Tag Archives: exhibition

Spam’s off: Viking set menu at the Great Court Restaurant

6 Mar

Further to my blog about how the metrosexual Vikings at the British Museum exhibition are at odds with their screen portrayals, I have further evidence. After my tour, I had lunch in the revamped Great Court Restaurant — new and quietly improved by the architects Softroom, with the previously echoing sound cleverly dampened by a canopy and mosaic floor. I found its Viking Set Menu quite at odds with what Hollywood encourages you to expect.

No flagons of mead; no gigantic drinking horns; no rending sheep limb from limb and chucking the bones in a heap. Instead, I had a starter of nettle soup, with chopped egg and chive; a main course of guinea fowl (rabbit was off) in a mead reduction; and for dessert, blossom honey cheesecake in a ligonberry compote.

I had no idea the Vikings feasted on blossom honey cheesecake in a ligonberry compote, but there it is in the British Museum, so it must be true. More plausible, perhaps, is the other dessert: roast plums and ice cream. Maybe not the ice cream part, but you can certainly imagine the Vikings roasting their enemies’ plums, which is precisely why I politely declined  that dish.

The final blow to the Vikings’ macho screen image was the assembled company. Directly behind me, Sir Richard Rogers (under Norman Foster’s roof!) was intently talking business with a table of architects. As a result of a certain television programme, I was expecting the restaurant to be full instead of men in horned helmets dining on, and singing about, spam, spam, spam, wonderful spam.

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The British Museum’s metrosexual Vikings are no good for Hollywood

6 Mar

Swords and skeletons! Giant longships and hoards of coins! Sorcerers’ staffs and, er, chess pieces! Today is the opening of the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum. I write about my guided tour from the curator in the International Business Times (click to read), as well as the cover feature in Where London magazine.

One of the sad things about getting better educated about the Vikings is what that does to the films I love. [There is a commendably obsessive website that reviews every Viking-related film ever made, right down to Roger Corman’s best-forgotten The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957). Try sticking that on a cinema marquee in huge type.] The Vikings weren’t all about warfare, despite their scarily filed teeth and weird hair (shaved at the back, long at the front). They were traders, settlers, explorers, farmers. And, worst of all, they were rather picky about their grooming.

Far from being the football hooligans and punk rockers of the Middle Ages, they were in fact the metrosexuals. Contemporaries disapproved of their excessive cleanliness in washing every Saturday. Archaeological digs keep unearthing combs, tweezers, and ear spoons for removing wax – there is a gold one in the exhibition. They even dyed their hair blond. Thor, on the other hand, had red hair, despite what Chris Hemsworth would have you believe, so bang goes the Marvel franchise.

Still, we can at least look forward to the TV miniseries of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which though no longer with HBO was picked up last month by FremantleMedia. The facts can’t argue with an out-and-out fantasy.

The book cleverly posits that the powers of gods are in direct proportion to the fervour of worship they receive. Thus Odin, having sailed across to America with the Viking explorers at the turn of the first millennium, finds himself in the present day with greatly diminished powers, performing magical parlour tricks, as he wanders the land with other forgotten gods from Egypt and elsewhere.

And as to whether the Vikings really sat around the table singing about spam, I also ate the Viking Set Menu at the Great Court Restaurant: see here.

Inside David Cronenberg’s brain

19 Jan
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Me in a ‘borrowed’ lab coat, inspecting David Cronenberg’s POD brain implant at the TIFF Evolution exhibition in Toronto

I have seen David Cronenberg’s brain. Or rather, its POD (Personal On Demand) implant, preserved in a glass jar along with hundreds of other PODs, glowing red. It’s part of Evolution, an extraordinary exhibition I visited a couple of weeks ago at Toronto’s glorious new TIFF centre devoted to the great Canadian film-maker.

A lab-coated technician on the fourth floor explained: “We’re working on an implantation system similar to [Cronenberg’s film] Existenz. Members of the public have been going online and answering questions, teaching the computer programme to become more like them so it implants better. Once done, we 3D-print the PODs, all different, put them in a jar, and then in a big ceremony we’ll implant them into the back of their skulls. They’re like a pacemaker for the brain.”

Just as in many of Cronenberg’s films, it’s hard to know where reality ends and fantasy begins in this exhibition. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Canada so I have a patriotic affinity, or maybe it’s because I saw Scanners at an impressionable age AND THEIR HEADS EXPLODE, but I’ve seen every Cronenberg film as it comes out; he’s one of only about ten directors whose movies I will see without question, regardless of review. So there’s a real thrill of recognition when walking round the exhibits.

Here is the Ducati 450 Desmo RT motorcycle cylinder that inspired the design of The Fly’s telepod, with “cockroach colour” paint to finish the job. Here are the gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women from Dead Ringers, which in 1988 caused my companion to leave the screening and be physically sick in the Ladies’ toilets. Other exhibits have titles such as “Stage 3 Torso for Parasitic Twin Puppet”, or “Studies for Two-Headed Mutant Amphibian, In Four Parts”, or “Jeremy Irons Ear Moulds”.

There are a couple of framed fan letters to the director: “Saw The Fly – loved it – found it deeply moving – when you’re in town again please call.” This was from Martin Scorsese (his name misspelled as “Scorcese” on the caption, naughty TIFF). “The Crash script is brilliant – it’s even more frightening than the book.” This was from Jim (J.G.) Ballard.

In the centre of it all is a video room in which Cronenberg describes the leap from being a writer to a director in his twenties: “I literally looked up ‘camera’ and ‘lens’ in an encyclopaedia.” His 1975 horror film Shivers provoked a heated debate in the House of Commons, as it was funded by taxpayers’ money. Two decades later, the UK release of Crash was delayed for a year while the BBFC havered over its future; I travelled to Paris to see it, loved it, and put it on the cover of Time Out. Even after release it was arbitrarily banned by some local councils. As if it would encourage cinema-goers to crash their cars for a sexual thrill.

Cronenberg is, bizarrely, almost a mainstream director these days. The likes of Eastern Promises or A Dangerous Method are hardly blockbusters, but they don’t quite have the singular vision of old. This quote about The Fly helps illustrate why: “This is a movie about two eccentric people who fall in love,” says Cronenberg, “and the man contracts a terrible wasting disease. She watches, unable to help him, until she helps him to commit suicide. You would never get that made as a mainstream movie, it’s too dark, too depressing; but it’s protected by the genre.”  

Now, as a grand old man of 70, with a Cannes lifetime achievement award, the Légion d’Honneur and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, an Officer of the Order of Canada and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he can pretty much make any type of damn film he pleases.

But I still like to think of him as the guy whose brain implant sits in a glass jar, glowing red.

Evolution ended on Jan 19, but they will soon be putting online an ambitious Virtual Exhibition. See http://tiff.net/cronenberg/museum.