Thursday, 21 November 2019

the nun [diderot]

Diderot’s scabrous little tale tells the story of Sister Suzanne, a young woman despatched to the convent by her family, against her wishes. She’s a weird mix of naif and modern. Diderot was clearly taking the piss, to a certain extent, as Suzanne recounts with an other-worldly innocence the advances of the mother superior who develops a fierce crush on her. Her innocence is also abused in her previous nunnery, with the other nuns going full shlock horror psycho on her, sprinkling broken glass on the floor where she walks barefoot and mixing ashes into her food. There’s something very Piano Teacher about all this, with Suzanne remaining a voice of sanity, insistent on her desire to terminate her vows and lead a life beyond the convent walls. Reading Diderot, it feels as though the psychological make-up of modernity, a modernity in deep conflict with itself over ideas of duty, adherence to social structures, sexuality, power, was already in place two hundred and fifty years ago. Not that much has altered or evolved, in spite of Freud, in spite of the liberal revolution of the twentieth century (which is itself experiencing blowback in the twenty first). Suzanne’s desperate struggle against the corrupt mechanisms of power is as valid today as it ever was. Currently reading Annie Ernaux, I discover that Rivette’s screen adaptation of the novel, made in 1966, was itself banned, something that triggered similar societal divisions between the liberal and authoritarian sectors of French society. It’s as though a matrix was constructed with the arrival of the Enlightenment and we’ve been imprisoned, like the nun, in this matrix forever more. (With acknowledgement to the intellectual parent of this idea). To read The Nun is to read your own story: to what extent are you trapped within a capitalist bubble that you can never escape? The use of the word ‘capitalist’ is not pejorative: it might be that you/we are better off and safer within this bubble, than we might be outside it. Which doesn’t stop us gazing at the convent walls and longing for the chance to escape from a world which has never quite succeeded in convincing us that God exists, or that there are not other, more fertile worlds on the other side. 


Point of note: This is a book that has sat on various shelves unread for over thirty years, having been purchased in May 1987. Presumably whilst still in university, being ushered on to the next stage of my supposed path, one whose smooth flow I have sought to disrupt. This book will have accompanied me through the Wars of the Roses, marriage and divorce, the London Dayz, before finally finding a moment to be read on a continent I knew nothing about when the book was purchased. The immortality of books as a repository for everything the world could ever contain. Had this book been bought in a digital format, what are the chances I would finally have caught up with it 30 years later?

Monday, 18 November 2019

tomorrow in the battle think on me [marias, tr. margaret jull costa]

Back in the day, working for some Stakhovian corner of the BBC, we were constantly being told about the importance of creating “sympathetic” characters. No-one would want to engage with a central character they couldn’t warm to. The mealy-mouth tediousness of this dictum seems to me more or less fully responsible for the shit-storm which has since overwhelmed Britain. No-one ever wants to engage with anything or anyone they don’t like, as though the complexities of story and discourse are of secondary importance. All that matters is that we feel good about ourselves: that the mirror held up to our society shows us that we are nice, likeable, and therefore worthy of our own attention. I realise that there have been dramatic and literary exceptions, nevertheless, the pervading need to ‘complacer’ the audience has had a deadening effect on our culture. It’s as though Britain hasn’t had a civil war or been invaded in so long that people have forgotten that good people can do bad things, and bad people good. The complexities of moral representation have been eroded. We  have turned into the land of Harry Potter. All of which springs to mind because Marias, whose affection for Britain would appear to be considerable, has such a radically different attitude towards character. At times it’s as though he’s seeking to challenge the audience to engage in spite of his characters, rather than because of them. The narrator of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me is a brilliant but flakey man, whose first thoughts on meeting the sister of a woman who died in his arms only weeks ago, is to seduce her. The husband of the woman who died in the narrator’s arms turns out to be an even less likeable specimen of humanity, recounting at the book’s denouement a terrible tale of mortal betrayal, a tale which occurs in a London which crucially still had open-decked double deckers. Like The Infatuations, Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me is another curious tale of unfortunate death and the mixed reactions people have towards death. As though the writer is determined to puncture any kind of sentimentalism regarding that most inevitable of processes. Philosophical asides are smuggled into the great rolling tide of Marias’ prose. The story takes a Cortazarian twist when the narrator sleeps with a prostitute, in a bid to find out whether she’s his ex-wife or not. Everything teeters on the brink of the unbelievable, the unpalatable and yet, somewhere in these morbid, amoral observations, there lurks a deranged wisdom. The oft-dismissed whispers of those who don’t paint pretty, palatable pictures, those who insist on reminding us that the world isn’t a box of chocolates; it is full of random cruelty and stupidity. Those who die young aren’t necessarily good; those who mourn them aren’t necessarily noble. Humans are fickle creatures, easily lead. 

Thursday, 14 November 2019

the conversation (w&d coppola)

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes”, is the phrase famously uttered by James Comey when it was suggested that his conversations with Trump might have been recorded. The importance of tapes in American political life can be traced back to Watergate and the conversations recorded by Nixon himself which helped to bring about his downfall. The Conversation was made around the time that Watergate was blowing the lid off American political life, in an administration beset by rumours of corruption and foul play. It sounds familiar. The film also feels frighteningly prescient in the way in which it articulates the idea of a surveillance state. There’s no such thing as privacy anymore. Anything we do or say can and will be monitored. This Kafkaesque notion of a surveillance state leads to a breakdown in trust. Human relationships are polluted by paranoia. By the end of The Conversation, a beleaguered Gene Hackman is a prisoner in his own home, trapped by a justified fear. The only sound left to articulate are the mournful notes of jazz he plays on his tenor sax. 

One supposes that great art doesn’t have to be prophetic, but on the other hand one supposes it does have to be rooted in truths about the human condition that go beyond the context of the art work’s setting. In this sense, Coppola’s The Conversation qualifies in the “great art” category. Technically it’s just about perfect. The script is tight as a drum. The edit is flawless and the sound edit, by Walter Murch, is a thing of genius. Hackman’s acting, the lugubrious fallguy who can never be too careful (but never be careful enough) is a masterly performance, all grunts and hidden sadness behind the eyes. (Of all the great actors who emerged in the seventies, Hackman might be the most underrated). The opening shot is a truly dizzying long sentinel take, lasting up to five minutes. The audience doesn’t realise it, but the whole of the film’s contents are contained within this single take, like a seed about to germinate. It succeeds in putting the audience on the edge of their seat, and from the word go we know that we can’t afford to take our eyes off the film for a moment, every detail is important. There is a mystery to be solved, even if, like the protagonist, we don’t even know what the mystery is. If that isn’t a metaphor for the human condition, I don’t know what is. 

Sunday, 10 November 2019

midsommar (w&d ari aster)

There are several levels upon which to read Midsommar. Firstly as a horror film. Here, we encounter the problem that it lacks tension and it’s not particularly scary. The film employs a trope that has been used more effectively by Claudia Llosa (Madeinusa) or Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) among others, that of the callow Westerners trapped in a tribal society. Four USA grad students (and two aimless Brits) are parachuted into a remote Swedish festival. The fact that ‘the tribe’ is Swedish (blond, white), gives it a twist; it could be said to subvert the stereotypical image of ‘the other’. The art department has a ball, and it all looks pretty, but the studied plot points, as the ‘westerners’ are despatched, feel contrived and only serve to dilute the tension that is supposed to be building around the fate of plucky heroine Florence Pugh, (who does a decent job). Not for the first time, it feels as though a big-budget Hollywood film is suffering from an excess of everything. It’s hard enough to sustain tension over ninety minutes, let alone 147 and the film gradually warps under the weight of its own gravity. The longer it goes on the more the holes in the plot seem to gape and the nods to Von Trier (and even Tarkovsky at the very end?) feel forced, lacking either the discipline peak Von Trier brought to his outrageousness or, of course, the vaulting ambition of Tarkovsky. 

So as a film, whilst Midsommar ticks a lot of pretty picture boxes, and a few gruesome ones, it’s disappointing. However, to return to the connection to Pocock’s Surrender. Pocock visits on a sub-anthropological level various communities in the Midwest. The thing that links these communities is they all have a fierce stance regarding their relationship to nature. As the title Midsommar suggests, the Swedish tribe that Pugh & co visit are steeped in an ersatz relationship to nature. They worship the tree of the ancestors, where the ashes of sacrificed elders are scattered. The festival is also a fertility rite (which chimes with Pocock’s visit to an Ecosex festival). Petals are scattered and trees are venerated. Magic mushrooms are consumed in large quantities in a kind of group shamanic ritual. Yet, in the hands of a Hollywood director, there is still no way to present this world other than as dystopian. In this sense, for reasons that the film seems to be in no way aware of, Midsommar might well be the scariest film of the year. Confronted by the image of a society which seeks to co-exist with nature, the technological military machine which is a Hollywood film production sees itself as having no option but to treat this society as a violent, terrorist threat. 

Thursday, 31 October 2019

surrender [joanna pocock]

The tradition of the American west seems to have fallen away somewhat in the 21st C. As I grew up, people were still weaned on images of a wild country, full of men riding horses across dusty plains, women in caravans, native indians on the edge of the horizon. It was still a time when young children were given The Little House on the Prairie to read. The West was that uncharted territory which lay beyond the boundaries of ‘civilisation’, waiting to be explored and, implicitly, ‘tamed’. At university, we studied Willa Cather, along with commentaries on Gatsby, even Jack London. The West as an intellectual space, one which the mind had yet to colonise. That strain of Americanism seems to have dissipated. Silicon Valley, the Hollywood machine, the hipsters of Seattle, have collectively buried the idea that the west contains territory, mental as well as physical, which is a point of conflict with an oriental, European tradition. 

Pocock’s book does a lot to resuscitate this notion. The book feels like a travelogue, as it details the writer’s explorations of alternative cultures from her base in Montana. Pocock, along with her family, is on a kind of pilgrimage, looking to find a way to reconcile her materialist (Londonised) existence with her fears for the world’s future. There is something millenarian about this quest, one which any rational, thinking person cannot help but be aware of. Anyone who belongs to the capitalist materialist system would appear to be complicit in the slow (but quickening) murder of the natural world. Nature and mankind, it seems, have become pitted against each other in a zero sum game, a new hot Cold War. Pocock goes in search of those who are are seeking alternatives. Some are nomadic rewilders who have gone off-grid, others are more settled, searching for a middle ground which will help to gradually bring about the changes required to rebalance the human and natural worlds. Floating around the edges is a more scary, libertarian movement, one which goes around armed and questions the very notion of the state. Pocock weaves her way through these groups, like a modern day Cobbett, detailing her observations and offering up pointers for anyone who’s trying to work out how to keep going in the face of the anthropocene apocalypse. 

What roots the book (which has a certain crossover with Powers’ Overstory) is its resolutely subjective tone. Pocock discusses the death of her parents, her menopause and above all, her relationship with her family who share much of her journey with her. She’s not proselytising; she’s trying to work something out; a city-dweller’s journey into the possibilities of a de-urbanised future. 


(nb: a memory: The driver tells me that we’re going to visit a nuclear power station. His car is a green 2CV with a roof that flies off at regular intervals. There might be a tape recorder on the seat playing Bo Diddley or Stravinsky. The driver rolls his cigarettes one handed as he steers. We roll through an England which is as green as history suggests it always has been and always should be. We get to the power station late in the afternoon. We’ve driven half a day to get out of the car and stare at a monster. Albeit a beautiful, brutalist monster, framed against a dying sky. I have no real idea why we’re here, or what the reason for this mission might be, but as we gaze at the monster, with the sea behind, everything makes a kind of unintelligible sense.)

Thursday, 24 October 2019

high life (w&d claire denis, w. jean-pol fargeau, geoff cox, andrew litvack, nick laird)

High Life is unhinged in all the best senses of the word. Dennis throws whatever she can at the wall to see what sticks. The remarkable thing in this starry, high concept jamboree of a movie, is that she gets away with it. In part, it’s because of the Dennis trademarks of a vivid editing style, astute use of score and understated emotional output from the actors. However, there’s a flair to the lo-fi sci-fi which allows for the unlikely, somewhat Hollywood premise to remain convincing, despite the unlikely logic and the ghost of Solaris & 2001 which haunt any film set on a spaceship hurtling into the void. The use of flashback is as astute as ever, timelines criss-crossed like a cat’s cradle. We get into  protagonist Monte’s head via some subtle images from a long-lost earth. Robert Pattinson keeps a lid on the fireworks and allows a baby to steal his scenes, making for a compelling performance. Binoche is demented, showcasing another side of her spectrum altogether from anything seen in Assayas, as though glorying in the chance to get down and dirty. The highball mixture of weird sex, the inevitable heightened sexual tension, a Lord of the Flies meets Alien narrative, beautiful weird people on a train to nowhere, is juxtaposed with an unashamed sentimentalism, as Pattinson coos to his baby and later bonds with her as an adolescent. It’s a cocktail which really shouldn’t work, but gloriously does. 

Sunday, 20 October 2019

it gets me home this curving track [ian penman]

Penman is an enthusiast. A music journalist, who in this collection of essays showcases his writing on artists he loves. The field is eclectic and for reasons which the book makes clear, translucently hip. So hip that he can include an artist like Donald Fagin of Steely Dan, who no-one really believes is hip now. But that is being hip: it’s being awake to those signs which are flashing, Pynchonesque, beyond the immediate. The dodgy looking back alleys of the Mississippi delta. The jazz club no-one’s ever heard of, before it becomes the jazz club everyone’s heard of. And this world fascinates Penman not because he’s some kind of would-be trendsetter, but almost entirely because he wants to escape the world of would-be trendsetters. Return to a world where people made music in order to live, rather than to acquire fame or glory. Where the music was a mirror to the soul.

The essays on Parker, Brown, Presley and, above all, Prince, investigate this territory. Penman identifies the way in which the music, for all these men, was a way of defining identity, an identity each in his own way became trapped in. The same applied to another unlikely subject, Sinatra, with a great observation about how Sinatra never wanted the night to end, as though he was frightened of what the day might bring. Penman, having traced where the spark for their creativity and genius originated, then goes on to describe how each, in their way, became trapped, seeking to replicate an unfettered drive to create within an increasingly commercialised context, one which hindered development of their creative horizons. In some ways, the most interesting essay in this book is one that hasn’t been written, about Miles Davis, a figure who recurs frequently, but one who succeeded in slipping the leash of his origins and reinventing himself, taking his genius with him as he explored other lands.

In this sense, the word “home” in the title is curious. The author explains that the line comes from an Auden poem. But the book’s collection of essays hints at various interpretations. A curving track which appears to lead towards the home which is death. The word “track” also suggests something that’s laid out, impossible to deviate from. The tragedy of genius, so often (and Penman mentions Billie Holiday as the “empty chair” of the book), is that by the time you’ve hit your stride, the journey is more or less over. The only destination left is the finale. If this isn’t quite so true for Sinatra and Fahey (because they’re white?), it’s still there. Once the trailblazers have escaped the cocoon, turned into butterflies, there’s nothing much left to achieve. Perhaps this is why the only true rock star is the one who dies young. 

Thursday, 17 October 2019

for sama (waad al-khateab, edward watts)

It’s impossible not to react to For Sama on a visceral level. This is a visceral film. As visceral as anything you might ever see. Babies are born. Babies are brought back to life. People die. More people die. People’s faces are ripped open. Limbs torn off. Blood. Blood on the floor on the body in the bed in the street on your soul. The poetry of blood. War. Encrusted dirt on children’s faces. Death. Real death. Not the kind of death you see in the movies. Not the balletecised death of Tarantino. Not the “realism” death of Saving Private Ryan. Real stinking obscene death, the line between something that breathes and something that has nothing left to do but decay and rot. 

The music in the cafe where I am writing is excessively jaunty for this time of the morning. Someone next to me says that someone they know “is meeting PJ Harvey today and I’m like send me pictures of PJ Harvey”, and all of this seems perfectly inappropriately appropriate for writing about this film. Because the flip side to For Sama is that we have to value our deformed reality, no matter how much we might love or hate it, because just over the hill lies the equally human reality of hell. Which is what Al-Khateab’s camera captures in Aleppo. A descent into hell.

Where we learn that hell isn’t all bad. There’s still tenderness and solidarity and beauty, even if that’s only the beauty of blood. The red that the narrator says has infiltrated every corner of her life. The reasons for living, to keep on keeping on, are irrevocable, on every day that you wake up knowing it could be your last, or worse, the last day of your loved ones. At one point in the film, Waad says that she was envious of a woman who had died before she had to see her child die. Because there is nothing worse than that. Hell is a place where the gods play endless jokes. The miracle of a life spared, shown in the most astonishing scene in modern cinema, when a child we presume is dead is brought back to life, with a gasp which is also yours when it occurs, might also, for all we know, be a life taken away the next day, off camera. 

Hell isn’t so bad because it’s hell. You might even be crazy enough, like Waad Al-Khateab and her husband, Hamza, to want to return there. Hell is so bad because it will be the slow death of everything you love. 

There is no way to respond to For Sama except on a visceral level. To connect with For Sama, you don’t need to have been to Syria or walked the alleyways of Aleppo’s ancient souk, or even pretend to care about a war that is still taking place, day after day. The only thing you need to have done is to have been human, at least once in your life. 

Monday, 14 October 2019

the overstory [richard powers]

This is a curious novel in so far as on one hand it made me want to buy it for almost everyone I know and on the other hand it ended up driving me a bit nuts. The one hand has to do with the thematic and the first half of the novel. The other has to do with the second half, when to my mind the writing started to lose its way. I read on compulsively, but increasingly frustrated by the way the book seemed to drag itself out. This is, it should be acknowledged, quite a banal reaction to what is in so many ways a remarkable novel, so perhaps as the reaction to that frustration dissipates what will remain is the potency of the book’s thematic. Powers has an agenda and he maps it out. Trees communicate. They are older and wiser than humans. We continue to destroy forests, oblivious of what we are losing, slaves to short-term capitalism. It looks as though this thesis will never lose its topicality. One thinks that in the age of Bolsonaro and Trump its importance is even more pressing, but Humbolt noted how the eco-system in South America was already being affected by colonial exploitation of timber, and one can go further back to the destruction of forests for shipbuilding as far back as the middle ages. Humanity has been persecuting trees for as long as ‘civilisation’ has been a thing. 

The novel collects a group of characters who get drawn into the struggle to preserve Pacific North American forests. The first part, or the roots of the book, set out these individuals’ stories, which are brought together in the second part, which ends in tragedy. The book then addresses the aftermath of that tragedy, over the course of twenty years. Lacking the glue of a unifying mission for the characters, It becomes more rangy, or dispersed. The conceit is that this is like the crown of a tree, where the branches veer away from the trunk into their individual journeys towards the sky. The novel becomes increasingly metaphysical, as the years and events fly by. Whatever its literary merits, and they are many in spite of reservations, the significance and brilliance of the premise is undeniable. Powers succeeds in opening up a new way of perceiving the world. I defy anyone to read this book and ever look at a tree in the same way again. 

Friday, 11 October 2019

on the president’s orders (d james jones, olivier sarbil)

Emerging from the film, contrasting thoughts come to the fore. Firstly that this is filmmaking which does indeed get eye-catching access to a world which is little known, that of the Philippine slum of Caloocan, in Manila. Olivier Sarbil’s camera is right there on the ground floor, capturing the feverish intimacy of an overcrowded patch of land. This is a fundamentally visual film, steeped in the colours and textures of the slum. A group of slum kids are filmed washing in the street. They look like something out of a Dolce and Gabanna video. The film’s visual flair is its strength and its achilles heel. Because at the end of the day, this doesn’t feel like a film which is all that interested in establishing context or any kind of account of the realties of the role of drugs within this society. Anyone who resides in an environment where you see good people ruined by cheap drugs, will know the fearful damage they can cause, stripping out the life and possibilities of the people who live there. Dutarte’s ruthless campaign to eradicate drugs feels instinctively immoral, but on the other hand it’s still a reaction to a pressing social issue. The film’s only real interviews are with the police chief, who is either promulgating or turning a blind eye to the execution of suspected dealers. His tough guy image ends up looking like a macho pose and the audience waits for his inevitable fall from grace, supplied by the end notes. However, it would have been interesting to have been offered some kind of wider perspective from within the Philippine community. Who controls the drugs trade? What other strategies have been tried to mitigate or eradicate it? The film’s reluctance to engage with the deeper context of its material brings us to the question of who is making this film and to what end? It’s notable in the credits that there’s doesn’t appear to be a single Philippine name involved (this might be wrong, but if so they are clearly a significant minority). It feels as though this is a movie which has been made with a view to being exhibited on Western screens, allowing people to dip into a dangerous world without needing to engage with it or even think about the content to any real degree. As the credits rolled, a woman in the cinema said out loud: What a beautiful, terrible film. One can’t help thinking that the filmmakers would have been delighted with this. It feels as though the film will find a happy niche on a suitable streaming service. Everyone’s a winner, but no-one is much the wiser about the complexity of Coloocan’s social issues and how they should be addressed. This is outside-in filmmaking, rather than inside-out. 

nb - I read that: “the International Criminal Court has opened a preliminary investigation into Duterte and these extrajudicial killings. And, it’s asked to review footage from the film.” ( So perhaps, to put the counter view, the above reading of the film is overly harsh.