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The Belgian Masters and the Emperor’s New Suits July 1, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, That's Entertainment.

On the hottest day of the year I spent rather too much time broiled to a sweaty jelly on the wrong tram from the architecturally impressive centre of Ghent to its railway station just a couple of kilometers away, and then waiting 45 minutes on an equally sweltering packed platform for a train delayed by some unexplained force, possibly the wrong kind of heatwave, back to Brussels. Arriving back in London the next day in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm I mused on the treachery of nature, climatically changed or not, and also on the uncertainties which we must apparently take for normality in these strange times we inhabit.

Belgium, for example, is not what I expected. I’d been there before of course, but only on day trips to do business with over-confident young publishers in slick suits and had little residual impression of anything other than an identikit commercial centre. Beyond that, my expectations were born of jokes about boring Belgians, frites with mayonnaise and the disgraceful financial waste that as members of the EU we British taxpayers bear with grumpy resignation. Somewhat validating the latter, as I Eurostarred beneath the waves I read an item in the Times railing at the European Council’s new £280million headquarters being built at our expense in the city I was about to visit. Fortunately, our doughty Prime Minister questioned the necessity and cost of this weird looking building – cheekily nicknamed ‘the EUteris’ – when “every member of the public” is suffering the budget cuts imposed by his banker pals who of course aren’t suffering at all. And as an aside, for a country that hasn’t effectively had a government for twelve months, Belgium seems to be doing very nicely, thank you.

Truly, awesomely architecturally beautiful was ‘de grote Markt’, or ‘Grand-Place’, which mine hosts took me to the night before leaving for home – a riot of 18th Century neo-gothic indulgence which illuminated against the darkened mauve sky genuinely took one’s breath away. There was much else to be impressed by, too, especially the pleasingly rackapulty flea market and surrounding area of Jeu de Balle and, as one who has long concluded that life itself is endlessly surreal, the Magritte Museum was a stunning and revealingly comprehensive testimony to the undisputed boss of its artistic expression: I hadn’t, for example, been aware of his brief dalliance with impressionism. And the numerous photos of him and his surrealist chums underlined what tremendous fun they all seemed to’ve had back in the day.

Less so the 15th century painter Hans Memling whose work, along with much of his Flemish renaissance contemporaries, is housed in several galleries in Bruges. The fear of god literally drove if not inspired this brilliant son of Bruges and his mastery of tone, perspective and subtle colour gradation elevated him way above all of his colleagues, including for my money, the Van Eyck brothers. And yes, I did go and see Hubert and Jan’s Adoration of the Lamb in Ghent’s St. Bavon Cathedral (a monsterpiece of mad gothic architecture in its own right, by the way) which, although certainly a bit of a gobsmacker, doesn’t better Memling on full throttle.

But all of this is, I admit, a bit subjective… a fact that’s been troubling me a lot recently. Take movies for example, two of which, Bridesmaids and Potiche, have both in their own way been lauded to the skies by the critics but both of which left me somewhere between cold and angry. Although co-writer and star Kirsten Wiig executes a few nice comic turns, Bridesmaids is essentially a series of smutty gags thinly linked together around a skimpy, ultimately mawkish plot redolent of Wedding Crashers. But because it’s seen entirely from a post-Valley Girl perspective (think Essex girls with yank accents), Bridesmaids is gulped down and regurgitated by a pliant if not gullible media as some kind of feminist damascene moment. Well excuse me but in my book fat girls shitting in washbasins doesn’t spell Female Eunuch for the 21st century.

As for Potiche, well although telegraphed as a French farce about a cowed industrialist’s wife who discovers her inner bitch, its conceits were just too few and too slow to develop any comedic momentum. Worse, because it starred a so-called icon of French cinema, we were evidently supposed to respectfully suspend our critical faculties but in truth Catherine Deneuve never was a great or even especially expressive actress, relying instead on gamine charm. But now she’s simply a dumpy broad with a bad facelift and who gives a perfunctory performance fairly equally matched by Gerard Depardiu sleepwalking through yet another bemused fat-man-on-a-redemptive-roll, role. And one he reprised – yet again – in the also recently released Mammuth… which at least co-starred a large, powerful motorcycle.

Could I be wrong about these films? Well my sister, who as some of you may know books films into most of Britain’s independent cinemas excoriated me for taking issue with the general critical toadying, and dismissed my suggestion that today’s critics dutifully buy whatever the film industry shoves into their well-oiled maw because they all have a mutual interest in keeping afloat two media which are being bankrupted into irrelevance by a digital world and its socially networked babble. But then although I love her dearly, and cinema only slightly less so, she would do that, wouldn’t she.

The same mutual desperation seems to be happening in the book industry, too. I’ve just finished A Visit From The Goon Squad the most effusive praise for which is plastered all over both covers and first three inside pages. Essentially a series of disparate short stories linked together by common characters, the narrative style – never mind the grammar, punctuation and descent into flow charts (honestly) – is irritatingly inconsistent. Which seems to justify the Independent’s conclusion that it’s ‘beautifully constructed’ and the NY Times’ claims for its ‘extreme virtuosity’. For which I would substitute ‘lazily opaque’ and ‘wilfully muddled’. So not for the first time, I’m wondering whether it’s me that’s out of step, or those that are paid to comment on such creative endeavours and despite their critical misgivings, feel the need to protect their incomes by routinely reaching for the purple ink?

I bet Magritte would had fun with such treachery.

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1. Paul Blezard - July 1, 2011

Interesting musings all round, Mark. I’m a little more familiar with Belgium, both the Flemish (dutch-speaking) half and the Walloon (French-speaking) half. Belgium is a nation once united by Catholic religion, but now divided by its two languages. FWIW I long ago adopted the Dutch & Flemish habit of putting mayonnaise on my frites (not frittes!) rather than salt and vinegar. And I’ve long been a fan of Depardieu (not Depardiu!) so I’m dismayed by your comments on his latest oeuvre.
As for films deserving wider circulation, I’d like to take this opportunity to plug two very good movies, both about great endeavours with electric vehicles. Watch the trailer for Claudio ‘Long Way Round’ Von Planta’s 3hr documentary about the Imperial college graduates who drove their own electric car the entire length of the Pan Am highway here:http://www.racinggreenendurance.com/
and the trailer for Mark Neale’s 90min doc about the first two electric TT races here:http://chargemovie.com/
I hope y’all will be amazed and forgive the taking of this liberty!

john dickinson - July 1, 2011

Blez, truly you are the ultimate hobbyhorse jockey – albeit an entertaining and learned one.
Electric bike TTravesty – 100mph or not.
I bet you can’t wait for the Feet Forward version!!!

Paul Blezard - July 1, 2011

Correct. It’s not as if it hasn’t been designed either. This one could have been built in time for the first TTXGP two years ago.
With the improved aerodynamics provided by this ‘open FF’ layout, the 100mph barrier could have been broken in 2009! The problem is finding a) the money to build it and b) a conventional racer prepared to ride it. At least the Agni had a dustbin fairing last year, which is half way there, sort of http://www.bikeweb.com/node/2092
This is all discussed by Cedric Lynch in CHARGEthemovie. PNB

2. john dickinson - July 1, 2011

I’ve motored through Belgium on numerous occasions, en route to various motorcycle race meetings – and with the exception of the city centres, my 14 year-old (at the time) daughter observed, “Belgium is permanantly closed…”

markswill - July 1, 2011

Maybe. But as I asided, it seemed to be working remarkably well without a government. Except the railways and the wrong sort of heatwave, that is.

3. xmoron - July 1, 2011

“I bet Magritte would had fun with such treachery …”

Spot on. Magritte churned out so many impressionist forgeries during WW2 that to this day no one can quite tell the difference between a Magritte Renoir from a Renoir Renoir (according to Brian Sewell in yesterday’s ES). For some reason, I’m always on the side of the forgers.

4. Alex Ramsay - July 1, 2011

‘de grote Mark’ . . . ?

5. WTK - July 1, 2011

Hmmm, I thought Belgium was a motorway that connected France with the Netherlands. Who knew people actually lived there? Since it was semi-vacant I assume that’s the reason the EU located their various Towers of Babel in Belgium…

john dickinson - July 1, 2011

Nice one!

Kirsty Wark - July 3, 2011

Excellent and interesting article once again Mark and I look forward to many more. And thank you for being so gentle and considerate last night!

markswill - July 3, 2011

Oh darling, now our secret’s out, how will you husband cope with your betrayal?

6. Linda Stokes - July 4, 2011

Ok…I’m ready to go…he Antwerp school totally rocks…portraits w/ hands.
Glad you liked it.

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