TV UK, 22 August

Ewan McGregor's surly intellectual in Young Adam sounds like a recruitment officer at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Dolan Cummings

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There I am in the bar at Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema, trying to figure out the identity of the semi-celebrity I half-recognise a few feet away, and who should sneak in the back door but James Bond himself?

Sean Connery was making a hush-hush visit to the pictures, before a personal appearance at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, to see his putative protege Ewan McGregor’s latest film, Young Adam.

Having got over the excitement of almost meeting the world’s most famous Rangers supporter, I made my way to the cinema itself, and sat two rows down from 007, fully expecting to be disappointed with the film. In fact, Young Adam is very faithful to the spirit of Alexander Trocchi’s novel. It is a portrait of the intellectual as a parasite.

Of course, Ewan McGregor’s accent is still a problem. It was bad enough in Trainspotting, when his Renton spoke throughout like a polite Edinburgh schoolboy meeting a friend’s parents for the first time. Joe, the antihero of Young Adam, is supposed to be an intellectual, but specifically a surly Glaswegian intellectual, not a recruitment officer at Glasgow Caledonian University. Fortunately he doesn’t have to speak too much; mostly he’s too busy having sex with other men’s wives.

The novel was first published in 1957, and is sometimes identified with Existentialism, but Trocchi was way ahead of the pack in driving politics, or any sense of responsibility to others, completely from his character’s world. Having failed to come up with a revolutionary work of literature while sponging off a girlfriend, Joe drifts aimlessly through other people’s lives, like the Littlest Hobo without the heroics. Not an uplifting film, but a good one. (I didn’t get a chance to ask Sean what he thought.)

As I mentioned in my last column (1), there has been some discussion at the Edinburgh festivals about how politically engaged the arts should be. Most people see explicitly didactic theatre or cinema as a bit naff, but there is a palpable desire to connect with audiences in some way, and to say something meaningful about the world. It’s just that nobody is quite sure how to do that. But it is notable that the brightest people at the festival are thinking about formal innovation rather than the intellectual content of their work. Far from representing a retreat from engagement, though, it seems to me that this is exactly what people in the arts should be doing.

One of the most interesting shows I’ve seen at the fringe is 7 Assilon Place. It’s a play about asylum seekers, and the political message, such as it is, is predictably worthy, but that isn’t the point. Talia Theatre, the group producing the show, use a physical theatre technique called Biomechanics, which was developed in revolutionary Russia. Physical theatre doesn’t provide insights about asylum, but it can generate excitement on a more visceral level, and 7 Assilon Place offers a glimpse of how that model of artistic engagement might work.

If Young Adam marks the end of a particular way of understanding the role of intellectuals and artists, Eroica, also at the film festival, documents its beginning, and shows how a medium as abstract as music can express the kind of meaning that is missing from contemporary culture and politics. It’s a BBC film, set mostly in real time, at the first ever rehearsal of Beethoven’s third symphony. The idea is to recapture the revolutionary quality of the symphony at the time it was written.

But since every note sounds perfect (or at least perfectly acceptable) to the modern ear, this has to be done by focusing on the faces of those who are listening. This technique doesn’t always work, but when it does, the excitement is infectious. At the end, Joseph Haydn appears to announce, ‘From today, everything is different’.

Eroica is set in the shadow of Napoleon, to whom the symphony was originally dedicated. But we don’t need another Napoleon in order to have another Beethoven – we just need artists who are willing to experiment, to think big, and to be sure of their own unique role.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) TV UK, 7 August

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