Last among my short series of posts reviewing highlights from the year is a post of highlights. While music, reading and images were constants, everything else was bitty. The following gathers up a few standout things seen or experienced during 2023, for the memory.
My favourite film of the year was the choice of many other people, at least those who preferred independent films over strident epics featuring emperors, nuclear physicists or plastic dolls. Past Lives, an American film about two South Korean friends, does what those other films – to these tired eyes – failed to achieve, which is to say why we have cinema. It is something about making the stories of our lives visible. It is about the observation rather than the mere display of things. Every setting, every face, every instance of body language, every colour, rings perfectly true in Past Lives. I was especially entranced by crucial scene near the end of the film, in which two Koreans who played together when young and have met up as adults in New York, are seated in a bar with the American husband of the woman. We see the Korean man, whose naivety has shaped the story, grow up and find understanding in the course of a conversation, while the American husband sits sorrowfully, and then wisely, by. Wisdom may be one of the hardest things for a film to show, and a certain measure of greatness when it does.
Spending three weeks in Australia, I was privileged to see a number of great art exhibitions. The finest art exhibition of the year, for me, was Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. This was a stunning display in which the walls and some chairs were decorated by French-Iranian designer India Mahdavi using visual cues from Bonnard’s colourful works. Added to this were window-like gaps in the walls through which you could see the next room framed. It was like walking through nested gift boxes, each containing the radiant works of Bonnard. Its only failing as a show was that Bonnard seems never to have produced an inferior painting, so that the sheer quality on display became almost overwhelming.
Le Repas de bébé (1896), via Wikipedia
However, what I loved most about the show was two Lumière films, Sortie d’Usine (1895) and Le Repas de bébé (1896), projected on the walls as though they were paintings (their reason for being there was to show Bonnard’s relationship with photography and the kinetic arts of his time). You could see that viewers were transfixed by the repeated detail of the Lumière films, looking at simple human actions become eternal as the films were repeated in an endless loop. It showed that the audiences of 2023 and those of 1896 were of a similar mind, and that we should have more short films in our art galleries. Indeed a gallery exhibition (as opposed to a museum exhibition) made entirely, or predominantly of films exhibited as though they were paintings would be a mighty fine thing. It would make us look more closely, and repeatedly, at a medium forever coming into life.
My museum exhibition of the year was in ACMI, or the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, in Melbourne. Its permanent exhibition, The Story of the Moving Image, tells the story of the moving image from shadow puppets to AI in a form that is immediately graspable to the common museum visitor and a delight to the specialist. It follows a familiar path from pre-cinema devices, to early cinema, to classical cinema, to television, video games and beyond, focussing more on technology than personalities, but one never gets a sense of chronology. That is, everything feels contemporary, so that the booth where you can dance before a camera and come out with a flickbook of your gyrations, or the row of video game booths lined up ready to play, are all doing the same thing. It’s not just that they are interactive; it’s that they beguile the eye. There is a strong antipodean element (the piano from The Piano is on show, for instance), yet the exhibition still manages to tell everyone’s story. The place was full of enthusiasts of every age. I have seldom felt so exhilarated by a museum show. It felt like I had chosen the right theme in which to acquire some knowledge (hopefully), long ago.
My second-hand bookshop of the year I also found in Australia, in lovely Brisbane. I naturally visited many bookshops over the year, mostly old favourites serving as homes from home – Baggins’ Book Bazaar in Rochester, the Bookshop on the Heath in Blackheath, Canterbury’s ever-reliable Chaucer Bookshop and Oxfam bookshop, the sublimely-located Books in Waiting in a former waiting room on Whitstable station. But in a side street close by the Brisbane business district I found Archives Fine Books, which alone would be worth travelling halfway around the world just to experience it. It claims to house a million books, which is a romantic exaggeration, but its rows of long corridors of ceiling-high books make you feel as though you were entering a succession of time tunnels. Here might be all we know or have ever known. The staff were engaging, knowing that they stood guard over something special. The finest bookshops have discovery built into their design. They mimic the inquiring mind. I came out with an armful of treasures.
Chris Smither playing at the Kennedy Center, Washington, 15 June 2023
My live event of the year was American singer-songwriter Chris Smither, who I was privileged to see from a front row seat at King’s Place in London, on my birthday. He looked like a man who life had tried to wear down but had come through by smiling at himself. He played the guitar much as I dream I could play and sang his subtle songs from the heart. The video is from a month or so later, when he had left the UK and was touring the USA, as he seems to do endlessly. Listen, and if you don’t immediately get it, listen again.
Let’s finish with my favourite place of the year, which was the St Lawrence cricket ground in Canterbury, where I was able to watch Kent rather more times than has been the case in recent years. I treasured in particular seeing Kent play Essex at the end of March, as the season was just underway, under grey skies with a chill wind. It was a warm-up game, when warming-up was needed. There were short cuts, such as the bowlers only bowling from the one end, so it wasn’t quite the game as it should be, but it felt like things coming back to life after a hard winter. As the game returns, as it must do every year, so we can hope again.