Sunday, 8 June 2008

les amants (d. louis malle, w. malle & de vilmorin)

A man wandered to the front before the screening of Les Amants at NFT2 and mentioned that the cut we were about to see was the censored British version, not the uncensored French. He then said he was sure that this wouldn't affect our enjoyment, and assured us that the film would be as pleasurable as the wonderful weather outside. This was probably not a polite dig at the kind of lunatics who choose to watch a black and white subtitled fifties film on the first truly beautiful day of the year, but if it had been it would have been justifiable. I had my own reasons for retreating to the sanctuary of the cinema: when the world is on your shoulders, there's nowhere better to escape to, beyond the range of mobile phones or the diversions of one's own brain.

Truffaut liked Les Amants, but said it wasn't a masterpiece. I'd heard of the film but as I watched it I didn't really get it. The beautiful Jeanne Moreau is bored with her husband, a Dijon newspaper man. She makes regular trips to Paris where she stays with her socialite friend, Maggie, and conducts an affair with the blandly elegant Spanish polo player, Raoul Flores. Her husband grows suspicious and insists she invites Maggie and Raoul to Dijon for supper. Driving back home, she breaks down, and is picked up by a humorous young man, Bernard, played with a hint of modernity by Jean-Marc Bory. Bernard drives her home, her husband insists on him joining the quartet for supper, which is a desultory affair, everyone goes to bed, planning to wake at four to go fishing. Moreau escapes the attentions of firstly her husband then Raoul, before wandering out into the night air where Bernard jumps her. They have passionate sex, declare eternal love, and drive off just as the others are getting ready for the dawn fishing expedition.

It's only worth summarising the plot in such detail to demonstrate that there isn't that much of a plot. There's clearly something Flaubertian about Moreau's character (named, funnily enough, Jeanne), on whom no moral judgement is passed at any point. However, there's not enough there to explain why, as I later learnt, people queued round the block to see the film when it first came out in Paris, or indeed why the film had been censored by the British to such an extent that it was worth mentioning before the film screened.

Its at times like these that the NFT notes come in handy. The missing scene was one which, whilst not quite showing it, implied that Bernand had had the good grace to perform cunnilingus on Jeanne, which helps to explain why she was quite so ready to hop into his 2CV and drive off to start a new life with him. It also explains why the British Board of Film Censors had little option but to save the British public from the side-effects of this French perversion, as well as explaining the film's attraction to French men, and women, when it first came out. However, without this revelatory moment, the first time, apparently, it had been performed on a cinema screen (or implied, because, so the notes tell us, Bertrand glided down Jeanne's body before disappearing from shot), the full effect of the film is kind of lost. Obviously the main point for Malle and Moreau (who were lovers at the time the film was made) was to push the boundaries, and embrace realism in all its erotic as well as psychological possibilities. Once the British censor reached for his scissors, (let's assume they're a he), the full potency of their endeavour was somewhat undermined.

I'm not sure if, even had the relevant scene been present, it would have altered my perception of the film. Its quest for realism has been left behind in the decades that have passed. It may well be that Les Amants helped open the door to the sixties, but once the door was open the horse well and truly bolted. Nevertheless, it's worth watching to see Moreau give her remarkable performance as a woman in search of meaning in a life which appears to have bequeathed her none. The echoes of Madame Bovray are strong, and although the film's narrative does not do her character's story justice, her performance undoubtably does.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

five years of my life [w. murat kurnaz] & the flight [w. horacio verbitsky]

Whilst writing about literature I have steered away from non-fiction. Non-fiction has a different agenda to fiction, requiring divergent skills. With non-fiction, the way in which the piece is written is less important than what is being written about; whereas with fiction, this is the other way round. This is not to say that there are works of non-fiction which will be far more carefully composed than works of fiction; just that the reasons for reading the two may not be the same, meaning that, in the interests of clarity, I have resisted reviewing the non-fiction I've read this year.

However, I've just finished two books which demand to be made an exception of. The Flight, also known as Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior, is a book of acknowledged significance. It's author, Horacio Verbitsky, conducted a series of interviews with a navy officer, Adolfo Scilingo, wherein Scilingo came clean about his part in what the navy had been doing during the dirty war. He spoke to the journalist about the way in which the military regime would drug prisoners and then fly them above the South Atlantic, before throwing them, drugged but alive, into the ocean. Over the course of several years there were weekly flights, which members of the Argentine navy were obliged to participate in. Scilingo said he had been on two of them.

Scilingo's confession was not, in fact, the first time news of these crimes had been officially acknowledged. They had been mentioned in a judicial review conducted in the wake of the end of the dictatorship, and if anyone had wanted to know, the information was out there. However, it was the first time a member of the navy had confessed and broken the code of silence concerning events that had happened almost twenty years previously. The book caused a storm when originally published in Argentina, as for the first time, the nation really began to take stock of the crimes that had been committed in its name by the armed forces during the dictatorship.

Verbitsky's story deals with issues from the recent past. As noted elsewhere, there's a fine line to be trod between moving on from what happened and taking account of what happened. However, the story's potency is heightened by the human role within it of Scilingo himself, who Verbitsky does not give an easy ride. Scilingo's motivations for talking turn from annoyance with his superiors and a hypocritical code of silence, to a genuine realisation of the horror of what he has participated in, to a desperate quest for personal survival. His story is the tragedy, which has a redemptive edge to it, of a man caught up in the wider scheme of political history, unable to sever himself at any point from the circumstances he finds himself trapped in, yet who nevertheless at least has the courage to confront his demons, which is more than could be said for anyone else who emerged from the dehumanised culture he belonged to.

Murat Kurnaz's book tells the other side of the story. Kurnaz was arrested in Pakistan, spent several months being tortured by the Americans in Kandahar, and was then transferred to Guantanamo. A Turkish citizen who'd lived all his life in Germany, who had worked as a bouncer at discos before he discovered Islam, Kurnaz describes with a dispassionate candour the torture he underwent whilst in American custody. We have watched our TV screens over the past six years and glimpsed images of something we know is unethical but about which details have remained sparse. Kurnaz strips clear the TV veneer, offering detail after detail about a shockingly inhumane system which was, and presumably still is, far worse than anything we have been lead to believe.

It is hard to know why Kurnaz's book has not been on the bestseller lists, has not received more attention here. It reads like a thriller, in so far as it's almost impossible to put down. Murnaz writes without embitterment, in spite of everything. The book also gives as telling an insight into the positive properties of Islam as anything I've read. In the face of all that he is forced to suffer, his faith keeps him alive, as well as those around him. At one point a guard who has a modicum of humanity comments on the way that he would have gone mad if couped up in the kind of living conditions the prisoners have to suffer, and notes that only their faith has kept the prisoners sane.

On the other side of the chain link fence are the guards. The damnation of the US system comes about as much through the empty headed savagery of the men and women who run the prison as the prison itself. When Kurnaz comments on those few guards who act with some kind of decency, something the prisoners always note, there is relief that not everyone in this place is corrupt. An inhumane system relies for its efficiency on the inhumanity of its operators. Kurnaz finds greater fellowship with the iguanas, spiders and hummingbirds who visit him in his cell than with the humans who patrol on the outside.

Verbitsky's account of Scilingo's self-confessed crimes is shocking. Yet that shockingness is dulled, no matter what, by time, which dulls all things. Kurnaz's account of events in Kandahar and Cuba is also shocking. Yet that describes a prison which is still active, and many of the men mentioned in his account will still be living in conditions whose barbarity has nothing to do with a world we would like to believe is civilised, even as I write.

Monday, 2 June 2008

a grain of wheat [w. ngũgĩ wa thiong'o]

Before beginning a brief account of this book, it seems right to ask a simple question. Why had I never heard of it, or its author before? A Grain of Wheat was originally published in 1967, so it's not like it should be waiting to be discovered. The author has published a host of books and been imprisoned for his literary activity. And whilst I'm a long way from the epicentre of English-language literature, wherever that might be, it's also not as though I'm on some dim distant shore, picking up bottles hoping they contain a message written in my language.

A Grain of Wheat is a remarkable piece of writing. Based around four central characters, each with differing perspectives on the history they've lived through, it gives an account of how the Mau Mau insurrection leading up to Kenyan independence in 1963 affected a single village and its inhabitants. Ngũgĩ's prose style has the straightforward power of someone who knows they're recounting difficult issues to a large audience. It never dallies or gets bogged down in its mission. The narrative is sufficiently complex to keep the reader wondering how it's going to unfold, and the structure of the book has a limpid cleverness, shifting backwards and forwards through time, filling in gaps the reader had forgotten existed, constantly illustrating the way an action made at a given time lives on in the years that will follow it. Technically, A Grain of Wheat is an extremely compact, skillful piece of writing. But above and beyond this it also has an irresistible humanity to it, never afraid to show a good man in a bad light or a bad man in a good one. Ngũgĩ captures the sense of moral dislocation that inevitably accompanies living under a repressive regime, the way in which all aspects of life are tainted by fear and an overriding desire to return to some kind of normality.

The book's depiction of British rule is scathing. It's not afraid to call a detention centre a concentration camp, where men are held without trial for year after year. Guantanamo is nothing new under the sun. The last blighted years of British colonial rule are rarely thought about now, (we tend to perceive ourselves as a faintly benign influence in comparison to the perfidious Latins or Belgians) but Ngũgĩ illustrates both the savagery of that epoch, and the scarred imprint it left on the Kenyans who had to begin reconstructing their country after the British had finally left. In the course of this description he articulates a brilliant exposition of the rationale and objectives of a terrorist campaign.

All of which brings me back to my opening question. Ngũgĩ wrote this book in English (he later started to write in Gikuyu, his local language). The book fulfills the brief of literature in so many ways, in particular as understood within an Anglo-Saxon tradition. It brings together complex ideas from a definable political period and conveys those ideas through its subtle, psychologically perceptive characterisation. It tells a powerful story with economy and humanity. Apparently (I learn from the introduction) Ngũgĩ acknowledged the influence of Conrad. The book itself was actually written in Leeds, where the author was working on his MA, and I doubt there were many better books written in Leeds in 1967. In spite of all this, Ngũgĩ is unknown in this country, and he certainly never got near my syllabus back at York.

Is Ngũgĩ the victim of prejudice? Has A Grain of Wheat not been acknowledged because the book scratches at a sore the UK would rather forget? Somehow I suspect that this isn't what's happened. Rather, he's a victim of something more mundane, which is an introspective ignorance, an ostrich like reluctance to look beyond the circumference of the acknowledged Anglo-Saxon world. Which might be indicative of a hidebound arrogance, which might in turn be a cultural extension of the earlier colonial policy.

the colour of pomegranates (d. sergei parajanov)

The film buff suggested we go. He and I both thought we'd seen it twenty years ago. I thought it was 4 hours long and he said it was 72 minutes. He was almost right, it would have been, if it wasn't for the fact the print kept going into meltdown, the lights coming up and down, the washed colours dissolving into the orange glow of a blank screen.

The scratchiness of the print and its state of imminent collapse contributed to the sense of watching a relic, discovered perhaps in one of the ruined churches the film shows. The film has the feel of a tone poem. It is a succession of mise-en-scenes, artfully put together, with no dialogue and little narrative. Every image is a thing of beauty, from the carpets flapping in the wind to the sheep bleating in a church. Like looking at a Renaissance fresco that's faded through the centuries, it's hard to tell what the original colours would have looked like, but in this print they had a subdued grandeur, hinting at the richness of the colours that underpin the images shown on the screen, without quite giving them away.

Parajanov's film is meditative. It felt to this viewer like a cross between a sixties acid movie and a nineties fashion spread in a glossy magazine for people with so much money they needed to prove it through the quality of their austerity. The only people in the audience who looked like this was their reason for watching it left after the second projector meltdown. Maybe 7 minutes was enough for them to get a feel. No matter how beautiful, Pomegranates is not an easy thing to watch, stripped away as it is of assumed dramatic ingredients. Towards the end the poet's voice says - I'm so tired, I'm even tired of writing poems - and the audience knows where he's coming from. We too couldn't go on for much longer staring at this alien beauty, not without pharmaceutical assistance.

The film buff noted that there was a surprising amount of religious imagery for a film made in the Soviet Union. I felt as though there may well have been a thousand messages contained within the images that I had missed, which perhaps all save a few now-elderly Armenians would miss. However, to go and see this film expecting to make sense of it would appear to be missing the point, for it's a film that deals with the limits of intellectual understanding, provoking a sensory response instead. It's as close to an experience of other-worldly asceticism as you can get without spending a year sitting on a pillar in the middle of the desert.