seminal rice-and-lentil moment (see part one) was an accident: what I thought was a period of free expression, a unique reaction to a common set of objects, was, in fact, simply the result of the ushers overlooking me when I sat down. To my companion, and to other visitors, they had whispered a common and banal task: separate the grains of rice from the lentils, count them, and write the numbers on the sheet of paper. Had they instructed me likewise, I would have missed my moment of satori.

An hour at the Serpentine Gallery is heartily recommended as a crash-course in Zen. But perhaps Marina Abramović needs to learn the lessons she’s teaching.

I held the hand that stripped Gaga naked: in the Zen Zone with Marina Abramović

23 Jul
My hand-stamp for Marina Abramović at the Serpentine

My hand-stamp for Marina Abramović at the Serpentine

Standing in the queue for Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours, her interactive performance piece at the Serpentine Gallery (until Aug 25), the suspense builds. All we know is that there will be a big white space, and that in it will be the woman who stripped Lady Gaga naked for Artpop, and who made the whole of Facebook cry with her unexpected reunion after 22 years with her old lover Ulay, during her arty staring contest at MoMA entitled The Artist Is Present. [The pair had agreed to part in 1988, as only artists do, by saying goodbye in the middle of the Great Wall of China – having first walked there separately from opposite ends.]

We also know that Abramović has covered dangerous ground as a performer. In 1974 she laid some objects on a table – a rose, a feather, a whip, a knife – and allowed the audience to do to her as they wished. “They became more and more aggressive,” she said in a documentary. “They would cut my clothes. They would cut me with a knife, close to my neck, and drink my blood, and then put a plaster over the wound. They would carry me round half-naked, put me on the table and stick a knife between my legs into the wood.” [Yoko Ono predated her, mind you, with 1964’s Cut Piece, in which she invited the audience to come, one by one, and snip off a piece of her clothing with scissors.]

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Abramović has become more controlling – but more of that later.

When ushered in, we are told to place all electronic items into a locker. My companion is admonished by an assistant for keeping a watch on, and told to stow that, too. We are handed noise-cancelling headphones, which are disorientating at first: I find it difficult to breathe; I feel I am having a panic attack. I calm down when I work out what’s wrong. The noiselessness has tapped into a childhood phobia of sharks: the blocking of the ears is the same as you experience underwater.

All around us, people are standing still, like Art Zombies, or tone-deaf participants in a Silent Disco: arms by their sides, some with eyes closed, some standing on a cross-shaped stage in the centre. It’s an absurd scene. I can’t yet relate. It’s not until I try the side-room that I start to get into the Zen zone.

The room is filled with old wooden school desks. On each, a pile of rice and green lentils. Beside that, a pencil and paper. This seems like a wonderful exercise. I see one person carefully sorting the rice and the lentils into separate piles; another constructing an elaborate pattern in green and white. I contemplate mine, wondering what my reaction to the challenge will be, until it dawns on me that the pile looks like a volcano – an erupted Mount Fuji, with the rice as its snowy peak and the green lentils as gigantic boulders and streams of lava.

My imagination catches fire as I write down on the piece of paper what I am seeing. This bonsai volcano is a mini-catastrophe, a tiny cataclysm, and the striped black grains in the wood of the table suddenly seem like a city of toppled skyscrapers laid low. Beyond it, on the scorched earth of the table’s orange plain, is a whorl of wood grain extending outwards in concentric ovals – the epicentre of a bomb blast, or the eye of some apocalyptic storm.

The whole becomes to me a mini-metaphor for all the disasters that have befallen Japan and by extension the world, both natural and man-made – the atomic bombs, the earthquakes, the tidal waves, the nuclear plant gone awry. By looking at them in miniature it becomes, counter-intuitively, finally possible to comprehend their unimaginable magnitude – and, in so doing, to understand all the other natural disasters and the ravages of war that seem too epic to grasp. The misery and deaths of thousands and millions can be wished away simply by changing the TV channel, whereas one would never ignore a single person bleeding and dying on one’s doorstep. In fully understanding the micro, you can appreciate the macro. Or, as the old Zen parable has it, to understand the tree, first you must contemplate the leaf.

… Come back tomorrow for Part Two, in which Marina Abramović tells me off, and holds my hand.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: this is Andy’s Serkis, and these are his monkeys

18 Jul

Caesar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There’s a useful Polish expression currently doing the rounds on Facebook: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means, “Nothing to do with me, mate.”

Having seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, this is very much the Andy Serkis Circus, and boy, are these his monkeys. His portrayal of the ape leader, Caesar, is one of the wonders of the modern age. There are a very few films which hit you as a step-change in cinematic special effects: the first rumble of engines and long slow pan across a great spaceship in Star Wars; the liquid-metal morphing technology of Terminator 2;  the 3D animation of Toy Story.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, so much more than Avatar or even Andy Serkis’s star turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is digital film-making’s breakthrough moment: the first moment a computer-generated character has truly emerged from the “uncanny valley” to appear fully real. It’s the eyes, famously the windows to the soul, that usually give the game away. Caesar’s are brooding, expressive, filled with wisdom and pain. The final shot, which zooms in on them, is one of the great climactic close-ups in film history: up there with Robert De Niro’s smile in Once Upon A Time In America.

It helps, perhaps, that the human cast are (deliberately?) so godawfully dull, aside from Gary Oldman’s obligatory blockbuster turn. The apes can’t help seeming more alive in comparison. But huge plaudits go not just to the special effects boffins, but to Andy Serkis’s mo-cap (motion-capture) performance. His Caesar, head permanently cocked to one side to indicate thought, is noble in restraint, terrifying in anger. When he speaks, it sends shivers up the spine.

Serkis’s reward is to direct a mo-cap movie of The Jungle Book, and to spark a debate about whether mo-cap actors should be eligible for an Oscar. How long before they get their own special category, as the Academy has now done with animated films?

The new folk hero: Al Joshua’s showcase gig at Ronnie Scott’s

14 Jul

Al Joshua press picAl Joshua, who plays a showcase gig at Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs on Tuesday (July 15) that you’d be foolish to miss, is one of the cleverest, funniest, charmingest, bolshiest, stubbornnest people I’ve met. He had a promising music career and strong cult following a few years back as Orphans & Vandals, but has been out of the limelight for a while – working on new songs, and writing the screenplay for Set The Thames On Fire, a dystopian sci-fi buddy movie directed by Ben Charles Edwards which finished shooting a couple of months ago.

A few years is a long time in the music biz. Al’s comeback gig at the Notting Hill Arts Club a few weeks back was attended only by his new manager and a few friends.

Yet it was one of the most mesmerising gigs I have witnessed.

How to describe Al’s songs? There’s a dash of Tom Waits, a sprinkling of Bob Dylan. But they sound raw and fresh and achingly lovely. Though delivered by just one man with a guitar sitting on a stool with a black rapscallion hat perched on his ginger hair, they don’t seem retro at all. These are songs of loss and longing, distinguished by a rare linguistic dexterity. Songs to be listened to. And, in typically stubborn defiance of the conventional wisdom about attention spans getting shorter, they’re mostly about ten minutes long. You wouldn’t want them any shorter.

Al’s signature tune, perhaps, is I Love You Madly. You can play it on Soundcloud here, but it’s especially hypnotic live – the phrase, when it comes, repeated again and again in urgent but subtly different ways like a mania, a mantra, a plea, a prayer.

His manager, an industry veteran with a strong track record, told me after the gig that he had had no desire to take Al on. He didn’t exactly seem like the most commercially lucrative prospect. But then he heard the songs… “And damn him, I just couldn’t not say yes.”

Click here for discounted tickets to Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs on July 15.

 

How I blew $1,111 in 30 minutes: the World Series of Poker 2014

9 Jul
The Pavilion tournament room at the World Series of Poker 2014. Big as it is, it's just one of several rooms.

The Pavilion tournament room at the World Series of Poker 2014. Big as it is, it’s just one of several rooms.

Day 3 of the World Series of Poker Main Event starts today at the Rio casino in Las Vegas. One of the greatest prizes in sport awaits the eventual winner: a cool $10 million, with a further $52,820,200 to be distributed amongst the top 693 players.

And I could have been among them.

I entered the $1,111 Little One For One Drop charity tournament last week in hopes of taking anything up to the $637,000 first prize, and buying my way into the Main Event. Instead I exited in the most ignominious fashion: just 30 minutes into a four-day tournament.

Oops.

Here’s how it happened. With blinds still just 25-25 on a starting stack of 4,000, I limp in with pocket eights. I don’t want to raise from early position; I’m happy instead to call a small raise in the hopes of catching a set on the flop. There’s another limp to my left; a raise to 125 to his left; one more caller; and me.

Perfect. That’s 500 in the pot, the start of a decent payout should I hit my 1 in 8 chance of an eight.

Instead I get an ‘interesting’ flop: 567, with two hearts. Pretty great. I have a pocket overpair, and an open-ended straight draw.

In retrospect, I should probably have checked, and then either called or re-raised any raise. Instead I bet 425, to punish any flush draw, discourage overcards hoping to hit, and maximise my win should I hit a straight. My mistake immediately becomes apparent when the pre-flop limper to my left re-raises to 1,250. The next two fold to me.

What does my re-raiser have? A pair, even an overpair, is very unlikely to bet so confidently on that board. A flush draw would flat-call, not wanting to push out the other two players. So this can only be two pair, trips, or a made straight. On the last possibility, however, I have some insider info: I hold two of the 8s, which makes it statistically less likely he has 8-9. Two pair is possible, but would he really be in the pot, even limping, with two small cards? Maybe, but a small pocket pair, giving him trips, is more likely.

Either way, my pocket pair is beat, and I should probably fold. If I call, I’ll get to see only one more card before I get re-raised all-in. But then I have a straight draw, and he doesn’t. More importantly, I could have a made straight, for all he knows. If I re-raise all in, will he really risk his whole stack, so early in a four-day tournament, when he could be up against the nut straight?

I convince myself that he is likely to fold to an all-in raise, giving me a quick profit of 2,000. And if he doesn’t, well, I still have a 1 in 3 chance of making my straight, giving me a profit of 4,725.

I didn’t fly 6,000 miles to be pushed around. It’s a big tournament, but I’ll rise to the challenge. I square my shoulders, look him in the eye, push my chips all-in…

And he insta-calls. Oops.

He turns over 8-9. The stone-cold nuts.

Like I say. Ooooops.

I tell this story to a pro at a cash table the next day, asking what he would have done. He says dismissively: ‘Of course you fold.’

Yes, of course I fold. There’s four days in this tournament. You don’t have to take risks. I could kiss goodbye the 550 I’d invested in the hand, and still have plenty of chips with at these low blind levels which to sit back and wait all day for pocket aces.

Then again, if I had been correct in my initial calculation, if he had had either two pair or trips, I actually would have won the hand. I didn’t make the straight, but my third 8 came on the river.

So which am I: an excessively macho risk-taker, over-used to the high-pressure cash games at London’s Hippodrome casino? Or a calculated risk-taker, coolly unafraid to jeopardise his stack for an early win with which to dominate the table?

What would your strategy have been?

Have your say in Comments, below.

Dominic writes about poker at www.cardspiel.com

Still fab at 50: the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night

8 Jul

John Lennon snorts Coke in A Hard Day's Night

John Lennon snorts Coke in A Hard Day’s Night

Fifty years after it was first made, A Hard Day’s Night has hardly dated a bit. Currently in revival at BFI Southbank and other selected cinemas, Richard Lester’s madcap pseudo-documentary about two days in the lives of the Fab Four was heavily inspired by Godard and the French New Wave: hand-held camera, jump cuts, speeded up film. It itself influenced other swinging sixties films, inspired the Monkees, and invented a new visual grammar that would become the pop video.

The film does have a farcical sort-of-plot in which Paul’s ‘grandfather’, played by Steptoe & Sons’ Wilfrid Brambell, stirs up trouble, running up debts in casinos, and undermining Ringo’s confidence until he goes AWOL just before a live TV performance. But what really keeps it fresh is the Beatles’ easy, breezy charm. Liverpudlian playwright Alun Owen, who received an Oscar nomination for the script, spent several days hanging out with the boys and included a number of their own lines.

It feels improvised, with John Lennon taking the lion’s share of the witticisms – though Ringo, who came up with the title A Hard Day’s Night (the song was then written overnight to go with it), has the best, which again was taken from real life. In one scene, the Beatles are asked inane questions by plummy-voiced journalists. “Do you consider yourself a mod or a rocker?” Ringo is asked. “I’m a mocker,” answers Ringo, deadpan.

And the real hysteria on the faces of their legions of fans – mostly girls, but also young boys – as they chase their idols through the streets, literally falling over themselves in their desperation, or weep tears of bewildered adoration throughout the gig, is an unforgettable sight.

I was a child of the Beatles (um, not literally). My babysitter was an original Beatlemaniac who would play their music over and over while I was in my crib; she carried with her at all times a hallowed sod of turf on which their Cuban heels had trod. Theirs was the only rock/pop music in the house when I was growing up, or that I had any access to until the age of ten. I still know every word to every song, and can sing along to any individual instrumental part: it helped that our stereo, for a while, had only one working speaker. When you plugged it in one way, you would get, say, bass and drums; the other way, guitar and vocals. I’d have to play an album twice over and reconstitute it in my head to get the full effect.

So perhaps I’m not the most impartial judge of A Hard Day’s Night. Take it instead from Village Voice, which called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals”.