Another year, another McLaren. The Film Festival's annual prize for the best new British animation has always been an audience favourite, as we get to see lots of cartoons and vote on which one is best. This year there are three 90 minute programmes of films to vote on, but it looks like I'll only get to see the first one.
This collection has a bit of a Scottish bias, with only three of the films identified as coming from England. As the voting process requires you to only rate your top three, I suggest out loud to The Belated Birthday Girl at the start that we just vote for the English ones straight off to save time. For some reason, I am stared at. Anyway, my amusingly ironic racism comes back to haunt me, as two of those English films are terrible. It's always too easy to go for the entertaining shorts rather than the artistic ones, but Delusion's admittedly accomplished technique is allied to a story that would barely work as a video game cut scene, while Rosabelle Believe can't even boast technique. A wholly incomprehensible meditation on the life of Houdini, though you wouldn't know that unless you read the programme notes, or at least knew the Kate Bush song.
Typically most of the McLaren nominees come from art colleges, and the general problem with these tends to be the one that Delusion has: they look great visually, but haven't really got much to offer a general audience beyond that. So in the end it's the most entertaining pieces that get my three votes. Third place goes to Furry Story, a wickedly energetic computer animation from Jason Robertson about a little girl, her estranged parents, and the ultra-violent imaginary goblin who appears from nowhere to sort out her problems. Second comes Simon by Douglas Neilson: a technically crude tale of a boy whose head turns into a balloon on his eighth birthday, enlivened by reckless imagining of the consequences of this and a beautifully deadpan William Burroughs-style narration. Best of all is The Trinket Maker, a charming little love story by Paul Daley. Touching and funny, and with a level of visual detail that leaves you uncertain if you're watching model animation, CGI or some combination of the two.
After some preparation in a rather nice Japanese restaurant on the Lothian Road (oh, you'll find it if you look), the next port of call is the Garage, traditionally the home of Japanese arts on the Fringe. It's amusing to see that like most venues, they have a selection of their reviews in the foyer, but this lot are honest enough to post up the bad ones as well. Happily, the Amanojaku Taiko Drums don't have any bad reviews to speak of. When it comes to traditional Japanese drumming, Kodo are the name that everyone has to beat, but this lot have a few differences in style that make them interesting. The main one is immediately obvious: whereas Kodo is primarily an all-male environment with women only recently getting a look in, Amanojaku consists of an old guy who's obviously in charge, two young blokes who do all the donkey rhythm work, and three female drummers who get to do all the really interesting bits. And it can't be denied that the sight of three Japanese women bashing the living shit of huge drums has a certain erotic charge to it.
If there's a flaw in this set - and it's one of two sets, they're doing different numbers in an early morning performance each day - it's the absence of light and shade: there aren't any real quiet bits, it's sixty minutes of constant high-speed thrashing. But it's still exciting as hell, particularly in the tiny hundred-seat sweatbox of the Garage, where every drumbeat is close enough to set your seat rattling. And I like the democratic nature of Amanojaku as well. Traditionally, taiko drum performances end up with a Big Drum being wheeled out, but only the boss of the musicians gets to play it: here, the band rotates rapidly throughout the finale so everyone gets a couple of minutes to show off on it.
By now the last few stragglers of our party - Charmian, Eve and Jon - have all finally made it into town, so seven of the eight of us get to meet up at Otis Lee Crenshaw's show at the Assembly. (Lee was otherwise engaged, I guess.) Otis is, of course, one of this site's showbiz mates, sending me four free copies of his new CD last year just because some people were asking about it on the letters page. So I'm not going to slag him off here, am I? Though having seen him several times now, the framework of the improvised songs is starting to become a little too apparent. Otis will get into casual conversation with an audience member, obtain their name and occupation, and then weave those details into one of three pre-determined formats (a romantic ballad, a song in which the occupation is used to save a small town, or - for the first time this year - a surreal face-off with Satan in the style of The Devil Went Down To Georgia). His ability to improvise these on the fly is still impressive, although I suspect he likes painting himself into a corner just to see how he can get out of it. As a result, we're treated tonight to possibly the only C&W songs ever to contain references to Mercator projections and the electrical conductivity of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Aside from the improvised songs, everything else in this set is brand spanking new, and up to Otis' usual high standard. Unfortunately, it's difficult to tell you much about the songs without spoiling them, as the revelation of the title in the first chorus tends to be the funniest bit. I'll just point out that one of his new numbers is called Do Anything You Want To The Girl, Just Don't Hurt Me and leave it at that. You'll have plenty of opportunities to catch him in the future, given his affection for this country: "I love Edinburgh, but it's like a depressed girlfriend. She's beautiful, but she cries all the fuckin' time."
I like the idea of going from this show, then on to a classical concert, and then on to see the most violently offensive comic on the circuit today. Which is what the International Festival was obviously banking on when they introduced this year's series of late-night £5 concerts at the Usher Hall. As a way of hooking Fringe-goers into the main Festival, it's rather inspired: none of the performances last more than an hour, so you're effectively getting cheap culture made to measure that will fit into that pesky couple of hours between the comedy gig and the midnight revue.
However, it's not as subversive an idea as they seem to think it is (note the posters all over town in Sex Pistols-style blackmail type, as if this is the Festival going all punk rock on us). Tonight's performance of Mozart's Serenade In B Flat For 13 Wind Instruments plays to a near-capacity crowd, sure: but it doesn't seem to have attracted the younger audiences that were expected, as it's the usual old Festival farts filling the hall. Still, it's an interesting idea, and it'll be a shame if the rumours are true that there won't be any £5 concerts at future Festivals, simply because nobody can work out how to make money on them.
As for the music - which you may remember as being the first piece of Mozart's that Salieri hears in the movie of Amadeus - it's very nicely played indeed, though the BBG thinks they had to speed it up a little to make it fit the sixty minute slot. Judge for yourself if you like, as online archives of all these concerts are being made available by Radio 3. My main concern is that the piece was played in an arrangement for twelve wind instruments and a double bass. I was promised thirteen wind instruments, dammit! I want my fiver back.
When I first saw Jerry Sadowitz back in the mid-eighties at the Comedy Store, he died more painfully than any other comic I'd ever seen. Alternative cabaret was, it's true, unnecessarily cosy in those early days, with comedians and audiences forging mutual appreciation societies and swapping banalities about how horrid Thatcher was. And then into a typical night of this sort of thing comes Sadowitz, a ranting Glaswegian doing racist, sexist, everythingist jokes and interlacing it all with that word that women had told us never to use. He played to about ten minutes of stony silence and trudged off again. I can't quite explain what happened in the years following that, but I never saw him get that reaction ever again, and he always managed to whip a crowd up into hysteria. Maybe audiences came to accept that we needed that occasional burst of pure evil, to leaven the somewhat reverential atmosphere that was beginning to develop in comedy clubs.
After several years of violence to audiences, Sadowitz kind of retired from stand-up comedy, concentrating on his terrific close-up magic skills and his Channel 5 TV shows. Which makes the prospect of his return to the stage for two nights only something to look forward to. However, I think his full-on approach made more sense in those PC days in the eighties: nowadays, no matter how much he points out the layers of irony he's using, there's a very fine line between Sadowitz doing Paki jokes and Bernard Manning doing them, and I'm not even entirely sure there's a line.
But in the end you don't see Sadowitz for intellectual analysis about what's funny (although you can certainly argue about it on the way home): you see him to hear him shock you into laughter by saying the unsayable. The bulk of this set is about taking the evils of the world and blaming them all on women (because of the hatred they cause by not having sex with guys like him) and Muslims (because it's the most dangerous thing Sadowitz can do right now, with the possible exception of gags about child murder). In between you get some botched magic tricks, some glorious one-off lines ("I found out last week that 'Slobodan Milosevic' is Bill and Ben language for 'half past seven'"), and an interesting interlude in which he abuses every rival standup comic that audiences shout out at him, but can't bring himself to slag off Eddie Izzard because he genuinely thinks he's funny. Which begs the question, if he's prepared to go to those levels of honesty at the expense of ruining a gag, how honest is he about all the other stuff? It's difficult to say, but that's what makes Sadowitz infinitely more interesting and uncomfortable than all the cookie-cutter comics you'll see at Edinburgh this year. And hey, he's got it right about women, hasn't he?
Is that still funny?
Notes from Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - On the way to the McLaren lucky-dip of short animated films, we were given voting slips to rank our top 3 - a heavy responsibility, as some sort of actual prize is given out at the end. So although there were others with a high standard of animation and inventive storylines, I'll just mention the three I voted for, in the traditional reverse order. At number 3 I put The Changing Times Of Captain Courageous, a witty cartoon juxtaposing a traditional 40's animation with a consumer saturated modern day. To be honest, I possibly bumped this up a bit because I wanted to vote for something that was an actual drawing, but it managed to have a plot rather than merely showcasing animation techniques, and I thought it was quite fun. In at number 2 came Simon, the story of a boy whose head turns into a balloon. Inventive animation and clever scripting in this one. But the winner for me at number 1 was The Lucky Dip, a charming story about a small girl at a seaside amusement arcade. Again, well animated and with just that little something which made it appealing.
Lee - In the film Frailty, Bill Paxton is completely mesmerising as Meiks who one day starts seeing visions from God. His mission is to kill demons in human form. His younger son Adam is a believer, his older son is not. What follows is a string of murders that pits faith against reason and father against son. Matthew McConaughey's carefully understated performance illuminates the horror of evil. And the ending was great - I'm not saying any more than that, go and see it yourself.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Being fond of things Japanese, I thought it would be fun to catch the Amanojaku Japanese drumming show. Confined in a fairly small room with the incredible thumping of the drums is quite an experience: you feel it throughout your body. For a touch of glamour, perhaps, this group quite unusually included three attractive young women, one of whom also did a rather impressive vocal piece. And the whole show finished with them all taking turns hitting a Really Big Drum. Good stuff.
The Belated Birthday Girl - I seem to have had a high proportion of musical comedy so far this Edinburgh (Otway, Katakuris, Neil Innes, Gonzo Dog Do Bar Band), and this continued with Otis Lee Crenshaw. The formula is the same as ever - a handful of improv compositions based on members of the audience, interspersed between some wickedly funny songs - and hasn't worn thin yet, so why not? Fun to watch his guitarist wince as Otis twists the words to get a rhyme with 'Colin', and nice to see the new songs not shying away from subjects others might avoid - I particuarly liked the heartwarming tale of a superhero with the proportionate strength of an ant being named, thanks to a spelling mistake, 'Incest Boy'. And what makes it work is the songs are actually good, and the performers good musicians.
Lee - The Horse Country. If you want to know why we are here and what it's all about, don't ask Sam and Bob, they're as confused as the rest of us. They talk non-stop at such a rapid pace they seem to use up all the air in the room. Their conversational themes are cyclical, each metaphor acquiring additional layers of meaning with each loop. Every cliche you ever heard is explored and given a fresh dimension. Bob plays the complacent straight man to Sam's restless clownlike bewilderment. Both actors hardly put a syllable out of place as they bombard the audience with a wall of words about what it all means and why we are here.
The Belated Birthday Girl - If I ever had to do that Desert Island Discs thing I would definitely include some Mozart, and the chances are I'd include the Gran Partita. It's been one of my favourites for many years, so when it came up as one of the RBS fiver concerts, it seemed a nice idea to go along. I am very familiar with one particular recording of this piece, and the tempo and light and shades of that recording. So the fact that the performance we watched took most of the movements a bit quicker than I was used to made me wonder if it was merely a difference of interpretation, or a conscious effort to fit inside the hour. Nevertheless, a good performance of a favourite piece.
Nick - "There are parts of this 68 year old material we find distasteful. Setting the show in space allowed us to 'fix' this." So writes the director in the programme notes for San Marcos High School's Anything Goes... In Outer Space, which is unnervingly PC. But any worries about the show are soon dispelled. If the rewriting to set the production in space is at times cumbersome, some of the musical numbers are staggeringly good. Reno (nightclub singer) and her all-girl backing singers The Angels light up the stage. Reno gives an outstanding interpretation of I Get A Kick Out Of You better than anything I have heard before: giving the song a sassiness few could equal, not the strident version of the song covered by so many crooners, but a wispy, slightly melancholic version that Reno makes her own. There are so many things to like about this production: the imaginative back projections in space, but most of all the ensemble work. The singing, tap dancing and choreography would not have been out of place on the professional stage. This highly recommended production just goes to show what the American education system is capable of delivering.
The Belated Birthday Girl - You know what you're getting when you go to see Jerry Sadowitz - an hour of being sworn at. The thing is, somehow he does make it funny, and although the main point is just to be transgressive and swear a lot, there's the odd actual inventive joke in there too. His rant on how all the ills in the world are the fault of women, and his alternative to carpet-bombing Iraq in particular. Not actually managing to offend people the way Scott Capurro did at last year's Late And Live - though that was a Late And Live audience, and this was an audience there specifically for Sadowitz - but still managing to have a go at anyone he could think of and get you coming away laughing.
Nick - P.S. Apologies to Lesley who came along for High Society... In Outer Space. Apparently in a drunken moment I mixed up the names of the musicals, and it was only spotted at the end of the musical, when she commented that she could not remember any of the plot from The Philadelphia Story!
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