Saturday, 30 August 2008

times and winds (d. reha erdem)

Mr Blue recommended we go and see this of a Friday night. At first he said it was Russian, which threw me (I have been hoping to catch The Banishment, which it looks like I've missed, in part because I was in Russia the week it came out.) In fact Times and Winds is a Turkish film, and its title, Bes Vakit, sounds rather more alluring in the original. Mr Blue observed that we've done well with Turkish cinema this year, so, despite the fact I find myself in a soporific late Summer torpor, I geared up for a couple of hours of what most reviews have described as a beautiful but very slow moving film.

Times and Winds is beautiful, and it doesn't hurry along at a great pace. Which is exactly as it should be. Although, inevitably, it takes a while to get into its rhythm, in the end the film is compelling. It tells the story of two boys, and a girl and another boy, who live in a small Turkish village with views of a sea which we never visit, and I would have been reasonably happy to remain in their world, the world of the film, all night.

It always seems to me that if the director makes a film which uses kids well, he or she is onto a winner. From Truffaut to Lynn Ramsey to Rob Reiner to Spielberg to... The list can go on and on. Erdem can add himself to this list, perhaps at the top of it, because his film pulls off something remarkable. Which is that he returns the viewer to child-time, and child-significance. How much do you remember being eleven, twelve or thirteen? Probably a hell of a lot, if you put your mind to it, or if your mind is lead that way. In Erdem's film, time seems to float. The seasons change but we never really know how much time has passed between incidents. It's as though time is not a sequential project, as it becomes with adulthood, but a deep pool, changing all the time and also threatening never to change at all. 'Child-significance', to coin a phrase, is that strange period before responsibility is foisted upon us, a time when even the smallest of moments can have a terrible power. It's easy to forget the restlessness and anxiety of childhood, the extremism of the world's beauty and cruelty at that age. Erdem, in his portrayal of Yakup, Yildiz and Omer, recreates that way of thinking which we adults have now lost, and will never return to.

Erdem's film captures all this with a lilting wistfulness. The film is punctuated by moments where the children it features are framed in artificial poses, caught up in nature or a decayed house, looking as though they could be dead. These moments have nothing to do with the narrative; perhaps they are an indication of the proximity and fear of death, or perhaps they are a small paean to the childhood that the characters will soon be losing. There is one moment, where the young girl, Yildiz, faints after thinking she might have inadvertently injured or killed her baby sibling, which echoes these stills, and all the vulnerability of childhood rises up to confront us. But for every moment of fear or anger, there follows a scene of comedy, reflecting the extremes of childhood, where life feels either catastrophic or a delirious blessing.

The director was, as it happens, present at the Renoir to give a Q&A after the screening. He revealed that the film had been shot on HD, and that part of its remarkable beauty was down to the way in which the footage was manipulated in post-production. He struggled gamely with his English, but his quiet-spoken meandering seemed in sharp contrast to the clear-sightedness of his film. Asked how long Times and Winds took to film, he came up with no comprehensible answer. Perhaps this was appropriate, and there should be no way of knowing. Times and Winds feels like it belongs to a netherland, a lost vision of a world where children grow up without the paraphernalia of modern life, and all the richer for it.

omon ra [w. pelevin]

Omon Ra tells the story of a young man, Omon, who finds himself realising his dream of being recruited into the Soviet space program. However, he discovers, during training, that the mission he's been sent on is a suicidal one-way journey to the dark side of the Moon, a fate he is obliged to embrace for the greater good of the Republic. Omon is the callow narrator, who talks us through his trials and tribulations with a flat, underwhelmed tone, one shared by his fellow kamikaze astranouts, with the exception of a brief discussion about the best songs of Pink Floyd.

This is Pelevin's first novel. Whilst the scale and ambition is evident, the piece lacks the assurance of The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, and Pelevin's prose style is, at times, as tentative as his narrator's disposition. Even at a mere 150 pages, it feels as though Omon is crawling towards his demise, rather than hurtling through space.

Nevertheless, the ideas on display are rich, not least the remarkable sequence which describes a hunting trip undertaken by Kissinger when in Russia on a diplomatic mission. Pelevin's imagination seems to be bursting to break through the confines of the Soviet-era setting, something it perhaps achieves in the book's closing sequences, when the narrative accelerates into the unexpected, with a detour via Zabriskie Point.

It would be interesting to know what Pelevin considers to be his influences. The narrative of the book, dealing with an innocent being sent to his probable death in a rocket, resembles that of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Like Pynchon, Pelevin draws on an esoteric frame of reference, his erudition distilled through the perspective of a simple hero trying to do the right thing in difficult times. Whether Pelevin has come across Pynchon or not, he shares the other's sense of ambition, the notion that a novel needs to challenge the boundaries of realism in order to be able to discover a perspective from which any kind of originality can be articulated. Likewise, both have dwelt on the fact that nothing shows up the hubris of our era more than our pitiful ventures into space. Adventures which show how unadaptable man is as a species; and whose grandiose ambition only serves to reveal how parochial the systems which fuel these ambitions are, within a universe we can barely dip our toes in.

Monday, 25 August 2008

elite squad (d. jose padilha, w. andre batista, braulio mantovani)

Elite Squad deals with the way in which the police attempt to tackle the drugs war in Rio's favelas. The film was created out of Padilha's original project, which was to create a documentary about BOPA, the elite Brazilian anti-narcotic squad, which some see as a paramilitary unit. Elite Squad was the most expensive feature ever made in Brazil. It has provoked national debate, commercial success and international acclaim.

Padilha has quite a few axes to grind. He wants his audience to understand who the officers of BOPA are, how they work, and why they might be necessary. He also wants middle class Brazilian drug users to take stock of the part they play in their country's drug war, which is by and large concealed in the no-go favelas. Finally he wants, and succeeds, in making these issues accessible and cinematic.

Elite Squad, in spite of its acknowledged intellectual perspective, is a high octane piece of cinema making. On the one hand, Padilha and his team capture the vivid, restless energy of the favelas; the comical corruption of the Rio police force, and the violent excesses of the drug war. On the other hand, he succeeds in slipping in a sequence where one of his three principle protagonists, the nerdish, black law student, Matias, gives a succinct appraisal of Foucault's position on the mechanisms of power within society.

Padilha's film suggests that you can have it all. It is possible to make intelligent, 'socially conscious', commercial, dramatic cinema. All that's required is the verve and ambition to pull it off. The fact that the film caused such a stir within Brazil would no doubt appeal to Foucault himself. For so long the holy grail of politically minded artists has been the creation of a work of art which might have some influence on society. Illegally downloaded copies of Padilha's film were doing the rounds long before it opened. The director found himself accused of making a fascist film, hero-worshipping BOPA, whilst being sued by BOPA for defamation at the same time.

One of the fascinating aspects of the movie is the way in which it finds the line that exists between documentary and fiction. Padilha realised that there was no way he was going to be allowed to film the things he'd been told occurred in real life. BOPA's habit of torturing suspects and summarily executing others was never going to be captured in a documentary. Neither were the antics of the drugs lords, nor, in all likelihood, the extent to which psychological stress affected BOPA's members. For all the film's violence, the scene where Captain Nascimiento walks into his home and, out of the blue, shouts at his wife that he runs the show, remains one of the most powerful. Wagner Moura, who plays Nascimiento, has a passing resemblance to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. His narration, which holds the film together as it tells the story of how he came to select one of Matias or his friend Neto to succeed him in his job, giving him a get-out clause to spend more time with his family, also echoes Liotta's in Scorcese's film.

Elite Squad is one of the rare films that succeeds in emulating Scorcese's sinuous, energetic style of film-making. It gives evidence of a director who's brazen enough to believe he can seize hold of the big issues affecting his society, then describe them in a way that's so gripping, people will want to go and see the film. Thereby having to face issues they would usually run a mile from. This is anti-escapism cinema, executed with remarkable, compelling flair.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

the year of magical thinking (w. didion, d. hare)

The stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking is a one-woman show, mostly played out against a succession of muted (dare one say Fahriesque?) painted backdrops. It is a faithful adaptation of Didion's recent book about her double bereavement, both her husband and daughter dying within a short space of time.

Vanessa Redgrave plays Didion, bringing to life a languid, intellectually pre-possessed soul, on the point of having her life torn to pieces. The piece is a hundred minutes of Redgrave talking, and it never flags.

There's something unlikely about great stage acting. Whereas screen acting hides the illusion - the audience swallows the actor as character from the word go - stage acting cannot and great stage actors don't try to. Rather, they let the illusion gradually creep up and then smother the audience, like a magician walking on stage and announcing what they're going to do in advance of doing it. The opening moments of Redgrave's performance don't make any attempt to shy away from the obvious questions. Where does Redgrave end and Didion begin? Is that accent believable? Will she be able to pull off 'being an American' for a hundred minutes with nothing but a chair and some lights to sustain her? However, these opening skirmishes are over almost before they've begun, and from then on Redgrave and Didion not only appear to have fused into a single entity, she/ they also hold the audience in the palm of their hands. Having established her mastery, she can play with the audience at will.

This is reflected in a secondary aspect of the performance. Redgrave's masterclass in acting is instructive. She uses all the tricks in the book. There are points when you might almost be inclined to call her performance hammy. Her fierce eye picks out and hones in on audience members, never scared to vault the fourth wall. She drops her head into her hands, shaking, then cackles at her own joke. In screen acting terms, this would be seen as mannered. But on stage, the actress uses these techniques to widen the demonstrative power of her emotional range. So when she needs to howl lines of raw grief, and then surf those lines back to some connective, humorous or insightful note, to reconnect with the audience, the extremities she can access not only seem convincing, they seem absolutely accurate. In life, humans are self-indulgent, mannered, demonstrative, passionate, furious, eye-rolling and all the rest. The trick is to allow art to represent this life without appearing to be milking it for effect, a trick which only the bravest of actors can achieve without resorting to under-playing.

The audience rose to applause Redgrave at the show's curtain call, and for once it felt warranted. This is a now elderly woman tearing her heart and soul out on stage as she wrestles with the cruelty of the gods; but doing so with humour and grace. Of course, this is where the Redgrave/ Didion fusion owes as much to the writer as the actress. Didion's lucid prose stood out from amongst the welter of essayists who tried to depict the chaotic energy of that brief Prague Spring when the USA's counter-culture managed to ask real questions about the direction in which its society was heading. Didion displayed a childlike, exteriorised perspective, married to a fierce and evident intelligence, that allowed her not merely to observe in muted wonder, terror, or awe, but also to convey to an audience how her observations came to be formed.

Forty years later, she brings the same detached, personal eye to the death of both husband and daughter, and the process and working of grief itself. Grief, she constantly reminds her audience, is not something you can ever fully understand, until you are within its possession. This is a letter from that side of the fence. However, as much as its a letter to us, it is, like all great writing, also a letter to its author, a bridge across time. Towards the end of the piece, Redgrave/ Didion notes that there comes a time when you have to let the dead go; when they cease to be a living presence and begin to become a picture on a mantelpiece. The period of grief is both a time of fighting this process, and also a time of coming to terms with an acceptance of this process. In writing about this period of her life, before she's let her dead go, Didion clings to the time when the dead were not dead, when they were alive and safe; with her presence a guarantee of that safety.

Finally, The Year of Magical Thinking reveals, oncemore, that secret of theatre which is so often forgotten by performers, producers and audiences. The word entertainment is bandied around as though it meant something. In its quest to entertain, theatre all to often condescends, squeals, wriggles, jumps, shouts, turns tricks which should be never be seen on a stage. When, in fact, people don't go to the theatre to be entertained. They go there to discover something, to be told something. Entertainment is secondary. A process that was once known as storytelling. Redgrave on stage at the National might as well be Redgrave, or Didion, sitting with you round a fire, illuminated by flame and star, with no more action than her lips moving. Which is plenty to keep us occupied for an hour and a half of our brief lives, to leave us walking away feeling like we have achieved something ourselves, through the understanding which the speaker has communicated to our privileged ear.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

the sacred book of the werewolf [w. victor pelevin]

The heroine of this book is called A Hu-Li, a Chinese name for a Russian teenage prostitute who left China for Moscow at some point in the last thousand years. Translated into Russian, her name means, 'What the fuck'. A Hu-Li tells her this herself, as she is the book's narrator, and the text charts her journey, via a love affair with a werewolf, towards enlightenment, when she uses a BMX bike in a remote Moscow park to help propel her into the Nirvanic Rainbow Stream.

Pelevin's text is esoteric. Apart from being a treatise on the attainment of post-material enlightenment, (in the Zen Buddhist sense of that phrase), it also references, among other nodes in the contemporary zeitgeist, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, The Matrix, and Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood for Love. The narrator claims to have slept with Dostoyevsky and been an associate of Tolstoy. Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Kant and Bishop Berkeley are all name-checked, and the book also offers a comprehensive interpretation of recent Russian history.

All of which might make The Sacred Book of the Werewolf sound like a worthy, academic read, which couldn’t be further from the truth. (Although the Zen Buddhism gets intense at certain points.) A Hu-Li, clearly some kind of a cover for the book’s maverick author, is witty, irreverent and ultimately kind-hearted. She kept me great company as I travelled through old Russia, never afraid of putting the world in front of my eyes into a context that made sense to someone who’d never been there before.

Pelevin’s agendas range all over the place. He critiques the evolution of the new Russian oligarchy, with its thirst for oil, whilst offering his readers simple readings of Buddhist aphorisms (eg What’s the difference between a dog and a lion watching a stick being thrown – the dog looks at the stick, the lion at the stick’s thrower.) It’s a blend that shouldn’t really work, yet its very unlikeliness allows Pelevin to pull it off, in much the same way that his narrator conjures men into believing they have enacted their wildest fantasies with her, when she’s actually been reading Hawking the whole time. Reading Pelevin is an, at times, dazzling experience. In the face of his and his narrator’s sardonic wit and eclectic intelligence, it might be expected that the book had traded in emotional power for intellectual mind-games. However, there’s a strong (ahuman) emotional narrative at work in A Hu-Li’s story. Attaining Buddhist enlightenment might not sound like a moving endgame for a novel, but by instituting this as the finale of A Hu-Li’s narrative, Pelevin manages to make it so. When you reach the end of the book and see how it connects with the beginning, something almost magical occurs. As if all this wasn’t enough, it also offers the most intriguing account of werewolf sex you’re ever likely to find.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

ice [w. vladimir sorokin]

Ice is composed of four sections. The first tells the story of three Russians living in contemporary Moscow who are kidnapped, brutally assaulted, and then discover that something remarkable has happened to them, the full details of which are not disclosed. The second part is the story of a young woman in the second world war, who is indicted into the secret cult of the ICE, later returning to Russia to find other suitable converts. The third and fourth parts are negligible, throwaway addendums.

The cult that the individuals find themselves belonging to is one which is shaped by some kind of alien force; which leads people towards their rediscovered hearts. The way of unearthing which people are suitable to join the cult is to smash an ice-hammer against their breastbones, then listen to see whether their hearts 'talk' in response to the assault. (The ice of the ice hammer is made from a meteorite which has landed in Siberia, although it takes a while to realise this.) Once they have joined the cult, the neophytes learn how to speak with their hearts, discovering a purity which the rest of humanity has forgotten it ever possessed. The cult's mission will end, as is the way of cults, in the annihilation of humanity when the cult members are absorbed by the LIGHT, a kind of nirvanic bliss which supersedes materialism.

Sorokin uses a lot of capitals, which have the effect of stressing the child-like glee of the cult devotees, as they speak to one another with their enthusiastic, re-discovered hearts. The writing is laced with a populist trashiness, crudely described sex scenes sitting alongside moments of brash violence. The notes on the flyleaf reference Houllebecq, and Ice possesses a similar blend of high-falutin' ideas married to an almost anti-intellectual prose style.

What it all means, or perhaps that should be, 'signifies', is something I'm not altogether sure of. The second section, describing Khram's (the woman's 'heart-name') mission to establish the community of Ice in the post-war USSR allows Sorokin to do a breezy run-through of late Soviet history, linking it up to the present day. From Beria to Yeltsin, he describes how the Soviet Union functioned, before mutating into Russia. Khram's narrative makes a theoretical, fantastical sense out of a history which is still being carved out, above and beyond the obvious ideological shifts. The members of the sect don't care about politics, all that matters to them is the Ice, and in order to achieve their ends, they will always rise to the top of society.

In that sense Sorokin's book has elements of David Icke's Lizards or conspiracies such as the Bildenberg society. Certainly there appears to be a neo-fascist element to the sect, which has been nurtured in Nazi Austria, and only recruits the blond and blue-eyed. It may well be that there's a clear and apparent satire which any Russian would recognise at work in these pages. The thing that makes the book curious, however, is that the nirvanic ideas which the cult ferments possess a near-mystical beauty. The notion that we no longer listen to our hearts, and that though that deafness we have lost touch with the potentially angelic simplicity of being human, is beguiling. As Russia crashes through the glass ceiling into the sordid world of capitalism, what happens to the messianic drive which is latent in much of its literature as well as its political history? It is not hard to envision Dostoyevsky's visionary misfits being attracted to a society of the heart, where the purity of love supersedes the materialistic drive.

In some ways, Ice is a frustrating book, which throws its narrative(s) away all too readily, and appears to want to introduce significant ideas without taking them all that seriously. However, (and this is one of those occasions when the reader's ignorance should be mentioned as a disclaimer), it's probably to a book's credit when you come away from it going - what the hell was that? Was it rubbish? Did it really have flashes of brilliance? Did it mean anything at all? Sorokin's book comes across as a provocation. A provocation as to what, remains far from clear, but better to be provoked and frustrated than mollycoddled.

el baño del papa (w&d cesar charlone & enrique fernandez)

A Uruguayan film on general release in London. Not something that happens every week/ month/ year. When I was in Montevideo people mentioned El Baño, but I assumed as it wasn't on release there, then, I would have missed it. The shock of its appearance here should not be underestimated.

However, the reason for its appearance, and success on the international festival circuit, is apparent from the opening frames. A group of smugglers, fuelled by nothing more than pedal power, pursued on the Uruguay-Brazil border by the corrupt customs officer, Meleyo, in his truck. Charlone's cinematography imbues the chase with the drama of Ben Hur. Has there ever been a villain on a bicycle? A bicycle rider signifies various things: poverty, hard-workingness, and a life lived in the open air. Film a group of cyclists trying to get away from a four-wheel-drive and the audience instantly knows who it's rooting for. The smugglers, Beto and Valvulina, are both family men, trying to make ends meet in a world where earning a living is far from straightforward. All over the world, people scamper across borders, trying to turn a profit out of the accident of geography, that peculiar dictate of fate which determines who gets what in a globalised world.

Charlone's camera skillfully depicts the simplicity of Melo, a small Uruguayan town which is part impoverished backwater, part new age nirvana. Earning a crust might be difficult, but the neighbours are friendly and you never have to worry about locking up your bike. It's easy to see why Beto, Valvunia, their families and friends exude a kind of innocent contentment, in between the moments when the rigours of survival get them down. Whilst the narrative's overt theme is the visit of Pope John Paul II to Melo, a nice enough hook, it's sub-text is about family, its trials and tribulations but, ultimately, its rewards. Whilst it seems sentimental that the film ends with Beto's daughter, whose university savings have been blown by his madcap scheme to build a public loo for the Pope's visit, forgiving him, it helps to articulate the film's point that, no matter how poor, if your heart's in the right place you'll get your reward.

As such El Baño has a slightly conservative feel, which from another perspective might be seen as 'universal'. Its artlessness is actually artful; its lack of polish makes it slick. In many ways it seems to have no more to do with the lives of the Montevideans I know than it does with the lives of Londoners. There are two sides to the 'universal' coin - on the one hand it means that your story has a fair chance of making the leap beyond your culture, appearing in cities around the world. On the other, there's a danger that, in appealing to everyone, your story ends up speaking to no-one. El Baño del Papa is a clever piece of cinema, warm and touching, with some convincing performances, but it doesn't reveal as much about Uruguay as I perhaps hoped it would.