Ancient images

On Photography, Susan Sontag
Mr Turner, Mike Leigh
Ancient Laughter: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up, Mary Beard

I’m a latecomer to Susan Sontag – I think On Photography is the first book of hers I’ve ever read. It’s really good, in spite of a very late 70s-early 80s tendency to swoon about like the End of Days is At Hand, and made me wish she were still around to write about the people who get freaked out by selfie-sticks. The racist trope of the native fearing the camera’s soul-stealing powers is pretty old-fashioned, but photography is still enough of a novelty that its new manifestations – which are really just an acceleration of the trend to cheapness, portability and popularisation which Sontag records – arouse responses which it doesn’t seem unfair to call superstitious.

I’ve not been much of a Mike Leigh fan – Naked is one of the very few films that I wish I’d walked out of – but I really enjoyed Mr Turner, which contains a nice set-piece at the very start of photography’s history. I’m not much of an artist-biopic fan, either, but Leigh mostly avoids the genre’s cliches, his 19th century has a very convincing, lived-in feel, and Timothy Spall’s performance is admirable. It’s worth seeing on the big screen, as the cinematography is excellent. The audience I saw it with tittered in embarrassment at some of the parts which I found most touching and convincing – Turner singing out of tune to an out of tune pianoforte at a patron’s country house, for example. By our standards, there would have been so much slightly-off music in the days before recordings – George Bernard Shaw’s early work as a music critic is very instructive.

I’d been looking forward to Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome ever since I saw a copy in Melbourne last year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a dried and more scholarly work than her Pompeii – Life and Death in a Roman Town, but that added to the austere pleasure of a text which not only describes the most ineffable of emotional responses – the history of theories of laughter is something like a narrative of repeated attempts to catch smoke – but also attempts to register that response’s echoes across the gulf between ourselves and the ancient world.


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