Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The art of Dexter

Having finished The Wire, I’m now partway through the second season of Dexter. It’s not thought of as being in the same class as David Simon’s show, but certainly it’s gripping stuff and is characterised by a visual flair which is never more evident than in the opening credits.

The show, if you are unaware, focuses on Dexter Morgan, who works for the Miami Police Department as a blood spatter expert, but is also a serial killer.

Because of a code devised by his adoptive father Harry, Dexter is able to manage his urges in such a way that he only kills ‘bad people’ and in such a meticulous way that he seems certain not to be discovered.

There are many things to love about the show, such as Dexter’s foul-mouthed sister Deb, of whom I recently told a startled colleague: “She’s my favourite character in any show ever. I love her. It’s not a crush; I actually love her.”

The second season also introduces us to possibly my least favourite character in any show ever, Lila, a drawling, nasal, languid Englishwoman who at one stage mutters the unforgettably irritating line: “Paaaaaaaaaardon myyyy tits.”

A glorious constant, though, is the credit sequence – surely the finest TV has ever seen, and something which, were I still at university, I’d be looking for an excuse to write an essay about.

It takes us through Dexter’s morning routine as he shaves, flosses, dresses, cooks and eats breakfast, before leaving the house on his way to, well, somewhere.

The sequence’s genius is in how it implies the proximity of death in everything Dexter does, from the moment he awakens to slap a blood-thirsty mosquito on his arm.

The extreme close-up of his face as he shaves reduces his flesh to the same status as the bacon he cooks and eats.

A cut sees blood splash across the white bathroom porcelain, just as red sauce stains his plate as he twists his knife in the vibrant, lifeless yolk of an egg.

Power is in his hands as he grips and plunges his cafetiere, slices and squeezes the juice out of an orange, or pulls taut his dental floss and shoe lace.

Finally there is a suffocating thrill as he puts on his t-shirt, before looking conspiratorially at the camera.

It perfectly encapsulated the show’s menace and dark humour – and rightly earned an Emmy for creator Eric Anderson.

More than that, though, as something that takes the mundane and shows it in a new, vibrant, visceral way, I would contest it is art in the truest sense.

How close am I to death as I plod through my daily routine?

Am I close to drowning as I sink into my morning bath? When I put on a tie, am I an enthusiastic tug away from strangulation? Could ceding to a mischievous, mistimed impulse send my car careering off the motorway or into another vehicle – or, just as pertinently, another vehicle into mine?

The sequence shows us that death is a constant, lurking presence in our lives.

Its proximity frames and informs everything we do. It is a constant motivation. It’s the reason we don’t just stay in bed all day, but seek to inject meaning into everything we do. It is the clock on our action, our deadline.

It also gives us power. Every day we decide to continue living. On some level, we all decide to let others continue living too.

It is the most basic counterbalance in every relationship we ever have, from someone passing you in the street who doesn’t push you in front of a car, to the person who makes you tea and does not poison it, to the person who sleeps beside you and keeps their pillow below their own head, not on top of yours.

If this sounds morbid, it is exactly the opposite. It is the most basic human courtesy from which all respect emanates – it shows good in every person you’ve ever met and inspiration in every day you’ve ever lived.

There’s no particular conclusion to these thoughts. There doesn’t have to be. But any show which could inspire them and more is worthy of attention. A title sequence which can illicit them is something to be savoured.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Poster Posts...

My loyal band of (three) followers. It seems almost careless at this early stage of my blogging career to break what conventions I may appear to have set up, but here goes. Think of this more of establishing a model for the future.

Ali Mason's The Blog is, it turns out, a two-man project - I am one of the men, but not the other. He, bewlideringly, is remaining nameless for the time being. He will also feature on the forthcoming almost-certain-never-to-happen podcast, Ali Mason's The Podcast.

So here is an introduction to the way the man's mind works. Read, digest, enjoy. I'll put everything he writes in italics. This is a convention.

"Last month I broke free from the welcoming confines of the house twice in three days. Granted, the 20-year-old version of myself may not have deemed this noteworthy. It may not even have registered as a deviation from the norm.

"But, truth be told, it’s a hard push to get me out and about these days. I don’t count work because, you know, it’s work. I don’t count the pub down the road because it’s really just a part of the house I don’t own yet. I have, though, been buying pint-sized instalments for the last four years.

"On the other hand, I do count two gigs in 72 hours. A respectable achievement given that the closest thing to a music scene in the town I currently call home is the ailing in-store radio in the Co-op.

"But venture I did, leaving behind me the five unwatched DVDs I bought on a whim on my last day off and temporarily abandoning my work with Annan Athletic on Championship Manager. You’d be surprised how hard it is to leave behind a squad of computer simulations and their fictional sporting endeavours. But they coped. They and I.

"The first involved a trip to Hull to see indie-folk darlings Mumford and Sons (consider this my early tip for Mercury Music Prize recognition in 2010), while the second, on a discernibly different tack, saw me take on Leeds’ harrowing one-way system for a meeting with the impossibly cool forefathers of trip-hop, Massive Attack.

"Now, lest this turn into a music review - wrong place, wrong time - let is suffice to say that both were excellent.

"They couldn’t, of course, have been more different.

"Mumford and Sons were on the verge of releasing their debut album, combined whisky-worn harmonies with lilting mandolins and twanging banjos and played in a curious venue that was equal parts common room and working men’s club.

"Massive Attack, meanwhile, are two decades into their genre-hopping career and peddle a live show that flits dizzyingly between soul, dub, rap, reggae but settles most often on a sound the band themselves have called ‘phantom funk’. Lovely.

"Now, Nick Hornby fans will be well apprised of the fact that men of a certain ilk like nothing more than music and lists. Nothing, that is, except combining music and lists. By the time the weekend hit I was already unneccesarily mulling it over. Which band was better? Which night offered the most entertainment? Who was first and who came second?

"A more incomparable pair of subjects one could not have asked for, but the temptation to compare, contrast and rank proved irresistible.

"In the end, the factor that swung it was derisory. A small, already crumpled piece of card. Yet there it was, my Massive Attack ticket.

"Slightly curled around the edges, torn a little by the attendant at the venue but nevertheless ready to take its place in my collage of wristbands, stubs and passes. Time, date, price. Conclusive evidence that I was there.

"I will look on it in years to come and, when it finally joins my other ticket collages on the wall, maybe somebody will strike up a conversation about it. Mumford and Sons, no less enjoyable on the night, employed a pay-on-the-door policy and issued no lasting reminders.

"To a hopeless muso like myself shouldn’t this be an irrelevance? Mere frippery. An irrelevence designed to ease passage into the building.

"I should rate the two gigs on some kind of innate sense of sonic satisfaction. I should. But I won’t.

"I’ve got a ticket from Leeds. 'Phantom funk' wins. Spooky."

Thursday, 8 October 2009

When is a haircut more than a haircut?

Every so often – not often enough, in truth – I catch a view of myself in a mirror, or a shop window, and realise how terrible my hair looks. Months go by without me visiting a barber and this means my mop can get a little wild – well, just a mess really. And this, I noticed, was the case when I was trying on my new winter coat in Top Man (good God those things are expensive). So, to the hairdresser’s I went.

There are two I use regularly – one in Ilkley, which is, well, functional, and one in Leeds – Modern Hairdressing in the Thorntons Arcade – which is a little more upmarket. Usually the hairdressers there are very competent, very efficient, often chatty. Then I get hit with a bill for 20-odd pounds and wonder whether it was worth it.

Today was different.

An unusually diffident guy took me upstairs and sat me in front of the mirror. I asked for some guidance – should I get the whole lot shaved off, something which I regularly threaten to do, or keep a little length on top?

“Don’t have it shaved,” he said, immediately. “I’ll taper it, texture it – it’ll look much better. All it needs is a good cut.”

He was off to a good start. The easier option would have been to shave it all off, and he didn’t choose it. Perhaps this guy actually liked cutting hair.

Everything about this haircut was different. It’s hard for me to see what’s going on with my glasses off, but it was clear this guy was taking care. He started with the edges – the back of my neck, my sideburns, around my ears; snipping carefully, skilfully. He moved onto the top, measuring the correct lengths through his fingers before snipping off just the right amount – then the damp strands hanging limply on my forehead were trimmed and reshaped.

“Now I’m gonna whack off the back and sides,” he said, so naturally I assumed clippers. But he did the whole thing with scissors, flicking up and down back of my neck, the side of my head, methodically but artfully pruning it until it was just so.

“Can you see without your bins on?” he asked at one point.

“Not really,” I replied.

“It looks good,” he assured me. “Much better than just shaving it.”

Finally the clippers came out, just to tidy things up – the back of my head, naturally, but he also attacked my cheeks and my neck to tidy up my beard.

“I’ve lined up your beard a bit,” he said somewhat sheepishly. “Just makes it look a bit... better.”

He measured angles with his hands, he felt textures with his palms, he fluffed, he flattened, he pruned hairs from bits of my face that shouldn’t even have had hairs on them.

At this point I didn’t care what it looked like, I was just privileged to have witnessed a master at work. He was a craftsman, an artisan, a sculptor – and I was proud to be his subject.

Of course, when, finally, I put my “bins” back on, he had done an excellent job, but still he wasn’t finished, producing a little pot of product and working some into my hair.

“This has got volumiser in it,” he said. “When you’ve got fine hair – and I’m the same – you don’t a gel or a wax, nothing oil-based. It’ll do you more harm than good.”

I marvelled that nobody had thought to tell me this before.

He said: “ I’m not saying you should buy some, but something like this, something matt, will work wonders.”

Of course, I bought some.

And along with the product, my haircut came to a grand total of £35. Not a penny wasted. A bargain: next to the opportunity to watch a master practising his craft, the haircut – and the defining paste – were happy by-products.

I shook him by the hand as I left. Next time, I will ask for Ben by name.