Saturday, 31 October 2009

terra amata (w j.m.g le clezio)

Strange the things you can come across in an airport bookshop. I discovered Le Clezio's book at Stanstead, and read it on the way to Jerez and back. Apart from the fact I'd never seen anything of the mysterious Franco-Anglo Nobel prizewinner in print in the UK (turns out there's quite a few available), I was also seduced by the introductory note, which playfully introduces the book to reader in an offbeat, disarmingly intimate style.

The book recounts the life of a man, Chancelade, from cradle to grave. It does so in a succession of poetic sketches, patched together like a quilt. Some passages seem normal enough, a meeting on a beach, or a funeral described; others are esoteric in the extreme. A meeting in a cafe described entirely in terms of hand signals, or a scrawled child's picture, and the list goes on. Le Clezio likes to tease and torment his readers; in many ways this is whimsical nouvelle vague Frenchiness, Godard at his least political playing strip poker with Michaux, whilst Baudrillard, Lyotard & co discuss whether it's all really happening and even if it is, what it therefore means isn't happening.

So, if you like that kind of thing, you'll relish Terra Amata. For my part, I found myself surfing the book more than ever; although written in the sixties it feels more like a blog than a novel. Some parts engaged, others less so. However, the literary ingenuity was constantly in evidence, and the writer's ability to create passages of poetic power indisputable. At the same time, within a sometimes parochial British culture, I am occasionally mocked for a tendency to read 'intense' or 'heavy' texts, (which are primarily described so because the original language in which they were written was not English). Most of the books I read seem far more approachable than people would ever suspect, but Terra Amata definitely slots into the more esoteric side of the bookshelf.

It was also somewhat disconcerting to discover the following announcement on page 23, written in such a way that it stands out from the text:

JUNE 11, 1966


Monday, 26 October 2009

the event [saer]

The Event opens in gripping fashion. After a virtuoso description of a wild flock of horses, careering across the Pampas, the narrative shifts to mid 19th century Europe, recounting the adventures of Bianco, a Maltese anti-matter wizard. Bianco can not only bend spoons, he can also read minds and see beneath the surface of the stuff the world knows as matter. Bianco, the novel assures us, is no charlatan. So powerful is he that the mysterious but reactionary positivists gang up on him in Paris, arranging an event where they ridicule him, eventually forcing him to flee Europe for the quieter waters of Argentina.

All of which is narrated at a lick, with the text proving to be both metaphysical speculation and gripping yarn. However, the pace changes as Bianco settles in Argentina, as he abandons his experiments, flirts with becoming an entrepeneur, and grows suspicious of his young, pregnant wife.

The narrative becomes increasingly enigmatic, or hermetic, as it traces Bianco's journey, a journey that appears to be leading him towards a loss of his gifts as well as a loss of faith in the world. There's something a little frustrating about the way Saer lets his story drift away, ending on an abrupt note, the author taking care to construct a narrative which is wilfully anti-dramatic. Perhaps Saer, like his leading character, suspected that his novel possessed hints of greatness, but shied away from fully grappling with the consequences of what this greatness might really mean, or even what form it might have taken.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

ajami (w&d scandar copti, yaron shani)

Ajami has apparently been nominated for the best foreign film at next year's Oscars. Already. Something of a curse, by and large, as it signals a worthy if uninspiring piece that has done enough to suggest its importance without in any way shaking up Hollywood's great and good.

As it opens, Ajami, a crime drama, has more than a touch of that perennial non-Oscar winner Scorcese about it. It promises to be gritty, high-octane film making, with a swaggering but loveable gangster as its lead. The film's structure then moves in a sideways direction. The narrative is broken up into chapters, which float in time as they describe a drugs deal gone wrong in black humoured fashion.

Ajami is named after a suburb of Jaffa, a predominantly Arabic part of Israel. The film is co-directed by an Arab and a Jewish Israeli, and the narrative shifts between the country's religious communities (a key character is also Christian). Probably more than its adept and subtle aesthetics, this multi-faith approach explains the Oscar nomination. But the way in which the film reveals the complexities of modern Israel, a state more sectarian than anyone realises (with the constant focus on the Palestinian territories) is impressive. A Jewish man engages in what seems like an amiable debate about his neighbour's animals, which keep him awake, and the debate ends in bloodshed. Another man (played by one of the directors) is a Palestinian with a Jewish girlfriend, spending half his life dancing in Tel Aviv nightclubs and the other half hanging out in his Palestinian hood. Language creates a constant faultline, and the problems the country faces come across as, in many ways, even more complex than they are portrayed in the media.

Ajami is a slow burner, and the fractured narrative is sometimes challenging, but in the end its both a film which succeeds in being both politically and cinematically powerful, and perhaps deserves better than to be honoured by the elite of a Hollywood Academy.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

gigante (d&w adrian biniez)

So, I was asked as we left the cinema by Mssrs W&P, was that a Montevideo you recognised?

To which the answer is in many ways no; in some ways yes; and as we all know, at the end of the day its irrelevant.

The no is easiest. One of the temptations of filming your hometown is to almost take ownership of it through the choice of what you show and what you don't show. Biniez resists this temptation. This is a neutral Montevideo, which doesn't attempt to capture the city's beauty and doesn't feature the city as a character. Even the two scenes on the Rambla are framed so that the rolling beach within the city is underplayed, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the sly significance the city's beaches are given within the narrative.

The yes is harder. Gigante is in essence a character study. The lumbering Jara, played with flashes of surprising humanity by Horacio Camandule, dominates. He's present in every scene, and the film obeys one of the diktats which states that movies should have a clear protagonist partaking of an understandable journey. In amongst this, there are a few glimpses of la vida cotidiana in Montevideo. Waiting for a bus; walking over cracked pavements; perhaps having too much time on your hands. But by and large, this is what they call a universal story, one that could be taking place almost anywhere.

Which is why any search to glimpse Montevideo through its lens is irrelevant. As well as being part of its artfulness. Gigante comes from the Stoll/ Rebella stable. Their art is to create small films, which glorify the common man or woman. Gigante shares Whisky's understated tone, and does what it does effectively. One is inclined to hanker for bigger themes, addressing wider material, but perhaps, in an evolving film industry, these will have to wait.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

burrowing (w&d henrik hellström, fredrik wenzel)

Burrowing is the kind of film for which film festivals are made. This is not going to be on general or even marginal release in the cine plazas of Great Britain anytime soon. It's a slow/ meditative/ ponderous (delete as appropriate) film which is part Swedish social realism and part essay on the thin line between nature and civilisation.

The film follows four characters to varying degrees as they drift around a low rise Swedish housing estate which borders some woods. One seemingly cracks up, grabs a canoe, and paddles off into the distance never to be seen again. Another, an immigrant who tries to stab fish in a stream, breaks into a Lidl carpark, never to be seen again. The third is a young boy, who also narrates (although his role as narrator, established at the start, seemingly fizzles out as the film unfolds) who seems to have an anti-social streak which is never developed and ends up going awol in the woods. The last character, the most charismatic, is a man who is never seen without his young child, usually in his arms. We learn he doesn't have keys to his home, which he shares with his parents. There's no sign of the mother. At one point he picks up a canoe paddle and assaults a neighbour with it, before immersing himself in a lake with his son, the fear of death by drowning endowing the scene with a fearsome tension.

The four characters don't really have narratives, and their non-narratives never overlap. This is whimsical cinema, composed of elegiac crane shots and a roving, spying camera. The voiceover is hacked together from Thoreau quotes. There are moments of beauty, and moments of torpor. However, the scenes where the man, cradling his son as he stumbles through the forest or immerses himself in a lake, have a strange power to them. The English title, which as well as Thoreau seems to have Kafkaesque connotations, declares the film's intention to get beneath the surface, to find some kind of deeper truths. It's not altogether clear whether it has pulled this off, but there's no doubt the intrepid Swedish directorial team are embarked on some kind of unorthodox investigation, even if it's one that sometimes runs the risk of going over the heads of its audience, rather than under the surface.

Friday, 16 October 2009

katalin varga (w&d peter strickland)

A couple of girls giggle at Katalin when she asks them the way to the village in the hills. You don't want to go up there, they chortle. When she thanks them for showing her the way, they say, don't thank us, no-one wants to go there.

When Katalin gets to the village it turns out to be the sort of place Guardian readers (such as myself) imagine visiting for an eco-holiday. Transylvania is pretty, wooded, meadowed, just about beyond the boundaries of modern Europe. Accessible by car or horse and cart. You wouldn't want not to go there. Although made a few years ago, Katalin Varga is the second film released this year which suggests that there's something nasty in the woods waiting for us all. However, unlike Von Trier's pre-menstrual, pre-historic savagery, Varga's woods are pretty and enticing.

The film has been made on a shoe string and has been a breakout festival success. Whilst one takes one's hat off to the director for his achievement, and whilst his film has a self-contained, prosaic feel, miles from the Von Trier's extravagant dramatics, the narrative ends up feeling a little slight, and the denoument so understated it comes as a shock, though not a jolt. Whilst there's a concise folk-tale-ness to the ending, it was hard not to think that it disguised the lack of a third act. Also hard not to suspect that part of the reason for the film's success was the way in which it conveyed this seemingly pre-lapserian countryside, which turns out to be alluring rather than threatening to a European festival audience, no matter what it holds for Katalin herself.