Tuesday, 18 December 2018

summer with monika (bergman, w. per anders fogelström)

The feeling of sheer pleasure when the film began to screen cannot be overstated. Not just because I was about to watch another of Bergman’s films for the first time, although that was part of it, but also because I was sitting in the new auditorium, watching the film on an immaculate, impressively sized screen, on the first working day of the new Cinematica. Cinema was made to be seen on the screen, not on a laptop or TV. The trouble is that there are fewer and fewer screens available to watch the kind of films that don’t come from the commercial stable. Now, all of a sudden, there are three screens within walking distance. As black and white shots of Stockholm took form upon the screen, transporting me to a world I’ve never visited and never will, I felt as though, in a world where so much seems to be wrong so much of the time, finally something was right. 

The inauguration of Cinematica had occurred the night before. I didn’t go, but a friend who’s going to run the coffee shop concession told me that he gave away 600 cups of coffee. I’m not sorry to have missed it. The real opening, the first day of business, was a low-key affair. Staff struggled with a new ticketing system. The staff, who are the same people who worked in the old Cinematecas, greeted those who turned out with smiles. The Pantalla 3 for the afternoon showing of the Bergman was about a third full. Being there felt like belonging to a new community. 

Summer with Monika was an inspired opening choice. A wistful, nostalgic, sexy, film, that seemed to contain the seeds of so much cinematic history that came to pass thereafter. The film narrates the story of a blissful but doomed relationship conducted over the course of under a year. Harry falls for the wilful but charming Monika, they flee the city and lead a Summer idyll on a boat, then they have to come back and it all goes to pot. The narrative is simple and predictable, but the film has a splendid decadent charm. Made in 1953, it seems to foretell the whole of the decade that was to come. Emerging from austerity into a hedonistic, hippy heaven, before grim reality kicks in and the dream turns into a nightmare. Bergman infuses the film with the occasional expressionist touch, such as when Monika, played with insouciant charm by Harriet Andersson, stares at the camera. There are beautiful cameos from a range of character actors, and the way Bergman and his cinematographer capture the Summer idyll by the beach, most of which is without dialogue, is mesmerising. 

Perhaps the film contains an innate metaphor for the act of going to the cinema itself: the escape from reality, the isolated reality in the bubble of the cinema; then the return to the world with its harsh realities. Only this time, as I left the cinema on a suitably rainy December afternoon, and headed to the Farmacia for a coffee, the world didn’t feel so bad after all. 

Sunday, 16 December 2018

resistance [julian fuks tr. daniel hahn]

Fuks’ novel is another of those tricksy texts that feel as though it’s autobiographical although it’s quite possibly not. The kind of text which makes one want to reach for Wikipedia to avoid the risk of saying something stupid. Which is to say that it would be easy to write here “Resistance is the story of the author’s struggle to come to terms with the cruelties of the Argentine dictatorship from which his parents fled before they settled in Brazil, where Fuks was born.” This is what the book feels like it’s about, but this might just be the skill of the writing which feels so convincingly first person that one can’t help but think this is a quasi autobiographical tale. Something which is reinforced by the closing chapter, where ‘the author’s’ parents comment on the factual inaccuracies in ‘the author’s’ version of events. Are these ‘parents’ really Fuks’ parents? Or are they just modelled on his parents? Or have they got nothing to do with them, or him, at all? We’re at the squeaky end of fiction, Rousseau’s Confessions, Proust’s memoirs, the sea wherein truth and fiction swim around each other like sharks. 

This matters principally because, in a tale about the consequences of dictatorship, authenticity feels important. Which might still be the point. Fuks’ elliptical novel details the narrator’s relationship with his adopted brother, who might or might not be the child of a woman who was ‘disappeared’ by the dictatorship. The narrator visits the headquarters of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the mothers who have maintained a stoic, unflagging search; firstly to discover the fate of their missing children and then to re-locate their adopted grandchildren. Crimes that have reverberated through the generations. In Resistance, there’s a double irony in that the narrator’s parents, who adopt his brother, are left-wingers who have fled Argentina. The novel, again elliptically, explores with little specificity the way in which the narrator’s brother struggles to fit in, is always something of an outsider, no matter that he’s within a warm, loving family environment. The implication is that the adopted brother has somehow been saddled with the psychological burden of the Argentinian dictatorship’s crimes, whether he’s the child of political prisoners or not. In so doing, there are moments where the novel feels awkward: is Fuks suggesting that adoption as a rule tends towards this sense of psychological displacement? Or only in the event of the adopted child having been born into a state of emergency or crisis of which the child is unaware? 

The measured tone, reminiscent of the nouvel roman style of Chefjec or Toussaint, lends distance to the tale, which perambulates around Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. Of itself the tone suggests that recovery from the crimes of history is feasible for the second generation, a measured sense of distance can be achieved; or at least it would do so if it were not for the nagging awkwardness of the narrative, which seems reluctant to ever pin down its subject matter, offering clues to the family conflict without ever showing the whole picture, like a jigsaw puzzle wherein some of the pieces can never be found.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

la doleur (w&d emmanuel finkiel, w. marguerite duras)

La Doleur is a curious film. A big budget, glossy production, which is at the same time a literary mediation on the French experience of the second world war. The film is an adaptation of an autobiographical Marguerite Duras memoir, which describes her desperate wait for news of her husband, Robert, who has been captured by the Nazis. The first half of the film details a relationship with a French agent of the Gestapo, who claims to have information about Jean, but whose ulterior motive would appear to be his attraction for Duras. He invites her out for lunches at Nazi restaurants, as their relationship becomes more and more torturous and perverse. The agent, played with a dogged, lumpen charm by Benoît Magimel, is a curious figure, a compromised representative of a compromised France. This is when it feels as though Finkiel’s film is at its strongest, as it probes the divisions within French society which the war threw up. Those who threw their hand it with the invaders and those who resisted. Britain never had to face up to any latent fascism that may have underpinned society (the film made me think of the passage in Maclaren Ross’ Of Love and Hunger when he discusses the burghers of a South Coast town praising Hitler in the lead-up to the war), so the British war narrative has always been a less complex, more heroic one. La Douleur succeeds in capturing the stark duality of facing fascism: you’re either for it or against, there’s no middle ground. 

The second half of the film takes place following the war’s end, as Duras waits for news of Robert, who it emerges has been sent to a concentration camp. Here, the focus is on Duras’ emotional struggle to cope with the possibility of hope and the reality of loss. This provokes some grandstand acting on the part of Mélanie Thierry, although it feels as though the dramatic tension slips somewhat once Magimel’s character vanishes from the narrative. La Doleur has a stately feel. It’s the other side of the French coin. There’s no intellectual playfulness, rather a grand, emotional bagatelle, which seeks to pull off the trick of offering a cinematic depiction of a great writer’s inner thoughts. There are moments in its two hour duration when it feels as though the film is straining for effect, but there are others when it completely nails Duras’ inner turmoil and the cruel realities of living in wartime France. 

Monday, 3 December 2018

die, my love [ariana harwicz, tr. sarah moses & carolina orloff]

Harwicz’s short novel brought to mind her compatriot Schweblin’s Fever Dream. Both novels are set in a menacing countryside, feature a confused mother as a narrator, and are vertiginous nouveau-roman reads. Schweblin has become a darling of contemporary literature. Harwicz so far has not. The differences between their texts perhaps explain why. Where Schweblin’s text has a measured, even orderly tone, Harwicz’s prose sits on sanity’s borderline. There’s a slightly surprising (and then unsurprising) reference to Mrs Dalloway thrown in there somewhere. Harwicz’s narrator’s voice is the bride stripped bare, the unedited stream of an unhinged consciousness. Except, for the fact, of course, that to write ‘unhinged’ prose in a legible fashion is a great art. Harwicz’s prose contains a poetic density. Constructed out of small chapters, no more than a few pages long, the novel creates space for the taboo to be voiced, for the madness within civilisation to be articulated. 

Which is about as rational as you need to get. The fact of the matter is that this is a breathtaking little novel, which may not be to many people’s tastes, but is all the braver and more brilliant for being so. It’s a novel from the margin, the novel of an immigrant, the novel of a hyper-charged female psyche, but it’s also a novel which captures the inner voice of anyone and everyone, regardless of gender, with our subliminal Pinteresque cruelties and our unacknowledged Klimtian beauty. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

the physics of sorrow [georgi gospodinov, tr. angela rodel]

It struck me, whilst reading Gospodinov’s novel, how much of the Eastern European literature I’ve read has a blog-like quality. Where the line between fact and fiction appears to be elided. Tokarczuk’s Flights, Andrzej Stasiuk, now Gospodinov. I realise it’s hardly a comprehensive list, but all the same it felt like there was a kind of pattern emerging, even if that pattern is one shaped by the whims of translators and publishers. There’s a restlessness to the format of shorter sequences, coupled with an apparent bid to create a new taxonomy of the world, one that allows for factors which previous taxonomies had not.

Gospodinov makes no bones regarding the relationship of his thoughts to the past. There’s a generational investigation into the narrator’s second world war ancestry, thereby helping to show how the war and the Soviet invasion shaped Bulgaria. But this investigation is located within a wider investigation into the human condition, where he takes the misunderstood Minatour as a central metaphor, a monster that isn’t actually a monster, just a deviant version of a lost boy. The narrator himself, a writer hidden away in a cellar, identifies with this lost boy who is also a minatour, weaving a written thread to find his way out of the labyrinth.

In truth The Physics of Sorrow is a fragmentary read, a book you can dip in and out of, following the discursive nature of the writer’s thoughts. There are Barthesian hints of other books contained within the text. An investigation into the relationship between physics and metaphysics; a history of the Soviet bloc; an autobiography. These threads are stitched together to create a baggy, quasi-novel which perhaps is at its strongest in the way it reveals the formation and spectrum of the post-communist psyche. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

an american story [christopher priest]

Sometimes books define their importance not so much through their excellence as literature, but through the courage of the writing, or even, perhaps, the necessity of the writing. Books that say things that need to be said, and in the saying, affirm the potency of literature, as a force. The pen mightier than the sword. 

Priest’s novel is one of those. It’s not a complex book, despite the multiple timelines, some of it set in the future and much set in the past. It is narrated by a scientific journalist, Ben Matson, who has become obsessed by 911, for understandable reasons. His then girlfriend, Liv, was on the plane that was flown into the Pentagon. Or, as the novel speculates, was reported to have flown into the Pentagon. Matson, over the course of twenty years, investigates what really happened that day. However, the author is smart enough not to make his narrator an obsessive. He’s someone who doesn’t want to believe what the evidence points to. Who would have been happier accepting the official story. Except for the fact that, as the book shows, the official story doesn’t make sense.

This is where Priest’s text becomes subversive. In fact, the very mundanity of the prose (in general) and the book’s hero, help to heighten this subversiveness. Put simply, it doesn’t feel as though it has been written with someone with an axe to grind. There’s a constant tension between the matter-of-factness of the authorial voice, distilled through that of his protagonist, and the explosive nature of the information that is being disseminated. 

At which point, an aside. I find it hard to believe that anyone with a curious mind wouldn’t run up against some of the obvious incongruities of the events of the day which have shaped this century and our lives to such an extent. Even a cursory reading of the given facts suggests more questions than answers. Furthermore, you don’t need to be a Shakespeare scholar to know that history is written by the winners. The given story of 911, the one which launched two wars (at least), and whose residual effects quite possibly include the new wave of nationalism, is tenuous. 

Priest constructs the character of a naturalised US-Russian mathematician. who is employed by the US govt, (and interviewed twice by the narrator), to meditate upon the profounder effects of 911 and its received story on political culture, the way in which the truth is less important than the story, something the author overtly links to Brexit and Trump. The fictionalisation of the facts, which Priest never hides, (this is, after all, a novel), permits the author to re-present those facts that have been dismissed, discounted, or concealed. Of course, the reader can question whether these facts have veracity, but by presenting them within a fictional context, the author implicitly accepts that there can be no authoritative version of “the truth” of that day. Which also implies that the official story should never be accepted as authoritative.

I have never come across Priest, and only know of his work via Nolan’s adaptation of The Prestige, a story about magic. An American Story displays a master of sleight of hand analysing the work of another perpetrator of sleight of hand, albeit a perpetrator so ephemeral that we will never know their identity (or identities). In a way, the terror that might once have been generated by the defrocking of the sleight of hand which Priest conducts has dissipated. Time salves wounds. The truth becomes an interpretive science. Things happened that will never be known. The world moves on. All that is left is the wake of the lies, which continues to wash up against the shore of the present. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

el motoarrebatador (w&d agustín toscano)

Toscano’s film, with a title that perhaps is a nod to Bicycle Thieves, is set on the outskirts of Tucuman, in Northern Argentina. This is a city where the police are on strike, and where gangs of bored men loot electrical shops in broad daylight.  A petty thief who robs old ladies on his motorbike is caught up in this listless world of borderline poverty, where people seek out any way possible to get hold of the desirable gimmicks of modern life. When one of his victims ends up in hospital, he starts to get pangs of conscience, and an odd-couple movie ensues, as the thief and his victim develop a mutual dependency on one another.

Whilst the world feels slightly Latin American generic, the narrative has just sufficient twists and turns to keep the viewer guessing and cover up a few holes. The good guys aren’t all they seem and neither are the bad guys. But what distinguishes Toscano’s film is its cinematic aplomb. The acting is impeccable, with Sergio Prina making for a credible, sympathetic petty criminal, whose complex desire to create a different kind of life for himself and his young son is portrayed with a deadpan assurance. The cinematography of Arauco Hernández contains an edgy dynamism, which excels in the looting scene, captured in one long take with a great pay-off. The soundtrack is punchy and effective. Everything possible is done to give the film an edge, one that helps it to steer clear of the Latin clichés, and makes for a solid, engaging piece of film-making. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

vivre sa vie (w&d godard, w marcel sacotte)

Godard, for a third time in as many months. Godard, which is like watching a brand new way of making cinema every time. No matter that the film is nearly 60 years old. It feels like it could have been made yesterday and still knock spots off the most avant-garde cineasta out there today. Maybe the avant garde has eaten itself. There’s no room left in the multiplex. And those with avant-garde predilections have no option but to shut the system down, adapt, meet the market criteria. Does anyone today use sound with the creative dexterity that Godard did? With the brash, assertive dislocation? Does the notion of playfulness even exist anymore? Watching Godard is like watching a lost innocence, the joy of film still vibrant, still singing. Coutard’s darting, swirling camera work has undoubtably been imitated a million times, but the overall tone of reckless esprit de jeu has been consigned to the cutting room floor. And to think that Godard became a byword for pretension? When his creative impulse stems from a childlike delight in the medium’s creative and iconographic possibilities. Perhaps children are secretly the most pretentious of them all.

Friday, 26 October 2018

man tiger [w. eka kurniawan, tr. labodalih sembiring]

Man Tiger, a novel which caused quite a stir in the English speaking world when it was first translated, is an elegantly written tale of provincial Indonesian life. It has more than a little in common with Mia Couto’s Confessions of the Lioness, with the idea of anthropomorphism to the fore. Margio, a likeable young man with a troubled history finds himself killing the father of the woman he loves when he is possessed by a tiger. The killing itself is described early on in the book in savage detail. It’s an arresting moment, but it becomes clear as the novel unfolds that this objective is not sensationalism, but to grip the reader in the vice of the story which then goes on to explore gender mores and morals. The violence that surges in Margio is an extension of a casual violence that pervades, from the boar hunts to the domestic violence suffered by Margio’s mother at the hands of his lazily sadistic father. Kurniawan teases out the complexities of the society he depicts, showing how Margio’s savage, irrational act possesses a clear and tangible context, as well as making it clear that the real victim here is Margio, rather than the man he kills. 

Monday, 22 October 2018

punk rock an oral history (john robb)

This is the third book of oral history I’ve read in recent months. It’s an innately satisfying way to get your history. John Robb’s edited account is comprehensive, looking at the evolution of punk in the early 70s through to the end of that decade, by which time the movement had mutated and fractured. 

Punk arrived half a decade early for me, but I knew the Britain that the opening chapters describe, a time when the idealism of the sixties had perished, when Britain’s inner cities felt hollowed out and dedicated to concrete. The grimness of British high streets in the late seventies was pandemic. (In fairness, in the more deprived parts of the country this is something that hasn’t changed all that much.) There was nothing to do except hang out and look for trouble, or look to avoid trouble. On a tangential note, I think this is when I first began to feel European as much as British, because visiting Europe seemed to offer another vision of urban interaction, one which ran parallel to the British version, but seemed warmer, more inclusive. This might have been rose-tinted spectacles, but at the very least it suggested a communality which persists to this day.  My friend Jason listened to PIL’s Metal Box. By this point, about 1980, the Pistols were already past tense, and the unravelling and recalibration of punk which the book captures so acutely was under way. The Damned was more Captain Sensible than The Damned. The Clash were already transforming into a brand that could be appropriated by frat boys and their ilk.

However, as the book makes clear, many of the punk pioneers were only a few years older than me. Again and again the book highlights the tiny world that the movement sprung from, a few musicians cross-fertilising, swapping from band to band, influenced by each other’s music and fashion. People in Manchester, Glasgow or other towns would get the night train to London, sleep on station floors and then carry back their R&D to the homeland. Perhaps this localised world still exists, in the sphere of styles of music whose name we don’t even know yet, but in an information age, it seems hard to conceive of the same kind of scene emerging. Firstly, the minute it could be defined, it would be hyped to kingdom come, and secondly the sheer range of musical possibilities has mushroomed. 

So in a way, the book ends up feeling like a lament for a lost era no-one would particularly want to have to revisit. There’s a lot of nostalgic affection expressed by the interviewees for the halcyon days, but also a frequent clear-sightedness about the way in which this was a fleeting moment which was contained the seeds of its own destruction, and was perhaps all the better for being so. It’s a great introduction to punk, that much-used word whose meaning is so hard to pin down.