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.