Wednesday, 31 December 2008

the bicycle thieves (d. de sica; w. zavattini, d'amico, de sica, biancoli, franci, guerrieri)

A couple of hours ago I was walking across the bridge at Goldbourne Road, when I heard a shout. A van was taking a right turn over the bridge, and had trapped the rear wheel of a cyclist. For a moment it looked as though the cyclist's leg was about to be crushed, but the van stopped. The leg was preserved, but the bike was a write-off. The cyclist, wearing all the modern paraphernalia, was suitably aggrieved. A bleak day for him, but not quite a tragedy. The theft of Antonio Ricci's bike in Rome in 1948 was a far greater personal disaster.

I am sure that vast tomes have been written about this film, so I shall try and keep my contribution brief. I'd never seen it before and am grateful to the Curzon chain, which does more than most to keep cinema alive in this city, in the wider sense of that word (alive). (There was even a showing of the critic's own short in Curzon Soho this year, possibly the cheapest film ever screened there.) There's not much better way to round off a year's movie going than watching Bicycle Thieves, despite the film's pessimism.

This pessimism is the making of it. The characters are so endearing, and the audience so wants them to find the bicycle, for some kind of natural justice to be seen to be done - for the movie world to trump the real one - that when it doesn't, the shock to our system is equitable to the shock to Antonio's, discovering himself converted into nothing better than his enemy. In spite of its wilfully simplistic tone, the film employs a clear and subtle use of narrative to achieve its ends.

It seems worth noting the connections between De Sica's film and Bunuel's Los Olviadodos, among other neo-realist works of the post-war era, if only to ask - what does this 'neo-realist' tag really mean? It's interesting to see the way in which the directors are not only trying to beard the cliches of cinema through their choice of subject matter, focusing on the disenfranchised. They are also attempting to subvert cinema's use a wish-fulfiller. People go to the cinema, so we're told, to make their dreams come true - to escape the real world and enter a pampered land where reality is put on hold, and things turn out right in the end. (Expect a glut of feel-good movies to be funded as the recession bites). This leads to the inevitable comedic ending, where resolution is achieved in spite of the odds. De Sica shows us the odds - every shot with cyclists flying through the Roman streets in the background feels like a slap in Antonio's face - and refuses to deny them. A stolen bicycle has no chance of being recovered, in the real world or the movies. His bicycle thieves aren't just stealing Antonio's means of earning a living, they're also stealing the audience's cosy assumptions of what the cinema is there for, replacing them with something altogether more disturbing (the innate thief that lurks within us all).

It's hard to imagine a film funded today in the US or the UK with the same premise to get away with such a downbeat finale (even 5 months... let its audience off the hook). Maybe that's because our cultures just don't possess the same stakes as the one De Sica depicts. (Interesting to note how like some of the South American cities post-war Rome looks.) The cyclist whose bike was crushed just this afternoon may be able to claim on his insurance, or if not he'll probably be able to replace his bike sooner rather than later. Only in a black farce would his accident lead to the loss of his job, the potential break-up with his family and a descent into crime. Stories like these are made in other countries, other continents, and we continue to believe that an ending which isn't happy just isn't doing justice to its narrative or the characters we have chosen to invest in.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

gonzo (d. alex gibney)

When did you first discover Hunter S Thompson, and under what circumstances? The answers to that question will be manifold, curious, terrifying, in the best sense of the word.

My first encounter was The Rum Diary, and it didn’t enamor me. A few years later I picked up the second volume of his collected correspondence. Its one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Fear and Loathing doesn’t come close. His most celebrated work hints at the reality of the man’s imagination, but the letters reveal it, containing some of the most outrageous prose I’ve ever read.

Writing prose about the things Thompson claimed to be doing, and doing them, are different things. In a sense, we’re better off not knowing the truth. Thompson failed as a novelist because he had one of those imaginations that couldn’t be contained within the bounds of fiction. He himself could and probably did go far further than any character he could dream up; and in the life he lead he met sufficient people who could join him in his personal gormengast to mean there really was no point in him trying to hang their clothes on characters who didn’t exist.

As Gibney’s film suggests, Thompson ended up trying to inhabit the neo-fictional character he’d turned himself into. Only he wasn’t – fictional – and it would appear the results were almost as disastrous as they would have been had he stuck to his dreams of emulating Fitzgerald & co and becoming a novelist. I don’t think there could be any footage sadder than that included in the documentary, showing an addled Thompson, childlike in his inanity, singing along to Candle In the Wind, over and over. This should not be how great writers are immortalized – the action of his quietly spoken son, sadly underused in the film, shooting three shots into the air the moment he realized his father was dead, is far more appropriate.

Gibney’s film suffers from not really seeming to know which story it wants to tell about the good doctor. It goes down various alleyways, tells bits of stories, runs out of time, moves on, and dawdles towards an overextended close. It is the curse of the biographer never to tell the story that the subject’s fans wish to hear, but it did seem strange the film never even mentioned Thompson’s trip to Vietnam, and dealt in such a cursory manner with Oscar Acosta, Thompson’s sidekick on the road to Las Vegas immortality. The complexities of a home loving, gun toting, drug taking pillar of the anti-establishment, were grappled with, but the movie never seemed to have any kind of a grasp on the disparate material it was attempting to weave into a narrative.

Maybe it’s hard to make a film about a writer. As a critic I’d urge you not to bother to go and see this film, which is frankly a dirge of a hagiography of someone who didn’t deserve one and wouldn’t have wanted one. Take your ten quid or ten dollars or whatever loose change you’ve got, walk to your nearest bookstore, and pick up a copy of his letters. Stand and read a few in the bookstore. If you don’t find yourself laughing or gripped within five minutes, put the book down, and use your money to watch the film. If you have, buy it, read every word, then buy as much as you can take, and then when you’ve had enough, think about watching the film. But do it through closed fingers, because it turns into a horror movie for all the wrong reasons, and the good doctor deserves better than to be immortalized on celluloid in his dotage when he has already achieved immortality with his words in his greatness.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

the man from london (d. bela tarr, w. tarr & lászló krasznahorkai)

Bela Tarr is a name to conjure with. On several occasions I've come near to making his cinematic acquaintance, but it's never quite happened. With a film of his finally out on release in London town, the critic makes his way through a sodden, Wintry Brunswick Centre, its Christmas fare suitably bedraggled, with a sense of anticipation.

The Man from London is also a title to conjure with. It turns out that the film is adapted from a Simenon novel. I wonder if school children still learn French with the assistance of Simenon novels. If they don't they're the poorer for it. Moody, dank, black and white - all words which can be applied to the Belgian crime writer's oeuvre and Tarr's adaptation of this novel. I spent quite a long time trying to work out where the film was set: an ancient harbour town with winding streets, presumably within shooting distance of the Channel. Probably, I thought, some small Normandy or Brittany port with a regular cameo on the shipping forecast and which the adventurous motorist can reach after a two day boat crossing from Lyme Regis. When the credits revealed the film was in fact shot in Bastia, on Corsica, it threw everything which had come before mildly off-kilter.

There's plenty of time to ponder the nuances of the film. (Such as how good is Swinton's French accent; and who does that Englishman sound like, again revealed in the credits). The Man from London is as leisurely paced as anyone could hope for, even if it comes in at a Tarrishly concise, Tarr 132 minutes. The opening shot, alone, lasts about 15, as the camera gradually tracks back and forth, following the events that occur when a ship, coming from Britain, docks. Not a great deal ever seems to happen, but what doesn't happen is compensated for by the possibilities of what might happen. This is emphasised by Tarr's roving camera. The film is composed of a succession of luscious camera moves, as a scene is introduced and then gradually explored. The camera is almost constantly on the move, hunting out details, peering behind pillars, suggesting to the viewer that something's lurking round the corner, even when it turns out there's actually nothing there. The times there is something - a suspicious looking man standing in a pool of light; a butcher going about his trade; or a man balancing something on his nose as he dances with another man with a chair - are always good enough to keep you wanting to find out what might or might not be round the corner. For the viewer it's a slow game of suspense, and sometimes hard work, but, as is the way with hard work, it can prove to be remarkably rewarding.

When Maloin, the lead, goes to his cabin, where the man from London has holed up, the camera parks itself outside until he emerges. It stayed there long enough for me to go through the thought processes of firstly thinking: I've probably got time to count the number of planks of wood that make up the door of the cabin; to then actually counting the planks of wood; and then thinking that it didn't seem like very many. I don't think I'd call this sequence suspenseful; I kind of knew by the time I'd got to the second thought process that the camera wasn't going to let me know what was happening inside, I'd just have to wait. It almost felt like a brief time-out - time to look at a wooden door - accept my exclusion, and wait for the film to come back to me. You watch The Man from London on Tarr's terms, not your own, and if you don't like it, you can always leave.

In the end, The Man from London is something of a fable, with the feel of one of Kafka's gentler short stories. It's one of those rare films which I felt would have benefited from being watched with a partner. You can curl up into it, let the time go by, share the experience, come out no more than a little bit the wiser, but having spent time dedicated to the act of spending time together. There's a lovely timelessness to the film, which goes with its understated humour. People tend to describe Tarr as austere or in some way punishingly intellectual, but on this evidence there's more of a warm-hearted and emotional intelligence at work than a heavily cerebral one; albeit one that likes to tell its stories at a leisurely pace, knowing that stories, like fire, can keep us warm through the long Winter nights, and the longer they last, the better.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

rostov luanda (d. abderrahhmane sissako)

Rostov Lunda is a documentary road movie, detailing the director's quest to find Baribanga, an old Angolan friend who he once knew in Russia. Sissako wends his way through Angola, with only an old photograph to help him. He stops to ask people if they've seen his friend wherever he goes, and as he does so, he creates a portrait of the former Portuguese colony, a state shredded by decades of civil conflict in the aftermath of independence.

Of course, had Sissako found his friend in the opening days of his journey, it would have made for a different film. The longer it takes to find him, the more mileage there is in his travelogue. Perhaps it is not altogether fortuitous that it is on his last evening he finally learns Baribanga isn't in Angola at all, but Berlin. Along the way Sissako meets a surprising and touching collection of individuals, of mixed racial descent. Angola is another rainbow nation, where the disenfranchised can be black, white or of mixed race. All are unified by their ability to have survived, where so many others haven't.

Sissako talks about how Angolan independence was seen as an inspirational moment in African development for his generation when he was younger. The troubles the country was heir to were testament to what has gone wrong on the continent. However, the director's selection of stories seems calculated to cultivate a new optimism; not least when a stately black woman explains how she was finally cajoled to learn to stand and use her feet again after years of sitting, lured by the irresistible pull of dance, a dance she demonstrates for his camera. Likewise, the underlying narrative ends with a satisfying conclusion, when Sissako finds Baribanga in Berlin.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

don't sleep there are snakes [w daniel everett]

There's a lot to be said about this book. Thankfully it's late as I write, and sleep-time beckons, otherwise I could easily while away a day or two musing on the various issues it raises.

The book itself is an account of the time the author has spent living with a remote Amazonian tribe, the Piraha. He has lived with them, on and off, for over thirty years. The book is split into three parts: firstly detailing how he first travelled there as a Christian missionary with his wife and young family; then discussing the language of the Piraha, a language no-one else (except his wife and kids?) speak beyond the tribe; and lastly, briefly documenting how the converter was converted, after the Piraha's reaction to his Christian teaching forced him to re-evaluate and eventually abandon his faith, losing his wife and family as a consequence.

Everett is now a professor of linguistics. The second part of the book, devoted to the Piraha language, explains how it has no recursion, which would mean that every sentence written here (and almost every sentence I've ever written) would be impossible in their language. Everett sees this as in some way connected to what he calls the Piraha's 'Immediacy of Experience' - which kind of means that you can only know what you experience yourself, and only say what you know. So for them, the notion of a man who died over two thousand years ago having any impact on their way of life of thinking is preposterous. Everett sees their world view as being a source of immense happiness to them; happiness defined as being something that people who are pleased with the lot they have been given experience. Features of their society he observes include the absence of hierarchy, depression and the ability to count. The latter might seem most surprising - Everett says that he and his family have attempted to teach the Piraha to count, but they just can't get their heads around it, something which perhaps helps to protect them against the practices of the wider world which has gradually been revealed to them over the course of recent decades. Apart from developing a taste for booze, which they are aware needs tempering, he claims that they have very little desire for artifacts of modernity. They believe their way of life to be an excellent one and not in need of any alteration.

The world that Everett describes is far from Utopic: people die young, there is great hardship, and constant threats from wild animals and settlers trying to appropriate their land. The tribe is diminishing and there's no knowing what the future holds for it. All the same, Everett seems to argue that their world view, which is to some extent contained within the structures of their language, is one which has a sophistication, in terms of its efficacy in ensuring the worth which they feel their time on the earth has to give them, which outweighs seemingly more complex social and linguistic structures in other parts of the world. And that's another sentence which could certainly not be translated into Piraha.

There is a whole other strand to the book which deals with the way Everett's work with the Piraha appears to subvert the now-orthodox Chomskyian view that linguistic structures are the product of a universal human genome (I think that's right) . However, you don't need to be a linguistics student to get a grasp of Everett's arguments about the way the Piraha's language interacts with the way in which they perceive the world, and the things which this might have to teach us about the way in which we see the world. (Us being anyone who isn't a Piraha, so that's far from some simple critique of Western culture.) 

It turns out that this past week has been the centenary of the birth of Levi-Strauss, whose name, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't even get a mention in Don't Sleep There Are Snakes. (Although for lovers of footnotes and acknowledgements such as myself, it is bemusing to see Cormac McCarthy's name referenced as someone who has helped the author in the writing of the book.) Levi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques is in some ways a similar book to Don't Sleep There are Snakes, detailing how time living amongst indigenous Brazilian tribes helped its author to shape not only a philosophic world view, but also fresh techniques for the practice of his chosen scientific discipline. Daniel Everett's book describes a similar journey into the heart of the unknown world (once upon a time called the uncivilised world, or heart of darkness) which reveals a culture which may not have produced many of the technologic advances associated with civilization, but instead has settled for mastering the technology of some kind of happiness, which is all its inhabitants feel they need.

the silence of lorna (w&d jean-pierre & luc dardenne)

The Dardenne brothers are figures who float at the edge of the Anglo-Saxon consciousness. Occasionally fashionable, a film of theirs will be feted, before they're forgotten again. The Silence of Lorna hasn't generated much critical acclaim, but in some small way it seems as though their films are an event, as filmmakers they're worth checking out no matter what they're doing. Not a state that can be sustained indefinitely - pace Allen and even Scorsese - but The Silence of Lorna suggests that the brothers are near the top of the game, and if this was a weekly review of note rather than an unsung warble from the blogoshpere I'd be beseeching as many readers as possible to go and see it.

The film is Lorna's story. Played with a restraint which is the all the more impressive for those brief moments, crucial to the narrative, when it's broken, by Arta Dobroshi. Lorna features in just about every scene in the film. She's an immigrant, who has settled in Belgium, and married Claudy, a hopeless junkie, in order to get her visa. This is part of a deal whereby she will marry a rich Russian following the end of her marriage to Claudy, after which she will finally get to settle down with her sweetheart, Sokol. Together they plan to open a cafe, and you kind of know that Lorna possesses the drive and the nerve to make it work, to become a 21st century success story of the globalised world.

There's only one hitch, which is that the fixer of the deal, Fabio, has decided the safest thing for everyone is if Claudy has an 'accidental' overdose and dies. No matter what the harsh realities of life dictate, and in spite of the fact their marriage is a sham, Lorna can't come to terms with this. When Claudy decides to quit heroin,  he turns to Lorna for help, and she can't help but provide it. She tries to fix a divorce instead, and, when Claudy's on the point of regressing back to drugs, she sleeps with him. After Claudy dies of an overdose, arranged by Fabio, Lorna realises or decides she's pregnant, and in spite of the fact she knows its going to fuck everything up, she refuses to have an abortion.

It's a simple tale, and classic storytelling. The neo-realist filming style, as plain and unadorned as can be, contributes to the narrative's believability. In another context the story might be melodramatic, but in this one, and told this way, it feels like a report from the front line of the global village, where the simple act of choosing to keep a child can become one of almost absurd courage. Lorna's insistence of preserving her humanity in spite of the price she will have to pay for it is heroic, and leads to a denouement containing a whole forest full of tension.

The directors succeed in coaxing a remarkable performance from Dobroshi, as well as from Jeremie Renier as Claudy. The film's simplicity is its strength. The Silence of Lorna is a film made in the image of its heroine: discovering a sense of value in what lies beneath the surface, in spite of the world's constant seeking of value in what can be seen on the surface alone.

Friday, 28 November 2008

the baader meinhof complex (d uli edel, w. edel & stefan aust)

The easiest way to explain what's wrong with this film is supplied by the music covering the credits, which come after two and a half hours of screen time. As the film ends, and the credits roll, a highly portentous and obviously scored tune pounds out. Then, after a couple of minutes (this is a long film and there is no shortage of credits), Dylan's Blowing in the Wind cuts in. For Dylan aficionados, this is something of a relief. He sings the whole song, but unfortunately there's more credits still rolling. So the film reverts to the former, bombastic score. At which point I left, although given the credits continued to roll they may still have had time to slip in one of Mahler's shorter concertos.

This ending is indicative of a film which doesn't seem to sure how to place or pace itself. In contrast to Downfall (made by the same producer), which was immersed in the unities of time, place and action, The Baader Meinhof Complex sprawls over several years, and moves all over Germany with detours to Rome and a PLO training camp in an unnamed part of the Middle East. The film focuses on the three principle members of the terrorist group, Baader, Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, but the other members appear and occasionally take centre stage, (such as when Holger Meins dies), without having been developed in any way, perching somewhat uneasily on the twenty minutes of fame the film allows them. Furthermore, whilst Ensslin's attraction for the bad boy of the Social Revolutionary movement is understandable, (Andreas Baader is portrayed as a kind of anti-Che, a solipsistic, narcissistic egoist), the studious Ulrika Meinhof's choice to become so closely linked to him that their names will go down in history together is never really explored with any kind of subtlety.

The length of the film seems like further evidence of the fact the filmmakers weren't too sure of what they were doing. There's a lot of contextualisation (ie news footage from Vietnam); and a consistent dosage of 'action' sequences, as fetching young Germans who look like something out of an 80's ID magazine shoot show off their prowess with machine guns; but, until the gang is arrested, the narrative and the apparent mission of the urban terrorists has very little shape. Once they are arrested the film develops a point of focus in the prison, although it still can't resist sending young blondes off to wreak havoc where they can get it.

No matter how historically accurate the film is, it doesn't really help the viewer to understand what the individual members of the Baader Meinhof group were really fighting for, and why they apparently engendered so much sympathy in spite of the gratuitous violence of their methods. There are moments of flair in some of the set piece scenes (notably the early demonstration against the Shah's state visit) but even these run out of steam in the plethora of bullets and explosions; and the real complexities of the doomed triangle which composed the leadership of this curiously effective urban guerrilla movement are merely hinted at.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

waltz with bashir (w&d ari folman)

Hot on the heels of Hunger comes Waltz With Bashir, another piece dealing with near-forgotten episode from the eighties. Oddly both pieces summoned up similar memories of being in the library of Freddies, as the house I lived in was somewhat comically named. The library was primarily used as a snooker room, but the papers were also laid out there, and 1982 was around the year when I first began to take a regular interest in the wider world. The massacre of Sabra and Chatila affected me. I cut out a picture from the paper, not dissimilar to the images at the end of Folman's film, and kept it in a yellow hardback book I had been given for Christmas (selected essays of Bernard Levin). 

Folman's film is about many things, and I'd hope he'd recognise the purpose of my introductory flannel. Like McQueen's film, he is looking at the way history is constructed, which also means the way in which we choose to either remember or forget that which has gone before. The film explores his own memories of being in Beirut as an Israeli soldier at the time of the massacre. As such it is also a film about memory - including one diverting sequence where a psychologist explains the human tendency to construct, even invent memories, noting that memory is an active, ongoing project for each individual. Folman, whose autobiographical story the film tells, has blocked out any recollection of being in Beirut, and the film narrates his mission to recover his memory, thereby erasing a collective amnesia on his country's part about the role it played in this war crime.

Any news we receive about Israel nowadays is tied up in its role in the geopolitical struggle that country was always heir to, and how it is conducting that struggle. In the midst of this maelstrom, its hard not to feel that Jewish culture, such a key component of European culture, gets forgotten. Folman's film reminds us of a heritage which its easy to feel has been lost since Judaism found a home. Folman's mission is a humane, rational enquiry. He talks to his psychologist, who makes the connection between the death camps of Beirut and the camps of the Holocaust, and the implicit Nazification of Israeli foreign policy at that time. These are bold points, made with a light touch, as pretty images float across the screen.

Which, of course, is Waltz With Bashir's USP. How does a factual essay about war crimes; Jewish identity; and memory, get a mainstream release? It does it by making itself as an animation. Folman's drawings are witty, pretty, striking and thought-provoking. The animation allows him to recreate a city in the midst of civil war, and describe the invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli army. It also allows him to include several fantasy and dream sequences. The poetry of the images buys him space for the more banal documentary talking heads images (which nonetheless exude a quirky fascination in comic strip form). After Persepolis, I was somewhat wary of the notion of an animated political film, but Waltz With Bashir uses the medium to remarkable effect, not least because of the quality of the animation itself. But more than this, the choice to make the film in an animated form allows the director to clandestinely smuggle issues into the cinema which he wouldn't be able to do any other way.

Waltz With Bashir is a brave film. Art cannot redeem the mistakes of the past, (and the film's sudden shift of tone at the end might be a nod to the limits of the power of artistry), but it can contribute to an understanding of what has gone before. Furthermore, it is also part of the discourse of history, and by refusing to let his personal amnesia lie, Folman might have gone some way towards helping his collective nation recognise the responsibility it bears for its part with regard to Sabra and Chatila, a responsibility it would normally prefer to be clouded in the fog of long-lost memory.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

the book of secrets [w. M G Vassanji]

The Book of Secrets, set in Tanzania, spans the best part of the twentieth century. The book of secrets itself appears to be a diary, written by a British colonial officer, Corbin, during his time as the colonial overseer in the backwoods town of Kikono, in the lead up to the first world war. The diary appears to be fairly innocuous, apart from the suggestion of a possible affair with a local woman, Miriamiu, whose husband accuses her of not being a virgin on her wedding night. Miriamiu's son is a pale skinned boy who ends up becoming wealthy and traveling to England. The book suggests that the colonial official and his possible son met and might possibly have possibly broached the subject of paternity, or might not have done.

Vassanji's narrator is Pius Fernandes, a schoolteacher in Dar Es Salaam, who is given the diary, which has survived through the century, and who takes on responsiblity for investigating its origins. This narrator recounts the various stories of the people who may or may not have been connected to the diary. These are a varied bunch, from Corbin to the son, Ali, to the woman Ali later runs off to England with, to the English poet who makes Dar Es Salaam his home. The narrative meanders across the years, and has a knack of engaging the reader in a particular character only to let that character's storyline drift out of the narrative as it moves on to the next. As a result, it feels as though the reader is continually restarting the project of the book and the quest for the true significance of the Book of Secrets. This particular reader never really got to the bottom of the diary's significance - it felt like something of a Maguffin around which Vassanji could embroider his knowledge of Tanzania, past and present, and the diverse communities that inhabited the country. 

The diary and Pius's mission to discover its secrets insinuates both the idea of a dramatic resolution to the book as well as some kind of key to the recent history of Tanzania. As it becomes clear that the book will not deliver on its insinuation, the reader has two courses of action. One is to become a little frustrated with a literal pretentiousness (understanding that word to mean an undelivered pretension to communicate something which is, in the end, never communicated); and secondly to enjoy the ramblingly assembled portrait of a faintly idyllic part of the world.  

Sunday, 16 November 2008

of time and the city (w&d terence davies)

Two weeks without going to see a film seems like something of a hiatus. There are films out there I wouldn't mind seeing, but I think it might be a November thing, a time of year when the mind begins to kick against the habits that have seen it through the best part of the calendar, and a sluggishness sets in. Battling against that, I went with the sister to the Renoir, to catch the lauded Davies's essay on all things Liverpool. Terence Davies, a somewhat mysterious figure, whose films both the sister and I remembered watching about twenty years ago, but about which, save the fact that these too are lauded, and have perhaps grown in stature as a result of their subsequent obscurity, very little came back to haunt.

Of Time and The City is best described as an essay film. It uses found footage and Davies' own narration to compose a picture of Liverpool through the twentieth century. A point of comparison might be Andersen's epic and witty Los Angeles Plays Itself. Davies film is shorter, and seemingly more elegiac. We know the film is supposed to be elegiac from the opening frames, when a stentorian, thespian voice recites poetry over black and white footage. The footage is captivating. The twentieth century revealed as the film documents the poverty of Davies' childhood and the energy of a now-lost industrial age. 

The footage is captivating, but the narration remains stentorian. After not very long you realise the voice is Davies' own. The narrative dabbles with a variety of moments: Davies' discovery of his homosexuality (wrestling and bonfire nights); the Korean War (for no discernable reason); the coronation of the queen, which Davies rails against. And then, finally, tower blocks and modern architecture.

Almost every film I see nowadays has some kind of commentary on the tower block. (As though its a Borgesian subset of 'film', a previously unnoticed genre.) Of Time and The City, following in the footsteps of Import/ Export; Gomorrah and even Dekalog, which I've watched on DVD recently, seizes on the urban alienation of 'The Tower Block'. The film lingers on images of slums being destroyed, and replaced by dystopian blocks. The footage shows them in their shiny newness and then spends an age describing their degradation, the images counterpointed by some pulsating Mahler or Bruckner. To no one's great surprise, Davies doesn't approve of tower blocks and makes sure you get the point. The fact that they replaced the slums he also disapproved of is glossed over. The delight which the film seems to take from its use of these depressing images verges on the sadistic. As though the filmmaker is saying: Can you belive it? People actually lived there! In response to the Tower Block genre there are two things I'd like to say. First, the image of the tower block as symbol of urban alienation from now on ought to be banned. Secondly, I'm biased, as I live in a tower block, with views over South London, and I promise you, it's not that bad. (Dekalog seems to suggest that there's nothing wrong with living in a housing estate, as there really are plenty of other things for people to get worked up about.)

After the tower blocks come... well to be honest it really doesn't matter all that much. Davies has more fun putting images of his beloved city together with some of his favourite tracks, and continues his meandering elegy. Towards the end - (shortly before mandatory helicopter shot, something else that also, sadly has entered the compendium of visual cliche, though that's not to say that hopefully, at some point in cinematic history, someone won't use it slightly better than a stock BBC documentary about rural churches of coastal Britain) - Davies shows lots of pictures of young Liverpudlians out on the piss, and declaims his disaffection and disconnection from the city he once knew. Any sentient viewer must be wondering why this camp old thespian thinks he should feel at home with a group of teenagers out on the lash on a Friday night, but that point seems to escape the film's narrator.

Earlier this year I went to see a play by a respected UK playwright, part of a series of pieces he'd assembled addressing the issue of the Iraq war. A reasonable endeavour, clearly, even admirable. Sadly, the plays were, on the whole, portentous, overblown, and left this member of the audience with next to no feeling of having connected with the war or Iraq. Given one is inclined to berate British art for failing to grapple with ideas, it's obviously churlish to point out that maybe the reason why we don't create more thoughtful art is that we're just not very good at it. Or perhaps we're not very good at it because we don't do enough of it. Whatever the truth, it's apparent in Of Time And The City. A piece which has all the ingredients it needs (footage and music) to create a remarkable piece of cinema about the city of Liverpool, but is let down by the fact that its creator doesn't really seem to know what he's trying to say. 

Thursday, 6 November 2008

lust [w. elfriede jelinek]

Lust is not a straightforward read. In theory it tells a small story, which takes place, so far as I could make out, over the course of a couple of days. Gerti is married to the swinish factory owner, Hermann. She meets a student, Michael, and they have sex. Later she tries to run away to be with Michael, but he's not interested, Hermann comes and gets her and brings her home, and she murders their child. 

That's what happens, but Lust isn't really about what happens but the way in which these actions are described. Jelinek's prose is composed of dense, poetic, pornographic  paragraphs. She's a writer who can't resist a pun, which suggests that her translators have their work cut out. Trying to get to grips with her text is like wrestling with a bibliophilic python. It's hard work, and matched by the writer's bleak analysis of modern life. 

Lust is a book about lust, and large chunks of it are dedicated to painstaking descriptions of sex. Gerti is fucked every which way by a husband who has remarkable stamina and who sees his wife as his chattel, to do with as he pleases. It seems somewhat surprising that this hasn't put Gerti off sex, but when she meets Michael, the attraction seems to be primarily physical. You won't read a dirtier book than Lust, but that doesn't mean there's anything particularly erotic about it. Sex is another commodity in a world which has been reduced to pure commodification.

For what it's worth, my favourite chapter was the one which described the skiers, in all their florescent gaudiness. It reminded me of a Peter Doig picture I saw earlier this year, a white mountainside populated by small figures in bubble gum colours. Jelinek's critique of modern living merits the application of words like 'coruscating'. Her unremitting bleakness and baroque prose isn't going to appeal to a mass audience, although it has secured her the Nobel prize. 

Saturday, 1 November 2008

hunger (d. steve mcqueen, w. mcqueen & enda walsh)

There was only one other audience member at the Coronet for the afternoon screening of Hunger. A man who chuckled to himself for no apparent reason, before engaging on muttered asides. He was four rows behind me, and when I turned around to look at him I thought for a moment it might have been McQueen himself, chuckling at moments in his artfully grim movie which no-one else was going to find funny. It wasn't, and in the end the asides began to feel a little menacing, and I moved to a seat further back.

It's slightly strange being part of an audience of two in a cinema, and as the film opened, I thought for the first time ever about the notion of cinema as prison - a confined space to which you are sentenced for the duration. For crimes you may or may not have committed. Whilst this is, natch, a fanciful, almost Frenchian piece of thinking, it's also testament to the tactile effectiveness of McQueen's film-making. Sound, colour and cinematography are used with the kind of inventiveness you'd hope an artist would provide to convey the realities of being in the Maze prison of the early 80's (and the pertinence of this realisation in terms of Guantanamo, Baghram etc, whilst never stated feels implicit). The director uses long takes and sparse dialogue to assemble (more Frenchiness) a powerful rendition of an inhumane system seeking to break its inhabitants' spirit and resistance.

The film's narrative structure is refreshingly unorthodox. The opening section describes the dirty protest and the state violence. At first it seems as though two stories are going to be counterpointed, as the life of a prison officer is dovetailed with the experiences of a new IRA prisoner. However, once Bobby Sands is introduced, he gradually comes to displace everyone else. The prison officer is shot, without the audience ever having got to know him, and the young prisoner fades out of the narrative. The film hinges on a long dialogue sequence between Sands and a Catholic priest, as the IRA man confesses, if you like, his reasons for embarking on his hunger strike. I'd been told this sequence, mostly filmed as a single take, is seventeen minutes long, and some had suggested that was pushing it. Walsh's writing is showcased, a bit like a Roach drum solo in a Coltrane track. It feels as though the intention is to create some kind of dissonance, in suddenly introducing so many words in a film of so few. This won't be everyone's cup of tea (dissonance isn't), but I found myself gripped. Apart from the fact it's a great piece of writing, McQueen's use of Walsh's words accentuates their value. Whilst McQueen's filmmaking has built up a visceral picture of the Maze, words are needed to convey the political context and also, to an extent, the psychological motivation for men to live in their own shit, as well as starve themselves to death. Language can do this in a way that images can't, and if the film has succeeded in taking you into the Maze, then you want to know why you're there, and the revelation of this information is as gripping as anything else in the film.

The final section of the narrative deals with Sands' hunger and death, and is entirely focused on him. Perhaps oddly, this felt less compelling that what had gone before. The priest in the dialogue accuses Sands of seeking martyrdom, an accusation he refutes, but the film flirts with imagery which comes straight out of the Christian iconography of sainthood. One scene in particular, when Sands' withered body is carried by a large prison officer, looks like a Pieta, and the film's concentration on the remarkable transformation of the actor Michael Fassbender's body seemed something of a distraction. (Hints of De Niro as La Motta and other noted pieces of body-acting). The transformation impies a mutation from the physical to a spiritual state, offering echoes of portraits of Saint Sebastian, the film dwelling on the Sands's sores and emaciation rather than any psychological suffering.

No matter how this last sequence affects the viewer, it's further testament to Hunger's broad agenda. This is a film about politics, but also history. The dirty protest and the hunger strikes that accompanied it are distant memories today. The IRA campaign, which for all of my youth was considered the greatest threat to civil life in the UK, has been almost forgotten. As well as reminding us of how our fears have been replaced, McQueen's film and Walsh's script remind us how it was always a part of the political process that what exactly was going on in the Maze, and who these people were, remained obscure. (Again the resonances with recent history are powerful.) Hunger opens the doors of the prison and lets us in on an old nightmare.

The number of levels McQueen's film operates on reveals a filmmaker who's both ambitious and dexterous. In addition to its political-historical agenda, Hunger is also an exploration of the relative and complementary potency of language and image, twin components of cinema's art. There are some points of comparison with Schnabel's Diving Bell and Butterfly, another piece created by an artist taking advantage of the full palette of cinema and using the restrictions of imprisonment as a creative impetus. It is to be hoped that Hunger gets good audiences, in spite of its challenging material and intransigent artistry, which won't be to everyone's tastes.

The McQueen lookalike received a phone call somewhere towards the end of the long dialogue. He got up and ambled to the back of the cinema where he took the call, making arrangements for his future. I don't think he was talking to Spielberg or Weinstein, but lets hope that someone with some film-money is talking to the real McQueen, because it will be fascinating to see what he does next.

Monday, 27 October 2008

the long emergency [w. james howard kunstler]

I am glad I've finished this book. Firstly I'm glad because the first half of it, to its credit, succeded in its pessimistic mission to scare the life out of its readers. Secondly, because this is a book which seems to take more pleasure from its prophesies of doom than the quality of its prose. Lastly, because, in spite of everything, I am pleased to be able to write this on my hangdog laptop, as fireworks flower on a glittering London skyline.

Kunstler's thesis is that the oil is going to run out sooner than we think, and when that happens, the lights are going to go out sooner than anyone is prepared to conceive. There will be no more blogging, he might well have written, with his penchant for emphatic statements. There will be no more lights, no more computers and probably far too many fireworks. The reason the first part of the book is so depressing is because the author is stringent in his arguments and they are convincing. The oil is on its way to running out. Maybe not as soon as he thinks, but even then, the peak oil argument he explains with forthright clarity means that an oil-addicted society will start to unravel long before the last drops are wrung from the planet. All the alternatives we assume are going to come riding to the rescue - nuclear, wind, solar etc - he dismisses as no real substitute for the role our black gold plays in lubricating every aspect of our society. He makes the point that if we don't have the means to transport materials, it's not going to be easy to keep nuclear power plants up and running.

As a consequence, this is a book one hopes politicians and other individuals who probably spend rather a lot of time in powerful cars or burning aviation fuel take note of, and soon. The kind of changes to the way our societies work, which the book implies we need to make sooner rather than later, will need to be initiated by those who control power in our society. Leadership is a commodity that seems to have lost its currency in the modern world, but it will need to be rediscovered if societies are not to implode at the same rate economies are doing at the moment.

As the book goes on, and Kunstler describes a projected breakdown of the United States with more and more relish, you know that he's secretly longing for the day his country returns to something rather closer to the one the Founding Fathers created. There is obviously an up-side to living a quiet, rural existance, with cottage industries making things local societies really need; rather than inhabiting a world where global industries ship products around the world that are far from being essential to our survival as a species. Kunstler's attack on a culture that has turned its land into a sprawling suburban mall complex seems eminently reasonable.

It's always been tempting to run off to the Uruguayan coast and grow my own vegetables, and the thesis of The Long Emergency suggests that this is probably now the wisest course of action. However, for some reason I can't always get my head around, it also feels like it would be a dereliction of duty. If the lights do go out, and the fireworks never stop, (they have just paused, having flourished over Kensington during the writing of this review), notions of society, in a world that has sometimes claimed to have moved beyond it, will become far more important than they are now in these oil-rich days of plenty.

Monday, 20 October 2008

burn after reading (d. joel & ethan coen)

You can sort of see what they were trying to achieve. And if they'd pulled it off, it would have been great. A comedy thriller about paranoia set in Washington DC. Almost, as the poster suggests, Hitchcockian, and ripe for paranoid times. When Malkovich storms out of the meeting after being informed of his dismissal from the CIA Balkan office, he hollers, 'this is political' and for a fleeting moment I thought this was going to be a biting satire on Plamegate. Which someone should be making, and who better than the Coen brothers?

On second thoughts... There are various problems with Burn, which basically, to use the kind of language Malkovich and Swinton relish, fuck it up. Completely. Firstly the narrative isn't as clever as it thinks it is. The fact that Pitt (let's not even bother with the character names) blackmails Malkovich who's married to Swinton who's sleeping with Clooney who shoots Pitt has more of the feel of a Washington after dinner drinking game than a movie narrative. It would be more surprising if all these stars weren't going to be connected than that they are. At the end, the CIA chief meets the CIA underling and they talk about the mess that's been made, and how complicated it's become, and you can't help thinking: Nice try, chicos, but the truth is it's not that complex. To paraphrase their last movie, if this is the mess it won't really do until the next one comes along, you need to make it messier, now! The second problem is that the plot hinges on a notion of paranoia - everyone's paranoid and if they're not they should be. You can't see a black car without someone thinking it's an agent of Hades come to whisk them away. Except that, when there aren't any cars around, no-one seems very paranoid at all. Most of all Mr Clooney, who attempts to veer between laid-back, bearded George and eye-rolling, crazy George in the bat of an eyelid. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Clooney isn't and never will be Nicholson. Which is fair enough, as there's only room for one Nicholson in film-land, and George has other attributes. The last problem with the film, as the previous one implies, is the casting. Everyone's a star, they all seem to want to try to outshine one another. Which presumably made the film great fun to make, but a series of turns does not make for an integrated movie; it makes for something rather closer to panto. Something which one senses Malkovich has come to believe he was born for, ever since those people started running around his head and warping his actor-ego completely out of shape.

There's probably more problems. Not least of which that, once again, this doesn't really feel like a Coen brothers movie. It's neither strange enough nor dark enough, and doesn't have a charismatic performance from Badem to compensate. You know this because there's an exception that proves the rule - the moment when Malkovich takes an axe to the guy from Six Feet Under. It's shot from a distance, no close-ups, and for a brief moment Malkovich's psychosis seems completely believable. Not because of his performance, but because of the way the moment's filmed, with a cold terror lurking behind the everyday normality of a pretty suburban street in the capital of the Western world.

Friday, 17 October 2008

under the frangipani [w. mia couto]

Couto's Sleepwalking Land has stayed with me, even though the tradition of oral storytelling his work derives from feels a long way removed from the literary tradition I belong to. The work of this writer from Mozambique has felt peculiarly significant over the course of the past weeks, for reasons explored below.

The narrative of Under The Frangipani is superficially straightforward. A policeman, Izidine Naita, is sent to a remote fort to investigate the murder of the mightily named Vastome Excellency, the fort overseer, a kind of head honcho. Besides one nurse, who flies to the fort with Izidine on a helicopter, the only people who live there are an odd collection of elderly waifs and strays. These witnesses are questioned by the policeman, one-by-one, and each one successively claims responsibility for Vastome's murder. This potentially quaint, Agatha Christie-esque story is underpinned by darker realities. It emerges that Vastome had been smuggling weapons and hoarding them at the fort. Izidine has essentially been sent not to discover Vastome's fate, but to recover the weapons. When it's clear he's failed, his own life is put in danger.

The story is complicated by the fact that the policeman has been possessed by the story's narrator, Ermelindo, a man who's been dead for 200 years, buried under the frangipani tree. Ermelindo took part in the construction of the fort and the jetty which still stands. This was built to receive slave ships at the beginning of a seemingly uninterrupted dark history for the country which now wants to dig up his bones and proclaim him as a national hero.

Couto weaves the threads of his story together, dovetailing Ermelindo's narration of Izidine's enquiry with the verbatim confessions of the various inhabitants of the fort. The fort is a small island, cut off from the rest of the country, only approachable by helicopter. As in Sleepwalking Land, war has ravaged what might have been taken for normal society, so that it's become fragmented, with isolated enclaves surviving on their own, although even these cannot resist the wider chaos of the country. It is clearly not by chance that there are no families here, no children, not even grown adults, just the elderly, struggling to survive.

Recent events across the world have raised the spectre of even the most affluent societies facing increased economic and political pressures. There has been much gnashing of teeth and grinding of forelocks at the dystopian possibilities that could be engendered by a kamikaze use of renewable fuels coupled with an insatiable demand for growth. Of course, as one comment on an economics blog I was reading last week noted, in Africa the weak have rarely been anything other than susceptible to the destructive powers of unregulated capital. The commentator observed that the affluent West was now learning what it feels like to see one's destiny in the hands of young, ignorant pursuers of greed, and ended his careful comments with the hyperbolic, 'Welcome to hell.'

Apart from those in my grandparents' generation who lived through the conclusion of World War 2 on mainland Europe, very few of us have any idea what this dystopian future would be like. A report on Newsnight from one of the few journalists to have visited Mogadishu in recent months gives the slightest hint: buildings that are nothing more than ghosts, a place where even a well- armed UN force will not travel so far from base that they can't get back before nightfall. Mozambique, like other parts of Africa which have barely benefited from the great economic prosperity which the world is so scared of losing, has suffered in similar ways to Somalia. Given this, Couto's books really do feel like dispatches from some kind of front line. Only in those societies where chaos has at some point become the norm rather than the exception will it be possible to discover what it might be like when a projected societal breakdown has become the norm.

In which sense, Couto's mixed messages, whilst dystopian (again it is worth noting the parallels between McCarthy's exalted The Road and Couto's unknown Sleepwalking Land), seem far from disheartening. There remains a clear, engrained notion of a social fabric, which can be rooted both in an idea of fellowship and nature, most obviously, in this instance, enshrined within the frangipani tree the book is named after. The relationship between the soil and the humans who live on it (also known as history) has a power which is all too easy to forget, but which Couto's elderly and irascible would-be murderers understand.

One thing I find about Couto's books is that they demand I adapt my notions of reading. His books seem like a journey down a lazy, meandering river: they cannot be rushed, because each aspect of the narrative is a story in itself, with its own beginning, middle and end. Although the books are short, progress through them is dense. They don't have the compelling nature of Western narratives, continually driving towards the consumption of the next page and the next. It feels more like a journey through a village of standing stones: no matter what happens, the book and its stories will still be there tomorrow. Perhaps this is because the stories belong as much to the soil as they do to the mind.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

gomorrah (d. matteo garrone, w. saviano, bracucci, chiti, di gregorio, garrone, gaudioso)

Gomorrah is adapted from a book of the same title, written by Roberto Saviano, detailing the activities of the Camorra, one of Italy's still functioning crime syndicates. Saviano, who's only 28, has spent the last two years of his life in hiding. You can imagine one way to make a whole raft of enemies for life is to write a book exposing Mafia activities in Italy, without any sentimental overtones.

Gomorrah interweaves several different storylines to show different aspects of the criminal syndicate, aspects which don't appear to have any connection, as though the heads of the hydra wouldn't recognise one another if they met. It doesn't glamourise the world in any way. Rather, it tries to show how the illegal profits it pursues are part and parcel of the world of business. One section is set in the world of pattern cutting and knock off designer wear (at one point the tailor rather touchingly sees Scarlett Johansen, in another world, wearing one of his creations); another based around a group who bury toxic waste in the countryside. The film also dwells on a large, specific concrete housing estate, following the story of a young kid who gets sucked into the violence of a war between opposing factions. The housing estate makes for an interesting counterpoint to that shown in Import/ Export: once again it's a kind of frontline in the battle between a harmonious affluent Europe and a dangerous, warring underworld, threatening the social fabric. However, as opposed to the estate in Import/ Export, presented as some kind of hell, the houses on Gomorrah's estate are something people personalise and cling to. There's a pet monkey in one house and a remarkable long lens shot of a swimming pool on the roof. This is territory that people are prepared to fight over, and in some cases, to die for.

In its quest for what feels like authenticity, Gomorrah repeatedly underplays the drama, rather than ratcheting it up, as so often the case in mob movies. The stresses that ordinary people, caught up in a war which they know no way of avoiding, are described. The man who delivers the money to families on the estate, who realises the time has come when he needs to start wearing a bullet proof vest, or the tailor who takes his life in his hands when he gives the Chinese factory lessons in pattern-cutting. When the Comorra is your world, you don't get to choose whether you want to play or not. One of the strongest moments comes when the young boy is forced to betray his friend's mother. Up to now, it had been all about dressing up and driving around in cars, playing at being a man: all of a sudden the stakes are brutally altered.

Perhaps the most intriguing storyline is the one that follows two young men who decide they want to be their own bosses. In an early scene, they boast about being 'Tony Montana' from Scarface. In a compelling scene they steal cocaine from a group of African dealers, and later some guns from the Comorra. They possess the kind of insouciant, charismatic criminality which, in another, less honest film, might have seen them go right to the top. However, in Gomorrah, they're just deluding themselves. This is the Mafia like it really is; not like they show it in the movies.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

in search of a distant voice [w. taichi yamada]

Yamada's story is so slight you can barely hear it whispering between the pages. The narrative describes an episode in the life of Kasama Tsuneo, an immigration officer who lives and works in Tokyo. One day, whilst out on a mission, he is overwhelmed by an unexplained orgasmic wave; a short while later the voice of a woman appears in his head. The voice has sought him out, and is able to communicate with him at any given moment. The voice disrupts his career and his arranged marriage, and generally haunts poor Tsuneo. He finally reveals to the voice a story of how he brought about the downfall of Eric, a gay antiques dealer, who he worked for in Portland, Oregon, when he was staying in the States, as an illegal immigrant. The voice could be Eric, come back to haunt him in the guise of a woman, or it could be nothing to do with Eric. Yamada offers little by way of explanation.

This is part ghost story, part love story, and part (one suspects) commentary on the disconnectedness of modern Japan. To my mind it felt somewhat undercooked, but this might be because the culture I belong to is too clumsily steeped in notions of discernible significance. There's one point where the Woman's voice offers Tsuneo a haiku. The delicacy of this poetic form might be the best way of appreciating what Yamada is trying to achieve; the subtle unwrapping of a seemingly centred soul; the revelation that all of us have secrets in our closet. Furthermore, ghosts would seem to be, by definition, ephemeral creatures, beyond any evident grasp, and Yamada's use of the ghostly voice as an agent of disconcertion, rather than fear, is part of its appeal. Tsuneo never seems scared of this voice, indeed he feels a greater affinity with it than he does with the people he knows. Perhaps, to extrapolate, Yamada's thesis might be that love is like a ghost: something with the power to possess the soul without effort; something that, when it reaches out and siezes us, we are powerless to resist, no matter how great or small its connection to our daily lives. When the voice tells Tsuneo, shortly before leaving him, that she loves him, this seems entirely plausible, even though the two have never apparently met. Love functions, as do ghosts, on a metaphysical plane, its presence both tangible and intangible at the same time.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

import/export (d. ulrich seidl, w. seidl & veronika franz)

Seidl's film arrives at the ICA on the back of some auspicious criticism, with the suggestion that the film presents a modern vision of hell. The Guardian review referenced Jelinek and Haneke, suggesting that contemporary Austria is the frontline in the crisis of the Western soul. The plot intercuts the story of a Ukrainian woman who comes to Austria to earn a living with that of an Austrian who finds himself on a trip to Ukraine, where he installs bubble gum machines in desolate corners of post-Soviet concrete existence.

The two stories counterpoint one another. Olga, in the Ukraine, works as a nurse but also as a sex worker, performing to a video-streamed camera for on-line customers, trying to make sense of the instructions which strange men bark at her in German or English. Not being altogether cut out for this, she leaves her baby and heads for Austria, where she goes through various jobs until spending the last half of the film as a cleaner in a home for the dying. Pauli, the Austrian, initially has a job as a security guard, but after being abused by a group of immigrants and finding himself in debt to various shaven-haired thugs, he joins his odious stepfather on the bubble gum trip to Slovakia and Ukraine. The narrative deliberately refuses to satisfy the audience's subliminal desire to integrate the two stories: Pauli and Olga never meet, and besides the overlap of countries, their stories remain obstinately separated.

You know, early on, as an audience member, that you're not supposed to be enjoying yourself. Olga spends a lot of time walking through frozen estates in heels pushing her baby around in a pram, and Pauli, when he's not shadow boxing at home, is trained by an overly psychotic nutter for his mundane job as a security guard. Before long, Olga is contorting naked for a video camera (and for Seidl's camera) and Pauli's getting handcuffed and soaked in beer before losing his job. The director's ambition is clearly phrased in the stark camera work and bleak set-ups: he's going to make us suffer, he's almost challenging us to sit through his 135 minute festival of bleakness.

I'm all for this kind of thing. I like to see the Western, Eastern, Southern or Northern soul dragged through the mire. Visceral realism is fine by me. But I have to confess that Seidl's attempts didn't really convince. There's a fine line between being shown the deprivation of the Western (or wherever's) soul, and being shown something that someone's trying to sell as the deprivation of the Western soul. My feeling, as Seidl's film protracted itself through a long afternoon, was that this was a case of the latter.

Two things in particular made me suspicious. Firstly, Olga, in her travels through Austria, never seemed to meet anyone even vaguely sympathetic. I dislike sentimentalism in movies, life and love; the desire to make things prettier that they really are, the need to sweeten the pill. However, as I watched poor Olga struggle, it seemed to me that I was being presented with something equally inauthentic - miserablism, if you like. Despite her amiable nature, the only person who's ever nice to Olga swiftly dies of a heart attack. She gets a job with what appears to be a single mother, in an antiseptic house of steel grey, cleaning and looking after her two children. The little boy accuses her of stealing his mobile phone, and when the mother catches her having fun throwing snowballs with her kids, she abruptly sacks her. In the old people's home, Olga's told off for fraternising with the dying by a nurse, who later attacks her in a corridor. It's fairly clear that the only reason this had been set up is because Seidl decided a no-holds-barred catfight in a dark corridor would add to the bankruptcy of the soul his film seeks to depict. The cat fight is nasty, brutish and quite long, and is there for no narrative reason. Seidl is not interested in narrative, because, I couldn't help feeling, it doesn't really suit the miserablistic perception he's promoting. Just as the lamest of Hollywood movies will demand that everything ends sweetly, ignoring character or narrative subtlety, so Seidl demands that the milk is always sour, every morning, even when the cow's been freshly milked.

Another aspect of Seidl's film is its use of location. Two locations in particular: the home for the dying, where all of the second half of Olga's story is set; and the desolate estate in Slovakia where Pauli and his stepfather go on their unlikely trip. This estate is a sea of rubbish, where every home looks like it's on the frontline in the Russian bombardment of Grozny. The inhabitants would appear to be Romany. They live in squalour and would sell their grandmothers if they could make 50 euros from the deal. The estate is clearly a real place. Seidl did his research and found it. It would appear to be one of the less salubrious corners of Europe. However, as I watched the footage, two things crossed my mind. Firstly, the truth we are shown is not comprehensive. The truths we take out of slums are no more absolute than the truths we take out of palaces - filmmakers choose to show what they want to, and Seidl wants this to look as grim as possible. Secondly, this felt exceedingly self-conscious film-making: it draws attention to itself, saying, look what we (the filmmakers) have found. This is also the case in the scenes in the death wards. Seidl shows real people who are clearly close to death, in all their pathetic, childish regression. I don't know if I'm supposed to be shocked by this, or disconcerted. In the end, I reacted by finding it funny, in the manner of a watching a child showing off. No matter how hard the film tries to show us the rawness of life, in the end it's just a film. This is not 'reality'; it's reality through a lens, selected, framed and edited.

It is, perhaps, to Seidl's credit that his film demands such a personal response. (Having said which I have a highly visceral response to things like Notting Hill; Pretty Woman or a number of other products that I find verging on the unwatchable, and no-one gives them credit for that.) However, in comparison to Haneke's work, this seems like lazy film-making. It's not hard to shock, and Seidl uses the trick repeatedly. Rather than try and convey the sickness of the soul through narrative, he does it through a succession of set-ups. Olga's relationship to the child she leaves behind seems to encapsulate the film's problems. On the one hand, it could be seen as part of her sickness that she doesn't appear to miss it; on the other hand perhaps this is just the price of our cauterised, globalised world. Towards the closing stages, the script gives her a moment where she sings a song down the phone to the child, as though wanting to allow a shard of humanity in, but not enough to deflect from the film's nihilism. In the end, it seems to me, the simple fact recurs: the audience needs to care about the characters in order to care about what happens to their souls; and for the audience to care, the film-maker has to too. Otherwise it really is just porn.

Friday, 3 October 2008

the third truth [w. leonid borodin]

The third truth the title of the book refers to appears to be initially the truth that lies between the world of the whites and the reds, the communists and the old regime the Russian revolution displaced. The book's set in Siberian Russia, the nearest town being Irkutsk, but most of the action taking place in the villages on the edge of the Taiga, the unspoilt wilderness. It tells the story of two men, Selivanov and his friend, Ivan Ryabinin. Selivanov comes from doughty peasant stock, taught the ways of the taiga by his father. Ryabinin is a ranger, who nearly captures Selivanov poaching, but is shot by him instead. Selivanov helps his enemy recover, and the two then become friends. Their life is complicated when an old White general appears (who Selivanov's father once helped to escape) with his daughter, with the intention of hiding out in the taiga before he dies. His daughter and Ivan will later marry, before Ryabinin falls foul of the Stalinist authorities and disappears in a gulag for twenty years. When he emerges, only his friend has kept faith in him, keeping in touch with his daughter, and keeping an eye on his home.

This is not a complex book: the storytelling moves backwards and forwards in time, exploring the two protagonist's relationship. It's rooted in character: the contrasting natures of the two men, and how this would appear to have helped determine their respective fates. Borodin himself spent time in Soviet gulags, and his portrayal of Ivan, who may have found God in the camps but does not receive the peace of mind he hoped for on his release, is a touching one. The passage in the closing section where his friend confronts the local KGB officer would, one imagines, have possessed a greater resonance in the time the book was written, and be testament to a kind of courage its harder to appreciate now.

Nevertheless, the book's power, beyond its exploration of the two men's friendship, comes now from its description of the way their bond was formed by a shared love of the Siberian taiga. There are a multitude of third ways, or truths, to be discovered in this world, but it feels now as though this might be exploring the path, increasingly vital, which must be found between the world of nature and man. When Ivan returns to the taiga after twenty years, he finds it altered by mankind's meddling. Both men have learnt how to use their relationship with the wilderness to create meaning and a sense of place in the world, a sense of place which is corrupted by the man-made business of politics. Borodin rarely seems to openly confront a system which repressed both nature and himself: life goes on in these villages no matter what the changing of the political guard, and a wily peasant will always find a way to survive; but the bulldozers that dig up the wilderness and summon up a vision of hell for Ivan seem to portend a greater threat, one which brings about the final rupture of the two men's friendship.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

i've loved you so long (w&d phillipe claudel)

There's an intriguing sub-culture of British actresses or performers who cross over to achieve prominence in France. Truffaut used Christie in Farenheit 451. Jane Birkin is far more of a national treasure to the French than the English, as one suspects, is Charlotte Rampling. Birkin's daughter, Charlotte is carving out a niche in the Anglo-Gallic crossover culture. There will be others, sans doubt. To this list we can add Kirsten Scott Thomas, the cut-glass Cheltenham Ladies girl who shows in I've Loved You So Long she's capable of holding the lead in a French language film. The English have always found the French sexy, representing the nearest thing to exotic we had for a thousand years or more (even when the English were French or vice versa); being English one always suspects the French wouldn't find their Anglo-Saxon cousins to have the same allure (the French border Spain and Italy, so have no shortage of exotic neighbours, as Breillat's film illustrates), but their cinematic fascination with a certain breed of English women would suggest otherwise. It's perhaps foolish to speculate about what all the above have in common, but I'd suggest perhaps a certain knowingness, a cerebral sophistication.

Claudel, who apparently wrote the part of Juliette Fontaine for Scott Thomas, certainly seems to view her in this light. Playing a woman who's just been released from 15 years in prison, Scott Thomas's beauty is played down. She wears shapeless clothes, rarely has any make-up, and acts her age not her shoe-size. Nevertheless, she remains deeply attractive to the local men. Her parole officer meets her in cafes and talks to her about his Orinoco dreams; a friend of her sister's devotes a whole speech at a dinner party to her mysterious allure; and her sister's fellow teacher falls for her. Here is the film's tension, both in terms of performance and drama: to what extent can the piece hold on to Juliette's dowdiness and her alienated history; when should it let go and allow her to move on and Scott Thomas's beauty to shine through.

Suffice it to say, without revealing all, the film doesn't do a bad job, even if it opts for the ending that the market researchers would doubtless have found the public canvassing for. By clinging to the hard-edged, taciturn woman that Juliette is presented as at the film's beginning for as long as possible, it gives Scott Thomas a long way to go before she can become the woman we all know she really is. (Kind and loving and innately sexy). The scene where she almost savagely tells her sister's adopted child she won't read her diary is impressive, although it doesn't really suggest that she has the heart of a killer who deserved to do fifteen years. Claudel's film rides over the slightly rocky ground that it finds itself on when her sister's family try to come to terms with her crime before landing on the safer, affirmative sands of her subsequent acceptance. The fact she's not the woman the criminal authorities branded her as only confirms the goodness of her sister's entourage.

I've Loved You So Long displays many of the hallmarks of skillful French film-making: keeping the audience guessing for as long as possible (it's not for nothing that another British export the French cineastes admire is Hitchcock); seeking a psychological truthfulness which in itself suggests a quest for narrative truths, (truths that too much Anglo-Saxon cinema wouldn't recognise, let alone know where to begin looking for them); and underplaying the emotion with skillful editing, which in the end, only helps to heighten the film's emotional reach. Having said all of which, I've Loved You So Long seemed, like much recent French cinema, to be treading water: it does what their cinema does well, but it doesn't seem to be seeking to do much more. The self-consciousness of the literary references (including a discussion of Raskalnikov) felt heavy-handed, although to be fair, the Rohmer dinner party conversation alluded to French cinema's cleft stick - when so much works so well, what's the point in altering it, and if you do, what should you change? All this is a far cry from Godard; perhaps they need less cerebral English actresses, (Barbara Winsdor? Roland Barthes was a keen admirer of the Carry On films), who knows, maybe one day a French director might even cast an English actor, to follow in Geilgud's noble footsteps, if one could be found who speaks French.

Monday, 29 September 2008

money to burn [ricardo piglia]

Money To Burn is a brief, curious crime novel. Published in 1997, it describes a real 1965 bank robbery that took place in Buenos Aires. In the aftermath, the gang escape to Montevideo, where three of them become involved in the mother of all shout-outs, after finding themselves holed up in a police trap. In his epilogue, Piglia explains that he compiled most of his notes for the book in the sixties, then left them in a drawer for nearly thirty years before rediscovering the material and turning it into Money To Burn.

There are similarities in his approach to Capote's In Cold Blood, a book that some adore, and I have found on the various occasions I've grappled with it to be unreadable. Piglia's style occupies a similar middle ground to Capote's. Part reconstruction, part psychological exploration of a collection of delinquent criminals. The book opens describing Kid Brignone and Gaucho Dorda, two of the three who took part in the shoot-out, as being like twins. The pair met in a psychiatric prison, were occasional lovers, drug addicts and fearlessly psychopathic. Piglia's narrative occasionally darts away from its description of events to offer an imagined insight into their thinking, articulating their dreams and confused desires. However, having dipped into their minds, the book flips back into the wider narrative in an instant, thereby developing a strangely uncohesive narrative that sometimes feels like neither fish nor foul.

Piglia, who prefaces the book with a quotation from Brecht, resists any temptation to editorialise, attempting to stick as far as possible to accurate sources. So the fate of the gang's leader, who managed to avoid getting trapped in the safe house, remains unknown, something the author notes in his epilogue. He also recounts a meeting he himself had, on a train to Bolivia, with a woman who claimed to be the girlfriend of Mereles, the third gangster in the shoot-out. This moment, thrown away at the end, opens up another vista, which is why this story should have resonated so strongly in the author's mind that he felt a desire to revisit it thirty years after the event. In a sense, one suspects, he is also revisiting his own past, a lost world of Studebakers and stool pigeons. In spite of the effectiveness of the drama of the shoot-out, captured in subtle detail over three chapters at the book's conclusion, the author's insistence in absenting himself from the text frustrated me, all the more so when his brief appearance in the epilogue cast so much light on this lost fable from another time.