Tuesday, 12 June 2018

el rey tuerto (w&d marc crehuet)

This Spanish film, featured as part of the human rights festival, is a curiosity. It’s a drama, rather than a doc, which is constructed around the premise of David, a policeman, meeting the man whose eye he shot out at a demonstration (Nacho). They meet because their respective partners used to know one another, and have arranged to have supper together. If this feels somewhat stagey, it’s because that’s the way the film, unashamedly is. Heavy on the dialogue and meticulously acted, the film always has the feel of an adapted stage play. It’s well shot and well lit, which lends it a more cinematic air, but the project clearly has its roots in the theatre. The story unfolds through a sequence of acts, as David is forced to confront his prejudices and, perhaps predictably, strikes up a complex relationship with the one-eyed Nacho.

The process of watching a well-rendered stage adaptation is interesting. Theatre offers far more scope for discussion and polemic, something the audience appeared to enjoy. They were in no way put off by the wordiness, if anything they relished it. The dramatic product, most of which takes place in the same location, isn’t dependent on a sophisticated manipulation of image, something that film schools and funding bodies seem obsessed by. Instead, the argument and the dynamic between the characters carry the film towards its end. The fact that the narrative ends up feeling somewhat obvious is neither here nor there; what’s fascinating is how the cinematic form and the stage play format work in tandem. It makes one wonder to what extent cinema might have backed away from the joys of the spoken word, allowing it to become the stuff of television. When film does allow itself to indulge in ample dialogue (the Boyle/ Sorkin venture Steve Jobs comes to mind; or even Andrew Haigh’s Weekend), it too often tends towards a slightly verbose pudding. Marc Crehuet’s text shows how the use of a solid scene structure helps, as in theatre, to give shape to the words, to keep them in check, and in the process reminds us of how entertaining a cinema of language and ideas is capable of being, something that tends to get forgotten.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

los olvidados (d. agustín flores)

What is the function of cinema? What is it there for? On the one hand, it ties into a longing for escapism, for the dream, the notion that beyond the confines of this cruel world there’s another one, in which we are funnier or stronger or at least different. Chaplin and Fast and Furious and ET all fit into this category. On the other hand, it’s a mirror to the world. It shows us things that we know are there but cannot otherwise see. Apocalypse Now, Ken Loach, Sanjines, to name a few references. Any film postulates itself somewhere on this binary chart. Sometimes a film slots into both categories, sometimes it’s resolutely aimed at solely one. Documentary, almost inevitably tends towards the latter. Documentary cannot help but be trapped in realism. 

Los Olvidados fits firmly into this category. It depicts life in a Montevidean barrio, Marconi, which is by and large considered too dangerous for people to visit. It’s talked about as a no-go area, one even the police will only approach armed to the nines. Los Olvidados, its title a nod to Buñuel, takes the viewer there in the company of ‘Don Koni’, a rapper who is trying to convey with his music the realties of living in the barrio, for better or for worse. The film gives its characters cameras so that they can film inside the barrio. What emerges is a fractured portrait, of a place seeking to defend its dignity in the face of neglect from the authorities and media stigmatisation. It’s an honest, important, low key film. I may never go to Marconi, even though it’s just down the road from where I live. So long as the class dividing lines remain rigid, they are nigh-on impossible to cross. People become attached to their perceptions, narratives remain intractable. One of the only ways we can visit is via the medium of film. Flores’ film doesn’t seek to dress its characters up, there’s no hint of escapism or ghetto porn. It’s a window onto a world which is our world, those of us who live in this city, and beyond.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

under the net [iris murdoch]

Murdoch’s first novel recounts a few days in the life of Jake, a sometime translator and drifter, who lives on the margins of an early fifties London intellectual world. Kicked out of his digs in the first chapter, he spends most of the novel looking for his next place to stay, something that doesn’t appear to generate all that much anxiety. The novel has a lot on common with Wain’s Hurry on Down, published the year before. Like Wain, Murdoch centres her novel on a protagonist who resists any societal pressure to settle down and get a proper job. (The only fixed job Jake takes on is as a hospital orderly, following the in footsteps of Wain’s Lumley.) Instead, he embarks on a picaresque journey which involves rabid left wingers, actresses and his nemesis, Hugo, a man who can’t help making money but dreams of becoming a watchmaker. Jake has had a book published which is a disguised transcription of the philosophical conversations he used to have with Hugo. Likewise, one can perhaps sense the author’s own instincts to use the literary form as a way of grappling with philosophy, although it never feels all that clear which philosophical issues the book is seeking to address. It seems invidious to comment on the literary merits or not of the first novel of such a respected author, all the more so as I don’t know her later work. However, more than anything, Under the Net feels like a companion piece to the fifties aspiration to discover a path towards the unconventional, which had to be out there somewhere, if only you knew where to look. (As it turns out, Liverpool, the soon-to-be former colonies and the Deep South of the USA, to name a few.)

Saturday, 2 June 2018

the poetess (d. stefanie brockhaus, andreas wolff)

Saudi Arabia is one of the most closed societies on earth. To see pictures of Riyadh and Mecca reminds us how little we know about a country that exercises so much influence. It’s almost as though the niqab, the garment that covers women’s bodies from top to toe, allowing only their eyes to be seen, is a metaphor for a society which can never be known or seen or understood. 

As the title suggests, The Poetess is about a female Saudi poet, Hissa Hilal, who uses her fame as a platform to criticise the clergy. It’s a film about women’s rights in the world, and the muslim world in particular, but it’s also a film which demystifies a culture about which we, in the ‘West’ are so ignorant. This extends to the regional love of poetry, with the poetess acquiring her fame by appearing on a kind of X-Factor for poets in the Arab world. We also see her out shopping with her daughters, doing interviews for the BBC and other media outlets. Behind the veil, there’s a fierce and humourous intelligence, revealed through her interviews, but also through the poems she reads in the competition. How much courage does it take to criticise the clergy if you’re from Saudi Arabia? And to use your role on a massive regional TV show to do so? However, Hissa Hilal seems to do it without breaking sweat, suggesting that she might live in a society which marginalises women, but she personally doesn’t feel in any way intimidated. 

Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff’s film uses the structure of the TV competition to knit their compelling story together. It’s a great tale of an unassuming heroine, which expands our understanding of a closed world, and reaffirms the foolishness of any society which tries to make women into second class citizens. 

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

memoirs of the forties [maclaren ross]

When I travel, something that’s been happening slightly too frequently of late, I normally try to pick up something to read from the place I’m visiting. Literature is a portal to a place just as much as a visit. Usually I attempt to find a more contemporaneous take on my destination, but this isn’t essential. 

Right now, I’m in between and betwixt. On the basis of the past couple of years, you could either say I live in two places, or none. It’s an awkward balance. The two places that I’d call home are Ciudad Vieja and a nebulous part of London which probably has its epicentre in Soho/ Fitzrovia. A location which also became the epicentre of Maclaren Ross’ world, a place he documents in his memoir. Reading the book over the past week or so, the overlaps are striking. He goes to the local pubs, has generally unproductive meetings with publishers and film companies, hangs out, occasionally comes across celebrities, gets drunk a lot, ruminates, writes. I may have only actually lived there very briefly, a few months at best, but these twinned London barrios have been a constant in my life for nigh on thirty years. 

What’s beguiling is the way in which this world has and hasn’t changed. The British intellectual attitude to realism and verisimilitude doesn’t seem to have altered one bit. Maclaren Ross disappoints Cyril Connoly and several others when they discover he’s never been to India after having been impressed by a story set in Madras. As though the use of the imagination is a faintly dishonourable way of going about the creative process. The desperate hunger in the British arts for “authentic” voices persists to this day. The physical space has not changed nearly as much as some other parts of the city. A few of the pubs Maclaren Ross frequented are still there, even if they’re not regular haunts of mine, although the other day we emerged from a meeting at the BFI in Stephen Street and went round the corner to a little pub I’d never visited, which does indeed pop up in the memoirs.

In other ways, Maclaren Ross’ Soho/ Fitzrovia feels more like my experience of Ciudad Vieja. A place where you are always liable to run into someone, where the barmen and women know your drinking habits, where the need to socialise is an imperative, driven by the need to feel alive in the face of a fear that the whole caboodle isn’t really worth it. Post-war London, in the eyes of Maclaren Ross, didn’t quite have the same sense of its own importance as it does today. These memoirs also occur during the war, when the very act of just keeping going was all that was required as motivation to write, or create. or socialise.

Perhaps, in conclusion, my two worlds, or homes, aren’t so far apart after all. Perhaps, when I roam the narrow streets of Soho, Fitzrovia or Ciudad Vieja, they are all, in some fashion which is greater than geography, the same place after all. Maclaren Ross’ memoirs inevitably relate a world which no longer exists; but maybe it can still be found if you’re willing to venture further afield. 

Thursday, 24 May 2018

redoubtable (w&d hazanavicius)

Michel Hazanavicius’ oeuvre is another love-letter to cinema. An adaptation of Anne Wiaszemsky’s book about her her marriage to Godard, it’s a playful, quasi-philosophical offering, an homage to Godard which seeks to negotiate his shade without being overcast by it. The issue is whether it succeeds or not. It may seem harsh to accuse a film, one that seeks to engage with the serious issues of the relationship between art, politics and the artist’s personal life, as being too entertaining, but that was probably my subjective reaction as the credits rolled. Hazanavicius is clearly having fun. There’s a scene where two actors discuss the merits of doing gratuitous nude scenes, whilst gratuitously in the nude; there are pastiches of La Chinoise, Le Mepris and presumably half a dozen other Godard films. As Godard and Wiaszemsky get more and more drawn into the politics of Paris 68, a succession of working class characters appear to ask the cineaste when he’s going to go back to making ‘marant’ films like A Bout de Souffle. All of which is tremendously entertaining, as is Louis Garrel’s lovely portrayal of the self-absorbed director, a quietly mocking performance which manages to still be respectful to Godard’s undoubted genius. However, this is a film which is seeking to address issues of some import; not least the whole structure which underpins the making of movies themselves. There’s plenty of relevance to a critique which questions the role of the market and the producer in the creation of cinema, the most expensive of art forms. It’s far from absurd that Godard grappled with these issues through the formation of the Dziga Vertov group, setting out to develop another method of cinematic creation, one which investigated the means of production. it’s to Hazanavicius’ credit that he puts all these issues on the table, but rather than engage with the issues, the film seems to use them as window-dressing. It’s not often that you come out of a film with the feeling that you loved it, but found it at the same time disappointing. My hunch is that I’d rather have hated it a little bit more; but found it more challenging. 


A few extra notes on the film: lovely to have seen this homage to cinema with Mr C in the big screen of the Curzon Soho; disappointing that there were only about half a dozen more people for screening. Also: having done some cursory research it’s very curious to see some of the ways in which the film’s narrative chose to bend reality. Wiaszemsky had a small role in the film of Godard’s friend, Michel Cournot, whose Cannes screening’s cancellation becomes one of the central issues of the film. Additionally, the Italian film Wiaszemsky went to film, which is presented as the breaking point of their marriage, was not quite the soft-porn romp as presented by Redoubtable; in fact it was a very much of-its-time quasi-philosophical post-apocalyptic drama, far more redolent of the sixties than the Hazanavicius’ film suggests. 

Sunday, 20 May 2018

hurry on down [john wain]

Hurry on Down is a novel that I arrived at via Humphrey Carpenter’s lucid review of the Angry Young Men, with eponymous title. Wain is not a fashionable author; indeed none of the authors that feature in his book, save perhaps Larkin, (who it could be argued was somewhat shoe-horned into the group by Carpenter). have succeeded in retaining their status. Colin Wilson, John Braine, John Osbourne, John Wain, Kingsley Amis, etc, all white educated males whose stock has fallen. First the sixties happened, then Rushdie and Amis M, then, by and large, oblivion. Old copies of Wain’s novel will adorn the shelves of my parent’s generation, but will rarely be read. 

However, as Carpenter’s book reveals, in its day, Hurry on Down was a groundbreaking text, which, along with Lucky Jim and other works of the Angry Young Men, denoted a generational break, a new way of thinking. It’s intriguing to contemplate why that was the case, and also why the novel has since fallen out of favour. I don’t imagine it pops up on the syllabus of many 20th century literature courses. 

The novel tells the story of Charles Lumley, an Oxford graduate, who, unenthused by the destiny life appears to have chosen for him, decides he’s going to choose another course. This leads to him getting a job as a window cleaner, which leads to him becoming a driver, a drug smuggler, a hospital orderly, a chauffeur, a down-and-out, a bouncer and finally he ends up a gag-writer for radio. The list is indicative of the fact this is a picaresque novel. In the book’s final pages, there’s a direct reference to Moll Flanders, but perhaps the model might be the works of Fielding, Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones. The novel used as a way of creating an over-arching portrayal of society, its values and, above all, its class structure. Lumley is a rebel in large part because he chooses to go against his class, a class he despises. He seeks to break down the rigid stratification of post-war British society. He seems a prototype of the generation of the sixties which would follow, one that ostensibly wanted to cast off their inherited shackles and embrace something altogether more “free”. Lumley’s chosen word is “neutral”. He wishes to remove himself from the prejudices of the class struggle altogether, dreaming of living, a la Crusoe, on an island, even though he recognises that this dream is a chimera. Whenever he gets close to realising it, he finds himself compelled to dive back into the maelstrom. 

The protagonist’s picaresque journey is knitted together by his love for the slightly nebulous Veronica. The book perhaps suffers from a slight tone of existential disdain: Lumley’s reluctance to commit to any kind of role in society could be read as inverted snobbery. However, this laconic attitude (again echoing new ways of thinking being perpetrated on the other side of the channel) clearly struck a chord with a generation sick of the war and the way in which war stratifies society. Wain succeeds in never mentioning the war, which all his characters would have experienced in one form or another; this erasure of itself must have felt like  a relief to a generation desperate to look forwards rather than backwards. 

As to the reasons the novel has fallen out of fashion. Perhaps it’s not enough to say that the stories of white, educated post-war males no longer have agency in today’s Britain. After all, we’re a society inclined to recycle anything and everything from our cultural history if it can be sold. Rather, it might be that the portrait of Britain it offers is not one that lends itself to this process. In contrast with a novel like Waugh’s Brideshead, it offers a portrayal of Britain as a slightly, squalid, class-ridden society, consumed by petty jealousy and shit jobs. (Macjobs, if you like). There’s no redeeming narrative whereby these petty jealousies are ultimately superseded as the characters acquire wisdom. Lumley’s is a lone crusade, which doesn’t really go anywhere. The ending is wilfully ambivalent. Wain’s novel might have come just before and after events which are now seen as defining of recent British history, (The War, mass immigration, the sixties, the fraught relationship with Europe, multiculturalism etc), but in this way it feels like his book poses a question that remains unanswered. Why does our society continue to be so class-ridden, why does a vision of middle-class Britain feel so removed from a working-class vision of the same geographical space? A question which has lead, directly, to Brexit, but also one that the middle-class has shied away from. Other stories have been viewed as more urgent, or perhaps been allowed to distract from the seismic breach which Wain’s novel identifies. The tone might sometimes feel too knowing, but being knowing doesn’t mean the author hadn’t touched a nerve, a nerve that has never gone away.

Monday, 14 May 2018

another news story (d orban wallace)

Wallace’s film is a compelling account of the Summer of 2015, which follows the path of migrants as they head from Lesbos in Greece to Germany. The film shows two sides of the story: on the one hand the journey of the migrants themselves and on the other the press as they cover the story. In the process, the documentary is constantly questioning the framing through which the migrants’ stories are received by the public. The press is the filter through which we engage with the issue; Another News Story turns the table and questions their agenda. The laconic Bruno, a news editor, explains that this is just this week’s story: next week he might be at the Venice Film Festival. Through this miasma of news noise, the doc hones in on the story of a Syrian woman trying to get her family to Germany. Keeping up with her almost every step of the way, the film reveals the truth behind the news story: the middle-of-the-night dashes across borders; the endless waiting; the confrontations with police who are sometimes heartless and sometimes unexpectedly kind. Wallace also returns to revisit her in Germany, once her journey has been completed, but this is also after the attack after the attack on the Bataclan, when the mood in Europe is becoming and less and less sympathetic towards the immigrants’ plight. There’s no doubt that his film offers a more comprehensive recounting of the story, in contrast to the TV news, although even Wallace’s film cannot help but be a partial story. Documentary film or story-telling only allows us to go so far in our understanding; perhaps this is the point where fiction alone can begin to convey the ‘reality’ of the experience being lived by those millions who have been forced to flee their homes and embark on their own personal Odysseys. 

Saturday, 12 May 2018

of love and hunger [julian maclaren ross]

Sometimes the quality of a novel can be measured by the paucity of the action. Nothing happens, and yet you’re still gripped. Of Love and Hunger, with its pretentious title, is one of those. The story is banal. The South Coast of England, 1939. Richard Fanshawe is a disillusioned vacuum cleaner salesman, who falls in love with Sukie, the wife of a man who has asked him to keep an eye on her whilst he’s away at sea for three months. The affair is desultory and doomed. War breaks out. The end.

At some points you think, something’s going to happen, there’s going to be a twist, but there isn’t and it doesn’t matter. The novelist has managed to conjure up a time and a place and a way of thinking and that’s all that’s required. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic and that doesn’t matter either.  What remains is a surgical evaluation of the way people get on with one another, men and women, men and men, women and women. It gets under the surface and traces the undercurrents that permeate any conversation; the way in which when we converse, our speech is an echo chamber for our thoughts.

There might be a dissertation to be written on the role of the vacuum cleaner in 20th century British literature. Like Greene’s Wormold in Our Man in Havana, the vacuum cleaner industry permits Fanshawe to earn a living, albeit a marginal, desperate one. Nothing seems to sum up the era more than the well-educated, supposedly middle-class graduate, resorting to giving comical demonstrations of primitive vacuum cleaners to get by. The desperation of the times is also captured in Fanshawe’s listless amorality. But this is preferable to the scene at a provincial dance, where the South English burghers express their approval of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in a manner which has terrifying echoes of contemporary Daily Mail mores. A ripple of fascism which hints at a different turn history might have taken. It almost feels as though everyone’s waiting for the war, which will be like pressing the reset button, creating a sense of order to replace the listlessness and re-establish some kind of moral compass. MacLaren Ross captures the time to a T. It doesn’t seem so very far from the world of Sartre’s Nausea, (which takes place just the other side of the Channel); only that the angst is kept permanently bottled up, existentialism always at arm’s length.

Of Love and Hunger might be a minor work, but it’s also a minor jewel. This is the word employed as scalpel, the writer as surgeon. 

Thursday, 3 May 2018

the case of comrade tulayev [victor serge]

Victor Serge is little known now, as Sontag’s introduction points out. In his heyday, Serge’s fame was such that Gide campaigned for his release from a Soviet prison, and he became the only writer to be freed by the Stalin regime, making his way around the globe until he ultimately settled in Mexico. 

The Case of Comrade Tulayev is an epic novel, with its roots in 19th century realism, coupled with a knowing, jaundiced twentieth century tone. The book is constructed around the murder of Tulayev, a senior Soviet official. It occurs in the late thirties, shortly before the outbreak of the second world war. Most of the characters the multi-person novel follows are battle-hardened men who participated in the Russian Revolution, many of them supposedly associates of Stalin, referred to throughout as ‘the chief’. Tulayev’s murder, which the reader knows has been committed by an insignificant, dreamy figure, is used as the excuse for a radical purge, where a whole swathe of the old guard is rounded up and found guilty of belonging to an imaginary plot. Most are executed, and their families are sent to internal exile in far flung corners of the empire.

The multi-character narrative is recounted in ten chapters. Each one effectively presents a different case study, with the action moving all over Russia and including sections in Civil War Spain and Paris. Serge creates an all-embracing portrayal of the purges within the pages of his book, revealing the savage political mechanisms which drive it and the complex reactions of its victims. Some are desperate, others succeed in placing it within a socio-historical context according to their Marxist principles. Most of the characters are world-weary figures who have seen so much that nothing more can surprise them. Their key conflict is whether they hang on to the principle of truth or not, in a land where truth has become a dangerous commodity. Serge writes with the authority of one who knows the reality behind the state’s lies, and his characters carry the burden of these lies/truths with them to the grave. 

This account does little justice to the ferocious wisdom and humanity of Serge’s novel, the writing of which appears to be an act of courage in itself. Speaking truth to power is never an enviable destiny; the weight of this truth permeates the whole, devastating novel, which manages to defend and honour the principle of the communist revolution whilst lambasting the inhumane bureaucratic system which colonised the revolution’s wake.