Friday, 5 November 2010

noberto apenas tarde (w&d daniel hendler)

The voice of the critic has been in hibernation in South America. The critic has been to see one other film, New York Stories, a faintly catastrophic mesh of impressions that added up to less than the sum of its parts should have done.

Apart from that, it's been deep immersion in zombies and Pinter. No time for cinema going. And, truth be told, little inspiration to service the habit. However, energy was summoned to go and see Hendler's whimsical Montevidean tale. For the obvious reason that it depicts the city in which I'm currently living, and also because the leading man, Fernando Amaral happened to be participating in a series of Pinter workshops I was giving at the Galpon. Because it's like that here. Fernando is now rehearsing a no-budget play at the same venue, and will be for the next few months. One day you're the lead in a film that's doing the festival circuit round the world, the next you're turning up at 10pm for rehearsal and working gratis. The actor's life is not that different in London, but it's a little different. Fernando is not anticipating a call from Hollywood at any moment.

His performance is remarkably composed. He holds the film together, as the ill-fated Noberto, an incompetent estate agent who decides to take theatre classes, and finds his life transformed, for better or worse. It's a low-fi tale, which succeeds in capturing a slice of the life lead on the theatrical margins of the city. The impressive Roberto Suarez, who plays his charismatic teacher, is himself a charismatic teacher, (and who we ran into in the Girasol later that night after watching the film). The world Hendler presents is only a few heartbeats away from the real; and Noberto's story could well be happening beyond the door I currently inhabit, Paysandu, esquina Roxlo y Tacuarembo.

That's the charm of Noberto. Even if the narrative fails to fully hold up, and the film rather fades away towards the end, (in this reviewer's opinion), it still succeeds in pinpointing a Montevideo which really exists, as well as the bittersweet role of theatre and the arts within the city's psyche. A retreat, but also a dream of another life. Which is perhaps what art always connected to. Not the dream of wealth or kudos: just another life, one that eclipses the humdrum of the day to day. You don't have to be very famous to experience Warhol's sixty seconds of fame. You just have to want to make that leap one day, transcend, fly for a moment, and there's the chance you'll encounter it.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

five easy pieces (d. rafelson, w. rafelson & eastman)

As mentioned I've now made the oceanic leap, but before doing so I was thankfully coerced into seeing Rafelson's small scale masterpiece, Five Easy Pieces. Killing time in Garulhos this morning, I tried to concoct a theory connecting the old world with the new, mapping it onto Nicholson's conflict as he tries to escape the (European) legacy of his family's classical music burden by whooping it up in a new (American) fashion in California's ahistorical playground.

I like the theory, largely because I was working on it having freshly arrived after a sleepless night on the wide American continent. However, in some ways it seems a bit European to pontificate thus, and I might as well listen to the American inside me, (there's an American inside us all, that's their secret, those darned Americans (Norte y Sur)), and merely laud it for its brilliance, its wit, its charm, its ability to be a film which is both recklessly entertaining and worthy of the most outlandish theories; a movie made for adults, not kids, and unashamedly so, from its dialogue to its cinematography to its unerringly acute sense of humour. And for Jack, giving one of those performances that succeeds in reminding us that there is such a thing as genius in acting. Although it requires a director who appreciates it in order to flower.

(Incidentally a brief look at Rafelson's directing career on IMDB makes it clear that his was one of the great lost Hollywood careers. Whether this is do with his own hedonistic failings, or a system that even as he was hitting his stride was running out of space for the kind of films he was capable of making is one of those debatable questions. But rarely does a director put so many feet right as Rafelson does in this strangely moving tale.)

antwerp [bolaño]

Last year, on my trip to South America, I read Bolaño. However, Antwerp is a very different kind of beast to 2666. The last was his final book, more or less, this was his first, written in 1980.

It's a dense, poetic tract, of little more than 70 pages. There's no more than hints of a narrative in a text made, like a Hanecke movie, from 56 fragments. If it's reminiscent of anyone, it might be Lautreamont, the prince of the depraved, whose great text makes little sense but still manages to sear itself on the reader's retina. It's perhaps another glimpse of the poet Bolaño claimed he wanted to be before he settled into become the novelist he truly was. The claim on the back of the book that Antwerp is "the only novel that doesn't embarrass me", seems disingenuous, and written from a position of strength. It is, as he mentions in his introduction, not the kind of book that gets published these days; the kind of book that in the late 19th century had a vast readership but in this day and age would have precious few. And those that do, would be aficionados. In a way its a book of the damned, one of those texts written by a writer with no ambitions, just the need to thread words together on a string of consciousness.

Nevertheless, I suspect that if you work it harder, if you read it carefully, repeatedly, looking for the links, not on a plane to Montevideo surrounded by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the connections it contains will gradually make themselves clearer; the artistry emerging in a fashion he later learnt to make more latent.

Monday, 9 August 2010

this blinding absence of light [tahar ben jelloun]

This is a book about a soldier who found himself involved in an abortive attempt to assassinate the King of Morocco, and as a result was incarcerated in a space without light, without room to stand up, with a meagre diet, watching his companions die one by one, for almost twenty years.

The soldier is the narrator. As much as the book is about his suffering, it is more about the techniques he developed for survival. Shutting himself from his past, and any notion of hope, he finds himself using mysticism to aid him in his struggle. This takes the form of out of body experiences, allowing him the ability to occasionally spy his corporeal self as it battles against the cruelties faced. However, whilst the body suffers, the mind retains its freedom, in large part through the narrator's refusal to fall into the trap of despair which the authorities have concocted.

As such, it's one of those books which document an experience beyond the true grasp of our understanding. An experience which can only be accessed through grave misfortune, or a sense of religious or spiritual vocation the like of which cannot exist within a day-to-day context, and is therefore never to be met. This is not to say that the book is any sense other-wordly: the ability of the narrator to find his spirituality within the context of death, disease and co-existence with his fellow inmates means that he remains an engaging voice.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Ben Jelloun's book is that it is not a work of non-fiction, but a novel. The author's capacity to enter into the voice of the actual prisoner is uncanny. This is a novel on the very borders of fact; the articulation of a voice from the underworld, which has miraculously surfaced and found its way back into the world.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

frontier blues (w&d babak jalali)

Jalali's film is a deceptively smart piece of filmmaking set in Gorgan, the filmmaker's hometown, on the Iranian-Turkmeni border.

Gorgan a kind of nowhere-ville. The film focuses on three characters. One wants to get married to an Iranian woman he never speaks to (one of only two women in the film, the other being her mother). A second, who later joins the first working in a chicken factory, is inseparable from his donkey, and pines for the mother who left him for his youth to go to Paris. The last, perhaps most adroit of the three, is a Turkmeni minstrel who is taking an Iranian photographer around. His contempt for the photographer is made clear, with the photographer constantly seeking out 'authentic Turkmeni' shots, which have no authenticity at all. On one level this leads to hilarious results, such as the staged wrestling match; on another it generates a poignancy, with the photographer constantly asking the minstrel to take him to a wedding or a funeral, only to be told that these things don't happen anymore. No one dies and no one gets married. At one point a character is asked where he wants a lift to. He replies 'nowhere', and his told to hop in, they'll take him there. Slyly, the film critiques our need to view exotic locations as romantic: with its muted cinematography, Jalali seems to be suggesting there's nothing exotic about his location at all. Instead, the carefully composed shots capture the banality and hopelessness of life in this dead-end town, only it does so with a dry, comedic tone.

Perhaps its because of its refusal to romanticise its locale in any way, (in contrast to Strickland, for example), that Frontier Blues has been slated by many British critics. As far as I'm concerned, that's an indictment of our criticism rather than the film. Frontier Blues is a slow watch, but it's peppered with moments of guile and humour which only a tired soul could fail to enjoy. Furthermore, it manages to achieve a poignancy in its depiction of the dead-end lives of its protagonists. From the shopkeeper trying to sell an oversized jumper to a boy to a man learning English so that he can communicate with people in Baku, the film is riddled with humane detail which helps to bring this obscure part of the world to life. Jalali clearly knows his world, and his portrait of it blends affection with honesty.

bus 174 (w&d josé padilha; co-directed felipe lacerda)

Subsequent to this film, Padilha moved into drama, making the slightly bombastic Elite Squad. Elite Squad was a success on many levels, and bombast and cinema make for comfortable commercial bedfellows. Nevertheless, Bus 174, a documentary, displays a rather more surgical directorial sensibility, one which skewers some of the more grotesque aspects of Brazilian (and specifically Rio) society with unyielding intent.

The film opens with a panoramic helicopter shot, homing in on the primeval beauty of Rio as it seems to erupt out of the Atlantic ocean, the city named for the month it's river was discovered, a city which more than most succeeds in maintaining an affinity with the land it's made from. Jungle lurks at the city's edges and hides away on hilltops within its boundaries. Almost as though declaring that this is a city which contains environments which cannot be known, forever at odds with the urban ideal of transparency or accessibility. The directorial counterpoint to the gleaming opening shot are the scenes filmed in a prison, which are given the heading - any prison in Rio. This, even more than the favelas, is the manifestation of jungle, contained within the city, a place where men live crammed together, without room to lie down, or suspended above each other in hammocks, with shared possessions hung from ropes. The camera captures faces in negative making them appear dehumanised, vague, their pleas for attention or justice or decency coming through as sound recordings from the underworld. It's a mesmerising passage of footage which brings home the film's contention that there are parts of Brazilian society that suffer from extreme neglect and de-humanisation. When these elements appear within society, it should come as no surprise that conflict comes with them, something Sandro's story eloquently conveys.

These directorial touches help to ensure that Bus 174 pushes the boundaries of the documentary format. As well as the talking heads of those involved in the Bus siege, the directors make the most of what is a documentary goldmine, the hours of TV tape which traced the abortive bus hijacking by Sandro do Nascimento, a renegade figure whose agenda, the film gradually reveals, was more complex than anyone could imagine. Tracing Sandro's journey in conjunction with the progress of the siege itself, the film assembles a portrait of a complex, abused figure, who created his own meta-drama in order to finally, it is suggested, make himself visible within a society that does not want to know about people like him. (As such the film's resonance reaches far beyond Brazil).

Bus 174 is a taut, masterly piece of documentary making. In contrast with Elite Squad, it benefits from having a clear focus on one dramatic situation, which is played out to its tragic, farcical conclusion. It's high-octane fiim-making, which shakes up a format which so often manages to reduce the dramatic into something staid.

Friday, 6 August 2010

white [marie darrieussecq]

Although I cannot remember the details of Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle, I'm sure it had a fair amount in common with White. Even if White is set in the Antarctic, it's still a tale of pre-determined love coming to pass under the influence of snow and ice. Darriussecq's novel is short and filled with intimate detail: the loos which incinerate shit, the effects of the cold on human perception, the depth of the ice and the height of the ice-cap over the Antarctic soil. The two imminent lovers, Edmee and Peter, both make their own way to the ice-station, their back stories elliptically filled in, little hints of fractured histories and suggestions of lost trauma. All of which is overseen by a chorus of ghosts. Whose ghosts remains unclear: whilst details of Scott and Admundsen's missions are frequently referred to, their destiny has no impact of the protagonists, who bide their time on the base waiting for the union which the ghosts know is coming to pass.

White is poetic, romantic, pretentious in the finest of French traditions, and somewhat slight. It discloses what might be termed 'a voice': of the books I have read of late it perhaps has something in common with Pelevin's Omon Ra. It's an exploration of human behaviour under extreme conditions, and succeeds in doing this convincingly, even if the futuristic narrative already feels faintly absurd. As such, with its holophones and voyage to Mars, it might one day belong to that tradition of books which postulate a future which never came to pass.

Monday, 2 August 2010

temptations of the west [pankaj mishra]

Last Autumn, in Kashmir, we sat and listened to Jimmy, who looked after us on the houseboat, as he talked about the suffering endured by local Kashmiris, and the people of his village in particular. In spite of the vast military presence, and a sense of melancholia that seemed to hang over the (always male) residents of Srinigar we met, the full extent of this suffering remained concealed. There was a sense of the need to move on, to convince the Western tourists that things were improving, that there was nothing to worry about.

Of course, as a visitor, the reality of a society is hard to grasp. This is part of the reason we need journalists, who can delve deeper and reveal what's really going on within a society. To do this, the journalist needs to get out there and talk to people on the ground. Even then, his or her impressions will be nothing more than partial, but at least they can begin to help the layman to understand the things the eyes cannot immediately see.

Mishra's book does just this. As such, it seems like an almost mandatory read for anyone visiting India, Kashmir, Afghanistan or Pakistan. (The sections on Nepal and Tibet are more discursive, and lack the detail of the other chapters.) Mishra is driven by a curiosity to find out about what's going on in his part of the world, but also to trace the way in which a society he thought he knew as a child was more complex than it seemed, and how it has evolved as a result. His writing on the often frightening changes to Indian culture, after speaking to film stars and politicians, visiting Hindu strongholds and Muslim havens, constantly explores the frayed edges of a new India, where tolerance and pacifism are in increasingly short supply. When he writes about the bombastic Bollywood film LOC Kargil, the whole caboodle of religious divide, Hindu nationalism, the mythic role of Kashmir and Bollywood are brought together.

Because so many people visit India, and because the colonial heritage with regard to India and Pakistan is still so great, there tends to be an assumption that we in the UK know something about that part of the world. Mishra's astute observations help to plug the vast gaps in our knowledge, skewering the way in which these societies are struggling to come to terms with modern materialism whilst maintaining a conviction in the importance of the four great religions that dominate South Asia. In the process he helps to show how Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, as well as explaining why the Kashmiri crisis might well be one without end.

In the last two months, things have taken a turn for the worse in Kashmir, and one wonders how the people we met, Jimmy, Shaquil and co are getting on. I wish I'd read Mishra's book before I visited. The tourist's ignorance, marvelling at an exotic beauty, is all very well, but in the end, if we want to be more than mere than just economic, part-time colonialists, there remains some kind of imperative to make the attempt to be conscious of those places we choose to explore when we find ourselves taking time out from our endlessly busy lives.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

bluebeard (w&d breillat)

This morning, in the Guardian, reading the obituary of Cecile Aubry, a little known French actress of the forties who married a Moroccan pasha and devised a TV show called Belle and Sebastian, I learn she "played Bluebeard's seventh wife as a sexy teenager, even performing a silhouetted striptease that left little to the imagination". This suggests that Bluebeard plays a larger role in French popular history than ours. In her film, Breillat employs a framing device of two young girls who find a copy of the fairy tale in a loft, and read it together, and perhaps generations of young girls have done the same in French attics, without the attendant dramatic consequences.

All of which implies that there may be levels to Breillat's interpretation of the fable which I am ignorant of. In her version, Bluebeard's wife is no ingenue, but a clear-headed young woman who knows exactly what she's up to. Breillat would also appear to be playing off her reputation, intimating the possibility of congress between beauty and the beast, something which the film then artfully steers away from. There's nothing in the film to frighten or disturb little girls, on the contrary, it's a highly empowering tale. Perhaps the abrupt conclusion of the secondary story is added to ensure a greater bite to the film. As it is, the most intriguing aspect of the beautifully filmed period narrative revolves around the dynamic of the two sisters, a dynamic which is interrupted by the younger's marriage to Bluebeard.

Having said which, there's still something remarkable about the way in which Breillat succeeds in creating a period drama which retains a naturalistic feel. This is not an artfully conceived world; the lack of CGI or big budgets helps to maintain a down-to-earthness which is completely convincing, and within this context the girls themselves feel modern, in spite of their period setting. This helps to make the film beguiling, and though slight, one can envisage it being viewed as something of a minor masterpiece. Nevertheless, it's hard not to hanker for the confrontational Breillat whose films stripped the veil of our modern day sexual mores; one hopes she's not in too much danger of mellowing.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

the informers [juan gabriel vasquez]

The Informers contains stories within stories. When the narrator writes a book about his father's German Jewish friend, Sara Guterman, who arrived in Colombia fleeing from the Nazis, his father reacts viciously, publishing a damning critique. After a heart by-pass operation, the father changes his tune, before the reconciliation is ended when his father's killed in a car accident. However, it transpires that his father had just come from visiting his old friend, Enrique, whose father he denounced forty years ago as a Nazi, and whose family was destroyed as a consequence.

In effect this is a tale of family intrigue and secrets, with the narrator's journey towards the truth assisting him in his mission to escape the shadow of his overpowering father. The book comes lauded with critical acclaim. It is a well constructed text, but suffers from the author's tendency to overwrite and embellish. Succinctly told it could have come in at 200 pages, but instead comes in at 350, and its whimsical asides diminish the potent father-son narrative. Furthermore, the books ends with a historical footnote, explaining the nature of the Colombian blacklists, upon which the book's mystery and drama is predicated. The need for the footnote seems to some extent to point out the book's failure to sufficiently convey their significance within the text itself. Additionally, whilst much play is made of the mystery surrounding the father's action, it still seems puzzling that his son, for all his fascination with the case, never seeks to investigate the causes of his father's seemingly random act of betrayal.

The Informers feels very much like a first novel, full of intriguing ideas, but lacking a certain clarity. It offers a frustratingly restricted insight into wartime Colombia's history, and the way in which it connects to its more recent, violent history. A book full of loose threads, it never quite seems to get to the bottom of the various mysteries it sets out to investigate.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

the spy who came in from the cold [le carré]

Reading this book is like taking a walk through one's childhood, even if it was published before I was born. For all it's ability in the first half to conjure up the strange world of post-war London, this isn't a great book. The second half becomes surprisingly bureaucratic for what was in its time a vast commercial success, as what turns out to be Leamas' trial is spun out over several chapters. Nevertheless, Le Carre has already succeeded in investing the text with all the mystique of that world which is now all but forgotten. The notion of the Communist threat, and the reality of the Cold War are things that would appear to have evaporated altogether. But for anyone born from the 40s through to the early 70s, this monolithic conflict dominated our fears, and our dreams.

Besides the way it captures the complexities of British attitudes to all this, attitudes determined by the joy of the game, as though a war had something to do with a crossword puzzle, perhaps the most telling aspect of the book is the positive light in which it presents two Communists. Firstly the ingenue, Liz, who the writing carefully depicts as someone who succeeds in seeing through both sides' game in order to discern human truths that lie behind it; and Fiedler, Leamas' interrogator, who becomes an increasingly sympathetic and tragic figure, one of the only ones operating within this world who actually has any real values. (Unless one grants Leamas this accolade, seeing his actions as a kind of heroism, rather than the alternative, the actions of a world-weary cynic.)

Looking at the writing of Zizek, whether we trust him or not, we see him critiquing materialism for its lack of idealism, something which ultimately undercuts our ability to achieve happiness, no matter how great our material comforts. Perhaps its overly speculative to view the supposedly fearsome Fiedler as a sacrificial lamb. Nevertheless, it seems curious that Le Carre, a man like Green concerned with the way the pattern of history shapes the ordinary man's dreams and happiness, should endow this initially fearsome figure with such subversive dignity.

The book is artful, and told at a brisk pace, and perhaps its hard to gauge the true impact its anti-heroic viewpoint might have had on a Britain still reluctant to believe that their noble wars had been replaced with such a tawdry one, where heroism was now, by and large, redundant.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

leaving (w&d catherine corsini, w. macé)

I"m seated in a garden in Ipswich, en famille. By English standards it's a warm day. It could be a scene from Accident, but it could equally be a scene from what Mr C might describe as a middle class French movie, in a derogatory tone. There does indeed seem to be an increasing inclination on the part of French filmmakers to make what might be called 'middle-class' movies, many of them featuring a range of the current remarkable generation of French actresses. Mr C says the only French film he likes is La Haine. Quite apart from the whole new wave phenomenon, I've enjoyed movies over the years by the likes of Rohmer, Mimouni, and probably a host of others whose work could be described, perhaps, as 'middle class'. In a way, given the sometimes predictable, patronising tendency of a middle-class British film industry to try and explore its own agendas through often contrived portrayal of 'working class' life, it seems perhaps more honest to turn the mirror on the class where the film industry emerges from. (Something Cooke noted when he took over the Royal Court, although I'm not sure if his well-intentioned mission to stop rich people delving into the lives of the marginalised/ proletarian in their corner of Sloane Square has quite come off.)

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that the reason Leaving is such a turkey has nothing to do with its socio-politics, and everything to do with its cliched, soft-centred premise and script. That Kirsten Scott Thomas should want to give up her bourgeois sensibilities in order to have fierce sex with Sergei Lopez does not seem altogether unlikely. However, that this will involve her plunging towards an abyss of criminalising impoverishment proves hard to take. With only love to sustain her as she works in a water melon packing factory, with her comically evil husband finding new, devious ways to gain revenge for his cuckolding at the hands of an ignorant ex-con, Scott Thomas sinks towards infamy, a modern day Lady Chatterley.

The film feels like it's been created as a vehicle for Scott Thomas. It's a role which, in theory, any actress would die for, the woman prepared to sacrifice all for love, but the sheer predictability of the template sadly only goes to confirm the prejudices of those who claim 'middle class' French cinema (by which they mean almost all French cinema) is self-indulgent and emotionally vacuous.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

inception (w&d nolan)

It's always interesting to read the critical reaction to films, particularly those that are ostentatiously clever. When that occurs, the tendency of the clever critic appears to be resist the attempts of the clever filmmaker to demonstrate his or her cleverness. The very word 'clever' becomes something of an insult. Hence, in the media I read, and the comments that are appended to that media, the better half is using words like 'pretentious', 'emperor's' 'new' 'clothes', and so on. As though there is some debate over the cinematic merits of the film, and its ambition. Christopher Nolan, you're no Stanley Kubrick, seems to be the jist of things.

So what? That's like telling Tendulkar he's no Bradman. The carpers create a mental logic which accords with a vision of the world they seek to project. Which would no doubt delight Nolan, who if he does anything in this film, demonstrates an ability to explore the concept of phenomenology. There are flaws a plenty in Inception. The snow-dream lacks the poetry it aspires to; the explosions go on for to long; some of the dialogue is unintentionally comical (although there are hints of humour in the film, something one doesn't normally associate with the director, and there may be a tongue in cheek aspect to some of its more grandiose lines); and finally, and perhaps most pertinently, there's a distinct lack of what some would call 'emotional depth.' This is not the Dardennes brothers neither, and it would be true to say the Gondry/ Kaufmann film covered similar terrain with more emotionally verve.

Do these problems matter? Is not every movie susceptible to the accusation that is in some way lacking? Of course they are. Casablanca lacks a good car chase. The Conversation lacks Ingrid Bergman. Performance lacks social realism. And so on. On the other hand, if one looks at Inception in terms of what it does...

There seems to me little doubt it's a film that will become embedded in people's dream of what cinema can achieve. It will provoke an absurd number of PhD theses. It will be talked about over chapatis or cream teas or masitas for years to come. Because what Nolan succeeds in doing is stimulate the mind. He pulls off a seemingly hyper-complex premise. (Incidentally, even if he has apparently been working on the script for a decade (which is not as long as it sounds, in dream time), I suspect he might also have been influenced by the equally bonkers but slightly less comprehensible Primer.) He makes his audience not only think, but enjoy thinking. By which he reminds us of the pleasures of the mind, something we are all to prone too forget.

As The Prestige showed, Nolan knows he's a showman, and it's all trickery. In reality he has less pretension than many seem to want to attribute to him. Like another master-spinner of tall tales, Borges, his work aims to seduce the mind rather than the heart. But his facility for achieving this reminds us, if this is not too pretentious, that the mind is an organ of the body, like the heart, one that craves stimulation and love, without the gift of which we are in danger of festering. Nolan does all that cinema is capable of: he wakes us up, and reminds that even if it's all a dream, we are, indeed, alive, waking dreamers, blessed by our capacity to perceive the world around us.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

pedro paramo [juan rulfo]

[An aside. Someone said the other day that the way to make this website more popular would be to unleash a more sardonic tone of voice (which can occasionally be found here) on a more regular basis. Instinctively, that felt wrong. Occasionally I describe myself as a critic, (the title page does so too), but that's not really the function of this site/ book. A critic implies someone who makes a judgement (I just tried to find its etymology, without success). Whilst a notion of judgement, or evaluation, is implicit in the giving of a reaction to a work of art/ literature, that's of only secondary importance. Especially given that I have no readers to influence. In which case, what is the function of this site? Firstly, it's a record. When I was a child, I kept a black notebook and wrote down the names of the books I read in it. Lots of Huxley, Hesse, Camus and their ilk. I maintained the record into my late 20's and then let it slide. There's something anal about this, of course, but it also seems to me that given the flood of information we are inundated with, is does no harm to have a place to refer to what has been, what has enrichened, or not. Secondly, and more importantly, this is the journal of an enthusiast. There's no space to go into any great detail of the role of art in our society, but if one holds it to have some value, as I suppose I do, then it feels in some way positive to create a space where access to that art can be offered. It's probably fair to say that this seems particularly the case within an introspective culture such as the one I inhabit, (no matter how broad it believes its remit to be). As such, should anyone stumble across this site, far from offering the satisfaction of seeing something knocked down, or criticised, I would hope that it might prompt curiosity for some of the rich worlds of writers, filmmakers and the like who I have been fortunate enough to discover over the course of recent years.]

Including, of late, Juan Rulfo. A name I'd heard talk of, but knew nothing about. Le Clezio's reference to him in the last book I reviewed prompted me to read him. Rulfo, so I've learnt, only published two books. Sontag writes an affectionate introduction, explaining something of his life. As such, he's a maverick, someone who belongs to Vila Matas' compendium of near-silent authors. Paramo is a simple/ complex fable, which operates on a host of different timelines, which whispers various stories, all inter-connected, all leading back to the eponymous anti-hero. It's a breathy, brief book, which feels like it could be re-read a hundred times and still contain secrets the reader hasn't gleaned. As Le Clezio notes, it feels like a tract from another world, with another way of seeing things. Of all the writers I've read of late, it's dreamscape most resembles the work of Couto, another writer whose work seems informed by a tradition with another vision of time, one that's not linear,but fractured, belonging to a world where death is not omnipotent. Where the dead live alongside the living, or perhaps the living live alongside the dead. It's also a story where the density of the narrative seems to belie the sheer number of pages: my version of the book contained 122 pages, and took no more than a couple of hours to read, but the number of threads that are spun from these words seem nearly unquantifiable.

Monday, 19 July 2010

white material (d. claire denis, w denis & marie n'diaye)

Denis and Huppert. A potentially explosive combination. Which, in this case, smoulders rather than combusts. Like the coffee factory which the troops burn, where Huppert's son dies, where she enacts an Apocalyptian Now moment at the end, felling a strangely Brando-esque lookalike (the underused Michel Subor). It appear that Denis deliberately keeps the lid on this somewhat Conradian tale of the redoubtable coffee plantation owner who believes she belongs to Africa, only to discover that Africa isn't convinced about the relationship.

Huppert is utterly convincing as the bedraggled, faintly elegant neo-colonialist, Maria Val. Because of course, this unnamed country is no longer a colony. It's now a failed state, with echoes of the Congo, or Rwanda. A place where children are the lords of misrule, as they were in another French film, Sauvaire's Johny Mad Dog. However, Denis brings her distinctive vision to bear. When two child soldiers infiltrate Maria's house, they leave dirty footprints in the bath. They nearly kill her son, but no-one seems to think much of it. In Maria's world view, these things are always on the brink of happening, and that's part of the reason she loves it. Her occasional references to France reveal something bordering on contempt for the privileged Europeans. At one moment she mutters in a rare voiceover her opinion that this country is too beautiful for Europeans, as though she believes herself completely assimilated, an African native. In spite of the fact that the leader of the rebels criticises the exploitative foreigners, which include her. Another artful scene shows her showing her hired hands their living quarters. The coffee pickers peer into a darkened shed, full of bunks. Their world remains divorced from the white people's living quarters, no matter how much Maria thinks they're all the same.

Maria's characterisation is rich and strange, part heroic, part idiocy, part condescending, part integrated. Denis seems inclined to let Huppert's acting do the work, using less music than usual, having her roving camera follow her like a spy. Although the film yet again posits an Africa which exists on the edge of anarchy, ruled by boys in dresses and mystic warlords, it draws strength from the complexity of its portrayal of the coffee grower, who doesn't even own the plantation she works on, which is now worthless. Her quixotic faith in the value of the land makes this is a film about belonging and our understanding of what that means. The way in which it is choice as much as a birthright. If White Material initially seems like an unlikely film for Denis, after 35 Rhums, perhaps it might be seen as its obverse. Where the latter dealt with African immigrants in Europe, this one deals with European immigrants in Africa. All of them seeking their identity in a mixed up muddled up shook up world.

the mexican dream [j. m. g. le clezio]

The subtitle of this book appears somewhat convoluted upon first reading. It's: "Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilisations.' Is this merely a poorly translated phrase, or is it just a piece of literary whimsy? The answer is neither, and by the time the reader reaches the end of this book, its meaning is clear.

Le Clezio's objective is to explore the fate and legacy (or lack of one) of those civilisations of the New World which the Old World cut off just as they were coming into their prime. Far from being a collection of savages, the Aztec and Mayan worlds were sophisticated urban societies, with their own notions of religion; philosophy and physics. In comparison, the barbarians were the Spanish, who melted down golden artefacts and destroyed their beautiful cities. The book documents this tragic meeting of two worlds, introducing the reader to a host of other forgotten cultures who lived on the edges of the Mexican world, including the Chichimeca; the Tarahumara; the Totonac and further North the tribes of North America. The author observes the connections between these doomed worlds, in the way they viewed nature, their span upon the earth, and their gods.

His reading of authors such as Sahagun and De Las Casas, as well as those few Mayan and Aztec texts which survived, allows him to establish a clear portrait of what was an evolving world view, contextualising the famous blood lust of the Aztecs, as well as divining the secret of their innate expectation of destruction, a prophesy which came to be fulfilled. At the same time, he stresses that these societies were still in the process of developing philosophies, philosophies which might, had they been allowed to flower, have evolved to rival or complement the complexity of Buddhism, or materialism. However, as observed, this never happened. The evolving thought processes were interrupted. This world where gods walked with men, and life was not part of a linear vision of time, but a circular one, was all but extinguished over the course of a single generation. And the loss to mankind as a whole, the author suggests, was greater than we shall ever be able to realise.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

tetro (d coppola)

These are the dog days of Summer. As can be gleaned by the amount of cultural activity being undertaken. It feels a bit like an inverted hibernation. Football, travel and the vagaries of life have taken over, as the sun toasts us all on a daily basis.

In between World Cup matches, I took up the offer of a trip to see Coppola's latest, supposedly low budget offering. It's over a fortnight now since I saw it. Although it's not his first, the idea of Coppola doing a low budget film seems something of a contradiction in terms. Clearly he thought so too, because, after managing to keep the lid on the budget in the first half, the second descends into hints of extravagance. Both budgetary and thematically, as the characters suddenly find themselves at a gaudy, not very Patagonian arts festival, where Vincent Gallo's terrible play is hailed as a masterpiece. Suddenly, an intriguing film is thrown off-kilter, as though the director lost patience with having to scrimp: two frugal acts are followed by a splurge of a desert, a would-be low budget knickerbocker glory added to the menu at the last moment.

It's a pity, because the premise and opening acts are engaging. No matter how limited his resources, Coppola still has friends in the right places, and the black and white photography of Buenos Aires is beguiling. The set up of a rich man's son (Gallo) who's run away to the South to escape his father's grip, has sufficient weight to keep the audience engaged. The use of Buenos Aires as a counterpoint to New York is also astute; BA being the other great city of destination for Italians fleeing poverty in the early 20th Century. The Argentine and US cast works together more effectively than has been the case in similar cross-cultural endeavours.

All in all there's enough to make the film work. Until the script founders on the notion that Gallo's scrawls actually hide a demonic literary genius; and then his novel becomes a play; and that play is performed at the ludicrously posh Ushaia literary festival, and Gallo isn't his brother's brother, and it all becomes Oedipal and relentlessly silly. Leading to the implication that, no matter how much he'd like to be, Coppola wasn't born to make low-budget movies. He doesn't possess the discipline, he needs the adrenaline of the potential of catastrophic failure in order to provoke him into producing work which doesn't drown in whimsy.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

first as tragedy, then as farce [slavoj zizek]

It's been a few weeks since I finished Zizek's entertaining book on the plane. Zizek is now part of the zeitgeist, gradually insinuating himself into a mainstream discourse, overlapping the kind of territory occupied by Alain De Botton, Chomsky, Schama, Dawkins and their ilk. Philosophical discourse for the masses.

Which, given his professed Communism, seems appropriate. Even if 'the masses' actually means 'the chattering classes'. One wonders how long before he has his own TV show. On the basis of his book, the sooner the better. He makes his case for the reinvention of Communism, a kind of post-Marxist Communism , succinctly. In the process he uses a host of contemporary references (including demonstrating a penchant for the more portentously tacky side of Hollywood), in a text which ranges from the Haitian slave revolt to Berlusconi, from Obama's Cairo speech on religious tolerance to Starbucks, from Hegel to Foucault. All via Marx himself.

It would be presumptuous of me to try and summarise his arguments, and I suspect they may be amplified in greater detail in other tomes, but as an introduction to his work, First as Tragedy... acts as an inspirational text. Anyone who has an interest in the fate of humankind in the forthcoming century would probably find it worth their while to read. As to what we do with the information, how we disrupt ourselves out of our comfortable mass socio-political hibernation in the Chocolate Factory of World Cups, iPads and modernity's other trappings - that's another issue. Just as the actual likelihood of the return of (genuine) Communism cannot be confirmed by the reading of this book. Nevertheless, Zizek seems to know whether the toast is going to land butter side down or not, and in his confident prose there emerges a kind of optimism for another way. Not the first, nor the second nor the third, but a way out of the mess we all secretly (and increasingly) suspect we've made of things, in the quest to make life 'better'.

Monday, 14 June 2010

the killer inside me (d. winterbottom, w. john curran)

Winterbottom's career tends to be somewhat hit and miss, in part as a result of the variety of cinematic styles this prolific director has chosen to explore. For my money, the films of his I've enjoyed the most have been those dealing with a specifically British sensibility and humour. However, he's become an adept filmmaker, capable of ratcheting Hollywood A-listers into unlikely material (A Mighty Heart, Code 46) and you always expect to find something of interest in his films, even if you don't like the one in particular.

Consequently, the slightly mundane nature of The Killer Inside Me, in spite of its violence, makes it feel like an atypical Winterbottom movie, more of a Hollywood product. Casey Affleck delivers another phenomenal performance as the psychotic lawman, and the supporting cast do their bit (their value emphasised by the the old school title sequence), but the material, an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, feels generic.

Maybe that's why the director's chosen to go overboard with the violence. It feels as though he's a hired hand, looking to stamp his mark on a packaged product. The violence is shocking, in a cinematic way. Less so is the transgressive sex, (somewhat limply re-featured in flashbacks from time to time), which titillates rather than excites or disturbs. As though made knowing that whilst he could get away with upping the violence ante in the States, he would be never be allowed to explore the potentially more intriguing sexual themes in any great detail. Occasionally, in Winterbottom's work, there's hints of Roeg at his darkest, but where Roeg was prepared (or allowed) to explore his themes in all their murky depths, Winterbottom sometimes seems to use these same themes as window dressing.

The ending, pure grand guignol, seems indicative of a script which has backed itself into an absurd corner. The way in which the direction chooses to promote the theatricality seems like another indication of the director himself struggling to make something more quirky from his base materials, but at the end of the day the film seems slightly sluggish, lacking a real sense of place, and choosing to make up for its torpor with the occasional firework.

Monday, 24 May 2010

valhalla rising (w&d nicolas refn, w. roy jacobsen)

This was not the movie any of us expected, after another Sunday evening excursion. It did admittedly contain an appropriate amount of gore, it did contain a single Viking, a one-eyed Viking called One-Eye. But that's as far as it goes. Refn's poster suggests a canter through some millenial pillaging, but the film is a meditative, psychotropic crawl, exploring an unlikely but perhaps feasible voyage towards death.

One-Eye has been captured by a pagan Scottish tribe, and is their resident, caged Giant Haystacks, defeating all-comers. When he escapes, he hooks up with a bunch of witless would-be Scottish Crusaders. Their boat goes the wrong way, drifting Westwards through a pea-souper to arrive on the shores of Vineland, where all and sundry meet their fate, either at each other's hands or those of the unfriendly natives. The spectre of Aguire overshadows the story, even if Refn's adventurers arrive in the New World five hundred years earlier. In an interview, Refn also mentions Tarkovsky, whose debt is evident in the film's stately, anti-dramatic pacing, albeit a pacing interrupted by moments of crude violence.

The premise, with its Scandanavian twist on history, is engaging. The Vikings did make their way to the place which was later named America, and doubtless more than a few suffered desperate, unheralded fates. It wouldn't be hard to read a kind of anti-history into the narrative. The unspoilt Eden of the Americas remains pure, the barbarity of Western ideology, shaped around religion, snuffed out at birth. In an otherwise patchy dialogue, one of the Crusaders remarks of an arrowhead that it's made of stone, not metal, and takes this as evidence that the natives are savages; but in the end it's the Crusaders savagery which is laid bare.

The looseness of the episodic narrative invites a hermeneutic approach which the film itself probably doesn't quite justify. It's something of a curiosity. In an interview where he also says he'd like to direct Wonderwoman, Refn talks about his film as a drug. You could probably read it as a classic bad trip, inclusive of dodgy 'blood-soaked' imagery. Nevertheless, in spite of the iffy dialogue and its general wooziness, the film got under my skin, its refusal to give the audience what it's expecting suggesting a perverse talent.

(Nb - I have not seen Pusher, but have had it recommended to me, and I can imagine that in more concrete, contemporary surroundings, the filmmaker's hypnotic approach could feel revelatory.)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

the bad lieutenant: port of call - new orleans (d. herzog, w. finkelstein)

There are two hand held shots in this film, one from an alligator's POV, another from an iguana's, which are pure Herzog. The rest might be defined as more Kinski than Herzog, as though Nick Cage is seeking to summon the director's excessive alter ego from the grave. Cage's over-the-top performance possesses similar traits to Kinski's most grandiose work, which was achieved in conjunction (rather than at the behest of) his director. Herzog has a penchant for the atavistic spirit, the freak who not only lives life but seeks to devour it, and Cage is more than happy to comply with the less measured half of the director's brain.

Which all goes to make for an entertaining if ridiculous movie. Had it been directed and played more 'straight' it would have been pure pap. However, under the sway of director and star, it almost becomes a critique of excess, a lost film of Donald Cammell's. Almost, but perhaps not quite. Within the security of the Hollywood system, Herzog's vision becomes cauterised. (Hence the appeal of the two shots he quite specifically claims as his own in the credits.) It feels like the only way it could truly have been a Herzog movie would have been had he been able to make it in the days following the breaking of the New Orleans levees, when the bodies and the slime still owned the streets. The shadow of Katrina, and its critique of the American dream, hovers over the film, but its potency has waned. Instead, Herzog uses images of the blandness of the cityscape, its residual grey, its neo-destitution to frame the decadence of a system that can produce an anti-hero like Cage's Terence McDonagh. The gloopily feel-good ending (as in the case of Rescue Dawn, his last Hollywood film) seems like an admission of defeat. This is not Kinski on a raft full of monkeys, or throwing himself at the surf. The rage is tempered, the system and the filmmaker agreeing an uneasy and not entirely satisfactory peace. The irony is that for all its faults, Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant might have been truer to the original spirit of Herzog's fimmaking than Herzog's own version of the film whose title it shares.

Friday, 21 May 2010

four lions (d morris, w morris, bain & armstrong)

It's been over a week since I saw the much heralded Four Lions. Which was to be enjoyed. In spite of the fact that the trailers and the sneak previews had already used many of the funniest clips, Morris' provocative humour still packed a punch, and the premise is too perfect for the film not to succeed on some level or another. The notion of making a comedy about a group of suicide bombers, exposing not the fundamentalist but the British roots of their endeavour, is both bold and in a strange way beautiful. The scene where three of the four are in a van driving down to London to do their deed, singing along to the cheesiest of pop hits, Dancing in the Moonlight, captures some kind of ludicrously believable truth. It's in the British psyche to be 'a bit of a nutter'. These are jovial fools, followers of Falstaff as much as Allah, the type of characters who have been celebrated in English literature through the ages.

At the same time, a week later, I'm not sure if the film's conceit quite comes off. The double task of personalising and ridiculing these hapless figures only functions in patches, no matter how hard Riz Ahmed works to pull it off. At times the piece strays into the terrifying realm of 'comedy drama', meaning that it refrains from going for the jugular in the style of Morris' television work. Some of the comedy felt tame, not least in the outtakes that are filtered at the end, and the political messaging has no real clarity. Morris is at his most effective as a Swiftian provocateur, a respecter of no rule, upto and including the injunction that declares we have to care about the characters. In the end, Four Lions might have been more powerful (and more funny) had it followed a Godardian rather than an Ealing Comedy model, although that kind of debate would surely have been anathema in the funding rounds the film would have had to go through.

Nevertheless, I suspect Four Lions shall be looked back on with fondness, in the same way we look back on the likes of Porridge, or Citizen Smith. It's a curious, slightly disjointed film, but one that has the cojones to address and humanise a subject that British culture usually struggles to deal with in anything except the most worthy of ways. It will be interesting to see how it fares abroad.

Friday, 14 May 2010

what is the what [w. dave eggers]

What is the What is a long, dry piece of writing. It is a book written by Eggers but described as the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese 'lost boy' who now lives in Atlanta. The book is therefore narrated in the first person, and there are no embellishments in the telling: it is a prosaic account of a remarkable and tragic life. However, this is not to say that there are not literary choices being made by the author, which we'll get back to in a bit.

Achak Deng's lifestory is a tragic one. Displaced from his home and separated from his parents at a young age, the book describes in detail his terrible march to ultimate safety in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya. Along the way he faces hunger, the Janjaweed, the Sudanese army itself, mines, predatory animals. It's the sort of life that seems beyond belief to anyone raised in the comfort of the West, and Eggers' straightforward prose narrates the drama with page-turning efficiency. Achak, a sympathetic character, finds that tragedy continues to dog his life, as death continues to stalk him even after he should be safe. His very flight out of Kenya to a new life in the USA is postponed by the fact he was due to fly on the 11th September 2001.

The narration is framed by the events that occur on a given day in Atlanta when Achak is subjected to a violent robbery, and discovers that there's precious little attention or respect paid to his sufferings. This feels like an effective literary framing device, counterpointing the terrible events of his childhood and adolescence with this other more mundane act of violence. As though Achak is some kind of cursed everyman, fated to suffer the worst life has to offer wherever he finds himself. However, the book doesn't really explore this idea in any detail, and in the end both stories slightly tail off, with the final section lacking any real shape.

At which point its hard not to wonder if Eggers might not have made more of Achak's story had he been bolder and attempted to do something more creative with the narrative. Or perhaps this is a very self-conscious literary exercise exploring the borders of journalism and literature? One suspects that Eggers' rationale for writing it as it is might be that Achak's story is too dramatic to require any kind of literary manipulation, and to do so might be to belittle or traduce the reality. However, even the most prosaic of accounts involves a certain amount of literary dexterity, and in the end Eggers' wilful simplicity runs the risk of seeming as condescending as the visitors to the gym where Achak works. What we end up with is a clinical account of the surface facts, but no real sense of the poetic or philosophic context of those facts.

To put this in context: there was one moment, when Achak meets a crazy man who owns a bicycle, who lives on the edge of a minefield in what would appear to be the middle of nowhere. The man takes Achak in and he considers living with him. This brief passage reminded me of the work of Mia Couto, and his curious fables of war and societal disintegration in Mozambique. In this moment there was a hint of the way in which Achak's story is more than a succession of heartbreaking moments; that it fitted into some kind of pattern which only literature might reveal. But then the moment passed, and the book trundled on into his future, flitting from tragedy to tragedy.

24 city (d. zhang ke jia, w. zhang ke jia & yongming zhai)

My appetite for reviewing appears to be waning somewhat, so my apologies if this is at all cursory. Perhaps its the result of the political manoeuvrings which have been occuring in the UK of late. Strange to think that as a nation we once held sway over China, forcibly addicting its citizens to opium, in one of the more benevolent phases of British imperialism. Now it's China which is finally looking outwards, imposing its mark upon the world. I have no figures but its said they own most of Africa, I know they own large parts of Australia, and are no doubt active in Latin America. Over the course of what seems like no time at all they've become the world's greatest commercial power, or have initiated the process of becoming it. The transformation seems astonishing, but then one of the conundrums of ageing is that it's only as you yourself devour the years alloted to you that you begin to realise how fast history operates, and how impermanent are things that in your youth seemed to have been the same for ever.

All of which is apropos of Zhang Ke Jia's film, which is a study of an old weapons factory in the growing city of Chengdu. Zhang films the process of its destruction as it makes way for a swanky housing/ commercial development. In the course of the film he stages interviews with workers (apparently played by actors) who recount some anecdote from their past, thereby bringing the social fabric of the factory to life from its inception in the fifties up to its recent closure. These stories are counter-pointed by images of the factory as the last workers work there, engaged in the rugged labour of heavy industry. Rings of molten metal are beaten into shape, before the workers leave and the space becomes a kind of mausoleum to the China which has now slipped away.

Zhang's film is lengthy and far from an easy watch. Its pace is slow and there's little attempt to dramatise the stories, which are told by speaking heads in fixed locations (a bus, a hairdresser's etc.) Yet the film has a subtle and gradually accumulating potency, with the final subject, a pretty young buyer who owns a new VW Beetle talking about how she finally grew up when she realised she had to take responsibility for her parents. Which suggests the film's message is that the present cannot be called mature, or developed, until it learns to respect the past. The dangers and ironies of vast material growth at the expense of spiritual (for want of a better word) development are reaffirmed by the closing vision of modern Chengdu, a sprawling, characterless seeming city of glass skyscrapers and flyovers. This is a documentary of sorts, but it is also a critique of onrushing history and the way in which China is changing.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

revanche (w&d götz spielmann)

Revanche would appear to be the latest in the Austrian wave to break over the shores of Britain. In many ways this seems like the most conventional of the four different director's films I've seen over the course of the last year or so. It tells the story of a man whose girlfriend is shot by a policeman, and how he obtains a kind of revenge. The film moves from the milieu of a Viennese brothel to the rural backwaters, as Alex, the anti-hero, holes up on his grandfather's farm. There are sufficient holes and co-incidences in the plot to empty several buckets, but the film's effectiveness has more to do with the sense of mood or tone it creates than its narrative. It's here that the influence of his peers seems to touch Spielmann. The tendency to let the camera linger on a scene longer than might seem strictly necessary; the violence of the sex scenes; the sometimes abrupt edits. All of these things contribute to give the piece a slightly brooding weight which the narrative alone perhaps doesn't warrant. In contrast to the film's slightly regulation premise and storylines, the things that stand out are moments like an old man playing his accordion or another younger man mowing his lawn.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

soldiers of salamis [cercas]

Soldiers of Salamis, the predecessor to Speed of Light, and Cercas' breakthrough novel, is something of a three card trick. It's split into three neat sections, and the whole only really adds up once you reach the reveal of the third part. At this point, Cercas seems to settle into the groove of novel as hyper-realism, (or 'true tale', as his translator calls it), where the telling of the story and the story mesh to such a degree that the line between fact and fiction appears to have been eroded.

As Speed of Light demonstrated, this is a highly effective technique, which perhaps harks back to the dawn of the novel, where stories told to the storyteller as 'true tales' became fiction in the hands of the novelist. To this reader's mind it wasn't as effective as the later book, with Cercas' narrative seemingly over-immersed in the neo-scholarly world of his research into the Spanish Civil War. It's only in the final third, with the intriguing arrival of Roberto Bolano as a character, that the book suddenly moves up a gear, and all of Cercas's preoccupations seem to knit into place.

I had read somewhere that Bolano appeared in the book, so his arrival was not a surprise. All the same, it is intriguing to see the way in which the writer's influence stretched across the Spanish speaking world within his lifetime. Cercas makes it clear that he does not share Bolano's approach to novel writing - Bolano tells him to make up the missing details, Cercas refuses to do so, and from this dichotomy the book emerges, although of course the reader has no way of telling to what extent the author is inventing or not - but all the same the shadow of Bolano's concerns and even his style encroaches. These include, as Cercas acknowledges, the role of the writer as testimonial to that which has passed, the dead soldiers whose part in our history has been forgotten; as well as the writer's neo-Nietzchean obligation to acknowledge his own role within the narrative, thereby demystifying the authorial presence (even if, in practice, this actually has the inverse effect).

Of course, given Bolano's untimely death, the book ends up doing the same for the writer as it does for the soldiers it seeks to immortalise, demonstrating the way in which literature can cheat death, and preserve a trace of that which it would seem death has claimed as its own. The book took me almost a fortnight to read, as I took it to the Highlands of Scotland and back, battling with the opening sections, wondering when the pay-off would come. Then I completed the last section in an afternoon. Reading it after Speed of Light, it's possible to see how the author is honing and developing his technique. His novels lack the scale and extravagance of Bolano's, but they possess all of his subtlety, and all of his love for the potency and playfulness of those things we call stories.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

dogtooth (d. giorgos lanthimos, w. lanthimos & efthymis filippou)

The Dogtooth - do you possess one? Are you likely to lose it at any point? If you do have one and circumstances demanded you had to remove it, how would you do it?

I don't know how the word Dogtooth sounds in Greek, but it sounds perfect in English. The writers of this film have as creative an attitude towards language as they do towards familial perversity. Levi Strauss wrote about the controlling power of language, and the way in which the deranged parents control and distort every day vocabulary offers an immediate insight into how power and information are intrinsically connected. In the parents' world, a zombie becomes a little yellow flower. A cat is a killer. The every day is laced with poison.

This is a beautifully conceived and observed film. No explanation is ever offered for the parents' need to manipulate their children. The conscientious father, played with a furrowed brow by Christos Stergioglou, and his wife have created a terrifying kind of Eden, which is observed with comical attention. Like all Edens, the seeds of its destruction are lurking, but having established the logic of this world, the film succeeds in convincing us that there's no reason why the children should not have bought into it.

Whilst it could have dwindled into becoming an exercise in post modern cleverness (ie How many ways can we reinvent our world?), the persistent threat of violence and fear lend a tension to proceedings. Furthermore, in her coming to terms with her relationship to her dogtooth, the older daughter acquires a terrible heroism, worthy of any Russell Crowe movie, and the film emerges as an eloquent testament to humanity's intractable quest for independence.

In the one interview I've seen online with Lanthimos, he talked about a whole community of Greek filmmakers, also mentioning that the film had, at the time of the interview, not succeeded in obtaining a release in his own country. Assuming the country survives into next week, it will be fascinating to see what else emerges in the wake of this remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

i am love (d&w luca guadagnino)

It's a while now since I spent much time in Italy. A country with which I developed a strange, sometimes ambivalent relationship. My theory, which is probably not original, is that as a country it realised a long time ago what life was all about. Having got its empire building out of the way early, its people collectively took stock and decided that they lived in possibly the most beautiful country on the planet, with potentially the finest cuisine in the universe, and arguably the best looking boys and girls in the galaxy. In other words, all the things that really mattered in life were already to hand. Over the centuries they have their occasional moments of aberration, and they also have a keen awareness of the relationship between wealth and power which can help in the acquisition of even more beauty and even finer food, but essentially it's an introspective culture. With so much within reach it has no need to go looking elsewhere.

Generalisations along national lines are, of course, invidious, flawed and potentially dangerous. Which doesn't mean they're going to stop being made. Nowhere more so than in art. Guadagnino's film, for which words such as sumptuous or operatic might have been invented, seems pre-eminently Italian. Quite apart from the impeccable attention to interiors, costume and design; the measured use of both cityscape and landscape; the elegant looks of its attractive cast; the leading lady, Tilda Swinton, falls for a chef, in large part seduced by his way with a prawn. Food is an art too, and it seems completely appropriate that Emma should fall for Antonio's sensibilities as communicated through his lunchtime menu, deliberately chosen to impress.

All this implies a case of style over substance, a criticism easy to make of an introspective culture. However, Guadagnino directs with a concern to ensure that his audience do more than merely gawp at his pretty pictures. Swinton herself is not actually Italian, but Russian (somehow cleverer than her being English, for reasons too complex to explore here), someone who has learnt to be as Italian if not more so than the Italians themselves, so much so she claims to have forgotten her Russian name. This allows the script some leverage to break away from its Italian-ness, to step back and comment on the way the culture runs the risk of becoming solipsistic. In addition, there's a subplot about the the family business being sold out within a new, borderless world of capital, which threatens to render nationality (and tradition and even loyalty) meaningless. There may be something pretentious about this strand, with its echoes of The Godfather, but it is indicative of a filmmaker seeking to be bold, to explore the themes that underpin the aesthetics and beliefs upon which the world of the film would appear to be founded, aesthetics and beliefs that lead to Emma's eventual expulsion/ flight from the family bosom.

I Am Love isn't scared to run the risk of being flawed, (the final sequence seems oddly melodramatic, like something out of a Colombian telenovela), but that's an indication of its ambition. Whilst a beautiful film, its also a meditation upon a culture of beauty, which is perhaps the superficial of the world, rather than the essential. (Don't tell Keats). Its boldness extends to its cinematography and its editing, which seeks by and large not to dwell on the scenarios its created, but throw them away, in so doing imparting a lack of reverence which counteracts all the careful composition of the director's screen, and breathes life into something which could so easily have been moribund, seemingly just for show.

Monday, 5 April 2010

double take (d. johan grimonprez)

To what extent does the ending of a film reveal the truth of what has gone before? Where some throw their ending away, Grimonprez goes to town as the credits roll on Double Take. A story which seeks to connect Hitchcock with the cold war with the notion of the double and death, ends in a flurry of images from the Cold War and beyond, the very last being Rumsfeld outlining his 'known unknown' speech. No matter how entertaining and curiously nostalgic it is to see Rumsfeld presented as the film's final image, it doesn't really seem to enhance the audience's understanding of what has gone before. If anything, it would seem to further put in question the filmmaker's understanding of what he's tried to reveal over the course of the last 80 minutes.

The theoretical basis of Double Take is the idea of Hitchcock meeting his double in a hotel room either in 1962 or 1980. This is a lovely idea, one which is strengthened by a quotation from the director stating that if you meet your double, you have to kill them before they kill you. Suspense, drama, violence - everything you need from a homage to Hitch. In theory. In practice, although a doleful voiced actor impersonating Hitchcock talks us through their meeting, not a lot seems to happen, either during or as a result of the meeting. The piece rather spuriously threads footage of a meeting between Nixon and Kruschev through the film, with the implication being that Hitchcock had something to do with the Cold War. Whilst this affords the director the opportunity to ransack archives and show the creation of the Berlin Wall, the development of advertising and its godmother, television, the exact nature of Hitchcock's connection with all this remains nebulous.

As a result, Double Take ends up feeling like a showy A-Level essay, packed full of ideas, with no real coherence or thesis connecting these ideas. Somehow, Tom McCarthy is wrapped up in all this, and the script also references Borges, but the director never seems to capture the intellectual dexterity of these writers. Rather, it's a kitchen sink piece, throwing it all in, fiction, faction and documentary. And what you end up with is Rumsfeld's known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. The latter seemingly the guiding principle behind Double Take.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

the snow leopard [peter matthiessen]

Journeys. When compiling a script report, much attention is paid to the journey of the character. The notion that something starts in one place, proceeds to another, and in that process, is altered, changed, their perception of the world shifted.

What better way to do this than through the vehicle of a journey itself? But then, as all life is a journey, how should a journey be classified? These criticisms are a kind of journey, embarked on for a reason, to come to an end for another. People go on journeys abroad all the time, and come back much the same as they started. And, perhaps, if one listens to one's inner Buddhist, there's no such thing as 'development', that holy grail of script editors, NGOs and governments. There is nothing but the realisation of our incapacity to change anything, and the acceptance of that fact, and the enrichening of our lives as a result of this acceptance.

Matthiessen is a Buddhist, and his book describes a journey he took, in 1973, across the Nepalese Himalayas to a land called the Inner Dolpo, a land as much Tibetan as Nepalese, and one which had remained essentially unchanged for as long as it has been populated by man, the inhabitants eking out a harsh living in a cruel climate. The author treks through the varying topography, the Winter accelerating the higher he climbs, with each new settlement seeming like a different world, so separated are they one from the other, with no television or internet to generate a common culture between villages only a few miles apart, but a mountain pass away. Part of the pathos of reading Matthiessen's account of his time there is the not-knowing how the last thirty years or so has treated this corner of the world. If you look on the internet, you'll find dozens of trekking expeditions advertised, but little information as to Dolpo's development. If that's the right word. Matthiessen's thesis would appear to be that its inhabitants are content with the life they live, no matter how harsh, and that this contentment is connected to the pervasiveness of the Buddhist faith.

At one point he describes visiting a hermetic monk who lives in a small walled cave, perched on the side of the mountain. The view, the view which has never changed, is of sky and mountain. He cannot see the valley below. Matthiessen asks if this doesn't become monotonous, and the monk laughs and talks of how lucky he is. In a sense this pinpoints the Buddhist's dilemma: if you've chosen (or been chosen) to live in the middle of nowhere, you either learn to love it, or you go mad. However, as the slightest awareness of Tibet's political history reveals, it's perhaps more complex when you leave (or are made to leave) your middle of nowhere, and find yourself thrown into a world where the fact of your acceptance of your lot can be turned against you.

This issue isn't really within the remit of Matthiessen's book. He's offering nothing more than his personal account of a journey, which also manages to be a description of his journey through Buddhism itself. With his rangy, easy going prose, Matthiessen succeeds in conveying the details of his religion to the reader in a way which always seems informative, never preachy. If this journey does anything, it seems to cement and root his understanding of Buddhism, as he discerns its traces and influence in the faces and habits of the men and women he meets along the way, taking his readers with him. It seems doubtful to this reader that any single book has ever truly changed or 'developed' anyone, and this book is just another stepping stone, or mountain pass, on the long journey of reading. Nevertheless, it succeeds in reminding the reader that there are other ways of living, beyond books, beyond the material, and leaves the reader feeling a mixture of jealousy and a mysterious nostalgia for this other life, which was known in another life, which lives on in us still, a lost cousin, beckoning from a mountain hideaway.

lourdes (w&d jessica hausner)

The Austrians. If there was at some point in the long distant past a French vague, and at another a Korean, and of course the Danish, then is the moment of the Austrian new wave? And if so, what is it?

Austria's long been one of the more nebulous countries in Europe, from a British perspective at least. On the border between East and West. Affluent, Germanic, right-wing, quiet. Not a lot seems to happen in Austria. It's terra incognito, unless you're a skier or a culture vulture. Or Peter Morgan. In other words it's a mysterious land, and all the signs portend that it's a land with an unhealthy, quasi British, undercurrent. The conjoined talents of Freud, Shiele, Klimt, Musil (the Musil of Young Torless) suggest a society what might be called an unquietude, something developed in the work of Bernhard and Handke.

Recent Austrian cinema seems to want to emphasise this point. All of Haneke's earlier films can be read as an exploration of a society which seems to have lost its moral compass in the post-modern capitalist maze. Jelenik's literature explores a similar vein, and lately Seidl has followed suit. This all helps to set up the context for Hausner's French language film, set in the city of its title, which describes the onset of a miracle which occurs when Christine, a cerebral palsy sufferer, visits on a pilgrimage.

Hausner's opening shot is a beautifully composed image of a dining room, which is gradually taken over by the visiting pilgrims. The whole film possesses this studied composition, lending a gravitas to what is a very simple story. Hausner uses her camera to constantly insinuate that there's something else going on, ( a similar device to that used by Haneke), the stillness possessing a kind of virtual movement, something accentuated by the careful composition. The viewer can never take anything in this world for granted, neither can they ever assume that what they're witnessing is as it is perceived to be.

Whilst the film is constructed around the apparent miracle, it is more an investigation of this odd society than a treatise on religion. The slightly bitchy women who speculate that Christine's miracle isn't really a miracle; the jealous volunteer who looks after her; the raffish male helpers who drink and flirt. At times it feels like almost an affectionate study, until the camera catches moments that disturb: the mother jealous of Christine's gift, the collapsed nun whose head is bald. The slightly grotesque closing scene, like something out of a Grosz sketch, only adds to the unease.

Hausner's film is in some ways gentler, less dramatic than Haneke's terse psychodramas or Seidl's operatic examinations of discontent, but in the end, in spite of Sylvie Testud's moving and engaging portrayal of Christine, it still seems to fit into a disquieting Austrian tradition which may or may not be the product of spurious intellectual imaginations.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

the ape (w&d jesper ganslandt)

The Ape, or Apan, in its original, was watched by the critic, Mr Curry and Mr Plester at the ICA. The following is a non-verbatim account of the conversation after we had left the ICA bar, on account of the fact that it does not sell coffee (which reveals much about both the British culture and the way in which the ICA is run), fleeing to a pub formerly known as The Marquis of Granby, but now, in more austere times, renamed as simply The Marquis. A pub which sells coffee at 11pm, something which also reveals something of the changing face of British culture.

MrC: Budget -
MrP: Pepper -
DOC: Cost nothing -
MrP: Pepper from behind -
MrC: A million, at least. It's FIlm I Vast.
MrP: Pepper with the lid taken off.

Mr P & DOC perhaps muse on the scene of a man stripped to his waist, throwing a hammer across a circular wooden stage he has constructed himself, swearing, seemingly as close to the end of his tether as he has been on a number of occasions before.

DOC: Half of it's filmed in a car.
MrC: So?
DOC: It's doesn't cost very much to film in a car.
MrP: Nice choir.
DOC: Choir's don't come cheap.
MrC: That was the bit I didn't like.
MrP: You didn't like it?
MrC: It was like, that was the bit he was reaching for. Everything else was completely under control, it was never striving, and then the scene in the church, was like - there's something metaphysical going on.
DOC: I didn't mind it.
MrP: I like the monkey.
DOC} Of course you liked the monkey.
MrC }

(Context from editor: The premise upon which Mr P was lured to the film was that it was a Scandinavian flick about an ape. Otherwise he could have gone to see something called Free Run, (??) in which he features. But the lure of Scandinavia and apes will always win out, even if the film isn't really about apes, it's really about Pepper, which is even better.)

MrC: Was good though.
MrP : Good choice.
MrC: Bit generic European.
DOC: Dardennes brothers -
MrC: But it worked.
DOC: Reminded me of the other Swedish film -
MRP: Burrowing -
MrC: Hardly even a mid-shot, all close -
MrP: On the back of Pepper's neck.
DOC: Couldn't write a script like that here.

Brief discussion about script writing and absence of dialogue in Apan and how that would look on the page.

DOC: Still cheap to make.
Mr C: A million. At least.
Mr P: Could happen to the best of us.
Mr C : What?
Mr P: Sociopathy.
Mr C: I was a bit disappointed by a Prophet.
Mr P: Only takes one ape.
Mr C: Left me a bit cold.
Mr P: To tip you over the edge.

And in another country on another night this would have been but the beginning, and when dawn arrived the coffee would still be flowing, but this is London, with all that that implies, and last trains beckoned and no-one returned home to find their dead wife's blood making a mess of the cream coloured carpet, or their inner ape unveiled. At least I assume not.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

the speed of light [javier cercas]

Having spent the past couple of weeks commuting to Enfield Lock, I've had plenty of city-bound reading time. Which is just about the only good thing to be said about commuting. However, I also feel somewhat guilty that I found myself finishing Cercas' novel on the Victoria Line, at 8.30 in the morning, somewhere between Kings Cross and Tottenham Hale.

Guilty, because The Speed of Light feels like too fine a book to be consumed in bite size morsels. It's a simple book, consisting of four distinct sections, featuring a narrator who also claims to be the writer, and for whom the act of writing is the only thing that would appear to be keeping him sane. The book shifts from Catalonia to the North American Midwest, to Vietnam. The subject matter includes war, ambition, death, being haunted, and, always, writing itself.

I came across the book via a recommendation on what should henceforth be known as Pelevin's Guardian Unlimited. Purchased and read it cold, so as yet I know nothing about its writer. Whether the Bolano/Amis-esque hints that the narrator offers (one of the books he is said to have written has the same title as one of Cercas' novellas), are anything more than playfulness, I don't know, and in the end, will never matter. What matters is that the book succeeds in convincing that the writer and narrator are one, and the narrator's struggle to write the book you're reading, a book which it takes him at least a decade and several tragedies to create, convinces. The play on authenticity which the use of the narrator engages in is one of the book's many charms. Much time is dedicated to the notion that we should care about the characters within a fictional world, and Cercas' clinical dissection of his narrator's failings, failings which lead to both tragedy and learning, with the unpredictable always around the corner, is surprisingly moving. So much so that the throwaway ending caught me out like a sucker punch, on the tube, made me want to hold the book close to me for a moment, as though it really were a person.

Reading is a complex habit. The Speed of Light itself refers to this, the way in which some authors somehow manage to reach out and grab you or kiss you or hold your hand. Creating books which stand as sentinels on the long journey we've all found ourselves embarked upon. So much of our reading is habitual, matter-of-fact, a way of filling time on trains, a diversionary tactic. It's only when you come across a book that really seduces you that you remember why you read. Not so that you can forget about who you are and what you're doing with your journey time. The book that will really blow your mind is the one that will coax you into remembering who you really are, and what you're choosing to do with the time allotted on your journey. Cercas achieves this, with the deft touch of a magician.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

shutter island (d. scorsese, w. kalogridis)

There must be a million of these type of scripts drifting around Hollywood, waiting to see if it comes up lucky. Scripts which look like they're clever, but turn out not to be as smart as they think they are. Scripts that have ladles of meaning and reference - in this case Dachau; Hitchcock; the Cold War and its debt to the Nazis; psychiatric methodology and more - but have no real coherence; scripts that, the more they protest the existence of their soul, the more you suspect they lack one at all. Welcome to Hollywood: sound and fury signifying nothing.

Sad, therefore, that a director who is still as skilful as Scorsese should find himself lumbered with such a script, based as it is on a book by a highly successful commercial writer. Is this the equivalent of Gershwin writing jingles for toothpaste ads? A great skill applied seemingly exclusively towards a notion of commercial gain?

Presumably the director set out with the notion that he could do something interesting with the material. The film opens with heightened B-Movie colours and music, and a beaten-up looking DeCaprio looking suitably askance. The set-up is not unpromising, and for a while it works. There's the lone star up against the world, there's the wartime reveal, the slow build-up of character. Scorsese goes in for some operatic effects, suggesting he's having fun, even if once again, the notion of Hollywood using the Holocaust to beef up its narratives veers on the distasteful. (Carefully composed piles of bodies; artful violence...) The nods towards Hitchcock seem to come thick and fast - Vertigo and North by Northwest and maybe more. Then, as the second act begins, the script begins to explain itself. Characters start to talk all the time. About what's going on 'on the island'. About the ethics of 'the island'. The more they talk the less we're interested. Finally they've talked themselves out of it, and the film indulges in its de rigeur twist, and we can all file out of the cinema going, 'it went on a bit, didn't it'.

Actually, I left wondering what it would have felt like to walk out of Mean Streets or Raging Bull or even King of Comedy on first release. Few filmmakers have ingrained themselves so comprehensively within our cinematic language and vision. Plenty have analysed Scorsese's gradual fall from grace, so I won't try too hard. In a way it seems as though, having played his part in shattering the idols, and then becoming an idol, Scorsese is now attempting to hark back and pay tribute to the cinema his films out-paced. Hence the fifties, the B-Movie plots, the operatic anti-naturalism. It doesn't seem to do him many favours; but he's lost his stories, and he doesn't know where to turn, so he looks over his shoulder hoping they're lying in the road (or the DVD collection) behind him. When what he really needs is a proper script. Which needs a proper reason for being written.

the white tiger [aravind adiga]

Adiga's book has been an international publishing phenomenon, as well as winning the Booker prize. In practice it's a glass half full/ glass half empty book.

Here's the glass half empty:

White Tiger is a somewhat one-dimensional piece of writing. The narrator and anti-hero, Balram, tells a simple story over the course of a week, describing how he went from the 'darkness' of India's rural backwaters, to glory as an entrepreneur. The catalyst in moving from one world to the other was a violent crime, although in truth the narrator's canny intelligence has already marked him out as a contender within the bustling new India. The plot moves along at a brisk if not rollicking pace, punctuated by Balram's asides on the nature of his country. However, this is one of those books where a lot seems to happen and at the same time, next to nothing seems to happen. Balram recounts his life history, and although the critics praise the 'shocking' act of murder which lies beneath his genial tone, the fact is there's nothing that shocking about it. This is the world of fiction after all: it's supposed to contain murders and the like, and the action within White Tiger always feels relatively tame. It offers a wry account of a new India, which people, particularly in Britain, probably want to hear, but it's far from the coruscating vision of Rohinton Mistry, whose darker, more savage novels capture the true horror of India's overwhelming poverty.

Glass half full:

White Tiger's rawness is one of its great strengths. Its narrator's prose has the kind of unpolished verve which successfully captures the chaotic energy of a rapidly changing nation, struggling with the cruel juxtaposition of great wealth and even greater poverty. At the moment, on You Tube, the IPL is doing its level best to turn cricket into the biggest brand sport in the world, a sport based in India, out-selling the Premier League or the NBA. The remarkable thing is it might just succeed. Turn it on and you'll see razzmatazz, foreign stars, baying crowds, beamed around the world. Balram belongs to this New India, where the clash between wealth and poverty will inevitably lead to violence; it's just a question of whether that violence can be contained. White Tiger lays bare the corruption, venality and the way in which both rich and poor are committed, day by day, to the business of maintaining and improving their station. Whilst comparisons have been made to Dickens, there's something in the narrator's free-flowing, conversational style that seems more reminiscent of 18th century British literature: the free-wheeling prose of Fielding, or the acute observational skills of Defoe, married to the scathing satire of Swift. Adiga is a writer riding the wave of vast change within his country, as technology, population explosion, scarcity and the potential for wealth combine to generate hardship, but also possibility, for those who are prepared to grasp the nettle. The writer's voice seems to articulate this brave new world, which has such people in it.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

the helmet of horror [pelevin]

There's approximately half a dozen characters. Each one is trapped in an identical room. Each room opens onto a maze, each maze taking its own distinctive format. The characters have a computer each, and they communicate with one another on a message board. They have names like Organizm, UGLI 666, and Monstradamus. A censor edits any personal information relating to their life beyond the prison. Fairly quickly, they work out they're in some kind of maze, liable to be confronted by some kind of Minatour. Who will be wearing a Helmet of Horror. Which affects everyone's perception, including the reader's. At some point the Minatour makes an appearance and then leaves, having hurt no-one. Theseus also appears briefly.

Pelevin's novel was apparently commissioned as part of a series on myths. It has a great deal of Pelevinesque flair. There's discussions of what I believe is called phenomenology; mazes within Gothic cathedrals; myth and much more. There's also a beguiling reference to the Guardian Unlimited website, testament to the writer's globalised consciousness, which is allowed free rein within a virtual world. Perhaps he envisioned this as a virtual book. If so, it would appear to be virtual in so far as it is not quite whole; for this reader it was certainly no more than virtually understandable. Nevertheless, it's an enjoyable, skimpy read, and again, in a nod to the cyber-world, the reader finds him or herself surfing the cyber-chat the book consists of, some of it making sense, some of it making non-sense. Perhaps if you know your greek myths better than my rudimentary knowledge it would knit together more coherently, but it might also be that you can't read the Helmet of Horror with any degree of confidence of knowing what's really occurring unless you have degrees in astro-physics, particle Buddhism and Bishop Berkeley. Like, no doubt, the prankster Pelevin himself.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

she a chinese (w&d xiaolu guo)

There's an interview in the Guardian with Guo, where she's quite scathing about the British film culture, in particular, one gets the impression, with regard to its distribution strategy and criticism. The film has a niche spot in the ICA, tucked into a season of female film directors. It's probably not an easy sell, as they say, but that doesn't quite justify the fact that its picked up so little attention.

The film itself is split into two parts. The first part occurs in China, as the young and charismatic protagonist Li Mei, played with verve by Lu Huang, moves from the countryside to one of the country's many growing cities. After various adventures, and after developing a slightly sign-posted affinity with Big Ben, she comes to London, where the second half takes place, as Li Mei struggles to get by as an illegal immigrant, collecting unlikely bedfellows along the way. I found myself getting more from the film's observational Chinese narrative than the English one which might be because of the window it offers into another culture, or might be because the relationships of the second part lend the piece a slightly more melodramatic air. Nevertheless, the film as a whole holds together, and there are many neatly observed moments which give it a quirky, unusual feel, as the director uses situation and images to build up her portrayal of Li Mei's world, in particular the snake in the Chinese river, and the anatomy class in which she partakes in London.

She, A Chinese is something of a gentle ride, and sometimes feels as though its narrative might have benefited from being a tad more ambitious. Nevertheless, Guo handles her material deftly, and it doesn't come as a surprise to learn the film had done well on the festival circuit. However, in spite of several sex scenes and the cross-culture London storylines, it probably doesn't fit into the right marketing quadrant to warrant the kind of exposure Guo might have hoped for. Which is probably something for which it should be applauded. (The fault lies not with the film but the system). It's refreshing to see a UK financed film that adopts an understated approach, casting a cool cinematic eye over one woman's journey through a globalised world.

Monday, 1 March 2010

the darling [russell banks]

Banks' novel is a peculiar beast. The subject matter is rich and provocative. It opens with Hannah Musgrave, also known as Dawn Carrington, a former member of the now almost forgotten US radical terrorist group the Weather Underground, returning to Liberia to search for her three missing sons. Their father, Woodrow Sundiata, was murdered as he became caught up in the power games that took place as President Doe fell to the forces of Charles Taylor. After fleeing without her sons, who abruptly took up the call to become child soldiers, Hannah has lived on a farm of her own, rearing free range chickens. Now she's back, looking for her lost children.

It's an exciting premise with which to open the book. As Hannah smuggles her way back into Liberia, the quest is on. However, it's never followed up. The book then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, describing Hannah's life in the lead-up to her flight to Liberia, her time there, and the years she spent in the US before returning. In the end, the opening of the book is rounded up in a desultory fashion some four hundred pages later, with Hannah's sons becoming just another of the things she's left behind in her protracted, curiously soul-less life.

Banks appears to be attempting to create a narrative which examines the fate of idealism in the US, and the way in which its seeming extinction has impacted on its global role. The choice of Liberia as a setting, a country founded by freed US slaves in the 19th century, seems both a commentary on the course of global politics in the centuries that have followed, and perhaps a metaphor for a land whose politics are governed by self-interest. At the heart of this is the curious figure of Hannah, whose naivity is matched by her lack of heart, someone prepared to walk out on almost any situation if needs be, a supposed idealist in practice ruled by the demands of realpolitik.

The book is narrated in Hannah's voice. It's never clear to what extent we're supposed to take at face value her constant philosophising, self-justification and mental nurdling about the fate of her parents, her ex-lovers, and her family. The farm which has become in later life her redoubt, something of a Utopian feminist collective, where the workers go skinny dipping with the owner, gradually fades out of the narrative, so that when it reappears in the closing stages the effect is jarring. As the book goes on there are several clumsy narrative devices, as Hannah helps to spring Charles Taylor, the Liberian opponent to Doe, from a US prison, and her former Weather Underground companion Zach pops up unexpectedly to keep the story ticking over. At times it feels as though the architecture of the novel's ambition dwarfs the actuality of the book's achievement. Seeking to write a grand novel about the late twentieth century, Banks finds himself occasionally floundering, no more so than in the book's closing pages' references to 911, which seem shoe-horned in to lend added weight.

The only beings with whom Hannah seems to construct lasting and meaningful relationships are the chimpanzees she protects in her sanctuary, chimpanzees which the civil war will eventually devour along with everything else. Reflecting on this (p 340) Hannah says that 'I dealt with my chimpanzees as though I were one myself. And what was wrong with this? What was ethically and even practically wrong with having empathy towards the other? For a long time I answered, Nothing. Nothing at all. It's good politics...' until she says, you betray them, when 'taken to its extreme, perhaps even pathological, form, empathy is narcissism.' In some ways this seems to be getting to the nub of the book: Hannah can empathise with other cultures, but she can never sympathise, or identify herself with them. Hence she's constantly discovering that her instincts only lead towards heartlessness. However, this seems to be a problem the book, as well as the narrator, faces. It leads us into the world of Liberia, and its dark African politics, but it can't help but posit itself firmly on the outside, and there's never any insight on the African perspective of the chaos that's been unleashed in the country. The reader views it in the same way as Hannah, a meaningless hell, where children turn from being adorable teenagers into merciless, psychopathic killers at the drop of a hat, in spite of a loving, stable upbringing. Why are Hannah's children transformed into monsters? The book offers no answers, leaving the reader to conclude that it must be because they're African, they belong to some 'Other' which a US citizen, even though she's their mother, will never be able to connect with. In spite of all her philosophising on her own fractured relationship with her parents, Hannah comes up with no rationale for what happens to her own offspring. Her quest is fruitless. She goes back to her farm. She is none the wiser. And neither, after her story, are we.