Tuesday, January 15, 2013

McCullin directed by Jacqui Morris ~ the only non-victim female featured in this candid retrospective ~ is on limited release so I was really glad it came to Bristol Watershed. Here's the whole story in pictures, from the 60s London teenage gangs that fast-laned him to big commissions to the revelations about Christian Phalangist atrocities in Palestine that got him banned from covering UK action in the Faulklands. "War is madness, mostly insanity and the rest is schizophrenia" says McCullin looking back on his three decades of photojournalism, "I became totally mad, running round like a tortured animal." Even as a self-confessed war-junkie he loathed the implicit voyeurism of his role and resisted both sentimentality and glorification in his war images. Howard Evans, his Sunday Times editor, says simply "He was conscience with a camera. He used his sensitivity to make people wake up." Courage and compassion aside, his photographs show extraordinary artistry. He speaks of intuiting a Gaudi moment of grief, of the Hogarthian imagery he found on Skid Row, and reveals moments of bizarre beauty as well as inconceivable brutality. In this chronological documentary we saw film footage from every major war-zone of the last fifty years but, painfully evocative though these moving images are, it's Don McCullin's stills which grab the soul of the experience ~ the horror, poignancy, bravery, and futility of armed conflict.
"Do you ever have nightmares?"
"Only in the day, remembering."
Way back before alleged 'compassion fatigue' decimated this genre, magazine images from Magnum photographers literally papered the walls of my first home and a 1982 assignment for Camera gave me a chance to interview Chris Steele-Perkins, whose sensational pictures of El Salvador were making ripples across Sunday morning breakfast-tables. He lived in Brixton, quite near where I grew up. Like McCullin, he seemed unconvinced of the value of photojournalism in conflict but in one hesitant moment he spoke of an 'illusion' that his witness might stop the fighting as something he carried around with him 'in a thimble'. Even more exciting than meeting Chris was the letter he sent me afterwards: "I just wanted to let you know I thought you managed to make a more articulate statement of my turgid ramblings than I had expected. So thanks, it's nice not to be hyped or turned into an equipment freak or a bullshitter or whatever fate often lies after an interview." That letter's in the scrapbook of things I'd save from a burning building.

To end on a different beat, it's time for Hatchet Job of the Year, the award that brings a deep breath of relief to every published writer unnamed and a bit of a giggle to all unpublished too. Perhaps the most scathing of the winning reviews is by Ron Charles in The Washington Post, finding  Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis a "ham-fisted novel" that "quickly falls apart.. as Amis's class mockery curdles and we’re left with a misanthropic vision of human suffering...  The problem is really one of initiative, even effort. Amis seems unwilling to exert more effort than it would take to change channel... serving up blanched stereotypes on the silver platter of his prose. “You go numb,” Lionel tells his nephew.  Halfway through, persistent readers will feel the same way."
The best of bad reviews, of course, rise sublimely above their source. Who now remembers that Dorothy Parker's sassy put-down This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly ~ it should be thrown with great force was inspired by Mussolini’s The Cardinal's Mistress?  And though it's amusing to see our own prejudices supported, no writer can evade the candour of subjectivity: Samuel Pepys found Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." Still, I'd take fairies over class snobbery any night.

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