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.