Wednesday, 17 January 2018

park (w&d sofia exarchou)

The park in Park refers to the Olympic complex in Athens, created for the Olympic Games in 2004, which is now, as presented in Exarchou’s muscular film, a wasteland, taken over by kids. The kids are something like a cross between Lord of the Flies and Bicycle Thieves. On the one hand they have an endearing can-do energy, on the other they are malicious and combative. These kids have their own games, with their own winners and losers, games they play on the Olympic field of dreams. It’s a telling parable for the way in which glory fades. In this case, Greek glory, but, the film suggests in two vivid sequences, Europe’s too. 

Park ends up following the lives of two of the kids, Dimitris and Anna. Dimitris has a job in a stonemason’s yard, a job his mother has got for him by sleeping with the boss of the yard. But the boss soon lays him off. Dimitris starts to drift. He and Anna have a fling. Anna is as lost as her lover. In the first sequence which clearly squares the fate of the kids with that of a dehumanised European modernity, the two gatecrash a drunken party of British tourists, who are indulging in some full-on orgiastic hedonism. The two Greeks join in and no-one seems to care what the interlopers do. Personality, friendship, human contact: there’s no need for any of this. The tourists’ behaviour apes that of the kids. Anna is nothing more than a body, but that’s enough for free booze and partying. Later, after the couple split up, Dimitris repeats the gate-crashing trick, this time with a group of middle-aged Nordic businessmen and women. All of these people come to Greece in order to indulge, to reduce themselves to the state of animals. Jens, a businessman who drunkenly befriends Dimitris, howls like a wolf. The metaphor, located in the midst of the film’s dreamy narrative, is more potent than it perhaps sounds on paper. Exarchou’s camera lingers as Dimitris is caught, Hamlet-like, between conscience and action, whilst he decides whether or not to take advantage of the sozzled businessman. 

Meanwhile, the kids continue their games at the park. They are a lost generation, who have nothing better to do. Anna appears to drift towards prostitution. Dimitris becomes increasingly unhinged. Park, with its hand-held intimacy, gets right into to the heart of the problem. In a way, the film feels like a counterpoint to Ade’s Toni Erdmann. Europe on the brink of retreating into barbarism. The Olympic games, that great symbol of youthful ambition, revealed to be nothing more than a symbol, stripped of any value. so that all that’s left are empty stands, grassed-over arenas, dead swimming pools. The hollowness of the show revealed for all to see. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

companions [christina hesselholdt]

Companions is a chunky novel, composed of monologues spoken by five different characters: Alma, Camilla, Alwilda, Kristian and Edward, all of them Danish. The novel opens with Alma and Kristian, a couple, on holiday in the UK, retracing Wordsworth’s steps and recounting the visit from their differing perspectives. It also provides, for a British audience, the fascinating  experience of viewing one’s homeland through a European lens. The writer uses her scalpel to slice up their soon-to-be-doomed relationship. The literary references continue with visits to the homes of the Brontës and Virginia Woolf. The novel operates on all kinds of levels, and it’s a luminous, absorbing opening.

The format of the novel, this succession of monologues, suggests an extension of this fractal pattern. Something along the lines of a roman á clef, divided by five. This suggestion is deceptive. In fact, Camilla emerges as the dominant voice, with Alma as the secondary one. The other three characters have cameo roles, nothing more. Camilla’s relationship with her mother gradually establishes itself as the book’s dominant theme. The engaging, worldly Camilla and the more phlegmatic Alma (who is a novelist) begin to feel like twin manifestations of the author’s id. The two women dovetail memories, share journeys together. The novel rambles. It has no set destination. The event which draws the book to its conclusion seems slightly Hollywood. In the end Companions has the feel of a memoir as much as a novel, even though we have no way of knowing whether Camilla and Alma’s anecdotes are drawn from the author’s life or are entirely fictitious. 

The writing retains a savvy, erudite tone. These are strong Danish women, whose romanticism is kept in check. They visit Sylvia Plath’s home, but neither are the type to put their head in an oven, in spite of a history of attempted suicide in Camilla’s family. At times it almost feels as though both women pine for that Brontëan moment, which history and culture has neglected to give them. Instead, Camilla and Alma substitute a restless, Proustian roving through their history, a sublimation of the lived passion which eludes them, or in which the writer has less interest. It’s perhaps revealing that when Alma does start a relationship with one of the other narrators, Edward, this happens almost entirely off-screen, so to speak. This is a novel which skirts passion; one which is more preoccupied with the binds of friendship or family. To what extent this might be a Danish trait is hard to know; although there are echoes of Vinterberg’s The Commune. 

Friday, 12 January 2018

habitat [miguel rey]

Rey’s collection of inter-linked short stories gets under the skin of young Cuban society. It consists of six brief tales, all of them narrated by a disillusioned young man, probably the same one, Liam. Liam works as a tennis coach, giving classes to tourists and the wealthy Havana elite. He inhabits a more sheltered, Westernised Havana, one which feels a long way from any kind of politicised revolution. The book is peppered with acerbic references to contemporary culture, from Hugh Grant to Chris Brown and Rihanna. In one of the stories the narrator has a friend called Maiquel Jordan Zamora, and the author makes the wry observation that people ask: is that his real name? There’s no mention of Che or Fidel. This is a Cuba that is culturally close to the US and Central America. The closest the writing gets to talking about politics is a brief discussion of The Cherry Orchard, and how its title in the Spanish translation is wrong. The narrator then makes a few playful remarks about subtext and his ignorance regarding this, but this is a writer who seems well aware of the significance of the subtext of all his references; the way they both expand and contract the Cuban perspective.

Rather than politics, the stories relate random sexual encounters; tawdry Havana nights; minor porn addiction and tennis coaching. This is low-key living, told in a deadpan style. It has something in common with other seemingly disengaged texts such as Pedro Mairal’s La Uruguaya or even Pauls’ The Past. Tales from a post-political generation. Where the search for meaning isn’t found in big ideas, but in the kinks in the mainframe that can only be registered by experiences lived on an intimate, personal level. 

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

our man in havana [greene]

This was the third Greene novel I read in 2017. I read Our Man in Havana in Havana itself, hidden away in a windowless room on the edge of Havana Vieja, a block away from the Malecon. The Havana Greene describes is pre-revolutionary, although there were rebels in the hills and there’s an unspoken pressure on civil society, which is represented by the figure of the Mephistophelean police chief Captain Segura, who apparently has a cigarette case made out of human skin. Segura is, nevertheless, one of the less malicious antagonists the protagonist, Jim Wormwold faces. He’s a sly, intelligent man, whose evil traits are rooted in an understanding that within Cuban society, there’s no room for sentiment. And it feels as though Greene traces an echo of this in the way that British society functions. Wormwold is singled out as a suitable candidate to represent the British Secret Services in Havana, no matter the personal consequences for him or his family. His task is to stay alive and do his best not to cause too many needless deaths. 

There’s a lightness to the tone of Our Man… which makes it a breezy, amusing read. Greene sends up the British security services, with Wormwold an admirable anti-Bond, a little man who runs a vacuum cleaner shop, whose main preoccupation is keeping his teenage daughter happy. The novel is at once a portrayal of Cuban life, seen through the eyes of an ex-pat, and a critique of Britain’s post-imperial ambitions as it seeks to punch above its weight. Wormwold’s fleecing of the civil service he has been seconded to is admirable. It’s fascinating to see the way in which brand Bond has become a kind of flagship for Britain over the course of the past fifty years; a cruel, unthinking kind of Britishness which has its flair but is ultimately pretentious nonsense. Whereas Greene’s protagonist is a homespun anti-hero in the tradition of Jerome K Jerome or Sterne. 

As for the portrayal of Havana: the streets Wormwood treads and the bars he visits are still there, still recognisable in their Caribbean chaos, although he might well be saddened by the degree to which the city has fallen into decline, following nigh on 60 years of the US blockade. The wealth that once encouraged foreigners to set up shop and sell vacuum cleaners has long gone.

Potential site of Jim Wormwold's Shop/ Home in Calle Lamparilla, Havana

Sunday, 7 January 2018

ice [anna kavan]

Ice is a book that takes you by surprise. It starts with a vivid description of a man driving through a blizzard, in the hope of reaching a mysterious pale woman he claims to be in love with. It’s a Douglas Sirk opening, heightened and melodramatic. From then on the novel evolves into something altogether more hallucinogenic. The man’s quest for the woman turns into an odyssey, set against the backdrop of a planet threatened by an existential ice age. There is also an implication of nuclear war, between undisclosed powers. The quest becomes more and more outlandish, each chapter leading the narrator no nearer to his goal, as he becomes more and more lost in the novel’s cruel logic.

The more you read, the more you start to wonder what Ice is really all about? It’s a symbolic, metaphoric text rather than a naturalistic one. The world the author is depicting would appear to be a representation of an inner landscape, an inner quest. I know nothing about Ana Kavan, but there’s a tantalising clue in the biographical note. Her tennis coach got her hooked on heroin (to help her improve her serve?). Reading Ice as an opiate nightmare would seem to make sense. Then again, maybe the world is an opiate nightmare? Kavan’s book packs enough of a punch to make us believe it might be so. In these days of climactic crisis and nuclear tyrants, it’s a vision which feels closer than ever. 

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

globe - life in shakespeare’s london [catherine arnold]

This will be the final entry in the blog for 2017, as I soon depart for a land beyond the reach of the internet, more or less. Which will be like going back in time. To a time I cannot help but be envious of, those innocent days when the planet was still a place to roam free, with all the risk and adventure which that implied.

Of course, I am guilty of hyperbole. The planet, or at least our anthropocene planet, has gone through various revolutions of technology and communication. Globe describes one of them. Having read more than a few Shakespeare books of late, this one stands out for the way in which the author places the playwright within the context of his times. Not least making it clear what a young, pristine craft the art of playwrighting was when he arrived on the scene. The pioneers were also the definers; it could be argued that the learning curve in playwrighting is all wrong. The craft reached a peak in this country within fifty years of being initiated and it’s never scaled those heights again. Which might be a little harsh on the likes of Shaw, Pinter, Churchill and their ilk, but there’s no denying the glory of the Elizabethan stage, an explosion of creativity, shaped by ambitious, competitive young men desperate to make their mark. 

Arnold’s book navigates the tricky task of writing about an elusive subject with efficiency. Unlike Shapiro, she doesn’t speculate too much on his motives or the subtexts of his plays. Instead, she carefully lays the groundwork for an understanding of the socio-cultural environment Shakespeare belonged to. A clear love for London helps in this; she reserves her greatest flights of fancy for a re-imagining of the city as it might have been then. The book also does a fine job of tracing the links between Shakespeare and his contemporaries Greene, Marlowe and Johnson. All in all it’s an engaging read and an excellent introduction for anyone wanting to get a handle on who the mysterious genius might have been, he who surfed the net of his new art form with such remarkable agility. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

blow up (w&d michelangelo antonioni, w tonino guerra, julio cortázar, edward bond)

Blow Up is one of those films which has a constant presence at the back of the mind. You imagine you know it backwards. Which is why it’s so good to get the opportunity to see it again on the cinema screen and realise that, in keeping with the themes of the film, what you imagined isn’t necessarily the same film as the one that’s really there. 

For example, I remembered the fake tennis match at the end, but hadn’t remembered that it came, precisely, at the end. It’s an act of sheer brio. A dozen painted-faced youths turn up and play pretend tennis and that’s that. An act of consummate narrative brilliance, pulling all the theoretical threads of the film together whilst making it crystal clear (or crystal opaque) that there’s no use hoping for a neat plot resolution. 

In case you hadn’t got it, this is a film about perception. What we see, what we think we see, what we imagine we see and what we don’t see. Reading some of the notes about the film, there seems to be a suggestion that Antonioni wasn’t interested in dialogue, but this seems like another oversight. Besides the famous “I am in Paris” line, one of the great pre-Lynchian Lynchian moments, there are also some nailed on exchanges as Hemmings’ Thomas talks to Sarah Miles about what he has or hasn’t seen. At other moments the dialogue feels like another musical note in a film that is so obsessive about composition. The lines might feel as though they’re discordant, but that’s part of the film’s deliberate discordance. As is Hemmings’ hyper-active acting, which rather than being forced, feels representative of a time when there was a furious energy at play, but an energy which was never clear as to what its objectives were. 

There is even a latent energy in the propeller which Thomas buys, the implication of a movement which has been stilled. Which is also a way of viewing photography. Roland Barthes’ punctum: the moment which the photograph captures and the unseen life contained within that image’s crystallisation. It might be that Antonioni’s film contains a plea for us to look harder, to penetrate the hidden corners of the visible in order to glimpse the supposedly invisible. Something which a society which has become increasingly image-dependent, without in any way improving its faculty for reading those images, would do well to heed. Further to that, you can see in Blow-Up the way that history’s tendrils stretch back to that supposedly revolutionary time of the swinging sixties, which was far from being all that it appeared. Rather than being the advent of a utopic freedom, it was actually the dawning of advanced materialism. Another Antonioni quote states that he didn’t want the film to be a London film, but the images which capture a city at the beginning of a process of transformation towards the modern behemoth it is still becoming, make it unequivocally a London film. And one of the greatest, without a shadow of a doubt. 


Note - Edward Bond has a scriptwriting credit for English dialogue, adding to the impression that the film’s dialogue was something that was taken more seriously than has been suggested. With the director, Guerra, Bond and Cortazar on the script side, one wonders if there’s ever been a stronger script team put together for a movie. 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

flights [olga tokarczuk]

Flights is almost two books for the price of one. The book is constructed around the notebooks of a travelling woman, who one takes to be the author, as she moves around the world, reflecting on the nature of travel. These observations are made up of brief sections, often less than a page long. In amongst these observations are threaded various stories, some modern, some historical. These stories make up the second part of the book. A man whose wife and child go missing on a Croatian island. A Dutch pioneer of anatomy who becomes obsessed by his own amputated leg. A woman in Moscow who walks out of her own life. Observations from the notebooks infiltrate the stories, so that the reader can glimpse the craft of the author’s architecture. As the book unfolds the recurring theme of the body begins to emerge. What’s revealed when we delve beneath the flesh?  What is a body, after all? Is the body in one place the same as the body in another? Tokarczuk’s restlessness fuels her writing. The book’s structure mirrors the subject of its enquiry, showing the arteries, intestines etc, which sustain the vital organs. Which lends the book a curious, occasionally frustrating brilliance, as we dip into one narrative only to be whisked on to the next. Which, one supposes, is also akin to the process of travelling. On the one hand a superficial occupation which means that you never get to know the place you’re visiting with any great degree of profundity; but also a means to enhance the horizons of the mind, to begin to be able to gauge the extent, variety and richness of this world we have been given to inhabit. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

news from planet mars (w&d dominik moll, w gilles marchand)

How we loved Lemming. Not to mention Harry He’s Here to Help. I think they’re some of my favourite movies from around the turn of the century. Deadpan humour, a sardonic, Hitchcokian slant. Moll was one of the most important filmmakers around, one whose decidedly European sensibility (should there be such a thing) managed to get a foothold in British cinemas. And then, nada, for over a decade. In fact, I note from IMDB that he made The Monk in 2011, a film which passed me by. From time to time, I would wonder, whatever happened to Dominik Moll? So when, casually browsing the Cinemateca webpage, I saw a new Moll film, it was too good an opportunity to miss. 

News From Planet Mars, to give it its English title, is a likeable, if somewhat predictable tale of a downtrodden man who has to turn his life around. Philippe Mars lives in his high rise Paris flat, separated from his TV presenter wife. The film catches up with him whilst she’s on location in Brussels, covering a Euro summit, meaning he has their two teenage the kids for an indeterminate time. His kids think he’s a loser. And it looks as though they’re right. His ear is accidentally severed by a psychopathic work colleague. He survives, as does his ear, but the colleague ends up moving into his flat, and then bringing his equally disturbed would-be girlfriend too. Everything that can go wrong for Phillipe does. But finally he turns the corner, regains his kids’ respect and realises he has to quit his dead-end job. It’s all a bit neat and tame. There are a few touches reminiscent of prime Moll: animals on the loose; the ear incident; the sudden disposal of his sister’s dog, but these are garnishes. 

Whilst it’s good to have Moll back, the edginess of his earlier work doesn’t shine through here. Looking back, it feels as though Europe has become a far less stable place in the last ten years. The uneasiness which underpins Moll’s best work feels prophetic of a society where you can no longer take things for granted, where the carpet is moving under you. Perhaps modernity has caught up with Dominik Moll and it’s left him uncertain where to go next. Like the rest of us. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

you were never really here (w&d lynne ramsay)

Ramsay’s film is one of those frustrating films which are better than most others, but still not nearly as good as you feel it might have been. Joaquin Phoenix, verging on the portly, is military vet who makes a living out of carrying out hits with nothing more than a hammer. He’s haunted by a multi-layered traumatic past, revealed in gossamer-thin flashbacks. There’s the recurrent image of a body/ head twisted in fabric, a link to Ratcatcher. There’s an intensity of image which is both beautiful and potent. The fact that Phoenix barely speaks is immaterial: we still know how his mind works. Using a fertile cinematic grammar, Ramsey explores his psyche through an exploration of the image. 

However, You Were Never Really There is, essentially, a B-Movie. There’s very little in the way of narrative development and the storyline of the Phoenix character deciding he has to rescue a young girl feels like an excuse for a narrative. There’s none of the play of Alice in the Cities, a movie which is perhaps comparable in terms of an older man constructing an unlikely bond with a girl. In effect this is a film with an incredibly detailed surface, without suggesting there’s all that much beneath it. Perhaps it should be approached os an exercise in aesthetics, but the violence (implicit rather than explicit)  carries its own baggage: it is justified? Is a narrative constructed around a violent killer viable entertainment fodder? Lynn Ramsay does Tarantino seems a bit unlikely, but this might have been the film’s real hook. Instead it feels as though the filmmaker shies away from the more complex implications of her chosen story.