Academic golden boy and eye-candy Dr James Fox has got a new BBC series out: Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities. Now, as someone with Viennese blood running through his veins I couldn’t give this a miss, even though I found some of Fox’s previous work slightly grating.
First things first: I quite liked the show against all initial reservations. Naturally, it is rather hard to paint a concise picture on the atmosphere the world’s sixth largest city had in in 1908; especially since most people today have no idea what Vienna once stood for. Fox starts off with the one Austrian everyone knows, Adolf Hitler, and how that horrendous individual met with with rejection in the bustling melting-pot capital of the Habsburg Empire. (I always held the opinion that if the Akademie der Bildenden Künste wasn’t such a snobby instution the world would have been a very different place.)
From Hitler we are taken immediately to Schiele, Kokoschka and Schönberg. And that was the first surprise – Oskar Kokoschka is someone that doesn’t get mentioned much in the Anglo-American cultural narrative. Without doubt Kokoschka was one of the greatest artists to have lived in the 20th century and it was enlightening to see his contribution to the 1908 exhibition, Die Träumenden Knaben, published by the Wiener Werkstätte (which regrettably doesn’t get a look-in.)
Naturally, Fox requires a narrative thread to make his documentary work, allowing him to verify his thesis that Vienna was really very much an Aussen hui, innen pfui (All fur coat and no knickers) town – beautiful on the surface yet dark and sinister underneath. He argues that the that rift was responsible for the unique creative forces emerging at that time.
Schiele’s foot-less, red-eyed self portrait is used to illustrate that thesis, and here the documentary settles and gets rather captivating. Fox subsequently chooses examples as one would pick out fancy chocolates from a Demel Bonbonniere: There is Freud‘s ‘discovery’ of the Oedipus complex, the reaction Adolf Loos got when his famous house on Michaelerplatz was unveiled, Schönberg’s reception by the Viennese public (not good) and the sewer people (tens of thousands living in squalor underground due to an acute housing shortage) all get mentioned.
My favourite bonbon, however, was the story of Else Jerusalem (link in German) who I have never heard of before and her novel Der Heilige Skarabäus, about prostitution in Vienna and the terrible cost it had on the 50,000 or so women that worked as Huren in the city. (Incidentally, back in 1995 a Viennese prostitute once saved my life – I crossed the street in the Prater Amusement Park, and almost got driven over by a speeding car if she wouldn’t have called out, very loudly, ‘Jetzt hod’s earn’ which translates roughly as ‘No he’s got him!’. Startled I jumped backwards, the car missing me by an inch.)
The film ends by looking at Karl Lueger, Vienna’s infamous mayor who’s known for his infrastructure projects and antisemitism. This, slightly too neatly, takes us back to Hitler, who was apparently believing every word of the mayoral propaganda. All I know is that Hitler, a provincial, angry, unsuccessful yokel, tried to survive in poverty, and there must have been thousands like him, antisemitic mayor or not.
A Tale of Three Cities is beautifully shot, the director appears to have a special love for the trams, which get a lot of exposure. There are bits of archival footage, and cute-ish yet not strictly necessary animations. What we are not told is how Vienna was so much more than a just a bipolar town: The many people who moved to the capital from all over the empire are not mentioned, as isn’t the burgeoning petit bourgeoisie or the strong socialist working class that made the city what it was.
Dr Fox certainly is engaging, up to a point where one is tempted to press the mute button to focus on the imagery. He’s best at interviewing and it would be great to see him interact more with other people. Occasionally, he’s hamming it up too much, holding over-the-top speeches at the State Opera, for example. At one point he calls Emperor Francis Joseph doddery, I’m sure he wouldn’t dare to say the same about the current Queen of England on camera (surely all reigning statesmen and women beyond a certain age should retire, but that constitutes a different argument). Nevertheless, I did warm up to James Fox eventually, beaten into submission by the relentless joviality and enthusiasm I fear.
Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities is a very watchable documentary and for one I am looking forward to the next two episodes, especially the New York City 1951 installment. Perhaps one day he will be able to find his feet, calm down a bit and allow the story to speak for itself rather than performing a constant song and a dance and letting his lucid storytelling do the job.
Episode 2, Paris 1928 was alright, however Fox really needs to fine tune his script: ‘Most of you wouldn’t have heard of Buñuel’ – well you are on BBC4 and this is a rather niche programme. Don’t patronise your audience.
Episode 3, New York 1951, is a complete dog’s dinner. It doesn’t work for a variety of reasons, mostly the year that has been chosen; but again Fox is his own worst enemy. Just chill, mate. Nobody needs to see you on a baseball pitch, and as the Hathaway man. That’s just gimmicky and frankly cartoonish. The greatest problem with this episode is that it is factually wrong. Blacks, gays and other minorities weren’t rounded up because there was ‘sin’ (in forms of drugs) but because NYC has always also been the top haven for the American establishment (which incidentally has won the battle for now, due to ‘Zero Tolerance’, Giuliani and social cleansing). And – I Love Lucy was not the first sitcom to use various cameras, and besides television as such does not really characterise New York in 1951. The whole undertaking is a wasted opportunity with an attention seeking presenter overshadowing whatever interest remains in the show itself.
Total Rating 4.5/10