Why “great” is good for all of us

Friday night comes dressed in black and ready to party. He stands around waiting for you to finish work, kicking his heels and nodding his head to the skittery electronica that echoes around the chambers of his vivid mind. He’s wearing a flouncy white shirt like Percy Shelley and a red cravat is wound like a sexy noose around his neck. His black velvet trousers cling tightly to his legs so we see clearly the outline of a box of marlboro lights, a lighter and a roll of crisp banknotes squeezed into the length of his none-too-capcacious pockets. These trousers were not tailored for idiotic things like comfort or practicality; these trousers were tailored to kill, to slay the admiring dance-floor audiences rammed like protons into the atomic centre of the dingiest, sexiest bars that Soho can muster.

Friday night greets you with a handshake, smiles like a young Humphrey Bogart before leading you to the nearest pub for a couple of swift gins as prelude to a night of glory and wonder as you and the city smash into each other with the intensity of sub-atomic particles fired from the Large Hadon collider. You will burn phosphorous and ephemeral, perfect and fleeting; a night in which the hinterland between pleasure and pain becomes as irrelevant as that between day and night, good and bad. And then somewhere in an imagined realm, in the flat white light of a winter Saturday, Friday night will give you a wink, light a thousandth cigarette and step into the distance and be gone. Not to be seen again for another six days . . . . . . . .

Either that or you buy some chocolate, sit on the sofa and watch documentaries on BBC4.

You can probably guess which direction my Friday night took. And I don’t regret it for a moment. After all domestic duties had been successfully discharged, the pull of the television became too great and given that we are waiting for a friend to HURRY UP with Series 3 of Mad Men (which might just be the greatest television series since the West Wing) we were forced to contemplate the increasingly rare spectacle of live, scheduled television. And what a depressingly sparse spectacle it was: the televisual equivalent of a Eastern-block skyline in the early 70s; pillars of Soviet concrete against a smog of environmental chaos. We are always pretty smug in the UK about the quality of our television (and there is no doubt that the publicly-funded, advert-free BBC remains one of the cultural wonders of the world) but for every “Doctor Who” there is a “One Show”; for every “Sherlock” there is “ROOM FUCKING 101”. I feel dirty just thinking about it. So after a week of long, busy days it took a bit of searching to find something to soothe, to embrace, to whisper sweet-nothings in my ear rather than driving me to rage around the sitting room and hurl furniture through the nearest window, which being a flat in London is pretty near indeed.

Thank goodness for BBC4. If you don’t live in the UK, just imagine a firm, be-towled masseur of your preferred gender running his or her hands across your weary shoulders, easing tension from your joints with majestic ease, all the while singing you versions of your favourite songs that actually improve upon the originals. Think of all that in a television channel and that’s BBC4.

Friday 9.00pm. Stuart Maconie explores how the Beatles changed from leather and slicked back hair to suits and Beatle mops, and how their fashion set the pace for the sixties to follow. Pop artist Sir Peter Blake, Bob Harris and former Beatles drummer Pete Best join friends to reflect on how the Beatles evolved into John, Paul, George and Ringo – the most famous band in the world . . .

Oh god, yes please. Yes PLEASE.

But I arrived at the sofa about twenty minutes early and BBC4 was already doing what it does so effortlessly well. I sometimes think that arriving midway through a television programme is a social faux-pas and that the people on the screen are going to stop, stare at me and gently shake their heads at my lamentable tardiness (I clearly have some mental issues that need addressing) but barging into this particular moment of this particular programme was more like walking in on a friend as they were in the latter stages of lovemaking with a soft and sensitive partner.

The screen was filled with a bearded man in profile, clearly in a state of emotional agitation. Initially I thought he was in pain but as the scene continued it became clear that he was actually in a near-euphoric state of pleasure. You could almost see his soul swelling as he sat. He was listening to a piece of music by the composer Delius (this one, if you are interested in some soul-swelling of your own) and the effect it was having on him was moving even to watch. And because this was BBC4 we were allowed to do just that: watch, with no cuts or crossfades or adverts.

Delius reverie 2

As the piece reached a climax and the tears welled in his eyes, he falteringly spoke:

you can feel yourself looking up, in ecstasy really . . .and the overwhelming beauty and grandeur and glory of the high hills . . . . I just find it completely overwhelming . . . 

This was a man in love. A love that had grown and matured over a lifetime and one that moved him to his very core. And this is what great art does. It moves us. It sends us spinning to places of wonder and awe; it consols us, upsets us, challenges us and rewards us. Great art reminds us that we are inescapably human but with qualities and abilities that are approaching the divine.

(Either that or consciousness is just a series of chemical reactions and electrical signals that we have learnt to interpret as meaningful but are actually random and  vacant.

That’s a happy thought. If it is a thought. Which it might not be.)

And “great” art can be Delius or Rembrant, it can be Goddard or Truffaut but it can also be Speilberg and Michael Bay (actually it can never be Michael Bay). There is no such this as high and low culture, there is only good and bad. And we are all arbiters of our own tastes and we’re never all going to agree and that’s just how it should be. Whether you would fight with bare-fisted violence to support The Seventh Seal as an example of cinematic mastery or whether you think there has been no more poetic rendering of the moving image than the scene in Zoolander when they cover each other with petrol (and I would support you wholeheartedly in this argument) then the fact that you care enough to have an opinion, the fact that it has been made in the first place means that the world is a slightly better place as a result.

(But I am right about Michael Bay).

In a clunky, pretentious way I tried to make this point in the screenplay for Sliced, mine and Jimmy’s first film as “Long Arm“. The main character in the story is a painter, a very unhappy, screwed up painter and so it seemed logical that the woman who he meets in the film should make a point about “art”.

And this is what she said:

Great art, no, all art is transformative. But the best stuff takes you somewhere else entirely. Somewhere better. You’re making the tiniest mark in the record of human life. So small usually that no one ever notices. But it’s there. And it’s permanent. And we’re all made better as a result.

Except she didn’t say it at all because my astute and incisive collaborator said that “it was a bit too much”. What he actually meant to say was that “it was a bit shit” and clearly he was right. However, I stand by the sentiment if not the somewhat glutenous rendering of it that I achieved in the actual speech.

For the film fan, greatness is also about the experience as much as it’s about the text. There is something magical about the combination of light and sound, something unmatchable about sitting in a dark room and being led through a million different lives and wonders. And it really is not about theories it is just about the pleasure. However, art does have a habit of synchronicity, of coincidence and inadvertent significance. I have been reading a book recently on the history of film and there is much praise for the achievements of Georges Méliès (as played recently by Ben Kingsley in Scorcese’s admirable but ultimately disappointing film “Hugo”). And really nothing does suggest the wonder of moving imagery as naively and movingly as this famous film:

And now jump forward over a hundred years and a photographer in New Zealand spends an enormous amount of money on equipment (including a MASSIVE lens) beyond even Méliès’ imagination and films the moon rising across a valley near Wellington. He captures in real time both the ascent of the moon and the silhouettes of those who’ve gathered to watch. It is not spontaneous, it has all been planned and layered with lilting piano music to bring the whole thing together as a text – we are of course being manipulated – but the results are absolutely stunning and it makes you fall in love with the whole crazy business of pointing a camera towards a subject all over again. 

Great art. Showing now on a sofa near you.