Friday, 28 November 2008

the baader meinhof complex (d uli edel, w. edel & stefan aust)

The easiest way to explain what's wrong with this film is supplied by the music covering the credits, which come after two and a half hours of screen time. As the film ends, and the credits roll, a highly portentous and obviously scored tune pounds out. Then, after a couple of minutes (this is a long film and there is no shortage of credits), Dylan's Blowing in the Wind cuts in. For Dylan aficionados, this is something of a relief. He sings the whole song, but unfortunately there's more credits still rolling. So the film reverts to the former, bombastic score. At which point I left, although given the credits continued to roll they may still have had time to slip in one of Mahler's shorter concertos.

This ending is indicative of a film which doesn't seem to sure how to place or pace itself. In contrast to Downfall (made by the same producer), which was immersed in the unities of time, place and action, The Baader Meinhof Complex sprawls over several years, and moves all over Germany with detours to Rome and a PLO training camp in an unnamed part of the Middle East. The film focuses on the three principle members of the terrorist group, Baader, Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, but the other members appear and occasionally take centre stage, (such as when Holger Meins dies), without having been developed in any way, perching somewhat uneasily on the twenty minutes of fame the film allows them. Furthermore, whilst Ensslin's attraction for the bad boy of the Social Revolutionary movement is understandable, (Andreas Baader is portrayed as a kind of anti-Che, a solipsistic, narcissistic egoist), the studious Ulrika Meinhof's choice to become so closely linked to him that their names will go down in history together is never really explored with any kind of subtlety.

The length of the film seems like further evidence of the fact the filmmakers weren't too sure of what they were doing. There's a lot of contextualisation (ie news footage from Vietnam); and a consistent dosage of 'action' sequences, as fetching young Germans who look like something out of an 80's ID magazine shoot show off their prowess with machine guns; but, until the gang is arrested, the narrative and the apparent mission of the urban terrorists has very little shape. Once they are arrested the film develops a point of focus in the prison, although it still can't resist sending young blondes off to wreak havoc where they can get it.

No matter how historically accurate the film is, it doesn't really help the viewer to understand what the individual members of the Baader Meinhof group were really fighting for, and why they apparently engendered so much sympathy in spite of the gratuitous violence of their methods. There are moments of flair in some of the set piece scenes (notably the early demonstration against the Shah's state visit) but even these run out of steam in the plethora of bullets and explosions; and the real complexities of the doomed triangle which composed the leadership of this curiously effective urban guerrilla movement are merely hinted at.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

waltz with bashir (w&d ari folman)

Hot on the heels of Hunger comes Waltz With Bashir, another piece dealing with near-forgotten episode from the eighties. Oddly both pieces summoned up similar memories of being in the library of Freddies, as the house I lived in was somewhat comically named. The library was primarily used as a snooker room, but the papers were also laid out there, and 1982 was around the year when I first began to take a regular interest in the wider world. The massacre of Sabra and Chatila affected me. I cut out a picture from the paper, not dissimilar to the images at the end of Folman's film, and kept it in a yellow hardback book I had been given for Christmas (selected essays of Bernard Levin). 

Folman's film is about many things, and I'd hope he'd recognise the purpose of my introductory flannel. Like McQueen's film, he is looking at the way history is constructed, which also means the way in which we choose to either remember or forget that which has gone before. The film explores his own memories of being in Beirut as an Israeli soldier at the time of the massacre. As such it is also a film about memory - including one diverting sequence where a psychologist explains the human tendency to construct, even invent memories, noting that memory is an active, ongoing project for each individual. Folman, whose autobiographical story the film tells, has blocked out any recollection of being in Beirut, and the film narrates his mission to recover his memory, thereby erasing a collective amnesia on his country's part about the role it played in this war crime.

Any news we receive about Israel nowadays is tied up in its role in the geopolitical struggle that country was always heir to, and how it is conducting that struggle. In the midst of this maelstrom, its hard not to feel that Jewish culture, such a key component of European culture, gets forgotten. Folman's film reminds us of a heritage which its easy to feel has been lost since Judaism found a home. Folman's mission is a humane, rational enquiry. He talks to his psychologist, who makes the connection between the death camps of Beirut and the camps of the Holocaust, and the implicit Nazification of Israeli foreign policy at that time. These are bold points, made with a light touch, as pretty images float across the screen.

Which, of course, is Waltz With Bashir's USP. How does a factual essay about war crimes; Jewish identity; and memory, get a mainstream release? It does it by making itself as an animation. Folman's drawings are witty, pretty, striking and thought-provoking. The animation allows him to recreate a city in the midst of civil war, and describe the invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli army. It also allows him to include several fantasy and dream sequences. The poetry of the images buys him space for the more banal documentary talking heads images (which nonetheless exude a quirky fascination in comic strip form). After Persepolis, I was somewhat wary of the notion of an animated political film, but Waltz With Bashir uses the medium to remarkable effect, not least because of the quality of the animation itself. But more than this, the choice to make the film in an animated form allows the director to clandestinely smuggle issues into the cinema which he wouldn't be able to do any other way.

Waltz With Bashir is a brave film. Art cannot redeem the mistakes of the past, (and the film's sudden shift of tone at the end might be a nod to the limits of the power of artistry), but it can contribute to an understanding of what has gone before. Furthermore, it is also part of the discourse of history, and by refusing to let his personal amnesia lie, Folman might have gone some way towards helping his collective nation recognise the responsibility it bears for its part with regard to Sabra and Chatila, a responsibility it would normally prefer to be clouded in the fog of long-lost memory.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

the book of secrets [w. M G Vassanji]

The Book of Secrets, set in Tanzania, spans the best part of the twentieth century. The book of secrets itself appears to be a diary, written by a British colonial officer, Corbin, during his time as the colonial overseer in the backwoods town of Kikono, in the lead up to the first world war. The diary appears to be fairly innocuous, apart from the suggestion of a possible affair with a local woman, Miriamiu, whose husband accuses her of not being a virgin on her wedding night. Miriamiu's son is a pale skinned boy who ends up becoming wealthy and traveling to England. The book suggests that the colonial official and his possible son met and might possibly have possibly broached the subject of paternity, or might not have done.

Vassanji's narrator is Pius Fernandes, a schoolteacher in Dar Es Salaam, who is given the diary, which has survived through the century, and who takes on responsiblity for investigating its origins. This narrator recounts the various stories of the people who may or may not have been connected to the diary. These are a varied bunch, from Corbin to the son, Ali, to the woman Ali later runs off to England with, to the English poet who makes Dar Es Salaam his home. The narrative meanders across the years, and has a knack of engaging the reader in a particular character only to let that character's storyline drift out of the narrative as it moves on to the next. As a result, it feels as though the reader is continually restarting the project of the book and the quest for the true significance of the Book of Secrets. This particular reader never really got to the bottom of the diary's significance - it felt like something of a Maguffin around which Vassanji could embroider his knowledge of Tanzania, past and present, and the diverse communities that inhabited the country. 

The diary and Pius's mission to discover its secrets insinuates both the idea of a dramatic resolution to the book as well as some kind of key to the recent history of Tanzania. As it becomes clear that the book will not deliver on its insinuation, the reader has two courses of action. One is to become a little frustrated with a literal pretentiousness (understanding that word to mean an undelivered pretension to communicate something which is, in the end, never communicated); and secondly to enjoy the ramblingly assembled portrait of a faintly idyllic part of the world.  

Sunday, 16 November 2008

of time and the city (w&d terence davies)

Two weeks without going to see a film seems like something of a hiatus. There are films out there I wouldn't mind seeing, but I think it might be a November thing, a time of year when the mind begins to kick against the habits that have seen it through the best part of the calendar, and a sluggishness sets in. Battling against that, I went with the sister to the Renoir, to catch the lauded Davies's essay on all things Liverpool. Terence Davies, a somewhat mysterious figure, whose films both the sister and I remembered watching about twenty years ago, but about which, save the fact that these too are lauded, and have perhaps grown in stature as a result of their subsequent obscurity, very little came back to haunt.

Of Time and The City is best described as an essay film. It uses found footage and Davies' own narration to compose a picture of Liverpool through the twentieth century. A point of comparison might be Andersen's epic and witty Los Angeles Plays Itself. Davies film is shorter, and seemingly more elegiac. We know the film is supposed to be elegiac from the opening frames, when a stentorian, thespian voice recites poetry over black and white footage. The footage is captivating. The twentieth century revealed as the film documents the poverty of Davies' childhood and the energy of a now-lost industrial age. 

The footage is captivating, but the narration remains stentorian. After not very long you realise the voice is Davies' own. The narrative dabbles with a variety of moments: Davies' discovery of his homosexuality (wrestling and bonfire nights); the Korean War (for no discernable reason); the coronation of the queen, which Davies rails against. And then, finally, tower blocks and modern architecture.

Almost every film I see nowadays has some kind of commentary on the tower block. (As though its a Borgesian subset of 'film', a previously unnoticed genre.) Of Time and The City, following in the footsteps of Import/ Export; Gomorrah and even Dekalog, which I've watched on DVD recently, seizes on the urban alienation of 'The Tower Block'. The film lingers on images of slums being destroyed, and replaced by dystopian blocks. The footage shows them in their shiny newness and then spends an age describing their degradation, the images counterpointed by some pulsating Mahler or Bruckner. To no one's great surprise, Davies doesn't approve of tower blocks and makes sure you get the point. The fact that they replaced the slums he also disapproved of is glossed over. The delight which the film seems to take from its use of these depressing images verges on the sadistic. As though the filmmaker is saying: Can you belive it? People actually lived there! In response to the Tower Block genre there are two things I'd like to say. First, the image of the tower block as symbol of urban alienation from now on ought to be banned. Secondly, I'm biased, as I live in a tower block, with views over South London, and I promise you, it's not that bad. (Dekalog seems to suggest that there's nothing wrong with living in a housing estate, as there really are plenty of other things for people to get worked up about.)

After the tower blocks come... well to be honest it really doesn't matter all that much. Davies has more fun putting images of his beloved city together with some of his favourite tracks, and continues his meandering elegy. Towards the end - (shortly before mandatory helicopter shot, something else that also, sadly has entered the compendium of visual cliche, though that's not to say that hopefully, at some point in cinematic history, someone won't use it slightly better than a stock BBC documentary about rural churches of coastal Britain) - Davies shows lots of pictures of young Liverpudlians out on the piss, and declaims his disaffection and disconnection from the city he once knew. Any sentient viewer must be wondering why this camp old thespian thinks he should feel at home with a group of teenagers out on the lash on a Friday night, but that point seems to escape the film's narrator.

Earlier this year I went to see a play by a respected UK playwright, part of a series of pieces he'd assembled addressing the issue of the Iraq war. A reasonable endeavour, clearly, even admirable. Sadly, the plays were, on the whole, portentous, overblown, and left this member of the audience with next to no feeling of having connected with the war or Iraq. Given one is inclined to berate British art for failing to grapple with ideas, it's obviously churlish to point out that maybe the reason why we don't create more thoughtful art is that we're just not very good at it. Or perhaps we're not very good at it because we don't do enough of it. Whatever the truth, it's apparent in Of Time And The City. A piece which has all the ingredients it needs (footage and music) to create a remarkable piece of cinema about the city of Liverpool, but is let down by the fact that its creator doesn't really seem to know what he's trying to say. 

Thursday, 6 November 2008

lust [w. elfriede jelinek]

Lust is not a straightforward read. In theory it tells a small story, which takes place, so far as I could make out, over the course of a couple of days. Gerti is married to the swinish factory owner, Hermann. She meets a student, Michael, and they have sex. Later she tries to run away to be with Michael, but he's not interested, Hermann comes and gets her and brings her home, and she murders their child. 

That's what happens, but Lust isn't really about what happens but the way in which these actions are described. Jelinek's prose is composed of dense, poetic, pornographic  paragraphs. She's a writer who can't resist a pun, which suggests that her translators have their work cut out. Trying to get to grips with her text is like wrestling with a bibliophilic python. It's hard work, and matched by the writer's bleak analysis of modern life. 

Lust is a book about lust, and large chunks of it are dedicated to painstaking descriptions of sex. Gerti is fucked every which way by a husband who has remarkable stamina and who sees his wife as his chattel, to do with as he pleases. It seems somewhat surprising that this hasn't put Gerti off sex, but when she meets Michael, the attraction seems to be primarily physical. You won't read a dirtier book than Lust, but that doesn't mean there's anything particularly erotic about it. Sex is another commodity in a world which has been reduced to pure commodification.

For what it's worth, my favourite chapter was the one which described the skiers, in all their florescent gaudiness. It reminded me of a Peter Doig picture I saw earlier this year, a white mountainside populated by small figures in bubble gum colours. Jelinek's critique of modern living merits the application of words like 'coruscating'. Her unremitting bleakness and baroque prose isn't going to appeal to a mass audience, although it has secured her the Nobel prize. 

Saturday, 1 November 2008

hunger (d. steve mcqueen, w. mcqueen & enda walsh)

There was only one other audience member at the Coronet for the afternoon screening of Hunger. A man who chuckled to himself for no apparent reason, before engaging on muttered asides. He was four rows behind me, and when I turned around to look at him I thought for a moment it might have been McQueen himself, chuckling at moments in his artfully grim movie which no-one else was going to find funny. It wasn't, and in the end the asides began to feel a little menacing, and I moved to a seat further back.

It's slightly strange being part of an audience of two in a cinema, and as the film opened, I thought for the first time ever about the notion of cinema as prison - a confined space to which you are sentenced for the duration. For crimes you may or may not have committed. Whilst this is, natch, a fanciful, almost Frenchian piece of thinking, it's also testament to the tactile effectiveness of McQueen's film-making. Sound, colour and cinematography are used with the kind of inventiveness you'd hope an artist would provide to convey the realities of being in the Maze prison of the early 80's (and the pertinence of this realisation in terms of Guantanamo, Baghram etc, whilst never stated feels implicit). The director uses long takes and sparse dialogue to assemble (more Frenchiness) a powerful rendition of an inhumane system seeking to break its inhabitants' spirit and resistance.

The film's narrative structure is refreshingly unorthodox. The opening section describes the dirty protest and the state violence. At first it seems as though two stories are going to be counterpointed, as the life of a prison officer is dovetailed with the experiences of a new IRA prisoner. However, once Bobby Sands is introduced, he gradually comes to displace everyone else. The prison officer is shot, without the audience ever having got to know him, and the young prisoner fades out of the narrative. The film hinges on a long dialogue sequence between Sands and a Catholic priest, as the IRA man confesses, if you like, his reasons for embarking on his hunger strike. I'd been told this sequence, mostly filmed as a single take, is seventeen minutes long, and some had suggested that was pushing it. Walsh's writing is showcased, a bit like a Roach drum solo in a Coltrane track. It feels as though the intention is to create some kind of dissonance, in suddenly introducing so many words in a film of so few. This won't be everyone's cup of tea (dissonance isn't), but I found myself gripped. Apart from the fact it's a great piece of writing, McQueen's use of Walsh's words accentuates their value. Whilst McQueen's filmmaking has built up a visceral picture of the Maze, words are needed to convey the political context and also, to an extent, the psychological motivation for men to live in their own shit, as well as starve themselves to death. Language can do this in a way that images can't, and if the film has succeeded in taking you into the Maze, then you want to know why you're there, and the revelation of this information is as gripping as anything else in the film.

The final section of the narrative deals with Sands' hunger and death, and is entirely focused on him. Perhaps oddly, this felt less compelling that what had gone before. The priest in the dialogue accuses Sands of seeking martyrdom, an accusation he refutes, but the film flirts with imagery which comes straight out of the Christian iconography of sainthood. One scene in particular, when Sands' withered body is carried by a large prison officer, looks like a Pieta, and the film's concentration on the remarkable transformation of the actor Michael Fassbender's body seemed something of a distraction. (Hints of De Niro as La Motta and other noted pieces of body-acting). The transformation impies a mutation from the physical to a spiritual state, offering echoes of portraits of Saint Sebastian, the film dwelling on the Sands's sores and emaciation rather than any psychological suffering.

No matter how this last sequence affects the viewer, it's further testament to Hunger's broad agenda. This is a film about politics, but also history. The dirty protest and the hunger strikes that accompanied it are distant memories today. The IRA campaign, which for all of my youth was considered the greatest threat to civil life in the UK, has been almost forgotten. As well as reminding us of how our fears have been replaced, McQueen's film and Walsh's script remind us how it was always a part of the political process that what exactly was going on in the Maze, and who these people were, remained obscure. (Again the resonances with recent history are powerful.) Hunger opens the doors of the prison and lets us in on an old nightmare.

The number of levels McQueen's film operates on reveals a filmmaker who's both ambitious and dexterous. In addition to its political-historical agenda, Hunger is also an exploration of the relative and complementary potency of language and image, twin components of cinema's art. There are some points of comparison with Schnabel's Diving Bell and Butterfly, another piece created by an artist taking advantage of the full palette of cinema and using the restrictions of imprisonment as a creative impetus. It is to be hoped that Hunger gets good audiences, in spite of its challenging material and intransigent artistry, which won't be to everyone's tastes.

The McQueen lookalike received a phone call somewhere towards the end of the long dialogue. He got up and ambled to the back of the cinema where he took the call, making arrangements for his future. I don't think he was talking to Spielberg or Weinstein, but lets hope that someone with some film-money is talking to the real McQueen, because it will be fascinating to see what he does next.