Repetition with variation

Adaptations: This week’s world of art brings us recycled ideas and re-packaged money-makers

Brick Lane hits the Big Screen

Monica Ali’s controversial novel Brick Lane hits the big screen today (Friday, 26 October) with a gala screening at the Times BFI London Film Festival", three weeks in advance of the national release (Friday, 16 November).

With Sarah Gavron directing, the screen adaptation of Brick Lane stars Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik and Christopher Simpson. About London’s East End Asian community, Ali’s novel sparked outrage among members of the Bangladeshi community, and left others calling her the new Zadie Smith.

Regarding the controversy, Abdus Salique, chair of the Brick Lane Trader’s Association, told The Guardian, "she is not one of us, she has not lived with us, she knows nothing about us, but she has insulted us."

Meanwhile, Monica Ali defends the novel and the film, writing that the "controversy" was over-exaggerated – and possibly cooked-up – by an overzealous media.


For more on the London Film Festival

Also: catch the film and a conversation with Monica Ali, November 9 at the ICA, and the film and a Q&A with director Sarah Gavron, November 15 at Curzon Soho.

Also, see the Asians in the Media, which publishes "news and commentary on Asians in British media and how the industry relates to minority-ethnic communities"

Dirty Dancing Everywhere!: More from the world of adaptation

Recycling is rarely frowned upon in this ever-green age; but then recycling is rarely coupled with the repeat-commercialization and making of multi-million dollar profits. Have we gone too far with adaptations, stretching single ideas to their limit with the release of slight variations on the same commodified image or thought?

To what extent do adaptations provide new ways of looking at a popular story (Example: A film adaptation of Beowulf, the Old English epic poem from around 1000 AD hits the screen in the UK on November 16).

Or to what extent are adaptations commercial marketing schemes concocted to continuously resell the same idea in slightly different packaging, providing only the illusion of change, innovation, and variation? (Example: this October sees the nationwide UK release of Dirty Dancing: The Video Game, to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary.
Released in 1987, Dirty Dancing has sold over 10 million DVDs. A stage adaptation of the film is currently on at the Aldwych Theatre in London, and WE TV are responsible for "Dirty Dancing: The Reality Series").

Al Gore: Nobel Prize Winner and Trend Setter?

Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize came as a disappointment to many as his recent environmental fervour beat out the revolutionary protests by Burmese monks for the title and $1.5 million (£737,000) prize.

Perhaps Gore needed something to throw his energy into post-election-failure, and sought green as therapy? There is no shortage of cynics who are sceptical of his commitment to the environment.

But regardless of the motivations, politician after politician (first Al Gore, then John Kerry, and now Newt Gingrich) is coming out in support of the environment, publishing books, making documentaries, and holding public debates on environmental protection and the hazards of climate change.

This Thursday, 1 November, former US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (famous for overseeing the 1990s "Republican Revolution in the House) will release his A Contract with the Earth, an environmental manifesto for the Green Capitalists, stressing the need for bipartisan environmental strategy and showing the way forward for environmental entrepreneurship and the creation of incentives for businesses to be more environmentally friendly.


Al Gore started the trend with An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film and book

Senator John Kerry came out with This Moment on Earth March 26, 2007.

See a 2007 PBS Interview with Newt Gingrich

The Times on "nine inconvenient untruths" in Gore’s 2006 documentary

Leonardo DiCaprio’s 11th Hour documentary on rapid environmental degradation

James Harding writes on green capitalism and the "green rush" in New Statesman

Battle of Ideas vs. Anarchist Bookfair

Class divisions in London’s radical intellectual communities will be mapped geographically this weekend as those who can cough up £75 will head to the Institute of Idea’s Battle of Ideas at the Royal College of Art and those who are hungry for more than just debate will head to the 27th annual Anarchist Bookfair at Queen Mary & Westfield College in London’s East End.

Both events have been in the works for months, hence their overlap is likely not a lapse in judgement but is rather indicative of the demographics of the contemporary political left.

The dramatically well-funded Pfizer-sponsored Battle of Ideas is a "two-day festival of high-level, thought-provoking debate" featuring everything from discussions on academic freedom to talks on the lack of student radicalism to conversations on "Will Ethical Shopping Save the World?"

Meanwhile, the Anarchist Bookfair is free and open to the public, boasting a range of meetings, film screenings, discussions and workshops dedicated to radical political thought and activity. Events include a discussions on housing and worker cooperatives, "men and feminism," and documentaries on workers in the London Underground and women in the Spanish civil war.

Visit the Institute of Ideas website for full program details

See the Anarchist Bookfair website for more information

Modern Art Cabbies: Bringing Art to the Masses or Innovative Marketing Strategy?

Two of Liverpool’s cabbies are now driving around the "Capital of Culture" charged with gabbing about the 2007 Turner Prize (while video-taped, mind you) with their customers. The Tate Liverpool’s Taxi Project, initiated in June 2007, gave taxi drivers intensive courses on contemporary art, the history of the Turner Prize and the exhibit’s controversies. The conversations will be screened alongside the Prize nominations, with the Tate’s hope that they "offer a snap shot of opinion and feeling in the city about the Prize and about art and life in general."

But is the project really an attempt to bring art to the masses? Or is it part and parcel with a larger marketing strategy and a growing tendency to employ "casual advertisers" who infiltrate social gatherings and put their gift of gab to use on behalf of commercial companies. (Recall the controversies over student product promoters on American university campuses, who are paid to strike up conversations with their fellow students about the newest Apple computer or the health benefits of various soft drinks).

The Taxi Project and the 2007 Turner Prize are sponsored by Metquarter", "Liverpool’s premier shopping destination. With 40 top stores…[it] is home to leading fashion and lifestyle brands including M.A.C, BOSS Hugo Boss and Flannels" and by Arts & Business, an independent organization which has recognized "the importance of brand building [and] innovation" and helps companies achieve their objectives by developing unique connections between business and the arts.

Jennina O’Neil, Metquarter’s Marketing Manager explains their sponsorship of the exhibition and Taxi Project because: "we liked the idea that our customers could enjoy the shopping experience here [at Metquarter] and then jump in a cab and talk about art on their way to a gallery." Similarly, Janet Dunnet of Arts and Business lauds Metquarter’s sponsorship as an innovative and exciting reflection of "their brand and their way of doing business."

So, when art is commodity, and when art exhibitions have eager corporate sponsors, can art education be separated from marketing?

The Times on the taxi-driving Tate promoters
Liverpool as the 2008 European Capital of Culture
"Do corporate sponsorships compromise theatres?" in The Guardian

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism