Tales of the City: A Crazy World

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I went to a new exhibition by the modern master of urban realism, Julian Bell, at the Francis Kyle gallery, off Regent Street, London. An old-fashioned kind of guy in certain respects (he paints paintings of realistic people and places, using, incredibly, oil paints), he deals in unsettling cityscapes – where buildings lean at windy angles, streets rear and buckle, and humanity is trapped inside nets, wires, cages and shadows of its own making – and mysterious figures in streets and houses carry an air of as-yet-untapped menace. Centrepiece of the new line-up is Jack and the Beanstalk, an epic study in which a blue-jeaned Jack discovers in the sky a gigantic wire net growing out of the landscape that is trapping a dozen modern citizens in its blue-sky prison – working, talking, sleeping, drinking, squatting, all seemingly oblivious to their own incarceration. It could be a satire on life in cyberspace, living on and through "the net", but there's something more serious going on.

There always is. Even in a seemingly benign domestic scene, like his recent Belgravia Drawing Room, in which his relatives, Henrietta Garnett and Frances Partridge, are seen chatting in armchairs (Bell is the grandson of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister; his father Quentin's two-volume biography of Virginia was a cornerstone of the Seventies Bloomsbury revival), there's something threatening about the black bars at the window and the nasty electric standard-lamp that nags at your eye. More typical is the painting above right, Cash, where the queue of strangers at a cashpoint machine outside a supermarket becomes a tableau of unconnectedness, and a dungareed visionary gazes at the viewer like a modern John the Baptist. I checked with Mr Bell and, in fact, the man is not a deranged, care-in-the-community figure. He's Julian Bell's neighbour in Lewes, East Sussex, and his name is Arthur Brown, once known in the late-Sixties as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, under which sobriquet he used to sing "Fire" wearing a flaming helmet and draggle-eyed make-up years before Alice Cooper came along. "I've always wanted to paint Arthur," says Bell. "A magnificent, sublime person. I'd done several figures in the cashpoint queue and thought, no, this is too normal, I need something extraordinary in it. Arthur fits the bill because he goes around radiating majesty and bonhomie and extraordinariness while being an ordinary citizen of Lewes at the same time. He really is. If anyone asks him, he'll sing 'Fire' at the opening of a school fete."

Cinema nasty

The female directors of Baise-Moi, the shockingly extreme French movie thriller cautiously titled Rape Me in the United States, insist "It is not porn... It's not erotic. It's a movie about friendship between two people who happen to have sex and kill." They're right about it not being erotic. It could put you off sex for months. The crucial double-rape scene is so horrendously nasty, you feel like apologising to the women in the audience for being male. The procession of nasty male members (and subsequent dismemberings) that fills the screen starts to feel like a week in the life of Catherine Millet, the French horizontale who occupied this space last week. And it's not a very honourable enterprise.

It's a bleak, badly made movie, the camera work rudimentary, the surface texture as grainy as a 1970s home movie, the acting limited to two expressions: stoned detachment (Karen Bach) and vixenish hatred (Raffaëlla Anderson, who is, disconcertingly, a dead ringer for Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous).

It's not a film you can recommend as a fun night out. It is a farrago of horrible people shagging, brutalising and killing each other, and justifying their excesses with a lot of that fake laughter ("Did you see his face? A-ha ha ha ha" etc) that you get in "amoral" movies of this kind, and knowing, sub-Tarentino chat along the lines of, "Since we're killing so many people, why isn't the dialogue better?" The idea of it being a feminist revenge movie in the tradition of Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise falls down a bit, as the two women runaways enjoy shooting women in the head as well as men.

Still, I've come down on the side of the British film censor who passed it as an 18. He was right. The super-explicit sex is what's stunning about the film, but it's sex devoid of romance or seduction. It's sex as part of a violent milieu of hunger, desire, attack and survival – of lives with all trace of feeling and morality beaten out of them. And it challenges that old conundrum about censorship – that killing is illegal, but depicting murder is not, while having sex is not wrong, but depicting it in full is a criminal offence. This film shows the whole sickening nine yards of what we're capable of, without a shred of respect for human dignity. It's a nasty spectacle, but it's there to see if you want a look. Just remember to empty your popcorn bucket before the sex-club scene. You might need it...

A literary tale of mice and man

Insomniacs may disagree, but there's nothing more ruinous to your sleep patterns than a mouse in your bedroom. I've got one at the moment. Skrrrrritch-skrrrratch, rustle-rustle, pitter-pat-patter-pit, it wakes you up at 3.15am. What is it doing over there by the door? Eating the carpet? Nibbling through the mobile-phone-charging flex? Looking for chocolate? (It's been gorging on leftover Easter eggs. You can tell by the teeth marks. It's probably got terrible spots by now.)

It's trying to be quiet but, in the silence of the night-time boudoir, its tiny pattering feet are as surreptitious as a suicide bomber. You switch on the light, thinking it will run for cover, but it doesn't; it hunches over pathetically like a grey golf-ball, hoping you won't notice, or that you'll find it terribly sweet. But when it comes to Mus mus, I am the Cruel Avenger.

I stretch out a hand, pick a proof copy of Michael Frayn's Spies off the pile on the bedside table and lob it in a slow arc across the room. It crashes down against the door, two inches above its intended target. The mouse flees behind the wardrobe with a flash of four-inch tail and all is quiet. Lights out.

Five minutes later, there's a new sound by the window, like someone going "Tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk" very fast. Gradually it dawns on me: the little bastard has emerged from the wardrobe, climbed up on a table, jumped on the radiator and is even now – I switch on the light; goddammit it is – munching happily on the tail of my best Etro shirt. Enraged, I seize a proof copy of Jonathan Meades's The Fowler Family Business and fling it at the vandal. Tke book crashes against the glass, the mouse bungee-dives into the plastic bin and escapes, to nibble and squeak again.

This is no way to treat the flower of spring fiction.

But tonight I'll be ready for the little blighter with more heavy-duty weaponry: The Corrections, the Ian Rankin omnibus, a paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings. In the war between civilisation and destructive rodents, literature will win in the end...

Hi, police? I give up

Ah, the sophistication of the Japanese. Their criminals are so much more stylish than ours. According to the Mainichi Daily News, an unemployed man, 21, brandished a knife in an Hitachi shop and demanded cash. As the shop owner handed over £60, the robber realised (D'oh!) that he wasn't wearing a mask and anyone could identify him. So, with Oriental resignation, he called the police, explained what a blunder he'd made and waited for them toarrest him. Such stoicism! It couldn't happen here. A British bandit making the same error would've said: "Oh, blast, I've forgotten to wear a mask. I'll just go buy one from Woolies and come back in five minutes. Anyone who moves while I'm gone will be shot, or my name's not Gordon Blockhead of 35 Acacia Drive, Wandsworth."