Friday, 16 June 2017

887 (w&d robert lepage)

887 opens in a disarming fashion, with the writer/ director informing that the play will start shortly, but beforehand he just wants to explain his reasons for creating this piece. Which leads us seamlessly into the night’s first piece of theatre magic, as a miniature version of his childhood block of flats in Quebec City appears and he talks us through the various inhabitants. In chocolate box size, little fragments of life from the flats, barely visible, appear in video: a barking dog, or children bouncing on a bed. The style of the play is revealed to be both representational and imagistic at the same time. There is a representation of the narrator’s description, but that representation remains so opaque that it could almost be something abstract, out of an 80s Brook play. The audience is still compelled to become active. It has to work to decipher or interpret the images that are being presented. There’s a ludic quality to the staging, never more so than when Lepage films with his phone the contents of boxes which represent the interior of a flat at Christmas. Tiny details which the naked eye could never see are picked out on a screen, as Lepage’s face hovers beside them. We are made into children once again, exploring the content of the Doll’s House. 

Lepage has always liked to let his work play out over time. In essence, 887 is a memoir of his childhood, gradually revealed with all the urgency of a baggy novel. This memoir incorporates the political history of Quebec, as well as the structure of the brain, and the nature of memory itself. At times, the play rambles, but it rambles in the way a well-told story is allowed to. There are blind alleys and illustrative moments. We, in the audience, know that there will always be magical moments of stagecraft round the corner. This is a picaresque evening, shaped by moments, rather than any great dramatic narrative. Which means that we are blessed with a different fashion of receiving the story. There’s no need for narrative twists or high jinks. Our participation is shaped by enjoyment rather than any kind of dramatic tension. Reminding us that theatre is, above all, spectacle. A point emphasised when Lepage indulges in a brief sequence of shadow play, which, he suggests, might have represented the very origins of theatre.

The play’s denouement, of a kind, is the recital of a poem, Speak White, by the Quebecois author,  Michèle Lalonde. All through the play there has been the running thread that Lepage has been having problems memorising this poem, which he is supposed to recite at a special TV gala. When it comes to the moment, his delivery is faultless and passionate. It’s another kind of spectacle. The poem is a fierce dissertation on the issue of language, and the way in which language is controlled by the powerful. However, it’s also a complex piece of writing. The logic of the poem isn’t easy to follow. In keeping with its content, it rubs up against our notions of ‘coherence’. As though to suggest that “the coherent whole” is a myth, an idea imposed by the powerful on the powerless. Lepage’s play adheres to this thinking. it doesn’t seek to fabricate a work of clarity and complete coherence. It has rough edges, loose strands, it lacks a guaranteed narrative motor. It uses magic rather than argument; it postulates that memory is fragmentary, elusive, incoherent. That these qualities can also be true of theatre. That the notion of the perfect play is ridiculous. That we should learn to watch theatre with the simple delight of children observing the world with eyes anew. His work makes you fall in love with theatre all over again. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

the moor’s account [leila lalami]

The Moor’s Account narrates the story of a Moorish slave, Mustafa ibn Muhammad, who is taken on a New World expedition to Florida by his master, Dorantes. The expedition is lead by Pánfilo de Narváez. In her notes at the close of the book, Lalami notes that the official account of the real expedition, written by Cabeza de Vaca, (a key character in the novel), included a reference to “el negro alarabé, natural de Azamor”, a moorish slave, as one of the four survivors of the expedition. This is Lalami’s re-imagining of his version of the story. Mustafa’s account is told in 25 chapters which include flashbacks to relate the story of his childhood and how he ended up as a slave in Spain, before being purchased by Dorantes and taken on the expedition. The chronicle of the expedition covers a period of lustful ambition for gold, a terrible survival story,  as the five hundred member’s of Narváez’s party are whittled down to four, and finally a more idyllic perambulation through the southern states of what is now is the US, encountering various tribes, most of whom prove to be friendly. Three of the four survivors take native brides, and Mustafa himself finds happiness with Oyomasot, his partner. His story ends on an upbeat note. The prose is accessible and the story flows smoothly. Mustafa is a likeable narrator, perhaps too likeable at times. His insights remain somewhat self-evident, as he becomes the architect of his own downfall on repeated occasions (choosing to be a merchant; selling himself into slavery; etc) There are moments when it feels as though the writer is attempting to crowbar in Mustafa’s self-flagellation because he is so clearly the better man than any of his Spanish contemporaries. This might be realistic, but it also means that Mustafa is a predictable protagonist: we always know he’s going to do the right thing. This reader was delighted that he achieved a kind of happy ending, but the novel itself lacks much in the way of dramatic tension.  Instead this is an enjoyable perambulation around the new world, albeit seen through different eyes to the ones that history normally accords the right to record events. Those things that Mustafa shows us in The Moor’s Account are fascinating, even if there are times when it felt as though the author might have explored the geo-political implications of her story slightly more adventurously.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

siddhartha [herman hesse]

At my highly privileged school, there used to be a class called “Div”. Div classes happened most days. They were a chance for the assigned teacher to throw anything he (always a he) thought might be of use for the development of the child. One year we had a teacher called David Lorimer, who had almost been an Olympic runner. He and his fiancee would sometimes be seen canoodling in the water meadows, before she ditched him. (So the story went). Lorimer was a strange product of liberal England. Probably born in the fifties. In many ways he seemed like a decent, understated man, albeit one who didn’t seem particularly happy with his chosen life plan, to be a teacher at a public school. There’s a curious British strand of intellectual endeavour which veers towards mysticism and this was the direction Lorimer lead us. I’m not sure if we studied Gurdjjeff or Castaneda under Lorimer, but I know we read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, a book which opened several doors, Huxley, and the doyen of a kind of post-sixties consciousness, Herman Hesse, among others.

This slightly mystic strand continues in the British consciousness. Sometimes it seems to me that our colonial endeavours owed as much to this instinct as they did to the commercial imperative. (Which is not to deny the significance of the latter.) From T E Lawrence to The Beatles there’s a longing to escape the straightjacket of the classified, calcified British social structures and flee into the uplands of the mind. Hesse caters perfectly to this longing. HIs writing created a spiritual firmament waiting to be occupied. It was potent material within the confines of a privileged boarding school. 

All of Hesse’s novels have a spiritual flavour, but none more so than Siddhartha, a straightforward retelling of the life of a Buddhist savant. The novel is beguilingly  simple. The book is not just successful because it tells a cute story, but also because it does so with no-nonsense prose and a clear narrative rhythm. In spite of its spiritual themes, the story moves along at a good lick. The India Hesse describes feels like it might be centuries old or it could be today.  At the heart of the book is an anti-intellectualism that chimes perfectly with a British sensibility. Enlightenment will not be achieved through teaching, but via a personal quest, a journey to the innermost corners of the soul. 

Re-reading the novel today, you can perfectly understand its appeal to adolescents trapped in a world where it seemed logical to question an established order which decreed that learning was there in order to prepare you for a life of tedious social conformity. If that was all that learning had to offer, what was it really good for? Hesse articulates the possibility of an alternative, more individualistic method and objective for the process of learning, one that denies the  materialist values of society. Although it must be added that it would not appear that Mr Lorimer’s Div classes, or our reading of Hesse, ever had any real transformative effect on the society we eventually inherited. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

the other side of hope (w&d aki kaurismäki)

Kaurismäki’s latest film addresses Europe’s most topical subject. Khaled is an Afghani refugee who has stowed away on a boat shipping coal to Helsinki. After various misadventures he finally finds a home for himself working in the restaurant of Wilkstrom, a lugubrious but well-intentioned man. The restaurant is a haven for Khaled, where common humanity is the only thing that matters. There are several appearances at different moments of ageing rockabillies playing their tunes. These moments chime with a vision of the world which is determined by a down-to-earth humanism. (If you wanted to pursue the roots of this music, you would probably go via Presley to Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters and then back to slave music that arrived in the US, thereby meaning it belongs to a consciousness where nationalism is an irretrievably nostalgic concept, where regionalism is nothing more than a memory; meaning the players have been left with no option but to adopt a more universal perspective.) Kaurismäki, as is well known, uses this music and its Finnish aficionados as a kind of touchstone for his warm, fuzzy vision, something which complements his dry humour. Deadpan humour, from Beckett to Tati, is one of the world’s most universally understood codes. This helps to lend his films their appeal, making Kaurismäki one of those rare filmmakers (and the only Finnish one) to have generated a worldwide following. 

All of which means that The Other Side of Hope, marrying the filmmaker’s deadpan, cross-border appeal with an up-to-the-minute themed narrative, sounds like a surefire winner. However, whilst there are many affecting and entertaining moments in the film, and the two leads Sherwan Haji & Sakari Kuosmanen give notable performances, the lack of any real narrative development means that it feels as though it never really gets out of second gear. There’s a B-story involving the fate of Khaled’s sister, but this is resolved so easily that one wonders what all the fuss was about. A narrative about this issue has to tread a delicate line between resisting an urge to preach, whilst at the same time never over-simplifying things. There’s a moment when Khaled explains why he had to leave Afghanistan, which has real power in its simplicity, but thereafter the film feels as though it doesn’t really do Khaled’s story justice. For all its good intentions, The Other Side of Hope ends up feeling like a slightly uneasy foray into social realism from a director whose forte is creating a heightened world which teeters on the brink of credibility. 

Monday, 29 May 2017

landmarks [robert macfarlane]

Robert Macfarlane has niched himself a corner of the British folk revival, which is a corner of the global folk revival. Long may it last. The excavation of the past and the bid to ensure that past remains healthy in the present and beyond is at the heart of the project. Landmarks is very specifically predicated on language. Not just the writers (most of them little known) whose work he rediscovers, but also the very words themselves. The book contains several glossaries, where Macfarlane creates lists of regional dialect words, in danger of being forgotten. These are words used to describe landscape and nature. The task of preserving dialect in Britain is just as valid as it might be were the ethnographer capturing words from a Patagonian or an Indian language, for example, in danger of extinction. 

Macfarlane is an enthusiast. The book is composed of 11 chapters, each one focused on the work of a different writer. He investigates the way in which these authors wrote about nature, the way that the natural world they were investigating impacted on the way in which they wrote. Were he French, this might have turned into a complex analysis of origins, but Macfarlane is a resolutely British intellectual. The flights of fancy are kept tethered; his language is always down-to-earth. 

Within a wider eco-political perspective, Macfarlane is one of the most important writers around. The popularity of his writing hopefully attests to this. It’s not just that he connects with a nostalgic urge for a time when ‘nature’ felt less distant to the human experience for most in Britain. (He includes a withering assessment of the way children’s vocabulary dealing with the natural world is being attacked almost as ruthlessly as the Amazon forests). It’s also a recognition that the rediscovery of a more pantheistic/ holistic approach to the role of the human within the eco-system is an increasingly essential political end. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

bricks and mortar [clemens meyer]

Bricks and Mortar is not an easy read. It’s a kaleidoscopic text, which assembles a portrait of the prostitution trade in an unnamed East German town over the course of thirty years. There are multiple narrators, operating across multiple timelines. Details criss and cross, but the information is so opaque that you’re more conscious of the fact that you’re probably missing a connection than aware of the fact that you are making one. (At least this reader was). There’s a narrative threaded in there, for example, about a man who is murdered by a bren gun and then dumped in a “mire” outside the city. The killer tells us about this, and later a policeman (who’s sleeping with a prostitute, natch) discovers the body of the man, next to two other bodies. The Bren gun used to kill the man is referenced in other chapters. But I never really understood exactly why the man was killed or what the significance of his death was, in terms of the overarching narrative. 

In many ways the book is similar to All The Lights, Meyer’s collection of short stories. Random voices float to the surface from the bottom of the East German swamp. Meyer collects them and lets them be heard. However, Bricks and Mortar is a novel in so far as it possesses a narrative loosely woven around various characters, the enigmatic ‘AK’ and the Count, as well as Hans the Slaughterer. This semblance of a narrative makes it a more challenging read. You want the chapters to connect, to add up, and when they don’t, really, it’s frustrating. Which may well be part of the point. Meaning is elusive. Significance is hard to grasp. Life is cheap. The tease of coherence makes Bricks and Mortar a far harsher read than All The Lights, as though the writer is saying ‘you know you want it (to make sense) but you’re never going to get it.’ The fact that this is novel set in the world of organised prostitution doesn’t do anything to lighten the tone. 

Tonally, it might be said to have something in common with Meyer’s Fitzcarraldo stablemate, Enard. There’s a similar harsh relentlessness, allied to a resistance of any real emotional engagement. As though history should be wary of the emotions. It feels like macho writing, and it has been noted elsewhere that the female voices who appear in Bricks and Mortar are few and feel perhaps more one-dimensional than the male voices. Another obvious comparison would be with Berlin Alexanderplatz, but whilst it shares the sense of an all-encompassing portrayal of a society, it doesn’t have the playfulness of Döblin’s prose. I battled with the novel and ended up feeling as though it was one you admired (and resented) rather than enjoyed. But who says literature is there for enjoyment?

Monday, 22 May 2017

burden (d. richard dewey, timothy marrinan)

This doc is a great insight into an artist who, on this side of the Atlantic, at least, is little known, but whose influence was remarkable. Burden’s most famous artwork is one where he had himself shot, but this was just one of many challenging pieces of performance art he created. The film shows him nailing himself to his Volkswagen beetle, putting out a fire with his body, and other lunatic practices. There seems little doubt on the part of the interviewees that Burden was unhinged, and it appears that after fame caught up with him in the 70’s, he started to go off the rails. But so many artists, from Abramovic to Taylor-Wood to so many of the Britart crew, appear to owe a debt to the way in which Burden sought to reimagine art’s paradigmatic boundaries. In one revealing moment Burden explains how he interpreted sculpture as an artform with which the viewer has an immersive relationship and this determined the way in which he wanted to create a more visceral engagement between the artwork and the artist.

The film mixes up archive footage with visits to Burden’s Topanga Valley studio. After what would appear to be a lost period in the 80s and 90s, Burden makes it clear that there came a point when he decided to quit performance art. Instead he moved into making large in-situ pieces which seek an engagement between environment and audience. This is an extension of his earlier work, but whereas that tended to be confrontational, these artworks have a more mellifluous relationship with the audience, forming gentler moments of magic. (As opposed to the earlier black magic.) 

At the end of Dewey and Marrinan’s well-crafted documentary, we learn that Burden died in 2015. Their film does a great job of providing an insight into the nature of a true maverick, who is perhaps not as well-known as he should be. 

The film also reminds one that cinema is a great medium for accessing and documenting fine art. There’s scope for an engagement and enquiry into the artist’s method and output that the drier medium of literature struggles to emulate. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

henri duchemin and his shadows [emmanuel bove]

Bove’s stories are full of young men who seem to have become separated from their selves. Either by choice or chance. Clearly there’s something of his contemporary, Kafka in all of this, as well as hints of the post-war writings of his compatriots, the existentialists. However, there’s something more mundane about Bove’s characters. They are insistently normal. A man who suspects his wife of infidelity, haunted by the night she might or might not have had with a lover; a man who plans to return to his family after an absence of years, but upon arrival at the family home feels as though the abyss that has opened up between them could never be bridged, and flees. Another man who believes he has found a friend to support him in at a moment of poverty, but the friend is a phoney do-gooder, who collects lost causes and discards them as quickly as he finds them. Perhaps most hauntingly of all, another man who, seemingly for the hell of it, chooses to cut the ties to his happy life and walk away, leaving only confusion and upset in his wake. In most of the stories the characters inhabit a seemingly stable world which is in fact in danger of evaporating at any moment. The void is just around the corner.

This voice also feels like one that resonates with the chaos that Europe became in the first half of the twentieth century. The nineteenth century certainties were ripped asunder and young men and women edged towards existential crisis, a crisis that would reach apogee in the second world war. At times it feels as though Bove is talking about people who survived some terrible calamity, but never managed to fully recover, instead finding themselves forever on the cusp of madness. One imagines the lost exiles of Syria and beyond, those who fall through the net, forever inhabiting the kind of half-life which Bove’s characters lead. The trauma might have dulled but the effects will never be ended. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

the salesman (w&d asghar farhadi)

Last year there was a successful, UK financed, Tehran-set horror called Under the Shadow. It told the story of a woman who won’t leave her home in spite of the fact that it’s being attacked by a Djinn. It was a rudimentary, if effective piece of filmmaking, which received considerable plaudits in the UK. The fear was contained within the apartment’s walls. The Tehran it described (actually filmed in Jordan), was claustrophobic and restrictive.

Farhadi’s film shows a Tehran which has much in common. Once again a woman, Rana, finds herself feeling under threat in her own apartment. However, in this case, the threat isn’t supernatural. It’s the down-to-earth fact of a man coming in to her apartment when she was in the shower and assaulting her, possibly raping her. Farhadi’s world is real, tangible, and in its way far more scary. At the same time, it’s more morally complex, more profound. Rana’s husband, Emad, doesn’t know quite how he should react. Rana doesn’t want to go to the police because they are a potential threat as well. Emad sets out to find the culprit and exact revenge, a revenge which Rana herself doesn’t want any part of. This dark moral complexity is beautifully handled and, for an hour and a half, completely absorbing. Suddenly, not just the apartment, but everything, becomes a potential threat, because within such a rigid society, any unorthodox behaviour could be seen as an indication of guilt, even on the part of the victim. Both Rana and Emad are liberal souls. They are both actors, taking part, as it happens, in a version of the Death of a Salesman. But Emad’s liberal instincts have no place in a society where justice is an unreliable concept. If the state can’t be trusted, then the individual is compelled to become his own judge, and that’s not a comfortable position to occupy. 

The fact that the protagonists are actors contributes to a sense that Farhadi is both celebrating and evaluating the role of culture in everyday life. The troupe of actors, for whom this is clearly not a full-time job, clean up the theatre and dedicate their time to the pursuit of culture. Only in the cultural field, such as the film itself, can our societal values be interrogated in a neutral space. The script sets up various subtle parallels with Miller’s text. The tension builds and builds until the final twenty minutes or so. Up to that point the handling of pace and dramatic tension has been masterly, but the denouement is drawn out and ends up feeling melodramatic. Theatre can get away with this kind of protracted ending more readily than film. It starts to feel as though the director is dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s. 

In spite of this The Salesman is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, in its way far more terrifying than any kind of horror. It’s not the unknown which is truly terrifying; it’s the dominion of banal, day-to-day fears which have the power to turn any society into a place of consummate, inescapable fear. 

+++

(ps Thinking about this, it’s striking how few films emerge from what might be termed ‘restricted’ or ‘restrictive’ societies. Clearly censorship plays a part in this, as does the repression of artistic freedom, something which impacts on film in particular, as it requires more infrastructure than say, a novelist or a singer, in order to create its narratives. But this is also true of, for example, of the Mexican experience in the US. An enormous semi-clandestine society, whose stories have never been told in film. There will be countless other examples. It goes to show how political, economic and artistic freedom are tightly interwoven in the creation of cinema. Unless this is another example of the way in which the tyranny of cinema’s distribution chain in turn censors which films we are permitted to receive?)

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

klf: chaos, magic and the band who burned a million pounds [john higgs]

John Higg’s quirky book on the KLF’s burning of a million quid on the island of Jura felt a little heavy on pontification and a little light on detail. It is, as the author observes, a fascinating moment in the history of the music business, as well as being a pungent semiotic event. The book seeks to contextualise this by giving potted accounts of various connected movements, from Dada to Discordianism. The writer is good on the social history of the time and the state of British culture in the early 90’s, all of which sometimes made it feel as though the narrative might have worked better as a novel. In the end, you don’t feel as though you have too much of a handle on Cauty and Drummond’s actions: rather you feel you have a very strong handle on the author’s interpretation of their actions.