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.