Tuesday, 23 June 2009

tree of smoke [denis johnson]

Tree of Smoke is an epic Vietnam novel which was published in 2007. Straightaway, in that one sentence, there's a great big Why forming. Or several. Why another Vietnam novel? And why now?

The novel appears to be impeccably researched and assiduously structured. It covers the years 1963-70, with a coda set in 1983. Each year has its own chapter. The book doesn't reach Vietnam until 1965, having started in the Philippines, the States, and other parts of South East Asia. There is a cast of about half a dozen characters, most of whom are connected in some way to the mythical 'Colonel', who is the uncle of the man who might be the main protagonist, Skip Sands. The Colonel has a Kurtzian approach to the war, believing that the constrictions imposed by bureaucracy and the rules of engagement will lead to defeat. He sets up his own mini-kingdom near the front line, which is attacked during the Tet Offensive. Eventually the Colonel's enemies within the CIA get the better of him. However, dynamic though his story sounds, it's but a part of the tale, and much of the attention focuses on Skip, who spends most of the war hidden away in an old French villa, reading and translating the books which the doctor who used to live there left behind. One of the passages he translates is by Artaud, the reference acting like a small hinge opening a door onto Johnson's underlying poetic ambitions.

Because for all the keenly noted detail, and the sense of place which is conjured up, the book often feels as though its only tangentially concerned with the Vietnam war. It's actually something of a character study, as half a dozen personalities including a North Vietnamese spy, an aid worker, and an infantryman, explore their minds against the backdrop of war's chaos. These characters are constantly reaching for philosophical truths to guide them through the chaos, truths which might offer some reason for soldiering on within a grubby world, truths that might help them maintain a faith in idealism, or God, or their country. Nowhere is this clearer than in the 80s coda when Storm, one of the more marginal characters up to now, ends his search for the colonel by participating in what looks like becoming a savage kind of sacrificial ritual. There's a constant search going on for meaning, a search that might be military, or might be studious, or might be self-sacrificing, or might just be venal.

Vietnam itself acts as the epic backdrop for these human struggles. The book feels like it's been unashamedly written in the shadow of all the Vietnam literature and movies that have gone before it, from Despatches to Apocalypse Now. However, there are also occasional hints of the other US wars being waged right now, as when a reference to capturing 'hearts and minds' leaps out of the text. The tree of smoke itself refers to a variety of things, including the cloud formed by an atomic bomb. Johnson might be intimating with these references and allusions that the US has and always will be a bellicose nation, something that those who come in contact with it need to understand; a state of being which has philosophical implications, shaping the way in which we think and act.

Or maybe this is a vague and unhelpful reading. However, Johnson's text, with its arcane poetics, appears to be inviting or provoking analysis: the very title itself, with its biblical connotations, seems to beseech interpretation. It's a book which self-consciously lays out the many levels it can be read on: part wartime saga; part lost book of the old testament; part poetic exegesis of the state of the writer's nation.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

accident (d. losey, w. pinter)

I mooted the idea of seeing Accident to a few people, but got no takers. There was a sizeable audience at NFT3 last night, but all the same, it would appear that the film doesn't resonate with my contemporaries, although one gets the feeling that Joanna Hogg may well have been influenced by it along with her Antonioni. Another modern director who sprang to mind, as they say, during the carefully composed opening shot, is Hanecke, another artist who favours extended takes and the action taking place off-screen.

Pinter Losey, Losey Pinter. As I left it crossed my mind that Pinter never directed his own scripts, but perhaps its because in Losey he found someone who could do it better than him. Losey's US perspective presumably helped him to enjoy the nuances of Pinter's vision. A great film script needs silence just as much as words, and Losey knew this, framing Pinter's extravagantly brilliant dialogue with long, slow lazy takes where nothing is said and very little seems to be happening.

[A small personal aside: when The Boat People was written, the lawn scene in Accident was in the back of the writer's mind, even though it had been so long since I'd seen it, at York I suspect.] The film uses the space of the lawn to emphasise the participants togetherness and separation. It's an acutely English vista - continentals would be sitting round a table, as in the end happened in Boat People - but one that Losey's swooping camera understands, also understanding the technicalities of how to use sound to make the scene work. I've got a feeling that most of the film uses ADR, and is none the worse for it, indeed, in the London sequence, it's used with a Godardian flourish.

This Is England, the piece might have been called, because for all its lack of council estates, skinheads or modernity; and in spite of rather than because of the cutesy shots of Oxford, Accident conjures up the nature of how the English communicate (or rather don't), how they love (or rather don't), and how they speak (and sometimes don't). It doesn't matter where you come from, these methods of living are going to rub off on you if you're 'English'. Codes and cruelty. A man reads the letter of his wife to his friend about that man's infidelity whilst the friend cooks an omelette and the man's new girlfriend observes. The man than starts to eat the omelette, in spite of an avowed lack of hunger, something that's too much for the Austrian, no matter how cool she is. The steely brilliance of this and other scenes compensate for their apparent theatricality, whilst also reminding the cinemagoer that cinema is drama first and spectacle second. However, the film is in some ways a kind of perfect storm of Englishness: sprinklers in the rain; cricket; punting; japes, booze. And sex, although more in the longing than the act. A spectacle of Englishness.

Pinter himself appears in a comic cameo, although its hard not to feel as though he's enjoying himself a little too much as the actor, freed of responsibilities. And then there's his wife, Vivien Merchant, the woman he cheated on and later divorced, as she went quietly nuts, playing the most intransigently sane character of the lot. Playing a betrayed wife in a film written by her husband who might have been betraying her at the time, or if he wasn't she surely knew would one day. (And perhaps also suspected he would write a play about it called nothing less than Betrayal). Seeming to savour being given hard no-nonsense lines to say about affairs and the men and women who play those silly games. All of which feels so English its almost French.

For my money, and of course in the end this all comes down to personal taste, the ability to create a work of drama where, ostensibly, next to nothing happens, but in which so much is happening that you can't look away for a second for fear that a word or a gesture missed will mean the viewer loses the key to the whole damned plot, is not a bad trick to be able to pull off. Because what is all this malarkey but the games we play, and the pleasure we get from playing them? The film that can reveal this, played out like 90 minutes of chess or bar billiards, or cheese rolling...or cricket... and keep you hooked and leave you much the wiser... must be some kind of fluke. Nothing less than an accident.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

collaboration (w ronald harwood, d philip franks)

The West End on a Monday night is quiet, but there's still a decent turn out for Harwood's play. The play deals with the relationship between Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig. The material contains many of the requisites of a solid drama: two strong characters facing personal conflicts, leading to inevitable conflict with one another. This is a solid, old fashioned kind of play, which some would call well-written and others might describe as fusty. It's a showcase for the two lead actors, (Michael Pennington and David Horovitch) who seem to enjoy the somewhat stilted nature of their relationship, and who work effectively enough opposite one another.

This is theatre as it used to be (perhaps?) - people talking to one another, a playwright unfurling his point of view, acting as much as educator as entertainer. It's hard not to long for a little more provocation: everything is sagely observed, humanely described, Strauss' dilemma is articulated but never really entered, and all along there's something strangely passionless about the process, even including the scene where Zweig and his wife prepare to commit suicide. The lines about the inevitable corruption of politicians drew knowing laughs, and the audience seemed engaged, in a highly British, disengaged, manner.

It seemed a bit worrying that I found myself longing for the Nazis to arrive, and indeed the scenes with Goebbel's assistant (played with some vim by Martin Huston) were the ones which seemed to generate the most edge, the greatest sense of drama. Harwood has made something of a late career out of shrewd dramas taking a sideways look at the Nazi heritage. Acute though many of his observations clearly are, in the end this felt like one of those fifties British war movies, starring Kenneth More. The drama depends on the quality of the villain, and no-one did villains like the Nazis. Meaning in the end that the piece has a somewhat facile, simplistic feel, in spite of its ostensible complexity, and one emerges in a not dissimilar frame of mind to how one might have come out of a history class about Genghis Khan at the age of 14. Intrigued as much as disturbed, and a long way from truly getting to grips with the reality of what it might have been like to have to put up with Genghis Khan in the flesh; or, in the case of Collaboration, have to live through the barbarism of the Nazi era.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

let the right one in (d. tomas alfredson; w.john lindqvist)

Swedish vampire flick. Electric cinema. Not obvious doe-eyed territory but word of mouth does its bit, and consequently I find myself sitting in the most comfortable cinema seat I've ever been in at 11 o'clock on a Monday morning, feet up on the leather foot-rest (sic) waiting for the Smiths to kick in.

Context. Leather foot-rests because that's what you get if you go to the Electric and don't sit in the first three rows. Where you still get the comfortable chair. There was only five people in the cinema, so although I got the discount seat, I craftily re-located. The only thing is you wouldn't want to watch anything too demanding, because these are siesta-seats, ideal for snoozing. If the question were to arise, 'Can a cinema seat be too comfortable?', you would have to cite the Electric. A far cry from the last time I went there, twenty five years ago, to watch a Bergman double bill. Before I knew anything at all. The Smiths, because one of the few things I'd gleaned about the film was that the title is apparently a line from a Smiths song, though I'm not sure which, and was hoping to be enlightened.

I wasn't. The film is set sometime towards the end of the Brezhnev years. Not something I would have guessed had his name not been mentioned in a news report. The chunky Swedish Ikea fashions have come round again, so the Brezhnev namecheck came as something of a surprise, and also seemed to show that you can do a period piece set in recent decades without wigs or silly costumes or laboured historical references. Perhaps if I was Swedish I'd have been more clued in to the cultural nuances, but on another level what the film succeeds in doing is taking you away from your previous assumptions about Sweden in the 80s or, more importantly, what a vampire flick should be like. Replacing these assumptions with a beautifully shot world all of its own.

Hoyte Van Hoytem is the cinematographer, and the film is something of a personal triumph for him (or her?), with the director making the most of his (or her) talents. Much of the film, this being a vampire movie, is set after the sun has set, and the lighting is beautifully composed, capturing the stillness of a snowbound Swedish night. The editing is also measured, the shots allowed to linger for just long enough to resonate, to make the viewer look rather than merely see. Added to this, the performances of the two child stars are beguiling, their relationship completely believable. The film makes a virtue of its lack of showiness: we know that Eli can fly, but we never see her doing so; we know Oskar wants to stab someone, but he never does. Whilst there is blood-letting, this too is done with restraint, with the director sensitive to the fact that the sight of a 12 year old girl's mouth swathed in blood is probably more disconcerting than a vampire sucking blood from an unfortunate Swede's neck.

The word of mouth was right. Let The Right One In is an effective, tender film, made with a great deal of skill. Watching the film, and in spite of the slightly tortuous plotting in the final third, you always feel as though you're in the hands of film makers who know what they're up to, who don't try and overwhelm you with their genius, preferring to let their genius creep up on you and suck your blood when you're least expecting it. I'm not sure if Bergman would have been proud of it, but if every film I ever see at the Electric is Swedish and lives up to the tradition which has been set I'll be back there, in the cheap seats again.