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.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

nazi literature in the americas [bolaño]

Nazi Literature is something of a conceit. The book consists of approximately thirty short biographies of fictional American writers with some kind of right wing affiliation. Also included is a list of publishing houses, secondary figures, and a complete bibliography. Some of the characters are monsters, but just as many are losers, or curious anomalies within their worlds. Some of the mockery is brutal and extremely funny; some of it is almost tender, in its portrayal of these slightly pathetic figures, and their lacklustre literary efforts. Indeed, the more unsuccessful the writer, the more Bolaño seems to sympathise with them. I once discovered an interview with him online where he was talking about how much he respected the writers that never get anywhere, who fade into obscurity, and it seems as though, in some bizarre way, the writers in this book are the alter-egos or step-siblings of the poets who populate the first part of The Savage Detectives. As though even if they are Nazi murderers, Bolaño finds it hard to speak ill of a fellow writer.

The writing is always crisp and liable to snap, crackle or pop with little jokes or surprises. It's neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, but rather the articulation of a strange, parallel world to the one the writer knew. The final story, dealing with Carlos Hoffman who will reappear in Distant Star, is the one that knits the personal and the fictional together, as Bolaño himself claims to have witnessed the mystical sky-poetry of the freakish and terrifying Hoffman, part of the death squads which might, once upon a time, have claimed his life.

It's a little odd reading Bolaño now, a year and a half on from making his discovery. After 2666's publication, he has started to become known to a wider public; in my circle he's one of those writers who people know of but might never get round to reading. There are more of his books waiting to be translated, but Nazi Literature is the last of his currently translated works left for me to get teeth into. It's hard to put a finger on what he's actually done, but like all the writers one chooses to consider (or who insist upon one discovering them to be) great, Bolaño's works seem to have constructed some kind of universe of their own, a universe which might also be a benchmark for the one we inhabit, or might just be a benchmark for the possibilities of writing, or fiction, which might also be a benchmark for the possibilities of the universe, be it the one we inhabit or one of the ones we don't. Part of being a writer is to remake the world anew for the readers who read you, and convince those readers that your vision has something that gives it an import or a value which they cannot ignore. Perhaps there's a secret fascism involved in the very process of writing; the imposition of one person's will on a vast swathe of others. Certainly many of the writers listed in the Nazi Literature have an unhealthy charisma, and many become cult figures, revered by their readers (although others do perish in complete obscurity). Bolaño's politics never seem to be much of an issue, what with him having pitched in against Pinochet, and sided so ostentatiously with the Left (the key decision for anyone of his generation was which side were you on, and having met a few Chileans of his age, you can see that this decision may well have been one they were then stuck with forever); however Bolaño's fascination with the right (thinking in particular of the last part of 2666) may well have a subtle connection with his understanding of how writing itself works, how the will, or charisma, of a single soul can be transmuted to hold sway over so many. Including, in his case, myself, my own universe marginally reshaped, in some way, by my reading of the strange world of Mr B.

Monday, 6 July 2009

apologia (w. alexi kaye campbell, d. josie rourke)

Sometimes you just have to lay your cards on the table. I don't rate David Hare. I regret the fact that, seemingly forever, he has been allowed to use the National's main stages as his personal salon. His work seems mediocre and parochial, whilst aspiring to be subtle and politically sophisticated. The dialogue tends to stutter off the page, and the characters are like something created by a committee. And, besides his technical weaknesses as a playwright, something which the scale of his intent allows him to gloss over, it is hard to stomach the way in which he seems to have taken it upon himself to pretend to be a kind of moral compass of society, a society which, the more he claims to represent it, the further he seems to be from it.

Years ago, however, I confess, I saw the film of his play, Wetherby (I think it was), whilst in York. And the film registered. There was a dinner party scene where a stranger, as I remember it, started talking about reclaiming words, and then listed some of them. Words like faith or politics or all that. There was something vaguely Nietzschean about all this, and at the time, as a good 20 year old, I enjoyed my Nietzsche.

All of this springs to mind after seeing Campbell's play. Which also explores middle class mores, in a rural setting, round a dinner table, as did Wetherby. The play details the conflict between a radical art historian and her two sons, who still believe themselves to be suffering from the neglect she showed them as children. The play uses the unities of time, place and action fairly rigourously and to good effect. Campbell's dialogue is witty and he isn't scared to throw surprises into the characterisation, with a blond American christian, a flamboyant elderly gay and a soap star blended into the family mix. It takes a bold dramatic turn in the third scene, where the ensemble approach is thrown away with the scene consisting of a dialogue between the mother and her second, troubled son, who arrives and leaves in the middle of the night. The last act becomes somewhat stagey, as characters enter and exit in order to facilitate a succession of closing moments, not of all which feel strictly necessary, and the conversion of the American christian from ditzy laughing stock to moral touchstone seems a little off kilter. However, these are caveats and all in all, the piece marks out its intention to explore the consequences of our political attitudes or non-attitudes effectively, using the generational divide to explore the differences between a current apoliticised culture and the fabled, more radical sixties.

In other words, Campbell is a writer prepared to take a standpoint on the state of our moral-political consciousness, and with enough skill to convince an audience that his standpoint is worth paying attention to. Which is where the comparison with Hare becomes apposite. Given my stated opinions about Hare, and my enjoyment of Apologia, I'm obviously inclined to say that I hope this doesn't prove to be the Wetherby within Campbell's career. There are points of comparison between the two writers (and god knows we need a new Hare to replace the old one as soon as we can find one), but there does seem, for now, to be one very clear difference. Hare suffers from a chronic tendency to take himself too seriously (a not uncommon occurrence with British writers who achieve success in the world of letters). This leads to a sense of humour bypass, which means the humour he tries to inject is stilted and contrived. In Apologia, in contrast, Campbell clearly relishes his ability to use humour as an effective tool to engage the audience. Whilst the third scene showcases his capacity for gripping drama, the rest of the play is suffused with wit in its dialogue and characterisation. Humour, as a good dramatist knows, works against pretension, and Campbell's use of humour holds out the promise that he won't turn into the next Hare. And that an equally jaundiced critic, 20 years down the line, won't be using him as an example to scare a writer from the next generation who emerges with the rare vision and talent to write engaging politicised theatre.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

montano [enrique vila-matas]

My father used to work for a firm called Monsanto. I am tempted to begin an account of my experiences with regard to Montano thus, and indeed I find myself succumbing to temptation. My father was called Jean Paul Sartre and he was also my uncle. He was their in-house writer and his journal only came into my hands after his death. In which I discovered that he, Sartre, wasn't my father after all, he was just pretending to be my father. Or I was pretending to be his son. The distinction isn't clear. Or rather it doesn't always make sense, as I discovered when we were both in Buenos Aires for a while, without realising it, and I saw him crossing the road and called out to him and then chased after him and when I caught up with him he had become Cortazar, and he denied all knowledge of me, and told me that just because I thought he was part of my narrative it didn't mean that he necessarily was.

Or something like that. And repeat. I confess, speaking as neither my father nor as Cortazar nor as either of the Thomas', Pynchon or Bernard, that I found it hard, taxing, at times, to get my head around the book written by Enrique Vila-Matas which is known as Montano. In contrast to the concision of Bartleby, this is a novel that gyrates around itself in ever increasing circles, and they have a way of making the reader dizzy. In trying to write about the truth; or write the truth; or see which truths the truth will allow him to tell, Vila-Matas leads himself and his readership on a merry dance, waltzing along with Walser, and Musil and Kafka and Dickinson, and plenty more besides. In the end, rather than trying to make sense of the ever charming narrator's narrative, you just have to go with it, and trust that as he (I wanted to write 'or she?' but realise that if there's one thing we know for sure about this deceptive/ deceitful narrator it's that he is a he) sorts out his marriage and his literature sickness and his romantic tendencies, we, his readership, will pick up nuggets along the way which will be worth the treasuring.

And of course, Vila-Matas being the bibliophile he is, we do. As to what it all means, without wanting to sound malevolently Anglo-Saxon, search me guv, but there's fruit on the trees to be plucked, nurtured by the writer's fair hand. Two quotations from Montaigne towards the book's conclusion struck me as amongst the finest things you can read, and in a sense Vila-Matas is the writer as guide, shepherding his flock through the pastures of literature, saying don't worry about the terrain underfoot, just look at the views; and don't be scared of strangers. Even if they do turn out to be your father. Because in the Vila-Matas world of literature, everyone's your parent or your child. And he's probably got a point.