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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: How a star shines on in the memory

The week in culture

Let's perform a modest experiment into what happens when a star goes out – one that can only be conducted for a very short time and which, I regret to tell you, is already out of your reach. As you read this, sometime on Friday, your mental picture of Elizabeth Taylor will probably have been overprinted a hundred times already, by obituaries, news reports, tributes and replayed film clips. As I write it, though, I've just heard – and in a little under two hours I will have to surrender my copy. Given a bit more time it would be possible to be a little more systematic, to mine the biographies and trudge through the indexes in search of the kind of material that never made it to Wikipedia. I bet Kenneth Tynan has some stories to tell. And I bet Pauline Kael would have nailed precisely that odd way in which Taylor always seemed to sit a little proud of the films she was in, as if the fictional space had been unable to entirely accommodate the fame she brought with her.

That isn't really how former stars live on, though. The last two days have been the equivalent of a supernova explosion, the sudden burst of brilliance with which some stars expel their remaining mass, before slowly fading away again. And the normality – less luminous, distorted by distance, flickering oddly because of the effects of memory – is what will eventually return. It is – barring the knowledge that she has died, which introduces its own distortions of tact and nostalgia – pretty much where I am now, my knowledge confined to one editorial telephone call and the BBC News website's Breaking News headline and promise of "more details soon".

Your perception of Elizabeth Taylor is almost certainly better informed, more nuanced, more detailed and more accurate than mine. But it isn't what she really looked like three days ago, or will look like again in another three months.

I think I thought of the Andy Warhol portrait first, which may be significant in itself. Because he didn't paint her as a young woman, but a middle-aged one – and the calculated roughness of his technique (the way the colours spread beyond the lines they are notionally attached to) seemed as well-suited to her as to any of the celebrities he depicted.

Taylor was a Warhol portrait before the event, those famously dark eyebrows and red lips always in danger of overrunning their borders, because we understood that excess was part of her allure. She couldn't entirely control what she had – her desire, her wealth or the application of talent – but that unsteadiness didn't ever really threaten her glamour. It was an integral part of it. It's probably why I thought of The VIPs next, a film in which as I recall she played a film star attempting to reconcile with a romantic partner played by Richard Burton. The film takes place in the VIP lounge of a fog-bound airport, and is a perfect example of the way in which Taylor's most memorable roles (whatever you think of her acting ability) teased us by offering biography by other means. Of course, you think of National Velvet, without prompting – the film that (despite her age at the time) proved that she would bridge the gap between child and adult star – but it's Cleopatra and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that surely come next.

Did she ever do comedy? I have a memory that she could be funny in interview but my image of her as an actress is of a woman in tears or in a fury, the wreckage of a relationship around her feet and her mascara blotted like Warhol shadows. And all the other recallable facts – the preposterously expensive jewels, the friendship with Michael Jackson, the Aids campaigning – are comparatively tiny parts of her spectral signature.

I don't pretend that any of this is true to the woman who has just died. It's a kind of cartoon or logo. But then that's what film stars are, and the fine detailing of career and biography that's been filled in over the last two days will only temporarily obscure it. The imperfect memories, the unprompted ones, are what will survive longest.

A little too much reverence for cave paintings

Did cave artists ever make mistakes? I ask the question because I saw Werner Herzog's cherishably batty 3-D film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet cave paintings the other day and was struck once again by the unquestioning reverence these images often provoke in people.

The reverence isn't entirely misplaced, of course. The vigour and beauty of some of these images, and the sheer age of all of them, is wonderful. It's the unquestioning bit that I wonder about. After all these works are regularly identified as the very earliest instances of human art. And since discrimination is inalienably part of appreciation (to know that one thing is great you have to recognise how it might be less great) and failure is inalienably part of artistic endeavour – it should be possible to say "Our paleolithic artist must have been having a bad day when he or she painted this image". And yet I've never heard such a thing. More to the point, what do you practice on if a cave wall is your medium? Isn't it at least conceivable that such an artist might have wrestled with getting a bison's nose right first? Or started an image and then thought "Oh hell, that eye's completely wonky!"

At one point in Herzog's film, the camera passes over a particularly crowded section of cavern wall – which includes a hopeless painting of what I took to be an elephant (you really can't be sure). Like everything else it was treated with a grave and religious solemnity by the lens. But isn't it possible it was the cave painter's equivalent of scrap paper?

Egan provides pause for thought

Jennifer Egan's new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, comes with the kind of rapturous book-jacket recommendations that tend to stir recalcitrance in me. Well, I think, the Los Angeles Times may believe it's the "smartest book you can get your hands on this summer", but just how smart is the LA Times? In fact, Egan's book turns out to be seriously good – very readable and stylistically inventive – the latter best exemplified by a chapter that is presented entirely as a set of Powerpoint slides.

These not only work surprisingly well as a vehicle for character depiction (the notional narrator is a chippy teenage girl), but also introduce a great nerd's list: her brother Lincoln's compilation of the greatest pauses in rock history. I'm hopeless at this kind of thing, but I was instantly reminded of a much-loved moment in Elvis Costello's song "Impatience" (3'.37" in), when he pulls the tempo to a near stop before releasing it back to full speed with a delirious slither of strings.

As in Egan's novel – which hides a lot in the gaps between chapters – there's a world of feeling in that moment of suspension. Lincoln's list includes "Bernadette" by the Four Tops, Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and Bowie's "Young Americans". Suggestions for other blissful hiatuses welcome.