Wednesday, 31 December 2008

the bicycle thieves (d. de sica; w. zavattini, d'amico, de sica, biancoli, franci, guerrieri)

A couple of hours ago I was walking across the bridge at Goldbourne Road, when I heard a shout. A van was taking a right turn over the bridge, and had trapped the rear wheel of a cyclist. For a moment it looked as though the cyclist's leg was about to be crushed, but the van stopped. The leg was preserved, but the bike was a write-off. The cyclist, wearing all the modern paraphernalia, was suitably aggrieved. A bleak day for him, but not quite a tragedy. The theft of Antonio Ricci's bike in Rome in 1948 was a far greater personal disaster.

I am sure that vast tomes have been written about this film, so I shall try and keep my contribution brief. I'd never seen it before and am grateful to the Curzon chain, which does more than most to keep cinema alive in this city, in the wider sense of that word (alive). (There was even a showing of the critic's own short in Curzon Soho this year, possibly the cheapest film ever screened there.) There's not much better way to round off a year's movie going than watching Bicycle Thieves, despite the film's pessimism.

This pessimism is the making of it. The characters are so endearing, and the audience so wants them to find the bicycle, for some kind of natural justice to be seen to be done - for the movie world to trump the real one - that when it doesn't, the shock to our system is equitable to the shock to Antonio's, discovering himself converted into nothing better than his enemy. In spite of its wilfully simplistic tone, the film employs a clear and subtle use of narrative to achieve its ends.

It seems worth noting the connections between De Sica's film and Bunuel's Los Olviadodos, among other neo-realist works of the post-war era, if only to ask - what does this 'neo-realist' tag really mean? It's interesting to see the way in which the directors are not only trying to beard the cliches of cinema through their choice of subject matter, focusing on the disenfranchised. They are also attempting to subvert cinema's use a wish-fulfiller. People go to the cinema, so we're told, to make their dreams come true - to escape the real world and enter a pampered land where reality is put on hold, and things turn out right in the end. (Expect a glut of feel-good movies to be funded as the recession bites). This leads to the inevitable comedic ending, where resolution is achieved in spite of the odds. De Sica shows us the odds - every shot with cyclists flying through the Roman streets in the background feels like a slap in Antonio's face - and refuses to deny them. A stolen bicycle has no chance of being recovered, in the real world or the movies. His bicycle thieves aren't just stealing Antonio's means of earning a living, they're also stealing the audience's cosy assumptions of what the cinema is there for, replacing them with something altogether more disturbing (the innate thief that lurks within us all).

It's hard to imagine a film funded today in the US or the UK with the same premise to get away with such a downbeat finale (even 5 months... let its audience off the hook). Maybe that's because our cultures just don't possess the same stakes as the one De Sica depicts. (Interesting to note how like some of the South American cities post-war Rome looks.) The cyclist whose bike was crushed just this afternoon may be able to claim on his insurance, or if not he'll probably be able to replace his bike sooner rather than later. Only in a black farce would his accident lead to the loss of his job, the potential break-up with his family and a descent into crime. Stories like these are made in other countries, other continents, and we continue to believe that an ending which isn't happy just isn't doing justice to its narrative or the characters we have chosen to invest in.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

gonzo (d. alex gibney)

When did you first discover Hunter S Thompson, and under what circumstances? The answers to that question will be manifold, curious, terrifying, in the best sense of the word.

My first encounter was The Rum Diary, and it didn’t enamor me. A few years later I picked up the second volume of his collected correspondence. Its one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Fear and Loathing doesn’t come close. His most celebrated work hints at the reality of the man’s imagination, but the letters reveal it, containing some of the most outrageous prose I’ve ever read.

Writing prose about the things Thompson claimed to be doing, and doing them, are different things. In a sense, we’re better off not knowing the truth. Thompson failed as a novelist because he had one of those imaginations that couldn’t be contained within the bounds of fiction. He himself could and probably did go far further than any character he could dream up; and in the life he lead he met sufficient people who could join him in his personal gormengast to mean there really was no point in him trying to hang their clothes on characters who didn’t exist.

As Gibney’s film suggests, Thompson ended up trying to inhabit the neo-fictional character he’d turned himself into. Only he wasn’t – fictional – and it would appear the results were almost as disastrous as they would have been had he stuck to his dreams of emulating Fitzgerald & co and becoming a novelist. I don’t think there could be any footage sadder than that included in the documentary, showing an addled Thompson, childlike in his inanity, singing along to Candle In the Wind, over and over. This should not be how great writers are immortalized – the action of his quietly spoken son, sadly underused in the film, shooting three shots into the air the moment he realized his father was dead, is far more appropriate.

Gibney’s film suffers from not really seeming to know which story it wants to tell about the good doctor. It goes down various alleyways, tells bits of stories, runs out of time, moves on, and dawdles towards an overextended close. It is the curse of the biographer never to tell the story that the subject’s fans wish to hear, but it did seem strange the film never even mentioned Thompson’s trip to Vietnam, and dealt in such a cursory manner with Oscar Acosta, Thompson’s sidekick on the road to Las Vegas immortality. The complexities of a home loving, gun toting, drug taking pillar of the anti-establishment, were grappled with, but the movie never seemed to have any kind of a grasp on the disparate material it was attempting to weave into a narrative.

Maybe it’s hard to make a film about a writer. As a critic I’d urge you not to bother to go and see this film, which is frankly a dirge of a hagiography of someone who didn’t deserve one and wouldn’t have wanted one. Take your ten quid or ten dollars or whatever loose change you’ve got, walk to your nearest bookstore, and pick up a copy of his letters. Stand and read a few in the bookstore. If you don’t find yourself laughing or gripped within five minutes, put the book down, and use your money to watch the film. If you have, buy it, read every word, then buy as much as you can take, and then when you’ve had enough, think about watching the film. But do it through closed fingers, because it turns into a horror movie for all the wrong reasons, and the good doctor deserves better than to be immortalized on celluloid in his dotage when he has already achieved immortality with his words in his greatness.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

the man from london (d. bela tarr, w. tarr & lászló krasznahorkai)

Bela Tarr is a name to conjure with. On several occasions I've come near to making his cinematic acquaintance, but it's never quite happened. With a film of his finally out on release in London town, the critic makes his way through a sodden, Wintry Brunswick Centre, its Christmas fare suitably bedraggled, with a sense of anticipation.

The Man from London is also a title to conjure with. It turns out that the film is adapted from a Simenon novel. I wonder if school children still learn French with the assistance of Simenon novels. If they don't they're the poorer for it. Moody, dank, black and white - all words which can be applied to the Belgian crime writer's oeuvre and Tarr's adaptation of this novel. I spent quite a long time trying to work out where the film was set: an ancient harbour town with winding streets, presumably within shooting distance of the Channel. Probably, I thought, some small Normandy or Brittany port with a regular cameo on the shipping forecast and which the adventurous motorist can reach after a two day boat crossing from Lyme Regis. When the credits revealed the film was in fact shot in Bastia, on Corsica, it threw everything which had come before mildly off-kilter.

There's plenty of time to ponder the nuances of the film. (Such as how good is Swinton's French accent; and who does that Englishman sound like, again revealed in the credits). The Man from London is as leisurely paced as anyone could hope for, even if it comes in at a Tarrishly concise, Tarr 132 minutes. The opening shot, alone, lasts about 15, as the camera gradually tracks back and forth, following the events that occur when a ship, coming from Britain, docks. Not a great deal ever seems to happen, but what doesn't happen is compensated for by the possibilities of what might happen. This is emphasised by Tarr's roving camera. The film is composed of a succession of luscious camera moves, as a scene is introduced and then gradually explored. The camera is almost constantly on the move, hunting out details, peering behind pillars, suggesting to the viewer that something's lurking round the corner, even when it turns out there's actually nothing there. The times there is something - a suspicious looking man standing in a pool of light; a butcher going about his trade; or a man balancing something on his nose as he dances with another man with a chair - are always good enough to keep you wanting to find out what might or might not be round the corner. For the viewer it's a slow game of suspense, and sometimes hard work, but, as is the way with hard work, it can prove to be remarkably rewarding.

When Maloin, the lead, goes to his cabin, where the man from London has holed up, the camera parks itself outside until he emerges. It stayed there long enough for me to go through the thought processes of firstly thinking: I've probably got time to count the number of planks of wood that make up the door of the cabin; to then actually counting the planks of wood; and then thinking that it didn't seem like very many. I don't think I'd call this sequence suspenseful; I kind of knew by the time I'd got to the second thought process that the camera wasn't going to let me know what was happening inside, I'd just have to wait. It almost felt like a brief time-out - time to look at a wooden door - accept my exclusion, and wait for the film to come back to me. You watch The Man from London on Tarr's terms, not your own, and if you don't like it, you can always leave.

In the end, The Man from London is something of a fable, with the feel of one of Kafka's gentler short stories. It's one of those rare films which I felt would have benefited from being watched with a partner. You can curl up into it, let the time go by, share the experience, come out no more than a little bit the wiser, but having spent time dedicated to the act of spending time together. There's a lovely timelessness to the film, which goes with its understated humour. People tend to describe Tarr as austere or in some way punishingly intellectual, but on this evidence there's more of a warm-hearted and emotional intelligence at work than a heavily cerebral one; albeit one that likes to tell its stories at a leisurely pace, knowing that stories, like fire, can keep us warm through the long Winter nights, and the longer they last, the better.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

rostov luanda (d. abderrahhmane sissako)

Rostov Lunda is a documentary road movie, detailing the director's quest to find Baribanga, an old Angolan friend who he once knew in Russia. Sissako wends his way through Angola, with only an old photograph to help him. He stops to ask people if they've seen his friend wherever he goes, and as he does so, he creates a portrait of the former Portuguese colony, a state shredded by decades of civil conflict in the aftermath of independence.

Of course, had Sissako found his friend in the opening days of his journey, it would have made for a different film. The longer it takes to find him, the more mileage there is in his travelogue. Perhaps it is not altogether fortuitous that it is on his last evening he finally learns Baribanga isn't in Angola at all, but Berlin. Along the way Sissako meets a surprising and touching collection of individuals, of mixed racial descent. Angola is another rainbow nation, where the disenfranchised can be black, white or of mixed race. All are unified by their ability to have survived, where so many others haven't.

Sissako talks about how Angolan independence was seen as an inspirational moment in African development for his generation when he was younger. The troubles the country was heir to were testament to what has gone wrong on the continent. However, the director's selection of stories seems calculated to cultivate a new optimism; not least when a stately black woman explains how she was finally cajoled to learn to stand and use her feet again after years of sitting, lured by the irresistible pull of dance, a dance she demonstrates for his camera. Likewise, the underlying narrative ends with a satisfying conclusion, when Sissako finds Baribanga in Berlin.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

don't sleep there are snakes [w daniel everett]

There's a lot to be said about this book. Thankfully it's late as I write, and sleep-time beckons, otherwise I could easily while away a day or two musing on the various issues it raises.

The book itself is an account of the time the author has spent living with a remote Amazonian tribe, the Piraha. He has lived with them, on and off, for over thirty years. The book is split into three parts: firstly detailing how he first travelled there as a Christian missionary with his wife and young family; then discussing the language of the Piraha, a language no-one else (except his wife and kids?) speak beyond the tribe; and lastly, briefly documenting how the converter was converted, after the Piraha's reaction to his Christian teaching forced him to re-evaluate and eventually abandon his faith, losing his wife and family as a consequence.

Everett is now a professor of linguistics. The second part of the book, devoted to the Piraha language, explains how it has no recursion, which would mean that every sentence written here (and almost every sentence I've ever written) would be impossible in their language. Everett sees this as in some way connected to what he calls the Piraha's 'Immediacy of Experience' - which kind of means that you can only know what you experience yourself, and only say what you know. So for them, the notion of a man who died over two thousand years ago having any impact on their way of life of thinking is preposterous. Everett sees their world view as being a source of immense happiness to them; happiness defined as being something that people who are pleased with the lot they have been given experience. Features of their society he observes include the absence of hierarchy, depression and the ability to count. The latter might seem most surprising - Everett says that he and his family have attempted to teach the Piraha to count, but they just can't get their heads around it, something which perhaps helps to protect them against the practices of the wider world which has gradually been revealed to them over the course of recent decades. Apart from developing a taste for booze, which they are aware needs tempering, he claims that they have very little desire for artifacts of modernity. They believe their way of life to be an excellent one and not in need of any alteration.

The world that Everett describes is far from Utopic: people die young, there is great hardship, and constant threats from wild animals and settlers trying to appropriate their land. The tribe is diminishing and there's no knowing what the future holds for it. All the same, Everett seems to argue that their world view, which is to some extent contained within the structures of their language, is one which has a sophistication, in terms of its efficacy in ensuring the worth which they feel their time on the earth has to give them, which outweighs seemingly more complex social and linguistic structures in other parts of the world. And that's another sentence which could certainly not be translated into Piraha.

There is a whole other strand to the book which deals with the way Everett's work with the Piraha appears to subvert the now-orthodox Chomskyian view that linguistic structures are the product of a universal human genome (I think that's right) . However, you don't need to be a linguistics student to get a grasp of Everett's arguments about the way the Piraha's language interacts with the way in which they perceive the world, and the things which this might have to teach us about the way in which we see the world. (Us being anyone who isn't a Piraha, so that's far from some simple critique of Western culture.) 

It turns out that this past week has been the centenary of the birth of Levi-Strauss, whose name, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't even get a mention in Don't Sleep There Are Snakes. (Although for lovers of footnotes and acknowledgements such as myself, it is bemusing to see Cormac McCarthy's name referenced as someone who has helped the author in the writing of the book.) Levi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques is in some ways a similar book to Don't Sleep There are Snakes, detailing how time living amongst indigenous Brazilian tribes helped its author to shape not only a philosophic world view, but also fresh techniques for the practice of his chosen scientific discipline. Daniel Everett's book describes a similar journey into the heart of the unknown world (once upon a time called the uncivilised world, or heart of darkness) which reveals a culture which may not have produced many of the technologic advances associated with civilization, but instead has settled for mastering the technology of some kind of happiness, which is all its inhabitants feel they need.

the silence of lorna (w&d jean-pierre & luc dardenne)

The Dardenne brothers are figures who float at the edge of the Anglo-Saxon consciousness. Occasionally fashionable, a film of theirs will be feted, before they're forgotten again. The Silence of Lorna hasn't generated much critical acclaim, but in some small way it seems as though their films are an event, as filmmakers they're worth checking out no matter what they're doing. Not a state that can be sustained indefinitely - pace Allen and even Scorsese - but The Silence of Lorna suggests that the brothers are near the top of the game, and if this was a weekly review of note rather than an unsung warble from the blogoshpere I'd be beseeching as many readers as possible to go and see it.

The film is Lorna's story. Played with a restraint which is the all the more impressive for those brief moments, crucial to the narrative, when it's broken, by Arta Dobroshi. Lorna features in just about every scene in the film. She's an immigrant, who has settled in Belgium, and married Claudy, a hopeless junkie, in order to get her visa. This is part of a deal whereby she will marry a rich Russian following the end of her marriage to Claudy, after which she will finally get to settle down with her sweetheart, Sokol. Together they plan to open a cafe, and you kind of know that Lorna possesses the drive and the nerve to make it work, to become a 21st century success story of the globalised world.

There's only one hitch, which is that the fixer of the deal, Fabio, has decided the safest thing for everyone is if Claudy has an 'accidental' overdose and dies. No matter what the harsh realities of life dictate, and in spite of the fact their marriage is a sham, Lorna can't come to terms with this. When Claudy decides to quit heroin,  he turns to Lorna for help, and she can't help but provide it. She tries to fix a divorce instead, and, when Claudy's on the point of regressing back to drugs, she sleeps with him. After Claudy dies of an overdose, arranged by Fabio, Lorna realises or decides she's pregnant, and in spite of the fact she knows its going to fuck everything up, she refuses to have an abortion.

It's a simple tale, and classic storytelling. The neo-realist filming style, as plain and unadorned as can be, contributes to the narrative's believability. In another context the story might be melodramatic, but in this one, and told this way, it feels like a report from the front line of the global village, where the simple act of choosing to keep a child can become one of almost absurd courage. Lorna's insistence of preserving her humanity in spite of the price she will have to pay for it is heroic, and leads to a denouement containing a whole forest full of tension.

The directors succeed in coaxing a remarkable performance from Dobroshi, as well as from Jeremie Renier as Claudy. The film's simplicity is its strength. The Silence of Lorna is a film made in the image of its heroine: discovering a sense of value in what lies beneath the surface, in spite of the world's constant seeking of value in what can be seen on the surface alone.