Saturday, 29 March 2008

the past [w. alan pauls]

I'm going to have to come back to this one.

Some books are so mighty one feels as though one has a cheek even talking about them. Carting The Past around, as one does, a big beefy hardback with an alluring picture of lines on the cover, people have looked at it with curiosity, asked me what its about, and I've tried to avoid the question, whilst highlighting the book. Don't listen to me. Go and read it.

I could and perhaps ought to digress. Because that's the way of The Past. A couple of days ago I was reading one of the countless texts I've read over the course of this year. Another sitcom, set in a university. Again. Two kids, contemporary, arrive at their halls of residence. Which triggered, as writing does, a memory of my own arrival at the halls of residence, twenty odd years ago. The trick with the two characters in the sitcom is that they're both hooked on all things eighties. They're re-living the time I lived through. The quality of the writing did not reflect the poignancy of the idea, in this case.

The Past has also taken me back into my own past. It's a literary trick of which the erudite Mr Pauls will be aware. Reading Rimini and Sofia's chaotic attempts to live both with and without each other, has triggered memories of my own relationship with my wife, which lasted a similar length of time to their marriage. Of course one thinks about these things all the time, every day, in one form or another, but The Past introduced new aspects of memory, a physicality, a sense of aura, a notion of us-ness and un-us-ness.

The skill of a novel, Mr Pauls reveals, is not so much how much it takes us into its narrative, but how far it succeeds in riffing of the reader's. Which it does not know for sure, but about which certain assumptions might be made. If you have ever been in love; if you have ever separated; if you ever wept at what has been; if you have repressed what has been; if you have found yourself trapped in what has been; then this book should be worth your while reading.

Of course it is not everyone's cup of tea. Cocaine and sex and the sickest art you could imagine. And there may be flaws in the novel. As with at least two of the finest books I've ever read (which suggests a pattern), the final section of the book felt less satisfying than what had preceeded, as though having reached a summit at some point which the reader and perhaps even the writer was not aware of, the narrative cannot help but lose itself a little on the way down, as it staggers towards rest. A review I've read comments on the elusiveness of politics within the text, and there's no doubt that the time scale is more like a rubber band being stretched than a step ladder being climbed. But that's the point. The writer is looking at both the ways we change between the ages of youth and middle age; but also, and more importantly perhaps, the ways in which we do not change, we remain unalterable, no matter what has occured in between, sometimes like reality, at others like a dream of the life we must have lead.

As I said at the beginning, I'll have to come back to this one. There are whole treatises waiting to be written and read on The Past. The movie will come out, I hope, stripping the thing to narrative, trying to cling to the writer's caustic humour. Trying to please an audience whom the writer doesn't give a fuck about. Not in the worst sense of that phrase, but in the best. This doesn't read like a writer trying to please anyone in particular, save perhaps a few people he knows, or knew, along the way. This reads like a writer who's going to start a sentence and get to the end no matter what that sentence contains. Sometimes words of distressing insight, sometimes an image too crude to be printed, sometime a laugh-out-loud joke. Writing that doesn't aim to please, which contains a wealth of pleasure, and pain.

I would like to write far more about The Past. I finished it last night. But rather than read me, which at the moment seems unlikely anyway, read the book and let it talk to you. The Past and the past.

Friday, 28 March 2008

the philadelphia story (d. cukor)

The Philadelphia Story was presented as part of a season of women-friendly films at the NFT. A well known comedienne introduced it, and there was then a short two minute film with several other relatively well-known comediennes talking about how the film industry no longer creates interesting parts for women. Not like they used to.

But would any woman want to play the part Hepburn takes on in this most bizarre, wonderful film? She may be a strong, ballsy woman, but she's also brought to book by her ex-husband, and in one strange scene which wouldn't have got past the script editors nowadays, her father. She's shown up as a prig who gets her come-uppance, and though Jimmy Stewart doesn't take advantage of her in her drunken state, that's more a reflection of his values than hers. There's more than a hint of Taming of The Shrew about the narrative, and if Hepburn's Tracy Lord gets away with it all, that's in part because of the uber-privileged life she is shown to be living, where wealth insulates against tragedy.

There's so much which seems wrong about the narrative and the world the film, based on a highly successful play, creates, that it comes as all the more of a shock that it carries off whatever it's attempting to do. Not just carries it off, but runs away with it in a blaze of glory. (It's also notable that the piece was created whilst all hell was going on in the rest of the world, a hell which must have seemed a long way away in sunny California.)

For what it's worth, here are two opinions as to why the film works. Firstly, the film is a dazzling, wittily written comedy. But it would appear to be written by writers who have some knowledge of the pain which lies beneath the surface of all relationships. The film opens with Grant pushing Hepburn over. In a sense the remainder of the film becomes a treatise on the vicissitudes of marriage: what makes it work and what doesn't. There is a poignancy to all the fun, and the fact that C.K.Dexter Haven is going to get Tracy back, and go through with it all a second time, gives the love story a weight, as well as a freedom, that few love stories possess. Secondly, concerning the tradition the film emerges from. It has the wit of a Wilde play, and the perversity of a Shakespearian comedy. It seems like the very tip of a culture, which is part American, that brave new pioneering America, and part European - the two cultures colliding with such brilliance in the technological marvel hall which was Hollywood.

Watching it now is like being taken through the round window. The further into the distance the film recedes, as the luminous cast continue to fade away and die, the more this feels like a visit to an enchanted world. It's true, they don't make parts like Tracy Lord for women anymore. Then again they don't make parts like C.K. Dexter Haven or Macaulay Connor for men either.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

le doulos (d. jean-pierre melville)

Quand j'etais petit, my friend Jason gave me a book by Trauffaut about the films of his life, a collection of reviews. A few of the names were known to me, but most were alien. The names the man wrote about seemed to hold an unbearable promise. Becker; Autant-Lara; Kurosowa and more. Many of them are still no more than names, whose films have existed as words on a page, rather than images on a screen. One of the striking and well noted aspects of Trauffaut's collection was the reverence in which US cinema was held. A New Wave loved nothing more than settling back with a big bag of popcorn, a mega cola, and a dirty print of the latest Bogart classic.

Melville's Le Doulos, is very much in this tradition. Everyone walks around in a Bogart mac, with a Bogart fag hanging out of their mouth and a Bogart hat on their head. The film is more Humph than Humphrey himself. People doublecross one another and end up in shoot-outs they shouldn't be at but have to be because, like Bogart, they are party to a cinematic code demanding the character does the right thing, no matter the consequences.

In truth, Belmondo almost out-bogarts Bogart, (High Bogart) and Serge Reggiani, in a fine small-town crook performance, doesn't do a bad job either. (Early Bogart). At its best, such as the mesmerising scene that runs over the titles of a man walking along a fearsome footway, the film has a grimy authenticity. When the jewels are buried, they're really buried, mud under the fingernails. When Belmondo smacks Monique Hennessey in the face, it looks real enough, even if the macho sting is taken out of the act by the final twist.

Bogart and his world feels outdated now. The things he stood for, the manner of his masculinity, that cinematic code he lived and died by so many times. Likewise, Le Doulos is a curiosity piece. Like humour, few things in society change as rapidly as the relationship between police and criminals. What was shocking in one decade is tame in the next. Lastly, the French and the Yanks no longer like one another, french fries have become freedom fries and Macdonalds have been torched. It's hard to imagine a French director making a film that feels like a tribute to Sly Stallone.

The world that Melville captures in all its grittiness has been swept away, initially by the wave that Truffaut and his ilk surfed. Le Doulos was probably hard boiled in its day; now its a competent policier, only we laugh when the good guy cops it at the end. That narrative lost its power when Godard started taking the piss out of it. All that was left for Bogart was immortality and Woody Allen pastiche.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

bartleby & co [w. enrique vila-matas]

Bartleby & Co feels like a book that is probably not designed to be read. It is not designed to be read because it is written about the act of non-writing, and therefor non-reading. The book enumerates, in 86 brief episodes, a history of writers who have ceased to write. Whose writing, ultimately, aspires towards the one thing it can never achieve, which is invisibility. Along the way the author references Beckett, Pynchon, Kafka, Duchamps, Melville, Hawthorne, and a host of others who may or may not be real.

The only real problem with Vila-Matas' anti-text is that, besides being provocative, it is also resolutely entertaining. Both of these things force the reader to continue reading, albeit against their better judgement, and in spite of the gauntlet laid down by the author to desist. At times the novel flirts with the idea of a narrative - there are occasional references to the author's job, his solitude, his Bartlebian aimlessness, but the narrative instinct is held in check. The novel operates as a succession of nuggets, each one a story in itself, a potential book which has not been written.

What is this? Is it post modernity? Is there such a thing? Is it the book written beyond the grave of the prophesied author's death? (The notion of which is belittled in one section of the book dealing with a former love of the author who ends up living in Montevideo.) If anything it reads like writing as that rarest of things - pleasure. Vila-Matas loves his stories, he has too many to tell, they annihilate any possibility of creating the kind of novel they used to (and still do) write. So instead his pen flickers over the surface of the paper, a succession of jottings, notes, thoughts, married to the thesis of the annihilation of literature, a thesis which can only be conceived by one who loves it so much.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book. After ten pages I feared it would be no more than an idea spun into a novel. This it either refused or failed to do. It never became a novel. It remained an idea. It should be consumed in small bursts. As though these might be the last original words left to be written or read, and should be savoured as the rare, precious, disposable things that they are.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

by night in chile [w. roberto bolaño]

A priest begins to speak. His tone of voice is far from confident. His words seems circular, they roll round on themselves. He claims to be dying, and speaking in order to validate himself in the face of criticisms from a never-named 'wizened youth'. As the words pour out in a stream of unparagraphed sentences, anecdotes take shape - of a meeting with Neruda; of teaching Pinochet about Marxism; of a trip to Europe where every church has its own falcon for killing pigeons. The stories bleed into one another. The priest rambles. He doesn't really make his points. He talks for 130 pages, then he runs out of breath.

This is the third Bolaño novel I've read this year, following The Savage Detectives and Amulet. I've also garnered some kind of a handle on the Bolaño myth, which is destined to grow. Not as a result of his shorter works, but the great sweep and narrative verve of The Savage Detectives, and perhaps 2666, though that has yet to be published in English.

The story goes that around the age of 40, Bolaño decided he was going to make a living from writing novels. He submitted his work for prizes, re-submitting the same peice many times, winning many times. If this is the case, and even if it isn't, the pattern of his work seems apparent. Around the two larger novels he generated several shorter ones, written in short bursts. Amulet takes a character from Detectives, the self-proclaimed Uruguayan mother of Mexican poetry, and spins a yarn from her extract in the larger novel. By Night in Chile introduces the paranoid priest, Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, and gives him a platform to validate or damn himself, depending on your political perspective.

By Night in Chile allows Bolaño to deal with various shibboleths of his native land. In additions to Neruda and Pinochet's appearance, as book features the wife of a CIA torturer and representatives of Opus Dei. Bolaño's descriptions of the priest's Marxism lessons for the Chilean junta is an understated, savage critique. Sebastian lists the classes he gives one by one, along with the generals' attendance levels and their intellectual responses. Without in any way highlighting his role in the story, Bolaño sticks the knife into Pinochet, damning him through the priest's mouth. Bolaño spent almost all of his adult life in exile. This is politically charged writing, but the skill of it is that it's done in a way so melifluous and underhand that for a while you barely register that the pen is indeed proving to be mightier than the sword.

There's something of Bernhard in the priest's long monologue. Laced with wit and humour, it is also, significantly, poetic. Bolaño apparently resented having to make his living writing novels, never having been acclaimed for his poetry. The way in which stories come in and out of focus, governed by the implacable rhythm of Urratia's mental cogitations, gives it the feel of an extended piece of narrative verse. Perhaps By Night in Chile connects to Bolaño's longer work in much the same way that a poem, created in an abridged period of time, connects to the lengthy process of a long novel. It is a text that could be re-read and mined for the nuggets that nestle in the garrulous priest's prose.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

garage (d. Leonard Abrahamson)

The more you know about a film, the harder it becomes to review it. The main reason this site started with theatre reviews and has had few since is that most of the plays the critic sees are created by or feature people he knows. As soon as a hint of friendship creeps into the equation, it gets a whole lot harder to criticise without encumbrance. Not just because you don't want to offend; but also because the work of art is likely to be clouded by the penumbra of personality, the lens through which you perceive it.

With regard to Garage... A couple of years ago I found myself drinking Guiness in a pub in Old Compton Street with the screenwriter of Garage. Great company he was and all. Told me about this next film he was writing, set in a village somewhere, a guy in a garage, and I forget the rest. Sometime around then I caught the DVD of Adam and Paul, first thing of a hungover Brixton morning. I enjoyed its candour, it rough edges, its laconic tone, all of which are attributes that could be discerned in the screenwriter himself.

Garage shares all these things. It does something smart, which is to place the least heroic of figures as its protagonist. Pat Shortt's Josie is the kind of anti-face and anti-figure cinema was also made for. Loping along with his lop-sided grin and dodgy hip, trapped in an endless childishness, more at home with the kids than the adults. Without his performance the film seems unimaginable.

The film doesn't rush things. It's based around the eponymous garage where cars are still rare beasts. The script gives a nod to the new Ireland, suggesting that the garage itself will soon be knocked down for real estate, but otherwise it belongs to a sleepy world which has yet to be colonised by winners of the Irish boom, French novelists, or English escapees. The narrative hinges on one moment, and even this and its consequences are underplayed.

Whether the film is too slow, or whether it sacrifices its dramatic power to an aesthetic insinuation (much as Josie is brought down), I couldn't say. There is a pathos to Josie's final scene, but it felt like a cold-hearted pathos. We never get quite under the skin of this bovine man, friend to the clodhopping horse. We always look at him with the eyes of the fifteen year old.

Perhaps if I hadn't drunk Guiness with the man in a Soho pub I'd be saying Garage was a minor masterpiece of understated drama. Or perhaps I'd be saying it pulls its punches and doesn't have the potency it might have had. Which ever it might be, Garage is definitely an antidote to much brittle British film-making, and allows itself to boast a central performance that possesses something out of the ordinary. Never has a man looked more different not wearing his Australia cap to wearing it.

Monday, 10 March 2008

delirium [w. laura restrepo]

I discovered Delirium via a link to Bolaño. Set in Columbia, it tells the story of a husband whose second wife, Agustina, young and scatty, loses her mind. The husband, Aguilar, goes about the process of trying to recover it. The narrative is told from four different perspectives, Aguilar, Agustina as a young girl, Agustina's ex-lover the cocaine money launderer, Midas, and Agustina's German immigrant Grandfather, the composer, Portulinus.

The only Columbian writer I know is Marquez. Restrepo's prose has a similar fluid, relaxed style. In the voice of Midas, a man playing dice with Pablo Escobar, it occasionally felt too easy going, but perhaps, in contrast to our melodramatic visions of crime, this is how it feels to live on the sharp edge of a criminal culture. Delirium offers a window into the crazy, fucked-up narco-world of a country where normality is just a memory, professors sell dog food, and insanity lurks round any corner.

It's in the portrayal of Agustina's madness that the book takes hold. Agustina hovers on the brink between sanity and insanity, and this is part of her charm for Aguilar. Who hasn't loved someone because they're 'a little bit crazy'? So when Agustina crosses the line, and becomes altogether crazy, we root for him as he fights to win her back, a noble warrior in a land riven with moral ambivalence.

There's hints of Jane Eyre in all this, and it's possible that only a woman writer could get away with this depiction of female insanity. It might be that Agustina's perilous journey reflects her country's - a place sliding over the brink, which retains the hope of returning to that thing we know as sanity. Which, the narrative suggests, it needs to, because charming, idiosyncratic and exciting though madness may be, in the end it's not only tiring but it forecloses the possibilities of living. When Agustina retreats from the mess of her mind and offers Aguilar moments of sanity, it feels like the world has been put back in place.


A note on branching out into the world of literature. For various reasons it feels as though this year I have rediscovered the art of reading novels. After a gap of about twenty years. Which is not to say that I have read no novels in the interim, just that I have rediscovered a relationship with the novel that has been semi-dormant. An appetite, if you like, which might be worth sharing.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

the conformist (d. bertolucci)

It's been a quiet weekend. Today I took a stroll in Regents Park with my sister. I've read three scripts, done some washing, watched a bit of the rugby with Mr Blue and sat in Carluccio's with the same discussing the venn diagrams of relationships.

And in the middle there somewhere, yesterday, I saw this weirdly lit 1970 adaptation of a Moravia novel. The Conformist.

Carluccio's, where we retreated after seeing the film, felt like an extension of the movie. The lights adorned with strong primary shades. The waitresses in possession of a european prettiness. Two balding men at a neighbouring table with a Derrida tome on the table. To be replaced by a well-built woman who slices her spaghetti with a knife before consuming. Where we discussed relationships and ageing in a pleasantly esoteric manner. Bertolucci land, where nothing really seems to mean all that much, and it's all cloaked in a veneer of mildly distracting weirdness....

The film. I enjoyed the storytelling of the first half hour. Since all I seem to do these days is read other people's stories, it was refreshing to see how he'd chopped Moravia's text up and put it back together in a fractured dance. And then they all got to Paris and for some reason the director lost his nerve and the last hour was plaintively linear. The lighting seemed like a prefigurement of Saturday Night Fever. The imminent gaudiness of the seventies about to rain its dayglo patterns on film star faces. The girls... similar precursors of a decade of hair care and decadent innuendo.

At some point a critic has to hold up his hands and say it just doesn't work for him or for her. That's what happened with The Conformist. A book I savoured in a North London garrett in the weeks before a fateful trip to Italy, steeped in that subtle Italian equation of persona as opposed to soul, societal conformity jousting with apocalyptic desire, transfigured on screen, (in a supposed masterpiece), into a gaudy display of a director's gusto which sometimes paid off but eventually turned into a kind of gloopy mess. (How the austere brilliance of the Rome office scenes contrast with the mundane obviousness of the Parisian scenes). Bertolucci supposedly released from the shackles of his mentor, Godard, but actually floundering around in his wake, all the moves with none of the meaning.

So, as this is about the film and not the book, and also about my aesthetic response to the film in this day and age and not its significance in another day and age, nor the resonance of a political idealism which now seems as shallow as Clerici's own, let's leave it with the heretical notion that this film, The Conformist, has for reasons which some will know and others will deny, been over-rated. And if you want to enjoy the 1970's Bertolucci experience without having to sit through the film, save a few bob and buy yourself one of those fancy coffees in Carluccio's.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

the edge of heaven (d. fatih akin)

Storytelling is a compromise. It can be no more than a mirror to life, and a distorted one at that. The storyteller has to choose what information they're going to use, and how they intend to present it, in order to tell the story they wish to tell.

The reason for this bald assessment is that Fatih Akin does a few things which felt overcooked, and yet in spite of this, he's created a film which has a growing, brooding weight. By the time Nejat completes the journey he's been intermittently taking since the film's opening frames, the audience has been sucked in to Akin's overarching narrative. And the overcooking is forgiven, or perhaps this was never overcooking, merely high stakes seasoning, a key component in the film's success.

The overcooking, to hang on to the metaphor, involves the more schematic elements of the narrative, set between Germany and Turkey. A girl hoping to find her long-lost mother overtakes her on the motorway, without realising she is so close and yet so far away. The man who befreinds the girl's eventual protector is the same man who was with the mother on the motorway. This Dickensian use of co-incidence highlights the presence of the auteur, pulling the characters' strings to his own effect. It is either unwieldy or beguiling, depending on your point of view.

Akin constructs a portrait of a restless world full of exchanges, gains and losses. A demonstration in one country will have ramifications in another (two of the film's three chapters open with scenes of key characters at demos). The film's German title translates as 'On the Other Side' - and the other side, (and there are many 'other sides' within the film), is much closer than we are inclined to realise.

Through it all, the cultural divisions of Europe and Asia, muslim and christian, first and third worlds, the film suggests we are unified by common themes of humanity: how to be a parent, and how to be a child. Akin gives his performers room to breathe and flesh out the learning the film and the world continually demand. Hannah Schygulla and Tuncel Kurtiz give brave performances, creating characters who, even as they reach old age, are still wrestling with the consequences of their flaws.

The Edge of Heaven does not feel cinematically groundbreaking: there are few tricks and in spite of its non-linearity, the narrative retains a European orthodoxy. However, it possesses a humane boldness in its composition and scale. Like a good novel, the further in you get, the more rewarding it becomes. Akin identifies the big stories, something cinema should do but rarely does, and tells them with conviction. And that's enough.