Happiness is A State of Mind: #JFTFP20

No, that poster image isn't nightmare fuel in the *slightest*, is it?A Tale Of The Before Times (#4 of 5)

It's a difficult time to be thinking too hard about what'll happen in the future. But I suspect that whatever happens, in years to come we won't be hitting the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme as heavily as we have been in the past. Obviously, I've no longer got access to the free screener discs I was sent when I was previewing the programme for MostlyFilm, and I can accept that: but the tickets for the public ICA screenings have been getting more and more expensive, and this year they weren't even doing the four-for-the-price-of-three deal they've had in previous years.

So this is why you're only going to be reading seven reviews from a programme containing twenty films. As for why you're reading them about three months after the tour finished, well, try looking out of the window.

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British Animation Awards 2020

You know that rumour doing the rounds recently about how there's a version of the Cats movie where the cats' bumholes *haven't* been digitally airbrushed out? I sometimes wonder if something similar exists for the BAA logo.A Tale Of The Before Times (#3 of 5)

The British Animation Awards started in 1996. Every two years since then, there's been a ceremony dishing out gongs to the finest animated films, short and long, that have been produced in this country. For me, the most interesting part of the awards is the Public Choice. A set of three programmes of animated shorts is sent around the cinemas of this nation, audiences vote on them, and the ones with the most votes take away prizes. As huge-budget commercials rub shoulders with zero-budget student films, the Public Choice is a great way for casual punters like myself to get a crash course in the current state of the art.

My first Public Choice was back in 2006, where the perfect storm of a period of unemployment and the installation of home broadband made it a good time to rekindle my interest in animated shorts. I provided a full-page report about it here, and did the same in 2008 and 2010, by which time the ubiquity of YouTube made it much easier to provide links to all the films. The decadent years of my BAA reporting were 2012 (three pages) and 2014 (also three), after which an awkward thing happened: the London screenings dropped from two at BFI Southbank to one at the Regent Street Cinema. Basically, if you couldn't make the specific date for a programme, you missed it. As a result, I only saw one of the Public Choice programmes in 2016, and none whatsoever in 2018.

But now it's 2020, and we're back, baby! Don't worry, the decadent years are over, and I'm going back to the review format I've described in a previous bi-year as 'insultingly brief'. It's the only way to go when you've got 58 short films to write about, which you originally saw back in February, and have left it so late to expand your notes that the awards have already been decided and handed out. (Not to mention how all the cinemas have since been closed down.) It's easiest to organise this by focussing on each of the three Public Choice programmes in turn, so let's do that. As it's taken most of the last four months to look up all the film and animator links, maybe you should click on some of those while you're here.

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Simian Substitute Site For June 2020: Eeb Allay Ooo

Eeb Allay OooMONTH END PROCESSING FOR MAY 2020

Art: You remember how it used to work: you'd get up earlier than usual on a Sunday morning, have breakfast, then go out to a gallery and stare at some art until the pubs were ready for you. You can't do all of that at the moment, but the National Portrait Gallery has given you an alternative way of simulating the penultimate bit of that activity. Normally at this time of year they'd be holding their annual BP Portrait Award exhibition: and they still are, but just doing it online. The interface is quite fun: it's a 3-D walkaround model of the pictures hanging as they would in the meatspace gallery, and you can click on each picture to see it bigger and read more about it. It's not perfect - there's a wall in the middle of the room that's been rendered as a white void with a few portraits hidden inside it - but it's a neat solution to the problem. As for the portraits themselves, the photorealistic ones come off worst in this arrangement: without any real sense of the texture, you end up mentally filing the image under 'photo' and moving on to the next one. But there are some lovely entries in here, and if you don't agree with the verdict of the judges you can always vote for your own favourite.

Radio: You get the feeling that at some point between 2014 and 2019, someone at the BBC listened to Serial and said "can we have one of those?" And that's why the podcast The Missing Cryptoqueen turned up on BBC Sounds in 2019, although it's taken a global pandemic and six weeks of furlough to finally give me the incentive to listen to it. Over the course of eight episodes, Jamie Bartlett tells the story of Dr Ruja Ignatova, the inventor of a wildly popular cryptocurrency system that inevitably wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Cryptoqueen takes all of the tropes we remember from Serial, and uses them in an appreciably more hamfisted fashion. There's a host whose personality intrudes all over the story they're trying to tell - Bartlett even gets Sarah Koenig's trademark '[long pause] huh! [long pause]' noise in there several times. There's massive amounts of overproduction, notably a musical score that's layered randomly over everything, but refuses to contain anything as old-fashioned as a recognisable theme tune. And there's a narrative structure that sets up an implied question - where has Ignatova disappeared to? - and then takes several hours to meander towards an anti-climax. You can see how podcasts could escalate in popularity in times like these, but better ones are available.

Theatre: We've seen a surprising amount of theatre this month, primarily because lots of theatre organisations have rapidly embraced online video as a way of keeping people entertained while generating a much-needed revenue stream. Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre has taken the most impressive approach: when their world premiere of the new Rona Munro play Donny's Brain had to be cancelled, the writer, director and cast quickly put together an unrelated series of monologues filmed in the actors' homes under lockdown conditions. Five From Inside is a little variable in quality, as you'd expect a series of monologues to be: but the sequenced YouTube playlist shows that everyone concerned realised that the first and last ones were the best, as they're less character sketches and more slow reveals of subtext. The other two plays we've watched this month have been old productions reviving a previously broadcast live stream. Hampstead Theatre brought back #aiww: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei, in which Howard Brenton ingeniously depicts the low point of the artist's life as a piece of installation art in its own right: it's helped by a lovely performance by Benedict Wong in the lead. Finally, Complicite's The Encounter is a rebroadcast of Simon McBurney's one-man telling of the true story of a rainforest expedition, given extra psychedelic force by its use of binaural sound to immerse you in the production at the aural level, if not the visual level. Sadly, all three of these were online for a limited time only and are now offline: try visiting this Ticketmaster page every so often to find out about other similar productions that might be on the way.

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Under Size Me: A Veganuary Experiment

Vanilla is the new Black: warm mushroom pate with lemon and rice, accompanied by field mushrooms and spinachA Tale Of The Before Times (#2 of 5)

This was all The Belated Birthday Girl's fault idea. She announced late last year that she wanted to attempt some sort of reset of her eating and drinking habits at the start of 2020. It's a popular idea, of course: some people do Dry January, some do Veganuary. Her plan was to do both, simultaneously. As a supportive partner, and also for reasons of simple practicality, I decided I'd join her in her efforts.

I've described how our Dry January went in my review of BrewDog's first alcohol-free bar, which opened that same month. In brief, as the number and variety of alternatives to booze has rocketed over the past year or two, it turned out to be a relatively easy exercise, as well as an educational one. Veganuary was a slightly different kettle of tofu, however. It took us both a little while to realise what an asymmetric undertaking this was: as a veggie, The BBG just needed to cut dairy out of her diet, whereas I was giving up an awful lot more as an omnivore. Still, we got through it. And as I had to work a lot harder to get through a month as a vegan, I obviously won.

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A Very Hamburg Christmas

"Not getting many hops off this." Xmas Eve 2019, and the view from the loft conversion at BrewDog St Pauli, or 'Clouds' as everyone insists on calling it. Photo by The BBG.A Tale Of The Before Times (#1 of 5)

I posted the following on February 23rd, at the end of a post about BrewDog Hamburg and our Christmas 2019 holiday: "...would seem like the perfect lead-in to a discussion of... non-BrewDog things in Hamburg generally. But let's pause for now, and we can talk about that sort of thing another time. You know how it works around here, it'll probably be Easter by the time I get around to posting that."

Well, that didn't entirely go to plan, did it?

Let's just forget for now that the world has gone to shit in the last three months, and instead recall a time when you could travel to a foreign country and mingle with people you didn't know. Here, as promised, is a discussion of non-BrewDog things that you could do in Hamburg as recently as last December (though probably not now).

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Simian Substitute Site For May 2020: Primates

PrimatesMONTH END PROCESSING FOR APRIL 2020

Books: The Belated Birthday Girl and I have started reading before bedtime, on the assumption that it's probably more conducive to a good night's sleep than our previous regime of drinking tea and staring at screens. To make it a more sociable activity, we're reading out loud to each other, taking alternate chapters in the book of our choice. This month's choice has been What Does This Button Do?, the autobiography of Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson. The BBG can actually claim to know Dickinson a little bit - back when she used to fence, he regularly turned up at her club to practice. He's famous for dabbling in a wide range of fields, and this book is largely a list of things he's tried that he's turned out to be successful at: singing, fencing, flying planes, brewing beer, beating cancer and so on. When it comes to things that haven't been so successful, such as writing screenplays, the stories tend to quietly fizzle out. Still, that's the nature of autobiography these days, and Dickinson's entertaining way with an anecdote stops it getting too much into 'needless to say I had the last laugh' territory. By the end I'd become rather fond of his inquisitive nature, which explains why he feels the need to dabble in almost everything - hence the title.

Comedy: Online comedy's going through a curious phase. Podcasts are carrying on much as before, and several of them have pivoted to video without breaking a sweat, such as RHLSTP, The Bugle and Vitriola. But what I currently find really interesting are the various attempts out there to recreate stand-up comedy shows in a world where no more than two people can be in a room at the same time. For a while, Saturday Night Live At The Stand (Saturdays at 8.30pm) was the one to beat, with live compere Mark Nelson doing a terrific job holding together various pre-recorded routines sent in by comics, and even encouraging online heckles along the way. It may still be the one to beat, but they're relaunching this weekend (May 2nd) with some format tweaks, so we'll have to see how that goes. In the meantime, a couple of other comedy clubs have been pushing the idea a bit further and having the acts perform live as well, Zooming in from their own homes. XS Malarkey in Manchester (Tuesdays at 8.00pm) runs a weekly two-hour show held together by the chatty charm of host Toby Hadoke, who spends as much time nattering to the guests as they do performing. But it's also worth keeping an eye on Good Ship Comedy's HMS Unprecedented (Mondays at 8.00pm), which after a month of false starts has finally hit a winning formula - book five acts, leave their microphones on throughout, and use the unparalleled banter skills of Ben van der Velde to get them all sparking off each other.

Food and Drink: As mentioned previously, we were meant to be spending the Easter weekend in Aberdeen for the BrewDog AGM, and that didn't happen. But what happened a couple of weeks after that was the Intergalactic BrewDog AGM, an attempt to migrate the whole event (or at least selected bits of it) to an online environment, because that's how everything works now. Surprisingly, it all worked pretty well, and you may even still be able to watch the whole thing here until they take it all down again. In the space of 105 minutes we got an abbreviated business update from James Watt and Martin Dickie (the section on 'things to look forward to in the next twelve months' was a lot more tentative than usual), live music performances by Yonaka and Blaine Harrison, a delightfully chaotic pub quiz pitting James and Martin against fourteen thousand or so punters in the YouTube live chat box, and - best of all - an online tasting session featuring four beers you could order in advance from their online shop. No queuing to get the beers, and the toilets were in decent nick throughout, so I'd say in some areas that counts as an improvement on previous years.

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Easter Parade 2: In Situ Boogaloo

One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns. It seems like a risky economic strategy in the current climate, but there you go.Covid-19 has no respect for tradition, as we've learned. Since 2012, The Belated Birthday Girl and I have made an annual pilgrimage to Aberdeen for the BrewDog AGM, with its fifty minutes of business presentation in the middle of ten hours of drinking. We were all booked in for the 2020 AGM on Saturday April 11th, i.e. yesterday. You won't be surprised to hear that it didn't happen. (Watch this space, though.)

Other traditions, however, have turned out to be more resilient. Since 2002, with a couple of minor exceptions, The BBG and I have tried to ensure that wherever we find ourselves on Easter Sunday, we'll watch a film that was shot in that area of the world. 2020 would have been the first year that Easter Sunday coincided with our annual Aberdeen visit: we'd got as far as having a candidate film ready, in which ABZ doubled for Somalia (insert your own punchline here, Ricky) in a jolly little tale of the oil industry. In the gap between the cancellation of the AGM and the cancellation of our flights, we even had a sneaky backup plan which involved an Easter Sunday day trip out to BrewDog St Andrews.

All that fell through, of course, and now we're spending Easter Sunday 2020 in London. Which London film should we watch this year? Well, the last time I did a year-by-year roundup of our Easter films was in 2011, so let's build up to the answer slowly by seeing what we've watched since then.

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Simian Substitute Site For April 2020: Monkey Wellbeing

Monkey WellbeingMONTH END PROCESSING FOR MARCH 2020

Art: So, everything's still fucked, then. Which makes March 2020 a very awkward month about which to write a list of artistic highlights. Still, I'll have a go, even though I've barely been out of the house since the 14th. It all started off so well on the 1st, when a bunch of Spank's Pals accompanied me to Dulwich Picture Gallery to see an exhibition of British Surrealism. It's a pleasingly broad selection of works, mainly focussed on the early years of the movement, but prepared to suggest names like Lewis Carroll as their forebears. The inevitable biggies are represented, along with plenty of people you haven't heard of: I'm particularly taken by the artist - I think it was Conroy Maddox, but couldn't swear to it - who took a pile of his 1960s paintings and redated them as 1930s purely as a prank on art historians. The DPG are hoping that the exhibition will continue once (if) normal service has been resumed: in the meantime, the British Surrealism webpage obligingly contains a stream of the audio guide to whet your appetite.

Movies: Technically, the last film I saw before the UK went into lockdown was The Invisible Man, which benefitted from a properly up-for-it Saturday night audience, all the way up to the young woman who yelled 'oh my days' whenever something surprising happened, which was often. But a few days earlier I caught another film on a one-night-only engagement: a concert movie snappily entitled Nick Mason's Saucerful Of Secrets: Live At The Roundhouse. Saucerful Of Secrets is a Pink Floyd tribute band with a twist - well, two twists. The first is that they only cover the band's music from 1967 to 1972, stopping just before the point where The Dark Side Of The Moon made them superstars: the second is that Pink Floyd's actual drummer is in the band. Visually, they're an odd bunch, dressed like five fund managers jamming on a Saturday afternoon: but musically is where it counts. The freak-out sections of the Floyd's psychedelic era are here a little too calculated for my liking, missing the buzz of genuine insanity that Syd Barrett brought to the band during his time there. But the songs are beautifully played, and it's nice to hear them again. Best of all, Mason doesn't look like a man who's going out on the road again in his seventies to top up his pension: he's having a tremendous amount of fun, and it shows. You won't see the film in cinemas again, while the home video and live album releases the screening was meant to promote appear to have slipped from April to September. Have a clip to make up for the disappointment.


Music: On the subject of live music, the last time I was in a room with loads of people watching a band getting loud and sweaty was Kodo: Legacy at the Royal Festival Hall. They've been bringing their traditional Japanese drums to London since the early eighties, and I've been seeing them here since the late eighties: by now, I know what to expect. Legacy is a little more retrospective than usual, taking some of Kodo's classic pieces - the lopsided swing of Miyake, or the whisper-to-a-scream onslaught of Monochrome - and letting a new generation of drummers loose on them. John Peel always used to describe The Fall as "always different, always the same," and that's how I'm happy to think about Kodo. Their European tour is over now, but while they're in lockdown they're amusing themselves with weekly live streams from their rehearsal studio, albeit ones which fail to maintain social distancing between the band members.

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Life As We Know It v2.0

Cartoon by Giles Pilbrow from the current Private EyeThe last time I posted on here was three weeks ago. Buried towards the end of a paragraph about Norwegian Slow TV is the humorous suggestion that real-time footage of a nine-day Arctic expedition will give you something to watch if you've got to stay in the house for a couple of weeks. LOL!

And now everybody's staying in the house for a couple of weeks.

Welcome to Life As We Know It v2.0. I think we all preferred the old version, didn't we?

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Simian Substitute Site For March 2020: Monkey Business

Monkey BusinessMONTH END PROCESSING FOR FEBRUARY 2020

Movies: Hooray for the Japan Foundation, and the splendid work they do in making Japanese cinema (as well as other culture from the country) available to us in the UK. At the moment they're taking their Touring Film Programme around Britain again, and one of the massively overdue posts you can expect to see here eventually is a review of half a dozen or so of the films in that package. But they also do the odd free screening, like one that took place in London last month of Ten Years Japan. It's part of a franchise that started in Hong Kong in 2015 with Ten Years, in which five young HK filmmakers joined forces for a portmanteau film speculating on what the territory would look like in 2025. Their conclusions ended up very much on the dystopian side, and if anything ten years seems to have been a bit of an underestimate. It's interesting to compare and contrast the HK and Japanese approaches to futurism. The Hong Kong version, for reasons of budget or otherwise, looks like contemporary HK but with the existing social issues allowed to run unchecked for a decade. The Japanese version is more like science fiction, with several of the stories driven by new technology: for example, a chip implanted in kids to make them behave, or a no-fuss euthanasia patch for the elderly. The comparisons being made in some quarters with Black Mirror are a bit of a stretch, partly because the stories don't spiral off into ridiculousness at any point, partly because they're frequently happy to meander off into an open ending. Anyway, that trailer link up there will take you to a rental copy on YouTube if you'd like to explore further.

Music: We're two months into the new year, so it's probably time for another one of those roundups of recent records that have grabbed my attention.

  1. Anna Meredith - God bless 6Music's Chris Hawkins for continuing to fill his pre-7.30am programme with the sort of music that was quite definitely not meant to be listened to that early in the morning, such as this sustained panic attack in audio form.
  2. Joe Jackson - I was convinced that Jackson had written his own lyrics for this classic instrumental, but apparently there have been words for it going as far back as the days of Sarah Vaughan.
  3. Ringo Shiina - With a solo single and a surprise reformation of her band Tokyo Jihen in the first two months of the year, it looks like 2020's going to be a busy one for her.
  4. Stormzy - A point of view that's seldom expressed in all the press coverage: his diction's very good, isn't it?
  5. Everything Everything - It's that 'fat child in a pushchair' song again, but beefed up with a small orchestra in a live rendition recorded at Festival No 6 in 2018.
  6. Ghostpoet - One of my guilty pleasures on Twitter is watching Ghostpoet get into arguments with anyone who tries to assign a genre to him. So let's play it safe: this is a new Ghostpoet record.
  7. Gil Scott Heron - Whenever I hear the word 're-imagining' I reach for my book of misattributed Hermann Goering quotes, but Makaya McCraven's jazz reconstruction of Scott-Heron's final album sounds just lovely to me.
  8. Pet Shop Boys - As I said during last month's Simian post, there are plenty of songs on their new album that are better than Monkey Business. Today, this is the one I think is the best.
  9. Joe Gideon - With Gideon's first solo album, I felt the songs were a little weak, and didn't really appreciate them until I'd seen them performed live. This time round, I saw him live first and then bought the new album on the way out of the gig. Problem solved.
  10. Citizen Bravo et al - Wrapping up as we started, albeit with a less abrasive discovery from the Chris Hawkins show, as a collection of Scottish indiepopstars record their favourite songs by the genius that was Ivor Cutler.


Telly: Back in the days of Europe's Best Website, I was partly responsible for an article discussing Slow TV, a series of programmes made by the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK in which long slow-moving things were shown on telly in real time. At the start of February, they broadcast their longest, slowest-moving one to date. Svalbard Minute By Minute was NRK's celebration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Svalbard Treaty: they chose to mark it with a nine-and-a-quarter-day-long as-live broadcast of an Arctic expedition around Spitsbergen, the largest of the Svalbard islands. They filmed it back last summer, to maximise the amount of daylight available: and they intercut it with everything from one-take explorations of the engine room to drone footage of the ship shot from every possible angle. It was streamed over the Internet for everyone in the world to watch, and became an utterly delightful thing to dip into for the first nine days of the month. What, you missed it? Not to worry: all 13,320 minutes of it is currently archived on the NRK website for anyone who's interested. Also available: gargantuan Spotify playlists of each day's background music, which is probably more Norwegian pop than you've heard in your lifetime to date. So if you end up isolated in the house for a couple of weeks because of COVID-19, at least now you've got something to keep you occupied.

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