Culture | Monocle

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How did we behave before TV and cinema arrived?

Fiction on screen has taught us everything, from how to love to how to fight. Now there’s no way of turning back, so just try to remember your lines.

By Robert Bound

Good manners, bad manners, fights, gangsterism, arguments, the delivery of good news, the delivery of bad news, a doctor’s bedside manner, hooliganism, flirtation, argument, drinking, smoking, cooking, fucking. How would you know how to do these things without being shown how by the TV, or a century of films? All right, so most of the above are fairly natural, normal things that most people will enact at some point in their lives (most: I only learned hooliganism and gangsterism after becoming Monocle’s culture editor – a doctor’s bedside manner is, literally, an occupational hazard), but how much has our delivery changed, our portrayal moulded by the fictionalisation of these behaviours on screen?

We know how the other half live, love and collide from watching Gosford Park and lapping up Lady Chatterley’s Lover. They teach us the appropriate, fecund gruffness and just the right amount of shackled reticence with which to speak one of the dialects of the language of love. Next time we get it on, in the walled garden of a country pile or not, we will adjust our lust accordingly.

How many fights have you been in? How many have you even seen? In the world of westerns, it only takes a cowboy from outta town to spit on someone else’s patch to kick off a bar brawl: fists pummelling, arms windmilling, elbows cracking jawbone. This is our understanding of fighting – the amusing, violent fiction of crafty gunslingers and burly ranch-handlers beating seven shades of shit out of each other while a tack piano jangles away in the corner.

When things are depicted as they used to be in real life, we find them quaint, funny and fictional. The fight scene between Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver and Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy is the redeeming feature of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Two middle-aged, middle-class men in suits overwhelmed by lustful anger and passionate fury, unable to translate it into harm unto the other. It’s what fighting was like before Dirty Harry, Tyler Durden, Barry Lyndon.

As acting has become more naturalistic, more Stanislavski, our real-life behaviour has become more stylised, more kabuki. We know that romance is best conducted in the style of Rhett Butler, that Gordon Gekko invented brokers’ gittish behaviour, and all around us we hear a generation of 20-year-olds employing up-speak aped from Australian soaps and The OC. We’re forever playing Hamlet: taking on the role as our own but unable to resist referencing or copying centuries of actors who played the Dane.

We have been painting with perspective since the 15th century, and can’t go back to Bayeux without changing the tapestry. Of course, some of us haven’t been paying attention, acting like we’re in that prelapsarian Eden – fighting clumsily, smoking without insouciance, kissing like camels. Sorry. Sometimes we even write like cavemen.


Children’s: Anna & the Witch’s Bottle

Geoff Cox The inaugural project of publisher and record label Black Maps is filled with mystical animals, ice-cold old ladies and sad-faced dog waiters. The limited-edition title features stunning illustrations by Rohan Daniel Eason and comes with a CD by Martin Rebelski of Doves. Magical.

Short stories: The Dog of the Marriage

Amy Hempel In this collection, which comprises the writer’s entire literary output published so far, Hempel delivers a masterclass in minimalism. Her stories are frequently, eminently quotable, peppered with a wry humour, and steer clear of the flashier verbal pyrotechnics of many of her male peers. They achieve, through a detached observation and eye for the killer detail, the resounding lyrical ring of inexpressible reality.

Photography: Zero Yen Houses

Kyohei Sakaguchi
Sakaguchi illustrates how Japan’s famously well-behaved homeless are unwittingly talented and resourceful architects. His photographic portraits of down-and-out hotspots including Shinjuku’s Chuo Park include a tarpaulin home on wheels (easy to move when a city officials turn up) and a pop-up house integrated into a kid’s playground where the entrance is a slide.

Fiction: Generation A

Douglas Coupland
Rather than a play on Generation X getting old and losing their hearing – Generation Eh? – Coupland’s newie is named for a writerly diss from a fellow laureate of zeitgeist-surfing, Kurt Vonnegut. It’s the first in a novel crammed with contemporary references that follows five young-ish-sters as they negotiate post-modern life in dry non-sequiturs. They explore the no-man’s land between artless and arch in conversations that one imagines might simply be eavesdroppings on the cool and deluded of Williamsburg transcribed into novel form. Coupland’s radar is rust-free; form refound.

Reportage: Long Story Bit by Bit; Liberia Retold

Tim Hetherington
Tall, gentle, white – it can’t have been easy for photographer Tim Hetherington to move unnoticed in civil-war torn Liberia. This remarkable collection of colour plates and text retells the nation’s twisted, brutal recent history with an attachment often missing from war-addicted reportage junkies. And it’s a story with a happy-ish ending: the arrival of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Liberian leader who doesn’t rule with swagger or a gun barrel.


Pop: Titiyo

Hidden about sums it up. This, Titiyo’s first record since 2001, is something of a comeback for one of Sweden’s formerly omnipresent chanteuses. Musically, she’s turned back the clocks, too – blocky, simple synths, looping bass and close-mic vocals nuzzle up to bright, white-room production, like Portishead auditioning for the Eurythmics. Titiyo is on icy but breathlessly romantic form on a record that’s a shower and a grower.

Alt-rock: Girls

Many a cool cat’s been gazing at his winkle-pickers and weeping along to standout track Hellhole Ratrace since it wild-fired through the web in the summer. And why not? It’s naïve and beautiful. Album is, mostly, as wantonly unproduced and touchingly honest as that great first song. Musically, the San Francisco duo sound like a hazy Kurt Cobain covering Everly Brothers and Brian Wilson songs at a party on Zuma beach.

Indie: The Hidden Cameras

Origin: Orphan
If the best Toronto indie bands were a trio of superheroes, Arcade Fire would play tough-but-troubled Batman, Broken Social Scene would be sexy, impossible-to-live-with Storm. The Hidden Cameras, though super, have more than a hint of Clark Kent’s charming specs-appeal. This, their fourth, mixes synth-pop with furrow-browed rock; strumalongs, ballads, irresistible rhythms, playful harmonies. It’s stunningly inventive.

Three more Monocle shortcuts:

The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
Oklahoma’s finest experimental space-rock trio stay strangely accessible on double album of high-concept, high-falutin’ and actual flute playing. MGMT and Karen O lend hands and voices.

Various artists,
Ciao My Shining Star
Mark Mulcahy is a songwriter’s songwriter which is why you haven’t heard of him but have those covering him here, including Thom Yorke and Michael Stipe.

Various artists,
Ghana Special 1968-81
Timely, inspired cuts from a crucible of jazz, big bands, afrobeat and reworked reggae that’s best turned on only if present company are happy to shake booty ’til dawn.


Contemporary: Urs Fischer, Marguerite de Ponty

New Museum, New York, 28 October until 24 January 2010

More of an immersive experience than an art show (curator Massimiliano Gioni is calling it an “introspective”), Urs Fischer’s upcoming exhibition at the New Museum will be the most ambitious project yet staged at the fledgling gallery. The artist, who was born in Zürich and lives in New York, will be the first to take over all three floors of the space. His abstract, dynamic work—which examines the process of making and the very essence of materials—will form unique environments for viewers to lose themselves in. Think huge aluminum sculptures, a labyrinth made from 50 chrome steel boxes silk-screened with images sourced from more than 25,000 photographs, and an effigy of Ashanti (yes, the R&B singer), and you’re on the right track.


Drama: Goodbye Solo

Dir: Ramin Bahrani Idealistic black cabbie looking to better himself meets grumpy old white guy looking to kill himself; redemption looms. If this were Hollywood, Will and Clint, let’s say, would likely drown us in schmaltz. That this is in fact a beautifully played and intriguing neorealistic drama, from Iranian-American writer-director Ramin Bahrani, is both a delight and a welcome reminder of how small-scale on the big screen can hit the hardest.

Drama: The White Ribbon

Dir: Michael Haneke Through a sympathetic young narrator, Haneke’s eye settles on a rural German village in the years preceding the First World War. A gruff baron and stiff-collared pastor exert feudal control over a countryside populated by malice, envy, hate, revenge, fear. The doctor is tripped from his horse, children are tortured, barns set on fire. It’s The Crucible and Heimat and a whodunit; there’s gripping and beautiful gothic in Haneke’s vision of the bucolic.

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