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.