Tuesday, 24 February 2009

the wrestler (d. aronofsky, w. robert d siegel)

The Wrestler is a skilful piece of film making. This deduction is possible because when you look at the narrative, at what’s going on in the film, it’s all fairly silly. (Said without wanting to sound too English). The Ram basically commits hari-kiri, using his sizeable heart by-pass wound and a fat old man who goes under the stage name of The Ayatollah to carry out the deed. This because he went out and got ‘fucked-up’ when he should have been making amends with his estranged daughter, who as a result becomes even more estranged. The lap dancer who doesn’t fancy him suddenly does and quits it all to convince him not to commit hari-kari, but because he's such a complete and total fuck-up he goes ahead and does it anyway.

Maybe this is supposed to be a warped commentary on the American dream. It makes for a lot of potential schmaltz and vaguely preposterous narrative turns, but, in spite of all this, the film kind of works.

There’s doesn’t seem to be too much doubt where the credit for this lies. Firstly Aronofsky, who shows he can pull off the multi-faceted Soderburgh trick. The grainy, restless hand-held photography successfully conveys the bleakness of some of the colder, duller parts of the US. It also adds a pseudo-documentary feel to the investigation of the wrestling sub-culture the film is set in. The participants don’t feel like Hollywood actors faking it – they feel like the real, unadorned thing. In addition to this, no one does screen violence better than Aronofsky. It’s often wince-making, and again, even when it’s clearly fake, (as in the meat-slicer scene), he pulls it off. There’s a kind of meta-text at work here: the fakeness of the wrestling violence is reflected in the fakeness of movie violence, and as a result the audience really doesn’t know what hurts and what just look like it hurts. Consequently, when it doesn’t just look like it hurts, but looks like it really looks like it hurts, the violence is hyper-effective, and we feel Rourke/ Ram’s pain all the more.

Rourke is the second reason the film works. It’s a performance which succeeds as much for its under-statement as its over-statement, and this is what separates it from other renowned macho performances. The moments of reflection which suggest that all the pain he’s endured (or faked) has taught him something, that something in part being the uselessness of a macho approach. The performance is a sly commentary on North American values; emphasising both the abrasive charm of a macho posture, but also its suicidal boneheadedness. In this regard The Wrestler might well be the full stop at the end of eight years of neo-con government.

three monkeys (d nuri bilge ceylan, w. ceylan & ebru ceylan / ercan kessel)

This was the last film he watched before fleeing England. His pursuers not really external, they were internal, and besides, it might have been argued that the true object of his flight resided in the place he was headed for.

Was Three Monkeys an appropriate film to watch under these circumstances? I would like to be able to tell the reader that yes, this film was the one that compounded or concretised or validated or whatever other mangled word sprung to mind his flight. That in its brooding Istanbul melodramacy, he perceived a key which neither his hometown nor the place of his flight had ever revealed. That as he watched the, (it emerged) revelatory titled Three Monkeys, the key turned, his lock was sprung, and he prised from the narrative’s own locked algorithm the solution to it all.

However, to suggest this would be to deceive. And although deceit and its consequences were the raw materials of Three Monkeys, and although the film did indeed brood with an intense, near-catastrophic Turkish gloom, signalled by random events whose significance would never be known, only gleaned, (the son’s assault; the man’s visit to the mosque; the son’s brutal vomiting; the wife’s red nightdress), these things in the end cloyed his impatient mind, (impatient to flee), leaving him with a sense of frustration rather than epiphany.

Sometimes a film can skewer you to your soul; at others it skids past like a long-lost lover avoiding you in the street.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

revolutionary road (d. mendes, w.justin haythe)

Article 1. Wo sind die kinder?

Towards the end of the film, the last time the Wheelers will see one another, after their long night of the soul, April decides to pretend for the benefit of Frank, and makes him breakfast. She says something along the lines of - 'I sent the kids away, as I thought you'd like to have a quiet breakfast before your big day'. At which point one is tempted to scream: What kids! Admittedly their two children have been glimpsed, upon occasion. But miraculously, every time the Wheelers have one of their bust-ups (frequently) or invite the all-seeing mad man round for lunch (twice) or need to go out - the kids vanish. Who looks after them? Where do they go? Why are they so conveniently absent? The reason this seems important is that this is a film seeking to capture a raw emotional honesty - it could be argued its the whole premise and raison d'etre for the making of the movie - but right there you have this massive child shaped gap, suggesting a void at the heart of all this truth, a lack of emotional honesty. There's one very good dramatic reason for absenting the children so much: the movie strives to ensure that the audience retains sympathy for the Wheelers, in particular April, in spite of the nasty way they act towards one another. If the audience were to glimpse the suffering their actions imparted to their children, their sympathy quotient would plummet.

Article 2. Paradise Lost involves losing a paradise.

The film opens with a roadside argument. It feels as though this will be a pivotal moment. The rot has set in and the slide towards marital disintegration has begun. This is fair enough. Except that, within the context of the film, it's not a pivotal moment. Because the audience is never shown what has been lost. We're asked to buy into the notion that the Wheelers possessed some unique, Fitzgeraldian glow, without being given any evidence for it. (If there is any template for Revolutionary Road the movie, not the book which I haven't read, it's surely  Tender is The Night, which endows the Divers with a similar, although articulated mystique.) A few fragmentary flashbacks aside, the narrative dwells exclusively in the section of the arc that has crossed the yardarm. In effect, what this means is that an audience's real reason for accepting the (vital) premise that these characters have something magical about them (which they lose) is the fact they're played by very famous and beautiful people. Which is a bit of a trick, when all's said and done - the conceit being that because these very famous and beautiful people are so special, then the Wheelers must be too. 

Article 3: The Meta-narrative. 

This is a bit more discursive. Mendes has been the key overseer over recent decades in the evolution of a kind of boutique theatre, initiated at the Donmar, his highly successful London HQ, a product of its late-Thatcher, Blairite era. This has seen the creation of a meticulously cast and packaged brand of theatre, which takes calculated risks to create an expensive cultural product, consumed avariciously by its affluent consumers. A couple of years ago Mendes quit the Donmar, in part to exercise his ambitions to make movies, in part, one likes to think, because he recognised that what he was doing there was, in a way, creatively bankrupt. An exercise in capitalism as much as theatre. In this sense, Mendes was, within the meta-narrative of the film, Frank Wheeler. Around the time he quit he also hooked up with Winslet, who is April within the meta-narrative as well as the film. Winslet, a partner whose filmic cultural framework offers Mendes the opportunity for redemption. It comes as no surprise that much of the film becomes an exercise in Mendes capturing Winslet, luminescent, tragic, striving towards a broader personal frontier, striving to get to Paris. The raw emotional honesty Revolutionary Road seeks to capture is testament to their brave new creative world. However, just as it's harder for a rich man to get to heaven than not enjoy the sight of Kidman taking her clothes off on the Donmar stage, the last place to go in search of raw emotional truth-telling is Hollywood. Where the very budgets themselves conspire to wrap your truths in a tasteful package of well-framed shots with excessive amounts of extras. No matter how desperately hand-held it all gets towards the conclusion. Hollywood cannot offer the Wheelers cinematic redemption. There's only one place to go for that, but you have to be able to speak the language. And that's Paris.

My friend told me in the pub after watching the film that if you're on facebook you can poke Godard. Maybe Sam should give him a nudge and see if that spawns the missing children.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

the brief wondrous life of oscar wao (junot diaz)

To start at the beginning of our relationship. Mine and Junot's. There's a certain novelistic circularity. Back in 1994, when I was given the nickname Y&T, and living in Montevideo, a North American friend, who I would never see again, called Chrissie Ehrick, who was studying some aspect of the politics of Battle and its relationship to feminism, I suspect, gave me a book called Drown to read, written she said, by a New Yorker. And although there was plenty going on that year, more than enough to keep me busy, I read it.

Drown was a collection of short stories that propelled Diaz onto the map as a literary prodigy. Apart from the fact it seemed more hispanic than gringo, I can't for the life of me remember a thing about it.  Not a character nor a storyline. I don't even remember if I liked it.

Fast forward fifteen years (that's quite a few years in relationship-time) and I, on the point of returning to Montevideo for my first extended stay since 1994, find myself reading Diaz again. Not that he's been exactly prolific. God knows what he's been up to all this time, but it certainly hasn't been getting books published. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was only published last year. As is the way of relationships, I've changed and so has he. Although how much I can't tell, as I don't remember what he used to be like. But I do know he's grown up into a full-blooded novelist, and whatever stopped him writing novels (or getting stuff published) for fifteen years didn't mean he wasn't working on it. (I'll wikipedia him in a moment and no doubt all will be revealed.)

This book wouldn't have had as much of an impact on me back then, just like I don't think he'd have written it. Why? Because, it is, in large part, about growing up. The pains of. Underneath the book, hidden away in the corners, is a narrator, who grows up alongside Oscar and his sister Lola, his story tucked away in the margins. Maybe that's Junot, maybe it's not, he sure as hell flirts with making us think it might be.

Or maybe Junot has more in common with the tragic nerd, Oscar, the hero of his book. Or one of them. Not every day a book manages to make one of nature's losers into its hero, but Oscar is all these things. Hero, nerd and loser. Cursed by the fate of his family, and the family cursed by the island they come from. An island cursed by Columbus, and maybe whoever else came before him.

Like all the best books, he says with gross generalisation, The Brief Life is about a lot of things: Trujillo; Dictators; The Dominican Republic; girls; boys; sex; grannies; moms; growing up, and its eternally recurring inevitability. Threaded through the book are enough literary references to keep his students happy (the flyleaf tells us Snr Diaz has been teaching). But more importantly, threaded though the book, is a warm skein of what they call, in the places they know it, humanity. Which preserves the nerds and history's losers, in spite of the power of the ones who think they're winning. 

In one of his many footnotes, Diaz mentions Rushdie with reference to the constant clash of dictators and writers. He says that the reason dictators feel threatened by writers is they recognise competition when they see it. Through telling the simple stories of good people who suffered at the hands of the bad guys, with all bad guy roads in the Dominican Republic leading to Trujillo, Diaz adds his shot to the war between writers and dictators, doing his best to ensure that history's last words won't be written by the 'winners'. So, in addition to the fact this is a beautifully written, very funny and kind of moving and all those other key novel-ticking- boxes book... The Brief Life is also deeply political, and that's just another reason why you should be reading it before you go to Montevideo, or the pub, or the succeeding phase of adulthood, or wherever it is you're headed to next.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

woman in mind (w&d ayckbourn)

The heaviest snowfalls in 18 years mean that the West End has virtually closed. Ayckbourn's new, last play has corralled a few punters in from dark shows, and the Vaudeville is perhaps a third full. I'm there as I'd booked my ticket a while ago, to see Mr Paul Kemp, a Stephen Joseph regular, do his thing. It has been noted before somewhere else, long ago, that I don't normally review shows to which I have a personal connection (ie almost all the theatre I see) but a blend of the Blitz spirit and the subtly notable nature of the event make this an exception.

I have come to Ayckbourn late, seeing three of his shows in recent years, all of them featuring Mr Kemp. With the demise of Pinter, the stage is left to the likes of Stoppard, Churchill and Ayckbourn from the old guard, the writers who I might have grown up knowing their names, reading their plays, before even really knowing what theatre was. Pinter and Ayckbourn both started off as actors. They had a keen understanding of the way a stage can be used, and what makes an audience hold their breath, largely as a result of striving to achieve the latter on a regular basis. They also understood why people, from all walks of life, want to and enjoy coming to a theatre. 

Now Ayckbourn is also bowing out. Woman in Mind is supposed to be his last show. He's written thirty thousand of them, or more, perhaps. It's worth speculating on the fate of the later ones. History can't really hold up more than a dozen or so plays by most writers: the rest wither away, the province of scholars or sectarian freaks. Wise writers cut back as they get older, but Ayckbourn, like the Stones, doesn't know the meaning of the word, stop, he's kept on rolling, his plays guaranteed an audience in his Scarborough outpost, getting the odd staging in New York, or being turned into a French film.

Woman in Mind opens with a woman, Susan, lying on a grass lawn, as Mr Kemp talks gobbledygook to her. She has two families, one of them imaginary and ideal, the other real and deeply imperfect. Gradually she and the audience realise that the imaginary one is just that: no-one else can see them, they are the product of her mind, probably caused by stepping on a rake. (That old chestnut, the old chestnut chortled.) The play becomes a dialectic, these two worlds, one real, one seemingly not, interacting in Susan's mind, as she tries to cope with her disfunctional family and her own frustrations. This dialectic leads towards the most surprising and (almost) sad of syntheses, the audience no longer certain if the play has been set in her garden or her mind, as the curtain falls on a woman speaking gibberish, the last words of a man who's said so many. 

Every play I've seen of Mr Ayckbourn's has left me somewhat dissatisfied, and this is no exception. The last surreal scene might be a cop-out, meaning the narrative never quite comes to the boil it deserves. However, with Woman In Mind this really didn't bother me. Because Woman in Mind contains enough theatrical genius in its little finger to make it worth the entrance fee and the trek across an Arctic city. The punters who'd missed out on Oliver and found themselves transferred to her will never know how lucky they were.

I've never read Marivaux, but this is what I imagine Marivaux feels like. The play between the real and the unreal, the flesh and the mind, something that only a play can play at, is dazzling, funny and always disorientating. In a sense it's very simple, but that simplicity, as every fool knows, is an act of brilliant contrivance. The way in which this simple device is used gives us a sign that theatre can still be fresh, can still play with our minds; and it shows us how much fun it is to have our minds played with, by someone who knows. Who still knows how.