Thursday, 31 December 2009

going native (w stephen wright)

It's New Year's Eve. Thoughts turn to friends, family, the diaspora both national, international and temporal. None of which has much to do with Going Native. Save perhaps for the fact it's deeply rooted in the States and was read in India by an Englishman. In this instance.

As a book it befuddled me. This may have been because I was befuddled by the sub-continent. But I'd like to think it's because I assumed it was a novel, reached the second chapter, found no connection with the first, and it then took me about two more to realise that it was in fact a collection of short stories. The fact that you can move from one chapter into another and not realise that is not a novel has something to do with an abrupt switch in styles, as Wright moves from a fairly regulation sub-Updike register into something altogether more hallucinogenic. His versatility would appear to be both a strength and a weakness, as Going Native darts between various tonal frequencies, never allowing the reader to settle, constantly searching for patterns. Perhaps it might be said that he appears on occasion to be trying a little too hard. From Updike to Burroughs via Pynchon and who knows what else proves skill, but doesn't make for an unbefuddling read. Or maybe it was just the sub-continent.

Happy New Year, both to readers and non-readers, those who are real, those who might be ghosts, and those who are ghosts.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

the red shoes (powell & pressburger)

Powell and Pressburger. The alliterative combination itself seems to conjure up some kind of lost golden age of British cinema. When their curious, quixotic talents were allowed to flower, producing unconventional gems, against the odds, quintessentially British, both for their charm, and their peculiarity.

It's the end of a decade, and there all sorts of lists drifting around quoting the finest films of the last ten years. As ever, this prompts reflection on what makes for a great film, what are the magic ingredients that enable a filmmaker to achieve something with the medium which lends a distinction to their work which others can only hope to emulate. Of course there are a hundred and one analyses available. However, The Red Shoes, it all its curious glory, brought to mind the idea that for a film to rise above its peers, to shine, it requires a boldness of vision, a kind of majesty, which is quite likely to be at odds with given diktats of genre and form, but which the filmmaker(s)' chutzpah somehow pulls off. These are films which aren't afraid of boredom or loose narrative threads, which are prepared to test their audience's patience, but which reward them in the end.

The Red Shoes is a film about ballet. So perhaps it's not surprising that about two thirds of the way in, the film abandons its narrative to enter into a twenty minute sequence (at a guess) which is pure ballet, a ballet conceived and executed for the screen. Only, of course, it is surprising. Because what rule book allows a narrative to cut itself off for this length of time, suspending character development and narrative action? Yet, without the ballet sequence, the Red Shoes would not have pulled of its strange, fairy tale alchemy. Whilst there are characters, and a narrative to speak of, in fact the filmmakers are consciously creating an exploration of what it means to create art, the tension between life and art, the irresistibility of the will to create. It's Nietzche wrapped up in technicolour. However, it's also dazzling entertainment, a son y lumiere show underpinned with philosophical intrigue.

These are (some of) the reasons why it works. Whilst the acting is engaging, and the quirky humour engaging, and the louche charm of this itinerant ballet world is engaging, ultimately it's the film's near absurdly grandiose ambitions which lift it out of melodrama onto another plane altogether. Ambitions which demand a cinematic verve; it's hard to think of any other film of any other era which has captured the process of dance so compellingly, something which its lofty ambitions absolutely require. Powell and Pressburger do indeed reach for the stars, and in the act of reaching, take their audience with them, offering a perspective which the everyday or the banal or the rulebook cannot permit.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

unmade beds (w&d alexis dos santos)

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, on another website entirely, before the doe-eyed days had been born, I found myself writing a somewhat critical piece about Winterbottom's Wonderland, a film I didn't enjoy, in spite of the fact his more recent work proves him to be one of our more creative and intriguing filmmakers. One of the few in fact. Anyhow, at this point in dim distant history, this ancient website was in fact the communal property of a group called The Focus Group, which is another story altogether. It so happened that one of the members of that group was independently in discussions with Revolver, Winterbottom's production company, and when he saw the somewhat critical review, (which probably took about six months, as it was not a website which was consulted with any great regularity), he wasn't best pleased.

For understandable reasons. At the end of the day, the UK film industry is a small business, more of a cottage industry than an international finance industry. The players are known to one another, and the same names will regularly feature in production credits. These are the gatekeepers, who control production capital, green lights, and most of all, our cinematic sensibilities. If you want to get anywhere in cinema in this country, at some point you're going to have to convince them of your worth. And presumably not offend them by criticising their recent output.

Which brings us to Dos Santos' movie, Unmade Beds. The premise of a movie directed by a young Argentine, set in London, for reasons which regular readers of this blog will understand, was highly inviting, not least because I'm currently on the hunt for films appropriate for 'non-native speakers' to use a well-honed TEFL phrase. The film had received a bit of buzz on the grapevine, and I happily handed over my money to the Curzon chain for the second day in a row. The first fifteen minutes seemed promising. Potentially beguiling figures speaking in a subtitled polyglot mooched through a highly recognisable Hoxton context, threatening to have minor crises, drink too much, suffer a little, and laugh. In theory this could be New Wave Latin American cinema meeting Nouvelle Vague meeting New British Waving not Drowning.

Then, before it had even emerged from the first act, a terrible dawning began to shroud the cinema. The film seemed to decelerate. The apparent premise of the title, (the various beds in which the film's hero finds himself waking up), was abruptly jettisoned. Much of the film became dedicated to a narcissistic, post-Linklater love story. The plot atrophied. Hours passed. Beguiling moments were lost in the fog. The pie had been left in the oven for twelve years. This was a film which would never cook, and seemingly, never end.

It did, of course. All things end. Even websites. It ended in a sudden flurry of post-dated plot, the final half hour suddenly knitting everything into place, like the neatest of Richard Curtis scripts. 'I took that photo' the French girl says as she stands outside the club where her flatmates hang out every night, flatmates she seems to have no knowledge of, and perhaps has never met. The photo lures her into a club she was going to anyway, where she meets the man she'd thought she's lost who's singing a song which might have been written... for her! It's too beautiful to be true, and indeed, truthfulness has been abandoned in favour of animal heads and the odd breathy orgy, approximately three hours ago.

The credits rolled. There were the names. There were the script editors. Two of them. It's impossible not to imagine the interminable script meetings Unmade Beds must have been through. Because if there's one thing the British film (cottage) industry prides itself on, it's script development. I have a sneaky feeling that sometime long long ago, when the director first presented his premise, and original script, it might have been the quirky, counter-culture vehicle it seemed to be aspiring towards. However, after a million regurgitations, Unmade Beds has been shorn of its inventiveness and charm.

It might be shooting myself in the foot to make these (subjective) observations. Biting the hand which could theoretically feed were the writer to crampon his way up the food chain. However, the experience of Unmade Beds was just too disheartening. Anyone who's watched a film by Sorin or Trapero, Rebella & Stoll, Linklater or Payne or etc knows it's possible to make a winsome and effective slacker movie. However, if you try and script edit in nuts and bolts, the whole house of cards is likely to collapse. All over again.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

the white ribbon (d. haneke)

My mind is a little blunted by the return of insomnia, and perhaps also the crunching, megalithic nature of Haneke's latest offering.

As a result of which I have only one observation of any note about The White Ribbon. First, however, the observations of little note. Which include the fact that, in spite of hints of narrative, the film in fact appears to be another impressively gruelling example of Haneke's slightly obsessive reluctance to favour an audience with anything in the way of what they expect or (so he might argue) have been lead to subliminally desire. As in Funny Games (and perhaps Hidden), the evil kids walk away unpunished, most of them implicitly destined to become successful members of the National Socialist party. As well as its reluctance to bestow any kind of Grecian notions of justice, the film is also a whodunnit whose detective, the engagingly buffoonish teacher, spends a year putting clues together and then fails to act on them. The unnamed school teacher is no Poirot, and in spite of an implicit decency, it seems unlikely that, having survived the first world war, he will put up much resistance to the rise of Hitler. Brecht wrote, unlucky the land in need of heroes, but Haneke appears to offer a bleak counterpoint: cursed is the land lacking in heroes. Firstly it will suffer the persecution of the evil children, then it will run the risk of fascism; finally it will fall prey to the moral vacuum of modern consumerism.

Having noted all of Haneke's usual barbed contrariness and general cassandrism, my one point of real note relates to his aesthetics. With The White Ribbon the director has followed up on his success d'estime with Hidden (and ridden the strange hurdle of his misjudged US remake of Funny Games), with a film that, in spite of its inherent audience antagonism, has been hailed as a masterpiece, and lauded with the Palme D'Or. Part of the film's success is probably attributable to its inordinately beautiful cinematography, composed on a stark black and white print. Haneke has always been a secret stylist, and here he gives this vice free rein. Given this, no matter how stringent he is in his adherence to his narrative principles, there's something about The White Ribbon's production values that gives it the feel of a weighty classic, redolent of a great European literary tradition, something enhanced by the unusually wordy narration. Perhaps this is part of another game within a game, but it's not hard to see how the lofty aesthetics allow critics to drool; and have helped The White Ribbon to have generated a contrarily eulogistic response, which somehow doesn't seem in keeping with Haneke's aspirations. As ever, with cinema, the production values themselves contribute and in some way seem to impose their own set of values, irrespective of the filmmakers' own intentions.

home (d. yann arthus-bertrand)

The Tibetan Environmental Society’s showing of the documentary Home takes place at 5.30 pm in an unheated hall 2000 metres above sea level. The majority of the audience are gringos of one description or another. The film is projected onto a large screen, with an introduction given by the society’s Tibetan head.
You might think that this location, not so far from the roof of the world, would be the ideal place to take in the film’s abstract narrative about the fate of the world and the environmental mess homo sapiens has made of it. The movie is made up of edited sequences, filmed from the air. Volcanoes. Elephants on the charge. Fisherman on an African beach. Vast lorries in a hyper-mine. However, in practice, the venue in no way alters the unfortunate juxtaposition the film presents between the terror of its message and the beauty of its images.
When you’re actually within the exploited, impoverished world which the rich 20% is abusing to both fund its lifestyle and abuse the planet, the lush power of cinematic technology can feel faintly offensive. Your mind can’t help but speculate on the costs of hiring helicopters, exec producers salaries, and expense accounts. And even if everyone involved was working for 500 rupees a day, there’s still something jarring about the way in which its expensively graded images are employed, as though the film’s beauty is somehow necessary for its message to be put across to the Western world.
A somewhat preachy American voice, which I later learn belongs to Glen Close, narrates the film’s loose narrative from Genesis to imminent Apocalypse. Perhaps I’d have felt more comfortable if the accent was Malaysian, (say), or had gone for subtitles. However, ultimately, no matter what it was saying, I wanted it to get off its helicopter plinth, go to ground, and actually speak to people.
Travelling opens your eyes to the harshness from which the Western world is so often inured. Pigs rooting through burnt rubbish on the streets, affirming the conjoined crimes of poverty and environmental degradation. Whilst we know its out there, we don’t want to face up to it. Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s beautiful but banal movie seems symptomatic of this attitude.
Outside in the cold air of McLeod Ganj, itself something of an island within India’s teeming sea, the real fight continues on the millions of frontlines which the West is only aware of through news reports and sanitised, graded images on its TV screens.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

johnny mad dog (d. jean-stéphane sauvaire)

It's been nearly a week since I saw Johnny Mad Dog. He's a blurred memory, strolling through a Liberian hinterland, wreaking havoc and waiting for havoc to catch up with him.

There's nothing sympathetic about him, and in a way that's the film's redeeming feature. Johnny Mad Dog occupies similar territory to Sin Nombre. The woes of the underdeveloped world brought to a screen near you. However, unlike Sin Nombre, Sauvaire's film has no cute storyline to alleviate Johnny and his crew's relentless violence. This is senseless violence, which goes on and on, and if the director was seeking to portray something of the life of a Liberian child soldier, this might be the only way of doing it with any kind of authenticity.

Except that this is art, not a documentary. Which can make a bear out of a cloud or a pearl from a clod. In its relentless search to convey a kind of reality, Johnny Mad Dog perhaps tries too hard, stringently resisting the transformative potential of art/ cinema to let its audience get inside the mind of the child who's been brainwashed into becoming a killer. In which sense the movie ultimately feels trapped between two stools, wanting to engage with subject matter the world would rather not know about, yet fearful of seeming to be exploitative in its bid to bring the child soldiers to a wider audience, working as hard as it can to ensure they're never loveable, that the heart strings of pop superstars shall not be tugged.

It's a hard balance to pull off. I don't see it as wrong that Sauvaire should have had a go, but as fireworks pepper the London skyline in a Guy Fawkes frenzy, I'm not sure if Johnny Mad Dog has left me much the wiser as to what it would be like if feral children patrolled the streets playing with the real firecrackers, the ones that aren't just for show.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

terra amata (w j.m.g le clezio)

Strange the things you can come across in an airport bookshop. I discovered Le Clezio's book at Stanstead, and read it on the way to Jerez and back. Apart from the fact I'd never seen anything of the mysterious Franco-Anglo Nobel prizewinner in print in the UK (turns out there's quite a few available), I was also seduced by the introductory note, which playfully introduces the book to reader in an offbeat, disarmingly intimate style.

The book recounts the life of a man, Chancelade, from cradle to grave. It does so in a succession of poetic sketches, patched together like a quilt. Some passages seem normal enough, a meeting on a beach, or a funeral described; others are esoteric in the extreme. A meeting in a cafe described entirely in terms of hand signals, or a scrawled child's picture, and the list goes on. Le Clezio likes to tease and torment his readers; in many ways this is whimsical nouvelle vague Frenchiness, Godard at his least political playing strip poker with Michaux, whilst Baudrillard, Lyotard & co discuss whether it's all really happening and even if it is, what it therefore means isn't happening.

So, if you like that kind of thing, you'll relish Terra Amata. For my part, I found myself surfing the book more than ever; although written in the sixties it feels more like a blog than a novel. Some parts engaged, others less so. However, the literary ingenuity was constantly in evidence, and the writer's ability to create passages of poetic power indisputable. At the same time, within a sometimes parochial British culture, I am occasionally mocked for a tendency to read 'intense' or 'heavy' texts, (which are primarily described so because the original language in which they were written was not English). Most of the books I read seem far more approachable than people would ever suspect, but Terra Amata definitely slots into the more esoteric side of the bookshelf.

It was also somewhat disconcerting to discover the following announcement on page 23, written in such a way that it stands out from the text:

JUNE 11, 1966


Monday, 26 October 2009

the event [saer]

The Event opens in gripping fashion. After a virtuoso description of a wild flock of horses, careering across the Pampas, the narrative shifts to mid 19th century Europe, recounting the adventures of Bianco, a Maltese anti-matter wizard. Bianco can not only bend spoons, he can also read minds and see beneath the surface of the stuff the world knows as matter. Bianco, the novel assures us, is no charlatan. So powerful is he that the mysterious but reactionary positivists gang up on him in Paris, arranging an event where they ridicule him, eventually forcing him to flee Europe for the quieter waters of Argentina.

All of which is narrated at a lick, with the text proving to be both metaphysical speculation and gripping yarn. However, the pace changes as Bianco settles in Argentina, as he abandons his experiments, flirts with becoming an entrepeneur, and grows suspicious of his young, pregnant wife.

The narrative becomes increasingly enigmatic, or hermetic, as it traces Bianco's journey, a journey that appears to be leading him towards a loss of his gifts as well as a loss of faith in the world. There's something a little frustrating about the way Saer lets his story drift away, ending on an abrupt note, the author taking care to construct a narrative which is wilfully anti-dramatic. Perhaps Saer, like his leading character, suspected that his novel possessed hints of greatness, but shied away from fully grappling with the consequences of what this greatness might really mean, or even what form it might have taken.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

ajami (w&d scandar copti, yaron shani)

Ajami has apparently been nominated for the best foreign film at next year's Oscars. Already. Something of a curse, by and large, as it signals a worthy if uninspiring piece that has done enough to suggest its importance without in any way shaking up Hollywood's great and good.

As it opens, Ajami, a crime drama, has more than a touch of that perennial non-Oscar winner Scorcese about it. It promises to be gritty, high-octane film making, with a swaggering but loveable gangster as its lead. The film's structure then moves in a sideways direction. The narrative is broken up into chapters, which float in time as they describe a drugs deal gone wrong in black humoured fashion.

Ajami is named after a suburb of Jaffa, a predominantly Arabic part of Israel. The film is co-directed by an Arab and a Jewish Israeli, and the narrative shifts between the country's religious communities (a key character is also Christian). Probably more than its adept and subtle aesthetics, this multi-faith approach explains the Oscar nomination. But the way in which the film reveals the complexities of modern Israel, a state more sectarian than anyone realises (with the constant focus on the Palestinian territories) is impressive. A Jewish man engages in what seems like an amiable debate about his neighbour's animals, which keep him awake, and the debate ends in bloodshed. Another man (played by one of the directors) is a Palestinian with a Jewish girlfriend, spending half his life dancing in Tel Aviv nightclubs and the other half hanging out in his Palestinian hood. Language creates a constant faultline, and the problems the country faces come across as, in many ways, even more complex than they are portrayed in the media.

Ajami is a slow burner, and the fractured narrative is sometimes challenging, but in the end its both a film which succeeds in being both politically and cinematically powerful, and perhaps deserves better than to be honoured by the elite of a Hollywood Academy.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

gigante (d&w adrian biniez)

So, I was asked as we left the cinema by Mssrs W&P, was that a Montevideo you recognised?

To which the answer is in many ways no; in some ways yes; and as we all know, at the end of the day its irrelevant.

The no is easiest. One of the temptations of filming your hometown is to almost take ownership of it through the choice of what you show and what you don't show. Biniez resists this temptation. This is a neutral Montevideo, which doesn't attempt to capture the city's beauty and doesn't feature the city as a character. Even the two scenes on the Rambla are framed so that the rolling beach within the city is underplayed, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the sly significance the city's beaches are given within the narrative.

The yes is harder. Gigante is in essence a character study. The lumbering Jara, played with flashes of surprising humanity by Horacio Camandule, dominates. He's present in every scene, and the film obeys one of the diktats which states that movies should have a clear protagonist partaking of an understandable journey. In amongst this, there are a few glimpses of la vida cotidiana in Montevideo. Waiting for a bus; walking over cracked pavements; perhaps having too much time on your hands. But by and large, this is what they call a universal story, one that could be taking place almost anywhere.

Which is why any search to glimpse Montevideo through its lens is irrelevant. As well as being part of its artfulness. Gigante comes from the Stoll/ Rebella stable. Their art is to create small films, which glorify the common man or woman. Gigante shares Whisky's understated tone, and does what it does effectively. One is inclined to hanker for bigger themes, addressing wider material, but perhaps, in an evolving film industry, these will have to wait.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

burrowing (w&d henrik hellström, fredrik wenzel)

Burrowing is the kind of film for which film festivals are made. This is not going to be on general or even marginal release in the cine plazas of Great Britain anytime soon. It's a slow/ meditative/ ponderous (delete as appropriate) film which is part Swedish social realism and part essay on the thin line between nature and civilisation.

The film follows four characters to varying degrees as they drift around a low rise Swedish housing estate which borders some woods. One seemingly cracks up, grabs a canoe, and paddles off into the distance never to be seen again. Another, an immigrant who tries to stab fish in a stream, breaks into a Lidl carpark, never to be seen again. The third is a young boy, who also narrates (although his role as narrator, established at the start, seemingly fizzles out as the film unfolds) who seems to have an anti-social streak which is never developed and ends up going awol in the woods. The last character, the most charismatic, is a man who is never seen without his young child, usually in his arms. We learn he doesn't have keys to his home, which he shares with his parents. There's no sign of the mother. At one point he picks up a canoe paddle and assaults a neighbour with it, before immersing himself in a lake with his son, the fear of death by drowning endowing the scene with a fearsome tension.

The four characters don't really have narratives, and their non-narratives never overlap. This is whimsical cinema, composed of elegiac crane shots and a roving, spying camera. The voiceover is hacked together from Thoreau quotes. There are moments of beauty, and moments of torpor. However, the scenes where the man, cradling his son as he stumbles through the forest or immerses himself in a lake, have a strange power to them. The English title, which as well as Thoreau seems to have Kafkaesque connotations, declares the film's intention to get beneath the surface, to find some kind of deeper truths. It's not altogether clear whether it has pulled this off, but there's no doubt the intrepid Swedish directorial team are embarked on some kind of unorthodox investigation, even if it's one that sometimes runs the risk of going over the heads of its audience, rather than under the surface.

Friday, 16 October 2009

katalin varga (w&d peter strickland)

A couple of girls giggle at Katalin when she asks them the way to the village in the hills. You don't want to go up there, they chortle. When she thanks them for showing her the way, they say, don't thank us, no-one wants to go there.

When Katalin gets to the village it turns out to be the sort of place Guardian readers (such as myself) imagine visiting for an eco-holiday. Transylvania is pretty, wooded, meadowed, just about beyond the boundaries of modern Europe. Accessible by car or horse and cart. You wouldn't want not to go there. Although made a few years ago, Katalin Varga is the second film released this year which suggests that there's something nasty in the woods waiting for us all. However, unlike Von Trier's pre-menstrual, pre-historic savagery, Varga's woods are pretty and enticing.

The film has been made on a shoe string and has been a breakout festival success. Whilst one takes one's hat off to the director for his achievement, and whilst his film has a self-contained, prosaic feel, miles from the Von Trier's extravagant dramatics, the narrative ends up feeling a little slight, and the denoument so understated it comes as a shock, though not a jolt. Whilst there's a concise folk-tale-ness to the ending, it was hard not to think that it disguised the lack of a third act. Also hard not to suspect that part of the reason for the film's success was the way in which it conveyed this seemingly pre-lapserian countryside, which turns out to be alluring rather than threatening to a European festival audience, no matter what it holds for Katalin herself.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

birdwatchers (w&d mario bechis; w. luiz bolognesi)

Birdwatchers is a film made with indigenous tribespeople in Brazil. If that sentence conjures up an image of Brazilian Indians standing on the bank of an isolated river, wearing little, firing arrows into the air, then that is exactly what the film delivers in its opening shots. Before pulling back to reveal the same Indians emerging from what is no more than a thin strip of jungle, putting on T-shirts and jeans, and being paid for the spectacle they've provided for visiting tourists, who've come to take in the native fauna.

From the opening, there are semiotic games at work in Bechis' film. We, the viewers, are placed in the position of the tourists, until the camera suddenly swings around behind, to reveal the Indians perspective. In a sense, this might be what the filmmaker is aiming to achieve. Bechis, born in Chile, but having spent much of his life in Europe, does not belong to the Guarani tribe, and the chances of anyone from that community making a film which breaks out to be seen by the world must be slim. So the film would appear to be made by someone knowing the very medium itself might be in conflict with the community it seeks to portray, but nevertheless attempting to present their perspective to the best of their abilities.

Furthermore, it might be that it's hard for a Western, cinematic audience to relate to the values which the Guarani display. For example, when the chief's son kills himself, following on from the suicides of two other tribespeople earlier in the film, there's little remorse shown for his part in the son's decision, and little sign of mourning. There are set cinematic responses to a son's suicide, (regret, sadness, soul-searching) which this film doesn't meet. It seems to me to the director's credit that he not only resists any attempts to sentimentalise the tragedy, but seems to actively endorse the tribe's seemingly unfeeling response. It is claimed in the film's notes that the Guarani assisted in the film's development, and it's perhaps when the film seems least likely to do what we would expect that it's getting closest to capturing the things it has set out to do.

It would be easy to criticise Bechis' film, which perhaps suffers to a certain extent from trying to straddle two worlds. Storylines don't go anywhere in particular, notably the trainee Shaman and the ranch owner's daughter's romance. The conclusion feels prosaic, no matter how true to reality it might be. However, this is a film of moments, of images, none of which is more striking than the closing scene, when the gap between cultures seems inflamed, and the trainee Shaman's howls sound like something from another world, another vision of human destiny, a road that might be on the verge of being lost, overgrown in what remains of a place we know as a jungle.


nb: I know little of Bechis but I saw an earlier film of his, Garage Olimpo, and of the films that I've seen dealing with the Dictatorships of Latin America, his, in my memory, seemed like one of the most subtle, aware of the complex knots that contribute to any conflict.

Monday, 21 September 2009

remainder (w. tom mccarthy)

The way in which a book is discovered is part of the potential joy (or disappointment) of being a reader. Books make their way towards their audience, (or prey), often through circuitous routes, both in the process of their writing and dissemination, and the reader's awareness of their existence and gradual drift towards them. After having read a book it always seems as though the connection, between book (writer) and reader was inevitable, but until the book has been opened and consumed, that inevitability has only been theoretical. The books that you will read are out there, wending their way towards you. Many of which you will have no knowing of; because they're still beyond your ken; or they have yet to be written; or even because their writers have yet to be born.

Remainder came to me thus. I was browsing through a website, written by a group of Americans, which I came across because they'd referenced Bolano. It's the same place where I found Zurn, and The Monks. There was a brief entry about McCarthy, who at first I took to be of the Cormac variety, but then learnt was actually called Tom, and was English. I'd never heard of Tom McCarthy, even though he was/ is closer to me than I realised, and was sufficiently intrigued to order the book.

This alone doesn't guarantee its reading. Over the course of the past eighteen months or so I have made attempts to read books by British writers without being able to complete them. I've managed to come up with a kind of reader's block, and it's been years since I read a British work of fiction, as the blog attests.

I started Remainder and once again couldn't get going with it. But something made me start again last week. Perhaps it was the lure of Brixton.

There may be thousands of books set in Brixton, but I've only read one other, many years ago. Remainder is now the second. It mentions many spots I know well. Although it's years since I lived there, Brixton still feels a bit like home when I've been away from London for a while. Apart from playing football there, various friends live in the vicinity. In fact, the day after starting Remainder, I found myself travelling to Brixton three days in a row. And back again. As I travelled, below ground, I read. And learnt that a journey from where I live, on the edge of Zone 1, is the perfect distance for reading one of McCarthy's chapters. I got on the tube to Brixton, reading about Brixton, to emerge in Brixton, a Brixton exactly the same as the one described in the book. But also different. Because the one described in the book is both slightly out of date, and also fictional. It's not real.

Authenticity is in a way the keynote of McCarthy's book. It's nameless narrator, having suffered an unspecified accident, and come into a remarkable sum of money, tries to re-enact moments in his life when he has felt most real, or alive. It's dizzying stuff, as layers of reality seem to collapse in on each other. There's the ghost of Baudrillard hovering around, but also that of Bishop Berkely. How can you re-create reality? But within an alienated world, why wouldn't you want to seek a moment of truth?

It wouldn't be hard at this point to shuffle off into philosophical theorising. Which in itself is testament to the book's imaginative take on Brixton, and the world in general. What has puzzled me, however, is why, after years of finding any attempt to read the work of British writers similar to crossing the Gobi with a bottle of Evian and some M&S sandwiches in the backpack, this book succeeded in flying over (or under) the desert without my even breaking sweat. By way of explanation, I'd say that McCarthy does various things. Firstly, he conceives a remarkable story, and he tells it. He doesn't embellish it, or seek to make it appeal to a variety of selected demographics. He just tells it, in prose which, for the most part, is unadorned and functional. Secondly he's not scared of ideas. He doesn't try and make the ideas human, rather he's happy to twist his humans round his ideas. And the ideas sing for their supper far better than a whole host of carefully conceived characters ever could. Thirdly, he discovers a wicked swathe of humour in all this, which perhaps inevitably arises through the juxtaposition between the lunacy of ideas and their enactment in a given world.

Remainder isn't perfect, and probably wouldn't want to be. But it's a beautiful, dazzling work of fiction, that gives you a glimpse of what words are capable of. (As well as the benefits or risks of owning a coffee house loyalty card.) It's also set in Brixton and its chapters are ideally lengthed for a tube journey between the southernmost tip of the Victoria line and anywhere just beyond the boundary of Zone 1.

Lastly, a postscript on how the book reached this reader. As noted, it did so via a satellite and cables and a server or two, and some readers in the US (I think it's the South somewhere) who alerted me to its existence. It also got to me via an obscure publishers in Paris, who published the book after it had been rejected time after time in the UK. (Something I didn't learn until I had already been gripped by it.) I've also learnt that McCarthy is something of a star in the artworld firmament, which perhaps makes the book's success, and its ability to reach me, less surprising. However, on Thursday night, after playing football with a group of guys I know only through our connection with a small piece of sandy astroturf in Brixton, I placed the book on a wooden table in the Duke of Edinburgh, suggesting to my team-mate he might like it, and he said, oh yes, Tom's a mate of mine. I used to go out with his sister. I'm in his book about Prague. Only it's not me, he just used my song.

There had been a trace of Remainder swirling around in the patterns of the Ferndale Road sand all along.

Friday, 18 September 2009

fish tank (w&d andrea arnold)

Recently the Guardian published a list of what it considered the best 25 films from the last 25 years. Approximately half could be said, in one way or another, to be flying the flag for a kind of social realist school of filmmaking. The tradition of social realism in British literature and arts could be said to extend back to Chaucer, through the Elizabethans, and on to Dickens and the Victorian fascination with the social underbelly. In the sixties writers like Shelagh Delaney and Arnold Wesker re-introduced social realism to the theatre, and cinema then took up the baton, held by the likes of Alan Clarke and Ken Loach. Mike Leigh flirts with the edge of social realism, as did Boyle so successfully in Trainspotting (Slumdog can be seen as an example of the tradition being ingeniously exported), whilst Oldman's only film, Nil By Mouth, was a heartfelt variation on the theme. Recently Shane Meadows has made a career out of culling stories from the wrong side of the tracks, and the shades of urban grittiness can also be spotted in films like Ratcatcher, London to Brighton and Control.

In other words, if you want to get ahead, or get your film made in the UK, setting it in a gritty, working class environment is not a stupid way to go about things. Arnold's first feature, Red Road, exploited urban misery highly effectively, getting itself onto the Guardian's list, and Fish Tank has now come out to orgiastic reviews.

The film is an astute piece of cinema. For a start, the screening I saw was in 4:3 rather than the usual wide screen preferences. Automatically this gives the film a more homespun, rough around the edges feel. Arnold and her cinematographer, Robbie Ryan use hand held to capture the action scenes, but also throw in more classical locked off images of sunsets over tower blocks. The beauty, when it emerges in this grimy world, comes as a surprise, and is all the more beguiling for it.

However, it also brings into question notions of 'authenticity'. The whole point of social realism is that it captures the world 'as it really is.' To this end, the impressive Katie Jarvis was plucked from the street, a real Essex girl, to play Mia, the lead. The audience is supposed to believe that the life we see depicted is a typical one, accurately captured. Mia's story could be the story of any 15 year old girl growing up on the edges of British society.

Maybe it is, but the more the film strived for 'authenticity' the less I trusted it, and as always, when it does this, the little chinks in the narrative seem all the more striking. Whilst Fassbender gives a touching portrayal of Connor, the seemingly kindly Wickes security man who cannot resist fucking his girlfriend's 15 year old daughter on the sofa, it seemed weird that he could just go straight back to his wife and daughter after realising the error of his ways, take them shopping, slip back into his 'normal' life. It also seemed unlikely he could afford his new build house on a nice residential estate, along with the car, on a security guard's pay. (Almost the mirror image to the security guard in Domonic Savage's credit crunch drama, Freefall.) Of course, his wife might have been paying for the mortgage, but these kind of details nag. As did the portrayal of Mia's feckless mother, whose bitterness towards her daughters was entertaining but seemed somehow too convenient: with a mother like that why shouldn't Mia be a wild child? The script's reluctance to humanise the mother, her most intimate comment to her daughter being: I tried to have you aborted, seemed designed to convince us that this kind of desiccated, wasted life is somehow 'normal'. However, it felt too pat, and if there was an inherent critique of society in the portrayal, it was never teased out or explored. (In comparison to, say, De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, perhaps the doyen of social realist filmmaking.)

In the end, all these details, and the film's insistence on noting its artful beauty, seemed to blemish the ambitions towards 'realism'. There was a predictability to the events which seemed too formulaic. (The fact that Connor was going to end up screwing Mia seemed so obvious that it seemed astonishing the mother never seemed to notice its inevitability; the little girl on her scooter was almost begging to be abducted, etc.) As Mia goes through her rite of passage, the film seemed unsure of how to fit its elements into the narrative, which became increasingly sprawling, lacking the tight plotting of Red Road.

Fish Tank is a strong, sinuous piece of cinema. The acting is impressive; it looks good; the first half possesses a rolling energy. But in the end, it didn't really seem to know what it wanted to say. It's tough growing up on a council estate, would appear to be the implied message of the title. (The tower block with its views resembling a fish tank). It's hard not to be a little mistrustful of filmmakers making films about how hard it is to live on a council estate, perhaps because cinema is of itself such an expensive medium, perhaps because a film-maker cannot help but aspire to an artistry which seems at odds with the 'gritty' reality the film seeks to capture. Nevertheless, Fish Tank seems unlikely to be the last British film attempting to capture life on the other side of the tracks, in all its supposed authenticity.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

the looming towers [lawrence wright]

It's September, and the anniversary of the most celebrated event in most of our lifetimes has just come round again. A crisp Northern Hemisphere day, with a blue sky ready to pick up the brush strokes of a jet engines vapour trail. Those of us over the age of ten will probably always have this date as a kind of touchstone, as another generation had the assassination of JFK, or perhaps another the dropping of the first atomic bomb, or another September day when the world went to war. Before that, the immediacy of events was dissipated. Even given its precedents, 911 probably impacted on the world in a way no other event had ever done, the first time that an event could be experienced almost equally vividly on all sides of the world. That New York morning might have produced the first truly global hour the world has ever known.

The Looming Towers details the way in which Bin Laden and his followers tried to get reception from a satellite connection to the television, in the mountains of South Afghanistan, without success, switching to a radio broadcasting the Arabic BBC channel instead. I was at work, in Lambeth. It was still the early days of internet, and I didn't have it. Phil mentioned something about a light plane crashing into one of the towers. Early in the afternoon I walked home, looking suspiciously at the skies. Sedley came round and we sat in front of the TV.

Within days, it was clear that the world had changed. How it had changed was still to be revealed. Indeed, what that phrase 'the world had changed' means is obviously open to debate. Easy to say, harder to gauge. The easiest way for someone who was not a historian or a politician or a military strategist to assess this change might have been in the sense of unreality that seemed to shroud the world for a while. You didn't know what to expect, and that sense of uncertainty touched everything.

There was also a great deal of unclarity as to what exactly had happened. Early reports talked of additional explosions and additional planes being highjacked. In the days that followed, no one seemed to have much of a clue who the perpetrators were. When suddenly a list of Arabic names and faces appeared, these people seemed almost abstract. The lack of information surrounding them only added to the uncertainty, and doubtless contributed to the rise of the multiple conspiracy theories.

One of the astonishing things, it seems to me, surrounding the events of 911, is that we still have so little idea or information surrounding who the perpetrators were and how they managed to carry it off. Normally, in a crime of the century, the perpetrator becomes a figure of vast notoriety. Of the high-jackers, only Atta ever generated much publicity, and even that was limited. Instead, attention was focussed on Osama Bin Laden. However, again, very little information was disseminated about him. His image was replayed and replayed, but who he was, and what he wanted, remains, for almost all, vague. (That Winter when we went to Madrid, they were selling Osama masks for new year celebrations. Drunken Spanish Bin Ladens threw grapes in the air and drank cava to celebrate the birth of the Euro.)

This is where Wright's book comes into its own. It's the first piece of journalism I've read that sets out to demystify Al Qaida, and its leaders. The book traces the origins of what has become known as Muslim Fundamentalism, as well as outlining what this much used phrase really means. The way in which Osama and his predecessors manipulated the Koran is explained, justifying actions which other Muslims would see as heretical (including the killing of other Muslims, the killing of innocent civilians etc). It traces these developments over the course of 60 years, putting together the personages and policies which lead to that day in September at the start of a century.

There are many intriguing elements to the story. One that struck me in particular was the way in which the story of Al Qaida demonstrates once again how history is created by mavericks and oddballs whose philosophies and tactics appear to be governed by luck as much as judgement. Other books which it might be interesting to compare and contrast to The Looming Tower include Schama's account of the French Revolution or Wheen's life of Marx. The 'game-changers' as they might be called, are rarely ruthless masterminds. They're dedicated opportunists, following their instincts. Bin Laden lost his fortune and was reduced to near penury, him and his family and followers surviving on a subsistence diet, living in poverty. According to Wright's description, there were many times when it seemed like there was no way forward, but in the end, he (claimed to have) planned and executed an event which has helped to shape the way in which the world is perceived.

The book also deals extensively with the divisions between the CIA, FBI and other government departments that meant the terrorists were able to enter and train in the USA. In truth, the least detailed part of the book is its account of the build up to 911 itself, at least in comparison to the efficiency with which it details the earlier part of its story. Whilst Wright perceives the security failures as the process of an overly rigid bureaucratic system, something which seems extremely credible within a society as litigious and hierarchical as the States, the door is undeniably left open for the conspiracy theorists to suggest there was a more active malice at work in the system, one that ensured the security lapses allowed the high-jackers to remain at loose.

No doubt Wright would have none of this. In contrast to the conspiracy theorists, his book appears to be impeccably researched. The list of authorial interviews at the back of the book is impressive. In a footnote at the end of the book, Wright notes that 'there are few forces in human nature more powerful than the desire to be understood.' Given the immense ignorance that remains about the events of the event we now call 911, Wright has gone a long way towards allowing those who do have an idea about what happened and why it happened to be heard. In the process he has written what would appear to be the first authoritative piece of history concerning an event which has affected all our lives, in ways it will take a lifetime to understand.

Monday, 7 September 2009

the investigation [w. juan jose saer]

The Investigation marries two narratives which appear to be completely separate. The second describes a day when three friends take a boat out of Buenos Aires to visit the widow of a writer they used to know, and look at a manuscript that probably wasn't written by the writer, a six hundred page re-imagining of the Trojan war, set entirely on the Trojan side. The second narrative recounts how the distinguished Parisian police inspector Morvan is on the trail of a vicious serial killer who targets the old ladies of a wealthy Parisian arrondissement.

The spectre of Cortazar looms over Saer's book. It's quite a trick to jump between apparently unconnected narratives from paragraph to paragraph, and though it's a while since I read him, I have a feeling that Saer's fellow Argentine was one of the few that could pull it off. Nevertheless, the book stands up of its own right, and is curiously engaging, despite the writer's somewhat baroque prose style (which may be suffering in translation). The hook, unsurprisingly is the cunningly plotted and unashamedly gory crime narrative. When I put the book down at my place of work, one of my fellow readers looked at it and said - Umm, you've got me there - before noting that it was billed as a crime thriller, and becoming more conciliatory. Saer's Morvan is a wonderful character. It feels as though he merits a rather longer novel (and perhaps a kinder fate). However, in the end, just as we come to accept the seemingly random leaps between narratives, we also come to understand the way in which Morvan reconciles himself to his cruel fate, even embracing it to a certain extent.

There is in the book what appears to be a doffing of the hat towards the notion of chaos theory, as a butterfly bats its wings in Buenos Aires and this (might have) ramifications on the narrative in Paris. The book, written just before the global unleashing of the internet, seems to be dipping its toes into the theory that the actions of someone else, on the other side of the world, who we've never heard of, could end up, in a shrinking globe, affecting us in ways which we might never understand. The mystery of the interconnectedness of things, which is in some ways the story of the 21st century.

Monday, 31 August 2009

flying doctors of east africa & la soufriere & the white diamond (herzog)

A Herzog doc triple bill of a Sunday lunchtime. Mr P and myself keeping an eye on the audience, trying to determine their provenance, finally deciding they were all German. Which they clearly were not.

The three films covered three continents, more or less, and came from three separate decades. The links however, include people placing themselves in remarkable situations, often perilous, with objectives that are tinged with a spiritual rather than a material dimension. A man who chooses to stay on the island of Guadeloupe, in spite of a mass evacuation, saying he has no fear of the death that the volcano might bring. The doctor who has no qualms about landing his plane on an airstrip whose dangers he lists as he and Herzog prepare to descend, the first plane to ever land on the strip. The scientist driven to fly his zeppelin over the jungle canopy in spite of, or because of, the fate of the friend who crashed in an earlier incarnation of the vehicle.

There's Werner to document it all, sharing their risk, revelling in the freedom to discover his camera has offered him over the course of forty years. Allowing their stories to unfold, step by step, always alert to the whimsical detail which brings the project down to earth: Mark Antony, whose best friend is his rooster, and who christens the airship a 'white diamond'; or the Masai whose fear of steps threatens to prevent them receiving the medicine the flying doctors want to bestow. Tracing the intersection between our 'modern' world, and an older ancient one, that persists.

Three hours of films and never a dull moment; the unexpected forever at the door, the story always told with a sense of purpose.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

conquest of the useless [herzog]

There are books that you read and there are books that you miss. By which I mean that, when the relationship between yourself and the book comes to an end, because you have finished the reading of it, there's a sense of loss. Between the insomnia of last night and the late start of this morning, I devoured the final hundred or so pages of Herzog's account of the making of Fitzcarraldo, and this evening on coming to bed, I am saddened that there's no more pages to be read, no more of the adventure to be shared.

Conquest of the Useless is far from an orthodox account of the two year filming process. At times it consists of musings on the nature of the jungle the author finds himself immersed within; at others it's a dream diary; at others it details his adventures with Kinski, Jagger, and the rest of the team. The fact that the journal lasts over two years already offers some idea of the difficulties Herzog faced in the realisation of his movie. As such it is also a detailed account of a creative process, including all the madness, exhilaration, boredom and perspiration the creative process can entail. Towards the very end of the process, Herzog writes: 'It is only through writing that I become myself.' Thus offering another clue to the book, which has its existentialist dimension. Through the insanity of the project, the writing of the journal allows the author to maintain his sense of self, when the forces of nature, art and an enclosed society, not to mention his megalomanic leading man, conspire to destroy him. At the very end of the book there is a note describing how one of his team really did lose his senses, or go mad, and it seems as though this madness was always closing in on Herzog, and everyone else who embarked on the kind of cinematic project that only a lunatic could contemplate.

There's something about the book which is reminiscent of works such as Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laureds Brigge or even Lautreamont's Maldoror. The project and the book detail the travails of someone navigating the rivers of their mind. Herzog's commentaries on nature and the jungle, by now reasonably well known, come from the coal face. He reads the runes of a termite's nest and seeks out the sense to be found in a caged anaconda's eyes. The connection between nature and humanity, so cauterised by a modern urban society, is alive and kicking. His fate depends on the rainfall, as an animal's might; when he surfs the rapids, he's as vulnerable as any creature would be. Death is everpresent. Some of the indians working on his project are shot with arrows and barely survive; a plane some of his team are on crashes; he himself chronicles several close calls; and throughout it all his mother appears to be dying, back in Germany. The safe world is left behind, and filters back through snippets of news, such as an assassination attempt on the Pope, or Reagan.

The only thing which throws our reading of the book is the knowledge, which he did not possess as he wrote, that in the end he prevailed, and the film was completed. This key piece of information perhaps warps our ability to connect with the journey the writer is going on; a journey which at the time of writing often seems more likely to end in failure than success. However, in a way, there's a sense that if he can just keep writing, if he can just keep on being Herzog, all will be alright in the end. Even in its most pessimistic vision of the world he has chosen to inhabit, there's an energy to the writing, and the man; the ceaseless workings of his imagination offer a kind of hope, both to himself, and to the reader. So long as the writer's mind can convey itself, and connect with the reader's, the journey continuing, hope (whatever that word means) remains. The Conquest of the Useless possesses a morose, humanistic beauty. Every day there are things to observe, and choices to make. Even if everything is underpinned by some kind of nihilistic pointlessness, to be human means to continue to observe, and to continue to make choices, no matter how pointless (or useless) these actions might appear in the present moment. Over the course of its two year span, three hundred pages, and one extraordinary film, Herzog's text reaffirms the value of those things which make us both animal and human.

the hurt locker (d. kathryn bigelow, w. mark boal)

The movies keep coming. Mr Curry had narrowed down the choice to this against Almodovar. Iraq grunts won on a Friday night. Mr Curry regretted his decision. His was a weighty presence beside me, as he slid further and further into his seat. Every explosion seemed to force him deeper towards the ground off Tottenham Court Road which lay somewhere below us, and which, had a similar explosion to those that pepper Bigelow's Baghdad gone off, might have been revealed to the sky for the first time in centuries.

Mr Curry said, presciently, afterwards, that it's impossible for a movie to both try and entertain and try to have something serious to say. It's a busted flush of a Faustian pact (not his actual words) and in the end the financial imperative to entertain will always win through. This was one of the problems he had with The Hurt Locker, which seems to be receiving universal praise from the critics.

For my part, I wasn't too sure what to make of things. There were so many explosions, and so many moments of ultimate tension, that in the end there was nothing particularly explosive or tense about anything. Later, over cowpiss and kim chi, it struck me that the movie appeared to be aspiring to some of the complexity, grandeur and account-taking of The Deer Hunter. Aspiring, but ultimately falling short. Once again, there was too much movie making by numbers. Nothing summed this up more than the closing sequence, where the maverick Sgt James (played with some aplomb by Jeremy Renner) finds himself back Stateside with his uxoriously attractive wife and baby child of indeterminate sex. There are about three scenes in this sequence. One was a nicely guaged sequence in a supermarket, where James is confronted by a vast range of cereal choice in a soulless hanger, and the reality of what he's been laying his life on the line for is revealed in a simple, pleasantly sardonic fashion. The next is a brief scene where he says, as you expect him to, that defusing bombs is part of his psyche and he can't live without it, to which his wife, knowing this all along, responds by telling him to peel some vegetables. The third is a tired, potentially-though-not-quite vomit-inducing scene, where James tells his disinterested, sexless baby that his jack in the box is just some tin and a cloth, suggesting that there's more to life than products... or something along those lines. Intimating that there are other things, like making a mess of other country's social infrastructures and then trying to fix them; of feeling like a man because you do dangerous things; or cheese rolling... What the other things actually are, is never all that clear, they're just implied, and that's where you realise the filmmakers, for all their doubtless good intentions, doesn't have a clue about what points their film's trying so hard to make. They're just making a movie. A bit like the US just invaded a country. Because it could?

Which might be a bit harsh, though Mr Curry might agree. (He might not.) The Hurt Locker is a smart movie in so far as it's taken on a really strong premise, the men who dismantle the bombs, who try to make things right. Which is both kind of John Wayne and the closest you're going to come to a seemingly socially conscious approach in a US movie about the grunts in I-raq. However, the lack of any real Iraqi perspective seemed to weigh all the more heavily because of the closet social agenda. The explosions and macho stuff is done well, the human tragedy/ cost rather less so. Iraqis in the film are people who stare out of windows, and any one of them might be a threat, unless they're called Beckham. So in the end the John Wayne element easily trumps the socio-political element. Which brings us back to Mr Curry's point, which he put rather more succinctly.


nb - One reason for watching the film is to catch one of the most impressive hameos in the history of recent cinema. A hameo hopefully being self-explanatory, and if it isn't, watch the film and it soon will be.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

inglorious basterds (w&d tarantino)

Tarantino's latest has received mixed reviews. A lot of critics have suggested that the film is some kind of nadir. I haven't seen Death Proof, nor the second part of Kill Bill, so I can't claim to have been following his career that closely. However I recently watched Reservoir Dogs again, and it's immediately evident from the film's opening scene what all the fuss was about; a fuss which was provoked primarily by one thing, which was dialogue, and another, which was the juxtaposition of dialogue with context.

Which might be another way of saying theatricality. Inglorious Basterds reminds us that Tarantino is the director who put theatre back into film. Even more than committing acts of seemingly gratuituous violence, a Tarantino character loves to talk. None more so than Pitt's Aldo Raine, who, in spite of talking about his love of Nazi killing, only finally does something violent in the very final scene of the film. The rest of the time he pouts and talks about the violence he intends or has intended to perpetrate. He's not much of a character, and Pitt seems a little lost in his skin, perhaps realising that a funny accent doesn't give him much to work with.

Instead, a couple of characters from the plot's secondary strand, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent, steal the acting honours. Waltz, in particular, is given three stagey scenes in which he demonstrates his mastery of the Tarantino argot. Not many Hollywood directors can get away with a fifteen minute dialogue scene wherein nothing happens, but seeing as this is how the maestro's career was kick started, in the Reservoir diner, he's given leeway. What this produces is a very old fashioned kind of drama, of nuance, expression, and theatrical menace. It has its weaknesses, but probably because this sort of thing is so rare in Hollywood, its the strengths that shine through, and for people who've never seen a play, it's like he's inventing the wheel.

If the dialogue is as sharp as ever, the violence in Basterds feels even more laborious than usual. Like a signature the director is cursed to append to his work, ever since the ear went missing. The contrast between the verbosity of his scripts and viscerality of their violence has served him well, but in this instance it doesn't really feel like his heart's in it. The baseball bat scene, and Pitt's closing knife-wielding moment lack bravura or wit. Tarantino has always understood that violence is part of the language of drama, just as much as words, but the moments where it's employed in Basterds have little dramatic impact, and perhaps that's why they feel so hollow, bringing the film down rather than heightening it's effectiveness.

Most of these moments are reserved for the Pitt strands of the narrative. The other Shosanna strand has more weight, and it would appear that in the doomed relationship with Marcel, the director is hoping for some kind of pathos. It doesn't quite come off. Just as the two storylines never integrate effectively. Nevertheless, Tarantino's dialogue, and flair for a dramatic scenario, ensure that, even if it's only stuttering from set piece to set piece, the film is never dull, and is always ready to engage with its audience's intelligence. It also feels like, in the film within a film, there's an inherent critique of a crasser, action based cinema, the one the Nazi high command lap up as they watch the priggish Zoller pick off enemy after enemy in the film of his own deeds.

So, for my money, the film didn't deserve the brickbats of the critics. Nevertheless, in spite of its moments, it still left me with a slightly empty feeling. In particular the neurotically tacked on violence, which lends the overall project, with its hubristic reworking of history, the feel of being created by a child that just can't help showing off. One whose talent can seduce you for a while, but later leaves you wanting to send it to bed. Thinking that when it grows it up it might achieve remarkable things, but first it needs to get over the need to constantly remind its audience of its cleverness.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

sin nombre (w&d cary fukunaga)

Sin Nombre brought to mind the semiotic functionality of film. There may be a dozen different functions film fulfils, but watching Sin Nombre, two were apparent. The first, most commonly cited, is the telling of a story. Film is a narrative art, bringing with it preconceptions of what to expect, which the filmmaker chooses to adhere to or resist. A second, it seems to me, is that film acts as a kind of window on the world. When we look at a cinema screen, it is curiously similar to looking out through a window, a pastime which holds a strange, unquantifiable pleasure; one which can be enhanced according to the perceived quality of the view on the outside.

With this latter functionality in mind, I took a lot from Sin Nombre. It offers the viewer an insight into what it's like to make one of the most dramatic journeys that exists in the modern world, the immigrant's passage from Central America to the United States, from third world to first. People make this journey on a daily basis, and it's fraught with danger. Sin Nombre constructs itself around a family's journey from Honduras across Mexico to the border. This strand is crossed with a second storyline, concerning a South Mexican gang and its brutal dynamics.

Having pinpointed a world which is well captured, the director's narrative feels a little tame in comparison. There are no real surprises, and the characters' journeys feel tinged by inevitability. You kind of longed for some kind of magic, a moment when the narrative soared in the same way the camera is allowed to over the train which carries its 21st pilgrims towards the promised land.

As it is, the narrative almost seems to get in the way of the true pathos of its characters' journey. As though the world it explores is not enough, requiring an extra garnish of emotion and drama to sustain an audience's attention. However, whilst this may by my opinion, perhaps if it hadn't adopted a slightly melodramatic narrative, it wouldn't have made its way around the world, and I would never have been permitted an insight into the world it depicts.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

jerusalem (w butterworth, d. rickson)

A few general thoughts concerning this play.

Firstly, it's the third good piece of writing I've seen in London in the last month or so, following on from Apologia and Pornography. Which must be some kind of a record.

Secondly, have been musing since watching it on Monday whether it isn't a closetly intellectual piece of writing. This said because many of the main tenets of conventional dramatic storytelling aren't really adhered to. Byron doesn't go on much of a journey; he starts as a ribald Falstaffian figure and ends as a ribald, bloodied Falstaffian figure, albeit one moved to rage by his enemies. In a more conventional dramatic text (using the phrase in inverted commas), the interaction of the characters leads to some kind of learning, and whilst one or two of Byron's rats make half-hearted discoveries about themselves, they're still more interested in securing some whizz. In essence, the play functions as a manifesto for Byron's hedonistic Englishness. Rylance's performance is impressive, lending the old soak a demented gravitas, and his (and Butterworth's) vision of some kind of primordial Englishness emerges through a mixture of humour and grandiloquence.

Thirdly, the play, steeped in its Shakesperianism, reminds us of things that sometimes get forgotten. (In an era when scripts can almost be put together using spreadsheets.) Monsters make for great theatre (Byron also probably owes a debt to Tamburlaine). Theatre is about putting on a show, rather than education. Showmen put on the best shows, and a dash of lunacy doesn't go amiss either. In fact, in Jerusalem's genealogy, Marlowe plays as big a role as Shakespeare. The character who can unleash language, and play with it like a rapier or a rubik's cube, who can make language sit up and talk... That's a character people will always want to see, a writer people will always want to listen to.

I have only a vague idea of what Butterworth and Byron's Englishness truly represents - the manifesto wasn't altogether clear - but you kind of know you could listen to Byron spinning his tall tales all night.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

dark spring [w unica zürn]

Dark Spring is a book so slight it doesn't take much more than an hour to read. It is recounted from the point of view of a twelve year old girl, living in Germany after the war. Its 80 pages recount the girl's emerging sexuality. Things happen, some of which have no right to happen. However, more than the sequence of events, which of their own might be perceived as being salacious, the key to Dark Spring's compelling, slightly nightmarish brilliance, is the way in which it captures pre-adolescent fears and desires, spearing them like one of Golding's children might have speared a fish, using a crude piece of wood, barely up to the task, but effective nonetheless.

I know very little about Zürn, save for the fact she had relationships with various surrealists, her psychiatrist was also, apparently, Artaud's, and she committed suicide by jumping from a window, something worth knowing before you read the book. However, I do know her little book captures a world which adults would rather forget. Rather than the child within the man, beloved of the Romantics, Zürn's text reveals the adult within the child. Reminding us that childhood, aware of the great secrets that have yet to be revealed, is forced to use its imagination to conjure up a vision of sex; as well as love; and that so much of what we will experience in adulthood, upon which our notions of happiness depend, will have been the result of choices made when we were of an age before we could possibly know what those decisions meant. Within a society that would prefer to believe these things didn't even cross its children's minds.

Dark Spring, (perhaps an echo of Spring Awakening), is one of those rare texts which is bold enough to tackle the shibboleths of childhood. This transgression ensures there's a timelessness about the book, in part because the society that acknowledges a pre-pubescent sexuality is a rare one. Zürn was brave enough to remind the world that it's something that does exist, and Dark Spring is a kind of true mirror to the sanitised fantasies of Alice in Wonderland.

Some writers resist society's codifications, and their books are like postcards from a reality it would rather ignore.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

mesrine part 1 killer instinct (d. richet; w. mesrine & dafri)

The biopic. Currently the French seem to be churning them out. I've missed Coco Before Chanel, but the promise of Cassel, one of the great screen actors of today, lured me in to see Mesrine. That and the self-avowedly boy-sy subject matter. Gangster flicks seem more attractive in French.

The opening shots give the appearance of a film that looks like it knows what it's doing. Split screen, Cassel in some kind of fat disguise, a bubbly French chick. But at the same time, whilst the sequence appears to be suave and composed, not a lot is actually disclosed here, a tension is summoned and then more or less exhausted as the titles roll. Then the action jump cuts to a lean young Cassel, with a neat tache, in Algeria, and its all hand held cameras and a kind of Gaspar Noe tension. Then Cassel's back in France and the journey to becoming public enemy number one begins in earnest. And continues. And continues. Mesrine seduces a pretty woman with his gallic charm. Then another. And another. And so on. Mesrine uses his gallic charm to get out of a scrape. And again. Mesrine kills someone. And again. And then he does it in Canada.

It feels as though there's two main problems with Mesrine, Killer Instinct (if we discount the corny title). The first is the curse of the biopic: a script which sprawls, trying to grab all the best bits and thereby only succeeding in diluting them. So you end with an insipid trawl through the protagonist's life, with no narrative focus and a steadily declining return of interest. Secondly, it doesn't look like Richet really knows what kind of a movie he wants to make. At moments there's an adventurous Scorceseian camera, roving round the room, implicating menace or emphasising mood. But these are against the grain, and on the whole it's conservatively shot, with static, slightly theatrical set-ups. Add to this the issue of the script's (and perhaps Cassel's) desire to have Mesrine played all ends up - lconic charmer, psychotic nutter, a family man who has no qualms sticking a gun in his wife's mouth. Again, there's a suspicion that those concerned have been watching Scorcese, including Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, but Cassel's portrayal has none of the 'he's-going-to-lose-it-any-moment' of Scorcese's protagonists. Cassel is always too cool, too in control.

Mesrine has been critically lauded, spoken of in the same breath as Riffifi and Cercle Rouge and other iconic crime movies of French cinema. It doesn't deserve to be. Mesrine, Killer Instinct never succeeds in throwing off the shackles of the biopic, as though it's hobbling along with ankles chained and wrists hoping one day to be released from the cuffs.

Friday, 7 August 2009

lucky kuntz [gregor muir]

A couple of years ago, whilst researching Brit Art for Mr Blue, people told me I should 'speak to Gregor', because Gregor was there. He knew where the bodies were buried. So I called him up, in his office, finding it surprisingly easy to get through to him. I could have sworn that he got up and went to shut the door, before coming back to the phone. He then proposed that, rather than do the research ourselves, we should buy the rights to his memoirs, which he was in the process of writing.

The idea was given short shrift, largely because there was scarcely any budget for a researcher, let alone the payday Mr Muir presumably anticipated. Fast forward a couple of years and those memoirs have now been released. However, the bodies remains securely under lock and key.

Researching the YBA scene (as it does not like to be called by any of the artists, who are keen now to negate any notion of 'a movement') one quickly comes across the vast power wielded by Damian Hirst. Hirst is not just a former friend to most of the artists, he has also now become a patron in his own right. People don't like to run the risk of offending him, and lips are kept tightly sealed. One prominent figure in the movement's history seemed so paranoid as he spoke to us, it was as though he expected to be hauled away at any moment by the art police. Muir appears to be no exception to this rule. He no doubt has stories to tell, but you can almost feel him clumsily trying to find a way around having to say anything that might be too scandalous. This makes for the most insipid of memoirs and suggests its very hard for an insider to write an account of a group he or she has been a part of.

Furthermore, in the somewhat predictable account of lost alcoholic nights, the narrator exudes a kind of vacuousness which permeates everything he discusses. At one point two or three people he knows die, and he says that he fears the onset of depression. However, this is staved off less than a week later by Muir deciding to wear a sarong and go out and drink as much vodka as he can. In no time at all he's right as rain. At the end of the memoir, Muir briefly suggests that he had to make his break from 'the artists' and forge a new direction, but the notion of Muir having any kind of a crisis seems far fetched; he has landed on his feet in the groovy groovy art scene, and there will be more parties, of that we can be sure.

All of which only has any real significance when thinking about the value of the art which these artists produced. Hirst for example, claims to be creating works of seriousness, which comment in some way on the human condition; and death. It generally feels as though his art treads a line between knowing showmanship and potential genius. Is he an artist who is truly grappling with the great themes (no matter how jovially); or is he a quack doctor, providing a gullible public with what he knows they want: the finest ad man of them all. Reading Hirst's multiple interviews with Gordon Burn, his Boswell of choice, one might be inclined to believe the former; but reading Muir's book describing his vision of the world wherein these works were hatched, one might be inclined to suspect the latter.

Gregor Muir's book does few favours to the artists on whose coat-tails he has risen to a comfortable life. It lacks the boldness to reveal any insights that will surprise anyone; be those insights intellectual; or merely those of a fly on the wall during the course of one of the more intriguing moments in recent London art and socio-cultural history.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

unaccustomed earth [jhumpa lahiri]

Lahiri's book is a collection of short stories. Having said which, it's a collection of short stories split into two sections, the second of which, Hema and Kaushik, is more of a novella, being three connected stories, dealing with two characters who have an affair in the third and final story.

The first part, untitled, consists of five stories which deal with the experiences of immigrant Bengalis in North America. One story takes place in Seattle, but the rest occur on the East Coast, describing the experience of three generations of Indian (or rather Bengali) families who have chosen to settle in the United States, whilst maintaining links with India, as well as London, something of a staging post for Bengali families on their way to the States. These stories are all 'well written', hinting at Chekhov or other writers I may once have read. They're unremittingly gloomy, as though suggesting that to be a Bengali immigrant is some kind of curse; that carrying the weight of a heavily family based tradition whilst trying to forge a North American identity is a pressured and perhaps doomed enterprise. The first character I found myself in any way relating to, the brother in Only Goodness, turns into an unreliable drunk who wrecks his sister's marriage to a deeply unsympathetic Brit.

These stories set the groundwork for the second part, which ends, to no great surprise, tragically. It was a relief to find that these last three stories were not only connected, but dealt with characters who seemed to have overcome their rigid, stultifying heritage, finding work as a photographer and a classics scholar, respectively. Hema and Kaushik come alive off the page, and there's no doubt that Lahiri has a talent for capturing voices and teasing out a narrative.

However, the great however of my day-to-day work, for all its measured, cut-glass effectiveness, it consistently felt to me as though in the end the writing was struggling to capture emotional truths which it pretends to be capturing effortlessly. Kaushik's hysterical reaction to his step-sisters, like his eventual fate, felt altogether too neat, too literary, to be true, and this was the case in most of the stories. Lahiri appears to be a writer reluctant to stray far from a world she knows inside out. Whilst the writing shows great precision in the depiction of a culture, and in the premise of the emotional conflicts it concocts, it felt to my mind as though there was something brittle, even a little shrill, in its final representation of those conflicts and their consequences, as though the coldness of the prose mitigated against a credible engagement with the truth of pain; or loss; or even love.

Is this even remotely fair? Because it's not to say that Lahiri is not a talented writer. Her skill is self-evident, seemingly effortless. My own subjectivity is caused by many factors, not least the permanent shadow of Bolano hovering over the short story form, or my current struggle to connect with most Anglo-Saxon prose. All the same, it seems to me that Unaccustomed Earth sets out its stall to capture the heartbreak of the commonplace; the fatality of the mundane, and we need to be convinced of the heartbreak or the fatality in order for this approach to work.

Monday, 27 July 2009

anti-christ (w&d von trier)

Thought #1 on walk back through Notting Hill, the size of the stucco facaded houses still catching me by surprise. Every film of Von Trier's could be viewed as some kind of Situationist provocation, less of a film and more of an artwork. And Anti-Christ is no exception.

Except for Thought #2 which occured before it all kicked off in the final part of the film, which is that Von Trier identifies and tackles subjects that few filmmakers are brave enough to go for. In this case the power of nature and the potential differences between a female and a male consciousness. (Which might exist, and be more subtle than preferring shopping to watching football or chardonnay to rioja, or any of the other neutralised terms in which that difference has come to be permitted within a consumer culture.) Among other things. If you removed the graphic sex, and the somewhat operatic prologue, there's a serious treatise looking to be made, no matter how much the fireworks would appear to distract.

Thought #3: the film's dedicated to Tarkovsky, which many will consider a cheek of itself, but there's also echoes of Antonioni and obviously Don't Look Now, as well as Mercy and probably a few hundred horror flicks I've never seen. His engagement with the medium is so much more absolute than any of his contemporaries. My brother gave me the box set of his first three films for Christmas, and its astonishing how visually and technically assured a filmmaker he was from the beginning. His relationship with Dogme was always a game within a game; and in Anti-Christ his capacity to conjure astonishing imagery goes hand in hand with Dodd Mantle's shaky, edge of the bed camerawork. All of which contributes to the constant presence of the filmmaker behind the lens, playing with his audience, challenging and provoking them and sometimes laughing (with or at) them - in particular in the beautifully cheeky talking fox moment. Von Trier is as Brechtian as Godard, whilst also being as big a showman as Tony Scott. The contradictions are part of his charm.

I have just written and scrubbed Thought #4 which was along the lines of whether the film, in all its excessive dramatic glory, is any good or not. You're going to be a fairly strange type of character if you get through the final scenes and say that you enjoyed them. Then again, as Von Trier is well aware (he sometimes makes porn films), the things that disturb are just the flip side of the kind of things people watch for their most basic pleasure. They're all images, so what's not to like? (The scene with Dafoe being dug out of the mud seemed to even hint at Ian's fate in Blasted). For every Von Trier film I like there's one I don't like (mas o menos). In a way that's all part of the game which the director is playing, reminding you that he's on his side of the fence and you're on yours, and through that act of reminding bringing us closer together. It's not about liking what's going on: it's about the taking part. And it's pretty hard not to feel as though you've participated in something, no matter how gratuitously gruelling, along with the poor actors Dafoe and Gainsbourg. This is not far off being cinema as mud wrestling, and what else should we want cinema to be?

Friday, 24 July 2009

35 shots of rum (d. claire denis; w. denis & jean-pol fargeau)

That rare joy of going to see a film about which you know nothing, and finding yourself transported to a place you never imagined you'd visit...

Denis' film takes place in a world of Parisian immigrants. Initially we meet Lionel, who drives a metro train, and his work colleagues, all of them black. Lionel lives with his daughter, Josephine, in an apartment block which contains their extended family, although it's never altogether clear how Noe and Gabrielle are connected. The narrative dances on the line of abstraction; the connections between the characters are never stated. In the coda scene, Lionel and Josephine, so close that they sometimes seem like lovers, travel to Lubeck and meet Josephine's aunt, before laying flowers at her mother's grave. Whether her German mother's relationship with Lionel was long lasting or brief is never clear; what is clear is the depth of the relationship between the aunt and Josephine. As though Denis is stripping back all the detail of race and nationality, homing in on the emotional ties that supersede everything else.

And yet... the first ten minutes of the film are slow and cryptic; extended shots of Paris from the cab of Lionel's train, a gradual introduction to the characters. Then there's a scene in Josephine's university. She's studying (presumably) politics and development; a classful of immigrants from the South discussing Stiglitz and the possibilities of restoring the balance between third and first world. The scene ends with a student talking about Fanon, (and suggesting that many of these students would not have read him) stating that revolution will not occur because of any coherent plan, but because those who are about to revolt have run out of air to breathe. The scene (reminiscent of Zabriskie Point) slots into the film like a fly in the ointment, establishing the political context of the film's character's lives, only for the politicized approach to be then discarded as readily as it's taken up.

Instead the focus turns to the slow unwinding of the relationships of these four sympathetic, dysfunctional figures, a dance that comes to life when they're stranded in a late night bar together, and they dance with one another. They dance to the unlikely sound of The Commodores 80's hit, The Night Shift, and the scene has echoes of the haunting scene in Ozon's 5x2. Dance, a language freed of words, might be the purest form of drama, and as the song plays itself out, each of the characters has their hearts revealed, and all the melancholy that underpins their lives and tangled loves is played out in a weirdly moving dumb show.

I haven't seen Beau Travail, I know nothing of Denis' work, and truth be told 38 Shots of Rum is one of those film that defies intelligent criticism. Because it's doing something that seems almost intangible, or magical, or what you will, and that magic operates entirely within in a cinematic lexicon. If you wrote the scenes out on the page, they might not amount to much. But assembled as they are, with a deliberate, elliptical pacing, they're transformed into some kind of revelation, of how a small corner of Paris lives, and how we also live, wherever we are.

our lady of the assassins [fernando vallejo]

The narrator is a gay grammarian, living in Medellin. He hooks up with a young contract killer, called Alexis, whose contracts have dried up following the killing of the head honcho, Pablo Escobar himself. Killing is such an integral part of Alexis' life that he happily executes anyone who gets on his, or his lover's, nerves. Taxi drivers who talk back, whistling strangers, cops in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there's so much killing going on in Medellin that no-one seems to notice. The only thing that can put an end to Alexis and the narrator's killing spree is the arrival of Alexis' bullet, which is never likely to be too far away.

Vallejo's insouciant narrator is morally compromised, aware of the fact and not in the least bothered by it. His jaunty tone suggests that in a country where corruption is the norm, a few murders here and there count for nothing. Life is cheap in Medellin, and given that, Alexis' amorality is perfectly acceptable. To my mind there was something a little too pat about all this; perhaps I was missing some of Vallejo's irony. It's interesting to note that Vallejo was apparently writing in exile. Because his slight book doesn't feel like a letter from the front line; there's no anguish, just a kind of sculptural pleasure taken in the chaotic mess that Medellin has made of itself. There's something coldly impersonal about the grammarian's narrative, which may be part of the point, but didn't seem to help explain why his young lovers had evolved into such adorable killing machines; or what their families or even they themselves felt about the ruthless world they inhabited.

It's also perhaps worth noting that 1994 is a long time ago in Colombian history. No doubt the drugs and the gangsters are still out there, influencing the city's shape. However, as a footnote, it seems worth mentioning the taxi driver who drove C and I to Almagro earlier this month. He was Colombian, and had been living in Madrid for a few years. He was from Cali, a city which is Medellin's equal in narco-notoriety. We asked him what it was like, and I suggested it must be a dangerous place to live. But, as we drove through the dry flat plain of La Mancha, he told us that it was always Spring in his city, with a never ending parade of flowers. He and his wife had saved up enough to build a house for themselves there. As to whether it was dangerous or not, he suggested it was no more dangerous than any other city. The vision I'd had of a city patrolled by teenage soldiers of the drugs lords, touting machine guns in the back of their four by four jeeps, a vision not so very different to Vallejo's portrayal of Medellin, crumbled. Our driver even told us which barrio to go to if we want to see some theatre. Apparently it's called San Antonio.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

preston falls [david gates]

Preston Falls tells the straightforward tale of Doug Willis, a middle-class, suburban New Yorker whose dreams are in tatters. The book traces the course of his mid-life crisis as he takes time out from his job, ostensibly to work on renovating his upstate country cottage in Preston Falls, but in practice disintegrating in a blizzard of displaced machismo, Dickens and drugs. We meet Willis on the cusp, and watch him go over it. The book is split into four sections. The first describes Willis and his wife Jean and kids, Mel and Roger, arriving at Preston Falls for a long weekend, which goes rapidly sour. The second charts the phases of Willis' disintegration as he's left alone, finding himself sucked into his evil's lawyers games, reading Dickens, trying to re-ignite a spark of his guitar playing youth. The third section turns the narrative around, presenting the consequences of Willis' actions from Jean's point of view as she struggles to deal with the children, and the last is a kind of coda.

Gates' prose has a rat-a-tat-tat effectiveness. He writes primarily in the present tense, using the past for the book's numerous flashbacks. This helps to add urgency to the drama, as though opening up the possibilities of every action: these are not cast in the stone, every decision could have been another, and the reader seems to feel Willis bringing his fate down upon himself with a relentless but always avoidable stupidity, or fatalism. This doesn't make him in any way sympathetic. Rather the author employs his surgical prose to pick at every failing of his book's hero, in much the same way as the hero uses every one of his failings to contribute to his demise. It's a theatre of cruelty, wherein Willis is the object of the gods' derision, but where his feeble neglect of his paternal duties denudes him of any kind of tragic dignity.

You might say this book was firmly in Updike territory. It's twenty years since I read Updike and the taste his work leaves in my mouth is one of wanting to have it both ways. Portray the child in the man, whilst in some way converting the retreat to childhood into a kind of Romantic voyage. Gates, it seems to me, is debunking any notion of a Romantic journey. It's kind of what we think is going to happen when Willis is left alone in the wilds of Preston Falls, and appears to be what he's looking for, but reality is harsher than he's ready for. Once again, there's the grand North American tension between the lure of nature's wilds and civilisation's charms, but there's no doubt where Gates positions his characters on this spectrum in the end: once you've sold your soul to the home-comfort devil there's not much hope of getting it back again.

Further down the line from Updike, the book brings to mind two films. One is Herzog's Grizzly Man, where Treadwell thinks he can walk with the bears but he can't; and the other is Kaufman's recent Synechdoche, another work that spins a thread between New York and its upstate neighbours, watching a man go to pieces as he tries to make sense of the vast distance between these closely linked geographic spaces. The US and its arts will always be immersed in the desperate tension between the material comfort it has afforded its citizens (or at least those born on the right side of the tracks) and the spiritual cost that seems to be the price they have to pay for that material comfort. It's an important theme, and Preston Falls isn't scared to get down and dirty with it.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

rudo y cursi (w&d carlos cuarón)

As it happens, last week over lunch in Almagro, one of those Spanish lunches that last forever, Fernando, one of the actors from Gatomaquica, was saying that it was incredible given the size of the country that Mexico had produced so few good films over recent years. He'd lived there for a while and been disillusioned by their film/ theatre worlds. The usual suspects were rolled out: Peros, Y Tu, and thereafter it all got a bit harder, although let Reygadas not be lost in the mix. It's probably not a question of a lack of talent, but undoubtedly most intriguing Mexican directors seem to head across the border. The Mexican relationship with Hollywood not so very different from the British.

Sad to say, Rudo Y Cursi, in spite of its superstar billing, doesn't do much to mitigate against Fernando's point of view. It seems to have all the right ingredients, but never comes close to convincing. Perhaps it's football. How many successful football movies have been made? Not many. Salles also used football, with rather more subtlety, in his latest film Linha De Passe. There are obvious reasons why Latin American cinema should turn to football for subject matter, with this being one field where innate talent can permit someone from a poor background to rise up through society. However, Rudo Y Cursi, unlike Salles' film, wants to have it both ways: a bit of social commentary with lots of humour thrown in. The actors never seem quite sure whether the film should be played exclusively for laughs or whether there's actually something else going on, ending up resorting to a mannered high comedy style which does neither justice, and suggests they're enjoying themselves rather more than the audience. Cuaron's screenplay feels underdeveloped, and the whole thing has the feel of a film that has been dashed off rather than tended. Like one of those superstar football teams (Real Madrid since they decided to acquire Beckham) which assumes that as a result of the sheer weight of famous names on the pitch cannot help but succeed, but in practice never really has much of an identity, and never wins anything.