Friday, 30 May 2008

california dreamin' (d. christian nemescu, w. nemescu & catherine linstrum)

There seems to have been a dearth of movies that demand to be seen in London this month. Perhaps I've missed some gems, perhaps it's just the start of a slack Summer season, or perhaps distributors are becoming ever more cautious and nothing that doesn't feature a ludicrous premise (in the case of British flicks) or a Hollywood star will ever be released again.

California Dreamin' features a Hollywood star, although not one who many producers would want to hang their coat on. Armand Assante's performance as the US military captain Doug Jones, whose company becomes stranded in a Roumanian village, hostage to the local honcho, is a peculiar one. He mumbles much of his dialogue, and whilst it seemed a little strange to see the US soldiers subtitled along with the Roumanian peasants, it did help to make sense of some of his more unlikely lines. Whether he was mouthing a strange translation from Roumanian into American-military speak, or just doing free-jazz improvisation, was impossible to tell. There was more than a hint of the Strangelove George C Scott to Assante's performance, all wild-eyed pent-up aggression with no outlet, but his oddness merely reflected an occasionally baffling movie.

The premise is straightforward and prepossessing. At the tail end of the Kosovan war a US communications team is effectively hijacked by Doiaru, the corrupt stationmaster, who has been waiting fifty years for the Americans to arrive. In a key speech, he says that he was expecting them to appear and get rid of the Nazis, then the Russians, then Ceausescu, and now when they do show up it's in order to go and bomb Serbs. The film makes play on the nature of Roumanian bureaucracy: nothing Jones barks into the telephone effects any change, and the company are stranded for four days. During which Doiaru's daughter, Monica, (the convincing Maria Dinulescu) has a fling with a fetching young US soldier; the company's discipline goes to pieces; and their presence finally provokes an insurrection against Doiaru which results in quasi-tragedy.

Nemescu splits the action up into four chapters, reflecting the four days the soldiers are stranded there. As a director his approach appeared to be to take the kitchen sink, throw it in, then see what else was lying around. Besides an inevitable Dracula-fest, which Assante sits through with a petulant/ comatose look on his face, there are various sub-plots involving Monica and the men who fancy her; an unexploded second world war bomb; the Roumanian government's attempts to displace Doiaru (played with an oxen belligerence by Razvan Vasilescu); a factory strike; and the remaining village politicking. The action is almost all rural, then all of a sudden Monica and her American soldier find themselves at a party in an unnamed town with a bomb going off beneath the bed. At one point the soldiers are taken to a replica of the Eiffel Tower, for no obvious reason save it makes for a pleasant frame. At another a Roumanian Elvis appears and sings Love Me Tender. It is a movie about the nature of being trapped and waiting, and at 155 minutes running time, it succeeds in conveying both the frustrations and delights of this experience.

In short, referring to a film which always prefers to go the long way round, it's a bit of a mess, containing about five movies in one. Its erratic structure is matched by its erratic tone - like a shapeless Kustirica movie, which is clearly going to be one of the baggier filmic structures you're likely to come across. And yet, California Dreamin' for all its longeurs, reminded me why I like movies and what I've been missing these past few weeks. It takes the viewer right into its peculiar world. The set-up of the clashing cultures was awkward (with some of the least soldierly US soldiers you're ever likely to see) but always fascinating, and the idea of having two people who cannot talk to one another but fancy the pants off each other was one of the more effective ideas in the pot-pourri. Nothing really hangs together, but all the same it's there, it's happening on the screen in front of you, and if you didn't see it you would have had no idea what it was you'd missed out on, for better or for worse.

That peculiar conflation of geography, economy, and a personal vision laid before your eyes in a dark room of a 'London' 'afternoon', (insert as appropriate), also known as cinema.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

creole [w. jose eduardo agualusa]

Another novel from the Angolan, this time an epistolary, historical mini-epic, spanning three continents, thirty two years and no more than a hundred and fifty pages.

Most of the letters are written by the Portuguese adventurer, Fradique Mendes, who reports back on his findings to a variety of correspondents. Part of the fun of the book is realising that there are sometimes large temporal gaps between letters which don't at first appear obvious. However, it's hard not to feel at times when reading the always-entertaining Agualusa that there's a great big epic novel screaming to be let out of the book's thin pages. As though the author is dipping his toes in the river rather than diving right in. All the links between the slave trade, Brazil, Europe and Africa are in place and explored, and Fradique's voyage through the murky waters of late 19th century colonialism are fascinating. However, Agualusa resists the lure of narrative, preferring to cast shards of light on the occasional place and time (early Rio, downtown Luanda, the bush) before brushing the shards under the table and skipping forward.

Agualusa has an eye for an image and a nose for a story. I look forward to reading The Rainy Season, about the more recent Angolan struggles. It feels as though the writer wants to tread a delicate line between commenting on his country's history, without wishing that history to become a burden to either his narrative or the reader. So the love of Fradique's life may be seized and thrown into slavery, but this only becomes the cause of the hero's next adventure, and results in a happy ending where Fradique finally gets his girl. Fradique's jaunty tone works wonderfully for relating the curiosities of the expanding world he explores, but is rather less effective in capturing the growing pains of the new countries whose development he participates in with such gusto.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

the book of chameleons [w. josé eduardo agualusa]

This is a book written from the point of a view of a lizard. This put me off. I picked the book up wearily. Lizards, Africa... it sounded too saccharine for my tastes. Sacchirine and dry, with a hint of tragedy. Like a slightly stale digestive. Anyway, I picked the book up, and prepared myself for whatever was coming. And within a page I realised I was wrong, and remembered that prejudice is pointless.

The lizard, or gecko, is christened Eulalio. It makes a pointed remark at one stage about another Angolan writer who builds his career selling national horrors to the West. The Book of Chameleons hints at the history that has shaped the perceptions of the book's characters, but it does so elliptically. Felix, who owns the house the lizard inhabits, makes his living as a genealogist who invents family trees for people. The suggestion being that history can be overruled, at least on a temporary basis. However, the main narrative of the book concerns a man who comes to Felix, is re-christened as José Buchmann, embraces his new self to such an extent he begins a quest for his lost 'new' mother, and yet in the end comes face to face with the daughter he believed he had lost in the civil war which ravaged Angola for so many years.

In a way Agualuca's delicate prose, detailing a woman who travels the world collecting different experiences of light, an albino who communes with the gecko, and a gentle, pastoral setting, seems to be acting in wilful opposition to all that history has thrown at the writer's country. Structured in a succession of fleeting chapters, it has the kind of lightness of touch which is in danger of being described as charming; and yet there lurks just below the surface a notion of another history. Just as the gecko doesn't live in an idyll, threatened as it is by the predatory scorpion which would kill it for no apparent reason at all. The lightness and humour of the book have a precision which keeps the reader on their toes, never knowing in which direction the narrative will turn, when the sting will come.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

XXY (d&w lucia puenzo)

The coast of Uruguay is, as has been noted elsewhere by this writer, a beautiful place. And to come there on holiday as a teenager, to swim in the sea, get lost amongst the pines, have bonfires on the beach, discover alcohol, fall in love... there can be few better places to do all these things, so I've been told. XXY is the story of two teenagers, exploring the world, falling for one another, as teenagers do. There's only one catch. One of them, Alex, is a hermaphrodite. Which confuses things somewhat for Alvaro, the other.

Lucia Puenzo's story is a tightly told tale, a variation on a Rohmer theme, with a significant twist. Like Rohmer's adolescent holiday movies, its success depends on the performance of the two leads, Ines Efron and Martin Piroyansky. Efron has an emaciated, baffled teenage anger. Not sure if she's a boy or a girl, the reality of her condition is heightened by Alvaro's appearance in her life. In XXY there's both the love story and the hermaphrodite story working concurrently, and Efron's performance has all the angst of an adolescent discovering both love and sex for the first time, coupled with her attempts to come to terms with the cards nature has dealt her. Piroyansky's nerdish performance matches his partner's. He's closed in, uncertain, thinks he looks like a fool but doesn't want to be one. A firelit scene with his vain father is both funny and touching, with the director resisting any temptation towards sentimentality.

This is one of the strongest features of Puenzo's unfussy direction. The sex scene which lies at the epicentre of the piece is discreetly shocking. It starts with the music of a radio playing, creating what seems like an appropriate atmosphere. But as it gets going, Alex switches the music off. There's no soundtrack for what happens next. First love is rarely like they show it in the movies, and XXY ensures that it won't add to the misguided mystique.

The subject matter of the film, as the title indicates, is freakish, in so far as (as the old fisherman notes, and the young lads also know) a hermaphrodite is a rare exception to the natural order of things. Puenzo's direction assiduously works against the freakishness of her material, grounding Alex's exceptionality in the everyday. Furthermore, it highlights the fact that, at the age when we are on the cusp of sex and love and all that jazz... we all feel like freaks; we all feel exceptional in the face of so much complexity.

Friday, 9 May 2008

the beautyful ones are not yet born [w. ayi kwei armah]

There's a lot of shit in Armah's visceral novel, set in Accra. Shit in the literal sense. The issues of shit-stained shared lavatories. The smell of shit on the air. The stench of sweat and fear and hunger. This isn't an easy place to live. The never-ending contaminating heat seeps through the pages as the writer's unnamed hero goes about the business of trying to live in a society where there appears to be little reason to continue.

There is more than a hint of La Nausée in the book, the first half of which examines the minutiae of the hero's life as he goes to work, refuses to take bribes, is patronised by his wife, Oyo, for his attitude and struggles to continue when even the most basic of human functions has become an odious chore. The man's virtue is the product not of a saintly disposition but of a cussed determination not to follow the crowd, to attempt to remain an individual when everyone else is playing the game. His existentialist disposition sustains him, even when the corrupt government minister, Koomson, pays a condescending visit with his wife to the man's home, so that Oyo and her mother can buy into a loss-making scheme to own a fishing boat.

Armah peppers his book with memories of more optimistic times, when the overthrow of colonialism seemed like an opportunity to create a new society. The most damning critique of the corrupt oligarchy that take power in the name of the people is that they end up behaving like white people - they even end up speaking like white people, mouthing African names as though they were essentially inferior. The hero's memories of white rule are instructive: the novel makes it clear that the only relationship any ordinary Ghanaian would have had with the colonial rulers was one of fear and exploitation. But the book is just as scathing about the Nkrumah government, so riddled with corruption that it seems to be part of the stench that attacks the hero's nerves.

The second part of the book is set in the 48 hours or so which followed the 1966 coup that ended the Nkrumah regime. The hero's nemesis, Koomson, comes to him begging for help. In a memorable scene, the novel describes the fetid smell of fear clinging to Koomson's skin. The protagonist is almost suffocated by it, trying to think of any excuse to get himself out of the fallen politician's presence so he can breathe clean air again.

This dense, sensory examination of a national malaise makes, initially, for something of a daunting read (in much the same way as Sartre's novel takes a while to get into.) However, as the novel unfolds, the reader beings to find his or her way through the hothouse streets in the company of the stubborn man whose story is being told. Published in 1968, its individualistic message seems in keeping with a year which saw a questioning of the state and its accoutrements being articulated from Paris to Mexico City.

From media accounts of African politics in the decades since the book was written, it would appear that the man's struggle must have been repeated by countless other men and women. Somehow, for no good reason, people stubbornly go on doing what they do, fighting against a seemingly inexhaustible tide of shit. The book is careful not to present the man as heroic: he is a stubborn stoic who believes that resistance is not futile, neither will it normally be written about in the pages of history books. Resistance is just what you do, in order to prove to yourself that there's a reason to go on living.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

in bruges (w&d martin mcdonagh)

Two hitmen who don't seem like hitmen, trapped together in a hotel room. The implicit allusion to The Dumb Waiter is made explicit by their surnames or pseudonyms: Cranham and Blakey, surnames of the actors who played Pinter's hapless assassins in a TV version of his play.

The Dumb Waiter isn't the only reference point for the literate McDonagh. The other is, of course, Godot. Bruges, the hitmen's hideaway, is in fact a purgatory, a waiting room between life and death. Ray and Ken stare at a painting by Bosch, openly discussing the likelihood of heaven, hell or the other place. In keeping with Pinter's play, these apparent hitmen don't seem come across as violent killers. Ray is raddled with doubt following the accidental killing of a boy, and Ken is coming to the end of his inglorious career.

They may not be regular hitmen, but they are, to the bone, Irishmen. McDonagh made a successful career out of presenting the lugubrious downhome wit of the Irish on the London stage (joining the vast list of Irish dramatists who have been adopted by the British). The film takes his mordant dialogue out of its Irish setting, locating it in the peculiar gothic beauty of Bruges (yet another reference is to Don't Look Now, also a fatalistic drama set in a city of canals). Liberated from its normal context, the humour is an extravagant success, not least in the scenes where the Irishmen come into contact with the various Russians, Canadians and Americans (not to mention the occasional Belgian) who people the city. McDonagh is a writer of wit and panache, and on top of this, he also directs his lead actors with a superb level of understatement, never forcing the joke, letting it tell itself. This is an art honed in the pubs, kitchens, street corners of his homeland. In a sense McDonagh is just a student of an oral tradition, but when he pulls it off, as he does so emphatically in the first hour of the movie, something fresh, funny and alive occurs. Within the straightjacketed world of genre and budgets, it's rare for a writer to be given enough rope to potentially hang himself, something McDonagh seems to have no fear of doing, to wonderful effect.

The serious stuff is perhaps more problematic. In a sense, In Bruges feels like an exercise in tension between plot and character. I would have quite happily watched Gleeson and Farrell wandering around Bruges having their misadventures, without any of the neat plotting that brings Fiennes's Harry to the city and their collective downfall. Whether Gleeson really needs to fly like a fallen angel through the Belgian night, or Farrell demands to be hunted by a psychotic is perhaps questionable, and the closing pursuit seemed like the one moment when the film retreated into banal genre, the soundtrack suddenly intruding and the denouement feeling a little bit too neat.

In Bruges never acquires the menace with which Pinter imbued The Dumb Waiter, (or Don't Look Now) and when it pushes itself towards achieving it, it comes up short. But that doesn't mean to say that McDonagh hasn't conjured something magical out of the fairy tale city, making a remarkably successful transition from stage to screen in a way that few of his contemporaries have managed. The likes of Macpherson, Penhall, Nielson, even Mendes must have watched the film through clenched teeth. Once again an idea of overwhelming simplicity works a treat. In Bruges is an indefatigably entertaining film which also gets away with a meditation on the existence of purgatory. The fact that the director nicks from the likes of Pinter, Beckett and Roeg only leads one to think: more power to his elbow. The pity of it is that more people will not be stealing from them, the old masters, on a more regular basis.

Friday, 2 May 2008

nine nights [w. bernardo carvalho]

Nine Nights weaves together three separate stories. At the core of the book is the tale of a young US anthropologist, Buell Quain, who committed suicide after a three month mission spent in a village of Kraho Indians, in 1938. The novel cobbles together an account of his life and death, in part structured around seven letters which Quain sent via a local engineer, Manoel Perna, who befriended him briefly. These letters were sent on to friends and family; some were preserved and some lost. Manoel Perna, in turn, writes a series of letters giving an account of his encounters with Quain, which lead to his death, by drowning, a few years later. The third story appears to be the author's himself, who acts as narrator, recounting his increasingly desperate quest to discover the reasons for Quain's suicide.

Quain's life story is scratchy, endlessly out of reach, the subject of supposition and rumour. The author supplies two photos of Quain, implying that whilst this is a work of fiction, it is based on factual events. As the events themselves seem so sketchy, it's impossible for the reader to ascertain where truth begins and fiction starts, just as it is for the author-narrator. However, in contrast to the vagueness of Quain's story, the narrator also tells his own story, including details from his childhood, about his eccentric father, and in a particularly striking passage, of a trip he made himself to visit the Kraho, fifty years after Quain.

This trip is in many ways the highlight of the book, occupying a swathe of text. It's a nightmarish account, written by a trained journalist, of a trip into an alien culture. The divide between the urban, European Brazil of Sao Paulo and the ancient, indigenous cultures of the Indians is yawning. If you've ever visited somewhere foreign, expecting to make a connection with the culture but in practice only discovering with every passing hour of your visit how different societies can be, then this remarkable passage will resonate. Far from participating in an Edenic idyll, the narrator feels threatened, paranoid, and driven to the verge of madness.

The brilliance of this passage is coupled with the compelling sequence where the narrator visits New York in his quest to find a living connection with Quain. These passages smack of the real... and yet, no matter how convincing they feel as a personal account, the text constantly needles the reader with the injunction that nothing should be taken for granted. The more the narrator learns about Quain, the less convinced he seems to become that the truth can be anything more than supposition driven by the personal drive of its seeker. As the narrator discloses more and more of his own story, the reader is inevitably lead to question how much of what is being told can be taken as read.

Nine Nights is a playful, slight, profound novel. Its structure seems erratic at times, short passages dovetailing with longer ones. The premise - the quest for the white man who loses his mind in the jungle - is self-consciously Conradian, and makes for a compelling yarn. It is also a book about modern Brazil, and the disassociations that lie within its borders. But above all it is a journalist's reckoning with the touchstone of their career: the idea that every story has a revealable truth. A reckoning which seems to lead both writer and reader towards the most ambivalent of conclusions.