Tom Sutcliffe: It's good to be strung along

The Week In Culture
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The Independent Online

There was a brief theatrical vogue, some years ago now, for travelling toys. The scene would shift from one geographical area to another in the play and to illustrate this fact the designer would contrive to have a model train or airplane or steam-ship trundle jerkily across the stage. I quickly grew to loathe the fashion partly because it was just a fashion and went round like measles but also for two paradoxically opposed reasons. The first was that audiences were so easily gratified by the effect. Almost invariably they would give one of those collective moos that cuteness always squeezes out of a crowd and then applaud as if it was an act of unprecedented genius to put a teeny-weeny train on stage. The second reason was that I wasn't nearly as immune to the charm of such moments as I would like to have been. There was something about the sudden shift of perspective, the reverse zoom it imposed on your point of view, that had delight in it, and I didn't like it, in much the same way that you can fiercely resent being made to cry by a cheap tear-jerker, even as the tears roll down your cheeks.

At the time I didn't bother trying to work out exactly what was going on at those moments, saving my energy for grumbling about the contagious nature of crowd-pleasing tropes. But I found myself thinking about it again recently on two occasions, once while watching Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox and again while watching Green Ginger's puppet show for adults, Rust, which is part of the Suspense festival of puppetry currently running in London. Both of them draw heavily on the captivating nature of models and both of them make a virtue out of revealing how their effects are achieved or rather, not revealing exactly, but going to no pains at all to conceal the mechanism, which may amount to the same thing. In the case of Anderson, the choice of stop-motion animation with its jittery foregrounding of human effort and involvement is consistent with a long interest in the ingenious lash-up. And in the case of Green Ginger, much of the comedy derives from the fact that you can see the strings (I speak metaphorically this is unstringed puppetry).

That's one of the reasons we respond so well I guess. In a culture which strives for the smooth finish and the invisible seam there's always room for the shock of the old. Rust features a submarine made out of an old copper hot water tank, for example, which is trundled onto the stage on top of a pantographic support like something out of a Heath Robinson cartoon. As it's pushed across stage, a little brass propeller turns at the back and an illuminated periscope scans the stage for obstructions. This isn't an object that is trying to fool us (as, say, a model submarine might try to do in a special effects sequence in a film). It's the word "submarine" pronounced in a funny accent a kind of joke about how cartoonish a representation can get and still be recognisable. Similarly, Anderson shows you scenery shots that look like something constructed for a primary school show-and-tell (albeit by a very gifted pupil) and invites you to relish the pleasures of unsophistication in an entirely sophisticated way. You know it's crinkled cellophane, not water, and your childish delight in illusion and adult knowledge of it rub up against each other with a winning friction. Models take us back to a time when not very much will do and some felt-tip scrawls on a cardboard box will make a perfectly serviceable fighter plane. Perhaps my problem with those toys on stage wasn't that they were toys at all just that they were too well made.

Golden oldies

Here's a straw in the wind, of a kind. Flurry, a site for mobile application developers, reports that, in September, the number of book-related apps available for the iPhone overtook the number of games for the first time. In October, in fact, one in every five new iPhone apps was a book. There's a crude reason for this: there's a huge amount of public-domain literature out there which, if you can persuade someone to shell out some pennies for a convenient e-copy, offer a developer close to pure profit. But that gold-rush wouldn't exist if there weren't already signs that people were reading on their phones, and it's intriguing to see that developers are coming up with novel ways (sorry about the pun) of delivering classic content. A developer called Beam-ItDown has decided to throw away the page-flick style of most electronic book readers and use the iPhone's accelerometer to scroll the text from bottom to top, like an autocue. I didn't think I'd actually cough up for any texts but then I saw they were offering a library of 200 classics for 1.19, and caved in. Since I'm never without a bit of dead-tree publishing anyway, I doubt it was worth it in the short term, but I know a weaning process when I encounter one.

* I was very disappointed to discover that the headline "Gordon Brown paid $40,000 to West Wing Writers for American speech" didn't refer to Aaron Sorkin the creator of The West Wing and his colleagues, but to a group of Beltway political speech-writers. What a missed opportunity. During the Presidential election last year, the New York Times invited Lawrence O'Donnell Jr, a former West Wing writer-producer, to come up with the imaginary dialogue for a bit of back-room horse-trading between the Obama and Hillary camps and the result was the most entertaining bit of political analysis I've read for years very well-informed but funny and tart as well. Personally, I always found Jed Bartlet's homilies just a little too polished to be convincing but there were great speeches in that show, and part of its appeal was the fantasy that you might get a break from the boilerplate of everyday political rhetoric. I reckon the US Congress would have had a much better time if Number 10 had gone to Sorkin for real. Or is it possible that that's what they thought they were doing all along?

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