On Monday, my younger son and I will make a cultural pilgrimage to the legendary Prince Charles Cinema, just off Leicester Square in the West End of London, to catch a performance of Kevin Smith’s directorial debut, Clerks (1994).
There are several reasons for this. When the BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Nihal Arthanayake asked his Twitter followers this week what made them happy, my instant reply was: “Going to the movies with my sons”.
So what better way of celebrating the next milestone in lockdown relaxation on 17 May than to head to one of our favourite cinemas and watch a classic film? (My older boy is still up at university, and the three of us are already hatching elaborate cinéaste plans for the summer.)
The Prince Charles is a great place to renew acquaintance with the flicks, too – one of the nation’s best-loved independent cinemas, around since the early Sixties, and one of 200 such venues to receive grants during the pandemic from the Government’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund.
You know the kind of place: refurbished fleapits that have managed to survive the coming of the multiplex and (so far) the global march of the streaming services. Several notches up from the old-style grindhouse, cinemas like the Prince Charles perform a priceless public service by showing classic repertory cinema as well as new releases.
There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to Fast and Furious 9 (9 July) or The Suicide Squad (6 August). Your local Vue cinemas will begin regular screenings again on Monday, while the Cineworld chain follows suit on Wednesday. There are plenty of blockbusters ahead – not least Black Widow (9 July); Dune (17 September); Venom: Let There Be Carnage (17 September); and Daniel Craig’s long-delayed farewell as Bond (30 September).
But what if you want to see Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, or Bergman’s Persona, or Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu on the silver screen (where they should be seen) rather than on your laptop or flatscreen? Only indie cinemas offer this opportunity – which is why it is so important that so many (though not all) have survived the financial body blow of three lockdowns.
And why Clerks? Well, for a start, there is (allegedly) a toilet named after the director Kevin Smith at the Prince Charles – so there is a sort of specious symmetry in that.
But the real reason is that this early Nineties slice of super-low-budget black and white American independent cinema enshrines the spirit of “back to basics” with which we should all approach the coming months. You know what I mean: first principles. Reminding ourselves of what really matters. Taking nothing for granted.
Set in the Quick Stop store in Leonardo, New Jersey – which is to say, anywhere – Clerks follows a series of characters through a day of minor incidents, boredom and occasionally heightened emotion. Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) runs the cash register at the Quick Stop, while his best friend, Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) is notionally in charge of the neighbouring video rental store. Outside, two stoners – Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) – sell drugs, insult passers-by and contemplate the mysteries of the cosmos.
Randal holds forth about the original Star Wars trilogy. Dante tells anyone who will listen that “I’m not even supposed to be here today”. Silent Bob’s cousin, Olaf the Russian Metalhead, unveils his unbelievably terrible song “Beserker”. A customer dies in the Quick Stop rest room. Just an ordinary day, really.
Clerks was made by Smith and his friends for $25,000 racked up on their credit cards, and grossed more than $3 million, making it one of the most profitable movies of all time. It launched Smith as a director, and his sprawling “Askewniverse” franchise of movies, podcasts, comics, cartoons and live stage appearances.
His first volume of diaries was called My Boring-Ass Life (2007) which gives you a sense of his brand, self-image and fine sense of humour. Some of his films have been duds: Jersey Girl (2004) was a true stinker. But others have been genuinely innovative: Red State (2011) was a prescient, violent exploration of the religious, conspiracist and libertarian psychoses that would help to animate Donald Trump’s victory. (If you haven’t seen his astonishingly funny account of working on a documentary with Prince, check it out as soon as you possibly can).
In a world where creativity is increasingly controlled by the algorithm and the dollar, Smith remains a rebel against those who always ask, when presented with an off-the-wall idea: “Why?” His philosophy is splendidly different: “Live a ‘Why not?’ life, man. Take the shot. The shot is always worth taking.” It will be great to make his reacquaintance on Monday.
The reopening of the cultural sector is going to take a while. Many museums are reopening on Wednesday. Theatres should follow in June, though many are struggling because of the Treasury’s asinine refusal to underwrite their insurance policies in the crucial bridging period until vaccine roll-out is complete (many performers are young and still haven’t received the jab, remember). Creative Sensemaker will be there every step of the way to let you know what’s happening, when and where. The best is yet to come.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to book your place at our next Creative Sensemaker Live – 13:00-14:00 BST on Friday 28 May – on the controversies over children’s fiction sparked by the books of (amongst others) Dr Seuss and David Walliams. Should we worry about stereotyping, classism and gender representation in kids’ stories? Or do we all need to relax? The great Michael Morpurgo will be joining us to add his wit and wisdom to the conversation.
Here are this week’s recommendations
The Underground Railroad (Prime Video, 14 May)
Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, this new ten-part series directed by Barry Jenkins – best-known for Moonlight, which scooped the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017 – is one of the most eagerly-anticipated dramatisations for years. Its theme is the 19th-century network of safe houses and transport that helped enslaved people to escape the captivity of the southern plantations – seen predominantly through the eyes of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), as she is pursued by the slave-catcher, Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a man driven by a belief in what he chillingly calls “the American imperative”.
The cinematography, by Jenkins’s frequent collaborator, James Laxton, is stunning, as are the performances and music. The series will inevitably draw comparisons with (for instance) Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987); in truth, it deserves to be admired on its own terms for the work of art it undoubtedly is.
Halston (Netflix, 14 May)
Ewan McGregor has certainly come a long way since we first saw him as a skinhead junkie being chased down the street to the strains of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ in Trainspotting (1996). He will soon be starring in his own Star Wars spin-off series on Disney+ as Obi-Wan Kenobi. But first, here is a very enjoyable, high-octane five-part miniseries on the designer Roy Halston Frowick – universally-known as “Halston” – who died of AIDs-related cancer in 1990 after building (and fighting to retain) a fashion empire. A lush, hedonistic account of the Seventies and Eighties, the world of Studio 54 and the glittering figures that populated that long-lost landscape.
The Pact (BBC One 17 May, iPlayer)
Take the broad premise of Big Little Lies and transplant it from upscale Monterey, California, to a down-at-heel Welsh brewery, and you have The Pact. Well, not quite. But what this terrific new six-parter does share with the HBO series is a gripping focus upon what happens to a group of women who share a deadly secret and must maintain the appearance of normality to avoid disaster. The cast is excellent: Laura Fraser, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Eiry Thomas, Heledd Gwynn, Ade Edmondson and (as the patriarch of the brewery) Eddie Marsan. Not to be missed.
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe – Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane)
In an era overshadowed by Covid, climate emergency and technological upheaval, who better than Ferguson to trace the history of disaster and its lessons? His range is as dazzling as you would expect – from the eruption of Vesuvius to Chernobyl via the First World War – and the lessons he draws pleasingly nuanced. As an empiricist to his finger-tips, he dislikes reductionism in all its forms, and eschews generalisation. Catastrophe, he suggests, is often manmade, more often not, and frequently involves a combination of human agency and systemic failure. Indeed, it is the latter that fascinates him most, which makes his account of the pandemic especially interesting. Not a beach book, perhaps, but still a must-read.
We’ll be holding a ThinkIn with Niall Ferguson on Wednesday, 16 June, so do keep a look out on our website – it will be open for booking soon.
Why Solange Matters – Stephanie Phillips (Faber & Faber)
Imagine being Beyoncé’s younger sister, and having your own, quite distinct creative vision and musical aesthetic. As an indie artist and Black Lives Matter activist, Solange Knowles has carved out her own proud place in contemporary culture – and Phillips, a Black punk musician herself who co-founded the band Big Joanie, leads us through this remarkable story of defiant individuality with panache and eloquence. (If you missed it, do watch Stephanie in conversation with Celeste Bell in last month’s ThinkIn on the legacy of punk.)
Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows – Ruth Scurr (Chatto & Windus)
Well-known for her lives of Robespierre and John Aubrey, Ruth Scurr takes on one of the great mountains facing the professional biographer – and scales it with style. The thread that runs through the narrative is Napoleon’s lifelong love of horticulture, a conceit that both rescues him from the abstractions of historical myth and adds rich personal detail to a life that has already been told a thousand times. Even at the end, riddled with cancer, the botanist-Emperor was tending the gardens of St Helena – turning the soil precisely and uncompromisingly, just as he had tried to control the fate of an entire continent.
Fat Pop (Volume 1) – Paul Weller (14 May)
“I don’t believe my luck when I see him in the mirror,” he sings on ‘Cosmic Fringes’, which opens this fine album. You can see what Weller means. It is just over 44 years since The Jam’s debut single ‘In the City’ was released, and still he remains free, inventive and contemporary in the sounds he produces. There is a lifetime of music here: post-punk, synth pop, homage to hip hop, and plenty of collaborative work. All hail the Modfather.
The youngest student ever to enrol in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (aged eight) Niu Niu was also the youngest ever pianist to sign with EMI Classics (aged nine). But this is more than the work of a child prodigy now making his way in the classical world as an adult performer. His account of Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony alone makes this an extraordinary recording – and there is much else besides to relish here (not least Niu Niu’s own debut composition, ‘Hope’).
The Off-Season – J. Cole (14 May)
Deploying a basketball metaphor, the seasoned rapper explains the title of his record thus: “The Off-Season symbolizes the work that it takes to get to the highest height. The Off-Season represents the many hours and months and years it took to get to top form.” His first solo album since KOD (2018) has been teased by a YouTube documentary, Applying Pressure – and its first single, “Interlude” has already been a massive hit. Expect The Off-Season to follow suit.
…and finally: thanks to Tortoise reporter, Xavier Greenwood, for this podcast recommendation:
The Midnight Miracle (YouTube ep. 1, then Luminary)
Meditative, funny, and remarkably original, The Midnight Miracle has taken a staid podcast format (friends talking around a microphone) and given it wings. Full of music and stories, it’s like eavesdropping on a freewheeling conversation in a jazz bar… if on that table was sat Dave Chappelle and the rappers who made up Black Star.
The first episode is built around the theme of memorialising the dead, with tales of Robin Williams and Amy Winehouse. The second is dramatically different. Please listen to it: eyes closed, volume up, headphones on. It is immaculately produced. It is a miracle.
That’s all for now. Please do send your own recommendations to us at email@example.com.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Warren Orchard/BBC, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images, Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix, Kobal/Shutterstock, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Prod DB/Miramax/Alamy