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.