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  1. Culture
1 December 2008

Doubled edged chalice…

By Harry Williams

So, farewell then Andrew Motion

The search has begun for the next poet laureate, the government announced on Tuesday. Andrew Motion will step down in May of next year, having completed the ten-year tenure introduced by New Labour in 1999.

The culture secretary announced that the public would play a role in choosing the next laureate, prompting visions of an ‘X Factor’ style selection process.

The sad truth is that poetry would never make it onto television. At an Arts festival in September Motion looked back on his laureateship as a “thankless task”, which has prevented him from writing. The frontrunners for this “double-edged chalice”, to use a wonderful mixed metaphor from one American commentator, are Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. Despite the mixed reactions to Motion’s poetry, his work on the online Poetry Archive is an admirable legacy to leave behind.

Pei in the sky

Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo: all at one time the brightest jewels of Islamic civilization. Only a decade ago many would find it absurd that the treasures of these once glittering cities would end up on a small peninsula in the Persian Gulf, in a city founded less than 200 years ago. Such is the nature of oil reserves, however, and last week the Museum of Islamic Art was opened with fireworks and celebrities in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. The museum has been designed by the Chinese-born American architect I M Pei, and is most probably the last grand project of his career. “I didn’t choose the location. I made it”, stated Pei, referring to his Modernist fortress of a museum, which was built on a man-made island. Reflecting the rigid geometry of Islamic art and architecture, the building is both complex and plain, a squat desert ziggurat of perfectly clear lines. Inside lie 800 artefacts, drawn from the finest examples of Islamic art. The museum will be open to the public on December 1st, and in a few years time, visitors to the region will be able to augment their trip with a visit to the Guggenheim and the Louvre, outposts of which are currently being built down the coast in Abu Dhabi.

La vieille vague

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Last week, Cahiers du Cinema, the prestigious French film journal set up by the critic Andre Bazin, on which Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer all cut their critical teeth, released their list of the 100 greatest films of all time. There was a small ripple of outrage in the press this side of the channel that not a single British film had made the cut. None of the 78 critics, directors and industry insiders (all French), deemed a British film worthy of inclusion. Should we be so surprised? A glance at Sight and Sound’s ‘Critics’ List’ from 2002, made up of sixty films chosen for the Top Ten, reveals that British critics only chose two homegrown films, David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’.

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British cinema has always been a provincial cousin to the established continental families of Italian, French, Russian, and German film, and Hollywood. A maverick is thrown up now and then, a Derek Jarman or a Ken Loach, but there is no real pedigree to speak of (a couple of years ago a French critic spoke of the British film industry as “mongrel”). Then again, these critics’ lists are always remarkably similar. ‘Citizen Kane’ is forever welded to poll position, followed by the usual black and white suspects: Vigo, Renoir, Bresson. For the professional critic, films are like wines: not only do they mature with age, but the harder they are to get hold of, the more they are valued.

Citizen Kane: The Best Film In The World Ever?